Monday, November 14, 2011

What makes a good book?

Guest post by Tahlia Newland

Today a fellow Aussie, Tahlia Newland, is here with a guest post. She writes young adult/adult urban fantasy with a touch or more of romance and a focus on challenging readers’ perception of reality. A Matter of Perception, her anthology of urban fantasy & magical realism stories, is available on ebook. ‘Realm Hunter,’ a Diamond Peak novella, will be released in December.  I have an ebook copy of her short paranormal romance, ‘The Drorgon Slayer’s Choice’, to give away. Just leave a note in the comments if you are interested and I'll announce the winner on Thursday.

Find almost any book on Goodreads and have a look at the reviews and you’ll see that not everyone agrees on what makes a good book, but regardless of our personal preferences, a truly good book will have the following elements.
  • Dramatic tension – two or more of the following:
    • Conflict
    • Mystery
    • Suspense
    • Surprise
    • Tension in relationships
    • A task to complete or not
    • Humor
  • Three-dimensional believable characters.
  • A well-paced, unpredictable plot with a satisfying ending.
  • A vivid setting
  • In fantasy - a world that makes sense within the parameters of that world.
  • Creativity
  • The awesome ones will also be moving, inspiring or thought-provoking.
  • Good writing
But what is good writing? 
A publisher friend of mine said something like - Beautiful writing is when every word is the right word, in its right place and there for a reason. There is nothing extraneous. The words flow so smoothly that the reader is transported beyond the words. They even forget they are reading. So if any of the words pull you out of the story, it’s likely to not be very well written.  

Things that good books don’t have are:
  • Boring bits.
  • Scenes, plots and descriptions that go on too long or wander without purpose
  • Plot holes
  • Characters acting out of character
  • Unrealistic dialogue
  • Formula or predictable plot – acceptable to some degree in romance.
My personal dislikes are:
  • Unpronounceable names
  • A convoluted plot
  • Language written in a strong dialect
  • Heroes and heroines that do really stupid things or talk about their clothes, hair or how sexy their boyfriend is all the time.
  • A world that is so dark and miserable that it’s painful to read about
  • Cliffhanger endings
  • Plot holes
  • Poor writing
I can put aside my personal dislikes and still give a book a high rating if I cannot fault it on any of the elements a good book needs. An example of this is Hunger Games; this is a great book, but I didn’t like it because I didn’t want to spend time in that cruel repressive world, but that doesn’t make the book bad, just not to my taste.  

What kind of books do you like? Can you separate your personal taste from your evaluation of a book?  

About 'A Matter of Perception'  
Do you see what I see? Take a bunch of supernatural beings, a battle of magical light, a mysterious hole in the pavement, a dream of a future past and a pair of rose-coloured glasses, mix them with a little romance and a smidgen of philosophy and you might be left wondering if it isn’t all just a matter of perception. This thought-provoking collection of urban fantasy and magical realism stories includes ‘The Drorgon Slayer’s Choice’ and ‘The Boneyard’, a semi finalist in the Aussiecon 4 Make Ready fantasy/scfi competition of 2010.  

About 'The Drorgon Slayer’s Choice'  
Julia witnesses a dramatic battle between what should be invisible aliens and the gods that have come to earth to slay them. James, one of the gods, offers her the chance of a relationship, but the commander of the Drorgon Slayers plans to eradicate her memory unless she can convince him that she will let James leave the earth when their team has completed their mission.  

Author links - if you read Tahlia’s books could you please help her out by posting a short review on Goodreads and Amazon. Thank you.


Alex J. Cavanaugh said...

I think what I dislike in a book is similar to your list. I write science fiction but I made sure my names were all simple and easy to pronounce.
I don't care for memoirs, but I read Karen Walker's book and was really impressed. Gave it five stars even!

Suze said...

Like Alex, I read Karen's book, too, and feel it was excellent. Her own relationships were rendered with a genuine tension mixed with an equally authentic voice which just buoyed me through the text. She wrote her memoir like a (good) novelist.

Sarah Tokeley said...

Unpronounceable names and strong dialect are among my dislikes too. A bit of local dialect for flavouring is great, but a little goes a long way :-)

Jemi Fraser said...

I tend to avoid books I know I won't enjoy. I prefer my reading time to be fun and hopeful. So I don't read much I know I won't like :)

Old Kitty said...

Gosh - my reading is so eclectic I don't mind the books' elements so long as I forget my world and am drawn into theirs.

Good luck with your books Tahlia and thanks for the interview Lydia! Take care

DEZMOND said...

Oooh, Drorgon Slayers sound exciting and intriguing.
I hate unpronounceable names too! And talks about hair and clothes and similar are unbearable!

Denise Covey said...

Hi Lynda! Hi Tahlia! It's good to see such a thoughtful post. Tahlia, you sound like you've really thought deeply about these things.

I'm not a great fan of fantasy, but I've read some really good books written by fellow bloggers.

Being taken out of the story by too many POVs can be distracting to me. I know what you mean about hardly realising you're reading a really great book. Not enough of them around! But I'm working through them, lol.

I'd love a copy of the giveaway if I should be so lucky.


Tahlia Newland said...

Thanks for all your thoughtful comments everyone. It's great when you can read out of your genre and still like a book. To be fair to the authors, I think we have to evaluate things within their genre and to be very open to whatever might be dished up to us in a book. Our expectations can kill a good books, for no fault opf the book.

Nancy Thompson said...

I can't stand difficult names or overly written prose. And cheesy plot lines irritate me. But the worst is when there is too much head-hopping, too many POVs. Having said all that, I'll still keep reading unless it's boring. That's the real killer.

Kane said...

Unpronounceable names, characters acting out of character and irrelevant subplots that nothing to do with the main story are my biggest peeves, but as long as it is interesting/entertaining I will keep reading.

Trisha said...

I really can't stand unsatisfying endings. I don't like the other things you don't like either ;)

Shelly said...

I totally agree with you on all counts.

Carol Riggs said...

Great lists on both accounts--what makes a book good AND not-so-good. Also a good checklist for our own novels!

Romance Reader said...

Great list and I agree with all the comments as well.

Unpronounceable names, characters acting out of character and irrelevant subplots that nothing to do with the main story. Then unsatisfactory endings are all my pet peeves as well.

Carrie Butler said...

Great list! I found myself nodding along in agreement. :)

Nas said...

All the things- so true!

McKenzie McCann said...

Well, here's the thing about my perception of what makes a book good, and knowing when it just isn't for me...

I don't read books that aren't for me.

Maybe I'll read a chapter or two, then put it down because I don't like it. However, sometimes I'll moderately like a book and recommend it to someone else because I know they will absolutely love it.

Lynda R Young as Elle Cardy said...

Alex, yep scifi in particular is notorious for strange names.

Suze, yes! That's the only way to write a memoir (in my opinion).

Sarah, totally agree. When it's too complicated Dialect can pull the reader out of the story.

Jemi, it's a good plan. Time is so short.

Old Kitty, being drawn into another's world is definitely the key.

Dezzy, yep, totally agree about when the description drags down on certain details.

Denise, ha, I agree there's not enough great books around...but then, I don't think any number would satisfy my desire for good books ;)

Lynda R Young as Elle Cardy said...

Nancy, aw you don't like cheesy plots? But I do agree with you re boring books. I won't finish a book if it bores me.

Kane, I don't mind a seemingly irrelevant subplot as long as it eventually ties in.

Trisha, yes! unsatisfying endings can kill the entire book.

Shelly, thanks

Carol, yes indeed. Tahlia did a great job.

Romance, those pet peeves are sounding familiar. They are certainly things we should avoid when writing our own novels.

Carrie, hehe I did too.

Nas, Thanks.

McKenzie, yes, it often comes down to personal taste.

Tahlia, thanks again for a wonderful guest post.

Jamie Gibbs said...

Unpronounceable names is a particular bugbear of mine. It's like the writer can't make the effort to craft a believable world and so thinks 'if I start calling horses zykloven and apples snarps, people will think it's an entirely different world!'

I try my best to separate my own preferences from making a balanced review, but in the end there are no truly objective reviews.

Tonja said...

Great post. I don't usually have more than 30 minutes at a time to write, so I love books where I can read a few pages, step away for a few hours or a day, and then jump back in without having to reread the previous chapter.

Unknown said...

Another incredible post, Lynda. You're really on a roll. I, too, do not like those hard-to-pronounce names. Obviously unique names exist which we all love--Micaiah, from the Bible, is one of my all-time faves. But unless I'm planning on calling the hero "Mic" (which may not be a bad idea!), why put my reader through a guessing game every time he shows up on the page? Along those same lines, I don't much care for those occasions when the author felt compelled to take a completely normal name and put their own spin on it. Like, spelling Jason, "Jasion" or Jessica, "Jesika." Why? Why would you do that? Better to have the reader know the name, become quickly familiar with the name, so they can get into your way awesome plot.

Just my 2 shillings. ;)

Peggy Eddleman said...

I totally agree with those lists! The "every word is the right word, in its right place and there for a reason" part sounds daunting. :)

Luanne G. Smith said...

Great post. I noticed as I read The Help recently (one of the best books I've read in awhile) that every word seemed just right. No description was over the top, nothing really drew attention to itself, it just flowed and told the story. Good lesson in that I think.

Emily R. King said...

Great post! Those are some good do and do not lists. Good to meet you, Tahlia!

Mark said...

It's hard to separate taste from a non-biases evaluation (and perhaps humans aren't capable of this), but it's always important to recall that we're not always the intended audience for various works of fiction:)

Stacy S. Jensen said...

I like books where the words seem to be the right words, too. I don't care about names, since there are a lot of real-life names I butcher. At least with fictional characters, no one gets offended when I don't pronounce them (in my head) correctly. A great list here.

Anonymous said...

A strong dialect will cause me to put a book down. Major annoying! And I do like happy endings. I hate to see the MC get killed or screwed over in the end.

Pat Tillett said...

A great and informative post. Thanks for that!
Hard to pronounce names and unfamiliar words make it hard for me to latch on to a story. I can do it, but it better be good one. I think there is too much emphasis on every word being perfect. Most people don't live like that and they most certainly don't talk like that. I'm much less concerned about that (while reading). If a story is good and it's interesting, a lot of minor flaws will just breeze by. A bad story written the same way is going to be put down and never finished.

M Pax said...

My reading is eclectic, too.

I don't like when I know how a book ends by the end of chapter one.

Jenna Blake Morris said...

Loved this post. Especially your list of personal dislikes -- the tongue-twisting names and moronic MCs always drive me crazy, too.

Unknown said...

I like and dislike the same things as you. I think that the boring bits are just as hard for the writer to write than it is for the reader to read so why bother? Keep it out! Great post.

Terri Tiffany said...

Great list! I have no use for books that pull me down and don't promise me a good read or ride into that world.

Rachna Chhabria said...

Great list. My list is the same as yours. I feel bad if the writer has kind of brought the ending too quickly and hasn't bothered building up towards it.

Laila Knight said...

Both these books sound fantastic! Why I don't like in writing is too much description...where it goes on and on. Especially when it comes to scenery. Okay, you told me what it looked like in a few sentences...don't need to make ten pages. :)

Lynda R Young as Elle Cardy said...

Jamie, yep, I totally agree that there are no truly objective reviews.

Tonja, yep, those kind of books are great.

Alyssia, I can't take the credit. It was Tahlia's post and I agree it was great.

Peggy, yeah, it takes a lot of work and a lot of attention to detail.

Luanne, I love books like that where nothing but the story holds my attention.

Emily, Tahlia did a great job! :)

Mark, so true.

Stacy, hahaha you make a good point about the names ;)

Arlee Bird said...

Can't find much to disagree with here--these are all good and valid points. I especially like the publisher friend's description of what good writing is. I think often writers will try to come across as overly arty and intellectual and in the end only distract from telling the story

I like to read stories that could be real, but are presented in a unique way. Flannery O'Connor is one of my writing heroes.

Ann Carbine Best visits Wrote By Rote on Saturday 11/12/11

Lynda R Young as Elle Cardy said...

Stephen, I have to say i like happy endings too, but I don't mind the occasional sad ending too as long as it fits the story.

Pat, yep, I think story is the most important element in a book too.

Mary, ha, yeah. I love the guessing game :)

Jenna, oh yes! stupid characters who fail to see the obvious (or a contrivance for the benefit of the plot) makes me put down the book.

Clarissa, yes, you make a great point.

Terri, I have so many books to read that I can afford to be picky :)

Rachna, yes, a good book needs tension and a well-timed climax.

Laila, yes, I'll often scan through long descriptions.

Lee, yes, anything that distracts fromt he story has to go. (Not always easy, though hehe).

Tahlia Newland said...

What terrific comments, everyone. It's wonderful to know what other readers think and that we're on the same wavelength. I started a book yesterday that though it was well written and everything was rolling along as you'd expect, I just could not get into the subject matter, so I put it down. Nothing wrong with the book, it just wasn't for me.

Susan Fields said...

It really bothers me when the mc does something stupid, especially when they keep secrets from someone in the story who could help them. I just want to shake them and shout, "tell them already!" Just my personal pet peeve. :)

Deniz Bevan said...

Great lists! I've got to agree with the characters doing stupid things - it's nerve wracking when they won't *ask* another character why they said or did such and such, and merely sit there wondering about it and jumping to erroneous conclusions...

Cynthia Chapman Willis said...

I like your lists! Characters that talk about the mundane aspects of their lives or repeat themselves all the time make me a little nuts.

Theresa Milstein said...

Some books just get it all right - character, plot, etc. Other books have some big flaw. It's so hard as writers to strike all the right chords.

Shah Wharton said...

This is a great post and its bookmarked ;D I agree with the list, although I am less organised in my appraisal of a book. It's all down to the first few pages and the characters. Great characters make me overlook other issues. Lately, I admit to picking up and quitting a book within the first half due to seriously bad writing. Even worse, these were book authors had asked me to read/review. Cringe!

Neurotic Workaholic said...

Unrealistic dialogue is definitely one of my pet peeves. When I read dialogue that doesn't ring true, it makes me dislike the characters. And if I don't like the characters, then it's very difficult for me to like the story.

Lynda R Young as Elle Cardy said...

Susan, hahah yeah, secrets are bad for the characters but oh so fun to write ;)

Deniz, nerve wracking, absolutely.

Cynthia, yes!! repetition also drives me nuts

Theresa, I totally agree. It's why we need to go over our manuscripts SO MANY TIMES ;)

Shah, yep, I have so many books I want to read that I won't finish one if it's not drawing me in. I simply don't have the time to waste.

Workaholic, yes, exactly. The characters should be likeable in some way to engage the reader.

Tahlia, once again, a huge thank you for guest posting here. It was a wonderful article.

Hunter said...

What a shame you don't like cliffhanger endings, lol.

As a suspense/thriller writer, some of those are my own staples.

However, I agree with most of your points, and really enjoyed thinking over these, along with the comments.