Shropshire author J.A. Gordon – rules for a good book

I did it. I finished my new book, Glimpses of Eternity, last week. It’s now ‘cooking’ for a week prior to my editing and polishing it before sending it off to the publisher when it acquires a life of its own. Writing is a lonely business. No-one can write your book other than you since no-one else knows how the plot will turn out and whether this or that character will survive. Writing is a mixture of skills and each of them is employed at every stage of the process so a good writer is someone capable of dealing with several differently sized plates and keeping them all spinning.

In order to produce a readable work of fiction, the writer needs first to know what he or she is writing about, that is, unless you are inventing a whole new world (and post-apocalyptic books are very fashionable at the moment) the book must be factually correct. In order to achieve this you need to know what you don’t know and where to find the answers. Obviously, the internet and Wikipedia are invaluable here and, in my case, replaced years of study at the British Library but, unless you know something of the subject matter in the first place, you run the risk of making a mistake since you will not know the extent of your lack of knowledge.

Then the writer needs a plot or plots and this is probably the moment when you need to decide whether your book is to be ‘literary’ or not. The hallmark of a literary work is that the prose is lapidary but not very much happens and plot, if present at all, takes a back seat. In ‘popular’ (i.e. books that people actually read and enjoy) fiction, plot tends to be foremost and, in some genres (Action &Adventure and Crime, for example) plot is nearly everything and characterisation is only superficial.

In popular fiction you need several plots points and twists. Truly talented story tellers like Jeffrey Archer (yes, Jeffrey Archer) work into their plots a mixture of short and long plot points. The long plot points are laid at the beginning of the story to hook the reader into wanting to know what happens at the end and the short plot points keep him/her entertained while turning the pages. The very successful TV series, Mad Men, is a superb example of a beautifully plotted story with twists and turns and events which seem to come from nowhere but the strands have discreetly been laid sometimes in a much earlier episode.

Then you need to know your characters. In a good book, they should be well-rounded with a hinterland that is unconnected with the plot. It is important if a character is to feel real, that we know something of his or her life outside the main story. For example, in a crime novel, if our hard-bitten Italian detective has a secret love of English country dancing this makes us feel that we know him better than if we had observed him only in the execution of his duties. In order to be interesting though, the hinterland must be quite different from the plot so that a detective whose hinterland was reading Agatha Christie novels would not tell us anything about the character which we did not already know.

Characterisation matters less if your book is very plot driven and the reader is expecting only thrills and spills but it is instant death to any credibility you may have gained with your readers if either your characters or your plot show inconsistencies. You know the sort of thing I mean – a man who has previously been upright and law abiding suddenly takes a bribe or a woman leaves the house in a green coat and comes back home in a blue dress – this is lazy and unacceptable and it just makes the reader question everything else in the book.

The need for consistency is there in all works and is something the writer needs constantly to keep in his or her head but is a much greater burden when one is writing a series of books and must keep up with the characters’ ages and stages of life, world events, relationships and interaction with the plot; in my new book, there are quite a few births and I was often sitting at my laptop counting out the months on my fingers to ensure that there were no two year nor five month pregnancies.

In my view, a plot, irrespective of the genre, needs light and shade. Every day reality is a mixture of happiness, grief, humour and tragedy and I see no reason why art should not imitate life. Shakespeare knew a thing or two about story telling and he was always careful to lighten the clouds of his tragedies with a little strategically placed humour.

Above all, I think that a book needs to be readable and, in addition to the non-negotiable rules of grammar, syntax, spelling and punctuation, the writer needs to ensure that his/her book is accessible to his/her target readership.

Well, there you have it, J. A. Gordon’s rules for a good book. Anyone fancy trying their hand at it?

Book Review – David Nicholls – One Day

My choice of book for review this month is a one with a very clever plot. David Nicholls ‘One Day’ chronicles the on-off relationship of Emma and Dexter from their failed attempt at consummation the night after graduation from Edinburgh University on St Swithun’s day through the friendship of their twenties and early thirties when dowdy working-class but brilliant Emma’s yearning for posh, handsome, charming Dexter makes uncomfortable reading for any girl who ever felt provincial or dull. The main plot point, apart from wanting to know whether Em and Dexter will ever fall into one another’s arms is that the action takes place on St Swithun’s day every year in which we are given insights into Em and Dex’s lives. This is very neatly done and, having read other David Nicholl books, I would say that he is a wonderful plotter and a brilliant observer of what it was like to be a young Metropolitan in the nineties.

The book’s characters left me cold though. I quickly ran out of sympathy with Em and her bloody minded attachment to her plain-girl haircut and Doc Martens while I felt that Dexter was bordering on repellent as a personality. This meant that the only thing which kept me reading was curiosity as to whether they would ever get together. I did finish the book and won’t spoil it for anyone who has not read it but I felt that the big plot twist was just a bit cheap and too convenient for someone who was looking for a way to bring it all to an end. One day is available in hard copy, e-book and audio-book formats ****

By J.A. Gordon

More articles by Shropshire based author J.A. Gordon:
J.A. Gordon – Shropshire Writer in Residence
Discovering e-publishing and Tamara Drewe book review
The bane of Christmas Books and Living Life Without Loving the Beatles Review
Shropshire author J.A. Gordon talks about every writer’s nightmare
Shropshire author J.A. Gordon – rules for a good book
Shropshire author J.A. Gordon – The Loneliness of the long distance writer
Shropshire author J.A. Gordon – Where do you get your ideas?
Shropshire author J.A. Gordon – Jeremy’s tweet and the launch party

All about J.A. Gordon

Judith Gordon is a barrister and was an in-house lawyer and long distance commuter for twenty years before redundancy made her see that there is life after the corporate rat race.

She moved to Shropshire in 2007 with her husband and adores the fabulous food and spectacular scenery although recent winters have been a bit of a trial. In addition to her writing, Judith is Strategy Director of face2face solicitors a national franchise. Judith’s books are available online and from booksellers, see for more information.