What is a good book?

That seems to be the question everyone thinks they have the answer to. The truth, however, is that there is no one “correct” definition. A good book truly is in the eye of the beholder. Just as there is no one correct way to write (the process of writing), there is no one correct definition for what a good book happens to be. Most of us understand that. Unfortunately, there are those (representing multiple sides of the spectrum) who believe they have the one true answer. The trouble with this is it leaves readers out of the equation and that is something we, as writers, cannot do.

Let me start by saying this is not going to turn into a debate about the Hugos. As far as I’m concerned, that is a moot point. Even though the Hugos are supposed to be a fan award, it has been made clear by some that they don’t want the every day fan included. They are trying their best to exclude anyone whose work — and maybe whose vote — doesn’t meet some arbitrary criteria of “good”. The fact there was even a proposal before the business meeting to allow the Hugo Committee to add nominees to the list if they felt there weren’t enough quality nominations proves that. Such an act smacks of telling fans they aren’t good enough or sophisticated enough to know what a good book is. My only question to the Hugo Committee and those who have continued to try to keep voters away from the process is why they don’t just amend the rules and make the Hugo a juried award? That way they can do whatever they want with the award without having to deal with the unwashed masses of readers who still foolishly think their opinion might matter.

Okay, I had to go there. Sorry. But that is all I’m going to say about the Hugos.

So what does make a good book? As I said in the first paragraph, there is no absolutely correct answer. Some readers want character driven stories. Others want plot driven. Some want literary works while others want pulp. Some want lots of sex and others want no sex, no matter what the genre. Once, all these diverse likes and dislikes meant all an author could do was trust his agent and publisher to accurately predict what the reading public would buy.

But now, with indie going strong (despite what a certain person who has received a government grant to write a book and has yet to do so), we aren’t as limited as we once were. We can write what we believe is a good book and leave it to the public to let us know if they liked it or not. What a lot of us are finding is that the books we couldn’t get past the front door of an agency now sell quite well as an indie publication. We can write the stories we want to and, as long as we pay attention to our reviews and what our fans say on social media and via email, we can build a career. Yes, there are benefits to traditional publishing but those benefits are lessening with the passage of time.

So, what is a good book?

It is a book that readers want to read. As a writer, it means knowing your target audience and hitting the cues they want. It means hooking the reader quickly and keeping them interested. It means giving them a story they want to talk about to their friends and family. It means entertaining and if you happen to educate a little along the way, more power to you.

What it doesn’t mean is preaching to your audience to the point they lose interest in the story. A skilled storyteller is a craftsman who can intertwine story and character and lesson all in one without beating the reader over the head with the message. I don’t know about you, but I will think about the message a lot more if it is subtle than I will if it is in my face.

I’ve done a great deal of reading the last few weeks. Between being ill and having to deal with repairmen, etc., around the house, I’ve not had the quiet I needed to write. So I read. I read traditionally published books and indie books. What I discovered was I enjoyed more indie books than I did the traditionally published books. Why? I could feel the passion of the indie writers in their work, a passion I did not feel in the traditionally published books. It was as if the indie authors liked what they were writing where the traditionally published authors — and these were best sellers in multiple genres — were just going through the motions. The best sellers had found a formula that worked to make them best sellers and they weren’t about to step away from the formula while the indies weren’t afraid to take chances and try new things.

Something else that struck me as I read was the lie we see so often that indie published books have more errors and need more editing than traditionally published books. I went back last night and looked at several examples of both just to make sure my memory wasn’t playing tricks on me. The proofreading errors between the two sets was just about even. So no, indie books did not seem to need more proofing than traditionally published books.

Something that did strike me was something I had noticed much earlier. More traditionally published books had many more formatting errors than the indie published books did. Weird paragraph breaks. No paragraph indents. Blank screens. Lack of spacing between the chapter title and the first line of text. I saw many more of those sorts of errors with traditionally published e-books than I did with indie books. Why? My only guess is that the trads don’t use the proper programs to convert to digital and then they don’t do quality checks.

And, while formatting isn’t exactly what most of us think about when we think about what makes up a good book, for an e-book reader, it is something writers and publishers should always keep in mind. If the e-book doesn’t look like a printed book, we register it. If we see an e-book where a publisher or author hasn’t taken time to make sure it “looks” right, we wonder why. That is especially true in the case of traditionally published e-books that cost as much, if not more, than their print equivalents.

So, what makes a good book in my opinion? One that keeps my attention. Fiction needs to entertain me and make me want to flip the page. I like learning something when I read but I don’t want to be preached to. Be subtle when you weave the message in. Make your characters believable. Don’t break your characters or change their personalities without having a darned good reason for it and be sure to foreshadow it. Don’t throw something in just because you think you have to — no matter what that something is. If you think it needs to be there, make sure the plot or character development require it.

There are times I want to read something that is literary. I want to see a world painted with words. There are other times I want to fly to the furthest reaches of the universe. Thrill me. Scare me. Give me warm fuzzies. Fiction for me, like it is for most readers, entertainment. Never forget that. As I said early on, remember your target audience and remember what they expect from the genre. Push the boundaries, yes, but not to the point you break them without explanation.

So, what makes a good book for you?

53 Comments

Filed under AMANDA, plotting, WRITING

53 responses to “What is a good book?

  1. Laura M

    I’ve always thought that we can break that kind of analysis into two parts.

    On the one hand, there is the question of craft. Has the writer put together a decent plot or just a series of unrelated events that don’t really build on each other? Lots of elements are part of craft, of course: characterization, reactions to events, foreshadowing, ending scenes with a “disaster,” a feeling that the stakes are getting higher and the outcome more uncertain, and on and on.

    Craft plays a strong role in the second side of the question, but as a reader I don’t think about that so much as what I walk away with, and that’s more ineffable. I read Butcher’s Aeronaut’s Windlass this summer. Butcher is a master of craft, but what I really liked about the book was how it took me into a world where honor is valued, where ordinary people become heroes, and where everything felt so darned British. It made me a little crazy. I searched his website for news of the next one. I wept bitter salt tears when I saw he hadn’t even started writing it yet. I tried hard to think what would satisfy me after reading such an awesome book. So I went and read three Georgette Heyers in quick succession, and contemplated re-reading the End Blyton books of my girlhood. I was only stopped in that by not being able to find them. I have a horrible feeling they are with my sister who lives out of the country. Aaargh. Mistake, that. Those were my books.

    Dave Freer’s Changeling Island also gave that great flavor of books of yore. Again, values are important, an ordinary (and reasonably repulsive, but with a kernel of goodness immediately visible) person can grow, mature and become heroic.

    Hmm. Maybe there’s a pattern here on what feels like a good book for me. It takes me back to that feeling of excitement and other worlds that I felt in the books of yesteryear. Neither of these books beat the reader over the head about values. They are woven into the story through what matters to the characters. We like the characters and we like their values. And vice versa. The world/societies themselves are part of it. I’m not just in someone else’s life as I read. I’m in another world.

  2. What is good key?

    One that opens the lock. If you’ve got a Master padlock it’s no good arguing that a Medico biaxial blank is machined to tighter tolerances and made of higher quality materials than the simple brass blank–the Medico blank doesn’t fit that padlock and that’s that.

    A book is a machine for conveying information. In the case of fiction, it’s information that entertains. For me, “The Soft Machine” is a good book, because it does the job of entertaining me. For most readers that’s not the case.

    My sister, who is an attorney who has written briefs for both the Texas and US Supreme Court and is way smarter than me, happens to love the novels of Dean Koontz. I don’t–in fact she compared my work to Koontz and I had to hold a glassy grin and try to remember that she meant it as a compliment, despite my own feelings.

    Burroughs is good for me, Koontz is good for her. Different locks, different keys.

    • _Some_ Koontz is excellent. Enough are . . . not . . . that I approach with caution, and pretty much quit after he failed to (so far) conclude the Moonlight Bay series.

      • John R. Ellis

        I had loved Koontz back in high school, but hadn’t read any of his stuff for years.

        I recently tried the one with the magical self-creating talking angel monkeys. Errrrr….damn. Yeah, approach with caution.

    • Santa

      I liked most of Koontz’s old science fiction, such as “The Haunted Earth” from Lancer Books in 1973.

  3. “The fact there was even a proposal before the business meeting to allow the Hugo Committee to add nominees to the list if they felt there weren’t enough quality nominations …”

    Why does this not surprise me?

    “What it doesn’t mean is preaching to your audience to the point they lose interest in the story. A skilled storyteller is a craftsman who can intertwine story and character and lesson all in one without beating the reader over the head with the message.”

    Can I add one more to that list? Shoehorning: When the writer shoves a message into the story that does nothing to advance the story. Example I saw in a well-known SF mag last year – story was about tricking a DNA test when out of the blue you got hit with a Climate Change message. What did the climate change have to do with the story? Not a bloody thing. (Or the whole ending of Aurora for that matter – but at least he tried to make it work.)

    “So, what makes a good book for you?”

    For me it is a balance of action and character. I want something to happen, but I also want to have a minute to catch my breath, get to know the character(s). There needs to be consistency. Is it Spock’s parent or an unknown ancestor who is Human? (Technically Amanda is an ancestor, but that’s not what was implied in the scene. ) I want continuity. Chekov’s gun! Red herrings are okay, but I want to find out that it was a red herring, not something that was dropped by the writer.

    Good for me is also hard to define because a lot of it is emotional. I want the story to grab me, drag me in, show me worlds that I never dreamed of, and then make me want to be there. I want to love the characters. I want it to inspire me in some way.

    • Larry Patterson

      I want the story to grab me, drag me in, show me worlds that I never dreamed of, and then make me want to be there. I want to love the characters. I want it to inspire me in some way.

      Yes!

    • Paul (Drak Bibliophile) Howard

      Is it Spock’s parent or an unknown ancestor who is Human?

      To be fair, that was a Pilot episode for Star Trek where we first heard that this Vulcan had a human ancestor.

      To me it was a matter that the writers really hadn’t established “who Spock was”.

      For that matter, in the very first Pilot they had Spock as definitely not unemotional.

      But then Roddenberry first had Spock as a Martian not a Vulcan. 😉

      • Yeah, I know. I am being nitpicky, but that was the best example I could come up with off the top of my head. There frequently are difference between the pilot and the series. If I really want to go on a tear, I’ll start in on the Dragonriders of Pern. Consistency was not Anne’s middle name.

    • Can I add one more to that list? Shoehorning: When the writer shoves a message into the story that does nothing to advance the story. Example I saw in a well-known SF mag last year – story was about tricking a DNA test when out of the blue you got hit with a Climate Change message. What did the climate change have to do with the story? Not a bloody thing.

      Absolutely. Another example: when Spider Robinson wrote Variable Star as a Heinlein tribute he had a two page anti-bush rant in it which completely threw me out of the story. There was no reason for this what so ever, it had no relevance to the story and added absolutely nothing to the plot.

      • I had totally forgotten about that. Kinda like the pro-drug stuff he kept inserting.

      • Laura M

        I don’t remember the anti-Bush rant, but it’s been a few years. I just remember hating the ending.

        I do remember a Stross book, one of the Amber-clones, that had a Cheney figure that threw me out. What’s the phrase: breaking the fourth wall?

        • Christopher M. Chupik

          It certainly involves walls, namely readers tossing their books against them.

        • Jill

          I enjoy Stross’s books, but that really ticked me off. I’m buying far fewer, and I always buy them second-hand now through Amazon. Another writer of supernatural mysteries had to insert villains that were clearly based on the Tea Party. Much as I liked his writing, the politics-bashing got to me, and I stopped buying any of his work. It’s fine with me if the author has a different point of view, but if he/she starts pushing it in a way that wrecks my enjoyment of the story they stop being on my “buy” list.

          • Luke

            Stross lost me at Accelerando.
            I have a child who is autistic, so the foundational assumption that processing power equals intelligence was not well received by me. (Also, I know enough about neurochemistry and computers that the idea of easily mapping one to the other was worthy of a headdesk.)

            • Stross has recently stated that the only difference between male and female characters should be gender software.

              Yes, every person pictures the world with his own kind of imagery. But thinking that the only difference between women and men is their programming? Yeah, that will tend to work as well as an opera singer picturing her throat as a machine of unvarying performance.

              In other words, it might seem comforting and easy at first, but the consequences of your mental picture will be bad for you and for the world, both immediately and over time.

      • In one month I read five things (three novels and two different comic series) that had Sarah Palin as the villain. Obviously all written about four years or so in the past since she’s not really in the news anymore. I stopped reading the comics, stopped reading those books and decided to not read those authors going forward.

        I’m not a fan of Sarah Palin, would not have voted for her but the naked, unrelenting, over the top, nasty, hatred combined with utter contempt and condescension for anyone who might agree with her in any way turned my stomach. One book I was literally ten pages away from finishing and couldn’t bring myself to spend those ten minutes on it.

        Now, I’m much more cautious and if the description has anything about an attractive conservative female politician from a rural area, I not only avoid the book but I avoid the author entirely.

        • Yes, that’s what ruined the movie Iron Sky for me. The writers seemed to believe that National Socialist were Conservative Christians (they were neither) and that the Palin-inspired US President immediately embraced the Space Nazis as allies.

          • Christopher M. Chupik

            In the modern European imagination, it’s they who rescue the US from Nazism, instead of the reverse.

            • Well, that could have worked well, if they’d cared to make it believable, or left any room for anybody to enjoy it. But they didn’t.

              Counterexample: Space Battleship Yamato/Starblazers, where the hull of an Imperial Japanese battleship and a Japanese crew help rescue the entire Solar System from two evil empires of fascist space invaders. It’s fun, it’s interesting, and it was readily enjoyed by everyone.

  4. Larry Patterson

    I’m just a reader, but as you say, a good book is one i like, one I enjoy reading to the end. Maybe a Heinlein, maybe a Mitchener or a Folette, Maybe a forgotten author whose book I picked up and devoured when I should have been working or sleeping.
    A good book does not have to be great, though. Just enjoyable. And maybe a sale book on Kindle will even turn out to be great in the end.
    But God save us from “good books” that no one reads except those required to get through a course. A Thomas Mann I read in college comes to mind. German students would tell ourselves something was great, maybe. No one wants to tell the prof it was boring.
    A ‘Best SF’ anthology comes to mind. It wasn’t boring, it was bloody dreck! If the lords of wisdom that run the Hugos for profs at micky mouse colleges want to write rubbish, they can do so. Maybe 19 year olds will convince themselves that it was good.
    A mind is a terrible thing to waste. So mamas don’t send your babies to lib arts schools.

  5. I read SF/F to escape reality. I want the story to suck me in and whisk me away so completely that my mind is totally There, that I don’t even think about being Here.

    If something in the story jars me into thinking about Here (like trendy PC stuff such as global warming or White privilege), it breaks the spell. Once I learn that you’re That Kind of Writer, I’m less likely to buy your books in the future.

    I want to stay in Oz and Neverland and Barsoom, as long as I can. The longer you can keep me There, the more I enjoy your story. The more you make me want to return There, the more of your books I’ll read.

    I still long for Earthsea and The Shire, for Camelot and the Ringworld. Make me long for your world.

    • John R. Ellis

      I enjoyed visiting Earthsea. Then came Tehanu. LeGuin made it clear I was no longer welcome. In fact, she herself seemed to actively despise and tried as hard as she could to burn down the entire world she’d previously established, then pour salt all over the remains. It wasn’t a pleasant reading experience.

      • Tehanu broke my heart. I loved the original Earthsea trilogy (still do) and I was glad to see the continuation of the Ged-Tenar relationship. But the rest of Tehanu, I wish I hadn’t read. So much more could have been done with that world and those characters, and it could have been wonderful and beautiful. It’s sad.

      • I seem to have succeeded in scrubbing Tehanu from my brain. Yay! I loved the original trilogy, remember being disappointed by Tehanu, and fortunately remember nothing else about it. 🙂

        • John R. Ellis

          Nothing much happens in Tehanu…other than LeGuin scowling as she dumps a big ol’ bucket of crud over the reader’s head, shrieking “NO! The previous books were BAAAAAAD! And you are EVIL for liking them!” for pages and pages until mercifully it stops.

          Ah, well. I still have the original trilogy and the SF novel “The Word For World is FOREST” to remind me what a good writer she could be.

  6. Luke

    A good book is one that I want to revisit.
    That’s really it.

    Now, there are a number of reasons for me to consider a book bad, but they generally break down into two categories.
    1) Bored now. (The offender that comes most easily to mind is “The Fountainhead”. There are some good observations in it, and a solid plot, but…)
    2) That doesn’t make any $]^`ing sense! ( For this one, I’ll pick on “Shadow Ops: Control Point” by Myke Cole. The protagonist is drafted to fight a secret war, but is unable to come to grips with the realities of military life. Which would have been fine *if he hadn’t been career military* when the book started! (I’m sorry, but if you’ve re-enlisted, you’ve made your peace with people being replaceable cogs.

    • Yes. Good books are ones you reread. Excellent books are ones you can quote from memory and so have no real need to reread

    • I have come across a couple of books that give me a sense of “that was really good. I never want to read it again.” It’s when you have a concept that is thoroughly well executed, and a story that is complete and goes where it should go, and the end result is beautiful and horrifying. Some people like that a lot, and I have been known to like horror in my time, but a lot of the time it’s just too much.

      (Oddly enough, Robin Hobb is one of those authors who I revisit only rarely, because she’s just so good and she puts her characters through so much heartache that I need to have a certain amount of emotional fortitude built up before I can enjoy her books again. And they end happily, for the most part. It’s just torture to get there.)

  7. I’ve kind of had mixed feelings on what constitutes “good.” There’s stuff I like and there’s stuff I consider “good” and they’re not quite the same sets. A lot of overlap, sure, but not quite the same thing. As one example take John C. Wright’s “Nightlands” stuff. I don’t care for it. I find the whole “x years before the final extinction of humanity” bit just…no. It rubs me the wrong way. That said, the writing within it is phenomenal. Pure artistry. And that writing alone drew me through to the end of the collection “Awake in the Night Lands.”

    I wish I could write half as well.

    • Agreed. I found Honor at Stake very much off-putting (except for the discussions about the reflexology of vampires. That was nifty.) But the storytelling was good, and the characters were interesting. I can think of readers who are not me who would really like the book.

      And not because they’ve convinced themselves that internalized bootlegging at the alter of this week’s special snowflake really IS fun for them.

  8. Does it catch me? Does it give me what I want? If a non-fiction book gives me what I want or need, I’ll slog through to the end. If it engages and pulls me into the story, I’ll probably end up buying a reference copy or telling everyone I know who might be interested that “This is the book you want.”

    Fiction needs to grab me, to entertain, to show me new people and new worlds. I don’t have to have a happily-ever-after ending, but at least give me a happy-for-the-foreseeable-future ending. And don’t rub my nose with a cause, even one I might agree with. Don’t stick in the cause of the moment without good reason *glares at history author and editor*. Anthropogenic climate change has no place in a book about the origins of the medieval world and the rise of the Ottonians.

    • if it’s a to-be-continued, a cliffhanger will do. But Barbary Hambly nearly lost me as a reader with her “Winterlands” series. When she followed up “Dragonsbane” with “Dragonshadow”, The more I read, the bleaker and more hopeless the situation got, and then the third book ENDED in the pit of despair. I had been expecting an upward turn in the story, some glimmer of hope, and there wasn’t one. I felt bitterly betrayed, until I thought that there had to be better finish. There was, but waiting for the last book of the series to include any of it didn’t make for an enjoyable reading experience.

      • Oh yeah no, no, no. You can end a book in the Slough of Despond but there’d better be light from One Bright Star to show that things will get better. And I, the reader, need to be able to see it.

  9. Arwen

    I read for escapism and character I can happily cheer for. Left wing “take that” moments take me out of the story.

  10. Randy Wilde

    Almost all of my reading is for entertainment. So, for me:

    A good book is one I enjoy reading to the end, and which makes me keep an eye out for other books by that author.

    A great book is one I’ll re-read, and actively look for other books by that author to buy.

    Similarly, a so-so book is one that I finish, but just because I don’t like leaving off before the end.

    A bad book is one I don’t finish, or one I finish only so I can say I read it (*cough* Ulysses).

  11. TRX

    > What makes a good book?

    Did I finish it?
    Would I read it again?
    Did I flip back to the beginning and read it again?

    • Hah! I did that just last week. Re-read The Goblin Emperor for the third time, enjoyed it thoroughly, so much so that when I reached the end I tapped my kindle to return to the beginning and read it all over again. And enjoyed it just as much the fourth time through.

  12. “What is a good book?”

    A book that I pick up, and I want to find out what happens.

    A great book, I pick it up and my life stops until I find out what happens.

  13. I don’t have much to add. I mostly lurk.

    But I think this piece is spot on, perfect, banging on all cylinders, and sets the gold standard when it comes to discussing what makes a good book.

    I’ll toss Hugh Howey’s “Wool” onto the pile for a great read that was unfortunately followed by “Shift”. I’m really, really hoping that the end of “Shift” justifies the time I’m putting into it as it is a chore to pick it up right now.


    Regards,
    Dann

    • You can read the third book, Dust, without having read Shift first, and there’s only a few references that get overlooked. (I read those two out of order.) The series as a whole reminds me of the post-nuclear fiction of the 80s, because when you were a child of the 80s, you were half convinced that we were all going to die in a nuclear holocaust, and that sense of inevitability pervades these books. In a good way.

      • Is Dust as good as Wool? I thought Wool was fan-freaking-tastic. I’m almost done with Shift and remain unimpressed. Erg.


        Regards,
        Dann

      • Laura M

        I got halfway through Wool, and it was so overpoweringly upsetting that I couldn’t keep reading. It was really well done and beautiful and all that, but when each bit starts with a cleaning, and you learn what the cleaning means, well….. The lack of hope did me in. Is this something I should give another shot?

        • Hi Laura,

          Without going into spoiler territory, yes! Finish Wool. You will not be disappointed. I understand what you mean about the first half of the book representing a lack of hope. The back half of the book offers something more.

          Shift provides the backstory to Wool. Some of the features of the story are so implausible that it takes me out of the story. Another feature of Shift is that it integrates with the Wool timeline. So there are sections of Shift where you are reading about the actions of people that you read about in Wool, but that Wool never really detailed or fleshed out. I’ve seen that technique done well in Piers Anthony’s “Incarnations” series. Shift didn’t do as good of a job in that area, IMO.

          Regards,
          Dann

  14. After some thought, I came up with this.

    There’s an old bit where a person consoling someone who has just humiliated himself says “They’re not laughing at you, they’re laughing with you.” (No, actually they were laughing at you.)

    But that distinction is at the core of “good book” IMO. Not laughter, but strong emotion. Both very good, and very bad books evoke strong emotion. In the good ones the emotion is “with” the book. In the bad ones it’s “at” the book. 😉

  15. Tim McD

    It reminds me of “The Book of Kantela”, which was supposed to be Book 1 of the Throne of Sherran Trilogy. I thought it was a great book, and searched for years for Vols 2 and 3……which didn’t exist, I guess because there were not enough people who thought it was great or even good. Of course, in those days, it might have been the publisher’s fault, but if the demand had been high enough, they would have been written and published by someone.