Most books begin in the hole because they try only to entertain or only to educate; this happens because the statistical total of writers perceive one or the other as unworthy or undesirable. Writers fail to realize that the reader won't notice if an academic book is entertaining or if an escapist book happens to educate, if the book is written well. Part of this prejudice comes from the belief that all entertaining books are escapist and all educational books are academic - ie., either silly or boring.
The pretense to writing a book for one or the other purpose then obscures the deeper value in writing a book: to create readers. Whether the reader is entertained or educated is a matter of taste, not success; neither has much to do with whether or not a book is necessarily good.
Then what makes a good book? This has been on my mind lately, for good reason, as I am on the hook now for creating a good book and I very much want to do that. Towards that end, I'm limited by my experience with other books, good or bad. Once upon a time, if I had written this essay, I would have gotten entrenched in discussions about plot, character, theme and whatnot, very much the sort of literature anyone can read on the IMDb user reviews page about what makes a good film.
More and more, however, I find myself thinking in these terms: what makes a good chair?
It is far more obvious to the average person what elements must exist to make a chair function as it does. It must be of a certain height for its purpose, it must have a certain comfort, it must endure, it must support weight, it must fit into a given space and so on. A comfortable chair may be too heavy or large for the room where it lives; a kitchen chair may be too low for the table; a swivel chair may turn too fast or fail to adjust sufficiently. Everyone inherently understands this because everyone spends much of their day sitting on some kind of surface. Terms like "character" or "theme" are too abstract to be understood - and are therefore useless in conveying a sense of what makes a good book.
I feel that too often writers tend to get wrapped up in story. Not that a story - a sequence of events leading to a result - doesn't have merit, but because "a" story is not enough for a novel. If the writer sits to tell the tale of one story, the reader will feel as much interest for the book as you or I would if our friend spent eight or nine hours relaying the tale of his recent "adventure" to Morocco (this is why travelogues are death).
The reader should not presume that I am therefore saying that a book should have three or four stories, as I have often seen argued with respect to both books and film. Three or four stories are not enough. Ten stories are not enough. The failing comes where we perceive that "stories" are large singular pieces that somehow fall into a line from the beginning to the end of the book. As I age and write and gather my senses together regarding the principles of writing, I begin to see how a book is a literal cloud of stories, thrown together into a pile that seems haphazard and indistinct until a moment comes in the work where the reader suddenly grasps that we have been making a chair.
I will try to explain this using two metaphors. The first is the chair itself. The craftsman does not begin by making a "chair"; the first step isn't even the making of an arm or a leg. Instead, the wood itself is selected from a forest of wood, the particular element being sought after being a complete mystery to any of us who will one day buy the chair. If we imagine ourselves walking alongside each craftsman selecting the source wanted, we will see different things resulting from different craftsmen. If we don't know what the craftsman does; and if the craftsman fails to educate us with words; compelling us to observe and learn by degrees as we follow the process of wood to object, object to shape, shape to composition, it will take some time before we realize what sort of craftsman we have met - or indeed, what sort of chair has been formed.
The writer does not have the benefit of there being set dictates and traditions for what sort of book may be written. The practice is far, far less stringent than making a chair. Therefore it is up to the writer to decide how much peculiar stretch should be put into the writing itself - and it is in this 'stretch' that I code the value of the book. It is in this 'stretch' that I perceive the plenitude of stories that are there to be told.
To express this, consider a scene where a constable goes to a cottage to interview the resident there. We might expect the writer to write the scene thusly:
"The constable arrived and went to the door, knocking upon it."
Or we might write the scene from the viewpoint of the resident who is interviewed:
"Sitting in a chair, the resident heard a knock on the door."
We might remove the door from the scene, enabling the character to see the constable approach and to have the constable see the character:
"As the constable approached, he raised his hand to the resident; the resident waved back and together they approached each other."
This feels a bit better and the reader will find writers stretching for this sort of greeting all the time. Unfortunately, it is also common, both to the writing of books and the experience of readers; so we might add to it by altering the environment or the character's reaction to it:
"The constable strode forward through the snow, brushing it away as he approached; the resident held his hands in front of his mouth and blew upon them, to warm them, before raising his hand in greeting. The constable waved back."
The stretch gets better as we consider more and more elements in the environment:
"To reach the cottage in the deep snow, the constable had resorted to a donkey. The donkey plowed through the snow towards the cottage, its snorting drawing the attention of the resident, who was busy with an axe chopping wood. The resident put down the axe, wiped sweat from his brow in the cold air and watched the donkey and the constable approach."
Step by step, we slowly understand how the small events of this one moment in the book becomes a story unto itself. Both characters are engaged; both characters are revealed a little by what they are doing that morning. The more we add to what they are doing, and why, and how it affects them, the better the small story becomes; and the better the small story frames itself in the minds of the reader, who will remember this miniature tale as the greater book progresses.
Thus we come to how I have described the scene for my novel, the Fifth Man (taken out of context, so I have inserted a word or two that wouldn't be in the paragraph):
"When I stopped in my labour, the silence between the [distant chantry] bells strained the patience of my ears as I listened for an approach. When it came, after chopping wood enough to see us through until the dead of winter passed, I saw a figure. It came along through the trees with a steady call to a beast; I knew from the voice that it was not my father. It was Chaulders. Unequal to the task of climbing the track to our cottage, he was instead mounted upon a donkey that breasted its way forward. He knocked at it with a stick, swaying in the saddle like a sailor on a spar, threatening to go over one side or the other into a bank. Instead, he made progress towards me, until he saw me there and lifted a hand to give greeting. This sent him askew - and for a moment his bulk wavered on the precipice. He quickly knotted both his hands in the donkey’s bridle and mane and held on. The donkey brayed in anger and mortification. A false step might have sent them both off the trail and tumbling down the hill, but the donkey earned its provender; with courageous effort, the constable righted himself. He flashed a grin in triumph and I doffed my hat to him."
As long as I can provide enough stretch as I write forward, the book I am writing will be a fine book, and it will not depend if I have embraced a philosophy of entertainment or education. I have embraced a philosophy of making a good chair.