Defining Good Writing (Possibly Sententious)

Child_lit was having one of its periodic discussions of about the definition of "good writing" this past week, so I wrote the bulk of the message below offering my perspective. Reposting it here, edited somewhat for blog form and further thoughts:

If you'll forgive some possible sententiousness on this question of judging good writing, there are five qualities I think about a lot when considering whether I want to acquire a manuscript:

1. Good prose. The sheen of the writing -- its quality on a sentence-by-sentence level. Sometimes this beauty is lyricism, sometimes it's personality (especially with a first-person voice, though that introduces questions about the character-building as well as the prose), sometimes it's just plain cleanliness (no redundancies, lack of awkwardness -- cleanliness is a great virtue). And also the movement of the writing, its sense of timing and pacing and flow in connecting those sentences together, turning them into paragraphs, and moving the narrative forward.

2. Character richness. Are they interesting people with some dimension to them? Do they show that depth and change as the book progresses? Do I care about them?

3. Plot construction. Do things happen? Why? How? Do the events make logical sense or do they grow out of coincidences and implausibilities? Are they surprising or utterly predictable? What's at stake?

4. Thematic depth. Is the writer interested in more than just telling a story -- is s/he trying to make that story mean or say something about being in the world (without hitting me over the head with it)? Is what he or she has to say original, or at the least a new take on an old thought?

5. Emotion. Can the writer catch me (and most readers) up in what the characters are feeling, particularly the viewpoint character? Or, if we're meant to have some distance from that character, get us readers feeling whatever emotion the writer intends us to feel? The emotion intended can vary widely, from sadness to terror to hilarity to peaceful quiet, depending on the story and characters; and it usually (but somehow not always) grows out of #1-4.

To be a literary success, a finished book has to be really strong in at least four of those categories, most importantly (to me) #2 and #5. It doesn't have to have equal strength in all of those; I read and reread Hilary McKay's Casson series more because I love the characters so much than because of their plot construction (although they ARE tremendously well-put-together in retrospect). And different readers will value #1-4 in different quantities depending on personal taste at different times -- sometimes I love a good plotty mystery and sometimes I like something with gorgeously lyrical writing. And having all five equals, I would say, masterpieces: the Harry Potter series and The Golden Compass and Because of Winn-Dixie and Holes.

But a book can work solely as an entertainment, a page-turner, as long as it has #5; and if that emotion is strong enough and exciting enough, the reader will keep reading even if they recognize and care about the lack of everything else. (Which, I have to say, lots of readers don't seem to.) This is especially true if that emotion is a temperature-raising one, like violence (The Hunger Games*) or deception/betrayal (The Da Vinci Code) or sex (Twilight). Not that I think The Hunger Games is solely a page-turner or succeeds only at #5 -- it's terrific at everything else as well. But that compulsion to keep reading grows out of the way the characters and the plot and even the very structure of the sentences are all built for speed and conflict. And at the other end of the scale, as I've said before, Twilight gets a D+ at best in 1-4, and yet it somehow gets an A for emotion, in the way it's able to grab even readers like me, who are rolling our eyes at the flatness of the prose, characters, and plot construction, and yet we just keep reading on.

However it happens, the stronger that successful emotional reaction, the more likely the reader is to think that book good; the stronger the word-of-mouth from the editor onward, and the more likely it is that that book will become a bestseller.