Monday, December 9, 2013

Top Ten Things I Want From a Book

Some of the books on my side table.
by Julia Buckley

I'm reading a good book right now which fits many of my criteria for what a good book should be.  In the process, though, I'm realizing that I encounter plenty of books that don't meet those criteria, and which I either push away partially-read or which I suffer through just so that I can say I finished.  So, I asked myself, what do I want from a book?  Specifically from a mystery, since that tends to be the genre that I choose?
The list is diverse and not as predictable as one might think.

For example, I don't always require a meticulous and flawless plot.  If the characters are fun and the dialogue enjoyable, I'll put up with a fair amount of nonsense when it comes to realism and believability.  I will suspend my disbelief, in other words, if I can have fun doing it.

Here are some of the basics I can't do without:

1. A compelling premise.  This seems basic, but just because the blurb on the back is compelling doesn't mean that the writing inside the book is equally compelling.  I don't need someone to die on the first page or even in the first chapter, but I do have to care enough to keep reading.

2. Good writing.  I am continually surprised (despite some GREAT writing by some GREAT writers) when I pick up a book that I am excited to read because of its big debut, its many accolades, and its big sales--and find it unreadable because of poorly-written prose, grammatical errors, or clunky dialogue.  Yes, writing is subjective, but when a book is promised to be amazing with three pages of big-name blurbs, I expect that book to be amazing. And sometimes, it isn't.

3. Humor.  I don't need to be cracking up on every page--in fact, I like quiet humor that sneaks in and makes me chuckle.  But a book is far more fun and memorable to me if the author makes me laugh.

4. Interesting subject matter.  Just because it's fiction doesn't mean I can't learn things about history or science or far-away places.  The best writers are the ones who teach me without ever condescending to me, and whose information is woven seamlessly into the plot.

5. A cool setting.  No particular setting required, as long as you write it well.  I love being taken to Europe and relaxing, with my character, in some small Viennese coffee shop or an Icelandic bar.  I love a mysterious Russian street or a  stately Peruvian museum of antiquities.  But I am also happy to stay right here in the States, as long as my character has a house full of intriguing knick-knacks or a forested back yard with interesting animal inhabitants.

6. Surprises.  I suppose the thing that gets writing noticed by anyone--an agent, an editor, a reader--is when that writing is surprising.  It creates something fresh and new, either with characterization or dialogue or a method of storytelling, and a reader says "Wow! That was refreshingly good."

7. Characters I like.  They don't have to be perfect, but I have to relate to them on some level or I stop caring to read about them.  Characters who are cruel are not compelling if they are flat and have no motivation for their cruelty.

8. Fun.  As I mentioned in my introduction, I want to have fun when I read a book.  Life is short, and I will never get to read all the books I want to read.  So if a book is a misery, I won't stay inside it.  I recently discussed Jess Walter's BEAUTIFUL RUINS with my book group, and it was undoubtedly fun--both the reading and the discussing.  Pick it up to see an example of a writer who enjoys his subject matter and makes the reader enjoy it, too.

9. Pacing. Often when I am reading a novel I start to think "This part is padding because they were trying to reach a certain word limit."  I hate feeling that way when I'm reading, and the best way for an author to avoid that phenomenon is to not be so concerned with word limits, and to be very concerned with balance, pacing, and parallel structure.

10. A satisfying ending.  Lately I've encountered three books that I absolutely loved until the last twenty pages. E
nding is always a tricky thing, and not all authors want their books to end happily.  But an unhappy ending is not the same as an unsatisfying ending--the kind that makes your reader feel betrayed.  In these cases I often write alternate endings in my mind for the poor characters who didn't earn the fates I thought they deserved.

Do any of these resonate with you?  What do you want from a book?


Elizabeth Zelvin said...

Wonderful post, Julia. The one that resonates most for me is good writing. I am finding more and more bad writing in everything from bestsellers to indie books, and the same goes for good writing. What the new publishing paradigm is creating, imho, is a generation of readers who don't know the difference. Those who have an English teacher like you are the lucky ones!

In second place: likable characters. I hear a lot of folks say they can enjoy an evil character--Dexter, Hannibal Lecter, and on TV, Kevin Spacey in House of Cards, Glenn Close in Damages--but I'm not one of them. There's always an exception--for me, Tony Soprano is one, though I find I have no desire to sit through the series again--but in general, I have to be able to empathize. I'm most engaged when I wish I could go home with the character: Margaret Maron's Judge Deborah Knott comes to mind. I love her family and friends. :)

Steven M. Moore said...

To Julia--an excellent list! The only thing I would add is the book needs to have a good beginning. I don't mean a fancy hook or weirdness, but something that makes me want to read more. Titles, beginnings, and endings are too often let-downs.
To Elizabeth--your comment on evil characters motivates me to add something about characterization. I don't like yin and yang novels. Protagonists and antagonists should be complex if they're human--maybe even if they're ETs (to make them seem more human).
For mysteries, I like complex, nonlinear plots. When things seem too simple and predictable, it turns me off.
'Nough about my subjective tastes for today.

Julia Buckley said...

Liz, that's an interesting point. Perhaps, if a standard of good writing is not maintained, people will lose their sense of nuance. We have a chapter in our poetry book called "good poetry and great" and it often contrasts a mediocre love poem with a great one--and students often prefer the mediocre one. :)

Steven, I agree. I actually love reading titles, forewards, even acknowledgements, in anticipation of reading a book. And I love epigraphs--I use them myself at the beginning of books and I enjoy reading them in books and relating them to the theme.

Sandra Parshall said...

Mundane or even bad writing is fine with many readers, as long as the story is a page-turner. I enjoy beautiful writing, but it does sometimes get in the way of the story, especially when the writer is self-indulgent.

As for unlikable characters, the immense popularity of Gone Girls is proof that many readers don't demand characters they can love or even sympathize with. Sympathetic protagonists are probably a must in long-running series, though, since most readers keep coming back because they enjoy the characters. I disagree about Dexter -- he isn't written as evil, and he's quite likable in many ways. I found the ending of the TV series heartbreaking, because I wanted more for him.

Julia Buckley said...

I never watched Dexter, but I did read the first book. I found the premise horrifying yet compelling, and Dexter himself an interesting antihero (a term I realize is overused).

Kate L said...

I don't have to 'like' all characters. I usually say that I have to be interested in them, to want to know what they think, or feel, or will do next. That's what keeps me turning the pages. Make them 'compelling,' please. I think that 'like' has been used in too general a sense, when many readers mean something closer to the 'interesting/compelling' range, and so there are authors trying too hard for likability instead of distinct, interesting characterizations.

Julia said...

I suppose I agree with that Kate--after all, one of my favorite literary characters of all time is the ax murderer Raskolnikov in CRIME AND PUNISHMENT. But at the same time, the author found a way to make him not just relatable to me, but likeable, although I don't think Dostoevsky did this to pander to his readers. I think he wanted to show the dimensions of the man, and that everyone--even a murderer--has redeeming qualities.

So having said that, I would still suggest that I need to see what is likeable about the character in order to contrast it with what is not likeable. If that makes any sense. :)