What makes a good read? Is it characterization, plot, style? A unique idea, or the rules of your favourite genre?
I’ve asked some of the best independent authors I know what they like to read — what makes a good read for them. Today, here are the first three to answer:
- RS Guthrie, author of the Bobby Mac paranormal-thriller series and the James Pruett mystery series
- Karen Wodke, author of James Willlis Makes a Million and half of the Wodke Hawkinson writing duo, authors of Betrayed, Zeke, Sue, Tangerine and other books
- Scott Morgan, author of Stories My Evil Twin Made Up, Character Development from the Inside Out, and How to Be a Whiny Beeyotch: 71 Writing Excuses Meet the Back of My Hand
Name three characteristics of books that you like. What makes you keep reading a book?
RS Guthrie: I personally love great, literary writing and deep characters. Of course, like everyone, my initial buy many times depends on the cover, or especially the first part of chapter one sampling. I usually know by one to three paragraphs in whether I will like the book. Actually, that's a pretty good indicator of the books I won't like. You can never know for sure about liking/loving a book until it ends; sometimes writers give up two-thirds of the way through and that's a HUGE disappointment you can't see coming.
Karen Wodke: Three characteristics of books I like:
- being drawn into the story right from the start
- when a story is handled in a unique way or deals with unusual material
- when a book is so well-written, it takes me away.
Scott Morgan: Good books need a strong storyteller's voice; to be true to its internal universe; and to take chances. I don't want to read the same thing someone else wrote, I want to read a new idea, new way of seeing, new world.
What are some books that you weren't able to put down until you finished them?
RS Guthrie: The last book I read I could not put down was Jonathan Lethem's Motherless Brooklyn. I can never put any of his books down. Gun, With Occasional Music rocked my world! Dissident Gardens is just out and I have not read it yet.
Karen Wodke: Sharp Objects by Gillian Flynn; The Mothers by Vardis Fisher (about the doomed Donner party crossing); Evening News by Marly Swick; The Lord of the Rings by JRR Tolkien; Life-Size by Jenefer Schute.
What other books have these characteristics?
RS Guthrie: Anything by James lee Burke. In fact, he's the master of melding both elements (literary style with great characters). All of John D. MacDonald's Travis McGee series (21 books). Tim O'Brien's The Things They Carried, If I Die In A Combat Zone, and Going After Cacciato.
Karen Wodke: The books I mentioned are very different in style from each other. What they have in common is a compelling story. It would be impossible to list all the other books that share this characteristic. I like Dean Koontz, JA Konrath, earlier Stephen King, earlier James Patterson, Wally Lamb, Robert Heinlein, and a number of indie authors. The books I most enjoy reading share the following characteristics: interesting plot, descriptions that are appropriate to the story, a unique style of writing, and a steady pace.
Scott Morgan: All good books have these characteristics (a strong storyteller's voice; true to its internal universe; and to take chances). Best examples for me are (fiction) Falling Angel by William Hjortsberg and (nonfiction) The Trouble with Tom by Paul Collins.
Do you consciously try to emulate these books?
RS Guthrie: When I first read James Lee Burke's Dave Robicheaux series, I knew I had found my voice. Until then I kept flip-flopping between a more literary style versus deep, engaging characters and a lot of great dialogue (something you don't find in "literary" books). Burke showed me that the two can not only coexist but enhance each other and make for a compelling read. Primarily that affects my characters, dialogue, and definitely word choice. You need to be sparsely descriptive. Yes, describe the surrounding stage so the reader can smell it, see it, feel it, but don't take thirteen pages to do so. And dialogue, for me, is key. Good, engaging dialogue is the best way I know to show your character rather than tell him/her to the reader.
Karen Wodke: I don’t think I consciously try to emulate any other book. That said, a good book inspires me to work on improving particular elements in my own writing. For instance, reading Gillian Flynn has made me want to come up with
better similes and metaphors; she’s brilliant at both. She also has a very distinctive voice. A skill I admire in Stephen King is the ease with which he tells a story. Opening one of his books is like settling into a favorite chair. I admire the way Koontz pulls a reader in from the first page. And some thriller authors write such clean, tight plots; I can’t help but be impressed. There are important things to be learned from any well-written book.
You know what they say: easy reading is damn hard writing.
Scott Morgan: I try to emulate the writers more so than the books. writers like Brian Hodge always come up with incredible ways to tell stories that are not limited to single books. If I'm borrowing from books, it's usually inn how the writer constructs his/her universe with as little detail as possible. Great writers can put you in their heads but let you keep your own eyes.