What Makes a Good Book?

What makes a good book? The question is enormously subjective. There are a lot of different styles out there and a lot of different tastes.

If you read a book that a bunch of people have raved about, but you hate it, what conclusion do you draw? Do you decide the book is junk and everyone needs to know that? Do you go onto the web and tell everyone you can how awful it was?

If a lot of people say they liked it, do you assume they are lying?

Or do you think maybe other people look for something different in a book? Maybe your taste is not the same as everyone else in the world? After all, even the big NY publishers put out books that have one star reviews on Amazon. Someone believed it was a good book!

But some books are just objectively bad. Right?

This is a question I’m becoming more and more interested in. So tell me, what are your standards for a book? Is it different depending on the genre? (Do you judge an airport thriller with the same standard as a literary classic?) What factors influence whether you love a book and want to tell everyone you know to read it or whether you hate a book so much that you have to warn everyone that it will ruin their life if they read it?

4 comments on “What Makes a Good Book?

  1. There are tons of sites dedicated to and books written about the craft of writing and what makes it ”good”. My personal favorite is Stephen King’s On Writing. I have a love of the written word that transcends genre. I have equally placed on my tiny shelf here in Denmark: Coleman Barks’ Rumi (Mysticism, Poetry), Hawthorne’s Scarlet Letter (Literature), James Lee Burke’s Half of Paradise (Contemporary Fiction), Patricia Fargnoli’s Duties of the Spirit (Poetry), Erland Loe’s Naive Super (Contemporary Fiction), Diana Gabalon’s Outlander (Historical Romance?) and Julie Andrew’s Mandy (YA). These are just a sampling of the hundreds and hundreds of books I’ve collected over the years. I could only bring a few books across the ocean with me, and these few are among the very small number that made the cut.

    Why? Because they are good books. For me a good book must first be well-written. The technique must be solid. After that, plot, characters, description must bring me in and keep me reading. It is far easier for me to descripe what makes a ”bad” book, though. Here are a few of my ”stop” buttons, things that make me stop dead in the flow of the story and/or find myself abruptly transported out of the writer’s world back into my own (and not in a good way):

    Typos: In probably every published work there is one, at least. But books that have been properly edited have very, very few. So finding a typo should be an event, the exception and rare at that.

    Poor grammar/sentence structure/dialogue: I find grade-school level grammar and sentence structure to be the norm in a lot of self-published pieces… and thankfully NOT so in traditionally published works. It makes no difference to me if the work is YA. There is no excuse for poorly executed writing. If I am reading a piece, I want the story to envelop me. I don’t want to find myself almost reading aloud jerky prose, which is what seems to happen to me when I stumble across really juvinile structure. Poor dialogue is just as bad, if not worse, than grammatical or structural issues. Most novice writers have a difficult time with dialoge. Just because a writer can speak their native language fluently, perhaps even have acheived A’s in their Language Art classes, does not guarantee they have the skill necessary to achieve a novel lenght manuscript. Nothing takes the place of stuying the craft. And studying it some more. And then, for good measure… yeah… studying yet even more.

    Description overload: I like description, I LOVE description! James Lee Burke takes descriptive writing to a level almost attaining purple prose, and yet, he does it ver, very well. Even with his level of detail, nothing is unecessary. I tend to skip long passages of description, unless the writer has me fully invested. If it goes on too long, or crops up again and again I will likely just stop reading.

    Lack of viable plot: Unbelievable plot lines, saggy-middles, holes so wide the Titanic could slip through unnoticed… Plot disasters are too numerous to mention, but when the plot does not work, it doesn’t matter how well the story is written or how invested I am in the characters, I can’t be bothered to finish.

    Characters I don’t care about: If I love the character, that can go a long way toward overcoming other story flaws (but obviously, not ALL the way). However, if I don’t feel any investment in the character, I probably won’t finish the story. I don’t have to LIKE the character. Some of my favorite characters are truly terrible people! But, I do want to be invested in their lives. I need to care if they live or die, if they get the girl or capture the elixer. I need to care if they grow, or change, or if they remain stubbornly unchanged. I want the characters to live in my head after the story ends.

    And perhaps that last is what I search for in a good book. A story that lives on beyond the ending. A story well told and well developed to the point that in my mind, it becomes no longer just a story, but something a real as memory, that feeds my imagination long after the last page is turned.

    • Carolyn Moir says:

      I think I can agree with all your dislikes! I agree also that a really compelling character can make up for other flaws.

      I know I have come across some romance novels that make me cringe and I’m tempted to write reviews bashing them, but lately I realized that they have a lot of positive reviews and I think there must be an audience out there who likes them as they are, even with their cliches and not smooth prose!

      (Oh, and the worst one I ever read was trad published. It had terrible prose, stiff dialogue, ridiculous characters, the whole nine yards!)

      • I feel like a dinosaur some days… Like the former students of a generation ago, lamenting that what passed for A’s would not have even been accepted as barely passing back in their day…

        I have seen some truly terrible work in the past few years, more so as self-publishing becomes more accessible. I do feel that there is an audience for everything… but I also feel VERY strongly that now it is more important than ever to promote the highest possible standards. I get that some readers have very low standards. That has always ever been so. But we who know better should not be catering to that lowest common denominator. I don’t go all over the net bashing ”bad” books, but neither do I promote them.

        I think as writers, we need to be as particular in our reviews of other’s works as we are harsh critics of our own. I am my own worst critic, but that is because I set the bar pretty high. I do the same when I read. My time is so limited, and there is SO much available to read, if I don’t set high standards, I waste that precious resource. The worst sin an author can commit is to waste the time of their reader. The worst sin a reviewer can commit is to promote time wasters to others.

        I appreciate the work you are doing here with DevLove Press. I appreciate the efforts you are making to deliver quality books to an ever growing group of readers. It is not an easy task, deciding what is ”good”, what passes the gate as opposed to what will be left behind. I don’t envy you, but I do ask you to consider that just because something has an audience, doesn’t mean it should.

  2. Carolyn Moir says:

    Oh yes, certainly my position here is an interesting one as I will be deciding what books are “good enough” to be published. I know that not everyone will agree with my choices, but I will definitely only take books that I can really believe in.

    I enjoy doing book reviews mostly for informative purposes. To let readers know what they might expect (i.e., the writing is fine, but not great and if the cliche of ___ bothers you, that is present in this book).

    I don’t necessarily see anything wrong with catering to a perhaps “less sophisticated” reader. If a book makes someone happy, I have no problem making sure there are as few errors as possible, and making it available to people who will enjoy it. I don’t feel like readers need to be protected from their own taste.

    For example, I love chick lit books. Plenty of people decry them as being dribble. I disagree and I’m very glad that I’m able to purchase and read them!

    With the books that get published here, I will provide samples and excerpts so people can make their own judgement call on whether they want to read them. My taste is my taste and, as I said, I will publish books that I truly believe in, but a particular book might not be what you like to read, so that’s fine! The sample will allow you to find that out.

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