What Makes a Book Good vs. Great

After my post last week on rejection, a client asked to hear my thoughts on what makes a book good versus a great one. (I wrote about coming to the realization that my last novel was good but not great.) It’s an excellent question and I believe that there are two ways to answer it:

1.)  The writer decides what is great. If you love your book, if you loved the writing of it, if you love certain passages and turns of phrase, if you love holding it in your hands and if you love what it means that this book exists in the world in a real and tangible way, then that book is great. No one can take this greatness away from you—no critic can diminish its greatness, no sales numbers can diminish its greatness—because the greatness comes from you. You own it. It is yours.

Believing that something you made is great is enormously satisfying on a soul level. It’s a big reason why creating things feels so good: somewhere deep inside we know that we were made to do this work, and actually DOING it, closes the loop on that initial creative impulse. If you make it, you are no longer just talking about making it. You have transformed yourself into a creator.

2.)  The world decides what is great. You knew that was coming, right?

When the world decides that a book is great, the author gets an agent, get a book deal, gets some big marketing dollars behind her, gets a ton of book sales, gets a bunch of media attention, gets asked to speak about her creative process, gets accolades, money, power, prestige and probably the invitation to write something else again. I have been that author and I am not going to pretend that it wasn’t fantastic. It was fantastic.

But the honest truth is that it wasn’t satisfying on a soul level. It was satisfying on an ego level, on a “Wheeeee this is fun” level, on an “Aren’t I so awesome??” level, on an “I can buy a cool pair of boots” level. But for me, the best part about it was being invited to do it again. It was being invited to create again, knowing that my creation would be seen and heard.

Because here’s the thing: when you are called to create, creating closes a loop, but there is another loop that gets opened, and that is the loop that can only be closed by a reader. We write because it’s satisfying – for sure – but we also write because we want to be read. When that doesn’t happen — because we couldn’t get an agent, we could get a book deal, we couldn’t attract readers — it’s SAD. Our inner reality  (“I wrote a book and it is great!”) doesn’t align with the external reality “I wrote a book that no one wants to read.”)  It’s sad and it’s also confusing.

You can go on from there, continuing to believe in your book’s greatness, and there have been some books of mine that warranted that belief. I mean, I happen to think The Threadbare Heart is a great book. The world didn’t agree to the extent that I hoped it would. (Note that I am not talking about minor flaws here. When I went to book clubs to talk about The Threadbare Heart, people would point out small errors of continuity and little typos and the horribleness of the cover—which is their right as readers. Those are things that could have been done better, but they don’t impact the quality of greatness that I felt that story had. I am talking here about attracting a lot of readers. I am talking about sales. And The Threadbare Heart didn’t take the world by storm.) Well, screw the world. I still say it’s a great book and I’m going go on believing that and taking pride in that.

Sometimes, the lack of validation from the world causes the author to look with fresh eyes upon their creation. That’s what happened to me when Perfect Red didn’t garner the deals and sales and awards I thought it would. I saw what the world was seeing, and I realized that the book had some deep flaws. And here’s the thing: I knew all along those flaws were there. I was hoping to sweep them under the rug. I spent a huge amount of time on that book trying to shore up holes, trying to add a layer of logic on top of a logic that wasn’t wholly there. So when I didn’t win that award, I didn’t think, “Screw the judges.” I thought, “They’re right. It’s true. This is a good book, but not a great one.”

What is the takeaway from this?

a.)   Well for me, the next time I write a book, I will try as best as I am able to build a good, strong, solid foundation before I start to write. It’s not for nothing that I hammer away with my clients on knowing what you are writing and knowing where it might fit in the marketplace before you write it; I do that because I have found it the only way to solve the big problems that will inevitably crop up 300 pages down the line, when they are no longer fixable.

b.)  I will try harder to listen to my voice when I’m writing and to choose wisely who I let into that conversation, so that if something starts going off the rails I can stop it before it’s too late. I urge you to do the same.

c.)   I will go into the writing of my next book knowing what I can control and what I can’t. I can control the creative act and the writing process. I can control what I want to convey and the story I want to tell. I can’t control what the world will think.

d.)  I will remember what feels truly, deeply good as opposed to frosting-on-the-cake good, and that is doing it.

To read an outstanding, authentic, story about a musician’s creative journey from small-time success to big time success, and the compromises and decisions along the way, click here. (And FYI this story came to me via Dan Blank’s blog.)