To a writer, positive reviews from readers are like receiving a million dollars tax free. Yes, I exaggerate. Still, it means bunches to a beginning writer. Recently I read a review on a book I was thinking of purchasing. This positive review listed several things I value in a book and ended it with, well-written.
Writing is all about studying the craft and improving. Lessons I learn, the books I read, and the research I do daily offer a constant flow of information on how to become a better writer—my goal. The review left one question revolving ever so redundantly in my mind: What does the average reader consider a well-written book?
My realities (and nightmares) of disinterested editors and conflicting editing jobs made me realize that there are many ways one might edit a manuscript. As a writer, you follow the rules you are told are the right rules to follow.
I have a checklist of the most common mistakes editors mark and yet in the two current books I am reading—one is a bestseller by a famous author and one is by an up and coming self-published author—both do many of the things we are told not to do.
Bestseller Famous Author’s Book I will refer to as BSF. Self-published struggling author’s book becomes SPS.
BSF captured my attention on page 1. Can’t put it down. Can’t wait to find out what happens next. But I spot many rules broken. (Yes, I know. I’ve been told. If you’re famous, you can break rules. Bear with me.)
SPS is well written regarding what we are taught our freshman year in college comp class. Lengthy descriptions, much he/she went here and did this and that, not too many rules broken. But after a couple of pages, I can’t wait to put it down. It’s laborious to read, though it’s been meticulously edited. I am halfway through it and still have no connection to the characters, and no genuine desire to make it to the ending. Yet, SPS has positive reviews and all four and five stars. He has twenty plus reviews so far.
BSF has over two thousand reviews and several negative reviews, and over 600 reviewers rated the book less than three stars. But over 1,600 give it a four or five star.
So What Makes A Well-Written Book?
Is it that all the grammar is correct? No rules broken? Or is the flow of the story and the characters more appealing?
Is a comma splice something a reader notices? Or if the writer uses an ellipsis when they should have used an em dash, would a reader notice? Do they stop reading when a sentence isn’t complete?
Do they count how many times you used said, or laughed, or nodded? Or do they make a mental note: Holy Moly, he used “instantly” five times on this one page. (Actually, SPS does this, and yes, I made a mental note. But that’s because I am a writer? Would the average reader notice?)
As writers, we know we must read other writers, successful and unsuccessful, to become better at our craft. As we analyze what works and doesn’t work in the books we are reading, here are some questions to consider:
- Am I hooked? And on what page did I become hooked?
- Is the main character someone I want to know more about?
- What did the author do to make me want to know more about the main character?
- How does the author infiltrate his minor characters?
- Is there a clear POV (point of view) or does the author resort to head popping to tell his/her story?
- Is the dialogue believable? Interesting? Or is it flat and relies on numerous adverb (ly words) to convey what the dialogue should convey?
- What is the underlying conflict of the story? Are there minor conflicts integrated that keep you interested? What are they?
Now, ask yourself these same questions regarding your own works.
I don’t think the average reader notices an author’s grammatical correctness, as long as it doesn’t interrupt the flow. That’s not to say that a self-published author doesn’t need to worry. In fact, she must be obsessive about the editing correctness of her works.
One of the major criticisms I hear pertaining to self-published works is how poorly written they are? Is it the mechanics, or the story, or the entire package that deems it poorly written? This, I am not sure.
As for me, if I am engrossed in a story, I doubt if I notice a comma splice or two. An incorrectly misspelled word, probably. Whether ellipses and em dashes are used correctly, not so much.
Indications of poorly written.
Lengthy sentences and paragraphs
I read a highly acclaimed book. Enjoyed the heck out of it in fact. Very literary. But some of her paragraphs were pages long with sentences I had to put on the board and diagram to make sense of them. And after struggling through it—which I did because the language was indeed beautiful—the ending was bad. I really couldn’t tell you what happened to the main character I had cried with and laughed with for over 400 plus pages. Well-written? Really? A bunch of people thought so. A bestseller and all.
Taking the five senses beyond
Which one of the following examples grabs your interest?
Example 1: Elizabeth kicked out her legs and rested her feet on the coffee table. Unconsciously, she undid her jeans. She felt anxious.
Example 2: Elizabeth’s fingers rolled her anxiety relief—Colorado’s newest legal substance—into a tidy joint. She lit it with her 99¢ yellow Bic and drew in the taste in four quickdraws. It smelled like the cinnamon toast her toaster decimated daily, but tasted like sugar-coated bliss to her. She unzipped her tight jeans and freed her swollen belly. A baby. What in the hell was she going to do with a baby. She pulled the .357 from a brown bag, accepted the cold in the warmth of her small hand and told herself she’d know the gun was black even if she were blind. She studied it like one might study the bible—in search of answers.
Example 1 is perfectly acceptable. Except it uses a ly word and WTH does anxious feel like or look like? Which one is well-written? Example 1 is safe. Has all the correct punctuation.
In Example 2, I intentionally left out a question mark, and I probably should have put her thoughts in italics (the jury is still out on how to punctuate inner dialogue). Also, is it even if she were blind or even if she was blind? And is it: 99¢ or 99 cents or $0.99 or ninety-nine cents? And what about .357?
BUT the BIG question is: Which of the two examples makes you want to find out more about Elizabeth?
Way too pretty, or beautiful, or handsome
Example 1: Everyone thought Rio was beautiful, so beautiful they couldn’t take their eyes off her.
Example 2: Men allowed their eyes to drift from hers and fall along the curves of her petite frame. Her breasts tipped upward to the sky. Her waist pinched inward. And Rio’s hips, just enough, balanced and completed the image that roused their curiosity to find out what lie beneath her clothing. Was the hidden skin as perfect as the skin on her face? They wondered. But then they returned to her eyes, and a chill shouted, you will never know.
In which example do we get a feel for what Rio looks like and a little about her as a person?
Simple but brilliant
Example: The saplings gave way to a forest. The trees clenched the last of summer’s leaves in their fists, and something made her think of Lot’s wife in the Bible, who turned back for one last look at home. — from Flight Behavior by Barbara Kingsolver
No need to be pretentious. Like a woman’s favorite little black dress, simple is elegant. Kingsolver’s words above are an example of that perfect little black dress.
I believe well-written is in the eyes of the beholder (or reader). Thank goodness we don’t all like the same type of literature. That would lead to a boring world indeed.
Perhaps the heart of well-written has nothing to do with mechanics and more to do with a well developed story with a beginning, middle, and please, please a conclusion. So many book and movie endings make me feel like the author (or screenwriter) got tired of writing and quit. You are left in a fog wondering what it all meant, and why you forfeited that much of your time for something that brought you nothing in return.
Another key factor in the definition of well-written is character development. As a reader, I have to love the characters I am investing time in so much so that when I finish the book; I miss them. Characters have to make mistakes, do the wrong things, say the wrong stuff, be bad some, be good some, but most of all be human.
How about you? What is your definition of a well-written story? Would you notice a misplaced comma or semicolon? Or would shallow characters cause you to give up? If the author misspelled a word or used a word in the wrong way, would you quit reading? Do too many “she said” or “he said” bother you as you read?
What turns you off or on while reading a book? I love hearing from you. Even if you disagree.