How to Write a Book that Gets a Good Review

Here's how to write a book that will get a good review from me:

  • Begin with a motivated protagonist in a dynamic situation. 
  • Develop those elements with good craft and sound mechanics. 
  • Bring the story to a surprising but inevitable conclusion that is emotionally satisfying. 
Extra points if you can get me to think about what it means to be a person and/or how societies function.

 Note that I'm describing a particular kind of book, which is a kind of book I like; lots of other people like that kind of book too, but there are also other kinds of books that people like. This is one way to write a successful book, but not the only one.

Let me unpack the elements a bit.

  1. A motivated protagonist. A protagonist is someone who is struggling to achieve a goal. A motivated protagonist is someone who has a powerful reason for that struggle, who will face heavy odds and make personal sacrifices in pursuit of their goal. An unmotivated or reluctant protagonist can be made to work, especially if they're only like that at the beginning of the story, but it's a lot harder to get me to care what happens when the character doesn't care.
  2. A dynamic situation. A dynamic situation is one that cannot remain unchanged. It has multiple forces acting to change it, of which the protagonist is, at least potentially, one. These multiple forces are pushing in different directions, which provides conflict and tension that arise naturally out of the premise, and are intensified by the actions of the motivated protagonist.
  3. Developing the elements. Because you have these forces at work, events will naturally tend to unfold; it's up to you to shape how that happens.
  4. With good craft. This is a short phrase covering a lot of knowledge. Good places to look for that knowledge are the following books: 
  • Scene and Structure, by Jack M. Bickham. This book helped my plotting tremendously; it shows you, in clear, simple terms, how to set up your motivated protagonist in a dynamic situation and develop that into a plot that makes sense and carries the reader along. 
  • Beginnings, Middles, and Ends, by Nancy Kress. The other best book on plotting, structure, and story development. 
  • Character and Viewpoint, by Orson Scott Card. This was written before OSC changed from your kind of conservative, slightly eccentric uncle to your extremely conservative, unhinged and offensive uncle, but if you have a problem giving him money because of his views and the way he expresses them, look for a second-hand or library copy. 
If you read and apply what is in those three books, you won't know everything there is to know about the craft of writing a compelling story, but you will know a lot, certainly enough (if you execute it well) to get a good review from me.

  1. With sound mechanics. I'm talking here about the ability to write correctly at a sentence level. Surprisingly many writers make the exact same small set of mistakes, and after seeing those mistakes in hundreds of books (from indie and trad-pub authors both), I compiled a guide to avoiding them.

    Much of it is free on the web here, but I do have a book for sale (at a reasonable price) that expands on that website's content.

    A lot of readers won't pick up mistakes that you make at the level of sentences, but some will, and others, while not consciously aware of them, will be subtly confused and annoyed.
  2. A surprising but inevitable conclusion. This phrase is often used to describe an ending that arises naturally out of what you presented at the beginning and developed in the middle, but at the same time is not too obvious and predictable. Even if the point that the characters end up at is predictable (like the traditional Happily Ever After at the end of a romance novel), there should be some kind of novelty or surprise to exactly how it happens.
  3. A conclusion that is emotionally satisfying. For me, this can mean that justice is done or lovers are united, but whatever the details, it usually means the protagonist achieves some version of their goal. 
I should care about the protagonist's struggle; I should want them to succeed; I should feel something of what they feel. It's possible to write successful books where this is not true, but they won't be very successful with me.

However different the characters are from me, I will be engaged by them if they have goals I can relate to or imagine being my goals if I was in their situation. The Card book goes into further detail, so I won't repeat it here. 

So, writing a book I will love is simple. It isn't easy - only about one book in every four that I read pulls it off even moderately well, and some of them fail miserably. But now you know the basic outline, you can get on with filling in the details. 

 (Please note that I am currently not accepting books for review by author request. I get most of my review books from Netgalley, so you could put it on there, or just do a really good job and let me hear about it by word of mouth.)

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