Friday, December 20, 2013

What makes a good read? Two best-sellers join the debate

Photo by Documentally / Christian Payne, found on Flickr, licensed through Creative Commons.
Writers are always struggling with advice from disparate sources on how to improve their writing. That’s why I turned to some best-selling authors and asked them what made certain books their favourites. What makes a good read? 

Weighing in this week are DelSheree Gladden, best-selling author of the Destroyer trilogy (Inquest, Secret of Betrayal and Darkening Chaos) and the Twin Souls saga, and Bruce Blake, the prolific author of the Icarus Fell series (On Unfaithful Wings, All Who Wander are Lost and Secrets of the Hanged Man), Khirro’s Journey trilogy (Blood of the King, Spirit of the King and Heart of the King) and the new Small Gods series (When Shadows Fall). With his wife, Rosie Bitts, he is the co-author of the Lady Corsairs series. 

Name three characteristics of books that you like. What makes you keep reading a book? What are some books that you weren't able to put down until you finished them?

DelSheree Gladden: 
Strong characters, well thought out storyline, and an emotional element to the story readers can connect with. What makes me keep reading a book is the characters. I have to connect with the characters and care about them and their struggles. It can be a fascinating storyline, but if the characters are only so-so, I’m not going to be hooked.  
The Mistborn Trilogy by Brandon Sanderson is one of my all-time favourites. I was absolutely riveted by his books. The complexity of the storyline was amazing, yet it never seemed overcomplicated or convoluted. His characters came alive from the first page and he did what is sometimes the hardest thing for a writer to do. He let the story go where it needed to go even if that meant losing characters and writing what I can imagine he didn’t want to write. 
Bruce Blake:
Three things that I look for in a good book are writing style, engaging characters, and originality. It can be difficult to find the combination of all three in the same book, but when I do, I can't stop reading. 
The most recent example for me is Best Served Cold by Joe Abercrombie. The voices of each character are so distinct and he has an interesting way of turning a phrase. Vicious Circle by Mike Carey, To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee and many of Stephen King's early books make my list, too.

What other books have these characteristics?

DelSheree Gladden
Some of the other books that I will always love are books like The Dresden Files and Aleran Codex from Jim Butcher, The Wheel of Time series by Jordan and Sanderson, The Dalemark Quartet by Dianna Wynne Jones, and pretty much any of Raymond E. Feist’s books. 

Bruce Blake
Anything by Stephen King up to “It." George Martin's first two books in the Song of Ice and Fire series. Ender's Game and Speaker for the Dead by Orson Scott Card. Neil Gaiman's American Gods.

Do you consciously try to emulate these books? If so, what form does that take: plot, structure, characters, settings, author's voice and word choice?

DelSheree Gladden
There are aspects of all my favourite books that I try to emulate. Sanderson’s plots are always flawless. I can never find even the tiniest hole. I will debate, rewrite, outline, make a dozen sticky notes, whatever it takes to try and make sure I’m not leaving unanswered questions for my readers. What I’ve tried most to emulate is creating good characters my readers will fall in love with. Butcher’s characters always have a great deal of depth. You can’t help but get sucked into their lives, even those characters who are only briefly in the book. His characters always have a defining inner struggle that impacts every aspect of their story. I want my characters to be that unique and real when I write as well.

Bruce Blake

Sometimes, but not always. I mean, Joe Abercrombie's use of unique
voices for each character definitely inspired my conscious choice to try something similar in my latest book, When Shadows Fall. On the other hand, without me really thinking about it, any good writing style challenges me to keep a close eye on my word choices. Stephen King’s depth of characterization gave me something to strive for and George Martin's detailed world and cultures were another inspiration.

Thank you, DelSheree and Bruce!

Visit DelSheree Gladden's website
Visit Bruce A. Blake's website


  1. Great post Scott! I agree with each of these authors on their points... character, writing style, plot... seems like common sense, but obviously if it were that easy, everyone would be a best-selling author, right? LOL Loved this!

    1. I have to say I don't think that character, writing style, plot, and so on are "easy". Everyone thinks they can do these things if they've read a how-to book on writing. That doesn't make it so. To truly be able to do these things right, you have to write thousands and thousands of pages that may as well be thrown away. You have to develop and refine your talent.

      I'm going to add two more things to the list, though.

      First, I think there is an undefined quality that an author brings to a book. A piece of the author that shines through and connects with the reader. It's like the "umami" of storytelling. I know that sounds vague, but it is.

      And secondly, a MAJOR ingredient in a best-selling novel is luck. The market is flooded. It's difficult to get work in front of an audience that is overwhelmed by choices. There are probably hundreds of amazing novels that meet the criteria above, and will never be seen. Very sad indeed.

  2. Anonymous12:13 PM

    Great tips here from the pros - thanks!