Qualities of a Great Book

A display of booksI was at a birthday party the other night and got reacquainted with an old friend of my wife’s, a really excellent writer I’m going to call A.J. for purposes of this post. A.J. was very happy about having sold a nonfiction book to one of the big publishers. Given how difficult that gauntlet can be to run, I was pretty impressed. I thought later about how he had done it and some lessons revealed themselves.

He coped with his situation. A.J. was a newspaper writer for a long time. That business being what it is these days, he was laid off. Rather than lying down and bemoaning his situation, he started freelancing and eventually found his way to this book. Lesson: Cope with the situation that’s in the way of your writing. Maybe it’s time, or money, or relationships, or something else. Figure out a workaround.

He remembered a contact. A.J. sold his book with the help of an agent he had met twenty years before. Lesson: Keep up with people who can help your writing career, be they editors, bloggers, or just interested friends. You never know who might lend a hand.

He used an agent. A.J. told me he wouldn’t have had a prayer without his agent. Lesson: If you’re going the traditional publishing route, get an agent first.

He wrote a killer book synopsis. The synopsis A.J. wrote was about 20,000 words long, which was, like a ‘60’s miniskirt, long enough to cover the subject, but short enough to be interesting. Lesson: An great synopsis will help sell your book, so put in the effort.

He had a fantastic idea. A.J.’s book idea was derived from an experience he’d had while working at the newspaper. I’ll enumerate its virtues in a list, but first, the lesson. Lesson: Have a wonderful book idea with all the concepts below.

  • Have plenty of conflict. In A.J.’s book, individuals and communities square off against each other in a conflict of deeply held values. You can feel it crackle just when he talks about it.
  • Have a satisfying resolution. The ending of A.J.’s book is moving and it ties up all the loose ends, so it satisfies the emotions and the intellect.
  • Populate your story with interesting people. This story is awash with character possibilities. Some are on one side of the value questions, some on the other and some stand around the middle. There are differences in economic and educational backgrounds, and stark differences in the way children are raised. The characters move this baby along.
  • Feature characters that change. The resolution of this story requires that some of the characters change dramatically. Observing that metamorphosis makes for great reading.
  • Use an engaging setting. The setting is rural America, but some of the features of it are unlike any most of us have ever experienced. Those aspects of the setting you are more likely to have experienced are viewed from a rarely seen angle.

The ideas listed here aren’t the complete list of everything needed for a great book, of course, but it’s a good idea to put them into practice if you can. I’m certainly going to try, and I’m going to keep up with A.J.’s progress and that of his book.

If you’ve got any more ideas for improving the writing process or the product, please leave a comment. Thanks.

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