Every year, we see a spate of lists of the best or outstanding books for that year. Why do some books land in that category while other perfectly fine books don’t? What makes a book outstanding?
Outstanding can, of course, mean different things. Most easily it means big sales. If that’s the case then a lot of readers responded to that book, which is not to be sneezed at.
A second meaning for “outstanding” might be that while the book has fewer sales, literary professors, librarians, or expert readers in a genre sit up and take notice of it as something they don’t see every day that has been handled exceptionally well.
When I think about books I put in the “outstanding” category, I come up with a handful of qualities.
The book has more “doors”
I’ve written about this before. It’s the theory that readers find their way into a book through one of four doors: character, plot, setting, and language. A book with big readership probably has more of those doors open and open more widely.
Some books use an innovative style that reveals a truth more deeply and also simply entertains readers who are jaded from having read too many books that start to sound alike. Sometimes the style element is minor. For instance, much young adult fiction uses first person and present tense because of the immediacy that creates. I see present tense creeping into more adult fiction too, displacing the traditional third person past tense. Eventually an element like that becomes commonplace and loses its ability to make the reader feel its novelty and pay attention.
Sometimes the style element is major. Here I’d offer the stripped down prose of Cormac McCarthy, whose writing leaves us with a stark experience of emotion partly because he refuses to offer us help and comfort in getting there.
I honestly don’t know how writers come to an innovative style. Of everything I list here, that seems to me to depend most on the genius of the writer.
A story that hasn’t been told before
Topics that have previously been excluded can startle us by what they tell us about our world. As examples, I’d offer stories of racial justice or LGBTQ lives. In YA fantasy, stories that draw on Asian or Latin American mythology and backgrounds offer a welcome change from stories based on the European Middle Ages.
A topical story
Sometimes stories are right for the moment. Right now, that might mean stories with an environmental thread. I suspect Where the Crawdads Sing interested readers partly because of that. There are also a large number of books about World War II, though that wave may have crested and passed.
Can a writer try to write an outstanding book?
A writer probably can’t aim for “outstanding” with any degree of success. There are no guarantees in writing and even fewer in publishing. But a writer can look at the qualities I list and ask themselves if there are any possibilities there for stretching their work. Is there any way a door could be opened more widely?
A former street kid, now training to be the king’s advisor, Jarka can’t stop hunting whoever’s grabbing street kids–even after the king orders him to back off. He also can’t stop wondering why the king ordered that.
$3.99 e-book $14.99 paperback (temporarily sale priced at $8.00)