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?


The Good Guys

As I’m working on my query and synopsis for my small child magician novel, I have found myself feeling very reflective. The query and the synopsis feel like a summation of all I have done for this novel, and since this novel was the novel I just couldn’t give up on, the novel that has grown and changed as I have grown and changed—as a person and as a writer—it feels pretty significant. I wrote the first draft of this novel almost twelve years ago, when I was in seventh grade, and since then, I have taken enormous strides in my writing. For one thing, I learned about plot—what it is, how to do it, how to do it well. But at the same time, I also learned a lot about characters, and how characters are the key to moving a good story forward, just as much—if not more—than the plot. Also, I talked all throughout last November about plot, so I’ve decided it’s time I ramble about characters.


When I was in high school, I thought that the trick to strong characters was knowing every single possible detail about them that I could. I created a questionaire of 199 questions to make my characters real (in no particular order), and I answered every single question for every single character. Now, I laugh at my younger self a little bit. It’s not that this stuff isn’t important. It is. It helps you grasp what kind of person your character is. But you do not have to be as anal about it as I was. Beyond useless trivia, it probably isn’t essential that you know what your main character’s best friend’s older brother’s favorite color is. Unless it’s a significant part of the story—like he will only wear bright orange shirts, so the main character can always see him coming from a mile away—then really, no one is going to care that you know that particular fact. What I came to understand in college is that it’s much more important to know the big things than the small things. What does your character want? What are they willing to sacrifice to get it? What is their plan to get it? What do they care most about in the world? What are they most afraid of? What are they insecure about? It is these big questions and big ideas that shape who a person is—not their favorite pizza topping or least favorite hairstyle.


But there’s something even bigger that I’ve learned about characters as I’ve worked on my small child magician novel. A strong character is not only a well-rounded character. A strong character is an active character.


I’m going to talk specifically about protagonists right now. (In the next few weeks, I plan to discuss antagonists and side characters and how they influence the story in their own right, so stay tuned.) The protagonist is the main character of the story. They’re the character who—we hope—the reader is rooting for in the story (unless you’re writing an antihero (which I have never successfully done and don’t particularly like to read about, except when I do and then find myself totally baffled). In short, the protagonist is the good guy.


I think I’ve said before that the stories I most like to read and consequently aim to write are driven pretty equally by both plot and character. That means that while the story is pushed forward by outside influences—the plot—it is also moved along by the actions of the characters. A strong protagonist has agency—they are an active agent in their own plot.


It seems obvious, but it took me absolutely forever to get a grip on this. For the longest time, my protagonist was just flipflopping all over the story, being pushed around by the other forces in her life rather than standing up and making her own decisions. I learned that protagonists need to have agency, but it just didn’t sink in. Countless critiquers told me this was a problem, but either they didn’t say so in exact terms, or again I just didn’t get it. Then, at the end of my first year of college, it finally clicked into place. That it took this long for me to get it means that this lesson is really important for me. I think it is hands down the number one most important writing lesson I have ever learned.


For a story to work, your protagonist has to want something. That can be as simple as wanting to stop the antagonist, but your protagonist can have their own agenda entirely separate from the antagonist, until the antagonist gets in the way, of course. But the point is, your protagonist has to want something. Once your protagonist wants something, they have to take action to get it. This action drives the plot forward, and it also spurs character development. Because of course, it can’t be easy for your protagonist to get what they want. There has to be something standing in their way. Otherwise, it wouldn’t be a story anyone would want to read. It is when a protagonist takes action to surmount seemingly insurmountable odds, to tackle impossible challenges, and to come out the other side changed, even if they are not victorious (though victory is always an added bonus), that we find stories we love.


You can have an incredible, twisting, turning, thrilling plot, but it isn’t going to work if your protagonist is just being dragged around by that plot. Your protagonist needs to stand up and say, “No, this is my story, and I’m going to play a part in it.”

Plotting, Plotting, and More Plotting

December is upon us. There’s no snow yet, but there’s plenty of holiday cheer, and it’s only two weeks until the solstace and the days start getting longer. I’ve been out of school for two years, and yet this is still a time of recurring stress dreams about exams for classes i didn’t know I was taking. It is also the time, once again, where I try to keep up my NaNoWriMo momentum. So far, not so good. But there are still three weeks of the month left, and all those unexplainable nerves need to go somewhere. Why not give them to some of my characters?


So, this November, along with writing a bunch of short stories, I wrote blog posts about how I plot stories, from the ending, to the climax, to the beginning, and finally to the middle. If you missed them, check them out. This week, I want to wrap up my discussion by talking a bit more generally about plot.


The plot of the story is the action of the story. When I say action, I don’t mean crazy chase scenes or gun fights or anything like that—though that is always fun. I mean the physical events of the story and how they move from one to the next to the next. It is the arc of these events, usually from bad to worse to even worse to the moment of ultimate desperation to finally heading towards better. The plot arc is usually separate from the character arc of the story, and you can have plot driven stories—where the action pushes the story forward—and character driven stories—where the character’s goals and desires push the story forward (I’ll talk about character in more detail later). My favorite stories are the ones that are pushed forward by a combination—or a conflict—of plot and character.


One of the things I do to help me plot a story from scene to scene, or something I do after I have written the whole story but need to substantially clean it up, is try to fit the plot into one of the basic plot structures that already exist. This is a really helpful tool for me, because it almost always points me towards the parts of the story that need work. Your plot doesn’t have to fit these structures in every way, but these structures also work for a reason. So if my plot doesn’t fit the plot structure I think it’s trying to be, I take the time to ask myself why.


There are a bunch of plot structures, but here are my favorites.


The Basic Plot Arc: This is the plot arc you are taught in elementary school when you’re learning the basic components of a story. You start with the exposition—the beginning. You are introduced to the key players in the story, the situation, and the setting. You can also include information about the characters’ backgrounds here, enough to keep the reader from being confused anyway. I like to sprinkle in backstory along the way rather than dump it all in the beginning. Then you have the developing conflict, the climax, and the denouement—the ending. James Joyc also calls the denouement part of the story the epiphany, the moment when the main character learns something about him or herself or about the situation that changes how

they view the world and the events that came before.


This is so basic that I don’t really use it for anything, but it’s still the foundation of all other plot structures, so I like to keep it in mind. I do like the idea of the denouement as including an epiphany moment for the main character, though.


The Three Act Structure: This is most commonly used for television shows and movies, but I’ve seen it applied effectively to books and short stories as well. Basically, the story is divided into three parts, or acts.


The first act introduces the characters and the situation. The inciting incident or call to action breaks the main character out of their routine. There is the first confrontation between the protagonist and the antagonist. The stakes are raised. There is a turning point.


In the second act, the protagonist experiences a second turning point or a reversal. The character discovers their approach has been completely wrong. Their world-view is realigned. The character hits rock-bottom, but then finds the means to continue.


The third act is the resolution of the story. There’s the climax, and then the denouement.


I mostly use this structure when I’m revising rather than when I’m planning. It is a framework for analysis, rather than the bones of my story. It is useful to judge the balance of the parts of your story and the levels of tension.


The Hero’s Journey: This one is pretty fun, and it’s usually used in big epic adventure stories. Lord of the Rings, which I recently finished for the first time, and A New Hope, which I recently watched for the first time (feel free to judge me), both follow this pretty closely.


The hero’s journey starts with a call to adventure. The hero refuses the call. They like things the way they are. But then the hero is forced to except the call. Usually, something happens that leaves the hero no other choice. The home they love so much is burned to the ground and everyone they love is killed or captured or enslaved.


Next, the hero goes through a road of trials. This is a series of try-fail sequences. The hero attempts to solve the problem, defeat the enemy, rescue their kidnapped loved ones, etc. But they fail. Over and over and over again.


Then the hero gains allies and powers, and they think they have a shot at it. They confront the forces of evil and fail again. Really badly. This is the dark night of the soul for the hero, their moment of greatest desperation. Next, the hero takes a leap of faith—in themself, in their friends, in some sort of higher power. This faith gives the hero the power to overcome what they could not overcome before. Now the hero confronts evil and succeeds. At last, the hero returns. They go home or find a new community, and they are recognized for their victory.


The Try-Fail Cycle: I have a worksheet that David Levine handed out my first year at Alpha that outlines this very well, and while I have grown away from filling it in for every story, I still keep it in the back of my mind as I’m planning. The worksheet takes your story from an idea to a scene by scene outline. You start with an idea, then think of a situation that goes with that idea. Next, you come up with the characters to go in the situation. What do your characters want (related to this situation), and why can’t they have it? Then you think about the implications of the situation. How can it go wrong? How can it get worse? How can it get even worse? Finally, how does the story end? The traditional try-fail cycle is three fails and a success. If you haven’t noticed, the number three is heavily engrained in our culture. Ideally, every character in your story will have their own try-fail sequence, though we hope that the antagonist doesn’t succeed in the end.


The worksheet also asks questions to guide your thinking about who is the protagonist of the story, where the story is taking place and how elements of the setting can be used to enhance the story, and what you think the tone of the story will be. These are all important things to consider before you start writing and then again as you start to revise, but the questions that are really important to me are the ones about the plot.


What is the situation?


What do the characters want from this situation?


What are the implications of this situation?


How can it go wrong?


How can it get worse?


How can it get even worse?


How will it be resolved?


When I was in high school, I didn’t understand plot. And I mean I really didn’t understand it. I read a lot, and I could recognize well-plotted stories, but no matter how many times I was told, “Jameyanne, this is how plot works,” it just didn’t sink in. I wrote very character-driven stories then, but even then, the characters weren’t actually doing anything. When I went to college, I discovered how to plot. The credit for this goes to the fabulous writing conversations my friends and I were always having, as well as my two weeks at Alpha after my freshman year and some hard rejections that I really needed. So plot is still a relatively new thing to me, and I’m actually still dealing with stories I drafted in high school where I still really like the idea but there is no plot. My small child wizard novel, which I pledged to revise back in January, had this problem for a long time. It was an idea that I really believed in though, and it took three or four complete rewrites to get it from zero-plot to its current state of bursting with plot. Or at least, I hope that’s the state it’s in. My senior honors novel also has this problem to some degree, because I came up with the original idea at the end of high school, but it’s not nearly as bad as the small child wizard story. I still haven’t revised that one but I have some ideas.


At this point, I have a pretty good grasp on plot from the start, and I tend to use all these structures more as a frame of reference if I’m stuck or before I revise than as a step by step guide to writing my stories. To my mind, this is progress, but my plots will always be something I pay close attention to as I plan, as I write, and as I revise. Hence all the blog posts about how I plot stories.


I hope you’ve enjoyed reading these posts as much as I’ve enjoyed writing them. My next few posts will be only sort-of writing related, but I’m planning to tackle character, point of view, setting, tone, and theme early next year, so look forward to that.


I want to leave you with one final thought for this post. In her book, Writing Magic, Gail Carson Levine asks what makes you keep reading a book. The answer: “The author’s cruelty. And the reader’s sympathy. We keep turning pages because we’re worried. Horrible things are happening to the heroine (some of which she may be causing), and we have to find out if she comes through them all right.”


In other words: You want a strong plot? You want your reader to keep on reading? Make your character suffer. Make your reader suffer. Make everything go horribly, horrribly wrong, so when at last it goes right, it is awesome.