I always get a good laugh when, invariably, my writers come back to me and say, “How on earth can you read for pleasure? You’ve ruined reading for me! Now all I see are major flaws.” And yes, that does happen, at least in the beginning, after your eyes are opened to the elements of great writing. I always do assure them that that will pass, and they’ll be able to read for pleasure again without picking a book to death. And yep, I’m more attuned to the flaws as well, although when a book is too chock full of them, I quit it. But oh, the joys of experiencing a story and characters written by a master of the craft!
And we can all learn from the pitfalls and brilliance of other writers—learn what not to do, what didn’t work, and what did. I’m not talking copy-edit stuff, not grammar, punctuation, spelling, etc., and not even really stylistic issues (wordiness vs. tightness, show vs. tell, etc.), but rather the deeper elements that go into a great book.
1. First off, what about the author’s voice is appealing? (If it’s not, you won’t still be reading). Is it that the voice fits the genre? For example, taking you back to a long-lost time in a Historical, where the language is fuller and slower, rounder through the edges? Even sometimes when the prose borders on purple, we’ll forgive it if it “fits.” Or is it harsh and flat, as in edgier fiction, where that fits as well? Is it the way the author changes the cadence, becoming staccato in the action scenes, and slowing to a denouement waltz on a mellifluous river of words?
2. Does the story start off with characters in conflict, or is the “Real-life” part too easy? Does the beginning story-question knock the hero’s socks off in some way, while showing life as he knows it up until now? Book after book after book (unedited) these days start with folks enjoying parties, cocktails, dinner, etc., and even if the repartee is witty, you start to lose interest. Where did the beginning fall apart? Can you pinpoint the exact place? Or, did the story begin with teasers in the scene, implying more going on under the surface than meets the eye? “Locking my office, exhausted from working late, I stepped down the marble hallway thinking of dumping my boyfriend and soaking in a nice hot bath. Light shone from under my legal partner’s door. He never stayed this late.” Now, this character can act from here in myriad ways, but the questions linger—why is her partner staying late? And what’s wrong with the boyfriend?
3. Does the story keep moving? Or does it have a sagging middle, scenes with no point, and you find your mind wandering? Where, exactly, did the storyline lose you? Find the place. It’s not difficult. What would you have done to shoot it forward again? What’s the missing plot point, and where, specifically, would you have put it? How would you have then built on that?
4. Could you predict where the story was going? The ending? As writers, we should always be trying to do so. Always asking ourselves: Is this going to happen or that? Not just, will he master his fear and win the day, whatever the day is, but also, how is this going to happen? I confess—I’m disheartened when I figure it out. But I’m blown away when the author takes me across a mountaintop I didn’t know existed but nonetheless fits. Ah, such unpredictable heaven!
5. Does the hero end up being who we thought he was? Did he change and grow? If yes to the former and no to the latter, you were probably bored enough to not finish the book. And while contrived character traits are just as tedious, when a protagonist is quirky enough, real enough, with foibles and strengths that we can relate to, but in the end masters something within himself that saves the day and does it with unexpected growth, then we feel satisfied. But if he was changeless, what situations would you have put him in to force him to grow? If he was predictable, how could you have dug deeper and found the unique aspects to him? What does your creativity say that those unique aspects are?
As writers we must read for so many reasons. Finding what works and what doesn’t is just part of why we do so. But as Samuel Johnson said, “The greatest part of a writer’s time is spent reading in order to write. A man will turn over half a library to make a book.”