For the last half year (or maybe even longer than that?) I cannot seem to find a book or story that just absolutely blows me away; something that I’d call amazing; something that sticks with me long after I’ve finished; something I want to tell everyone about and buy copies for. I’ve read a string of really good books in many different genres, but nothing amazing. I was talking to my book club gals about it last night and one of them suggested that I might have just grown to be a more critical reader, or have started judging more harshly. I’ve been thinking about that ever since, and I’ve really been trying to figure out how I judge a book. What matters the most to me? So I thought it best to break down my grading criteria, and what it takes to get me to that five-star mark with a book.
- Writing – I cannot stress how distracting poor writing is to me. Obviously, the odd typo, misspelling or grammatical error can be forgiven. I am often horrified by things I’ve missed in my own published works so I know how even the most critical writer can make mistakes and the best editors can miss things, but poor writing goes beyond mechanical errors. Parroted clichés, poor organization of plot and dialogue, weakly-drawn characters, stretching believability to the breaking point, inconsistent characterizations, obvious filler crap, poorly-disguised preaching and hastily buttoned-up endings (one of my biggest pet peeves) can all ruin a story for me. If I am so distracted by the poor writing, it wouldn’t matter if the story was the best yarn ever spun. Imagination without talent is lost on me.
- Predictability – On the flipside of poor writing, if a book is written well but has a lumpy, listless plot with an ending I can see from chapter one, I cannot get behind it. This is a most frustrating scenario because when I find a witty writer, someone who colors scenes a bit differently, I get excited. I think Yes! This is finally it – what I’ve been looking for! Then…the buzzkill. It’s easy for writers to jump on the bandwagon of whatever is trending out there. It’s also a copout. For someone who reads an inordinate amount of stories, I can spot a knockoff a mile away. I don’t want the same plot sequences regurgitated in a different setting. I’ve been there, done that. Take me somewhere new!
- Emoting – Folks, I gotta care about the characters. I have to feel for them, even the villains. I have to care enough to dislike the bad guys and cheer for their downfalls. I have to cry when the heroes and heroines cry. My heart has to break for their sorrows and whoop for their triumphs. I guess this ties back to number one on this list. If the characters are well-developed and thoroughly written, this will naturally happen. If it doesn’t? Bye-bye five stars.
- Depth – Please don’t insult me by assuming I don’t care about the details. Because I do. I realize this is a matter of personal preference, but hey, we’re talking about my personal preferences, here. I want the details. Sure, titillate my senses, but take me beneath the skin as well. The dedication of the writer is found in the details. I can tell how much he/she has researched, how much he/she’s devoted to fleshing out a person or a storyline, even how much he/she cares about delivering something epic versus delivering something mainstream by what he/she puts into the details. If a writer doesn’t care enough to pour his/her heart and soul into the story, why should I? Good storyline and dialogue are like the pretty petals of a flower. The details are the rich soil. If there’s not much there, that flower’s going to wither away pretty quickly.
- The WOW – I know this is different for everyone. Some people are easily impressed. I don’t happen to be one of them. If an author manages to “wow” me in any way, I’ll be running to rate it five stars, but as I’ve said before, I’ve read a ton. There’s not a lot I haven’t read already. I want to be “wowed” but in a way that is realistic. Don’t come out of left-field with something that doesn’t make any sense. Be smart. I’m smart, so I want a writer to write smart. The truth is, if a writer can get 1-4 right, then that will take care of number five.
Is any of this too much to ask? I’m always eager for recommendations. Trust me, I want to read that five-star book. I need to read it. I need to know that amazing writing still exists. I’m getting a little tired of my four-star funk!