Wednesday, February 11, 2015

Guest Post by Jennifer Carole Lewis, REVELATIONS

5 Right Lessons Learned From the Wrong Places

When I was in college, one of my professors told me something which changed my mind about the best way to learn.  He told me that I would learn more from people I disagree with and experiences I didn’t like than I ever would from those I enjoyed and agreed with.  And he was right.

Everyone tells you to read good books in order to learn how to write good books.  But I’ve learned just as much, if not more, from books I didn’t enjoy.  I won’t share specific names here, since I’m a big believer in not being sued.  But if you want to be a writer, I would strongly encourage you not to put a book aside because you’re not enjoying it.  Instead, break it down and figure out why you didn’t like it, especially if it seemed promising at first.

1)    Flat characters

Dickens is renowned for his vivid characters.  With only a few phrases or words of descriptions, he made them seem real to his readers.  But description is only the first part of making a character seem real.

I was put off with a recent library pickup, a paranormal romance, because the heroine seemed completely removed from the story.  Werewolves attacking?  Meh.  Family’s safety threatened?  All in a day’s work.  I suspect the author was trying to demonstrate this young woman’s shock by minimizing her emotional reaction.  But instead, it came off as if the character didn’t care at all.  Characters are our windows into a book’s world.  We react to stories about people, which is why we care more about one little boy or girl suffering than statistics about millions dying.

Characters may feel real to the author but sometimes they don’t transfer onto the page.  To feel real to a reader, they need information sprinkled throughout.  Favorite foods, a nervous habit, souvenirs from childhood, all of these sorts of details make a character feel real.  And most of all, they need to react to what’s going on.  I was told to make sure my point-of-view character reacted either emotionally, intellectually or physically to every action in a scene.  And it makes a difference.

Another common character challenge is a stereotyped character.  Another recent book I picked up felt like the main characters had been picked up out of a discount bin.  There was the Peppy Cheerleader, the Brooding Poet and the Dumb Jock.  Not once did any of them break with their stereotypes: the cheerleader was enthusiastic and ditzy about everything, the poet wore black clothes and brooded in corners and the jock failed to recognize such exotic places as “Mexico”.  The concept of the story was interesting but the flat characters sucked all the fun out of it. 

Every person is unique and every character should be, too.  Even secondary characters should have something unique about them to distinguish them from the thousand other gum-snapping waitresses or awkward tech specialists out there.  Main characters should break out of stereotypes in a dozen different ways, at a minimum.

2)    Failing To Deliver

Nothing ruins a story faster than anticipating something which never happens.  In one small-town romance I read, the heroine arrives on the run from an abusive stalker ex-boyfriend.  Throughout the book, I kept waiting for the ex to find her.  She worried about it constantly, running away from a local TV broadcast, not giving her real name to anyone, lying about her background.  Halfway through the book, she sees a news broadcast telling her that the ex-boyfriend has died in a car accident.  That was the closest he came to playing a role in the story.

I felt incredibly cheated by that novel.  I’d been looking forward to some kind of confrontation, maybe between the ex and the hero.  Or maybe the heroine would have to decide between staying with the man she’d come to love or escaping the one who hurt her.  I even held out hope that he’d faked his death to lure her out of hiding (since he was described as obsessive and manipulative).  Instead, the problem was solved without her having to lift a finger or make a decision.

Readers will expect narrative promises to be fulfilled.  If an author brings something up, then readers expect it to play a role in the story.  Crises and plot points should never be solved “off camera” away from the reader.

3)    Too Much Backstory

Personally, I’m obsessive about backstory.  If I like a character, I want to know everything about them.  What songs did their mother sing to them at night?  Where did they hang out in high school?  I like knowing details.

On the other hand, there can be too many details.  One rather hefty novel I picked up had a 30 page prologue detailing the hero’s ancestry and his ancestor’s achievements.  None of which ended up playing any role in the story.  Granted, it helped to establish the world but that could have been done much more concisely.  Details should establish character, establish the world in the story or create the mood/scene.  Otherwise, the pace is bogged down and readers can’t pick out the significant information from the multitudes. 

4)    Overdeveloped World

Technically, I suppose this flaw is really an extension of the “too much backstory” and “flat character” flaws.  Sometimes authors have a real gift for world creation.  They can create an alternate reality or a fantasy world which feels incredibly innovative and real.  Setting is supposed to feel like another character.  It isn’t supposed to usurp the actual walking-talking characters.

I’ve read any number of historical, fantasy and paranormal novels where the world was fascinating but the flat characters ended up feeling like a distraction against the backdrop.  In one Victorian romance I read, the author devoted a lot of time to making 1860s London feel real and substantial.  She explained customs deftly and had done her research on dress and manners.  But her hero and heroine remained stilted and awkward. 

One of my friends wants to write novels, but he fully admits he’s much better at coming up with unique worlds and grand sweeping arches of fictional history than he is at creating characters that other people want to read about.  I’ve offered him the following litmus test: if I pulled these characters out of this world and stuck them anywhere else, would anyone be interested in what’s happening to them?

5)    Too Many Surprises

I like being surprised, but only in a good way.  I want to look back at the story and say to myself “My God, how did I miss that!  It’s so obvious!” as I eagerly flip the pages.  I do not want to be sitting there going “Hunh?” as events play out.

A series I was enjoying ended up completely flipping the expectations from the first book in the last one.  There was a secondary character who I fully expected to be revealed as a villain (perhaps a reformed villain trying to mend her ways but a villain nonetheless).  There were all sorts of hints that she was not what she appeared to be.  But in the last book it was revealed that she was, in fact, exactly what she appeared to be.  Meanwhile, the good guys had become the bad guys and everyone had changed their minds about what they were fighting for in this particular post-apocalyptic landscape.

I read interviews with this particular author who admitted that she went through a major reconceiving of the overall story about two-thirds of the way through the series.  Unfortunately, the preparations she had done no longer applied.  And so the ending scenario came off as incomprehensibly surprising.

This is where a good beta-reader is invaluable.  Someone who has not talked to the author about the story and who only knows what is on the page.  Authors may think they’ve explained something or set it up perfectly, but the reader is still in the dark.  A good beta-reader will tell you if your plot and character actions make sense based on what you have already established.

No author can ever indulge in the belief that she or he has learned all there is to know.  To quote Jurassic Park: “Creation is an act of sheer will”.  The spark of inspiration is only the kernel.  After that, comes the layers of sheer will and determination which turn the tiny kernel into a pearl.

So take the time to indulge in some “bad” stories.  You’ll learn more than you think.

Book & Author Details:
Revelations by Jennifer Carole Lewis
Publication date: January 30th 2015
Genres: New Adult, Paranormal Romance

For millennia, the lalassu have existed at the fringes of society, hiding in the shadows. But someone is determined to drag them into the light.

Dani has spent years fighting against her family’s urges to take on the mantle of High Priestess for the lalassu. Stronger and faster than any ordinary human, she has no interest in being a guide for her people. She likes being independent and enjoys her night-job as a burlesque dancer. But a darker secret lurks inside of her, one which threatens everyone around her.

Isolated and idealistic, Michael works as a developmental therapist for children, using his psychometric gifts to discover the secrets they can’t share with anyone else. When one of his clients is kidnapped, he will do almost anything to rescue her. The investigation leads him to a seedy little performance club where he is shocked and thrilled to discover a genuine live superhero.

Michael and Dani must join forces to save those they care about from becoming the latest victims of a decades-long hunt. But the fiery chemistry between them threatens to unlock a millennia-old secret which could devour them both.

The clock is ticking and they will be faced with the ultimate hero’s choice: save the world or save each other?


Jennifer Carole Lewis is a full-time mom, a full-time administrator and a full-time writer, which means she is very much interested in speaking to anyone who comes up with any form of functional time-travel devices or practical cloning methods. Meanwhile, she spends her most of her time alternating between organizing and typing.

She is a devoted comic book geek and Marvel movie enthusiast. She spends far too much of her precious free time watching TV, especially police procedural dramas. Her enthusiasm outstrips her talent in karaoke, cross-stitch and jigsaw puzzles. She is a voracious reader of a wide variety of fiction and non-fiction and always enjoys seeking out new suggestions.

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