Can someone ever define what a good book is given everyone has different tastes in genre? I think so.
Elements of a Good Book
A good book must have the following elements.
1. The book has to be entertaining.
2. The book should show me/teach me something new.
3. The book should be so engrossing it’s a wrench to put it down when I have to go to sleep!
4. The book should be such that, if I could only take one book with me to a desert island, I would happily re-read it over and over again.
5. The book should either be a great representative of its period or be such that it doesn’t date so can be read in any age.
All of the above points apply equally to non-fiction works, as well as novels and short stories. Likewise, format doesn’t matter. (In the case of audio books, it is only a question of being happy to hear it over and over again. Mind, I must admit I would be somewhat miffed if I was limited to one book on a desert island. I’d want a lot more than that so the answer is to take one Kindle I guess and hope the desert island either has charging points or the Kindle works on solar power!).
In the case of fiction, the showing/teaching something new can apply directly to characters. I can see how an author has portrayed their people and work out what has worked well. (This is how writers pick up great tips for developing their own characters. You really do learn from what has gone before. Sometimes you learn what not to do but that can be invaluable too).
Three Favourite Books
Certain books will always be particular favourites. Three of mine as:-
1. The Lord of the Rings – J.R.R. Tolkein
2. Pride and Prejudice – Jane Austen
3. Men at Arms – Terry Pratchett
There are other fantasy series (mostly notably C.S. Lewis’s Narnia series I could have included here).
I love all of Austen’s work except Mansfield Park because I think the heroine is such a drip you could wring her out and put her up on a line to dry.
As for Terry Pratchett’s Discworld, I could have included all of those with the exception of Eric, which is the only one that didn’t work for me.
So why these three then and do they have any elements in common then?
Elements in Common
1. All three have strong, memorable characters.
2. All three achieve what they were meant to do – TLOTR is an epic quest and you find out if that quest is fulfilled or not. P&P is a romantic comedy (and it can be argued is the forerunner of that entire canon) and works both as a romance and as a comedy, as it should. Jane Austen’s use of irony is superb and ahead of her time. Men at Arms works as a fantasy novel, a great detective story, and in terms of the character development of its lead, Sam Vimes. The latter is continued with the following Vimes books in the Discworld canon but he takes off as a fantastic character from Men at Arms. You begin to see the possibilities of this with the previous book, Guards! Guards!
3. All three are gripping yarns. I have had to find out if Frodo Baggins proves to be a hero or not, whether Miss Bennett and Mr Darcy put their pride and prejudice aside and realise they are made for each other, and if Sam Vimes catches whoever is trying to poison The Patrician of Ankh-Morpork. So much is at stake if the Patrician dies.
What do these books achieve from a writer’s viewpoint?
1. TLOTR shows the depth that is possible in fantasy novels. There are whole worlds within the overall world here – the hobbits of The Shire, the Rohirrim of Rohan and so on. Frodo Baggins’s struggle is shown with great reality – he is under huge physical and physiological strain (PTSD was not known when Tolkein wrote this, though shell shock was) – and you do wonder, on first reading, whether that poor hobbit is going to break. I also love the idea of an unlikely hero.
Even in the world Tolkein created, none of the other species thought hobbits were capable of being great heroes. At best they were ignored. At worst, despised. The hatred and evil shown by Sauron is a sad reflection of the hatred and evil we see too often for real in our own world. Great books, regardless of genre, often do reflect something back of the human condition. It usually isn’t flattering!
2. P&P shows a woman ahead of her time in Elizabeth Bennet as a girl who knows what she wants and will not settle for second best. She would have been under pressure to marry the tedious Mr Collins given the family situation. He was the male heir to the Bennet estate. Her entire family was at risk of being made homeless due to the way the family home was “financed” and with there being no male heir to Mr and Mrs Bennet to guarantee the situation for everyone else.
I also love the way snobbery is overcome (the put down of Lady Catherine is superbly written – not a line more than is needed, much implied, leaving the reader to work things out (and it turns out Mr Darcy as well as he knew enough of Elizabeth’s character by this point to deduce how she really felt about him from the way she acted to Lady Catherine). There is so much for a writer to learn from that. Don’t overwrite. Don’t spell everything out but leave enough clues for your reader to be able to do so for themselves. The more engaged the reader is, the more likely it is they will keep reading (and will want your next! All of that is still very relevant now).
3. MaA is a wonderful combination of a fantasy story crossed with a detective tale and works on both levels. The characters engage and keep you gripped because they are different and each have a unique voice. There is a great subversion of character type here too. How often can a female werewolf be a heroine? Well, she can if she is Angua of the Ankh-Morpork City Watch. A werewolf as a good guy…sorry gal… – yes I like that, a lot. (Shrek is very good on this too by turning the notion of ogres being the villains on its head too).
I was gripped on first reading this because I had to find out who was poisoning The Patrician, how it was done (all I will say is it was a subtle and clever means of delivery – go on, read the book and find out!), and whether the plot here would be foiled.
The City Watch is by no means an established force at this point in the Discworld canon. It had been despised but this is where it begins to come into its own, paving the way for future novels. For writers who want to write series books, there is much to learn here. Are your characters strong enough, engaging enough, to justify starring in more than one book? Is your setting one you want to come back to time and again (because if you get bored with it, so will readers)?
Why Reading More and Widely Is Crucial for Writers – and still a Great Idea for everyone else!
Writers are often advised to write more and to read more and rightly so. Both are vital for a writer’s development. In reading widely, you feed your own imagination. It has to have something to feed off to create your initial sparks of possible story ideas.
The more you read, the stronger those sparks will be as you will have ideas coming in at you from different sources. It is how you then combine those ideas that will give you your unique voice. Once you have found that, away you go with your story writing. Your unique voice will show through as you write with more confidence.
And since when has reading widely ever been a bad idea anyway?!
Read blog posts by Allison Symes published on Chandler’s Ford Today.
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