It’s easy to start a book. Here’s a clue (4 little words): Once Upon A Time...
The hard part comes when you finally type (2 little words): The End.
In my fantasies, I end the book accompanied by a majestic choir rising from a cloud and singing hallelujah while critics, fraught with anticipation, rush to invent an accolade more laudatory than five stars and fans with real dollars form lines to purchase my own perky prose.
Fantasy aside, “The End” results in three possible outcomes: it’s good, it’s not-so-good or it’s done. For example, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is a good book, while Girl on the Train is not-so-much, and I read all the way to the end of Gone Girl.
Criteria for a Good Book:
There’s no shame in saying that some books are better than others. (I’ve published over 80, some fabulous and some suck.) Like a good parent, I hate to admit I have favorites and prefer one over the other. So, I’ve come up with guidelines.
How can you tell if you’ve written a good book? Reviews and second reads aren’t always helpful. If there were truly as many 5 star reviews as are given on Amazon, we would undoubtedly be living in the golden age of literature. Are we? Are we really? The following are craft-oriented ways to judge.
- Genre Fulfillment: Each genre, including literary, has certain reader expectations for the ending. In mystery/suspense, the villain is captured. In romance, it’s HEA (happily ever after). In science fiction, the alien scum is thwarted and good prevails. In literary, life goes on, with or without the main character; too pat an ending will ruin a literary book. The more genre-specific, the better. Example: In teen dystopia, the teen comes into his/her powers and saves the day (follows the classic Hero’s Journey plot).
- No Loose Ends: All those cheerful digressions that made writing the novel so much fun need to be paid off. Otherwise, the reader gets to “The End” and, instead of reveling in the joys of a book well-writ, is worrying about the dwarf mentioned in Chapter Three. Consider keeping a character list and planting a plot tree with all the twigs and branches, conflicts and motivations.
- Character Arc: Your main character MUST change during the course of the book. The whole point of fiction, the reason fiction is different from real life, is that the struggling protagonist ALWAYS changes. As referenced with loose ends, conflicts and motivations must be resolved. A good way to make sure you’ve done your job and changed the protagonist is to place them in the same situation in the opening and at the close. Example: My current book, Mountain Bodyguard, starts with the self-centered heroine in a dark room with no electricity and ends with the electric being purposely cut so she can escape after saving a life and catching the bad guys.
Bottom line with a good book: If well-written, the ending is incredibly satisfying.
Sitting on your right shoulder is the cheerful writing muse who will tell you, in dulcet tones, that this is a grand development. You can rewrite. You have a chance to go back, review the plot and characters and fix it.
On the left shoulder is The Critic, a total curmudgeon who will tell you that it’ll never be good enough. You could rewrite until doom’s day (which probably isn’t far off), and it’ll never be good enough.
The truth is somewhere in-between.
- You can become a constant re-writer, polishing and polishing until you’ve worn the poor book down to a nub.
- You can turn your back on those imperfect pages and put the book out on line. Or start shipping it to editors and agents who will surely love it because your every keystroke is sheer genius.
- Re-write for a set period of time, until you reach a point when you feel the book is good enough. Call it done and start marketing.
- Re-write until you come to the sad realization that the patient is terminal. Have a nice cremation and/or burial, say good-bye and move on to the next project.
It’s a Wrap:
I’m not talking about a poncho or shawl. Not talking about one of those truly heinous fur pieces with the fox’s head still attached. Not even talking about an infinity scarf that truly goes on for infinity.
There comes a time when the writing process is over, and the book is a wrap. Good, bad or indifferent, completion is its own reward, although a chocolate and champagne celebration is nice. Remember, when there’s an ending, another beginning is possible.
Kay Bergstrom aka Cassie Miles has published over 80 books of romance and suspense, has also sold screenplay treatments, radio plays and articles. She’s been on the USA TODAY Best-seller List and her last book was on the PW Best-seller List. She’s been RMFW Writer of the Year twice, and served as President, Veep and Treasurer. Her current Harlequin Intrigue is Mountain Bodyguard.