What the Heck Does it Mean to Write a Good Book?

What the heck does it mean to write a good book

In the spirit of this month's Spring Cleaning theme, one of the best ways to get back to basics is to read articles on writing craft or to attend a conference or workshop. Chances are, when you do, you will hear the following advice (and if you haven't, you will):

Above all else, you need to write a good book.

Okay, hold up. We're writers here and we should know better. Write a good book? What does that mean?

Good = Vague

Good as a word, is vague. It's subjective. What's a good book to me is not necessarily the same as what a good book is to my spouse, or my mother, or my coworker, or the guy waiting at the bus station, or a history professor, or ... you get the point.

Saying you should write a good book is pointless because no one aims to write a bad book. Maybe some people do, but I would assume the "bad" book is satire, or parody, and if those things are done well, they aren't bad, they are just a different brand of book.

So how do you write a good book? What does that mean?

We need to dissect what makes something good, and in this case, what makes a book good. Really, what we're saying is, what makes a good story.

And the answer is still subjective. I might like different stories than the people I mentioned above. But there are some books I can appreciate are well-written that I did not enjoy.

If you dabble in a genre you don't typically read, you might stumble across a book that caught your interest where the characters are engaging and the story flows so well, you barely give a second thought to how the book isn't something you'd normally read. That to me is the mark of a good book. You forget you're reading because you're that consumed by the story.

What elements factor into a story that consumes a reader? Again, it's going to be different for everyone.

A Few Starting Points:

Pacing: the pacing is on par for the genre (for example a faster, "urgent" pace for thrillers or some mysteries, a slower, thought-processing pace for literary).

Characters: characters are three-dimensional, have interesting backstories or hobbies. They are not perfect. They could be funny, or they could be extremely intelligent, or very lucky, or fiercely determined. Most likely interesting characters are not bored sitting on a couch. Also likely, they don't act in ways you can immediately predict. They are layered, and feel human and real.

Purpose/Goals/Motivations: characters have something they are working for, from small to world-saving. They risk things. They are DOING SOMETHING. Ideally, it's something a reader can escape into, or relate to, or be fascinated by.

Basics: there are a lot of writing rules that aren't really rules, but sometimes you need to learn what works first before venturing off on your own genre-bending, no-rules story. You can write a book without knowing anything about the Three Act Structure, nothing about story beats, or point of view, or rhetorical devices, or basic grammar rules. You can! Will anyone read it? Will people TRY to read and become frustrated, confused, or bored? The best writers learn the rules first before they break them. 

A lot of what comes after this is gravy/icing (depending on whether your preferences are savory or sweet). Things like powerful imagery, strong sense of setting, humor, fresh writing (not clichéd), are all subjective, and each reader will gravitate toward their own tastes. Those details make a book a better book, but no one combination will ever equate to something that every single person will say is a good book.

What now?

There is not much value in telling someone to write a good book. "Good" is subjective. Instead, we should encourage writers to write the best book they are capable of by learning writing basics, researching the writing craft, and testing out those methods. Each book a writer tackles will ideally improve upon the last because we are always learning.

Never stop learning. Seek to improve your craft at all stages. Stretch yourself in new ways. Aim to write YOUR best book. Not someone else's idea of good.

We'd love to hear from you. What do you consider a good book? What writing advice have you heard that is infinitely more helpful than hearing you should write a good book?