What makes a good book?

A writer and her audience

4 minute read
Our hearts and minds are a jumble of memories, unspoken longings and fears that echo through our dreams. A good book gives you exactly what you need— the right information at the right time. It could be about anything— how to write a software program, cook an egg or find your way through the terror of war. When you laugh out loud or weep, when you feel that "Aha!" moment, the story's ringing the bell for you.

Sometimes the story feels like relief, as if you've been right on the edge of that truth and here it is. What truth? Just seeing yourself a little more clearly feels very good. A book can do that for you.

Some books, like shoes, fit better than others. My recent book, Santa Fe Dreamhouse, isn't for everyone. It's for people who love Santa Fe. For people who feel trapped and love the idea of escaping to Santa Fe, as I did. It's for people who yearn for the cowboy West, people who miss real romance in their lives.

As youngsters, we crave information about what lies ahead. Pre-teens want to know about romance and careers. Parents want to know how to raise their kids right.

As our lives change, we need new information about what lies ahead. As I enter elderhood— geezerdom— I want to learn how to prepare myself for getting old. Teenage love stories no longer ring my bells. And my story won't ring theirs. It'll be years before they're ready for Dreamhouse.

Thank goodness plenty of people are ready for it.

Sympathy for loss

Men have told me how much they liked my Jim, who's the backbone of my story. They said they especially sympathized with a guy who had lost so much.

Some readers liked the fixer-upper part. They could identify with the mess, the financial uncertainty, the final satisfactions. Some women loved the romantic part and probably would hit on Jim if I ever let him loose.

Many readers I hear from often begin by saying they admired the book's honesty. I'm not sure what they mean by that. I hope it means that I didn't try to make myself look good.

For instance, I touched on my loneliness and my bitter battles with my mother. I wrote about feeling guilty toward Native Americans. About how I couldn't get my horse down the driveway and how I made a fool of myself peeling chili peppers.

Common bond

Once upon a time I imagined that every story had to be unique and original— that no one would want to read about ordinary experiences or the kinds of feelings that everyone has.

It's just the opposite: What we long to hear, to read, is to learn that our experiences are the same— that we're not alone in this world. Love, honor, duty and shame— this is our common bond.

If a story rings a bell or many bells, the author is a success. If my story makes you laugh or cry, I've done what I set out to do.

Three categories

But everyone has a story to tell. Everyone could be a writer. It's just that "everyone" falls into three groups:

—The postponers, who are just too busy to write or will write when they get around to it.

—The diarists, who write for themselves but don't want anyone else to read it.

— And the shout-out-loud types (like me), who write to be read. Who seek publishing outlets. Who want to connect with readers, to talk to them, to hear what they think.

These writers write to start a conversation. To build ideas. To protest, to laugh and to cry together. Because these writers know that writing is a two-way process. No book is complete until readers have read it, know it, and echo it.

When I hear what my readers think, I rethink what I wrote. The reader strikes my bells and enriches my experience of writing.

Makes me want to write more. Write better. Ring more bells.

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