Monday, November 25, 2013

What Makes a Book Great

Given that this is Thanksgiving week...and the turkey and I are busy...I'm recycling a blog I did for Romance University this summer. Some of you may have seen it, but even if you did, it's a good one to reread.

Have a wonderful Thursday. May you be blessed with gratitude for the good things in your life -- because gratitude itself really is a blessing.

What Makes a Book Great...

We could ask that question to 800 readers and probably come away with 800 different answers. Some readers like great characters. Some love great plots. Others like certain kinds of books. Paranormals or Erotica or Western Historicals.

The truth is, it doesn’t matter what kind of book you like or what kind of plot you like. All the books that most of us describe as great have one common denominator…They hold us spellbound.

And how do you hold a reader spellbound?

You catch her attention and you keep it.

Donald Maass talks about having tension and micro tension on every page. To me that’s just a fancy way of saying always have your character dealing with something. What makes trouble in an erotica is going to be different than the trouble you’d find in a suspense. Which would be a tad different than the trouble you’d find in a thriller. Which would be different than the trouble in a contemporary romance.

So you need to know your genre, and you need to know your readers to understand what’s going to put them on the edges of their seats.

But notice the other common denominator here? It’s your character. It won’t matter if you always have your character dealing with something, if readers don’t care that he’s dealing with something. So the second rule of holding readers spellbound is to create a character they care about, someone they can root for.

In my Rita Finalist, THE TYCOON’S SECRET DAUGHTER, the hero is a recovering alcoholic. I had to get readers on his side immediately. So scene one, page one, he sees the heroine, his ex-wife, in the lobby of the local hospital. He’s just finished his annual checkup as CEO for his family’s conglomerate (for insurance purposes J) and she’s visiting her father (who’d had a stroke). His heart immediately stops. He adored her, but he lost her because he drank. He doesn’t make excuses. He doesn’t pull his punches. HE LOST HER. He takes responsibility.

There’s nothing like having a potentially troublesome character take responsibility to make readers edge closer and want to hear a bit more about him. When we see how he still pines for her, notices her pretty hair, her little butt, her cute smile, well, our hearts melt a bit. And we’re sad for him. Because even though he lost her in the past, he isn’t that same guy now. We know that simply from how he took responsibility.

The late Black Snyder calls this saving the cat. Always give readers a glimpse of the character you want your readers to root for doing something noble, or kind, or honest, or generous. He can literally save a cat. LOL But it’s better if the action that he takes somehow relates to the story.

When Max takes responsibility for losing his wife, (ruining his marriage) even though the very fact that he ruined his marriage should make us distrust him, we become curious. So when he remembers that as part of his twelve-step pledge he has to make amends to people he hurt, and he walks over and tells her he’s sorry, we’re totally on this guy’s side. We see he isn’t weak. Fighting his alcoholism has made him strong. And strong, honest, responsible people are likeable.

So when we discover the heroine left him because she was pregnant and is keeping their eight-year-old daughter from him, we are righteously indignant for him. We believe this strong, honest, decent, struggling man has a right to see his child.

And we root for him…

As we watch the story unfold, we want the heroine to let him see his daughter. And as we grow to like her, understanding her reasons for keeping her daughter from him, we want them to get a second chance at love. We want him to win back the heroine.

Against impossible odds, he takes one step at a time, one day at a time, and doesn’t just recommit to the heroine, he wins the heroine’s heart again.

Until, in the black moment, he realizes he can’t promise her forever and forever is what she needs. Then we are as crushed as he is.

Edge of your seat? Yes. Because you like this guy.

So the first rule of writing a great book is to hold readers spellbound. The second rule is to give readers someone they can care about. The troubles you give to this character will only mean something to readers, will only hold them in breathless anticipation, if they care about the character.

And the third rule. Write well. Don’t be sloppy. Think through your plot. Chose and write great scenes. Use great words…or at the very least use the appropriate word. Learn and practice good grammar.

Readers are paying money for your books – sometimes lots of money. They deserve to be entertained. They also deserve to be surprised, pleased, even excited by your good writing.


So keep them spellbound with good characters who appear in well-written scenes with good grammar and perfect word choices that pull them so far into the story they start seeing pictures not reading words…and those readers will say YOUR book is GREAT.

Happy Reading… (And Happy Thanksgiving!)

susan meier



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