We celebrated Victoria Day in my part of the world, which meant a long weekend. I took that as permission to forget about chores for three days.  We went off to our favourite holiday spot and walked the beach, ate food that someone else had prepared, and read books until late into the night.  What a treat.

The first one I read was a real page turner. It combined elements of mystery, history and romance to take me into a world of glitz and glamour far beyond my own experience. In retrospect, the plot was improbable and there was a fair bit of friendly coincidence in the action.  But those weaknesses didn’t matter because the story and the characters hooked me in from the first line – a break-in where something spectacular is discovered. 

The author doesn’t tell me what so, I turn the page to find out.  Only now I’m in a different place, a different time and a very different mood, a family reunion, full of memories and nostalgia – and a dreadful foreshadowing.  It isn’t until the third chapter that the main action of the story gets going.

If I were to apply many of the “how-to” criteria for how to write a book, this one would fail. And yet, it was a great book.  How could the author break so many “rules” and still come up with a best seller?

I think her use of language to build a story world deserves a large part of the credit.  The book is thick with descriptive passages –a no-no in writing classes – yet the descriptions impart so much emotion, they aren’t the bits one wants to skip.  The settings convey fear, or anger, or sorrow or longing with such intensity they draw the reader deeper into the story.  Even when I closed the book to go for a walk, the mood of the thing stayed with me.  The author succeeded brilliantly at drawing me into her imaginary world and making me care about it. That’s the other key element.  I cared about what happened in this world.

The other book, was short, a straightforward “who dunnit.”  It was a classic goal/motivation/conflict story, yet it failed to capture me. Why? Because the story-world didn’t draw me in.  I know the action took place on a university campus because the author said so, but I couldn’t imagine myself walking the tree-lined paths of that campus.  In fact, I don’t know if it had tree-line paths, or dirt tracks or grassy boulevards.  Those details of setting were not on the page.  I didn’t encounter hoards of students rushing to class.  There were no bikes overflowing the bike stand and shackled to trees.  There was a library, but I’ve no idea if it was a nineteenth century cathedral to learning or a modern stone and glass monolith with banks of computers instead of bookshelves.

The characters had names and personality quirks, yet still felt interchangeable. i.e. pick one quirk: apply to a character: add a name.  These people didn’t come alive to me, they did not haunt my imagination and they certainly didn’t stay with me as I packed my suitcase.  The most serious character failing, in my mind, was the protagonist.  He is a male, yet his actions and thoughts all felt feminine to me.  Also, contrary to every writer’s advice book, each chapter ended with him going to sleep. A great excuse for the reader to do the same.

Both books were published by one of the big five publishing houses.

World building is a much studied aspect of fantasy/paranormal novels but those who write contemporary works are often chided about wasting words on description. Jack Bickham even has a whole chapter titled “Don’t Describe Sunsets” in his classic The Thirty-Eight Most Common Fiction Writing Mistakes (and how to avoid them.)

In the first book I read the author described sunsets over the Mediterranean, inky black nights in Paris and a perfect summer day in rural England.  She made me want to go there.  Made me want to experience an impossibly beautiful sunset, always just out of reach, always pulling me on one more step, one more page, one more hour.

I didn’t do any work on my own writing over the holiday weekend, but, as a writer, I never really stop thinking about writing. What makes it good? Why does it fall flat?  Learning those lessons in story is more fun than reading about them on the “help for writers” shelf.

What about you? Have you read a good book lately? One that grabs your imagination, pulls you into its fearful and complicated story-world and won’t let you go until you get to ‘the end?”  How did the author do that?  Did she use description and setting? Unforgettable characters? Non-stop action? In other words, what do you look for in a good book?