Monday, January 2

Reviewing Books to Become a Better Writer


Dreamspinner is having this lovely sale and that means I simply HAD to go shopping!  I bought four books: Blue Notes, by Shira Anthony, Ghost on My Couch, by L.A. Gilbert, Dirty Kiss, by Rhys Ford (which has already gotten rave reviews elsewhere), and The Inventor's Companion, by Ariel Techna. Ariel's has been on my list since I noticed it durning the 12 Day of Christmas sale at DSP. Dirty Kiss... gheeze, it's just getting such amazing reviews... and it's been on my wishlist for a while too.  Blue Notes has been on my list since it came out... less than a week ago, but hey... Shira posted some excerpts on her blog, but really, she had me at "violinist".  ;-)  The last book was a total whim purchase; I was browsing through the supernatural books looking for something interesting. I'm totally unfamiliar with the author, but I love ghost stories!

(The sale is going on through the 2nd... you know, if you wanna buy a book....)

Anyway, buying four books at once reminded me that one of the things I've been meaning to do for a while was to give proper, thoughtful reviews of some of the books that I read. (There are a couple of other books on my eShelf that I'm planning to give this sort of thoughtful treatment of, too.)  Do please bear in mind, I'm no one special. What will follow in the area of reviews is truly just one woman's opinion... and I'm not starting today. I may start reading today... if I can decide which one to start with!

I will admit up front that my reasoning behind this venture is purely selfish (although I hope other people benefit, too). Mostly, however, my goal is to become a better reader. What's a better reader? For me, that's someone who reads a book more carefully, looking at story arc, character development, setting, theme... all that fancy stuff I get asked about when I submit something for review to my critique group! I figure if I can learn to recognize it in other people's work, I'll become a better writer myself. It also (hopefully) will make me a better critiquer (is that word?)

And it will force me to read more slowly and actually digest what I'm reading, rather than tearing through a book--which isn't all bad. Most of the time I read romance for fun. But I guess as a romance writer, I should step back and examine my craft a bit more seriously, huh?

Darn it. I knew this writing thing would turn into work eventually.

I decided to start by going back to basics and reacquainting myself with what makes a story a story.
And would you believe that the first thing I found were inconsistencies?  Okay, I get it that there are inconsistencies in Kabbalistic correspondences. I get it that there are inconsistencies in the order of the Tarot. I get it that there are inconsistencies when it comes to planetary magic(k).

But here, too?  Oy. Pass me a glass of moscato and make it big one!

(really, there's a point...just watch...)

Okay. So I kept digging until I found a list of Six Elements (actually several lists that do agree with one another) that included all of the things I remember from my days listening to ivy covered professors in ivy covered halls. 

  1. Setting
  2. Plot
  3. Characters
  4. Conflict
  5. Point of View
  6. Theme

I'm going to rearrange those a little, though. See, I pretty much always start out with characters when I write, and when I read, its the characters I want to be able to connect with. Erm. With whom I wish to connect. Let's not have any dangling participles  ;-)

  1. Characters (gotta have a Who)
  2. Point of View (because this is related to character)
  3. Setting (Who needs a Where)
  4. Plot (now that we know Who and Where, What are they going to do?)
  5. Conflict (makes life interesting)
  6. Theme (that over arching THING Stewart always asks us about in a critique session)

I'll admit that of the six, I have the hardest time with theme. Sometimes I can nail it down, other times... not so much. I have an even harder time finding it in other people's work.

But let's start at the top: Characters.

Characters are simply the people who inhabit the story. In most fiction (at least the kind we're talking about here), characters need to be "real people". They must be well rounded, multi-dimensional (rather than cardboard cutouts or caricatures). They need flaws and foibles (Mary-Sues need not apply). They need to be human, even if they're aliens, elves, robots, or fungi. Readers must be able to connect to the characters; not every character will resonate with every reader, but there has to be something there that majority of average readers can latch onto. If there isn't, it had better be intentional.

The exception may be in the realm of the fairy tale, especially children's fairy tales. The wicked stepmother can simply be wicked, she doesn't have to have a soft spot for warty toads. Likewise the charming prince is always charming and quite perfect. Charming princes never leave their dirty socks in the middle of the room and always use a coaster.

Most stories have a protagonist--or Good Guy--and an antagonist--or Bad Guy. The shorter the story, the fewer Good Guys and Bad Guys there will be. (Event in longer works, however, readers don't like to be overwhelmed by hordes of characters... introduce them slowly.... s-l-o-l-w-y.....) And remember, your Good Guys will probably leave their dirty socks in inconvenient places and your Bad Guys may want to consider using a coaster, just so they're not all bad. Just like in real life.

There isn't always an antagonist in romance, sometimes there are just people who make the protagonists life difficult--not out of any sense of malice, boyfriend stealing, home wrecking or the lot. I have a neighbor who installed bloody football stadium lights on his back porch (okay, maybe not quite, but seriously, these things are frickin' bright). He didn't do it to be mean or nasty, but it does make my life uncomfortable when I want to enjoy a glass of wine out by the fire pit and watch the stars at night.

Delving into personal preferences here, I don't want to see the antagonist's POV for one second. Not one word of it. I will skim through it to get back to what I care about: The Heroes. I have skipped whole chunks of books because I just did not care with the Bad Guy was doing or why. If it's that important, the writer can find some way of showing it to me through the Hero's eyes.

But speaking of Bad Guys, they have to be well rounded too. Unless you're reading/writing a fairy tale, villains must be believable. That doesn't mean the should start spontaneously rescuing a puppies in the middle of the book, but perhaps it turns out the Bad Guy has been such a prick all along because he's terrified of the Good Guy; maybe the Bad Guy recognizes what the Good Guy is capable of, even if the Good Guy doesn't see it (yet) himself. (That example taken from my own book). I knew that from page one. Readers don't get it until near the very end.

Every major or important character MUST have a backstory.
The reader should see very, very, very little of that backstory.
The author must know ever detail of it.

Sucks to be an author.  ;-)

Now, I will admit that sometimes (often), I start writing without knowing the full history of my characters. I allow them to introduce themselves to me over time... and then when I go back and re-write, I correct and fill in details. Other times, characters spring fully formed into my consciousness like Athene jumping out of Zues's head. Either way, part of the polishing (editing) process is deciding how much backstory to spell out, how much to hint at, and how much simply colors the characters' actions.

As a reader, I want to feel as if these characters have led full and interesting lives before I met them. I want to do the "getting to know you" dance throughout the story. I want to imagine what their lives will be like after I close the cover on the final page. I don't want to hear about their skinned knee or broken nose in the fourth grade unless it is somehow relevant to the story I'm reading.

Now, all of that blathering aside, there is a time and place for flat, or stereotypical characters. They're not main characters. They're not even secondary characters. Stereotypical characters are the people we all recognize: the punk kid, the smarmy salesman, the kind lady next door... of course even more fun will be had when those stereotypes are turned on their ear. Maybe the sweet lady next door is lacing the lemonade with arsenic and its the punk kid (who's really an all A student) and the smarmy salesman to the rescue.

Everybody has types of characters that they like and dislike; in learning to be a better reader, I'm going to try to step out of myself a little. Just because I don't like it doesn't make it bad. Just because I love it does not make it bad. I doubt that anyone is capable of total objectivity, but there are things that are simply good and bad writing. Such as character development.

It is important to every story, long or short, that the primary characters (the protagonists) undergo some sort of change between the beginning and the end of the story. For the most part, Change should be gradual, believable, subtle, and come as the result of the characters' response to plot elements and conflict (the Who reacts to the What and change accordingly).  It is a fact of life that we are all changing and growing. I'm not who I was ten years ago. Neither are you. (There are cases in a story when a character might truly be stagnent, but that has to be a conscious choice on the part of the writer; he'd darned well better be going it on purpose and for a reason).

I found a great worksheet for character development here:

This is the parent site:

I don't necessarily love everything about it, but there are some really good questions like "what would this character want to most be remembered for (at the end of the story)?  Questions like that force you to get into the heads of your characters (whether you're a reader or a writer). I like that.

Point of View
I'm going to go ahead and lump POV (point of view) in with character, since stories are written from the character's/s' point of view.

POV comes in three (main) forms.

First person:  I. We.
Second person: You.
Third person: He. She. They.

I've had the displeasure of reading (a paragraph at most) of a few really bad "erotica" (read: "porn") stories written in the second person. My advice: don't go there. The only place you should ever find second person is in a "choose your own adventure" book.

I have mixed feelings about First Person. If it's done well...and I mean really, really, really well, I love it. Otherwise... meh.

But that's just me.  I've written in the First Person--but only because the central character was so bloody overwhelming that he wouldn't let anyone else's ego in!

There are two versions of Third Person (well, okay, I read one site with several more listed, but let's keep things simple). Originally, a very, very, very long time ago, I was taught to write in Third Person Omnicient--basically, in the Voice of God. That's fallen out of favor. Now, most writing is done in limited Third Person. We get a peek into one head and one head only--sometimes for the entire novel. One of the things I love about romance, however, is that we usually get to see into the heads of both (or more) of the lovers. I admit it: I'm a "head hopper". Romance allows the freedom to do this, at least selectively.

I'm not going to talk overly much about limited or "close" Third Person--I know others who are much more qualified to discuss it than I...and in fact, I'm taking his class, starting in February. Suffice it to say that when done correctly "close" or limited third person is almost the same as first person. The writer puts you so far into one character's head that they're practically narrating the story.

Personally, that is my favorite POV to both write and to read. Much like First Person, you can't always trust the narrator to be telling you the truth. Narrators lie. They slant things to their perspective.

Just like real people.

I suppose while on the subject of POV, I should make a comment about "tense".

99% -- no more than 99% -- of everything I've ever read has been in the past tense. "He said, he went, she asked, she made reservations..."  Once in a while an author feels the need to write in the present tense. "He says, he goes, she asks, she makes reservations".  Sometimes it works. Most of the time, it doesn't. It worked really well for me in a fanfiction piece I did, written in First Person POV. Then again, it was fanfiction. (Actually, no, if I had it to do over, I wouldn't change the POV or the tense).

Last up for today:

I don't have much to say about setting. Why? Because I'm going to refer you here:

Fantasy Worldbuilding Questions By Patricia C. Wrede

I have never completed the whole list of questions, but it is a valuable, valuable exercise to at least start them when you start a new project. Patricia Wrede's questions force you to take a seriously long, hard look at the world you're creating. Just getting through half the list will give you a solidly credible world (assuming you actually take your answers and incorporate them into your work.)

What I look for when I'm reading is a world that is consistent within itself, a place that follows its own rules. World building should be subtle. It should take its time. Things shouldn't jump out of left field. We should also never read: "Well, as you know Bob, here on earth the sky is blue...."  Bob can see that for himself. The reader should be allowed to, too.

Just like there shouldn't be huge info-dumps on character history, no one wants to read huge info dumps on the world's history, either, even if it's an Alternate Earth, Pern, Gallifrey, or Magrathea.

Good books are well paced... but that's dipping into the realm of plot and I think I've blathered on enough for one day....

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