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?


Kill Your Darlings

Have you ever been reading a book, and a character dies, and you’re completely thrown out of the story? It’s happened to me more times than I can count, and it is the worst.


If you haven’t guessed by this point, this post is not about the old adage to trim down your novel by cutting words, characters, scenes, subplots, etc, though incidentally I’ve gotten pretty good at that. After talking about creating and developing strong characters, this post is about killing them. If you’ve missed any of the posts in this series on writing characters, you can go read about creating strong protagonists, antagonists, and side characters and about character development in general.


Fair warning, I will be using lots of examples in this post, so there will be some spoilers ahead, specifically from the Harry Potter books, the Hunger Games, the Lunar Chronicles, The Book Thief, Tamora Pierce’s Trickster books, and the Mortal Instruments. I will try to keep the spoilers to a minimum, where possible, but you have been warned, so read on at your own peril (but honestly, if you don’t know who dies in Harry Potter by this point, you deserve to be spoiled).


So let’s start with looking at some character deaths that drove me nuts.


First, Lupin, Tonks, and Colin Creevey. The climactic sequence of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows is a huge battle, so naturally people are going to die. Lots of people are going to die. I accept that. Among my writing buddies, I am personally known for killing whole bunches of characters ruthlessly. That is not my problem with some of the deaths at the end of Harry Potter. We’ve already lost Hedwig, Dobby, and Fred in this book alone. Oh, and by the way, Harry’s about to go sacrifice his own life. And then we find out, just by seeing their bodies, that Lupin, Tonks, and Colin Creevey are dead. I get that this is the cost of war. But we don’t see them die, and then their deaths pale in comparison to the idea of Harry’s sacrifice. Personally, this combination doesn’t work for me.


To give one more example of a death that doesn’t work for me, let’s look at the end of Mockingjay, when out of nowhere, Prim is in the middle of a war zone and gets blown up. I will admit that the movie did a much better job with this and cleared up a lot of the confusion about what happened (in the movie, it may in fact be something I accept), but in the book, it was not okay. First of all, Katniss volunteered for the Hunger Games in the first book in order to save Prim, and by killing Prim, it really makes you wonder, well what was the point of all of this? Furthermore, in the books, Prim is never developed as a character—she is always just an object for Katniss to protect. We are sad when she dies because Katniss is sad, but we are not forced to mourn her in her own right. Finally, though again I think the movie clears this up nicely, there is nothing gained by Prim’s death. She doesn’t save anyone or accomplish anything by dying, and we already very clearly have seen the cost of war *takes a minute to wail “Finnick!”*. And then Katniss votes for one more Hunger Games, for Prim, which invalidates everything even more.


These are just some examples of how a character death can fail. In these cases, and I’ve found in almost all cases when I’m annoyed by a character death, it’s because either the character wasn’t sufficiently developed (Prim) or because the character’s death was not given enough attention in the book (Lupin, Tonks, and Colin Creevey). For the record, I’d also like to say that I really don’t like it when the book ends with the main character dying, even if it’s a noble self-sacrifice. It is never okay with me.


There are plenty of examples of character deaths that work well for me, though, and I’d like to talk about why. First, look at Dumbledore. He is Harry’s mentor, so it’s kind of a given that he has to die at some point. In order for the hero to go off and kick butt, or at least to go camping for a year in search of butt to kick (I say this with love because I actually have no issues with the camping trip that is Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows), the mentor needs to get out of the way. Yet Dumbledore’s death works well because it is the culmination of a really dramatic scene. Harry and Dumbledore have stolen the Horcrux and made it back to Hogwarts. Dumbledore is sick, but Harry is confident he’ll be all right once he gets help. But then Snape, you awful person you, and oh yeah the Horcrux isn’t real. Plus, let’s not forget that there’s nothing like the drama of Dumbledore being blasted off the tallest tower. Finally, though we feel like we know enough about Dumbledore to mourn his death, there are also mysteries surrounding his death and also what he didn’t tell Harry in his life.


Next, think about one of the first deaths in The Lunar Chronicles series, Cinder’s younger stepsister Peony, who dies from the plague Cinder has discovered she is immune to. Peony isn’t Cinder’s mentor in any way, but she is the one person tying Cinder to her step-family. Though we haven’t spent much time with these characters yet, we already love Peony, not just because Cinder loves Peony but because we’ve gotten to know her ourselves. Finally, the sheer tragedy of it is just beautiful. Cinder is so, so close to saving her life, but she is just moments too late. I love it.


For similar reasons, I think all the deaths in Tamora Pierce’s books Trickster’s Choice and Trickster’s Queen work really well. We know the characters and we love the characters, their deaths push the plot and other characters forward, and with one exception, we see it all. Even the important death we don’t see on-screen is done really well, because we have to witness the other characters’ anxiety and grief while they wait for news. I also have no problem with everybody dying at the end of The Book Thief, though I know people who do, and in other World War II books with similar endings, I have been annoyed at the mass slaughter committed by the author to illustrate the tragedy of war.


I think how readers feel about character death can be so subjective. It depends on the reader and the book. Some of the situations that I described as not working for me might work for someone else, or might work better in a different book or different context. I prefer happy endings to tragic ones, or at least endings on the positive spectrum as far as endings go, but I recognize that not everyone shares this preference, and I have certainly been won over by books that don’t have happy endings. I’m not sure there are any hard and fast rules on how to effectively write a character death. I’ve killed a hundred characters in one move, and I’ve also killed an important character off-screen, though I can’t objectively say if any of those deaths work. There are all kinds of reasons for and ways to kill characters, whether because the character is a mentor or someone tying the protagonist down, or because the character’s life is part of the cost of war. Honestly, when I’m going into the last book in a series, I feel this awful and wonderful trepidation knowing that in some way, for the story to be significant, someone important has to die, but at the same time I don’t want anyone to die because I love them all so much. Of course, if it’s a long series, people have probably already died, so I don’t think it’s absolutely necessary for someone to die in the last book. Also, I’m definitely a fan of fates worse than death, such as Simon’s choice at the end of the Mortal Instruments series.


But while I don’t think there are any hard and fast rules on what makes a character death effective, I will say that for me it’s important that the character is sufficiently developed, that their death is given enough attention in the book, and that it is significant in some way to moving the plot and characters forward. I feel like it’s very similar to what I said a few days ago about developing your characters in general: people want to read about other people. Your characters lives should feel so real that your readers love them, cheer for them, and weep for them, and so should their deaths.

Confronting the Climax

Last week, I talked about how the ending is my first step when I’m planning a story. This week, I’m going to talk about my next step: the climax. I plan the climax right after I plan the ending, because when I get to planning the ending next week, where I start the story will have a lot to do with where the story is going, and where the story is going is not simply the ending.


In very simple terms, if the ending is the solution to the story’s main problem, then the climax is the moment when the protagonist confronts the problem. This means that the shape of the climax often dictates the shape of the ending. The climax is the time where all of the protagonist’s internal growth and struggles that they have experienced over the course of the story are put to the ultimate test. In many stories, the climax is the moment when the protagonist realizes how they have changed—even if that realization is not expressed until after the action of the climax is over. The climax should at the same time put the protagonist’s character growth to the test and be the moment when everything the story has been building towards comes to a peak.


So, for this story I’m planning, at this point, I have a basic plot idea and a protagonist. I have an idea of what my ending will be. It could be a very specific idea, a specific moment where I want my story to land, or it could be broader, the solution to the problem and a feeling I want to convey. If my thinking here is broader at this point, it will probably become more specific as I plan out the climax. Also, at this point, if I don’t have a concrete grasp of my protagonist, my antagonist, their separate and conflicting motivations, and the main problem of the story, I spend some time ironing out those details. More specific detail will come as I continue to plan, of course, but I need some basic, concrete information before I move to the climax, otherwise, planning the climax now doesn’t make any sense.


I realize that this can seem like a pretty backwards way to think about this, and other people may plan their stories differently and just as effectively. But this is the way my brain works, and it makes sense to me, so I generally run with it. Also, it is so much fun to invision the most intense moments of a story. Often, it is the climactic scene that is the scene that sticks with me while I’m writing the whole story, the scene that I can’t wait to get down on paper, the scene that I even sometimes regret putting on paper because now it isn’t in my head anymore.


When I plan out my climaxes, I again think about what kind of story I’m writing and what kind of climax it should have. If I’m writing a more literary story, the climax might tend to focus on the characters’ emotions rather than high-stakes action. But if I’m writing fantasy or even historical fiction, which is most of what I’m writing, a little high-stakes action might be the right way to go. Or, you can go the middle route, my personal favorite, where there is lots of action and lots of feelings.


After I’ve figured out what kind of climax I’m looking for, I look at all the elements of the story that I have outlined so far (whether that outline is in my head or on paper). I have the main character, their goals, their strengths, their weaknesses, their fears. I have the antagonist with all their goals and strengths and weaknesses and fears. Personally, I really like to have the bad guy and the good guy be evenly matched throughout the story, or else the bad guy is slightly stronger, and something changes in the climax that tips the scales in the protagonist’s favor. I have the main problem of the story, which may or may not be related to the conflict between the protagonist and the antagonist. For example, the protagonist and the antagonist could both be working to solve the same problem, but with opposing methods. I might also have side characters I need to consider, or other points of view I’ve been narrating from that I need to deal with. Finally, I have the setting, which is one of my personal favorite elements to play with. I’m going to talk about all of these things in much more detail in future posts—I promise—but it’s important to bring them up now because they all play a role in the climax. The best climax for my story, in my opinion, is the climax where all of these elements come together.


Finally, I want to look at a couple real-life examples of climaxes that work for me. Again, I’ll try to keep this as spoiler-free as possible.


One excellent example of a climax that works is The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern. The Night Circus contains so many different elements and characters, most of whom the reader cares about. It has a phenomenal setting, and the antagonist isn’t so much the main characters’ teachers, but the game their teachers have forced them to play. In the climax, all of these elements come together. The climax confronts the problem not only of the conflict between the game the two main characters are playing against each other and their love for each other but also the tension over the fate of the circus, and all those who are part of the circus, when the game is over. And then the problems are resolved in an unexpected and intriguing but ultimately satisfying way.


I am also a big fan of the climax of The Hunger Games—the first one. It brings into play the rivalry between Katniss and Cato; Katniss’s regret, grief, and horror over the deaths of the other tributes, some of them at her hands; the romance between Katniss and Peeta that cannot possibly have a happy ending—not if only one of them can go home; Katniss’s confusion about her feelings for Peeta; and finally her desire to be more than a piece in the Capitol’s games. Here again, the book confronts a seemingly impossible problem and solves it in a unique way.


Finally, I am deeply in awe of Marissa Meyer’s climaxes for her Lunar Chronicles series, especially the climaxes for Cinder and Cress (I haven’t finished Winter yet so no spoilers please). In each book, as she adds more and more characters to the mix, her climaxes become ever more complicated, and yet they all work. She is also able to make each of our heroes—by the end of the third book we have a pretty large group of them—take significant action that is necessary for the success of the group in the climax. And I could keep gushing.


I’m having trouble thinking of climaxes that don’t work for me, mostly because climaxes are so important to endings that climaxes that don’t work are usually tied to endings that don’t work, and I already ranted about those last week. An important distinction I feel I need to make, though, is that a climax can define a character’s growth, and do so effectively, even if the ending of the book then invalidates that growth (my biggest pet peeve when it comes to endings). For example, it is not so much the climax of Mockingjay that ruins it for me. It is the moment when Katniss votes for another Hunger Games. It is not so much the death of certain characters in How I met Your Mother that drives me nuts, but Ted’s decision when he finishes the story. On the other hand, it is the decisions made in the climax of Allegiant that don’t work for me, and that just bleeds over into the ending.


But climaxes I love to read—and so climaxes I love to write—are complex. The protagonist is facing seemingly impossible odds. The solution is not obvious, but it’s also not so complicated that no one could figure it out ever. The protagonist needs to make some kind of choice that ultimately reflects their character growth. Something may be lost, but something else must be gained. The climax brings every piece of the story so far together. For me, if a story is a journey, the climax is the moment that every dark and twisting step has led towards. It is the moment where the protagonist stands and faces down their problem and their antagonist. It is the moment when the protagonist stands and faces a choice, faces their fears and hopes and strengths and weaknesses, and overcomes all of it. It may seem backwards, given that everything must lead to the climax, to plan the climax before I plan the beginning or the middle or most of the specific details, but for me it works. For me, the climax is integral to the ending, and if I can’t begin without an end in sight and a solution to the problem, then I can’t begin without knowing how the protagonist will confront that problem in the climax.


And now that I have my ending and my climax nailed down, I can begin.