What makes a good book?

One of the questions we get frequently goes something like this: “Do you think I have a good enough story?  Do you think it’s a best seller?”

My answer always, goes something like this, “Most stories are fascinating.  Almost anybody who thinks they have an interesting story does; it just takes a good writer to bring it out, to make it come to life.”

Of course, there are a few people who come to us whose stories really are not interesting at all, but that is pretty rare.  But this does give us a moment to consider what makes a successful book, so I would like to share my thoughts on this with you.

It’s the idea – the story

Above all, it is the idea.  It is the story.  And it is how that idea or story is developed. It needs to be interesting.  But what makes an interesting idea, an interesting story? Here are a few elements:

Strong emotions.  A compelling story makes us feel the terror of the main character(s).  Or the deep hunger for power or to be loved or to escape or…or…for something!  Or the deep love or lust of two people.

Incredible challenges. Strong emotions need equally strong challenges.  The fears need to be set off against the imminent realization of what is feared.  The hunger against seemingly insurmountable barriers.  The romance against circumstances that keep the lovers apart.

Suspense.  If the reader knows in advance how things will turn out, it is hard to keep her interest.  Suspense means keeping the reader guessing.  It means twists in the story line.  It means holding information back.  It means surprises.  It means, sometimes, the hero has to lose a battle.

If all this sounds like rules for fiction, they are.  And for biography.  And for history.  And the more of these rules that you can apply to a business book or a self-help book or a scientific report or a spiritual book, the better.

It’s the writing

 Of course, the quality of the writing is important, too.  Many an amazing idea has crashed upon the rocks of mediocre writing.  The basics need to be accounted for:

  • Proper word usage
  • Proper punctuation
  • Proper spelling
  • Proper capitalization

But “proper” is just the base.  Word usage is more than just about using the proper words.  It is also about how to use the most effective words.  The amateur tries to color his manuscript by adding lots of extra adjectives and even some extra adverbs.  The professional writer tries to remove adjectives and adverbs as often as possible and replace them with strong, descriptive nouns and verbs.

Here are a few more techniques that boost the quality of writing:

  • Vary the length of sentences, sometimes just for variety (to keep the reader from getting bored of the tempo) and sometimes to set the pace of the story.
  • Vary the length of paragraphs.
  • Except when a longer word adds more meaning, use the simplest word available (“use” instead of “utilize”)
  • Use synonyms deftly. Avoid too much repletion of a single word, except when used specifically to build cadence.
  • Dialogue is good.  The more, the better – to a point.
  • Internal dialogue is good, especially if it gives insight into a character’s motivations or emotions.

This list could grow to a hundred points, but these are some of the basics.  And these are techniques, not “rules”.  Different writers will use different techniques to different degrees, but these are some that are fairly universal among good writers and ghostwriters. Feel free to add to it in the comments.

It’s the pitch

A good idea, well-developed and well written, is still just a manuscript sitting in a drawer.  You need a good pitch.  I don’t mean a business case that you will see recommended in so many places.

“Last year there were 1200 books of this genre published and only 17 that were directly targeting this demographic.  There were twelve best-sellers in the genre, including three directly targeting this demographic, therefore…”

That’s a business case, not a pitch.  I am not saying to ignore the business case, mostly because don’t want to invite nasty comments for such a trivial issue, and because for non-fiction a business case can actually be very helpful even before defining your target audience (you might slightly alter whom you write the book for).

I am saying you need a solid pitch. Think about what might be written on the back of the book.  That is the basis of the pitch- what the book is about and why someone should buy it.

If you want to sell your idea to a publishing house, you’ll need the pitch to sell to them and, more importantly to sell them on being able to sell your book to the public. If you plan to self-publish, the pitch is what you’ll tell the public directly.  Either way, you’ll need the pitch in social media and when approaching book reviewers.

One note about the pitch and your genre.  If your book is fiction, you are trying to pull at people’s emotions and sense of suspense.  For some non-fiction genres, such as history and biography, you are doing the same.

But for more practical genres, such as business, how-to and self-help, you are trying to pitch the usefulness of your book.  And rather than focusing on readers and book lovers, you need to find people in the niche.  For example, a book on woodworking needs to be pitched not through book reviewers, but through woodworking bloggers.

Will my book be successful?

I don’t know.  Your idea is probably good, since few people think of writing a book without a feasible idea.  Few people with no ghost of a chance get told by their friends, “You oughta write a book.”  So, it is possible that your idea will fail of its own lack of merit, but not likely.  It might need some further development

If you come to us, you know you will get top-notch writing and help developing the idea.  You might already have it incredibly well-written on your own.  Either way, your manuscript has all the ingredients for success.

As for the pitch, that is a tougher one to define, and often the biggest factor in the success of a pitch is your own perseverance.  We can provide a synopsis and query letter (at no extra charge to our book writing clients, upon request), but you have to be able to ignore rejection after rejection to eventually find the publisher ready to take a chance on a new author on the strength of your manuscript alone.  Sometime the first publisher will recognize your genius.  Sometimes the 100th.  And sometimes, your route to success is to self-publish.


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8 thoughts on “What makes a good book?

  1. This is a beautiful post, David.
    It covers the gamut of books- but also blog posts and articles/journals. (Of course, those of us who publish in academic journals never “use” anything- we always “utilize” the best assets :-) )

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  2. These are some fantastic tips for writers, and interesting information. I didn’t know that good writers try to use as few adjectives as possible, but now when I think about it, it makes sense to me. I know the publishing world can seem incredibly cruel, so writers who want to publish need all the help they can get!

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  3. Thanks for writing this article. It has a lot of great information that’s presented in an way that’s clear and concise.
    I realize the importance of writing a solid pitch and it is something that I’ve been struggling with. The advice, “you are trying to pull at people’s emotions and sense of suspense” is really helpful.

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  4. Nice post. It reminds us that what makes a piece of writing good is a combination of things, not just the obvious.

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