Lessons from authors that can help you develop your unique writing style

There’s something magical about reading. A writer puts words on a page, we read them and we see an image of a real event unfolding before us like a film in which we get to choose our own cast.

‘Reading a sentence and understanding it were the same thing… you saw the word castle and it was there, seen from some distance with woods in high summer.’

Atonement by Ian McEwan

Good writers help us to get lost in this story.

Excellent writers don’t just take us on a journey, they also make us marvel at their skill and surprise us with their ingenuity.

It’s the difference between eating a perfectly good shop bought cake– it does the job and it’s even quite nice and something homemade that is full of pockets of flavour and sets off a riot in your mouth.

Different authors have different ways of making us see. Some write elegantly in long sentences, others with tumbling phrases. Some authors want to be experimental, they want to challenge us. Some have clear goals: it’s about social commentary, it’s about depth and importance.

And if you’re a writer, you’re left with this tricky question: what type of writer do I want to be? Do I want to be good at characterisation? Would I prefer to focus on the story? Do I want to be able to perfect sigh-inducingly good prose?

Recently, with the question of ‘who do I want to write like?’ in my head, I tried to set out a list of the qualities I want to have in my writing based on some authors that have really inspired me.

So, here’s five lessons I would like to learn from five writers. Learning them is going to be difficult, if not impossible, but this is the type of writer I’d like to be.

Lesson #1: Playing with punctuation can be rewarding. Your sentences don’t even always have to make sense: what’s important is the image that they create in your head. (Virginia Woolf) 

I don’t think there is anyone who can write in the same way as Virginia Woolf. Her sentence formation is so good. Let’s look at one of her sentences.

It was the time between the lights when colours undergo their intensification and purples and golds burn in window panes like the beat of an excitable heart; when for some reason the beauty of the world revealed and yet soon to perish (here I pushed into the garden, for, unwisely, the door was left open and no beadles seemed about), the beauty of the world which is so soon to perish, has two edges, one of laughter, one of anguish, cutting the heart asunder. (A Room Of One’s Own.) 

For starters, her sentences are long. Incredibly long, actually. Virginia Woolf is also very liberal with her semicolons, so much so that she has her own style. At first, when we write, punctuation is a means to an end. As we go on, however, we can moderate the reading experience by how we punctuate, by the length of our sentences. Some writers use lots of dashes– there’s lots of afterthoughts in the narration. Some barely use any punctuation. This is still stylistic. We get to choose: what is distinctive of us as writers?

Woolf also uses images. Think about this sentence. We can imagine a heart beating, a heart being cut into. But Woolf isn’t talking about hearts, not at all. She’s talking about the atmosphere, sunlight. From how she writes about it, we can both connect with her thoughts (this feeling of contemplating beauty and pain) and what’s actually happening. 

Oh, to be able to write like Virginia Woolf!

Lesson #2: the structure of a novel, or even a series, is a chance to experiment. You don’t have to follow traditional ideas. (Toni Morrison)

I recently read The Bluest Eye by Toni Morrison and afterwards, I don’t think I wanted to read anything for at least a week. I don’t cry in books as a general rule, but wow, was this terribly sad. I was left with the most overbearing feeling of despair (why do such bad things happen?) but also marvelled at Morrison’s skill.

Something clever that she does in this book is that the chapter titles stem from a short story at the beginning of the book which presents the life of a happy, well-off family. Each chapter starkly contrasts with this false reality, accentuating the sadness of what happens to the poor main character, Pecola. Honestly, I wanted to give her a big hug for most of the book.

I’ve learnt from this that as writers, we have a completely blank canvas. We don’t need traditional chapter titles– we can have books inside books or multiple framing devices. Experimentation is exciting. I’m currently reading The Word Is Murder by Anthony Horowitz who puts himself as a character in the book– again, this is completely genius and original.

Sometimes, a story isn’t ‘let’s get from A to B as quickly as possible.’ It can also be, let’s get from A to B but let’s take momentary diversions and skip all over the alphabet.

If you know what I mean.

Lesson #3: your setting is more than just the place your characters inhabit, sometimes it’s what makes the book really sing. (Thomas Hardy.)

I absolutely love Far From The Madding Crowd. It’s just… wonderful. And every time I think of it, my mind is filled up with green fields and cliffs and the beauty of Weatherbury in the story. Thomas Hardy doesn’t just tell us a story based around agriculture, he makes it so everything about the book is hinged on the setting. Good characters have good relationships with nature. Storms bring people together. Two fires bring the love interest and the protagonist together, each helping the other. Whilst two characters place flowers at someone’s grave, those from the one that truly cared for survive, the others are dissolved by mud.

The setting isn’t an added extra to this story: it’s pivotal.

Lesson #4: so called ‘gappiness’ is good (William Shakespeare.)

Okay, so ‘gappiness’ isn’t necessarily a proper word but it’s a concept that I’ve been reading about in Emma Smith’s This Is Shakespeare. Here, she argues that Shakespeare is so good because we can interpret his writing however we want to. Is the ‘shrew’ in The Taming of The Shrew actually a shrew? It’s anyone’s guess. Does she fall in love with her husband? It probably depends on the lens that you’re reading through. Is Shakespeare a feminist? Is he racist? Is he anti-Semitic?

There’s a thousand questions. Now, when it comes to readers interpreting your work you definitely do not want them to think that you are racist, for example. That’s not what I’m suggesting here. What I am saying though, is that little ambiguities are good. Don’t tell your reader if they should like a character– Shakespeare certainly doesn’t sometimes. Are two characters actually in love or is their relationship deeply flawed? Let the reader work it out. For example, in my current WIP, it’s in your hands about some characters– are they morally gray, really damaged, are they villains? Sometimes this ambiguity is actually good. But only in the right places.

Lesson #5: writing about simple issues doesn’t mean your writing is less worthwhile. By writing about what you know, you can make your work even more immersive. (Louisa May Alcott.)

Little Women. It’s brilliant (I just watched the 2019 film again and I’m still in love with it.) And it’s a classic. It doesn’t have thousands of characters, it’s not terribly complicated. It talks about simple issues and that’s absolutely okay. Even better, though, it does it so convincingly.

Recently, I’ve been thinking a lot about children’s books (a post will probably come out of this.) I’ve been remembering reading and thinking that, wow, I literally felt like I was alive within these stories when I first read them. I could imagine what the food tasted like, I saw the characters, the stories didn’t leave me. I’m beginning to think that, perhaps, that’s down to being a child at the time but also because these books are so descriptive of small things– food, drink, setting. Little Women is a classic example of this, as with many similar books, like Anne of Green Gables or A Little Princess.

Bonus: everything can come good in the end and a redemptive arc can be so satisfying. (Victor Hugo, William Thackeray & Francine Rivers.)

Don’t you just love books with redemptive arcs? I do, at least. These are the books where redemption seems impossible and then through some masterful stroke, we have a happy enough ending where everything is made beautiful in its time. I recently noticed this by reading some Francine Rivers books (if you’ve ever read any, you’d understand me.) I’ve definitely learnt that these are the types of books I love: they’re uplifting but understanding of the human condition. They can still talk of human fallenness (Hugo and Thackeray are great at this) but there’s often a way out.

Jean Valjean was a criminal, but by the end he’s a role model. Becky Sharp is absolutely horrible, but by the end, she’s done some good. Characters should be allowed to change.

So, if I were to sum everything up, this is the type of writer I’d like to be able to be: someone who can write with dense descriptiveness, uniqueness and lyricism in ways that are experimental, redemptive and poignant.

Of course, that’s not an easy task but I’d like to try it.

Here’s to great writers who teach us great lessons!

What kind of writer would you like to be? Was this helpful? Have you read books or plays by these authors before?

Reviewing Mad Bad And Dangerous To Know by Samira Ahmed

Mad, Bad & Dangerous to Know by Samira Ahmed

I feel like this book was written just for me.

That’s a bold statement, I know but here’s why:

  • It stars a biracial protagonist whose life is spread out over three countries and shows how that impacts her life. She is Indian and French but she lives in the US, which feels familiar to me: I’m Indian and American but I live in the UK. Honestly, Samira Ahmed explores this concept so well, putting into concept some ideas that are really hard to think about.

‘I live in between spaces. The borders between nations, the invisible hyphens between words, the wide chasm between “one of us” and me alone. French American. Indian American. Muslim American. Biracial. Interfaith. Child of immigrants.’ 

For its representation alone, I’d give this book all the stars.

‘The people who can’t guess what I am think I’m “exotic.” Some people say I’m lucky to be an ethnomorph– a person whose brown skin, brown hair and brown eyes make it seem like I could be from half the countries in the world.’

  • It’s about a poem by a Romantic poet and, as suggested by the title, that poet is Lord Byron. You’ve heard me ramble on about these poets before, so the fact that Ahmed has written a book inspired by one is… brilliant.

Related Post: What A 19th Century Poet Taught Me About Novel Writing

  • It’s a teen book (I love YA) and it’s complicated! We learn about art history and literature and it goes beyond traditional YA contemporaries.

Related Post: Why I keep coming back to YA

  • Finally, it takes place with dual timelines. We see both a character in present day Paris and a young woman alive within the poem. I’ve recently started enjoying books with multiple time periods after reading The Last Garden In England by Julia Kelly.

The Blurb

Smash the patriarchy. Eat all the pastries.

It’s August in Paris and 17-year-old Khayyam Maquet—American, French, Indian, Muslim—is at a crossroads. This holiday with her parents should be a dream trip for the budding art historian. But her maybe-ex-boyfriend is ghosting her, she might have just blown her chance at getting into her dream college, and now all she really wants is to be back home in Chicago figuring out her messy life instead of brooding in the City of Light.

Two hundred years before Khayyam’s summer of discontent, Leila is struggling to survive and keep her true love hidden from the Pasha who has “gifted” her with favored status in his harem. In the present day—and with the company of Alex, a très charmant teen descendant of Alexandre Dumas—Khayyam searches for a rumored lost painting, uncovering a connection between Leila and Alexandre Dumas, Eugène Delacroix, and Lord Byron that may have been erased from history.

Echoing across centuries, Leila and Khayyam’s lives intertwine, and as one woman’s long-forgotten life is uncovered, another’s is transformed.

The Descriptions

We see a lot of Paris in the book and a lot of the food and pastries there. I really enjoyed how Khayyam was exploring the city for much of the story and I felt completely immersed in the setting. 

Meaningful Themes

I already discussed the great representation in this book but it extended further than just Khayyam as a character. There were also really good conversations between characters about how Byron represented the characters in his poem and the cultural appropriation here. Khayyam is also very vocal about women’s stories that have been subdued over time and the whole book comes with the slogan of ‘tell her story.’

‘It’s not lost on me that my dad– an immigrant, too, but a white European guy– gets a completely different reception than desis with accents when passing through airport security.’

Literary References

The book was littered with references to literature from Dumas to Hugo which was really interesting. There’s also a lot of art history, something which I know little about but it opened my eyes up to some of the complexities involved in it.

The Romance

Okay, I did like the romance in this book. At times though, it was a little bit too much of a drag on the overall plot– I was definitely more interested in what happened in the story itself than which boy Khayyam chose. Of course, a love triangle is a very typical plot device in YA literature so it was okay… but still, did we need a love triangle? Probably not. 

The Poem

The book is mixed between the story in the poem and the story in reality. This was a great decision on the author’s part, but I did feel that we heard so little about the poem, I would have liked it if these sections could have been extended.

I recommend this book to anyone who enjoys YA literature and loves to read. It’s complicated, endearing and overall, quite charming. 

Thank you to Edelweiss+ for a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review. 

Have you read Mad Bad And Dangerous To Know? Would you like to? What books with great representation have you read before?

“Don’t Lose Your Fire”: Reviewing IGNITE by Jenna Terese

In this dystopian superhero debut, Scarlett must decide on where her identity comes from and gain a strength she never knew she possessed. It’s an exciting story, which is multilayered and full of plot twists– just like the narrator is unsure about where she stands in this new world that she enters into, we aren’t either. Who should we be supporting? What’s going to happen next?

Ignite is packed full of many exciting ingredients including:

  • Superheroes 🦸
  • Strong family relationships 👪
  • Plot twists 🎢
  • Ukuleles 🎶
  • Basketball games 🏀
  • Ice cream 🍨
  • Super powers 🔥

And more, of course. With components like that, how could it possibly go wrong?

The Blurb:

What if superhumans weren’t considered heroes?

When Scarlett Marley is attacked by an illegal super with fire powers, she doesn’t get burned, but now she has a fire-like glow flickering in her eyes. With superpowers criminalized, she has no choice but to turn herself over to the Superhuman Containment Facility, or risk hurting everyone she loves. Her normal life seems lost forever, until she is selected to be one of the first to receive the experimental cure to destroy her powers. 

In exchange, she must first complete one mission: Infiltrate and capture one of the largest gangs of supers in the remains of once-great Rapid City. With the cure and all her future at stake, Scarlett is prepared to do whatever it takes to bring these criminals to justice so she can return to her family. But this gang and their leader, Rez, aren’t what everyone says, and Scarlett begins to question everything she was ever told about the SCF and the fire flowing in her veins.

The cure is her only hope for returning her life to what it was before, but is that life worth returning to after all?

When I heard that Jenna was releasing her debut novel, I was extremely excited. I’ve been following her blog over the last years and it’s always great to learn about the writing process behind a writer’s work: you can’t help but root for them to succeed. 

Ignite lived up to my expectations in many ways and I enjoyed seeing what would happen to Scarlett and her friends.

Here’s what I particularly liked:

  1. The book is intense, but it’s relatable too.

In the way that many Marvel movies are filled with dramatic, large-scale scenes for just long enough before panning to something relatable to keep your attention– a conversation between characters, a quip or sarcastic exchange– Ignite is riddled with calm moments as well as intense scenes. There’s lovely, simple scenes in the midst of the main action about playing basketball and hanging out with family, or playing the ukulele. There’s ice cream and friendship and ordinary teenage things which grounds the book in reality.

As a result of this, the characters are relatable and well developed. Yes, most teenagers (or maybe all) don’t have to worry about becoming embroiled in conflicts between the government and superheroes but worries about identity and belonging like Scarlett face still exist. Scarlett is very normal and very human. She is uncertain, sometimes makes bad decisions, sometimes makes good ones. This helps us to want her to succeed and ultimately, it means we care about what happens to her more.

  1. Ignite has a strong faith message.

Ignite is a superhero story with a moral. It looks into accepting God’s purpose for our lives and the importance of the Bible. This is strongly present and yet it’s also not overwhelming: a non-Christian audience likely would not have qualms reading and enjoying Ignite.

Superheroes and their faith is an interesting concept and I like how it was explored here.

As a side-note, I actually recently read an article about a little known Marvel character that faced the same issues as Scarlett and who has a Christian faith on the Relevant Magazine’s website. If you’re interested, you can check that out here.

  1. Supers? Super Heroes?

Something I also really enjoyed was how the characters here had to reclaim the identity of superheroes (something which may have reminded me slightly of The Incredibles.) As there is a stigma around people with powers, here a select few have to choose to rise above the idea that they are not welcome in society and ultimately learn not to be ashamed of themselves– though the world only sees them as ‘supers’, which has become derogatory, they are learning how to become ‘superheroes.’

Don’t lose your fire.

IGNITE by Jenna Terese

Overall, I enjoyed this book for its messages, themes and writing style. I look forward to what comes next in the duology– there’s definitely some promising loose ends here!

You can buy IGNITE here and visit Jenna’s website here.

Do you plan on reading Ignite? Do you like Marvel films? What super power would you choose if you could have any?

Reviewing My A-Level Texts 2 Years Later

Yesterday, I came home from one of my last days of school with extremely sore fingers, likely owing to writing four essays in three hours (an English exam followed by one in History.) Whilst this was perhaps an anticlimactic and, admittedly, slightly painful end to spending two years studying some brilliantly thought-provoking texts for English, I realise that I’ve enjoyed my time analysing them. And so, today, to keep up with my streak of book reviews, I’m going to be giving a mini-review of all the texts I’ve studied for my A-Level exams and, hopefully, will encourage you to read them.

Prose

  1. The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood 

You’ve likely heard of The Handmaid’s Tale. It either must conjure up images of women in blood-coloured, red robes wearing some interesting white hats, or remind you of its author, the acclaimed Canadian writer, Margaret Atwood. It’s an interesting book, set up around the premise that after a fertility crisis and a political change, some women in society have to act as ‘handmaids’ for rich Commanders to bear their children. Of course, with such a basis, it’s disturbing.

Perhaps, this is why at first I disliked The Handmaid’s Tale. It’s not exactly uplifting and the narrator at times sent my classmates into angry rages (she often comes across as selfish and weak.) Still, two years later, having analysed it and highlighted it with a range of colours, I realise that I greatly respect the book and that it’s incredibly clever. Of course our narrator isn’t a typical hero: in her situation, who would be? And yes, it’s disturbing but it’s nothing that isn’t feasible. Atwood is a brilliant writer: she uses word-play incredibly cleverly and the whole book is nuanced enough that you can read it from many different lenses. I recently listened to her talking about it and it’s startling how grounded in reality it is and how she both subverts stereotypes of the dystopian genre and uses them to her advantage.

  1. The Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini 

The Kite Runner is another one of those famous books that stays with you long after you’ve read it. This time, we are whisked off to Afghanistan where we see political change and the childhood of two boys, Amir and Hassan. In a world of pomegranate trees, kite running and poetry, they grow up, only to be separated after a devastating event. As Amir grows up, he tries to redeem himself from his sins, which sends him back to Afghanistan after years in the US.

It’s simultaneously a difficult book to read and an overly easy one. The subject matter is dark and yet it is written carefully and meticulously, perhaps unsurprising, considering Hosseini is a qualified doctor and likely quite systematic. All the plot twists are summed up neatly, there are parallelisms that are so obvious that they prove the intervention of a careful writer, which has made some dislike the book. Maybe, we could say, it has been ‘overwritten.’ I still enjoyed it though: in some ways, this heavy-handed narration actually accentuated some of the themes and when the book draws to a close, it still leaves you feeling like you have been on an emotional rollercoaster.

‘The generation of Afghan children whose ears would know nothing but the sounds of bombs and gunfire was not yet born.’

The Kite Runner
  1. Far From The Madding Crowd by Thomas Hardy 

I studied this book personally for my coursework and was able to write a ‘deleted scene’ from the book. I love Far From The Madding Crowd: it’s lighter-hearted than some of Hardy’s later books and follows Bathsheba Everdeen and her three suitors. Though my brother disliked the film and insists it’s just another romance, I would argue against that. I was analysing it from an ecofeminist point of view and it’s actually really well written, with clearly important themes and I think I will be reading it again. Plus, the film and its soundtrack are great.

Plays

  1. Othello by William Shakespeare

Jealousy the ‘green eyed monster’, a strawberry-covered handkerchief and a scheming Machiavellian villain all lead to disaster in this typically Shakespearian tragedy. It’s intriguing and the more criticism I read of it, the more I like it. I also was able to watch a recording of the Iqbal Khan production at the RSC and I love how they interpreted it (from including a rap-battle between Iago and Cassio to having a slightly more aggressive Desdemona.) 

‘Speak of me as I am; nothing extenuate,/ Nor set down aught in malice: then must you speak/ Of one that loved not wisely but too well.’ 

Othello Act 5, Scene 2
  1. Death of A Salesman by Arthur Miller 

I suppose it wouldn’t be an understatement to say that I haven’t studied anything exactly ‘happy’ in the past two years. This play by Arthur Miller follows an elderly salesman, Willy Loman through the last moments of his life. We see the tensions in a family that has been broken apart by the conflict between him and his son, Biff. It is masterfully crafted: the dialogue is powerful and so are the stage directions, from Biff carrying his mother off the stage during his father’s funeral to his fight with his father. It’s a play that took me quite a while to like but now, it is a favourite and has helped me to understand how the genre of tragedy has changed over time.

Poetry

  1. Songs of Innocence and Experience by William Blake

This is a collection of poetry looking at the state of the human soul and religion across England during this period of industrialisation. There’s some famous poems included, like London (which I only learnt today includes an acrostic poem in one of it’s stanzas) and The Tiger, which you are likely to have read. It’s an interesting set of poems and they’re each unique, in Blake’s simple, nursery rhyme-like style. They lend themselves to scrutiny and questions and are still relevant today.

  1. The Eve of St Agnes and Isabella by John Keats

How to describe these poems? I’ve talked about Keats here before. I love the way he uses imagery. I love the way that he creates settings that don’t really exist. I love the way that he uses language. So, I really enjoyed The Eve of St Agnes because of its ambiguity– is Porphyro a villain or not– but Isabella… that was a different story. It’s equally well sculpted and actually inspired some of my current book but the actual plot… it’s a bit too macabre for me. If you want to know why, you’ll have to read it for yourself!

  1. The Perseverance by Raymond Antrobus

Again, this was a pick I made myself for my coursework. Raymond Antrobus is a modern spoken word poet who looks at the experience of d/Deaf and mixed race individuals. I really enjoyed his poem Echo and To Sweeten Bitter. I did skip some of his poems on account of their content but can recommend all of the others. They’re poignant and highly topical and I would love to see him gain more recognition, especially as it is these poems that have inspired me to listen to some more spoken word.

Related Post: Lessons From Keats

My Takeaways

The last two years have been busy. I’ve loved studying new texts and look forward to reading and learning even more in the future. My overall takeaways? Even if you don’t like an ‘acclaimed text’ at first, you can grow to. That’s not to say that you have to like all classics: you don’t. But, as you begin to see beyond the surface of a book, to look into its language, the way its themes are put together, you may begin to see the skills of a talented writer.

I’ve learnt a lot about my writing from these books. In fact, my latest draft benefits from each of them in different ways. I’ve learnt about how to create interesting settings, how to use language creatively. I’ve learnt from Keats about how I can include an intrusive narrator in my book, from Hosseini how to include symbolism. 

So, I will finish this by recommending these texts and encouraging you to keep on reading, with the hope that it can benefit you greatly.

The Best Food References In Novels

One of the joys about a book is the way that it can transport you to new places. The settings that you travel to can be entirely removed from reality, steeped in danger and utterly different to your day to day life and yet, usually there are similarities to the real world. One of these, I find, is descriptions of food. In our everyday lives, food is important to people: it joins people together, provides a shared sense of community and when lockdown is over, I can’t wait to share food with family members again. As someone who enjoys baking and, of course, eating, I’m always on the lookout for books that describe food.

There’s something magic about a book that can really describe meals and recipes. It adds an extra level of authenticity and charm to a book and ultimately makes it more memorable. I’d say that this is something that children’s books excel at, hence why we remember them so many years later. 

Today, in honour of my favourite books that mention food (but aren’t necessarily food themed) I’ll be shortlisting my favourite references to food in books. This is by no means exhaustive but a quick crash course. 

I apologise in advance if you’re feeling hungry…

  1. The Hunger Games Trilogy

If you want a step-by-step guide of how to describe food, look no further than The Hunger Games. Of course, the trilogy is about far more than what the characters are eating and in that way, food is still important: it highlights the divides between the rich and the poor and it brings the seemingly distant world of Panem a little bit closer to home. And of course, who wouldn’t want to eat beef stew or goat’s cheese after reading them?

‘The stew’s made with tender chunks of lamb and dried plums today. Perfect on the bed of wild rice.’

The Hunger Games
  1. Anything by Enid Blyton

I loved Enid Blyton’s books as a child. They were perfect for me for a number of reasons: the characters were relatable, the settings were interesting and I reread them time and time again. Every book inevitably features some type of midnight feast and the interesting arrangement of items that the girls bring– tinned peaches, sardines, chocolates, sweets and biscuits. Of course, a healthy amount of ginger beer can also not be forgotten. Blyton’s books are classics for a reason.

‘It was a lovely picnic. There were sandwiches of all kinds, buns biscuits and slices of fruit cake.’

Upper Fourth At Malory Towers
  1. The Alex Rider Series

For an action based series, Anthony Horowitz talks a lot about food in his Alex Rider series. From fancy restaurants where lots of ravioli is consumed to hastily put together meals, I always find that these descriptions add an extra dimension of interest to the series, again grounding it in reality. 

‘Mrs Rothman ate some of her ravioli. She used only a fork, cutting each pasta envelope in half then spearing it with the prongs. She ate very delicately, and Alex could see the pleasure in her eyes. It wasn’t just food for her. It was a work of art.’

Scorpia
  1. The Chronicles of Narnia

C.S. Lewis’ books are inviting to read, fun but with deep themes and he writes in a friendly style which feels all the more comforting because of the references to food. After all, who wouldn’t want to try Turkish Delight after reading about Edmund’s temptation? 

‘And when they had finished the fish, Mrs Beaver brought unexpectedly out of the oven a great and gloriously sticky marmalade roll.’

The Lion, The Witch And The The Wardrobe
  1. Honourable Mentions

Of course, there are many more books which are punctuated by descriptions of food. I personally love how the Ruby Redfort series always has Ruby drinking some sort of flavoured milk or eating something and in one of my favourite contemporaries, Goodbye Stranger, I don’t think cinnamon toast has ever been described more invitingly. And then there’s John Grisham’s Theodore Boone series where the Boone’s eat out at restaurants almost every day of the week… And the list goes on.

‘Gertrude’s was an old diner on Main Street… It claimed to serve pecan waffles that were famous around the world, but Theo had often doubted this. Did people in Japan and Greece really know about Gertrude and her waffles? 

The Abduction

So, now I’m off to add some more descriptions of food to my WIP…

Do you like reading about food in the books that you enjoy? Can you recommend any food-themed books for me? What is your favourite food?

Why Reading Reviews Can Make You A Better Author

As a person, I’d say that many of my hobbies would be classed as writing-related: blogging, reading voraciously (I’m 30/60 books through my Goodreads challenge already) and reading book reviews. The last may sound something of an irregularity, or at least a more boring pursuit but I always find it particularly enjoyable to understand the market that I’m writing for. Why?


Because I firmly believe that understanding your target audience can make you a better writer.

What does this look like?

I usually tend to keep up with what books are coming out at the moment and what people think about them. What were the common parts that they disliked? What did they find particularly refreshing? Original? 

How do I do this?

By following publishing houses and editors on relevant social media pages.

As a Twitter and (recent) Instagram user, I’ve found myself gravitating towards following writers, publishers, agents and book bloggers, something which has grown my knowledge of the market. It’s brilliant as you can find out about new books which are being released and you can also glean a lot of information about how the writing process works for authors you admire. An as of yet unpublished writer, I’ve been able to learn a lot about how querying agents and getting published works, something which has shown that it does help to know what else is selling in your field. If you’ve ever seen books marketed creatively as something like a twist between The Hunger Games and Nancy Drew, then this is evidence of a writer understanding how to reach their readership. I’ve also been checking out people’s pitches for ‘Pit Mad’ on Twitter to see how they market their book and how my current WIP would fit into this.

By reading reviews for books you have (and haven’t) read.

Using Goodreads or particular blogs, I like to read reviews for books of different genres, often those that I’m writing in. Let’s take the example of YA Contemporary novels. The last book that I worked on before my current WIP was The Romantic Poets’ Club, which broadly fits into this genre. Up until recently, I hadn’t read widely in the area (though more and more I find myself resorting to it) so I had to read a good selection of reviews for similar novels, looking at the one star and five star reviews. It’s always interesting to see the variation in opinions and more often than not, I find myself fiercely disagreeing with some reviews and finding others particularly accurate: it becomes abundantly clear that you can’t please everyone as a writer.

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I believe that this is really important to understand– if as an author you understand your readership, that’s good. If they become the focus of who you’re pleasing on every minute detail, less so. On this topic, I recently listened to an episode of ‘The Happy Writer Podcast’ which is hosted by Marissa Meyer and featured Sandhya Menon, author of When Dimple Met Rishi. In the episode, Menon said that she often writes just for herself on the first draft of a novel and then for her readership on the second– to focus solely on their interests would be a burden but to ignore them altogether would stop her novels selling.

Nonetheless, negative and positive reviews can teach us a lot. Sticking with the example of YA Contemporary, I’ve learnt a lot recently about what hooks readers and what makes them dismiss a book altogether. For example, diversity is essential in books (something I agree with strongly) but it has to be executed right. It’s easy to see reviews for the same book and to realise that whilst it was amazing for some people because it gave a voice to second generation immigrants, at the same time it marginalised a particular group because of its lack of correct representation. For me, this serves as a reminder to have high standards in writing about often underrepresented groups but also to ask readers of all backgrounds to help you during the process.

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Of course, if unlike me you find reading book reviews incredibly dull or a waste of time given that they don’t affect your writing at all, then it’s probably not worth skimming through them just for the sake of it. Still, I’d recommend finding other ways to understand the market that you’re writing for. Maybe talk to other avid readers or get beta readers that are hooked to the genre you’re writing for.

Writing should be about getting your thoughts on the page, enjoying yourself and honing your craft as well as meeting a reader’s needs. This is a hard balance to reach– after all, they are the ones that you’re essentially going to be relying on for your income– but I think that once you find it, your writing can improve exponentially.

Do you enjoy reading book reviews? Has your writing improved by knowing your target audience?

My Favourite Fairy Tale Retellings

Once upon a time, I stumbled across the miraculous genre that is fairy tale retellings. Of course, the age old question is, how many versions of Cinderella can you read before you feel as depressed as the bullied orphan herself? In my opinion, quite a large amount, if they’re executed properly. I think that’s the wonder of fairy tales, the way that they hold a different meaning for everybody and that they can be stretched and pulled in different ways to give a unique spin on an old legend.

I’ve been thinking a lot about fairy tale retellings recently, especially given the Spanish course that I’m studying at school. We’ve been watching a film by Guillermo del Toro called El Laberinto del Fauno, which is a spin on the tradition of fairy tales though, in the director’s words himself, it is not happy nor is it for children. I’m not sure if I like it or not (it’s a 15 and slightly gorier than what I’d usually watch) but the way that it interprets traditional lore is interesting and the symbolism creates a film with a type of unique lyricism and poignancy. It’s certainly not forgettable.

I think that’s the wonder of fairy tales, the way that they hold a different meaning for everybody and that they can be stretched and pulled in different ways to give a unique spin on an old legend.

Today, though, I’ll be sharing a couple of my favourite YA fairy tale retellings from a series with a cyborg for a Cinderella to a version of Mulan that involves duals and much more.

  1. The Lunar Chronicles by Marissa Meyer 

I’m sure I’ve talked about The Lunar Chronicles here on my blog before but the series is really worth talking about. It has an exciting mix of settings and interprets traditional fairy tales in a unique way. From a girl with long hair who has been stuck on a satellite for years to a cyborg with skills as a mechanic, traditional fairy tale characters are given not only a modernisation but some exciting changes. I highly recommend the series and am particularly excited, given that Marissa Meyer has just released news about her latest book, Gilded, a retelling of Rumpelstiltskin.

  1. The Hagenheim Series by Melanie Dickerson

I found the books in this series a couple of summers ago and read as many of them as had been published. There’s currently 11 (I’ve read 10) but I highly recommend them. They’re Christian retellings of fairy tales set in the Holy Roman Empire and are told from two POVs, that of the hero and heroine. Some of my favourites include The Merchant’s Daughter, a retellng of Beauty And The Beast and The Piper’s Pursuit which was a retelling of the story of the pied piper. You could say that after a while they’re formulaic but I still find them enjoyable to read and they always have really pretty covers… 

  1. The Magnolia Sword by Sherry Thomas 

My final mention goes to a retelling of Mulan called The Magnolia Sword. I reread it recently and enjoyed it especially as it is fairly action-packed and there are some quite funny moments. As a standalone, it’s quick to read and definitely worth it.

As well-worn as they are, fairy tale retellings shouldn’t be so appealing but for me, they are. I’m constantly on the lookout for more, maybe because sometimes predictability is nice– happily ever afters can be refreshing in the business of a more complicated relaity– and because originality can reform any story.

Do you have any favourite fairy tale retellings that I should read? Have you ever written a fairy tale retelling?

The Hardest Part Of Novel Writing?

A lot of us probably have New Years’ resolutions, or at least, hurried lists of things that we’d like to do in 2021. Do more exercise. Learn a new skill. Write a novel…

I’m not one to create organised goals for the year – we all know, probably from experience that a lot of these so called ‘resolutions’ dwindle and die as time passes because… well, because what seems to be a brilliant idea on January 1st does not always seem so ideal when we’ve battled through normal life for a while, without idealistic glasses on. 

Nonetheless, I do have one goal this year and that’s one that hopefully shouldn’t be too taxing but rather something that I enjoy.

I’m hoping that I can write the first draft of my new book.

I’m still sifting through ideas, trying to figure out that tricky backstory, wondering why on earth a novel is so difficult to piece together – if you’ve ever written a book, this probably resonates with you.

The internet, I’ve seen, is packed with articles from all sorts of people about every step of the novel writing process. Want to know how to find an agent? Sorted. Want to figure out a six-step guide on how to create a complex, nuanced character? I can point you to a couple of websites. What’s difficult, ironically, is what sets off the whole process.

Ideas.

Trying to figure out what to write about is a process that, of course, is not easy to put into a formula. Writers tend to have preconceived notions of what they are writing a novel on and they’re usually good at thinking and piecing together inspirations that they’ve had.

Yet, often, after the first sparks of an idea come to you, seeming brilliant, it can be hard to build up the rest of your world. Yes, you know you’re writing a superhero action novel and you know that your main character is called Jane Witney and is afraid of dogs, but who is the villain going to be? What should her family be like? Does she have any friends?

Today, I’ll be giving a few steps to help you when you run out of ideas, when you know that there is a story that you really want to share with the world but which is still impossible to get onto the page.

I hope they’re helpful.

Here we go…

  1. Paper may just be your best friend.

This of course, could be entirely subjective to me, but I can testify from my own experience that ideas flow so much better for me on paper than typed up on a laptop. There’s something freeing about having the power just to scribble. It doesn’t feel formal. You’re not signing your life away to a book. You’re just having some fun.

  1. Picture collages aren’t a waste of time.

Something that I’ve really come to believe is that having visual aids to plan your novel is really helpful. I’ve had my brother walk in on me ‘writing’ recently, asking why I was just googling obscure things like ‘blue earrings’ or ‘snow in Afghanistan.’ But these pictures, these snapshots are essential for my novel. When ideas aren’t flowing, I’ve found myself coming back to the pictures, trying to imagine what could happen with these ingredients.

  1. Don’t throw things away.

You’re going to write some stupid things when you’re planning a novel. You’ll look back at them once a whole draft is finished and wonder why on earth you ever thought that particular character would ever say that particular thing. In spite of this, those not so great ideas are still ideas. They may prompt you to figure something else out.

Don’t throw them away.

  1. You’re not an actor, you’re a writer, but trying behaving like both…

I recently watched The Man Who Invented Christmas, which follows Dickens trying to piece together A Christmas Carol. I was struck by how he would walk around his office and stare into his mirror trying out lines as if he were an actor.

I’m not a particularly theatrical person, but just imagining conversations is a helpful tool. Try to visualise particular conversations, put yourself in them. It can even be quite entertaining…

  1. A notebook (or a phone) by your bedside could be handy…

The other day, I decided to put a notebook by the side of my bed so that I could write down any ideas that came to me during the night. After a few moments of trying to sleep, I was bombarded with a few and writing them down meant that they didn’t fly by unpinned down. The next morning, I had a new idea about how the novel was going to be put together.

Now, using a notebook is a good idea (and a well understood one) but, if you don’t fancy turning on the lights and blinding yourself, a notes app on your phone works equally well.

And finally, inspiration is everywhere. Just keep your eyes open and the ideas should flow. It might be a film that you really love or an amusing conversation with your family, but soon your novel will begin to take off.

So, if like me you want to spend 2021 writing a new book, I hope these tips will serve you well. Embrace being an eccentric writer who listens to conversations to write them down or who stops in the middle of a hike to document a strange conversation between a servant and a wealthy magistrate. It’s worth it.

Happy 2021 and, I hope, happy writing.

Do you like New Years’ Resolutions? Are you going to write a book this year? Have you tried any of these tips?

The Captive Kingdom by Jennifer Nielsen Book Review

I have to admit that when I found out that Jennifer Nielsen was carrying on with her Ascendence Series, I was over the moon. I’ve read the first three books in the series more times than I can remember and each time have enjoyed different things about the plot, piecing together each moment to gain a more overall picture of the books.

Because that’s how Nielsen writes- like everything is a jigsaw puzzle.

Points made at the start of the book are relevant at the end. Plot twists are plentiful, the first one or two expected, until Nielsen subverts all of our expectations and reveals something else wholly unexpected. It’s pretty amazing, really.

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The series (avoiding spoilers as much as I possibly can) follows the main character Sage/ Jaron and his various adventures with an assortment of friends.

So, here’s the official blurb for the fourth book:

In a peaceful Carthya, Jaron leads as the Ascendant King with Imogen beside him — but the peace he fought so long for is not destined to last.

On a routine sea voyage, Jaron’s ship is brutally attacked, and he is taken hostage. The mysterious captors and their leader, Jane Strick, accuse Jaron of unthinkable acts. They are also in possession of some shocking items — including the crown and sword that belonged to Jaron’s older brother, Darius. The items unearth a past Jaron thought he had put behind him.

Though it seems impossible, Jaron must consider: Could Darius be alive? And what does Strick want from Jaron? Against his will, Jaron will be pulled back into a fight for the throne — and a battle to save his kingdom.

Return to Carthya to uncover new secrets, high-stakes action, and Jennifer A. Nielsen’s signature breathtaking twists.

We see our favourite characters return

This is fairly self explanatory. The characters in The Ascendence Series are all entirely 3D, with their own motivations and their own worries. In the original series, I really enjoyed learning about Harlowe and Imogen, amongst other characters, but this time, seeing a bit more about others, including Mott was nice.

Jaron continues to be his usual self, with his sarcastic tone and his incapability to follow orders, something that makes the book seem familiar, even if the whole series has changed a lot.

Characters are definitely a strong point for Nielsen.

An abundance of plot twists

As ever, this book is shaped around a couple of plot twists. These were particularly interesting this time; it amazes me how Jaron seems to always be more than ten steps ahead of the plot. Or, maybe he’s just a really unreliable narrator. As the blurb says, Nielsen’s plot twists are ‘breathtaking.’

Nielsen’s signature humour

And yes, the book is funny. I didn’t laugh out loud like I have done with the others, perhaps because now I’m used to the characters and so their antics are familiar, but it was funny. As ever, Fink is hilarious.

More of the same

At the same time, I did have qualms with the books. Some of the characters’ internal conflicts felt the same as in other books. Roden and Jaron’s disagreements felt like I’d seen them before and I was well used to the routine of Mott telling Jaron not to do something and him doing it anyway.

Repeatedly.

But, it’s a tried and tested formula and I did still like it.

Changes

Now, I’m about to contradict myself. Yes, the book was the same as others, but it was also completely different. We had to adapt to a lot of things, from Jaron and Imogen’s relationship to some pretty big developments. Personally, I wasn’t ready for so much change in the world of the book. It feels like slowly Nielsen is inching a way from the realistic, adventure dramas we know and placing us in a world closer to traditional fantasy.

Which is okay. Perhaps I’m just clinging on to the past of the story!

Overall, I did enjoy this book. It was great to step back into the world of Carthya and beyond, as well as to be reunited with the characters. Even in spite of my qualms, I can’t wait until Nielsen’s next book.

Well, I hope that you enjoyed this post. If you did, I’d love it if you could stick around here and ‘follow’ my blog. For more reviews, you can check out some related posts and my Goodreads page!

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The Fountains of Silence Review

Have you read The Ascendence Trilogy? What do you think about reading fantasy? Will you read The Captive Kingdom?