Sometimes I read a book that I don’t particularly like. I kept trying to figure out why this is. Finally, I realized that I don’t have to like the narrator or even the events that transpire, but I do have to feel passionate about the book. So what makes me feel passion for a book? I came up with these three components, which I call the Three C’s.
On the most fundamental level, a book should be competently written. We all make grammatical errors or have our grammatical quirks (e.g., I often type you when I mean to type your, and I tend to use lots of em dashes and ellipses), but anyone who knows the basics should be able to get rid of a significant number of errors. No document is ever perfect, but a writer should aim for perfection by revising over and over again and having other’s critique the work. Words should be spelled properly. Sentences should make sense. I can tolerate some awkward sentence structure in a book of published letters or a published diary. I can even overlook awkward sentences if they rarely occur in a book or magazine, but egregious grammatical errors, comma splices, over-used fragments and runons drive me up the wall. This is my main issue with self-published ebooks. I’ve tried a few self-published books/ebooks and I cannot, can-FUCKING-not, get past the overwhelming grammatical errors.
Sentences should also be diverse, i.e., there should be short sentences and longer sentences. Occasional passive voice is fine, but most sentences should use active voice. There should be some dialogue and some exposition (This helps the reader experience the characters, setting and scenes more fully.). Readers don’t need a lot of bells and whistles, but they do need variety and skill in order to remain engaged.
Lyrical writing is ideal. By this, I mean the story is so beautifully written that the reader wants to read and re-read whole sentences and paragraphs. Rhetorical (literary) devices are a writer’s tools. The most common rhetorical devices are, of course: alliteration, assonance, hyperbole, imagery, metaphor, onomatopoeia, oxymoron, paradox, personification, and simile. Some exceptionally-written books that come to mind are, e.g., Anna Karenina and Sula. Tolstoy and Morrison may miss a comma here and there (this could also be their editor’s choice) or they may use fragments to signify speech patterns and/or emotionality, but who cares? They’re masters! Some writers use one sentence that takes up the whole damned page, but they punctuate it properly thus avoiding a runon, e.g., “The Handsomest Drowned Man in the World” by Gabriel García Márquez. Márquez loves long sentences.
I use the following scale for writing competency:
- Poorly written
- Competently written
- Well written
- Exceptionally written
Anybody who’s taken a workshop or a creative writing class has heard one of the following terms: three-dimensional characters, well-rounded characters, complex characters or nuanced characters. We’ve heard them so many times that they seems cliché, but clichés exist because they’re usually true. Good characters should feel like real people and real people, no matter how seemingly superficial, are complex and nuanced.
Readers should miss characters when we’re not reading and even after we’ve finished reading their story. Till this day, I think of Rosie and Jacob Jankowski from Water for Elephants (do I need to qualify and state that I’m referencing the book, not the movie) every time I see a circus advertisement. Ever since I read “Brownies” in grad school, I think of Snot when I see Girl Scouts selling cookies. I wonder how she’s doing and if she grew into a young woman who knows how funny and insightful she is. This doesn’t happen because I ain’t got nothing better to do with my time. This happens because Sara Gruen and Z.Z. Packer busted their asses to write characters that are so authentic and memorable that they have become part of my consciousness.
To make a figment of one’s imagination authentic, a writer has to know the character inside and out, know her strengths, insecurities, fears, idiosyncrasies, the best aspects of her personality and the worst aspects. Is this character heroic or does she not have a backbone? Is she personality-less? If so, the plot better force her to develop a personality because no one wants to read about a person who doesn’t know who she is and doesn’t find out who she is by the last page. Conversely, readers don’t buy it when a simplistic character magically develops a spine, especially in the face of great social opposition.
I use the following scale for character development:
The best stories have a tight plot, clear tone and voice, and they are multi-thematic.
In speculative fiction, the events are not supposed to make sense on a logical or earthly level, so the writer must create a world where implausible events are plausible. She does this, in large part, by establishing authority in her tone (the way she writes or the writer’s attitude toward the story) and her narrative voice (1st, 2nd, 3rd person/close or distant omniscience/reliable or unreliable narrators). In Kindred, Octavia Butler’s tone does not pull any punches. She’s not trying to ease the reader into the story. She opens with trauma and love. Dana inexplicably comes through a hole in the wall with part of her arm torn off. Dana’s husband Kevin takes her to the hospital where Dana undergoes surgery and Kevin is arrested for domestic violence. There’s no reason readers should believe that a magical hole ripped off a woman’s arm, but we can believe that the police would immediately arrest a black man who brought his mutilated wife into the emergency room. By creating complex, nuanced characters and incorporating historical research, Butler establishes her authority and creates a fantastical, spell-binding plot. Kindred is written in 1st person narrative voice, so readers experience the events through Dana’s eyes as she goes back and forth through this hole from the 1970’s to the 1800’s. We stick with Butler through the trauma of slavery and violence and through the love because we trust her.
Whether it’s a novel or a short story, the narrative should incorporate multiple themes. Commercial writers usually approach secondary, tertiary and quaternary themes the way tweens approach kissing—surface level only and no tongue. They may go in depth with the central theme, but that’s it. Literary writers go deep on several themes, and they use that tongue like a damn probing device. Jhumpa Lahiri’s “A Temporary Matter” addresses otherness within the immigrant/1st generation American experience, gender communication styles, personal isolation, hope and disenchantment, graduate school, life in Boston, and I’m only scraping the surface. A novel or short story that effectively evaluates multi-thematic content keeps sharp readers engaged and keeps them coming back for more.
I use the following scale for how an author handles content: