I have discovered that a major problem when writing books is how to know if they are good. Strangely, it’s not a problem with reading – I know when a book I read is good or not. However, I find it hard to break down why I know that, and even harder to apply it to my own writing. Part of that is the difficulty in objectively assessing something that you put on the page yourself, but is still mostly in your mind. The other part, however, is the definition of “good” itself.
What is good writing? Ask a bunch of people, get a bunch of different answers (ahem, Hugo awards, cough cough), including:
- Good story. Compelling, recognisable, yet with a twist. Emotionally engaging yet not melodramatic.
- Good setting and world-building. Original yet not too confusing.
- Good characters. Likeable yet flawed. Heroic but vulnerable. Unique but not controversial.
- Good prose. Again, what that means has many different answers!
- Good plot (distinct from story). Full of twists and turns, heart-stopping moments but without any cheap tricks.
Which of these requirements is most important, and the degree to which any particular book satisfies them, will depend on the reader. Some want adventure and action, some want characters they can fall in love with, some want lyrical prose, some want to escape to and explore a certain type of world…some, I’m sure, want it all!
For me, I’d say that setting and set-up draw me in (i.e. what’s happening, to whom, in what larger context, including the type of world), the execution of the plot drives me onward, compelling characters keep me interested, and good prose is icing on the cake (but also, icing in the cake, to stretch the metaphor). That’s how it seems to work when I’m reading, anyway – I end up liking (or disliking) books for all these reasons, and more.
In my favourite books, what seems to end up staying with me is some blend of all of them rather than individual aspects. I’m not sure if it’s a cop-out or a profound truth, but what I’m looking for is a book where exciting things happen to interesting people in a wonderfully-rendered world. I rarely say, “I loved that book because of So-and-so” and it’s hard to recall all the twists and turns of a plot (easier to remember if it had them, of course). Instead, I recall moments of wonder and awe, and retain a sense of the overall vibrancy of the creation.
You may be able to tell that I’m not much for deconstructing or examining details, and I worry that will be detrimental. I do think about character arcs and whatnot, but I haven’t a lot of appetite for reading about the mechanics of writing. In order to construct a good book, I should probably analyse how books I consider “good” are put together…
Perhaps I can attempt to break it down a bit further, examine the benefits and risks of each against my own tastes, strengths and weaknesses to see what “good” might mean for me.
Primarily, I think I love fantasy for its worldbuilding, whether that is a clever analogue of Earth history or something completely different. I like that world-building to impact the story, so that the tale is not one that could have happened in our world (or at least, not the same way). I think I’m a bit more particular in this respect than other readers, having found some popular series did not do enough for me in that respect. I like a certain richness and thoughtfulness, but I like it vague and slowly revealed, not spelled out in info dumps. I’m not sure I can pull it off myself (well, maybe the vague part).
On the other end of the scale is character. Now, of course, I have to reach a minimum level of respect and/or likeability to read about any character for very long – but I can tolerate a lot if cool things are happening to them. I prefer competent, straightforward types who get on with things without too much drama – but nobody too perfect or goody-goody, of course. I like a reluctant hero, but a hero nonetheless – no farmboys, no “chosen ones”.
Otherwise I just want a set of eyes through which to see the world, and a fun supporting cast, too (I always used to identify with minor characters – more empty space to project into!). I reckon my writing reflects this, so don’t expect to fall in love with my protagonists, you might not ever know them well enough.
Plot-wise, I like a good mystery, and I like it tightly-woven rather than sprawling. Some twists and turns are good, but too many make me motion-sick. I also like an adventure – a classic journey helps reveal the world after all – but I’m equally at home reading something a little more claustrophobic. I stick with the former when writing, so far, but I have to make sure I don’t conflate moving the characters around a map with moving the plot forward.
Though it’s hardly make-or-break, after a certain level of competence, I do like good prose. What that means depends on the work, but a bit of style and flair can make the difference between good book and a great one. Dialogue is a sub-set of prose that comes in for particular praise, but again it very much depends on the style of book. I can read anything from classics to Joe Abercrombie, and while I’m not sure my own voice has fully formed yet, I have had compliments on my prose, which is something.
Finally, I hear a lot of people say “as long as they story is good, I’ll read anything” but I can’t see a way to separate that from the rest. I suppose it’s similar to what I’ve said regarding my penchant for world-building and sense of adventure, but a story in itself seems bereft of all the details that make it interesting. There are only so many stories, after all, and they’ve all been told before. Obviously, I’m not that confident – or bothered – about this aspect because it just doesn’t make sense to me.
Nope, still no clearer.
So, at the end of the day I reckon I can just about write a book that I would like to read (no surprise there). However, I’m not sure I can write a book that follows certain rules or fits a certain mold. If that’s what it takes to write a “good” book, then odds are I’m not quite there yet. I’m still not sure how to attempt to judge whether my books are good, and it remains to be seen whether they are “good” enough for anyone else.
I suppose the only option is to ask them.