Thursday, November 29, 2018

An Easy Way to Tell If Your Book is “Good Enough”

“Good” isn’t a very good word to use when discussing art. It means different things to different people, and the word coming from the same pair of lips can evolve depending on the context. While I’d be the first to say that if you’re questioning whether or not your book is good enough, you should trust your instincts telling you that it can be better, but a more effective means actually might be just defining what “good” could possibly mean.

Is this intellectually stimulating?
(Does it make you think?)

A good book will activate your brain and make you curious, learn, or engage in some form of puzzle solving. Every scene—and to some extent even line—should teach you something new. But that doesn't mean it has to be calculus or the meaning of life. Maybe it's just that, "Oh, there ARE cows in this world!" Maybe it's, "Man, he's an asshole when he's stressed!" It might be grandiose, causing you to question the greater philosophy in life, or it might be factual, literally giving you interesting trivia about sharks, or it might just be related to the story, changing your perception on what you thought about who and what you were seeing.

Intellectually stimulating isn’t confined to rich literary books, the mystery genre thrives on causing a reader to speculate, question, seek out information, and try to find answers before the characters do.

If you’re questioning whether or not a scene is “necessary” or if your book is interesting, ask yourself if the reader is learning anything, has their sense of curiosity stimulated, or is asking questions. If not, it might be that you’re not giving enough new material or prodding enough of their unknowns. Go back through and make sure the “point” of each scene adds new info—even if that just answers a question the reader might be wondering. Most importantly, give your reader a heads up that they don’t know something important. Don’t try to keep everything a surprise until the end. Give out plot points over the course of the book and make it very clear when there is a question that has of yet to be answered instead of just springing it on them. (And if you do have a twist you want no one to guess, make sure there are plenty of other questions being asked and answered before then.)

Is this emotionally stimulating?
(Does it make you feel?)

Alright, makes sense. But what about those genres that completely lack nuance or surprise? The formulaic romance novels that some people gulp down like a dog who hasn’t had food for a whole five minutes?

Well, a book doesn’t always have to raise questions or wonder. Quite frankly, predictable books usually do far better than ones that leave too much to the imagination (re: don’t tell you what they’re about until three pages until the end for fear of spoiling it). That’s because books are a means for people to feel things when life isn’t getting them what they need. We live vicariously through the characters in order to love, laugh, and win when we lack that sort of excitement in the real world. We want the catharsis of crying and the jolt of fear.

Life teaches us to protect ourselves from these emotions though, so it’s not uncommon for new writers to attempt to save characters from conflict and other intense feelings by making everyone friendly, things go pretty well, and just write sort of a dull story about someone who is navigating their world decently. Realistic usually, but that’s often the problem. If we wanted to experience a world lacking drama or mood swings, we’d just go back to our day jobs.

The most common reasons that a book isn’t activating people’s emotions is that...

1) It needs to be pushed farther. Scarier, funnier, happier, angrier, more erotic. Usually the idea is there, but the writer didn’t take it as far as he could. Most books just need "more" in their scenes. Have the characters push each other's buttons, say the wrong things, do something stupid. 

2) There’s not enough variety. Playing a mood can kill a book, and if you look at most story formulas, they often suggest high contrast. Failure, failure, success. Drama, drama, humor. Loneliness, loneliness, wanted. Polar emotions can intensify each other, so it’s a good idea to make sure your scene of two characters fighting has some agreement and, yes, even bonding, as well as that no scene exists solely to explain. If the scene is really about explaining how the magic of the world works, make the explainer patronizing and the listener pissed off. Emotions are contagious.

After you’ve written something and you're wondering if it goes far enough, ask yourself what the reader should be feeling at multiple points, especially towards the end. It’s not a big deal if some scenes are intellectually founded without a great deal of emotion, but you’ll notice quickly if the emotional aspects are pretty muted throughout.

If a scene doesn’t keep the reader either intellectually or emotionally activated, that scene is boring.

Or, at the very least, not meeting its full potential. Don’t overwhelm the audience with constant new information or worry that not every scene is a tear-jerker. They’re not supposed to be. Sometimes the feeling of reprieve is extremely valuable, and you want different degrees and types of reactions. However, when people feel like something is missing, that maybe their work doesn’t have that magic, thinking logically about the intended impact (to our brains or our hearts) can better answer if it's your insecurity or your brain talking.

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