Why podcasts are a great way to learn about writing
There are lots of reasons why podcasts are a great way to learn about writing.
1. They are free
You don’t need to pay money to go to a convention.
You don’t need to pay money to go on a writing course.
2. You hear a range of experts
You get to hear whichever author(s) or industry experts are hosting the show.
They have guest speakers on from all aspects of the industry, including authors, editors, agents, publishers and consumers (readers and bloggers).
Each one will give you a different opinion. This frustrates some people because there is no ‘right’ way to write but it’s often useful to hear that there are different methods, techniques and tricks. You can cherry-pick the ones that are right for you and build yourself a toolbox of skills to draw upon when you need them.
You can hear their struggles and be glad it’s not just you, that you can still finish your novel because this person did and they went through the same thing you’re going through now.
You can hear about their successes and be glad for them and feel hopeful that, one day, you’ll be successful in whatever way you want.
You can hone in on the episodes and experts you want to listen to at the time. For example, there are episodes about drafting, creating character and getting started which are useful when you’re beginning your new project, and episodes about editing, redrafting and submitting to agents which will be useful later on.
3. You can listen to them when you like
Like all podcasts, they are easy to download to your computer, laptop, tablet or mobile.
You can listen to them whenever and wherever you like. You don’t need to set aside a time specially for listening to them, like you would going to some kind of class.
You are in control of how long you listen for, whether you listen in one go or in sections.
4. It makes you part of a community
If you listen to one podcast over time, you get to know the host and the regular guests, and it makes you feel like you know another writer. As someone with very few writer-friends, this is invaluable.
You can join discussions and groups about the podcast and feel part of a small community, all joined together by their love of the podcast and of writing.
5. It counts as ‘work’ or ‘research’
If you’re having a bad writing day, you can listen to one, learn about writing, and think about an aspect of writing you perhaps haven’t thought of before.
If it makes you think about writing, you’re developing as a writer. Most authors agree that the best thing to do to get better at writing is to write. I would agree. However, just writing and writing and never stopping to actually assess what you’re producing won’t help you as much as you think.
At some point, you have to bring your inner editor to the party. Write, and think about what you’re writing. You can do this at any time, depending on your own writing preferences. Do it in the planning stage, as you write or wait until you’ve written your piece and evaluate it at the end – whatever works for you.
Listening to experts can save you from making some amateur mistakes.
Hearing people discuss one aspect of writing and digesting that advice will mean you gradually become a better writer because you have considered the elements that make up a great novel (or poem or short story, etc.)
6. It will inspire you to write
A lot of the time, listening to someone talk enthusiastically about an aspect of writing will inspire you to have a go, too.
If you were having a bad writing day, listening to someone talk about it might fire you with enthusiasm and you’ll have another crack at it.
You can hear about other, successful authors feeling the same way as you.
Find out what my three favourite writing podcasts are. You might guess a couple of them but will you guess all three?
This is the first of a series of cosy crime with a Regency Fantasy twist.
The Lady Jewel Diviner is set in a Regency England wherein magic exists and strange creatures abound.
Miss Elinor Avely is the heroine of the story and she has the magical ability to divine any jewel nearby. At the start of the story, she believes she is the only person to have such an ability.
However, when she meets Miss Zooth, a vampiri, she learns that there are other types of magical creatures and magic-workers known as Musors.
This is mainly about Elinor learning that she can develop her powers and getting to know the magical world around her as she becomes embroiled in uncovering a smuggling ring off the Devonshire coast.
Having fled London society after a scandal involving a jewel – she was accused of stealing it instead of returning it, as she had intended – Elinor, her mother, Mrs. Avely, and brother, Perry, all retire to what they suppose will be quiet country life in Devon.
Obviously, that’s not to be.
There are a large number of players in this book and I’m not certain I kept up with who they all were.
What I know is that, for some reason, smugglers have taken the jewels which French aristocrats have been bringing with them across the channel as they flee the Revolution.
Elinor, being able to divine jewels, sets about finding them.
The first thing she finds is two aristocrats, hiding in a cave, having just made it across to England. They have been double-crossed by the people who helped smuggle them out of France and Elinor’s family takes them in.
This is a fast-paced mystery with new information popping up all over the place. I found it enjoyable and read on, wanting to know who the real culprit was.
There is also a romantic sub-plot: Elinor and Lord Beresford, who tried to come to her aid when she first became the talk of London, but who did it in such a high-handed way that it backfired. Naturally, he appears and his whole family is mixed up in the smuggling affair.
This had huge potential to be a fascinating new magic system but it didn’t quite deliver. It was hinted at but didn’t become an integral part of the plot.
The most interesting worldbuilding is the various creatures which inhabit the Devonshire coast. Notably, there is a selkie and a vampiri.
The selkie is introduced and has his part to play in the unfolding of the mystery, but we don’t learn much about him or his world. I feel that will come in one of the later books.
The vampiri, Miss Zooth, is interesting, since she can turn from a bat into a woman of bat-size. She is a tiny spinster lady, which is a brilliant twist on the legend.
She is also the mentor (or, in Regency terms, chaperone) figure but she doesn’t reveal very much information. Again, I suspect we will eventually get more in later books.
The fact that she cannot retain her clothes when she shifts between forms leads to some (slight) amusement.
There are eight types of magic (I believe there is a ninth to be revealed), of which Elinor has one. She learns that she should be able to develop her power, and begins to do that under the guidance of Miss Zooth, but it doesn’t come to much in the story.
Overall, I feel that there were many missed opportunities here, which is a bit disappointing.
I liked that the main character was a young woman (of unspecified but presumably marriageable age).
She was forthright and determined, which leads to a lot of her scrapes and adventures.
It’s difficult to blend feminism with true Regency manners and decorum. However, with Regency Fantasy intended as a light read, I can totally forgive modernisations and hot-headed heroines.
The Lady Jewel Diviner nods to the social conventions of the time in things like needing a chaperone, but doesn’t let it stand in the way of Elinor going off searching for a cache of hidden gems in the dead of night.
At least she had her tiny spinster companion with her. You know, for decorum.
It’s written in a pseudo-Regency style that hints at being Jane Austen without achieving that actual style, rhythm or wit. It’s more modern (and that’s not a criticism, just an observation) and uses some formal dialogue to achieve the strictly hierarchical, repressed tone of the Regency.
There is very little description, including of the characters. The main character was just a blank in my mind, waiting to be filled in.
In fact, most of the characters gave the impression of existing on the page and not beyond. We never learn of them doing anything else. There was a lot of potential for back-stories and character development that never happened.
Perhaps because it was so fast, but the conclusion of the mystery is a little confused. There are a lot of people doing things for reasons that I didn’t fully understand. That is either a fault with me and my ability to understand plot (entirely possible), or it is a fault with the writing not making motivation clear.
The thing that annoyed me most was the fact that Elinor kept allowing her brother into the adventure. He was a complete liability and little more than a plot device to bungle things up. Why she kept bringing him along at all is the real mystery.
I recommend this as a light read if you enjoy mysteries and letting the plot wash over you. It’s quite interesting and easy to read.
This was a strange clash of Americanisms and Regency England.
I don’t know why I wasn’t expecting the American influence, but it surprised me so perhaps that is why it stood out so much.
Overall, it was fun and light-hearted.
I loved the premise of this story. It is right up my street.
Regency fantasy is always something I am willing to give a go.
Manners and Monsters is set in a secondary-world Regency England wherein magic is commonplace. There are twelve mages in England, five in France, and they have been using their magic (and magical creatures) to fight their wars.
At the time the novel opens, a contaminated batch of face powder has struck down a portion of the ton. Mostly ladies, they have become Afflicted, i.e. zombies. However, they aren’t mindless, shambling creatures. As long as they feed on ‘pickled cabbage’ regularly, they maintain their physical form and their reason.
Because they are wealthy and influential, they also retain their place in society.
Hannah Miles is the only child of Sir Hugh and Lady Seraphina. Her mother was one of the twelve mages of England until her death two years previously. Being Afflicted, though, she is still pottering about and casting magic.
While her mother searches through ancient tomes and magical genealogies, her father works away in his laboratory dissecting hearts and studying the curse that killed his wife. Hannah helps her father (having no magic herself) and it’s this gruesome occupation (and her habit of speaking her mind) that makes her destined for spinsterhood. So she assumes.
Enter a dark, brooding hero who is unconventional and doesn’t care what people think. Unconventional enough, perhaps, to actually respect a woman as his equal? How fortuitous.
When a brutal murder casts a shadow over her best friend’s engagement party, Hannah wants to solve the murder. The trouble is, it looks like it was one of the Afflicted.
Viscount Wycliff has returned from the war a changed man. His fortune is depleted and he has become an investigator for the Ministry of Unnaturals. Rude, arrogant and with a hatred of the Afflicted, he is informed by his superior that he will need a chaperone if he is going to speak to the ladies.
You guessed it: Hannah.
So begins the investigation into the murder and the tempestuous relationship between Hannah and Wycliff.
What I didn’t like
As a fan of eighteenth-century (and thereabout) literature, and historical lit of that period, I am not opposed to slow pacing. However, the beginning dragged a little and exposition was repeated so that, at around 20%, I nearly put the book down. However, I kept going and was eventually swept away in the story again.
It was a good mystery with a clear range of suspects. They were scrabbling round a bit at points and there were some key set-pieces that were dropped in for clues, but overall it was an enjoyable mystery to let play out before me.
I found the way that the hero is flagged up so much at the start as having such an effect on the heroine (even though she actually barely met him) a little heavy-handed but it didn’t ruin the story for me.
I also feel that this book could have used one last line edit to weed out the repetition of certain phrases. I don’t care if it is, as I suspect, some VERY SUBTLE FORESHADOWING, if she calls Wycliff a hellhound one more time…
What I liked
Having said that, as this is a bit of a romp through a pseudo-Regency landscape filled with magic and the undead, I’m prepared to take it for what it is.
The characters are strong, and I believe that, now they are established, the series will only get better as they will grow and develop and deepen their relationships. I am looking forward to reading about Timothy, who is only introduced in the last chapter but is already a firm favourite with me.
What I particularly loved was the worldbuilding. The way that society has had to adapt to the presence of the Afflicted is very clever. As it was only wealthy ladies who were cursed, and as they represent such a small portion of the population, there has been no zombie outbreak, no rampaging through the streets in search of brains, and no mass panic. Their condition has been carefully concealed from the greater population and the Afflicted are wealthy enough to buy their ‘pickled cabbage’ from the one authorised retailer.
This is a book firmly set in the upper echelons of society and it barely concerns itself with the lower classes (which is not unexpected and is not a criticism of the book). Hannah’s main concern is her mother, protecting the poor, vulnerable Afflicted ladies from Wycliff’s ungentlemanly interrogation, and her own lack of marriage prospects.
I recommend this if you’re looking for a fun, light read.
It doesn’t take itself too seriously, which is one of its greatest charms.
The cover is banging, too.
I will get round to reading the rest of the series and have just found out that this is, in fact, a spin-off of another fantasy series, Highland Wolves, which I will take a look at.
It takes me less than a minute to think of three examples of fantasy in ‘great classic literature’
It’s weird boiling Hamlet down to ‘man is haunted by the ghost of his murdered father until he goes on a homicidal rampage’
Guess who had someone try to genre-shame her today!
You guessed right – it was me.
For all my fellow Fantasy-lovers out there who have had people look down their noses at you, here are three quick come-backs for the genre-snobs who try to make you feel small.
Oh, you only like the Classics?
I take it you’ve read The Iliad in the original Greek, then?
No? Me neither.
Still, I love those stories. All those cursed women with snakes for hair and half-bird women luring sailors with song to their island piled high with skulls… All those men chatting with gods and riding winged horses…
Can I draw your attention to:
Gods meddling in the lives of mortals
Gods turning into animals
Gods turning mortals into animals or half-animals
Men with supernatural strength
Women leaping fully-formed out of their fathers’ heads
The list very much goes on.
Oh, you mean British classics?
I guess the most famous British (English) author is Shakespeare, huh?
I’m so glad he didn’t dabble in Fantasy.
However, may I draw your attention to:
The king of the fairies sending his fey servant to pour nectar from a magical flower into the eyes of four young mortals in order to make them fall in love (AMSND)
A half-man, half-donkey (AMSND)
Potions that make the drinker appear dead when they’re not (R&J)
A magician summoning a storm to ship-wreck the treacherous brother who usurped him (The Tempest)
A spirit that had been trapped in a tree by a witch (The Tempest)
The ghost of a murdered king haunting his son in his quest for vengeance (Hamlet)
Oh, you mean only serious literature?
You mean literature which explores serious themes such as social injustice, poverty, morality, lost love, the wasted lives of men, and their immortal souls?
Like literature by Dickens, perhaps?
Like A Christmas Carol? That story in which a ghost haunts his old business partner before supernatural being transport Scrooge off on a magical adventure for him to learn a moral lesson?
Would you like to consider:
Ghosts drifting round, weighed down by chains forged of their own selfish acts (ACC)
The ability to travel back in time and forward into the future (ACC)
The spectre appearing to haunt the railway, warning of impending disasters (The Signalman)
Magic and fantastical elements have long been a way for great writers to explore key themes.
Magic has fascinated people for thousands of years and there is part of us that gets a thrill from hearing about the cool stuff that witches and shape-shifters and prophets can do.
It’s also a safe (and effective) way for writers to present ideas in an enjoyable, understandable and relatable way for wide audiences.
The tale of Little Red Riding Hood is a much more interesting experience than an authority figure simply stating outright ‘don’t go into the woods’.
The greatest (most recognised) writers throughout history have utilised our love of the strange and inexplicable to captivate us. The fact that they have also presented this fantastical element in an intriguing, structured and beautiful way is testament to their writing prowess.
Therefore, don’t try to tell me that it is easier or less worthy to write anything with magic in it. The skill and craft and understanding of form, audience, structure and language is inherently the same.
Fantasy has, and continues to be, a popular and richly-developed genre which explores some of the most pressing concerns of the age in a new and imaginative and digestible way.
So check your genre-snobbery at the door if you want to chat to me about ‘great literature’.
I also read at least one five-star and one one-star review of a book if I can’t decide whether to buy it or not.
It helps me to get an idea of what sort of people like and don’t like it, as well as why they like and don’t like it.
Ranting in reviews
Ranting and raving about how much you hated a book is not necessarily a kind thing to do.
And it’s not necessarily constructive.
A lot of review rants are almost unintelligible, poorly-written and nonsensical.
It shows, actually, that you’re letting your knee-jerk emotional response get the better of your reason.
In fact, one-star rants can have the opposite effect from the one the reviewer intended.
Why I’m suspicious of rants in reviews
I have a deep suspicion of any review that states ‘I didn’t like this book, it’s rubbish’.
I suspect the reviewer actually doesn’t know whether it’s a good book at all; they’re just spewing hatred because they didn’t like it.
Just because you don’t like it, doesn’t actually mean it’s bad. There are loads of great books out there that really aren’t to my taste.
Ironically, I’m more likely to give the book a shot if the negative reviews are badly written; if people can’t write accurate, thoughtful reviews (even if they are negative), then they’re probably not the sort of people I want to listen to.
Kings of the Wyld is an Epic Fantasy novel by Nicholas Eames, published in 2017.
It has won numerous awards, which kind of goes to show how brilliant it is, but I didn’t know any of that when I bought it and started reading it.
I came across this review because Nicholas Eames tweeted a screen-shot of it, which was in turn re-tweeted by an author I followed at the time. It meant I saw this one-star review without ever having encountered the author. I knew nothing about his book until this moment.
You’ll see exactly why I was so intrigued.
This is the review that I saw:
In case you’re using a screen reader or other access requirements to read this blog, this is what the review says:
“Stopped reading once it turned out the wizard had a “husband” and every other “hero” character is a submissive beta male. If this kind of stuff titillates your progressive mind – this book is for you. If you are a normal red blooded male – stay away from this crap.”
Why I instantly bought that book
No word of a lie, I bought that book right there and then.
My first thought was:
I have a progressive mind in need of titillation!
The review told me everything I needed to know about Kings of the Wyld.
It even told me things that the blurb couldn’t.
I knew instantly that:
This wasn’t going to be yet another misogynistic Fantasy book
It had (positive) queer representation (I couldn’t be absolutely sure it was positive until I read it)
It probably wasn’t going to depict ‘normal, red-blooded’ male assaults on women
Any book that could wind this guy up has to be worth a read
How happy I was that I did
I was so happy I read this book because it was filled with literally-snorting-with-laughter moments, a wonderful, varied, flawed cast of characters coming together to overcome a common foe, all kinds of Fantasy creatures, and a Moog.
I recommend it to you, too, if this sounds like your sort of thing. No pressure.
Let me know what you think
I’d love to know if you’ve ever bought a book based on a one-star review! I bet it’s more common than people realise.
Let me know in the comments section below.
And, if you love Kings of the Wyld, give me a shout.
We’ve all read those reviews of books that are obviously written by somebody who hated the book and wants to rant about it.
That’s fine. You’re allowed to do that.
However, it’s not necessarily kind.
And it’s not necessarily constructive.
Accuracy, opinion and kindness
I have subtitled this blog post ‘accuracy, opinion and kindness’ because I believe those are the three things you need to write a good review of a book.
Accuracy is important because you, as a reviewer, don’t want to mislead your own readers by writing things that simply aren’t true. Sometimes it’s hard to see where the boundary lies between being truthful in your review and still giving an opinion.
My own rule of thumb is that, if I didn’t like a book, I don’t review it. Obviously, some people want to review books they don’t like (either to prove that they read them, to vent about their feelings of being ripped off, or to warn other people away from that particular book). That is an individual choice.
My personal guidelines take into account the way I review books.
I’ll go into that below.
Essentially, though, if I don’t like it, I don’t review it. I don’t want to promote it, even accidentally. If the only things I can think to say about a book are that it exists and I didn’t enjoy reading it, I feel it’s a waste of my time writing about it and it’s going to be hurtful for the author to read that review.
And it’s not kind to slate somebody’s work unless there is a reason for you to do that, like if it was actually harmful to you (and that can happen).
Why you are writing that review is something you should consider very carefully.
Writing reviews is for:
Telling people what you think (the same way you’d just tell a friend-of-a-friend down the pub because you’re really excited about it and want to share it).
Warning them about harmful or controversial content.
Promoting the book.
Supporting the author (cheering them up with positive feedback).
If you’re not writing your review for any of those reasons, take a moment to reconsider whether you need to write it at all.
Are you gaining anything from this?
Are you helping anybody else?
Are you going to upset somebody who hasn’t actually harmed you?
Below is my own personal system for reviewing a book, whether that is simply to file it away in my own mind or to write about it in a public place.
It’s a system that promotes accuracy and opinions. You can decide yourself about the kindness.
There are two things to consider:
Is this a good book?
Do I like it?
These two things are DIFFERENT.
The first is about whether it conforms to reasonable and accepted standards of published works, and the second is about whether you are a fan of that particular book.
Think about it like this:
If I order a dress online, the parcel arrives and I open it, I am looking to judge that dress on two things: 1) is it a good dress? 2) do I like it?
For the first one, it is about quality: is the material good quality; is it well-tailored; does it wash well; does it hold its shape?
For the second one, it is about whether that dress suits me personally: does it fit me; does the colour suit me; does the style suit me; is it appropriate for me to wear it where I want to wear it?
If I buy a dress and it is good quality, well-made, and exactly what it said it was, only I look awful in it and feel uncomfortable and it turns out this backless ball-gown isn’t suitable for the office after all, is that a bad dress? No, it’s a good dress, only it’s not right for me.
If it is cheap material, sewed together badly so the hems aren’t straight and the seams are coming apart, it doesn’t matter whether it’s my colour or not, it’s a bad dress and I can’t wear it.
That is the difference between the quality of the product and whether you like it.
Is this a good book?
By ‘good’ I do not mean do you like it, I mean what is the quality of the story and the prose.
To judge whether something is good, you must consider it by every reasonable, accepted standard in the industry.
Things that you need to consider:
Grammar – does it conform to acceptable standards of grammar?
Spelling – are there typos and spelling mistakes or is everything generally spelled correctly?
Punctuation – are there punctuation mistakes or does the punctuation help to structure the narrative and make it easy to understand?
Syntax – do the sentences make sense and are they easy to read?
Plot – does this have a coherent plot, with related events, and conform to a standard plot shape for the culture in which it was created?
Character – are the characters believable, interesting, clearly defined and not promoting anything harmful?
Character development – do the characters change from the start of the book, according to the experiences they have been through?
Themes – what are the themes explored, are they explored in depth and from multiple angles and are they universal or current topics?
Purpose – does this book have an obvious purpose, does the authorial voice overpower the narrative, does it conform to the accepted shape of that genre or form?
Do I like it?
This is where you get to have your say.
Some things will just be to your taste and other things won’t be your cup of tea.
It’s actually ok to write in a review that you didn’t like a book, as long as you’re clear that it’s an opinion. If you can back that up with reasons (from the factual list above), then you’ll add weight to your opinion.
You can write a negative review without being offensive to the author. Saying that something is not your kind of thing is fine. I tend to choose not to do that, but that’s a personal choice.
Of course, you can always say that you did like it. And, just because you liked it, doesn’t mean it was perfect.
Can you answer yes to one and no to another?
You can absolutely answer ‘yes’ to one of these questions and ‘no’ to another.
That is the beauty of this system.
It means that I can have intelligent conversations about a good book, even if I actually hated it.
Consider it this way:
A wine connoisseur can tell the age of a wine, the region, and all the subtle flavours that blend together to produce that particular vintage. They can tell a quality wine straight away. They don’t, however, love every single one. They have a personal taste and they enjoy some wines more than others, even if the quality of the wine is the same.
It’s the same for books.
Some books, no matter how well-written, just aren’t for me.
I can tell you whether I think a book is good quality or not. And I can tell you whether I like it. And sometimes those two things are different.
I happen to think that Thomas Hardy’s Tess of the D’Urbervilles is one of the greatest books ever written in the English language. I can wax lyrical about the language, debate the themes that are explored, and argue passionately that Tess is not the passive heroine people think she is (she really isn’t).
I don’t actually like the book. I find it interesting. I think it is good quality. I don’t like it (I know, I know, I can’t help it, I just don’t – it’s too depressing for me and I don’t sympathise with enough of the characters to pull me through it. Angel Clare? Don’t get me started).
So I have divided my review into two parts: it is a good book, but it is not to my taste.
At the other end of the spectrum, there is Rocky Flintstone’s Belinda Blinked.
[As a small disclaimer, I am writing this rather scathing review because it has been aired on the podcast My Dad Wrote A Porno and the author apparently takes criticism in good part.]
[I suppose another disclaimer is that this is a self-published erotica novel, so judge me how you will. I suppose, tagged on the end of this, I want to add the disclaimer that I am not snobby about self-published novels, I am just stating a fact here.]
To answer the question ‘is this a good novel?’ I would have to say ‘no’.
This novel (and I very nearly put that in inverted commas) does not conform to conventional standards of writing. There is no progression of plot, only a series of events. There is little to no character development. Famously, in one chapter, the character of Bella is suddenly referred to as Donna because the author forgot her name and clearly didn’t proof-read his manuscript. The syntax is often difficult to read and understand. There are consistent grammatical and punctuation errors throughout.
You’ll agree that this is not up to the reasonable, expected standard of a published novel. It is poor quality.
However, to answer the question ‘did I like it?’ that is a resounding ‘yes’.
Admittedly, I like it because it is so badly written, and that is hilarious. I enjoy the complete madness of it. I admire the strange innocence of it (and, yes, I know that sounds like a strange thing to say about an erotica novel but it has a certain naivete). In short, it is a book very much to my taste.
If I were to review this book, I would say: it’s poorly written, but thoroughly enjoyable.
How to put accuracy and opinion into practice
You can see from this, that you don’t need to be cruel about a book just because it is not to your taste.
If you want to warn people away from the book because it is poor quality, state that in your review. But don’t confuse quality with you not liking it.
Some of the best reviews can be one-star reviews, if they are done well.
If you read a book because it sounded good, and then you read it and hated it, it stands to reason that you were expecting something else from it. And, if you picked that book up because you wanted what it said it was offering, then it might be fair to warn others that the blurb is misleading. But that can be a statement of fact, not a rant about how awful you think the author is because they didn’t write a book specially for you.
I recommend dividing your reviews into two: an accurate representation of the book, and your opinion on why that worked or didn’t work for you.
Was the book what it said it would be?
Does it mesh with other books in the genre?
Were there grammatical or syntaxial errors?
Did it read like a standard story, or was it doing something new or strange with structure?
What kind of humour did it have, if any?
Are there any factual or historical inaccuracies that are important?
Is it, reasonably, going to be considered offensive or harmful to a person or group of people because of misrepresentation, stereotyping or lack of research?
Did you enjoy it?
Was it similar to other books you have enjoyed?
Was it the genre, type or tone you were expecting from the blurb?
Did it follow the conventions or tropes of the genre?
Did it have something new and interesting to say, a new take on an old trope or something you’ve never seen before?
Did you, personally, sympathise with any of the characters?
Were there any things which offended, upset or triggered you that you want to warn others about?
If you divide your reviews into these two sections, you’ll be able to write articulately and thoughtfully on the quality of the book, whilst still sharing your opinion and recommending it or warning people away from it.
Let me know what you think
Let me know what you think about my reviews, who your favourite reviewers are and what they do well!
If you have any tips for writing top reviews, share them in the comments section below.
See you next time
Come back next time when I’ll tell you exactly how a one-star review convinced me to read Kings of the Wyld. Read the article here.
That suicide missions can be fun… as long as you’re only watching
This is a review of The Clockwork Boys: Clocktaur Wars 1 (2017) by T. Kingfisher.
The main players in this story
Slate, a master forger, condemned for treason
Sir Caliban, a disgraced paladin knight
Brenner, an assassin, also condemned to death
Learned Edmund, a young cleric scholar
And if this sounds exactly like your last D&D campaign, you’ve got the right gist.
The Clockwork Boys is a fast and funny romp through a strange landscape with four distinctly-drawn characters doing exactly what you expect of them, with hilarious consequences.
The story opens with Slate going into the Duchess’ prisons, looking for anyone she might want to take with her on her suicide mission. She has accepted that she will die, although she’d rather not, if she can avoid it.
As she is condemned to death, she has been given the chance to earn a pardon for her crimes by going to Anuket City, an enemy city with which the Duchess is at war, and finding a way to stop the clockwork boys. All previous missions to stop them have been disastrous, and that’s because the clockwork boys are unstoppable killing machines. You can see why Slate doesn’t think much of her chances.
While scouring the prisons, she encounters Caliban, a former paladin knight who was possessed by a demon. While possessed, he killed several people, including three nuns. Even though the demon was exorcised, nobody quite knows what to do with Caliban – he still committed the crimes, and so he has been put in prison and forgotten.
Slate offers him the chance to earn his pardon, in a sort of quirky Fantasy version of The Dirty Dozen, and he agrees. Together with Brenner – and the magical, murderous tattoos that are going to guarantee they don’t desert their mission – they set off for Anuket City.
It’s told in third person, switching between Slate and Caliban’s point of view.
It’s interesting to see from both their perspectives, particularly the misunderstandings that arise. Needless to say, there is a whole load of attraction, terrible communication and a little matter of an impending attack on Anuket City.
Slate’s narrative is particularly amusing. She is a pragmatic woman, proud of her talents, unsentimental about sex, and desperately trying to hide a soft heart.
What’s brilliant about it
I personally loved the fact that each character stuck so closely to their ‘type’.
The paladin wore his chivalry on his sleeve, so to speak, and his utter loyalty and morality were both a strength and a weakness. He was also the only one who could ride a horse, since he was used to it. Slate and Brenner, a forger and an assassin, had never been on a horse before and there was a whole episode in which Slate complained (hilariously) about saddle-sores and smug paladin knights.
The author uses these tropes in a knowing way, emphasising their characteristics in a way which borders on parody but which seems to have too much affection to actually be that.
This is the first half of the story and, to finish it, you need to buy The Wonder Engine: Clocktaur Wars 2. The only thing that disappointed me with regard to this book is the fact that I felt I’d got half a story. Also, considering it’s not very long, I felt they had needlessly cut the story in half.
However, that is my only gripe and I am currently enjoying reading The Wonder Engine.
Tell me what you thought
Leave a comment below and tell me what you thought of the Clocktaur Wars – no spoilers for The Wonder Engine!
I am a complete romantic and can’t stop myself from reading love stories
Why this is such a good recommendation for LGBTQ+ and Allied teens
That British authors writing about schools and not including school uniforms irritates me
Heartstopper by Alice Oseman is a webcomic, available online here in a serialised version, or as a comic book in print from all good bookshops.
I will be talking about Heartstopper Volume 1.
What it’s about
Heartstopper is about Nick and Charlie, two teenage boys at an all-boys Grammar School. They meet one day and become unlikely friends.
As the story progresses, they become closer and start to become more to each other than simply friends.
I first encountered this as a physical book, which I devoured, and I wanted more. It was only once I’d read it that I discovered it was part of an on-going series and, not only that, the comic was available for free online. You can tell I’m new to webcomics.
The stories told in the Heartstopper volumes are the back-story for Nick and Charlie who are characters in Alice Oseman’s debut novel, Solitaire (2014). As I said, I didn’t know any of this when I picked up Volume 1 and read it, so you don’t need to know anything about the novel before you get to this.
3 Reasons you should read Heartstopper
There are many reasons why you should read Heartstopper but these are the ones I think are most important:
1. It’s about true love!
I have to admit, I’m a complete sucker for a romance, and this comic is about two boys who are starting to fall in love.
I’m basically already sold.
It’s cute and both boys are utterly adorable. You fall in love with both of them and absolutely root for them all the way through.
Heartstopper Volume 1 is about the two of them meeting and becoming friends, and struggling to commit to more, but the following volumes are about Nick and Charlie in a committed, loving relationship and the day-to-day trials and joys which that brings. As a romantic at heart, I like the following volumes more (so far).
It’s not some grand overarching plot about overthrowing dictators, Chosen Ones or building the greatest love of all time. It’s about two normal, lovely, flawed people finding love together.
The comic focuses on random days, trips, events, and moments in their relationship and as they develop as people. It shows how all the little things people do make up their life.
I particularly like that it’s realistic, even down to the school uniforms they wear. It irritates me when British writers depict school pupils wearing non-uniform, like they’ve forgotten eleven years of scratchy collars, ties and constantly being told to tuck their shirt in from their own school days.
3. It covers some major themes in an accessible way
The most obvious themes to begin with are LGBTQ+ and the comic depicts a wide range of people with various sexualities.
Oseman is outspoken about this on social media, and reinforces the idea of acceptance in her literary work.
I particularly like this because, although she clearly depicts the difficulties of being anything other than cis-gendered and heterosexual, she doesn’t dwell on those difficulties. She balances them out with moments of joy, acceptance and positivity.
On the webcomic, there are trigger warnings for each instalment that requires them, in case you’re worried about encountering something you’d rather not.
If you’re looking for something to give to teens, this is one I would highly recommend.
Let me know what you think of Heartstopper Volume 1
If you’ve read it, let me know what you think. And if you’ve read Solitaire, let me know how quickly I need to bump that up my To Be Read pile.
If you have any other, similar recommendations then get in touch – I’m always looking for more sweet, funny, positive stories!
Writing ‘he felt like he was meant to be there’ is one of those things that probably most people wouldn’t mind either way.
However, I have some thoughts on why using it needs to be considered carefully.
This is a sentence that I have seen a lot in fiction and I have come to have certain feelings towards it.
The sentence ‘he felt like he was meant to be there’ (or any similar variation) suggests several things, and unless the rest of the narrative delivers on those, it seems to me like a bit of a cheat.
Let me explain:
When it is used
This (in my experience) is used when a character makes a decision to take a certain path. For instance, when they choose to go in a certain direction, or they go back somewhere once they’ve been told not to, or they decide to train to be a something-or-other and dedicate their life/time/career to it.
It tends to be used when the character does something that commits them to the rest of the plot.
Why it is used
It’s used to show that the character (assuming this is a tight third person POV) feels a sense of rightness after taking a certain path or entering a certain place.
It can be used to justify a character’s choice to go somewhere they shouldn’t because it felt right to them.
This is not in itself a problem. Lot of people make decisions because of a gut feeling, and that is a legitimate thing to represent in your story.
My problem with it
My problem comes when it is used badly.
It can – not always, but often – be used as a lazy way for the author to justify sending their character down an unexpected path (either literal or figurative).
If a character goes against convention, or authority, or their own personal history to do something unexpected, the author can just add the phrase ‘he felt like he was meant to be there’ and that justifies it. My problem with that is that it can undermine all of the character development or world-building that’s taken place so far by suddenly introducing this new aspect of Fate or gut feelings or instinct that wasn’t there before.
What it suggests
There are two main things that it suggests to me:
Either Fate is at work here, or the character relies heavily on their gut feeling or instinct.
If it suggests that Fate is at work and is nudging the character in a certain direction, then I definitely expect this sense of Fate to materialise again in the story. If this is the only mention of it, then I don’t believe it.
If the character has never alluded to Fate (or some variation thereof) then this sense of rightness they are experiencing is out of the ordinary.
To use it appropriately, the character must have a belief in some force beyond their control or understanding (like Fate, or God – of whichever religion – or the power of the universe). It should be a part of their identity and it would be a part of their experience. That means it would be relevant throughout your story.
Or, if you’re writing a Fantasy story and you have an actual, undeniable force at work (like, for instance, the Greek gods) then that would also appear throughout your story.
In either of those instances, I expect this to materialise in your character’s thoughts, actions and speech long before it was used to justify a major choice.
If it implies that the character relies on their instincts, then that that needs to be something they do throughout the story (or be a part of their character arc that they learn to trust/not trust their feelings).
As with Fate, this needs to be consistent and it needs to appear before the critical moment. There is no point in just shoving in a ‘sense of being in the right place’ when the character has always been rational and analytical before. The sudden change will jar the reader and we will lose confidence in them as a narrator or protagonist.
When it works
The use of ‘he felt like he was meant to be there’ can be really effective if used properly.
When it is foreshadowed or set up properly in the character development, it can be a really useful tool for the writer to exploit, and an interesting aspect of world-building (the pull of Fate) or character (their belief system or self-reliance).
I am definitely not saying don’t use this.
I just hope that you use it effectively.
Tell me your thoughts (if you feel like you were meant to comment)
I’d love to hear your thoughts on this interesting little phrase. Leave a comment in the section below to let me know what you think or find me on Twitter @AlisonJanetBro1. Say hello and let me know when you’ve come across this phrase.
Get more writing advice
I love going into the nitty-gritty of writing so check out these posts if you want to learn more about the craft of writing.
Review of Thelma and Louise (1991), starring Geena Davis and Susan Sarandon, written by Callie Khouri and directed by Ridley Scott.
I am not going to go into huge detail in this review – there are dozens of other reviews out there of Thelma and Louise and I don’t want to just repeat things.
However, I did want to write about it a little.
You see, I have been putting off watching this film because it was a classic and I wasn’t in the mood for something serious.
Anyone who has seen the film will be laughing at me now. And, really, I should know better.
Yes, it’s hilarious.
I wanted to write a quick review to say how absolutely amazing the film Thelma and Louise is!
Why it’s amazing:
It’s (sadly) remained extremely relevant
It’s surprisingly relevant to today. Almost thirty years on, the themes of modern women struggling to be independent, have sexual freedom, have control over their own bodies and survive in a system which is stacked against them all suddenly feel very timely.
I laughed aloud so much when watching this. It’s lucky I was at home and nobody minded. To be fair, they were laughing too.
Some of the humour is situational, some of it is the deadpan delivery of great lines and some of it comes from the contrast of the extreme, over-the-top reaction to things that, two days before, these two normal women would have put up with (I am thinking specifically of the scene in the gas station).
It’s beautifully shot
This one might speak for itself. It is, after all, directed by Ridley Scott.
The scene where they drive through the mountains is so beautifully lit that I had to go back and watch it again.
Why you should watch it:
This is a 90’s study in modern feminism
Like I said, it’s sadly still a study in modern feminism.
It’s a classic
It’s a classic film because it’s so beautifully written, directed and acted. It’s important and entertaining in equal measure.
You finally understand the significance of those famous scenes
We’ve all seen clips of it or heard about the dramatic ending, but nothing replaces the experience of actually watching the whole thing for yourself. You’ll get to experience the emotional journey that makes that famous end scene so poignant.
If you’ve seen the film, let me know what you think. Obviously this is only a very short review and I assume that, if you want to know more, you can search for one of the many, many other reviews available. But I’m really interested to know if there is anything I’ve missed out.
Tell me why you love it!
Leave a comment below or follow me on Twitter @AlisonJanetBro1. Say hello and let’s chat about Thelma and Louise.
See you next week
I hope you’ll come back and read next week’s post, which will be about that little ol’ phrase ‘he felt like he was meant to be there’.