Friday, February 10, 2017


It’s that time of year again, when those of us with either a competitive bent or a masochistic streak hit the big writing contest circuit. Or, more precisely, when our books or manuscripts are being judged on that circuit. That also means some of us, at least, are serving as judges of our peers’ work or mentoring unpublished authors in manuscript contests.

I must have “Punish Me” (or maybe “Bwahahahahaha!”) written in big letters on my forehead, because I actually enjoy serving as a judge. It’s such a rush to discover gold among the dross—a feeling I’m sure agents and editors share. And over the years, I’ve developed a little system to rate the books I read, in the absence of any guidance from the contest chair. (To be clear, if the contest chair provides the rating system, I use that.)

Any reader uses a similar system when she reads our books, whether she knows it or not. It’s called “What goes on my keeper shelf?” 

If your keeper shelf looks like this, you may need to cull a few!
The criteria that each reader chooses to put a specific book on the keeper shelf certainly varies from reader to reader. What you think is important is surely different from what I think is important. Lord knows, every agent and editor has his or her own, sometimes unfathomable, list. But one thing we all can agree on is that every author wants to end up on that shelf, and not in the Goodwill box.

So, here’s what I look for in a “keeper,” both when I’m judging, and when I’m reading for pleasure:

1)    Compelling characters. All my favorite authors, no matter what the genre, write memorable characters. Stephen King’s hometown sheriffs, Christine Feehan’s Carpathians, J.R. Ward’s tortured modern vamps, Eloisa James’s witty Regency royalty, Linnea Sinclair’s tough spacers—I love them all. Even good nonfiction (and I read a fair amount of it) must have its intriguing heroes, heroines and villains, or it becomes just a dry recitation of facts.

2)    A great adventure. Whether the book is fiction or nonfiction, the author has to keep me wanting to know what happens next. In a romance, of course, this works on two levels—what happens between the lovers and what happens to the lovers. In both cases, the problems have to be big and they have to be complex to keep my interest. But this is not just about plotting, either internal or external. It’s also about pacing. A dysfunctional hero and heroine can have big, complex problems, but if all they do is talk about them for 400 pages, I’m out.

3)    An evocative setting. Most people read to escape in some way, and I’m no exception. I want a book to take me somewhere, to make me really feel like I’ve been there when I return to my living room. For that I need the details—the sights, the sounds, the smells, the bite of cold, the crunch of gravel. As Laurie so aptly put it in her post this week, I need to smell the roses. Note that I didn’t say “an exotic setting.” An author can take me to Small Town, USA, as contemporary romance writer Kristan Higgins does, and I’ll be happy, as long as she provides the comforting sights and sounds of home.

4)    Spectacular craft. I can enjoy a book if the story is good and the characters well-drawn, even if the author’s style is merely competent. I can tolerate it if the story is great, even if the author’s style makes me step out of that story every few pages to shake my head at a gaff in diction or sentence structure. But those books won’t land on my keeper shelf. Keepers are the ones where I stop every few chapters and go, “Oh, my God, how did she do that?” They’re the ones that make me want to flag a particularly beautiful turn of phrase or piece of dialogue. I have whole shelves devoted to authors who consistently make me do that—Linda Howard, Nalini Singh, Ursula K. Leguin, and all the writers mentioned above.

5)    The wow factor. Outstanding performance by an author can deliver a jolt that brings me up out of my seat in unexpected delight. I might find myself laughing or crying or whooping in triumph, but that emotion is almost always followed by “wow!” The wow factor is all about respect for what the author has been able to accomplish in eliciting that emotion. For that to happen, everything in the book has to be clicking on all cylinders—character, plot, setting, craft. Wow.

I must admit not every book on my keeper shelf has that wow factor. And in judging, that’s on the order of extra credit. Still, the criteria for my keeper shelf are pretty strict. There’s only so much room in my bookcase, after all. I imagine every reader’s keeper shelf is just as limited. Something to think about as I write that next book.

What do you look for in a keeper? Do you have favorite authors who always land on your keeper shelf?

Cheers, Donna

1 comment:

  1. Great blog, Donna! And a good question for authors to ask themselves: what made THIS book a keeper?

    Two of the things I look for in a book--beyond the usual suspects of great characters and spellbinding plot--is how the author turns a phrase. Some can paint such amazing portraits and complex twists with minimal words (Barbara Elsborg comes to mind). Others can write with such clever dry wit that I have to chuckle even when I'm terrified (Ann Aguirre is one). A few craft words in a way that always makes the story sound fresh and dynamic (Kimberly Kincaid). And a handful can write a book so compelling that it's still in my head many years later (like Sandra McDonald's The Outback Stars or Linnea Sinclair's Games of Command).

    The true measure of a keeper for me? A story so well told that it pulls me in, wraps me up in the characters' lives, reaches a heart-pounding, all-is-lost climax and then does the impossible by delivering a "laugh out loud with happy tears running down my face" conclusion.

    Because books are experiences, and those are the experiences I want to savor again and again.


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