Is Writing a Good Book Impossible?

Mona Lisa


For purposes of this blog I am defining a “good book” as a book worth reading.

I understand that is a totally subjective criterion, for reading books is a totally subjective experience, and each reader brings her own tastes to her reading chair.

With that definition out of the way, let’s talk about the process of writing a good book.

One thing I have observed at writers conferences and in blogs about writing is the current of opinion that stands for the proposition that producing a good book is something few, if any, human beings can attain.

I’ll call that the Mona Lisa Syndrome, MLS for short.

Proponents of MLS make it their life’s goal to erect as many roadblocks as possible on the road to authorship.

Their task is easy, for anyone can divide the craft of writing into an mosaic of a thousand essential pieces, the absence of one piece of which renders the entire work flawed and incomplete.

Think of the rules we hear on the subject of writing.

writing rules

Use all the senses.

Make dialog sing.

“Don’t use attribution tags,” she said.

Plot each scene before you put a pen to paper to write the book.

Don’t be a plotter.

Follow the three part structure.

Use cliffhangers.

Have a big bang on page four, another at page one hundred, a third at page two hundred.

Don’t use big bangs.

Let character drive the plot.

Make sure action drives the plot.

Don’t re-write anything until you finish the entire manuscript.

Begin each day re-writing your work from the day before.

The Hero with a Thousand Faces

Be sure you have a hero, villain, sidekick and mentor.

Read a lot of books about writing.

Don’t read books about writing.

Be formulaic.

Don’t follow a formula.

Have two scenes in mind before you write another word.

Let the writing create scenes in your head as you go along.

Join a critique group.

Stay the hell away from critique groups.

Hire a writing coach.

Work in isolation and don’t show your work to anyone until it is polished and re-polished.

Hire a professional editor and pay attention to her edits.

Stick to your guns and leave your story as it came to you.

Write genre fiction.

Just write the story you have in your heart and worry about genre after the fact, if at all.

Read the classics of western civilization before you try to write anything.

Read only bestselling books no more than two years old.

Write your manuscript like a screenplay.

Make sure your book’s language is richer than that found in movies.

When you finish your manuscript put it in a drawer and re-write the book from scratch.

Don’t re-write at all.

Master point of view before you dare write a word.

A little head-hopping doesn’t hurt.


Okay.  You could add a hundred of such truisms of your own to the list.

The Mona Lisa Syndrome would have any author possess writing chops equivalent to Leonardo Da Vinci’s artistic ability.

If that be true, we are all screwed.

I suppose you can tell that I am not an adherent of the Mona Lisa Syndrome.

I understand the importance of craft and hope always to improve and learn as a writer. But, I am in the school that says that the creative process brings with it all the tools a writer needs to write a good book.

Jory Sherman said it this way to me once, “All that you need to write your book is already within you.”

It is the opposite approach to the MLS, for it frees the author to let what is within him escape onto the page, teaching him as he goes.

When the author catches that vision and realizes she is equal to the task before her, she will write a good book.


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  • James Callan

    I’ve heard Jory say that very thing. But, he did not say it would produce a “good
    book” as you have defined good book. So, I’m going to offer my definition of a “good book.”

    A good book is one that pleases the author. If I write a book that really pleases me, I’m happy. If the book resonates with me, I think it is a good book. What if others
    like it? That’s a much appreciated bonus. On the other hand, if I write a book that others like, and even buy, but I don’t like it, I won’t call it a good book. Maybe it’s financially successful, but do I think it’s good? Maybe not.

    I don’t think I’m really disagreeing with Stephen. I’m simply defining who thinks it’s a book worth reading.

    Thanks, Stephen, for a thought provoking blog.

  • Linda Hamonou

    I love this post. Every time I see writers put up rules and my manuscript breaking them I cringe. There are a lot of good books out there. I read whatever I please. And as incredible as it may seems, they are all different. So keep the good writing up.

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