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What Makes a Good Book ‘Good’? (One Author’s Vulnerable Journey)

When it’s time to listen to that call on your heart to write a book, get ready to be vulnerable and face the inner gremlins.

As an introverted teen who would rather read a book than go to a party, I might have described what makes a good book ‘good’ as “a book I can’t put down and finish within 24 hours”.

In March 2020, when the pandemic shut the world down, I was delighted the new novel I had ordered arrived on my doorstep just in time. I devoured The Threshing in the first 24 hours of quarantine–so that definitely qualifies as a good book, right?

Thrilling YA dystopian fiction wouldn’t have been my normal pick. Think The Matrix meets The Hunger Games. For any fans of either book or movie, that would be enough incentive to buy the book. But I’m more often drawn to a cozy mystery vibe. Also, I already knew much of what was going to happen.

The Threshing was more than a riveting good book. It symbolized the toil, tears and triumph of author Tim Grahl learning what makes a good book ‘good’.

The Story

The Threshing begins with twelve-year-old Jessie breaking into someone’s home to steal credits. Within the first few pages, you realize the dystopian society she lives in is full of oppression, misery and scarcity.

To survive the devastation in their land, everyone is living in “the grid”, a virtual world where people mine credits for food rations and hone simulated skills. Jessie’s gifted enough to have the gumption to hack into the system and live in reality. When she’s caught stealing, the mayor gives her an ultimatum: to represent her faction in The Threshing.

All she knows about The Threshing is that it has two rules:

  1. If you win, you survive
  2. If you lose, everyone you love slowly starves to death.

Jesse has no idea how much her giftedness will be put to the test.

***

Tim wove a tight story and kept it moving through every scene.

I consciously had to slow down amid suspense to visualize the scene. He offers just enough description to imagine the scene. It was a little startling to realize I’d entered a scene of beds lined up with cords handing down from above, plugged into the back of people’s necks. The characters kept me guessing on who would be reliable and who would be the villain. By the end of the book, I felt that familiar sad satisfaction of reading a well-written story and sorry that it ended.

So if sci-fi isn’t my thing, what compelled this book to rise to the top of my list?

To me, this book represents far more than can’t-put-the-book-down calibre. It symbolizes the quest and transformation of finding out what makes a good book ‘good’.

An Author’s Burning Question: How Do I Write A Good Book?

I first stumbled across Tim Grahl as the Book Launch guy, while I was writing the first draft of my non-fiction book. He’d been helping authors like Daniel Pink (Drive, To Sell is Human), Charles Duhigg (The Power of Habit) and Hugh Howey (Wool series) launch their books to bestseller lists. I connected with his methodical approach but was far from launching my book, so I saved Tim’s emails for another time.

Then he started talking about his new memoir, Running Down a Dream: Your Road Map to Winning Creative Battles, which sounded like a similar genre to the book I was working on. His opening chapter sample hooked me into buying a copy. With raw, honest vulnerability, Tim told the journey of building his dream business. Page after page, I felt he had somehow peaked into my soul as a fledgling entrepreneur. At times, reading it felt like that guilty trance when you can’t look away from someone’s private journal or a car accident.

Writer Deanne Welsh described it this way: “This book is a look into the soul of a writer as he traverses the creative dessert and battles towards the meaning and freedom he craves. It is a deeply personal field guide for writers and creatives. Tim unflinchingly bares the naked truth behind all creations and shares the practical to-do list to take you from here to there.”

There I was, with my messy first draft, feeling lost and incompetent, trying to figure out what to do next. I needed a tried-and-true process to work through the stages of editing. Was there anything that could help me transform the “vomit on a page” first draft to the “polish up punctuation and grammar” sixth draft? Was there a structure or approach that could help me objectively know what words to cut, rearrange and rewrite? How could I share my message as and as compelling as he had?

Since I had been so entranced by Running Down a Dream, I started looking up content Tim might have shared about his own editing process. It didn’t take long before I discovered the writer’s goldmine I had been looking for: The StoryGrid and Tim’s quest to figure out how to write a story that works.

Book Launch Coach to Struggling Writer: Tim’s Secret Desire

After ten years of establishing a successful business and authoring two how-to books, Tim Grahl admitted a secret desire: he wanted to write a novel.

The idea of writing a novel terrified him for a couple of reasons. First, although he was proficient in the blogging and book world, he had never written a novel before. Figuring out how to tell a story worth reading felt like a daunting mission.

Second, he had just spent years teaching authors that they needed to be known primarily for one genre, to avoid reader confusion. In a world of noisy competition, confusion and ambiguity repels and clarity attracts. Basically, he’d be starting from scratch to build a following for this novel, and he’d risk disconnecting with his established business in writing it.

What he needed was a guide–someone who knew what they were doing to show him what makes a good book ‘good’.

Learning to Write a ‘Good Book’ Starts with Humility and Vulnerability

Tim approached Shawn Coyne, a top editor with 25 years of experience in traditional publishing houses. Shawn had developed an editing methodology called the StoryGrid that he used to understand and explain what makes a story work. He asked Shawn to coach Tim on how to write a compelling story — for free. In the spirit of one person helping another, Tim offered his skills to turn their weekly conversations into a podcast so more people could find out about StoryGrid.

Shawn agreed, and soon Tim was learning about The Object of Desire, Conflict, Genre Conventions, and Value Shifts in scenes. The plan was to run the podcast for a few months. But Shawn and Tim had no idea how hungry serious other struggling authors were. Week after week, Tim showed up with a scene he had written and questions he had about the process, ready for Shawn to dissect it. Fans multiplied, listing week after week for camaraderie and methodology that would help them become better writers. Shawn taught Tim even more topics, such as how to work through writers’ resistance, how to create believable characters, to how to determine the core scenes.

At one point, Tim paused his struggle with his novel to ask for Shawn’s insights on his writer’s block in Running Down a Dream. I spent an entire Saturday binging those episodes

Three and a half later, The Threshing was finally ready to be published, and I was one of hundreds of followers eagerly adding the novel to my Amazon cart. The podcast was still going strong with 120 episodes and the fans kept multiplying.

Essentials to Writing a Good Book…and More

Any lesson on the essentials of what makes a good book ‘good’, whether a fiction or narrative non-fiction, will include things like:

  • Clear Structure and Genre Conventions: crafting a clear and well-defined structure, and outlining the key beats and milestones helps a narrative remain focused and cohesive.
  • Character Development: shaping authentic and multidimensional characters helps create emotional resonance with readers
  • Conflict and Tension: introducing obstacles and dilemmas helps foster intrigue and curiosity, keeping readers eagerly turning the pages.
  • Emotional Arc: crafting a compelling emotional arc for a narrative, and exploring themes of struggle, growth, and transformation, fosters empathy with readers
  • Revision and Iteration: refining storytelling craft layer by layer, supported by expert feedback, helps enhance the quality and impact of the book
  • Authentic Voice: cultivating an authentic voice with vulnerability and honesty in your writing allows your unique personality and perspective to shine through.

And while all those things are true, some books are great because they represent your transformation as an author or a bridge to the impact you long to make. Because it represents the vulnerability and perseverance it takes to pursue a dream. Your secret dream to write a book has so much more potential than the possibility of a dream fulfilled or accomplishing a project. That book in your heart that won’t go away –what if God has entrusted it to you for a reason?

Write a book as a catalyst for personal growth and an inspiration of hope for someone else. In the resistance, in the falling, in the learning, you’ll persevere and you won’t come out the same. When you pick yourself up from a struggle, someone will be inspired to take their own courageous step.

Along the way, you’ll discover what makes a good book ‘good’.

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