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Monday, January 30, 2012

Compelling Books

What makes a compelling book? You know the kind. The one you can't put down, that you read until three in the morning even though you have to get up for work at five. A book that so captures your imagination you want to stay in that world after the book ends to find out what comes next. The book you immediately reread to see what you missed first time around. The book you wished you'd written.

A few years ago, I considered writing Young Adult fiction. I had an idea for a story that started as the early years in one of my character's life—how she got to be the adult she is in one of my not-yet-published books. The story took on a life of its own and is nothing like my original concept. Before writing, I knew I needed to do market research. What did today's eleven-to-fourteen year olds read? I was sure it was a lot different from what I read when I was that age. I needed to read what was being published today. So, I asked my daughter who had been teaching middle school language arts for several years and whose master's degree is in children's literature. If anyone was up on what today's kids read, it would be her. She gave me a list. What a list! She loaned me several and I started working my way through the list. I found several fascinating books and authors whose other books I would try.

But something held me back from reading one book. I don't like reading about violence—especially, violence to children. Even when the third book in the series came out, I didn't understand all the hoop-la about it on writers' loops. Now, I do.

Never mind all the books in my TBR pile, at Christmas I borrowed all three books from my daughter. Last week, I finally started the first book. I couldn't put it down. The book carried me away making me ignore my own work in progress, laundry, even meals. Thank goodness for an understanding husband who threw in the wash and made dinner. I read until my eyes became gritty. Double thank goodness, I had the next two books. In three days, I read them all. I was stunned by how compelling the series was.

Now that I've tweaked your interest, you probably want to know which series it was. The Hunger Games. Those of you who've read the books are most likely rolling your eyes. Well, of course the books are compelling. What took you so long to see what everyone else has?

My original question still stands. What makes a book compelling? Is it the topic? In this case, children fighting children to the death is still not compelling to me. Triumph over adversity? Well, yes. But not enough. Is it the writing? When I find a great book, I try to dissect it, to figure out what made it so good. Inevitably, I'll start reading with intent to analyze and get so caught up in a story I've read two, three, six times I forget I'm supposed to be analyzing how the writer did it. Granted, I don't really like to analyze stories. I like to be entertained. I can usually tell you why a book isn't very good or, rather, why it didn't appeal to me. But, to analyze character, plot, narrative, dialogue? It doesn't come easy for me. It should if I want to be a better writer. With Suzanne Collins' books, I was blown away. I didn't want to know how she did it. It's like watching a magic show. When you know how the magician does it, something is lost. The magic, if you will. Maybe I don't really want to know how Collins wrote such compelling books. Maybe I just want to be entertained.

In the early days of my writing career, I read some books and thought I could write better than this. Pretty arrogant, right? Those books were published, mine weren't. I've read fabulous books and thought if I try hard enough I can do this. I have never read a book or series and thought I could never write anything this good. Until now. That's rather humbling.

What book(s) have you read that captivated you?


  1. I've spent sleepless nights with Robyn Carr's Virgin River series. They feature a town full of wonderful people with lots of problems and issues, but they all pull together in the end. I wonder if I could ever create such loveable characters and compelling stories. We'll just have to keep writing and not worry about comparing ourselves to these authors. Our characters are real to us, and that's what matters.

  2. Wonderful post, Diane! I haven't read The Hunger Games yet and will definitely be adding it to my TBR list. I only hope that one day someone will stay up until three a.m. reading my book because it was so compelling they couldn't put it down :)

  3. Hi Diane~
    You've certainly peaked my interest in Hunger Games and I don't read YA but the author has some kind of magic dust sprinkled in there to keep readers hooked. LOL and where can I buy some? It's rare these days that I find such a book, one that totally capitvates me to nothing else. Years ago I was in the Double-Day book club and couldn't wait for the monthly hard cover romances to be delivered. Probably mostly nostalgia, but I find myself re-reading those old 'bodice rippers' because the greats like, Kathleen Woodiwiss, Laurie McBain, or Rebecca Brandewyne were auto buys for me. I could read and Heather and Brandon's love story (characters from Flame & the Flower) over and over again. And Shanna...love that story too!

    Getting lost in a book, what a great post!!

  4. Thanks, Teresa, for the memories. I loved those old books. Wow, were they ever hot for that time!

    I want to know where to buy that magic dust, too.

  5. Diane, I also found Hunger Games a compelling read and I also didn't (don't) like the premise. I do wish I knew the magical formula that not only makes a book one you can't put down but also one you don't want to give away (so it sits on your shelf enticing you to read it again and again.)

  6. Hi Diane - Great post! I haven't read The Hunger Games, but I've heard they were brilliant. A recent book I couldn't put down was The Black Hawk by Joanna Bourne. I finished that one in two sittings, and for a writer with a full time day job and a young child, that wasn't easy to do!


  7. I'll say that wasn't easy, Alyssa. Good for you!

  8. Diane,
    I read this earlier today and wanted to reply right away -- but had to get to work.

    I really enjoyed this post. I totally know what you mean. There have been times when I think I'm crazy to stay up all hours of the night just to keep reading to see what will happen next or to finish a book. I often feel very guilty when I am glued to a chair and my husband is making dinner. (But, not enough to stop reading.) :)

    My daughter asked for (and received, of course) The Hunger Games trilogy for Christmas. She had already read the first but reread it after getting the set. I think these will be books she will read over and over. She tends to do that. (i.e. Harry Potter, The Twilight Series) Now she is anxiously waiting for the movie. Hopefully she won't be disappointed.

    1. I hope I won't be disappointed with the mvoie either, Anne. I'm so glad to hear someone else feels guilty about reading while husband is making dinner and still not doing anything about it.

  9. I was also captivated by the Hunger Games series. I wonder if one reason books are compelling is that for some reason, they speak to you and what you need at that point in your life. I have gone back to books years later that I read avidly and was surprised that the book didn't do anything for me. Couldn't get into it. Other books I have read over and over. I think that is also the reason why a book appeals to one person and not another. The more a book can touch a universal truth or need, the more it is going to read and appreciated by a large group of people.


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