There are easy ways to sort the wheat from the chaff when it comes to business thrillers.
Reading time: 8 minutes
Corporate novels are read by people who don’t have much time; that’s a given. All the more important to quickly check whether a book is worth investing dozens of hours. You can screen out the really bad ones immediately by the quality of the cover and the copywriting. But once you have done so, it gets trickier. Today, there is also no correlation between the quality of a book and whether it is traditionally or self-published. Luckily, there are five must-haves of good business fiction, most of which can be vetted in the free preview of a novel. Each of these five signs of good corporate literature described below comes with a tip at the end on of how to quickly spot it.
Advice in advance: Hands off free corporate novels! Read here about why this is one of the largest signposts of not so great literature.
1) Does the author have authentic experience in the industry he is writing about?
We all know authors that have been highly successful by writing about worlds they have never set foot in. Karl May wrote Winnetou, sparking European imaginations about the Wild West like no other writer. But these are exceptions. You can come a long way with research, and you don’t need decades of experience in multiple industries, but the author should at least have authentic experience in the business world. That doesn’t mean that you cannot write about trench wars in the board of an oil giant, if you have spent your career at an investment firm or big management consultant. But you should have first-hand knowledge about how decisions are made at a corporate behemoth, how hierarchies work, how people feel when act greed blinds them.
In particular, scrutinize the dialogues. Is the tonality adequate to the setting? An argument at a shareholder meeting will have a different formality in its language than a one-on-one meeting in the cafeteria.
Advice: Outsiders to the corporate world often resort to stereotypes and there is a lack of detail. Also look for any alerts such as unrealistic timelines or figures.
2) What are the outlined conflicts?
All fiction lives from conflict. It is the very essence of every novel, short story and novella. Corporate thrillers and dramas with little conflict can easily be tiresome, but they are also shallow. Conflict is what makes protagonists grow. Ideally it challenges them, stretches them, and makes them move from one pole to the other. That does not mean that the pages need to be bursting with duels and fistfights. A conflict can also be an inner battle of a character or political brinkmanship by bankers and executives. Or it can be shareholders trying to coerce a company’s management to do their will. The more conflicts a book has, the more of a page-turner it will be. Obviously, all of those need to be built and resolved adequately, which unfortunately can only be assessed some way through the book.
Advice: If you can’t gauge the main conflict after the first three chapters, the novel might be rather slow. This must not be a bad thing, but be aware what you are getting yourself into.
3) Do we encounter sizzling characters?
Unlike movies or short fiction, novels have ever since been the best place for character development. Heroes and anti-heroes need to be dynamic, to show a development as a result from the struggles they go through.
Super-strong protagonists do not only change in the course of a story, but they have their rough edges from the start. Glib characters fail to fascinate readers. If the hero of a story is flawless, readers can’t relate to him or her. They cannot build empathy and thus won’t root for them, nor will they feel compassion when their hero experience injustice and pain. As much we aspire to become like their heroes, they need them to mirror some of our flaws.
The Call to Power offers a good example for a sizzling, multi-faceted main protagonist. Paul Cromwell is a young careerist who in the beginning is motivated by noble ideas, namely to rise in the ranks of a manufacturing giant in Pittsburgh to save thousands of jobs. Yet as he climbs the ladder of success his morals tarnish. The conflicts he fights through unleash the dark side of his personality. His hidden vice is an irrepressible lust for power. A power-crazed orphan who believes himself to be divinely chosen is unique and captivating, definitively not a static and flawless superhero we want to emulate. But we want him to succeed. We cheer him on as he drives forward the cataclysmic motions in the novel, just as we mourn his setbacks when he is vying for power in the boardroom. And we grieve even more when he comes to the moral chasm.
Empathy and dynamism will take a character far, but there is a third ingredient that sets apart good from the most captivating protagonists. Read here what makes a character not only good, but electric.
Advice: The first pages won’t tell you where the characters are headed in terms of development, but you can quickly discern whether in a corporate novel they are flat and smooth-edged.
4) How good is the writing style and storytelling technique?
I’ve never made a secret of my admiration for Strunk and White’s Elements of Style, probably the best style book ever written. The core message boils down to this: Cut out every unnecessary word. Keep things as short and simple as possible.
Good style is very hard to build up, but easy to spot. How long are the sentences? Does the author use a plethora of unnecessary filler words? Are there sentences or even paragraphs that can be cut altogether? Are there more adjectives than verbs? Do the sentence structures all look alike?
The question of writing style is not only one on the sentence and phrase level. Have a conscious look at how paragraphs and chapters flow and how the information is presented. Does the author get lost in unnecessary narrative strands? Is he building up suspense by the way he narrates? Is foreshadowing used cleverly or does it give away too much? There are hundreds of such questions that distinguish skilled writers from amateurs.
Advice: This is the quickest dimension to examine. While the descriptive text might be highly polished, only good authors manage to keep up the good style over the first pages of their novel. Make sure to read at least one chapter. It doesn’t have to be the first one.
5) Is the story of the corporate novel unpredictable?
This is the dimension which takes most time to figure out in corporate fiction and thrillers in general. But by unpredictability I do not only mean a big bang plot twist in the second half of a business novel. Good authors lead you up the garden path frequently. Or they throw unexpected obstacles in the way of the very narrative path they have set out. Particularly important for business thrillers is when a character works on a plan and is deranged by an unforeseen event, often triggered by an antagonist. At this point sizzling characters are vital. If they are plain and stereotypical, where are the surprises going to come from? There are only so many acts of God a good novel can bear.
Authors that are weak on the plot but desperately try to be unpredictable often walk into the trap of forcing their characters to do things that don’t fit their nature. As a reader you can rely on your gut here. Does the surprise turn feel realistic? Is the character reacting to outside circumstances the way you would have expected?
Advice: Unpredictability takes time to discover. So look at the outline of the characters. Are they resourceful? If you can’t tell, read some of the reviews. But be aware that many of those include spoilers.
You shouldn’t judge a book by its cover, but by its first pages. Following these five steps will help you evaluate the quality of a corporate novel by reading the first two chapters. Why two? Because with business thrillers the first is often not representative. In the business fiction genre, we have many characters, corporate structures, industries that need to be introduced. At the very least the scene must be set. Second, the first chapter often serves to put you in the right mood for reading the novel and is thus not representative.
Bonus Advice: All those five steps are universal; they can be used to judge books in any genre.
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