Writing Homework #21: Improve Your Character Description

Photo by Ben Sweet on Unsplash

There’s a standard set of traits many writers will default to when introducing or describing a character: height, eye color, hair color, skin tone, sometimes weight. I include myself in this group–I made a big deal in the What We Need series that Paul was tall and blond and Nina was short and dark-haired. I tried not to refer to those traits too often, and I know plenty of other description happened too. But if someone who read my books once was asked to describe them years later, I’m sure they’d give an answer similar to what I just said.

I’m not saying these things aren’t useful to mention–the reason they’re so common is that they’re generally obvious, the sort of traits you’d notice right away when meeting someone. (Eye color maybe not so much; I’ve seen a strong pushback in various writing circles against making it a key feature, because eyes are small and hard to see clearly without being quite close to someone. In a long-distance relationship I had in my younger days, I misremembered my boyfriend’s eyes as brown after we met, and when I saw him again they were actually hazel with lots of green!)

The problem comes when a) that’s all you get for a character, height, hair color, general body shape if you’re lucky; or b) when it’s treated like a checklist, and the story breaks for a full paragraph including all of the traits the author has decided are important, for every single character. (No, no, I haven’t forgotten that torture, Dreams Underfoot.)

I want to make it clear, I’m not advising anyone to never use these traits. I want to examine what can be done when you’re not limited by them.

What else do people want to see in your characters?

  • Imperfections. A skin tag on the side of their neck. Acne, chicken pox scars, stretch marks–they’re not just from pregnancy, or limited to women. A spot on their jaw where they missed using foundation. Makeup not hiding their freckles even though they tried. Even beautiful people aren’t perfect, so show us that.
  • Details that tell us about more than their appearance. A wrinkled shirt might be a sign they don’t care for their belongings, or that they had to wear it overnight for some reason. Rounded shoulders and sagging posture could mean they’re simply tired, but also might indicate they hunch habitually, to seem shorter or less threatening, or because of a sedentary job. Jeans torn out at the knees might be a fashion statement, or they might belong to a hobbyist skateboarder who bails a lot.
  • Go beyond the visual. We notice how people look when we meet them, but also how they sound. What’s their voice like? Their laugh? And what about how they smell? It won’t always be obvious, but any scent strong enough to notice would convey information. Perfume or cologne implies a certain care for how they present themselves, even if the scent itself isn’t great to other people. If someone smells like cut grass, they might be a landscaper. Shampoo or lotion can smell like just about anything, and choosing a scent says something about what they find pleasant.
  • Body language. How much personal space do they keep around them? Are they a hugger? How do they stand or sit? What are they doing with their hands while they talk?

Compare:

Ryan was tall and raven-haired. His blue eyes stared at me from across the bar, and I shivered under the intensity of his gaze. [yes, I went full-on bad-romance description, thank you for noticing]

Even after Ryan sat down and ordered his drink, his head was level with mine. The bar lights added gleaming bits of pink and blue to his dark hair. His pale eyes tracked my movements as I mixed his cocktail, but I wasn’t sure I liked the attention.

The first description is serviceable, sure. We might be able to pick Ryan out of a random lineup with that information. But what do we learn from the second description that we don’t get in the first?

  1. The narrator-bartender is probably fairly short, if a tall man sitting down is still on an even eye-level with her.
  2. The bar is lit with pink and blue, though it’s not clear what kind of lighting: neon, strings of Christmas-style lights, or something else.
  3. We don’t know his precise eye color, but given the established setting, it’s more reasonable to notice his eyes are light instead of dark. Would naming an exact color even be accurate with the colored lighting already mentioned? Probably not.

And I didn’t even get to things like his scent (probably not applicable in a bar setting) or his body language or his imperfections. Body language cues would be a natural next thing to include as he took his drink; imperfections would only come up if the bartender sticks around long enough to notice.

As usual, I’m only scratching the surface. Character description is a deep topic, and though I’ve given general advice to shore up common weaknesses, you could go a lot further, and what traits to include will also depend on your personal style and the needs of the story.

On to the actual homework: If you have a WIP currently, revisit your primary/initial description for each major character. Note your tendencies on what’s included and what you consistently ignore. Rewrite each description in a separate file (I’m not ordering you to change your actual project for my homework assignment!) but hang on to it if you found the exercise helpful.

If you don’t have a WIP handy, find pictures of people from image sites and practice on them. Try to give the barest possible “standard” description you can, while including details you usually wouldn’t. Because this is practice, make them as long as you want; longer than you’d probably use in a story. Do this for at least three individuals, and try to use models that don’t look anything like each other, so you have lots of ground to cover.


Need to catch up on your assignments?

Editing Notes: So You’re an Underwriter, Part III — Dialogue

Photo by Helena Lopes on Unsplash

I left dialogue for last because, for me, it’s the aspect of writing I have the least trouble with. The initial spark for most of my scenes is usually a snippet of conversation; I’ve built entire novels from an idea that evolved from two characters talking about something strange. (I’ve been tempted, sometimes, to share the first scene I wrote for the earliest draft of What We Need to Survive–it looks almost nothing like the scene that made it into the book. I’m afraid if I go back to look at it now, five years later, I’ll cringe to hard and won’t be able to post it!)

So, in the first part I talked about narrative, and in the second, action.

Dialogue, while it may be easy for me to write naturally, may be trickier to add after the fact. How can you tell your writing needs more dialogue?

  • The primary source of information is internal monologue or other narrative. For some stories, this may be the right choice, but ideally a reader gets important information from all available sources, including dialogue. If everything comes from a single source–like a first-person narrator–then we only get one worldview, and other characters have no chance to speak for themselves. (Also, it leaves the reader vulnerable to unreliable narrators, which can be great if it’s on purpose, but awful if it’s not carefully constructed. In most other cases, multiple information sources are best.) Consider: would adding any dialogue to this scene give you a chance to incorporate more information the reader needs? Would any information already included be more or less reliable (depending on your story aims) coming from a different source?
  • Your action scenes are silent. Think about it. If two or more people are fighting, there are going to be taunts or insults hurled along with the fists and feet. If one person is chasing another, somebody’s probably yelling: the chaser, or bystanders on the street who are getting shoved out of the way. Even a character alone in a dire situation will probably vocalize something: cries for help if they’re in danger, swearing if they’re frustrated by something, talking to themselves to calm their nerves if they’re anxious. It’s not impossible, of course, but people rarely react to high-energy situations with silence. Consider: what would a natural reaction to this scene be for an Average Joe character, and what would they say? If that doesn’t feel genuine to your actual character, why and how would it be different? Would adding dialogue to show that reaction enhance the scene?
  • It was applicable for action, and it’s applicable for dialogue: have I gone too long without mentioning a character? Lengthy passages of description or world-building can be broken up by dialogue as easily as action. To return to my hiker-in-the-forest example, after a chunk of narrative about the forest itself, your hiker could say something out loud in reaction to an attention-grabbing element. If you’ve ever watched a video someone takes of a wild animal approaching them, you know they’re always talking, and not necessary to the camera. Hey, look at you, cute little fox or OH MY GOD THAT BEAR IS HUGE IS IT COMING THIS WAY. And if your hiker’s not alone, even better; intersperse dialogue with their companion throughout their hike. Consider: what elements of this scene would be better conveyed through dialogue than description? Should I describe the sunset or show my characters reacting to it? Would they talk to the fox or be silent, hoping it comes closer?

If this seems more vague than the other two entries in the series, well, you’re observant, because it is. It has to be. The trouble with dialogue, more so than narrative or action, is that it’s the most obvious spot to fall out of character; I’m more likely, as a reader, to notice when someone says something I don’t think they would say, than if they mention a description of something I don’t think they’d notice or take some small action they normally wouldn’t. Both of those things are possible, of course, and with strong characterization they’d also be problems–but in my reading, at least, out-of-character actions are usually deliberate mysteries set up by the author; out-of-character narrative just isn’t common enough for me to generalize; but out-of-character dialogue is all too easy to find. (Especially in television shows; with multiple writers on staff writing many different characters, slip-ups happen. I still remember some really OOC lines from Buffy the Vampire Slayer twenty years later.)

All of my advice here can only be general; I can’t tell you your deliberately silent-stoic character should be shouting from the rooftops when they have a crush on someone, because you know it’s out of character. But if your talkative, charismatic ladies’ man is sitting silently drinking in a crowded bar…well, shouldn’t he be talking? Flirting with someone? Chatting up the bartender? If he’s not, that tells us something about his mood, and if that’s your point, great! But if you just forgot to give him appropriate dialogue, if you didn’t let him be himself as he would in that setting, then it’s an oversight, and adding dialogue would solve it.

This Week, I Read… (2020 #34)

#130 – Dirty, by Kylie Scott

  • Read: 9/3/20 – 9/4/20
  • Around the Year in 52 Books: A book from your TBR/wishlist that you don’t recognize, recall putting there, or put there on a whim
  • The Reading Frenzy: Read a book by a female author or featuring a female main character
  • Mount TBR: 116/150
  • Rating: 3/5 stars

If you break this down to its component parts, everything you need for a functional romance novel is there. The hero and heroine have personal arcs related to the conflicts in their relationship. There are plans each have made that keep them apart, obstacles they almost choose not to face in order to stay together. There’s the big apology/reunion at the climax and a happy ending follows.

It’s all there. But none of it really grabbed me.

Some of my complaints are strictly a matter of taste–I think Lydia’s internal monologue could have been less crass, but given the title of the book, what should I have expected? She’s a fully realized character who happens to have a serious case of potty-mouth. And potty-brain. Vaughan is so laid back he’s almost bland in parts, but when drama goes down, he shows his passion, and I have to admit he knows when he did wrong and apologizes.

It’s just not setting me on fire.

I can even compliment how well the supporting cast is worked into the story. Often with series, especially in the first entry, it’s glaringly obvious who the next featured couple will be (or at least one of them, if both aren’t around yet.) But here, everyone has a clear purpose that’s not “I’ll be important in a later book,” to the point where I don’t know who’s got the lead role without looking. (If the author is going for a second-chance romance + baby plot for Nell and Pat, I’d believe it, but that subplot isn’t merely setup, it’s important to the story here, too. And I could be wrong.)

All that being said, do I want to keep going with the series? Not really. There’s nothing bad about this book from a technical standpoint, the sorts of glaring issues that make me give a book two stars, or one, or even DNF it. And I did read this in just over a day. But it didn’t wow me. I guess it just wasn’t my cup of tea.

#131 – Amethyst, by Lauren Royal

  • Read: 9/4/20 – 9/5/20
  • Mount TBR: 117/150
  • Rating: 1/5 stars

Until I hit 75%, I was planning on giving this two stars. It wasn’t great, but it was readable; it was a bit of unrealistic historical fluff, but it was pleasant enough not to make me DNF it.

Then the main characters got married. Which should be a good thing. But there was still 25% to go, and it took FOREVER. It was the slowest, most drawn-out, unnecessary bloated “and this is how we handled the remaining subplots” epilogue. None of this needed to take up so much space, and the heroine still doubted whether the hero loved her! Repeatedly! I really struggled to stay motivated to finish it.

It was a fitting ending, in some ways, for an underdeveloped relationship based more on lust and circumstance than genuine emotion, and a story that placed so much emphasis on physical things: jewelry, clothing, wealth, the homes/castles/estates of its characters. I get that some of that is necessary to the setting, and the jewelry especially is necessary if the heroine is a jeweler by trade. But it often ran to excess, because I would have rather spent more of this book’s long run time examining the hearts and emotions of its characters rather than their finery.

#132 – The Other Boleyn Girl, by Philippa Gregory

  • Read: 9/6/20 – 9/7/20
  • The Ultimate PopSugar Reading Challenge: A fiction or nonfiction book about a world leader
  • The Reading Frenzy: Read a fiction or nonfiction book about a world leader
  • Mount TBR: 118/150
  • Rating: 1/5 stars

DNF @ page 167.

I know I read several Gregory novels in the late 2000’s, though when I set up my Goodreads account several years later, I couldn’t recall which ones exactly. This novel had just been made into a movie, and I’d just gotten a library card, so I checked out a few. I know that I read them cover to cover, and I seem to remember enjoying them, even if I’m not sure which ones they were all this time later.

So I may actually have read The Other Boleyn Girl already. The plot, as far as I got, didn’t seem familiar to me, but neither did the blurbs of the other novels I might have read.

I suppose the decade I’ve aged since, as well as the five years I’ve spent reading more widely and reviewing everything I read, have given me a lower tolerance for soap opera nonsense with flat characters and strange pacing. Because that’s what this reads like: a soap opera. All sex and intrigue and drama for the sake of drama, but with no honesty or emotion to back it up.

Mary is a spineless girl who does exactly as her family instructs–that doesn’t make for an interesting protagonist, nor do I believe she “loves” King Henry. Starstruck, sure. Love? Not a chance. Her more-famous-to-us sister Anne is a scheming, irritating, meddling know-it-all who, at the point where I quit reading, had just had a scheme fail spectacularly and wasn’t taking it well. Do I want to read five hundred more pages of these two?

And what of King Henry, who Mary views alternately as the most magnificent man to have ever lived, and the spoiled man-child half-raised by his older wife and queen? The cognitive dissonance between those two stances is remarkable, yet she has no trouble reconciling them. The narrative itself doesn’t do anything to show me that Henry is a great man, only the overgrown baby who needs constant entertainment.

Beyond my quibbles with the style, I’m aware I can’t take this seriously as historical fiction, that it’s riddled with inaccuracies for the sake of livening up the story. And if the story were better, I’d honestly be fine with that–if I want a real history, there’s plenty of nonfiction available on the era. But if I’m not getting the real history, and I don’t want the melodrama it offers, then what is there for me to enjoy about this book?

#133 – Eat That Frog!: 21 Great Ways to Stop Procrastinating and Get More Done in Less Time, by Brian Tracy

  • Read: 9/8/20
  • The Ultimate PopSugar Reading Challenge: A book with “20” or “twenty” in the title
  • The Reading Frenzy: Read a book with twenty or more letters in the title
  • Rating: 3/5 stars

It’s always good to go into a self-help book understanding who it’s written by, and who it’s written for. This is a book for neurotypical business people, written by a business person who gives a particularly strong impression of being neurotypical. (I don’t know that for a fact, obviously, but he didn’t sound like someone who had ever struggled with a mental illness or neurodivergence that impaired his abilities.)

So this book is, quite literally, not for me. My primary job is not in any business/office/corporate setting; I was looking for concrete tips on how to work more productively on my second, at-home “job,” being a romance author. And I am not an NT person who’s easily capable of putting my butt in the chair and doing the work–which is what all his actionable tips eventually boil down to–because the lack-of-focus/hyperfocus pendulum in my brain is wonky.

But, because I’m aware of all this, I could plow through this tiny booklet of business jargon and extract the meat that was actually useful to me. Of his 21 specific actions, I was following the end-of-chapter worksheets until #6; after that most of them were squarely aimed at corporate types who have underlings/colleagues to shuffle other work onto, and I don’t. I can’t outsource any significant portion of my work, and much of the other advice simply doesn’t apply outside of an office setting.

The tone of this, overall, is disturbingly pro-capitalism, since it’s geared for office drones looking to get ahead. And as far as that goes, fine, I bet some of the stuff that didn’t apply to me is useful to them. But the constant mantra of “get there earlier, work harder, stay later” was indicative of the nose-to-the-grindstone attitude that I personally believe is harmful in the long run. There’s very little here about work/life balance other than “you’ll never get it quite right but keep trying.” The baseline attitude of “you need to be more productive per time unit because you will LITERALLY NEVER GET EVERYTHING DONE” may be true on a grand scale, but isn’t conducive to setting boundaries around what is “work” time and what is “life” time–especially when paired with the earlier/later mantra. Everything about this book made me think I was being shaped into a happy little worker bee, though I will give one anecdote credit–when someone doubled their productivity after working with her boss to restructure her job responsibilities, she apparently got double pay when she proved she could do it. (I mean, that reads like fiction, from everything I know about salary negotiation, but again, I’m not in that work environment. At least the anecdote acknowledges better work deserves more pay.)

All that being said, I did still come away from this quick read with new perspective and a few strategies to increase my productivity. Not 21 of them (the first six pretty much covered it) but not nothing, either. There are effective tips for time management here, once I stripped away the business-speak that didn’t help.

I don’t regret reading this, but I’m also glad I got it from the library.

#134 – Sleeping Beauty and the Demon, by Marina Myles

  • Read: 9/8/20 – 9/10/20
  • Around the Year in 52 Books: Two books that are related to each other as a pair of binary opposites: Book #2
  • Rating: 1/5 stars

Was I supposed to take any of this seriously? It’s a farce, completely ungrounded in reality, and no, I’m not talking about the magic. The magic is (mostly) fine. But the plot leaps from one ridiculous event to another with little causality.

Drago magically compels Rose to show up at his show, then hypnotizes her with the amulet. Okay, great, he starts the story as a lying manipulator, just what I love in my romantic heroes. /s

But she suspects his compulsion quickly, yet falls in love with him anyway? In the space of a few days? And I’m supposed to believe either a) that it’s genuine despite the compulsion, or b) that it’s not but she’s honestly okay with being manipulated?

Then they sleep together because she’s so swept away by lust, they run off and get married, and he immediately isolates her from everything she had in her life before him; her friends, adoptive family, her would-be beau, even her job, but that’s okay, because he gives her a new one.

I was all prepared to trash the silliness of how she got that reporter job, but a secret revealed at the end shows that it was all part of an evil plan, so it didn’t have to make sense as it was happening. That doesn’t really negate how unhealthy it is that Drago’s like, yeah, your boss literally wants you to spy on me and I can’t have that, so just be my assistant instead! Let me provide you with everything so you don’t need anyone or anything in your life other than me!

The story surprised me then by showing that his isolation of her–which included taking her on an extended “honeymoon” to another country–made them both miserable. She becomes increasingly suspicious of his strange behavior, so even after he’d agreed to take her home, she decides to pry into his magic and finds out he’s the demon that’s been killing a girl every year to maintain his immortality. She flees, because of course she does. This is an actual high point of the story morally, even if it’s a low point emotionally–actions have consequences and Drago isn’t good for her.

The rest of the story is a garble of everything the story told you before is wrong, and here’s what’s actually going on. Drago is a demon, but he’s not the killer. Rose’s aunt is also a demon, and has gone from “the one who put the original curse on her” to “no it was actually your mother” to “actually it was both of them, they both cursed you.” (I think? The history changed so many times as new information was revealed that I ended the story honestly unsure of how things went down.) Patrick betrayed them, because of course he did. Rose’s boss was evil and not himself all along.

And the very, very end finally addresses the actual “sleeping” part of this Sleeping Beauty retelling by having Rose’s sleep be a good thing, that’s Drago hiding her for a hundred years so they can start new lives together later. Which is honestly disappointing. I’m never terribly invested in fairy tale retellings, so I don’t usually care how much or little they bend the original plot, but this was so different it felt removed from the story altogether. And our Maleficient stand-in was a pretty weak and boring villain, so this was Sleeping Beauty for me in name only.

Drago would be an abusive monster even if he were human instead of demon, though the ending attempts to redeem him; but he’s repeatedly shown himself to be manipulative, untruthful, and violent. Rose is a flimsy heroine who can only stand up for herself for about ten seconds at a time before giving in to lust/love for Drago, and it’s telling that when she runs from him for what she believes is her own safety, it’s all a misunderstanding, and yeah, Drago is good actually? I don’t agree, but they get their happy ending, so all she did by fleeing him was put both of them in danger. Not a good look.

Checking In on #rockstarnovel, #3

Photo by David Fanning on Unsplash

I’ve been updating frequently in the end-of-month wrap-ups, so I haven’t posted specifically about the novel project since partway through Camp NaNo in July! Oops!

The status update: Fifty-Five Days, v4, the filler-word editing pass, got underway this week. As of yesterday, I had the first four chapters edited, of 36. If I can do at least two a day, I’ll be done before the end of this month, so that’s the plan!

As I’m still shooting for a release before the end of the year, I’ve got to make that deadline (or come close to it) in order to give myself time for making the cover (cross your fingers for me) or commissioning one, doing all the file and text formatting, putting together the marketing materials…I haven’t done this dance since 2017, so I’m rusty. I definitely could have taken better notes on my process.

The editing itself is going fine–I’ve always enjoyed this nit-picky word-choice nonsense. While it’s faster than a straight-up rewrite, it’s still a time-consuming process, and after that I still have to listen to the whole thing for mistakes I haven’t caught yet…

I’m confident, though. I can get this done!

Down the TBR Hole #34

Down the TBR Hole is a (very) bookish meme, originally created by Lia @ Lost In A Story. She has since combed through all of her TBR (very impressive) and diminished it by quite a bit, but the meme is still open to others! How to participate:

  • Go to your Goodreads to-read shelf
  • Order by Ascending Date Added
  • Take the first 5 (or 10 if you’re feeling adventurous) books. Of course if you do this weekly, you start where you left off the last time.
  • Read the synopses of the books
  • Decide: keep it or let it go?

Checking in on my master TBR this month, it’s down to 549 books–last month it was 571. I read a few things that prompted me to cut books by the same authors from the list–why commit to Anna Karenina when I didn’t like War and Peace, for example?

Let’s keep that train rolling, shall we?

#1 – Parable of the Talents, by Octavia E. Butler

It’s been long enough since I read Parable of the Sower (2017) that I’d forgotten this was still hanging out on the list. It should have been included on my list of unfinished series!

Despite my mixed feelings about Butler’s canon overall (Kindred was okay and I couldn’t finish Wild Seed,) I did enjoy Sower and simply rereading my three-year-old review brought most of the plot back to me. I’ll keep this. Now that I remember I read it at all, I want to find out how the story ends.

#2 – The Etymologicon: A Circular Stroll through the Hidden Connections of the English Language, by Mark Forsyth

I love words, I love reading words, I love reading about words. Which is undoubtedly why this landed on my TBR, even if I don’t remember where I heard about it.

I’ve been disappointed or delighted in almost equal measure by past “books about words”–they’re incredibly hit or miss for me, no matter who recommends them glowingly. I know every book is a risk, but it hurts when an apparent slam dunk turns out to be a waste of my time. I’m not feeling as adventurous about nonfiction as I used to be; this one goes, even if I’m wrong and I’d actually love it.

#3 – Ulysses, by James Joyce

What exactly the hell was I thinking?

Almost 800 pages of The Odyssey fanfiction when I couldn’t even get through the original?

Why is this here? What madness possessed me?

Was I thinking it was a different book entirely when I added it? This goes. This never should have been on the list in the first place.

#4 – The Physician, by Noah Gordon

I don’t remember where I heard about this book. I know I say that a lot, but my tendency to look at a recommendation list and throw anything remotely interesting on my TBR is at fault, not my actual memory. I hope.

I’m sure this intrigued me because it’s historical fiction on an era I’ve rarely seen–11th century England, with a journey to Persia. While it’s well-reviewed overall, the poor reviews are damning, accusing the text of racism and Orientalism, stereotypical male-gaze sexualization, prejudical handling of religions, and if that’s not enough to warn me away, also it’s too long, has too many unnecessary details, boring characters, middling research at best, etc. Bye bye, this isn’t my cup of tea.

#5 – The Language of Thorns: Midnight Tales and Dangerous Magic, by Leigh Bardugo

This is on my TBR at all because I added it shortly after its much-hyped release. I read (and loved) Six of Crows and Crooked Kingdom in 2016, though I haven’t read the earlier Grishaverse books. This seemed like something I’d want to tackle eventually.

But it’s been three years, and I’m haven’t reached eventually. I’m always less inclined to read story collections than novels, so I think I’ll pass on this, thanks. I have another Bardugo novel on the list I’m more excited about, and I simply can’t read everything.

#6 – Vermilion: The Adventures of Lou Merriwether, Psychopomp, by Molly Tanzer

Credit where credit is due, the premise of this still sounds as wild and interesting as it did when I put it on the list: queer supernatural western steampunk adventure mashup.

But even the positive reviews admit the book shows signs of strain trying to do so much at once, and I’ve moved on from my steampunk phase, which was not that long nor that impassioned. As before, this book sounds like a risk; I could love it, but it seems more likely I’d be confused by its bizarre blend of genres. This one goes.

#7 + #8 – Love on the Tracks and Seduction on the Slopes, by Tamsen Parker

I’m so behind keeping up with my favorite romance authors, and aside from one very-bad-awful blip on the radar, Parker is one of my faves. I added both of these when I found out she had a new series in progress, and since then the other three books have come out. Yay! I skimmed the blurbs and review for all of them, and I’m confident they’ll be worth my time, so they stay on the list. Bonus: some of the books are queer pairings, and I’m all about supporting a series that includes both m/m and f/f couples.

#9 – The Rogue Not Taken, by Sarah MacLean

Oh, boy. I put this on the list specifically because one of my reading challenges back in 2018 (yes, we passed over from my 2017 TBR during this post, now I’m only two years behind) required “a book with a pun in the title.” This was easily available from my library so it was my intended read for that task. I never got to it because another book took its place, but it lingered on the list.

Since then I’ve come to not-enjoy most historical romance, Regency era in particular (though certain authors’ style triumphs over genre.) I’ve never read MacLean and she comes highly recommended, but this book probably isn’t the best place for me to start–the blurb is clearly indicating scandal and enemies-to-lovers, which is so easy to do wrong (by me, at least) and the top-rated reviews are all decrying the hero as the worst kind of asshole. Yikes! This one goes.

#10 – Rhapsodic, by Laura Thalassa

Added this because I saw an overwhelmingly positive review of it, and it’s romance, dark/urban fantasy, and I was getting into that genre at the time (via the gateway drug of Ilona Andrews’ Kate Daniels series.) Others have likened it to Sarah Maas’ work but better, and I enjoy her novels despite their flaws, so this seems like an obvious choice. And it’s got sirens!

This stays. I’m tempted to buy it right now, in fact. I won’t. Bonus: there’s two more books and a novella in this series, if I like it, and the author has several other completed series under her belt if I need more of her.


Okay, this month I cut 6/10. Perfectly reasonable. As always, if you’ve read anything on this list and want to share an opinion or even try to change my mind (in either direction,) leave a comment and we’ll chat!

This Week, I Read… (2020 #34)

#127 – Heart Signs, by Cari Quinn

  • Read: 8/27/20 – 8/28/20
  • Mount TBR: 113/150
  • Rating: 2/5 stars

I feel a little cheated. There’s a lot going on in this story, and it ended up being half as long as I expected it to be, because the end of the book is at 54% of the Kindle file. The rest? Promo material for other books.

It does feel like I read half a story. Sure, it’s got a beginning, middle, and end, but it’s not at all long enough to cover what should be a complex topic–moving on from grief to start a new relationship. It doesn’t get explored with any real depth, and Sam especially gets shortchanged by the lack of nuance. I had glimpses of a story, and a hero, that I might have loved, only it was pared down to a sappy premise with a few semi-raunchy sex scenes and a tiny bit of actual dating.

The “baby solves everything” epilogue also left a sour taste in my mouth, even if it was set three years after the main story. Sam’s unborn children by his dead wife were a murky plot point at best–they seemed to be related to his problems with her before her death, but that was never explained to my satisfaction–and proving he got his happy ending by giving him a baby didn’t sit right with me. (Not that he couldn’t have ended up there in a more well-developed novel, but then there’d be more substance to back it up.)

#128 – One Dom to Love, by Shayla Black, Jenna Jacob, and Isabella LaPearl

  • Read: 8/28/20 – 8/29/20
  • Mount TBR: 114/150
  • Rating: 1/5 stars

I have a lot of problems with this.

I’m used to the clubs in BDSM fiction being ill-defined in setup or unrealistic–hey, it’s a fantasy, and even in real clubs I imagine there’s a lot of ways to make things work. But Shadows, the club in this novel, takes it to a whole new level, and a lot of my issues with it have implications for the story as a whole.

So…some people live in the club; at the very least, Hammer and Raine do permanently, and Liam does while he’s visiting town, I guess. Do other people live there? How does that interact with the club security and the scene where Hammer goes into the monitor room to watch what’s happening elsewhere? How does Hammer handle banning people who live there–was that stipulated in their lease when they moved in, that they could be evicted at any time for breaking club rules (a good thing) or if Hammer’s throwing a tantrum and kicking people out he doesn’t like (a bad thing)? What’s the rent like compared to club dues for non-residents? Are there tenant redress policies in place like other rentals would have? I have questions! This environment is full of holes and doesn’t make sense!

Next up, what are the club rules for play? Because the roles of the club submissives are ill-defined as well; they seem to be around for people to scene/have sex with, whenever they’re needed–do they live on site too? Some of Raine’s turmoil stems from not being considered a submissive for plot reasons, but she “works” for the club, basically as a maid/cook/gopher, as much as her actual duties are described. Do the other submissives also do menial labor? Or are they actual people with real lives outside the club who presumably pay a fee to be a member like real people do in real clubs? (And presumably some of the members here do, like Beck, who clearly has a life and career outside the club.) The club clearly has rules, because Liam knows how to claim Raine formally as a Master, and then later what to do for a formal collaring ceremony; no one reacts to these events like they’re out of the ordinary. But if there are accepted practices like that, which everyone seems to know, then why aren’t there simple, obvious safety procedures in place, like, oh, say, subs being allowed to negotiate contracts or impose hard limits? Because several plot points hinge on pushing Raine outside of her comfort zone, often publicly, and I was cringing every time because she was never allowed to set boundaries or even choose her own safe word. MAJOR RED FLAGS! THESE CHARACTERS ARE NOT PLAYING SAFE!

On to the actual story. This is the most imbalanced love/dominance triangle I’ve ever read, and yes, that’s saying something. I generally don’t care for the trope, often because it’s SO OBVIOUS who the better choice is that I simply can’t believe the character in the middle can’t see it. That’s the case here in spades. Liam isn’t perfect–he’s more manipulative than I care for and I found the meal scene where he’s using food as a reward/punishment scale disturbing (since hey, look, Raine never got to set boundaries so I don’t know if she’s okay with having food withheld from her or being forced to eat something she doesn’t like; all of that would be acceptable behavior for a Dom IF THE SUB HAS PREVIOUSLY AGREED TO IT but we skipped that part because it’s apparently not necessary here.) But even with my reservations, he’s miles and miles ahead of Hammer, who is stiff competition for the worst romantic hero I’ve ever had the displeasure of reading. He’s secretive, manipulative (more than Liam,) prone to violent outbursts because of his obvious anger mismanagement, emotionally withdrawn, a heavy drinker. This man should not have power over anyone, sexually or otherwise. And he’s the freaking owner of the club! He’s the most spoiled man-child who pouts, sulks, drinks, and destroys things whenever he doesn’t get his way. He insists Liam “stole” Raine from him despite never doing a damn thing to “claim” her himself. He can’t, because he’s too dark and broody and he’ll ruin her life with his demands. Hey, guess what, I agree with you, Hammer, you would be terrible for her; but you don’t get to act like your favorite toy was taken away and try to ruin everything around you out of spite when someone else offers her what you’ve been deliberately withholding “for her own good.”

I bought this so long ago that I had forgotten (or possibly never knew) that it was not a complete story, and getting to that cliffhanger was a disappointment, because I was only hanging on to see Raine choose Liam unequivocally. Then I remembered, vaguely, that this series was about the three of them eventually finding happiness together, and I just want to throw it all in a lake. Hammer is the worst and does not deserve to be happy. I don’t care if he gets a redemption arc later, he’s sufficiently proven to me that he’s not worth my time, nor is the rest of this series.

P.S. – I haven’t even addressed how body-shaming this narrative gets–Raine’s primary female “rival,” if that’s even the right term, is terrible in action, but before we even get to see her being awful, she gets described in a way that equates any plastic surgery or other body enhancement to being a bad person. Raine is beautiful because she’s “real,” and Marlie is awful because she’s “fake.” Marlie’s words and actions do eventually bear out those assumptions, but none of that has to do with her body; she’d be just as horrible a person if she didn’t have a boob job or a spray tan or bleached blonde hair. Authors need to stop reaching for the toxic, low-hanging fruit, because the plastic surgery = bad person trope is overplayed and gross.

#129 – Insomnia, by Stephen King

  • Read: 8/30/20 – 9/3/20
  • Around the Year in 52 Books: Two books that are related to each other as a pair of binary opposites: Book #1
  • The Reading Frenzy: A book with a white or mostly white cover
  • Mount TBR: 115/150
  • Rating: 2/5 stars

The best parts of this story were maybe three stars–ultimately I did really like Ralph as a protagonist–but the worst were dragging, slogging, mind-numbing half a star or worse passages that took up far too much time.

This work is slow and rambling and repetitive. It held my hand when I didn’t need it, stressing the importance of the physical objects stolen by a certain evil gremlin; but then when I wanted more explanation (the entire rooftop scene with the good “doctors”) I felt like I was deliberately being run around in pointless circles, and not just because vital information was being withheld from the characters. I felt like after hiking through more than 400 pages of old-people problems I deserved more than half-assed metaphysical nonsense.

I can’t even like this for its association with The Dark Tower series, because the ultimate point of this book is related to it, but in such a narrow way that I had to look up one of the characters involved, and even when I did, I didn’t remember him. (Not the Crimson King, who is a much bigger deal and far more memorable. Yeah, I read the entire TDT series three years ago, and I didn’t like most of the second half, but I didn’t even remember the significance of the crossover character here.)

So this starts, not strong exactly, but interesting. As I said, Ralph is pretty darn likable, and it’s rare in my experience to read a book with an elderly protagonist that isn’t obviously a self-insert for the author. (King does that in other ways in other books, but I never once thought Ralph was meant to represent him here. I’m thinking more along the lines of The Bridges of Madison County and similar self-indulgent Old Man tales.)

But by page 250 I was still, in some sense, waiting for the story to show up. I’d been introduced to a lot of characters and there was a lot of background noise (the abortion “debate” and town drama was not a particularly satisfying backdrop to the main plot) but I didn’t have a sense of what the story meant itself to be. It felt directionless. The sagging, repetitive, expository-but-unsatisfying middle made that directionlessness worse, even as it should have been solidifying the plot. Even when Clotho and Lachesis (yay, Greek mythology in a story where it doesn’t really belong) literally explain what’s going on to Ralph and Lois, I still didn’t see where the story was headed, because there were too many unknowns.

At that point, I realized the underlying problem of the novel; Ralph is likable, sure, but he’s incredibly passive. Things happen to him or around him, and he reacts. He gets told he has to Do a Thing, so he agrees to do it, even though he doesn’t understand how–and yes, I’ve just described a stereotypical Call to Action from a hero’s journey arc, only his happens more than halfway through the story.

The final act does jerk him around some more, and the supernatural nonsense leads him by the nose to what he’s supposed to do. He does display some remarkable agency in making a deal with C+L that he’s not really supposed to make, and eventually that brings the novel to a close in the epilogue, completing his story in a semi-satisfying way fitting with his character. The big blowout action scenes that precede it, ending the main plot, are so crazy as to be nearly unbelievable, and again rely on some of the worst aspects of storytelling this book has to offer–excessive repetition and hand-holding.

I can’t recommend it as a true standalone to readers who haven’t touched TDT–I think the frequent references to it would be frustrating and nonsensical. But I don’t really recommend it to TDT readers either, unless they’re deep fandom nerds who want to trudge through 800 pages to find out the “origin” story of a minor TDT character. (And I say that with love, because I am a deep fandom nerd of other things, so I understand the impulse even if I don’t have it here. I was not satisfied; I am too casual a TDT fan.)

Do I regret reading it, though? No. Even if the book gave me nothing else, it explored a likable elderly protagonist in depth, giving him a quest and a new love and putting him through hell in the process. I think that was a valuable experience for me, even if it was sometimes a tedious one.

This Month’s TBR: September 2020

Amazingly enough, I’ve managed to cover all my challenges this month with only seven books!

  1. Autobiography of a Corpse, by Sigizmund Krzhizhanovsky
  2. Dirty, by Kylie Scott
  3. The Other Boleyn Girl, by Philippa Gregory
  4. Insomnia, by Stephen King
  5. Eat That Frog!: 21 Great Ways to Stop Procrastinating and Get More Done in Less Time, by Brian Tracy
  6. Doctor Sleep, by Stephen King
  7. This Town Sleeps, by Dennis E. Staples

Yes, two of these books are absolute bricks, but I’m confident I’ll get through it all because I usually read twice this many books! I have a short list of ideas for the rest of the month–some of the books-in-series I want to get to before the end of the year, and ideas for a few more PopSugar challenge tasks. But I don’t want to commit to any individual book beyond the bare minimum, as I’ve got a lot of other stuff going on this month.

I’m chugging through Insomnia right now–might as well read the longest book first and get it out of the way–and I’ve had to set myself a daily page count goal in order to have it done in time to review this week. I’m on track, but I’ve only got one more day…

End of the Month Wrap-Up: August 2020!

I am ready for summer to be over. August hit us just as hard as July with heat and humidity, and I am done with it. Bring on fall!

Here goes the usual roundup of important activities:

Writing: Major accomplishment! After nearly two solid months of work, I finished the first-pass line editing/plot-hole check draft of Fifty-Five Days! I’ve had a week-long break now, and I think I’ll go another week before I start over at the beginning with my filler-word list to do another pass.

Reading: I read fifteen books last month. I am caught up or ahead on all my reading challenges, both monthly and yearly. I have around 30 books to go by the end of the year to clear my 2017 shelf, and I’ve assessed which series I want to continue or finish in that time. I’m still going to have to read a lot to get it all done, but I think I’m up to it, even with my lofty publishing goals.

Exercise: Recovery from my spring of illness and semi-involuntary sloth is not going as well as I’d hoped, but I’m still making some progress. I’m trying to run three times a week and always managing at least twice. Other days, I walk. I tried a little Tai Chi, and it’s okay, but I’m not sure if it will stick right now–I don’t have much brain power to spare for learning yet another new thing right now, because…

Drawing and Journaling: …Learn to Draw 2020 is back in action. I’ll go into more detail later, but I’ve found a promising new source of drawing instruction, and for a good chunk of the month I’ve also been journaling daily. I’d like to focus whatever time I have for learning new things here, which means I also gave up my daily Japanese language practice (which I hadn’t mentioned much here, or possibly at all. I had a 67-day streak on DuoLingo before I quit, but I was getting overwhelmed by too many new kanji too quickly. I’ll go back to it someday.)

Crafting: Still no progress on either my big knitting project or my massive cross stitch. Too hot. I’ve mostly been mending clothes that need it, and also my shower curtain, when one of its grommets popped off in the wash. Once the weather cools off more, I’ll start up again–after all, I still have Christmas crafting to do!


Goals for September:

  1. Start work on the next draft of Fifty-Five Days, after a few days’ more break time.
  2. Read all the books I have set up on my challenge TBR (post on Wednesday) and ideally at least three or four more, drawn from the series I need to continue.
  3. Draw every day, working through my new teaching source steadily.
  4. Journal every day as well.
  5. Keep trying to run as often as possible, but exercise using other methods when that’s too much.
  6. Get all my blog posts up on time.

Yeah, I know. This looks like pretty much every other list I’ve made, minus the new drawing goals. My aim right now for life is stability and productivity, which is challenge enough without stretching myself further!

This Week, I Read… (2020 #33)

#122 – Homegoing, by Yaa Gyasi

  • Read: 8/20/20 – 8/24/20
  • Mount TBR: 109/150
  • The Ultimate PopSugar Reading Challenge: Read a book by an author in their 20s
  • The Reading Frenzy: Read a book set in Africa
  • Rating: 5/5 stars

I can’t believe this is a debut novel, it’s so well-researched and -crafted.

Given what others have said about this book, I expected not to like it as much as I did. I’m all about character-driven stories, especially but not limited to romance. This is no romance, and the characters aren’t explored in any great depth. It’s a sweeping epic of a generational saga, following a new protagonist every chapter, laying out two parallel families over 300 years.

Honestly, I should probably dislike it for being so far from what I usually value in a story. But I don’t. I love it.

I love it because it’s so successful at what it sets out to do. Okay, maybe the meaning of the ending is a little murky to me, but it’s a reunion, a meeting of the sagas we’ve been alternating between for nearly as many pages as years. Even if it’s not directly acknowledged, it carries a small sense of satisfaction for me (though as per other reviewers, clearly your mileage may vary.)

But this story sets its premise at the beginning clearly and never deviates from the terrible beauty of it. Nearly every type of harm that can befall a person happens to someone in this story: rape, whippings, kidnapping, wrongful imprisonment and forced labor, limb loss, drug addiction, and more I’m forgetting the specifics of because there’s just so much suffering. But there is still always hope, somewhere, in each vignette. Until the end, there is always a new generation, a child to carry forth the torch into what could be a better world. Yes, there are still challenges, there are still wrongs done to the characters and by the characters. But for all the misery, this book never actually felt depressing to me. Awful and plain-spoken, factual and dark, but never grim. Never hopeless.

Even allowing for the difference between my usual tastes and this book’s style, I still see some flaws. I found the opening chapters more compelling than the final ones; something about them felt like checking off boxes of American civil rights history, they seemed flatter and more rushed. But that didn’t detract much from my enjoyment of it, nor do I think it’s relevant to the larger point of the work. Would this be “better” if it were longer and spent more time developing the characters as individuals, rather than viewpoints for a certain social issue or segment of history? Maybe, but not necessarily. This work was never trying to be a character study, and I know that, so why criticize it for lacking what it never promised to have?

#123 – Dragonsong: A Short Story, by Audrey Rose B.

  • Read: 8/25/20
  • “Hot Single Books Looking for Readers” Book Club August Selection
  • Mount TBR: 110/150
  • Rating: 3/5 stars

It is, above all things, cute. Which I find to be both its strength and its weakness.

Sometimes the cuteness is fantastic. Arlyn the dragon is a joy throughout, especially considering he can’t talk. But my favorite cuteness isn’t even a direct part of Rynn and Elanthia’s romance, as I’d expect it to be–it’s the silliness of the “human mysteries” they’re forced to explain to the faeries during their captivity. I could have read a dozen more pages of that, it was a brilliant way to handle a species/culture clash and bonus, it was hilarious.

But that cuteness extends its fingers through everything, including the “war” that is the foundational reason for any of the plot happening. There’s a war prophesied; there’s a marriage alliance proposed to prevent it; but the princess doesn’t want that marriage (who can blame her in this case) and goes out to find her own way. But it’s superficial. It’s set dressing. Rynn and Elanthia’s reunion near the end was so “cute” it completely spoiled the gravity of the situation–or at least, it would have if there was any gravity. There wasn’t. The war is a vague, far-off thing, an excuse to have a cute love story between two ladies from different fantasy cultures. I think including something as grim and destructive as war is a tonal mismatch for a bite-size story clearly meant to be sweet, romantic fluff. Which it is, and should be allowed to be, without having a completely de-fanged version of war hovering on the horizon.

So I liked the romantic aspect of the ending, while completely disliking the light, almost dismissive tone of how it treats a subject as serious as large-scale human conflict.

The world has promise and I would love to see it better-developed in future works, should that ever happen. The writing style…eh? It was easy to read, not particularly challenging, which is fine for cute fluff. But I tired quickly of how often the only descriptor for something was its color. It seemed crucial to the author that I knew what color literally everything was, but I prefer more variety in description so that it doesn’t feel monotonous.

It’s cute. And if you’re looking for cute, queer fantasy-romance, this will brighten up your afternoon. I’d like a little more substance, but it delivers on what it promises.

#124 – From the Roof of My Mouth, by Reese Weston

  • Read: 8/25/20 – 8/26/20
  • “Hot Single Books Looking for Readers” Book Club August Selection
  • Rating: 2/5 stars

I don’t like “romances” based on miscommunication, spite, and outright lying. I thought I was getting a slow-burn about two queer guys with history and personal issues, but it was more like a perpetual motion machine of angst and misery and distrust.

While I’m not the most qualified to discuss racial issues in fiction, many aspects of this left a bad taste in my mouth. Most important characters are stated to be of a particular race or skin color, but not all of them, so in the cases where I wasn’t told, I was left wondering if that meant I was supposed to assume they were white. A big deal is made of Ryan and Jet being rich white boys, generally in the most derogatory sense of the term, so that made me question the assumption, and it turns out I was right to–“Dice,” the roommate whose ethnicity I either missed early on or it was never specified, turned out to be named “Aarav Parikh,” which is definitely not a white name; he later calls himself “an Indian nerd.” I would have liked to have known that earlier, since it’s such a big deal that Ryan is white and Nakoa is part Native (his mother is stated to be Ojibwe, though if we ever get details on the rest of his birth family, I missed that too.) Also, I was always uncomfortable with the narrative being “rich white guy slums it to save his Native addict love interest.” Alcoholism and drug addiction is a real problem in Native American communities, and treating Nakoa’s vices like something Ryan can “save” him from, for the purpose of creating an angst-fest for a messed-up toxic romance plot, simply feels wrong to me, even if I’m not a part of the community being drawn upon.

Wrapped up in that is also my dissatisfaction about Ryan’s job subplot, where he takes a job for a nonprofit aimed at helping queer teens, but constantly blows it off to deal with Nakoa’s problems. A) Why on earth is he so valuable to the organization that Chloe and Jet let him get away with that, I would have fired him half a dozen times; B) what does he actually do, because his “work” is never described enough for me to get a sense of what his job actually entails; and C) it further reinforces the white-savior privileged complex that Ryan has, that he can skate by half-assing his single job because he has his family’s money while Nakoa works three different menial jobs and still barely gets by. Yes, part of that is Nakoa’s addictions being a drain on his cash flow, and that’s not Ryan’s fault, but constantly bringing up how Ryan covers his rent and food most of the time only makes this dynamic worse.

From me, that probably sounds like a one-star review, and I’ll admit, I considered it. We’ll split the difference and call this 1.5 stars. But I do think this story does some things successfully. As queer rep, well, nearly everyone in it is somewhere under the umbrella, and that’s great. I also think there is a place for darker stories in queer lit, that not everything should be sunshine and roses and Perfect Queer People who don’t have major flaws. Especially when balanced with the happy, functional side character Chloe getting her lesbian dream wedding, it’s okay to have dysfunctional people who also are queer take center stage sometimes. They’re not messed up because they’re queer, they just happen to be both.

I’m less happy about the missing b-word, because Nakoa is often implied to be attracted to women as well as men, but Ryan refers to them as a “gay” couple, the few times he uses a term at all. The few times Nakoa describes himself, which only happen in the context of him defying his father’s attitude, he uses “queer,” which I won’t argue with as a catch-all term. But I’d always rather see bisexuality validated clearly when it’s present, because it gets danced around all too often. And if Nakoa’s not meant to be interpreted as bi- or pansexual, then maybe don’t keep bringing up Ryan being jealous of any attention Nakoa pays to women…?

#125 – Highlander’s Desire, by Joanne Wadsworth

  • Read: 8/26/20 – 8/27/20
  • Mount TBR: 111/150
  • Rating: 1/5 stars

This is one of the most repetitive pieces of fiction writing I’ve encountered since I started reviewing books. No, I don’t say that lightly.

The prologue is an exposition dump through dialogue of everything the blurb already told me: bear shifters, prophecy, time travel, fated matings. Everything is laid out so clearly I felt an instant lack of trust that I, as a reader, had the intelligence to connect any dots on my own.

The first chapter jumps forward a thousand years to the present day and tells it all to me again, through two different characters talking to each other about stuff that one or both of them already know AND ALSO I ALREADY KNOW IT TOO, IT WAS JUST IN THE PROLOGUE.

As the story goes on, this extends down to the smallest details as well as the main plot. When Iain gets dressed I’m treated to a complete list of his clothing, so I know he’s wearing black leather pants and a “silver-threaded” cotton tee shirt; when Isla meets up with him later (after a scene break) she has to observe what he’s wearing and tell us again that he’s wearing black leather pants and a silver cotton shirt. It was only two pages ago! I haven’t forgotten!

Iain and Isla’s dialogue is so repetitive, and so oddly formal, that for me it whizzed through “bad” right back around to “good” by way of being hilarious. Like, these two horny bear shifters are rubbing their bodies together to bathe in each other’s scent, letting those animal instincts out, but they’re being super-precious verbally about feelings and boundaries and consent. I laughed so hard, and I know I wasn’t supposed to be laughing. This is honestly the reason I bothered finished the “novel”–which at 150 pages is a glorified novella. If an editor had stripped out the repetition I doubt this has enough story to break 100 pages.

I’m so, so glad that I got this for free on a whim. I actually have one of the later books as well, acquired the same way, but I don’t feel bad at all about ditching it unread. This was, quite literally, laughably bad writing.

#126 – War and Peace, by Leo Tolstoy

  • Read: 8/16/20 – 8/27/20
  • Around the Year in 52 Books: A classic book you’ve always meant to read
  • The Reading Frenzy: Read a book set in two or more parts
  • Mount TBR: 112/150
  • Rating: 1/5 stars

DNF after Chapter 20 (page 86, or about 10%.)

This is the most epic case of “It’s not you, it’s me,” that I’ve ever had for a book.

I knew this was going to be a challenge. I knew it might not always be fun, though I was prepared to be pleasantly surprised.

This book, however, is not for me, because I want to care about the characters and not just watch them dance in and out of the narrative on the epic stage Tolstoy has created. I haven’t even gotten to the “war” part yet, which means some people will think I’ve given up too early; but I wasn’t enjoying myself, or the process of note-taking to make sure I was keeping the already-huge cast of characters straight.

When I read, I want to experience the story with the characters instead of feeling like I’m at a play where they’re simply performing their actions for me. I want to know their inner lives and feel their emotions. I can’t have that here–at the scale Tolstoy aims for, that kind of individual attention isn’t possible, and I constantly felt its lack. I could make myself wade through the rest to learn his larger perspective on war and peace and life in general, but I’d be miserable the whole time at how remote and inaccessible the characters felt to me.

I can see why others praise this so. I understand why it’s considered great, because in many ways, I do think it is, even if it wasn’t giving me what I personally want from my reading. Even in the opening 10% that I managed, there’s a lot that’s noteworthy. But this book was never going to be for me, and I won’t put myself through the rest of it.

Editing Notes: So You’re an Underwriter, Part II — Action

In Part I, I discussed what to do when you find your writing lacking narrative depth–description, internal monologue, and world-building. Today I’m going to tackle one of the other three major components of a text: action.

For context, when I say “action” I’m not talking about it in the narrow sense of “action” movies–fight scenes, explosions, and car chases. In this sense, I mean it quite literally–action is when something (a character or part of the environment) acts in some way. John walked across the room. A broken tree branch fell to the ground. Lily tossed her hair indignantly. The little boy cried because his ice cream fell off the cone and onto the sidewalk.

In every case, something is happening. This is your opportunity for strong verb choice–there’s no “to be” conjugations found here. (At least, not as primary verbs. Because English tenses get funky, they’ll still show up as auxiliary ones, but that’s another post.)

How can you tell your writing lacks action? Sometimes, of course, you’ll want to focus more on narrative or dialogue, and that’s fine if you’re doing it deliberately. But if you have long passages of narrative (be they description or exposition dumps) your writing can feel flat or monotonous. If you focus too much on dialogue, you end up with what’s often called the “talking heads” effect–characters constantly speaking back and forth without moving, thinking, or stopping to observe their environment or each other. That can be useful in short or tense exchanges, but over longer conversations it can feel bouncy, ungrounded in reality, or confusing.

The solution, of course, isn’t to drop a fight scene where one doesn’t belong or crash a helicopter into the forest you’re describing. You don’t need to change the plot as a whole or the focus of the scene, to insert more action. (You can, but you don’t have to.) You just need to ask yourself a few questions, depending on context:

  • Could my characters be moving right now, and if so, how could that enrich the scene? A conversation that used to be sitting in a booth at a diner could move outside instead while characters are walking, giving you a less static environment for them to interact with. If it has to stay at the diner for whatever reason, how are your characters gesturing as they speak? When do they take a bite of their sandwich? Who’s the one more likely to look over every time the door opens? There’s no hard rule for balancing dialogue with action, because the needs of every scene will be different, but in general, break up more than three or four changes in speaker by inserting an action. If you’re using lots of one-liners, you might be able to go a little longer; if you’re using bigger blocks of dialogue, maybe every two or three. If your characters are discussing something serious and you want a slow pace, you can use action with every chunk of dialogue, though that is its own trap as well. The demands of the scene come first, but be conscious of when a lot of one thing becomes too much.
  • Can something or someone from the environment interact with my characters in a useful way? We’ve all seen the meet-cute where the wind blows something out of one character’s hand for another to pick up and return to them; but it doesn’t have to be so forced. If you need a character to pause for a beat before they answer a question, have that wind blow their hair across their face, so they take the time to push it aside. If one person would rather not be having this conversation in the first place, they might seize on any distraction the setting offers them–a blaring car alarm, a flock of birds taking flight, a lost child in need of rescue. Sure, that last one’s a bit dramatic, but I don’t know what your story needs–it’s just an example. To go back to my diner setting from above, if a character jumps in their seat when they hear a dish crashing in the kitchen, it could tell your readers a few different things, depending on the effect you want: that they’re anxious in general, or about this situation in particular; that they weren’t paying close attention and the noise “woke them up”; or alternately, that they were so focused on their conversation partner that the noise reminded them where they were, because they’d tuned it out. Blank rooms may be a description problem, but blank environments don’t let your characters exist in a real, living space. Give them something to do beyond the scope of the person they’re talking to.
  • Have I gone too long without mentioning a character at all? A long paragraph of description about the forest your protagonist is hiking through might include “action” sentences, like a bird darting from tree to tree or a deer passing at a distance. But if the majority of the block of text is clearly for descriptive purposes, it might be time to refocus on the hiker. What was the last thing they did or said? How long ago was that on the page? Did you remember what it was before you found it, or has it been so long on the narrative tangent that you weren’t sure? Just like long passages of dialogue, too much description, exposition, or world-building can be broken up with brief bits of action to keep momentum going. It can be trickier if you’re explaining a necessary bit of fantasy-world politics or history, of course; world-building has a host of challenges I can’t begin to cover in the narrow context of underwriting action. But if you can’t find a way to insert action, it might be a sign you’re info-dumping and you need to trim it down or chop it into smaller pieces to scatter through the story more naturally.
  • Can I replace any dialogue or narrative directly with action? This is a more advanced/limited technique, but it has its moments. A character doesn’t need to think that a sunset or a scenic view is pretty, or say so to a companion, if you show them climbing a big rock to get a better vantage point. In a chase scene, you wouldn’t need the pursuer to state that they lost their target if you show them coming to an intersection and twisting in every direction to catch sight of them. (I bet you could imagine that one easily–movies use it all the time, but they often double down by having the pursuer say “I’ve lost them” out loud, even when it’s obvious to the audience. If they’re informing a third party listening in on the phone or another communication device, okay, I’ll grant that. But simply saying it to themselves? Totally unnecessary. I’d rather they swear at the end of the scene to show me they’re frustrated by their failure!) Converting a story beat from one type to another can be challenging, but this is the pinnacle of the adage “show, don’t tell” and can liven up any scene, cut down on repetition, and prove you trust your readers to connect the dots on their own.

As with my first post on narrative, this is meant to be an overview on adding/improving the action in your writing, not a comprehensive list of all possible issues, and definitely not a “one size fits all” solution. These questions are a set of tools I’ve developed for myself based on my own observed weaknesses; other authors handing out their own writing advice will offer other perspectives. If mine don’t suit your needs, I hope you’ll use this as a jumping-off point for further research into solutions that work for you!

Coming soon: Part III, on dialogue!