Saturday, August 24, 2013

How to write a book I will like

Image "3D judges gavel" by Chris Potter (Flickr: 3D Judges Gavel) via Wikimedia Commons
I have reviewed a number of books by independent authors lately: Rachel Thompson, Bruce Blake, Seb Kirby, Doug Dorow, Chris Ward and of course RS Guthrie. All the reviews that I have published on this blog have been very positive: four or five stars out of five.

I thought I would now explain how I arrive at that judgement. Just in case you were wondering “What is it you want from a book, anyway, Scott?”

First, before you dismiss me as a the kind of reviewer who gushes over every book he reads, I have to tell you that I do not publish a review of every book I read.

About a year ago, I published a negative review of a book that I thought was bad: badly written and not edited even once. I gave it a one-star review.

I expected the author to react badly. What I did not expect was for her friends on Goodreads to rate my books poorly without reading them, in some kind of lame revenge.

From that point, I decided to publish a review only if I liked the book and felt justified in rating it at four or five out of five.

That doesn’t mean that if I do not publish a review of your book that I didn’t like it! I may not have gotten around to reading it yet, and even if I have, I may just not have had time to write a review, yet. And not every blog post is a book review. But if I really like a book, I will write a review of it, eventually.

Tell us what you  like, then!

Okay, okay. I was getting to that.

First, I demand that a writer knows what he or she is doing: writing in English. That means the writer has to know the rules of the English language: grammar, spelling, punctuation.

And the writer has to be able to string together sentences that are interesting without seeming forced. The words have to flow naturally.

I don’t want a writer to show off his or her vocabulary of archaic expressions. Far too many fantasy stories are full of words like “countenance” and “vouchsafed.”

Books written entirely in slang are tiresome, too. Yes, a cop has to speak some cop jargon, but that risks losing the audience.

Writers, don’t show off your way with words. Tell the story.

Don’t waste pages setting the scene or telling the character’s back-story — or  explain how the fantasy world came to be and how the secret orders of wizards or knights or whatever are holding things together.

Instead, let the explanation flow out of the plot. Show the consequences when the good witch dies,  don’t tell me about the danger.

And don’t get bogged down in details. I don’t need to hear the organization of MI6, how a Sig Sauer handgun works, or the relativistic underpinnings of your time machine. If it’s necessary to the plot, have one character explain it to another.

Details can make a scene come alive for the reader, but too much bogs the story down. Keep the story moving forward, and add details necessary for the action to make sense. If someone falls into a lake, the water temperature may be important to her survival. But the size of the lake or the colour of her shoes probably are not.


As readers of my reviews may guess, I like believable characters, even in unbelievable situations. Think Life of Pi.

Believable characters are like people you know: complex, with strengths and weaknesses. Even someone you love dearly must have some characteristics you find objectionable, if now downright obnoxious.

Look at yourself: what are your weaknesses? Where are your inconsistencies?
I have little patience anymore for the sharpshooting superspy who speaks 11 languages, takes out multiple bad guys with a combination of every martial art ever developed, flies jet fighters 15 feet above the city streets without hurting any bystanders and goes home to whip up a soufflé.

I prefer heroes I can identify with. The flawed ones. The guys who arrive at work with a stain on their pants and forget to pick up the eggs on the way home. Women who have to juggle families, jobs and career aspirations and don’t have time to learn a twelfth language.

It’s a lot more interesting to me if the hero has to figure out how to beat the bad guy. Think of even the action movies you’ve seen: isn’t it a lot more satisfying when the hero defeats someone who is far stronger and more capable?

It’s also a lot more interesting when the main character has to overcome one of her main weaknesses. That provides something else I look for in a story: character growth.

People do change. We age, we learn new things, we fall in and out of love.
And people who don’t change? They’re not interesting at all.

It’s the story

Ultimately, the story has to be engaging. It has to matter to me, and it has to keep moving.

I’m not going to try to prescribe a formula of dos and don’ts. There are enough bloggers and advisors to do that.

And I do not believe that there is a single right way to tell a story, either. The most successful books are those that do something different, even if the quality of the writing or the characterization is lousy.

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo was an unlikeable, borderline-autistic geek. Twilight introduced sparkly vampires and made teenage female lust for non-humans okay. 50 Shades allowed women to read about kink on public transit.
Do you want me to review your book?  Just make sure it has believable characters, a plot that moves quickly — and an editor.


  1. Scott, Great advice!

  2. That's a shame about the revenge reviews. Legitimate bad reviews have value to the reader and the writer both.