When I read books, I try to learn lessons from them to improve my own authorship. I am collecting those lessons here.
This was last updated June 3, 2022.
- Be very accurate when describing something. If you use an adjective to describe a noun, make sure that adjective is true to what you’re describing.
- Infodump judiciously
- Avoid Anachronisms where appropriate
- Trope-y books are fun. If you’re writing in a sub-genre where using traditional tropes is part of what’s expected of an author, go hog-wild in using those tropes. Good artists borrow, great artists steal.
A Sorrow Named Joy
- TENSION! Between this and ‘Legends and Lattes,’ I am now convinced that low stakes books can be high tension.
- One way this book stimulated reader tension was by creating a mildly unnerving world which was just slightly out of key.
- And then the author dangled a secret in front of the reader, and held off on paying off that dangling plot thread for so long that the tension just kept ramping up and ramping up and ramping up…
- And then it paid off the tension! Right when the ramping tension was getting unbearably high, the author hit the landing by causing an argument between the characters. When the protagonist spiraled into depression after the argument, that paid off the high tension, and let the story transition into it’s next act naturally.
- The lesson is that tension is cyclical. If you raise the tension, you need to lower it afterwards.
The Thousand Names
- If you have a twist villain, let them have more than one function in the plot. If the twist villain does nothing plot-relevant throughout the entire novel, no one will be surprised when they suddenly become plot-relevant by being a twist villain.
- If you have more than one protagonist, and they are all morally upstanding people in similar ways, make at least one of them have some spice to them. Maybe a fatal flaw or two wouldn’t go amiss. Like I said above, make a Venn Diagram of your characters’ personalities, and make sure there isn’t too much overlap in those diagrams.
- When writing a genius character, don’t let them be a POV character. The closer the genius is to the lens of the narration, the more likely an author has to screw up the genius and suspend disbelief. In this case, Janus is very well done because he’s relatively obscured from the lens of the narrative.
- Properly set up expectations. This book’s climax was a big magic fight, but there wasn’t much magic used throughout the novel. The magic fight in this felt like it came from a High Fantasy novel, while the rest of this book felt like Low Fantasy. This book needed to be High Fantasy all the way through, or Low Fantasy all the way through.
In the Shadow of Lightning
- When you have multiple POVs, stagger high tension and low tension scenes between the perspectives, so your reader doesn’t overdose on too many high-tension or low-tension scenes in a row. THE EXCEPTION to this is at the very end of the story, when you have all the perspectives finish at a high point to make a memorable climax.
- Lovecraftian Horror: the Lovecraftian aesthetic of being inexplicably terrifying works well as a fantasy trope, but only when it’s used to contrast an otherwise perfectly structured setting.
- This book’s main magic system is all about chemistry and engineering. There is no room in this system for Lovecraftianism.
- AND BECAUSE there’s no room for the Lovecraftian aesthetic in this system, is precisely why the aesthetic works so well. Lovecraftian Horror works by introducing inexplicable and disturbing factors into a well-ordered world. The contrast of Victorian tame sensibilities (in this book’s case, engineering magic) with the chaotic and strange from the colonies (the monsters.)
- The Lovecraftian aesthetic works well here due to that contrast. It would have worked even better if the everyday world of this setting was further fleshed out, to make the setting more ordinary. What sort of breakfast do people eat? What tea do they drink? What sort of clothing do they wear? That sort of thing
Legends and Lattes
- Low stakes can be more emotionally evocative than high stakes, so long as you handle them right. I care more about an orc’s retirement than the fate of the world, if you handle it right. Motivation matters; relying on stock motivations of ‘saving the world’ gets trite, so instead go for something smaller and more personal.
- Found family stories rock.
- Worldbuilding through ambiguity. I was left in the dark whether or not the restoration of the Monarchy would actually be a good thing or not. Was the Liberation justified? Clearly the Liberation went too far with the whole ‘indentured servitude of mages’ and ‘killing babies’ thing, but from what little we got it felt that the Monarchy also sucked. I enjoyed this ambiguity in this book, and would have enjoyed it even more if the author leaned into it a bit more.
Guns of the Dawn
- If you have a midpoint twist which changes the tenor of the book’s plot and dramatically recontextualizes the book’s characterization, foreshadow it in act 1.
- Originality is overblown. The world building in this is like several other things I’ve read/watched on TV/video games I’ve played. And that’s fine. I enjoyed my time here, and the story used the tropes well.
- Twist endings! Strive to foreshadow your twist ending, but hide it just enough that the reader can’t predict it. Be a stage magician who distracts with one hand while doing mundane trickery with the other, to set up the twist ending.
- Also, this book did a good job of foreshadowing the ‘twist’ ending. I (the reader) anticipated half of the twist, but stopped guessing after I anticipated that half. The lesson here is to make part of the twist obvious enough that the reader stops looking for the other half (but be sure to foreshadow the other half! Just be sneaky about it.).
- More on Twist endings… make sure your book is worth reading WITHOUT the twist. I enjoyed this book before I even read the twist. The twist itself was the cherry on top.
- I’ve read some books with twist endings which I did not enjoy, until I read the twist ending which pulled the entire book together. I feel bittersweet about such books, because such books are slogs to read through until the very end when they finally get good.
- I’d much rather read a book which is good from the first page and not a slog. And when the reader finally gets to the twist, the twist re-contextualizes the entire book and makes the story that much better.
- In adventure party fiction, be sure to give every single adventurer at least a small plot arc/character arc. It might be hard to juggle, but it’s worth it.
In a Garden Burning Gold
- Show your magic. Show your plot. Show the stakes. Show the tension. Don’t just tell it.
- Use pretty prose to add a mystical edge to your magic system.
- This book was combat and violence light. This lack of violence served it well; when the book finally did get violent, it hit all the harder due to how rare it is.
- Siblings on opposite sides of a conflict works very well for stakes. In short, the stronger the emotional attachment between hero and villain, the better.
The Detroit Free Zone
- I’m a sucker for books with joy and vitality despite the darkness they are set against. Hope in hopeless circumstances.
- Have very good audiobook narration.
- Let all your characters have distinct personalities; cheerful, despondent, stoic, reticent, determined…
- Let their personalities leak through into their dialog, so you can always tell who’s speaking by their speech patterns
- And let your characters change! Let them sometimes be the opposite of their core personality. If they are usually happy, let them sometimes be depressed as the plot demands.
- Let your villains have character arcs. And even let them become heroes.
- Know when to hold ’em, and know when to show ’em… about worldbuilding. Not infodumping is great! But a certain amount of infodumping can help flesh out the setting.
- Don’t write defensively. Going back to give motivation to a character who died in a prior book doesn’t flesh out the characterization of this book, or make this book more compelling. I already got my emotional catharsis about Chapman when his story resolved with his death; going back to tell more of his story is like telling the joke after telling the punchline.
- Keep the scale of your story under control. Don’t let the plot of your book scale out of hand. Focus on character arcs.
The Lost War
- Get a good audiobook narrator. I was so-so on the ebook version of this book, but the audiobook brought the plot and characters to life.
- If you’re going to subvert genre expectations with your book, start subverting them early so you don’t disappoint readers by making promises which you don’t ultimately fulfill.
- Don’t rely on cliffhangers to make your book good.
- This book’s twist ending was my favorite part of the book, which is both a good and bad thing. I truly enjoyed the ending… however I didn’t love everything up until the ending. Lesson: make reading the entire book before the twist as good as the twist.
The Poppy War Trilogy
- Too much grimdark doesn’t work, at least for me. Soften it with some hopeful scenes.
- Sympathetic villains can make fighting against them more enthralling.
- Delve into unusual mythologies, and explore undertold stories.
- I liked the malign, lovecraftian gods in this series. Don’t be afraid to take traditional tropes and invert them in new ways.
- If writing alternate history fantasy, know your source material, and apply it well. Find aspects of your genre (Lovecraftian Horror) and your source material (eldritch Abrahamic angels) and combine them.
- If you have multiple try-fail cycles in a row, make sure there are consequences for each failed cycle. Perhaps by using the “yes, but/no, and” technique.
- You can stage acts around reveals of important information. This book is a conspiracy story; so the reveals of secrets worked well as act breaks.
The Hallowed Hunt
- Show don’t tell about having a badass fighter protagonist. If you protagonist is a fighter, include fight scenes.
- Make your various plotlines interact. This book had both a modern-day political intrigue plot, and an ancient curse plotline. They never interacted, save in the most barely touching sort-of way. It would have been better if at the climax they fully merged, so solving one solves the other.
- In this book, the love interest character needed more agency and more personality. In the end, I felt as though she was included in this book solely to be a love interest and tool to advance the plot, and not to be her own person with her own goals and dreams.
Blood of the Chosen
- The author uses a very good strategy of employing two protagonists who are opposed to one another for philosophical reasons. Both sides have good points behind their arguments, making the conflict between them more compelling. When they cooperate against a greater evil, it makes the cooperation feel earned.
- Have a good idea, and implement it. In this case, the author wanted to explore the ethics of the whole ‘Jedi stealing infants’ thing from Star Wars. That worked well here.
- Get a good audiobook narrator. This narrator was good.
- After book 1, I was dreading the return of Kit. I personally wanted the author to write her out of the series. He didn’t write her out, and instead found a way to both stay true to her innate characterization while also making her less annoying. Lesson: the author stuck to his guns and made a character who annoyed the audience (or at least annoyed me), and made her one of my favorite characters in the book.
- Take your time to build up the romance between your characters. The first act isn’t enough.
- Each act of your story should shake things up dramatically, either by changing the setting of your story or changing the objectives of your story. New tension and stakes in each act are advisable as well.
- Every act should have something which upset the stakes. ‘Shards of Honor’ was a lovestory, and in every act of the story a different something could have broken up the romance. This worked well, making the lovestory feel constantly under attack.
- This book doesn’t tread new ground genre-wise. This is a very classic Hero’s Journey. But it is nonetheless enjoyable. The moral of the story is that you can write a new version of an old story, but as long as you make it enjoyable it might find an audience.
- Part of the reason why I enjoyed this book so much is because the protagonist reminds me of me. Having diverse characters in books is a good thing, because it lets a new audience seem themselves in their books.
Empire of the Vampire
- This isn’t a writing lesson, but a reading one. Don’t judge a book by it’s cover. I was expecting a bad goth novel, but I thoroughly enjoyed this. The moral of the story is that I should try new things!
- The author did a very good job of establishing weapons early on (running water, black ignis), and then using them in new, creative ways later. This felt really good to read.
- The dueling narrative structure of ‘distant past’ and ‘recent past’ can work. It had flaws in this case- this book had a really long slow start because both timelines had slow starts- however the payoff for mingling the two timelines was fantastic and totally worth the slow start.
- The characters are always actively doing something. There are few to none ‘talky’ chapters, where the characters sit around and make plans. Instead the heroes are constantly on the run, or fighting, discovering ancient secrets. They still make plans and talk with one another, but they do so while doing something else at the same time. This made the story feel propulsive, always moving forward.
- de Leon was a fantastic character because he was the focus of 2 different timeline stories. I loved watching his character growth from naïve peasant to hardened holyman to excommunicated warrior who hates everything to rediscovering his faith and opening himself up to (platonic) love.
- I initially didn’t care for this book’s first person, present tense storytelling. I think I would have had an easier time with it if the author had done either first person/past tense, or third person/present tense. Both put together was a bit much.
- I didn’t like Act 3 because the themes of inter-caste conflict weren’t in the forefront in that act. This book’s best aspect was it’s inter-caste conflict. Therefore the lesson is to have you main plot/theme be present in every section of your story.
- Eo’s death is an example of ‘fridging’ done right. Fridging is when an author kills a minor side character (usually a woman) to provide motive for the protagonist. Fridging is bad because it usually victimizes a woman with very little agency. In this case, Eo had A LOT of agency in her death. She chose to die. Because of her choice, it’s not fridging.
- The author used a distant 3rd person writing style, sometimes falling back on head-hopping. Ordinarily this is frowned upon, but the author makes it work. Therefore, it’s okay to sometimes break the rules.
- Unrealistic characters can be more compelling than realistic ones. Good storytelling must be compelling, above all.
Fires of Vengeance
- I really enjoyed the narrative style of chapter 8, where the author mixed telling about the history on Osonton while moving the main plot forward.
- When balancing antagonists, try to give them appropriate pagecounts. Odili was this book’s ‘final boss,’ but the majority of the individual fights in this book were against demons, not Odili’s Nobles.
- This book’s great final act really pulled the novel together. I didn’t expect all the twists and turns of the final battle, which was a great on the author’s part. Goes to show that a good final act leaves the reader with a good impression.
The Song of the Shattered Sands
- When writing a multi-book series with many POVs, it can be wise to kill off multiple important characters in the penultimate book to clear the board for the final book. This series did that well.
- Slow corruption arcs are fun, especially over multiple books.
- Use unique mythologies and settings. You don’t need to go back to Europe for your Fantasy.
A Master of Djinn
- Discretion is the better part of valor. I got the feeling that the author wanted to include the scenes a)with the 9 Lords and b)the peace conference with kings and queens. The story would have been better off if those scenes were removed.
- Establish your villains early on, and don’t leave your readers in the dark as to the motivations and plans of the bad guys. This is doubly true if your bad guy is the proactive force moving the plot to it’s climax, as was the case here. Abby wound up holding the villain ball because she wasn’t well enough thought out.
- This is because knowing a villain’s motivations serves as foreshadowing of what is to come in the book.
- Don’t be afraid to write combo-genre books. Steampunk+djinn=fun.
- Always do a structural check of a story, to see if there are any obvious room for structural improvement.
The Haunting of Tram Car 015
- Don’t be afraid of using multiple genres, like steampunk and mystery.
- Know what message you’re trying to send, and send it. Try to integrate your message in with your plot arcs.
- Small, compelling stakes are better than impersonal, end-of-the-world stakes.
Gideon the Ninth
- Part of what makes something feel like it has high stakes and tension, is the possibility of negative consequences for the protagonist’s failure. Until the first body shows up, this book doesn’t present much in the way of the possibility of negative consequences for the protagonist’s failure. AKA low stakes and tension.
- Anachronistic prose like Gideon’s dialog can be broadly popular, so long as such language has not reached market saturation (aka not too many books are written in that style). Therefore, it’s good to be somewhat adventuresome in your prose.
- It’s better to have a single, memorable midpoint conflict than multiple tiny midpoint conflicts.
- You can have twist villains, so long as they are sufficiently foreshadowed. But if you don’t foreshadow any villain and then have a twist villain, that villain might not work for all readers.
- Goth-death-nuns can work. The moral of the story is don’t be afraid of having fun with your worldbuilding.
The Book of Rumi
- Short, simple stories can be very compelling.
- Don’t be afraid to write towards a theme or ‘moral of the story.’ Especially in short formats, it can work very well.
- ‘Unsouled’ did a good job of using fascinating prose for the unique worldbuilding elements such as flower buds, strange ghosts, fruit trees, terrariums. This was a narrative tool, drawing the attention of the reader to that unique worldbuilding element, an element which would become important later. So foreshadowing, in a sense.
- Readers find it very easy to root for an underdog protagonist, such as Lindon, in this case.
- When writing a mystery story, do the hard work of showing the characters following up clues and evidence.
- Establish strong relationships between the protagonist and their surrounding characters, both their allies, enemies and side characters.
- Own your style. Tamora Pierce is a good author in part because she honors her tropes so well.
Breach of Peace
- I enjoyed how the narrative in this used horror tropes to instantly create tension and ask the question ‘how did this happen?’ right at the beginning of the story. I’ll try to replicate this in my own stories at some point.
- When you write twist characters, make the characters compelling before you introduce the twist.
- I enjoyed Khlid’s characterization. The author was unafraid to make her seem like a hypocrite. She was flawed but trying to be better- and that made the tragedy at the end all the more bitter. Good stuff.
- Stakes are all about ‘Why should the reader care if the heroes succeed?’
- Transitioning between one genre of story and another genre of story (in this case mystery and horror) midway through the story can work really well if it’s well foreshadowed. This book did that well.
- When writing mystery genre stories, the solving of the mystery needs to feel earned.