Six-ish Things That Make a Good Book

A few weeks ago, I was at trivia with some friends, and in between questions we were talking about the books we’d read recently. At the time, I was nearly finished reading Daughter of the Burning City by Amanda Foody. I told my friends that I was really enjoying the book, but there was one big problem that I wanted the author to resolve, and whether she did or not would likely determine whether the book made it onto my list of favorite books of 2018. One of my friends said something along the lines of, “Well 2018 is really just getting started, so how can you already know if a book will be on your favorites list anyway?” Which led me to explain that I’ve never limited myself to my top ten or any other arbitrary number of favorite books of the year. Instead, I keep a running list of books I read throughout the year that I think will make the cut. This is particularly important this year, as I’ve already read thirty-three books since January 1. But after that conversation at trivia, I really started thinking about what exactly got a book onto my list of favorite books for the year.


I’m sure someone could analyze all the books I have listed on my book recs page and come up with some quality that they all share (I’m taking a course on the ethics and governance of artificial intelligence right now and this seems like an interesting job for a computer). But in reality, my method is not a science. Far from it. Since I’ve been musing about my process, I’ve found that there are certain things I look for in a book, and some of them matter more to me than others. And so, in no particular order, here are the six-ish things I consider when deciding if a book belongs on my favorite books list for the year (and also on my book recs page).


  1. Writing:

This may come as a surprise, since I’m a writer and all, but writing is not the most important thing in the world to me. Of course, excellent writing is a huge plus, but if the writing isn’t fabulous and the story is there, I don’t mind so much. Less-than-stellar writing alone isn’t going to tip a book out of my favorites list. For example, I really like the Hunger Games series (Mockingjay less so but that rant is beside the point), even though the writing isn’t fabulous. I also enjoyed Before We Were Yours by Lisa Wingate, despite the bland and often cliched writing. On the other hand, if the book has other problems, bad writing can drag it down for me. For example, last year I read The Call by Peadar Ó Guilín. Basically, think the Hunger Games with faeries. I was really excited about this book, but it turned out that I kind of hated it. The story was almost there, but it was pretty predictable, and the main human villain was so cliched, and I hated the writing. I’m not sure if it would have made it onto my list had the writing been better, but better writing may have lifted it out of the I-completely-hate-this-book bucket. And finally, if bad writing alone can’t drag a book down for me, good writing alone can’t lift a book up. I can’t think of an example of this right now, but if a book has fabulous writing and nothing else, it’s not making it onto my list.


  1. Story:

For me this is a pretty broad category. When I think of the story, I’m thinking about the plot, the character arcs, the world building, and so on. Ideally,I love it when all these things are done well, but I’ve also been known to love books where certain aspects of the story aren’t all there. For example, even though the world-building certainly leaves something to be desired, I really like the Divergent series (with the exception of the ending of Allegiant because oh my god what was that!?). Story is one of the most important considerations for me when I’m deciding if a book is doing to make it onto my list. There’s just a certain combination of originality, strong pacing, and characters I care about with goals I care about that you can’t beat.


  1. The ending:

This is another big one. For me, the perfect ending can take a good book and make it excellent, just as a bad ending can completely wreck a strong book or series. I’ve already mentioned the endings of Mockingjay and Allegiant and how in a lot of ways they ruined the series for me (though I’m more accepting of the ending of Mockingjay once the movies had a crack at it). If you’re interested in reading a much more detailed rant about what makes a great ending and what makes an ending fall flat or actively destroy a good book, I have a whole post on endings here. Go check it out.


  1. Representation:

This is a complicated one for me. Generally speaking, this is less important in my overall scheme of thinking about books, but if something is absolutely agregious, it will certainly tip a book out of the running for the favorites list. If a book doesn’t have a lot of diversity, I’m not going to dislike it just for that. If a book has female or minority characters and represents them poorly or problematically, that will upset me. This is especially true for me when it comes to characters with disabilities. Earlier in this post I mentioned Daughter of the Burning City, which I really really liked as a book, but I’m struggling with it because it did the blind-but-not-blind-because-magic thing that really gets under my skin. I have a whole post about blind characters with superpowers here, if you’re interested in that rant. Talking about disability representation is what I’m most comfortable with, because it’s my own experience, and I don’t want to make assumptions about groups outside my own personal experience, but I do pay attention to it in books, because I want to do it right as a writer. And if a writer does it well, that will certainly push a book from good into my favorites list. Finally, it’s important to note that my friends are very conscious of diversity and representation, and the books I pick up tend to be conscious of diversity and thoughtful representation.


  1. My gut:

This is pretty self-explanatory. I have a gut feeling about books, and I tend to go with it. To go back to Divergent, I know a lot of people didn’t like it. I recognize its many flaws. I really do. But I’m sorry, I like it. And my gut feeling is really important.


  1. Time will tell:

Finally, I keep a running list throughout the year of books that I think will make it onto my favorites list. I also have a list of all the books I read throughout the year. At the end of the year, as I’m writing up my post about my favorite books, I compare the books. Are there any books that are not on my draft favorites that still really stand out to me? Are there any books on my draft favorites list that I can’t even remember the main character’s name? Basically, if a book sticks with me in a positive way throughout the year, that’s a really good indicator that it should be on my list. I recognize that this consideration is a little unbalanced. Obviously a book I finish on New Year’s Eve, two hours before I write the final post, is going to stick with me more than the book I finished three hundred sixty-four days ago. And I don’t know how it will work this year, because I’ve already read thirty-three books and it’s not even March. This year, I probably won’t weigh how the book stands up to time as heavily as I have in past years.


So there you have it, the six-ish ways I review books: the writing, the story, the ending, the representation, my gut, and time. I say six-ish because these aren’t really defined categories. You could smoosh the story and the ending together or combine my gut feeling and the effect of time. On the other hand, you could expand the story consideration into separate considerations for plot, character, setting, and so on. It’s not a perfect system. I don’t weigh these considerations the same: Generally speaking, I’m more interested in the story, the ending, my gut feeling, and to some extent the effects of time than I am on the writing and the representation, though writing and representation are still very important to me. This isn’t an exact system. I’m still struggling over how I feel about Daughter of the Burning City, because if not for the blind-but-not thing, it would totally one hundred percent be making it onto my list. The story is great; the ending is great; the writing is great; the book has stuck with me, even though I’ve read a dozen books since I finished it; and my gut feeling is that it’s a really great book and the blind-but-not thing is just one eensy problem and it should be on my list anyway. But the blind-but-not problem is a really big problem for me. So right now, I don’t know if it’s going to make it onto my list.


There are certainly other ways to think about and review books—maybe better ways—but this is roughly how I do it. So your turn: what makes a good book for you?


Journey to an Ending

November has arrived, which means once again, National Novel Writing Month is upon us. Unfortunately, I can’t count law school application essays towards my word count, so I have decided not to attempt to write fifty thousand words this month. Instead, I have set myself a much more reasonable goal of writing four short stories. But in the spirit of NaNoWriMo, I have been playing with my basic concepts of stories that need revising and thinking a lot about how I plot my stories—short and long alike. Back in July, I wrote about how I outline stories, but now I really want to get into the meat of how I plot stories. And as I was planning this series of posts, I realized that I usually start with the ending.


I have no idea if this is how other people morph their idea stews into cohesive stories, but this is what I do. I start with a basic concept—a main character, possibly an antagonist but probably not yet, and the problem that main character is trying to overcome. Then, with this idea in mind, I jump straight to the ending. It’s sort of like I’m planning a trip. I can’t decide what route I’m going to take if I don’t know what the destination is. If I know the destination, I can plan the path I will take—where I will start, where things will probably get difficult, where I will pause to rest and use the bathroom and refuel my car and myself, where I will turn aside to get lost in the halls of cobwebby museums full of rare fossils that might give the whole trip meaning. Maybe this metaphor has gone too far. I can’t even drive. Yet.


My point is, before I set pen to paper or, in my case, fingers to keyboard, I need to know where I’m going. Many times, I don’t start a story until I have a last line in my head.


This isn’t to say that the ending I come up with when I am first planning a story will definitely be the ending I write when I get there. It could happen that I reach the ending and realize that I have been driving at something completely different all along. In that case, I revise my ending and do what’s right for the story. Other times I reach my ending and everything feels just right, and I write that ending, but then when I go back to revise the story, I realize that while the ending is right for the story I want to tell, the beginning or the middle or the character arc isn’t fitting in, and I need to revise that. So it doesn’t always work out the way I want it to, but that is the joy of storytelling: it is an act of discovering the story as much as transcribing it for others to read. But even if I change the ending, if I don’t start writing with an ending in mind, the story will inevitably be a mess.


So when I have my basic premise for the story, when I have my main character and my problem, how do I come up with an ending? And how do I know if that ending is the right ending for the story I am telling?


For starters, I have a running list of endings I have loved and endings I have hated in my head. When I’m trying to come up with the right ending, I start there. What kind of story do I think I’m telling? What books or TV shows or movies have I recently read or seen that might be similar to that type of story? How did they end? Did it work? Why? Did it flop? How come? What kind of ending can I come up with that will be better than what they did?


Obviously, this strategy can only take you so far. You need to be careful that you’re not copying endings from things you like or deliberately doing the opposite of something you didn’t like. For one thing, straight-up copying is bad. Most of the time, your story is actually pretty different from the material you’re drawing on for your inspiration, so copying their ending won’t fit. If your story isn’t different from the material you’re drawing on for inspiration, you have an entirely different problem. (Believe me—I’ve been there. Revise. Revise now.)


But I digress. Using a particular ending as a model—a baseline—is how I usually start. I look at how that ending was constructed, why it works the way it does—or why it doesn’t work—and I see if I can produce the same effect. Once I have analyzed other people’s endings to my heart’s content, I look back at my own story. In very simple terms, I think about the ending as the solution to the problem the main character is facing (this is different from the climax of the story, where the main character confronts the story’s main problem). Then I start brainstorming all the possible solutions to the problem, including the totally ridiculous solutions that could never actually work, the solutions where everyone dies (I don’t think I’ve ever gone with this one), and the solution where the main character walks away and leaves the problem unsolved—or gives in to the problem in some way. Usually this brainstorming is all in my head, but sometimes I write it out. When I can come up with no other possible solutions, I think about my story fundamentally. What do I want the tone to be? What do I want the main character to learn (if anything)? What is the story I am telling? I start crossing off endings that don’t work. Usually, I’m left with just a few possibilities, and I pick the one I like the best (I usually have a feeling by this point).


I don’t always use this whole process. Sometimes the ending I’m looking for is perfectly clear to me from the start. But when it isn’t, going through this process helps me clarify a lot about the story that I may not have thought about before, and ultimately, it’s a better story for it.


Finally, I want to talk about what kind of endings I personally like and what endings I hate. I will do my best to stay spoiler-free.


My biggest pet peeve about endings is when all the character has learned, all their growth and change, is invalidated. Think the ending of Mockingjay or How I Met Your Mother. Usually, this ending feels so far off the rails to me that it ruins how I feel about the whole book or season, sometimes even the whole series. I have been following these characters for so long at this point, and now they’re making a decision that makes everything that came before not matter. I feel cheated. I feel like I want to throw the book across the room. Often, there are aspects of the ending I would have been okay with on their own, but when it’s all put together, it just doesn’t work for me. I have a visceral reaction to these endings. At best, I’m disappointed. At worst, I feel like I’ve wasted my time.


Another ending I despise is the ending where either the protagonist dies or all the people around the protagonist die and the protagonist is left on her own in a wasteland of mindless destruction and grief. My one exception so far to this dislike is The Book Thief by Markus Zusak, and that’s because Death is the narrator, so I knew it had to happen at some point. Most of my dislike for this type of ending comes from the fact that I am fundamentally an optimist, and this depressing view of the world just doesn’t jive with my sunny outlook on life. I know, I know. I kill characters mercilessly in my own stories, and a lot of the time I enjoy a good character death. But only when that character death serves a purpose. When you kill everyone just to show that the world is rough, it doesn’t work for me. Also, as in another popular young adult dystopian trilogy, when you kill the main character for no good reason other than she’s nobly sacrificing herself for someone else I really couldn’t care less about, I feel like I’m wasting my time. Because I’m not reading the story for the interesting world. I’m reading the story for the character. And that was a dumb decision!


My favorite kind of ending, on the other hand, is like the ending of the TV show Leverage or Kristin Hannah’s book The Nightingale. It’s what I’m hoping the ending of Marissa Meyer’s Lunar Chronicles series will be (we’ll see tomorrow!). My favorite kind of ending brings all the pieces of the story together. It solves the problems of the plot in a satisfying way. It makes me feel like the characters have grown and changed in ways that matter. It is the sort of ending that makes me want to turn right back to the beginning of the book and read it all over again. It doesn’t have to be happy, and it doesn’t have to solve everything. In my favorite endings, there is at least one piece left for the reader to ponder, one more story for the reader to imagine. And while I always love a nice happy ending, my favorite endings are bittersweet. Because what is a happy ending worth—what is any journey worth—without struggles and losses that must be overcome along the way?