Where’s Leonard Nemoy When You Need Him?

(In Search of . . . A Good Book)

By David E. Sharp

Okay, It WAS A Deep Cut.

After closing the cover on my latest literary conquest, I set the book aside. I let my opinion settle on the story I had just read. It was all right. It kept my attention enough to see me through to the end. At the same time, I can already tell this book won’t linger on the fringes of my mind where all my favorites live.

Was something missing? All the elements were strong: developed characters, dynamic plot, authentic dialogue, and plenty of conflicts. It was even from a solid major publisher. Somehow, it all combined to create an average experience.

What went wrong?

Storytelling IS Alchemy.

A little magic and a little chemistry (a lot less lead poisoning), you combine a bunch of ingredients and hope for a reaction. Sometimes you achieve the results you’re looking for. Other times you accidentally fill the lab with blue smoke that stains everything and everyone it touches.

Well, that’s why we test things! Positive results reinforce your hypotheses. Negative results force you to reexamine your theories. And some results may result in Smurf jokes for the next two weeks.

Writers don’t string words together to decorate paper. We’re after results! Those words are specifically chosen to enthrall our readers. Or to inspire emotions in them. There is no more incredible thrill for a writer than to make readers weep. Reader tears give us pleasure! We collect them in bottles and keep them on our mantles like trophies.

When people read something we’ve written and hand it back with a quiet nod and a monotone, “It’s good,” we go back to our offices, stare at whiteboards full of cryptic formulae, and wonder where we went wrong. We whisper to our empty tear bottles, assuring them we will fill them soon.

The Elusive Catalyst.

The difficulty writers run into is an unstable variable that 1.) we cannot ignore and 2.) affects the results of our writing experiments enormously. The lack of this crucial ingredient was responsible for my underwhelming experience with the book I recently read. This same ingredient can be the most difficult—sometimes maddening—component to predict or account for. Readers!

No storytelling endeavor is complete without someone to receive it. You can’t enthrall a rock—at least, according to my findings. You need a reader to complete the experience. And readers all come with their tastes, experiences, references, and expectations. No two readers will respond similarly, and no writer can conclusively determine how a reader will respond.

Draw all the hypotheses you like, but even when people tell me what they love about my stories, they always bring up something that surprises me. Some aspects of one character will have resonated with them in a way I never considered.

Why was the book I read so blah? Did the writer need more talent? Absolutely not! Everything was polished, expertly implemented, and flawlessly executed. It just didn’t synch up with my own tastes and preferences.

Give that book to the right reader, and you may get a reaction that blows a hole through the lab roof. But for me, it was just a fizzle. At the same time, I have granted places of honor on my bookshelf for books that I found technically imperfect, but that completely blew my mind.

So, what makes a good book? It’s not science, after all.

I’m not saying there are no objective standards. We writers should create engaging characters, dynamic dialogue, and absorbing plots. But all these simple elements contribute to the overall goal of connecting to our readers. Sometimes I must remind myself of the human aspect.

A story may be flawless in execution and still lack heart. Don’t forget to leave your fingerprint on the stories you tell. Unlike chemistry, narrative is not an exact science. Finding a great book feels like making a new friend and not developing a new polymer. (Of course, as a decidedly NOT-chemist, I can only speculate.)

The people I meet are always flawed. The books I love usually aren’t either. But they can come from anywhere! I’ve loved stories from big five publishers, and I’ve loved stories from small presses. I’ve found some tremendous self-published titles and even found a few unpublished gems stashed away in desk drawers.

Stories are as unique as the people who tell them and as unforgettable as those who read them. And when a writer and a reader connect through the written word…


The Alchemy of Writing

Western Structures of Storytelling

Great Traditional Reads of 2023

Published by Writing Heights Writing Bug

A blog by writers for everyone interested in books, reading, writing, and just about everything in between.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: