In this new TAI blog series, we interview professionals from across the world of books—authors and publishers, agents and booksellers—asking them each the same question: “What makes a book work?”
For this first article, we spoke with YA and children’s book author Dave Connis. Hailing from Chattanooga, Tennessee, Connis is a UX writer by day and fiction writer by night. His latest novel, Suggested Reading, tells the story of an intrepid teen who starts an underground library for banned books in her locker. Our conversation ranged from Connis’ journey navigating the world of professional writing and getting published to the joys of worldbuilding and research for fiction, but it always circled back to the central question:
What makes a book work?
“Literally no one knows,” Connis answered. “If everybody knew, then everybody would be able to write a commercial success and authors would be able to quit their daytime jobs. So, is there a magic formula that makes a book work? No. That said, command of craft is going to be a big differentiator.”
The way Connis sees it, there are three different kinds of craft that an aspiring author needs to master in order to write a successful book: Writing Craft; Story Craft; and Genre/Medium Craft.
In this framework, Writing Craft is essentially an author’s command of language—not only their ability to write clear, grammatically correct prose, but to do so with a unique style and voice. More often than not, readers like a book not just because they enjoy the plot or find the subject interesting, but because the way the author writes—the poetry of their language or the clarity of their explanations.
Story Craft is all about how to structure the pieces of a plot.
“There are general rules for storytelling,” Connis explained. “At the beginning of a story, the hero—the main character—wants something, but then a conflict is introduced that keeps the hero from getting that something. So now the hero has to overcome that obstacle, but they need a guide or an event or some sort of new knowledge to overcome it. So they go on a quest to get that knowledge, and then they have to face a bunch of challenges: obstacle, overcome; obstacle, overcome; obstacle, overcome. Then finally you get to the climax where they either get the thing that they started off wanting or they don’t. Those are just the basic fundamentals of story and people connect with that [structure.] When you start breaking those rules or when they aren’t clear, your readers disconnect pretty quickly.”
Finally, Genre/Medium Craft is all about ensuring that your content is a good fit for the type of book and specific audience for which an author is writing.
“What works for writing a novel doesn’t necessarily work for writing a comic book,” Connis said. “What works for YA books won’t work for middle grade readers.”
From subject matter to formatting, writing dialogue to choosing what kind of curse words to include, knowing how to make the minute adjustments to tailor a particular story for a particular audience or medium can make a huge difference in whether a book hits or misses.
Mastering each of these elements is, by Connis’s reckoning, a prerequisite to writing a good book. But even with a solid grasp of craft, writers sometimes get too close to their work and fail to see the holes in their own stories. Connis himself struggles with this.
“Writing clear motivations has always been one of my weaknesses,” he confessed. “I get distracted by the fictional world I’m building, writing about this cool thing and that cool thing, and then the hero’s motivations end up being almost a side plot. I typically know I got it wrong when someone gives me feedback like ‘I feel like you could start your book here instead of there,’ and that place is like 50 pages into the book—which means the motivation isn’t clear until that point.”
In other words, mastery of craft is key to success, but insufficient in and of itself. Without external feedback from readers bringing unique perspectives, there will always be blind spots.
“You’re always going to think your book is great,” he added. “But if you can’t pitch it in a way that gets people’s attention, if your book description or your plot wanders all over the place, or if it’s something that only you would be interested in, that’s probably not going to get you very far.”