Showing Character

A little over a year ago, I asked four of my author friends what it’s like to work with an editor. One of them responded by giving me a comic strip she’d drawn herself.

So awesome! I laughed hard when I got it, and I still laugh when I go back and read that post. Visiting her blog StoryMonster is the same kind of treat: a visual delight with plenty of good-natured humor. All of that combined with tweets from her editor at Greenwillow gushing about how amazing Heather’s debut is . . . well, I knew I had to preorder it and read it immediately once it finally came out at the end of March.

And I loved it.

Honestly. Her editor wasn’t exaggerating with the gushing. This novel is gorgeous.

Especially after the fuss I made in last week’s post, I figure I better tell you how and why.

First of all, the novel is based on the fairy tale of the twelve dancing princesses.


Right there, anybody would stop and tell you that’s way too many characters to deal with. How is a reader supposed to keep track of them all? There’s a very real danger of several, most, or all of them falling flat. But in Entwined, they don’t.

To keep the ages straight, she uses the trick of having the girls’ names arranged A–L: Azalea, Bramble, Clover, Delphinium, Eve, Flora, Goldenrod, Hollyhock, Ivy, Jessamine, Kale, and Lily. Why are they alphabetical? Because the king loves order, so even the trick itself reveals character.

It doesn’t take long for each sister to feel rounded out beyond just their age. When gentlemen begin calling, we learn that Clover is the most beautiful by how they react to her, and we also learn that it’s not easy to tell who is the oldest just by looking at the girls. But Clover’s beauty is paired with bashful stuttering to round her out. Bramble is the outspoken rebel. Delphinium likes to pretend to faint. Goldenrod hides a little in the shadow of her twin Flora. Ivy is always eating. While the younger girls are featured less prominently, we always have a sense of them and the sense that each is unique.

Maybe thanks to her storyboarding background, Heather is fantastic at showing everything. She never has to stop and explain things, you just understand by the expressions or dialogue or actions — even by the sound!


A tiny arrow, just the length of her hand with a little metal heart for the tip, had imbedded itself in the wall next to Azalea.


The candle went foof.

“Ack!” said Azalea. She smothered the fire in the folds of her skirt, leaving the odor of smoked fabric.

That gift for showing is one of the main ways she brings her characters to life. Lord Teddie is always bubbly and jovial, so when his face and voice suddenly become serious, you know how hurt he is. How much or how little Clover stutters reveals her feelings. Azalea digs her fingernails into her palms when she’s angry.

And best of all, their father is flawed and wonderful, too. They hate him for abandoning them after their mother dies, but Heather lets the reader see that he’s not mean, only in terrible pain from missing his wife.

Consider this scene:

“But it does help,” said Clover. She kept her eyes down, lashes brushing her cheeks, but she pulled the courage to step forward. “Mother would — would dance at night, too. In the ballroom — and — and you were there, and you danced the Entwine, and — you caught her, and she kissed you. On the nose.” Clover blushed deeply. “I think it was the sweetest thing I’ve ever seen.”

She said it with fewer pauses than usual, as though she had recited it a hundredfold. Azalea pulled her hand away from the slate, thinking of Mother and the Entwine, the tricky dance with the sash. If Mother had gotten caught, it was only because she had let the King catch her.

The king backed up, taut, against the rosebush ledge, the dry thorny branches pressing into his back. His face had become severe.

“It helps to remember,” said Clover.

“We will not speak of your mother,” said the King. His voice was even, but harder and colder than frozen steel. “You are finished with your lessons. Go to your room.”

The words lashed. Clover cowered, swallowed, then pushed her way out of the nook, clutching her boots and limping. They could hear her choked weeping echoing down the hall.

“Oh, Clover!” cried Flora. Hands linked, she and Goldenrod bounded after.

“Oh, look what you’ve done!” said Delphinium, crying angrily. She swept Lily into her arms and took off unevenly after them. Kale, Eve, Jessamine, Hollyhock, and Ivy ran out, followed by Bramble, who shot the King a flaring look as she left.

That’s just one example of why I think this book is gorgeous: the scenes that tug your heart in two directions, knowing how much each side is hurting and misunderstanding the other, while keeping a subtle humor alive and well (oh how I love that Bramble and her looks and scolds!).

I think knowing Heather makes the humor even better, too. So check out the comic she drew for me, check out her blog, check out Entwined, and enjoy every page!

Read any other fantastic examples of novels that delight your senses and show character?

Leave a comment!

Dissection for a Good Review

In the writing classes I teach, when we cover analysis and argument, we discuss the importance of how and why. As with any lesson, the challenge is making the concepts tangible, finding concrete examples that will have my students going, “I get it! That makes total sense.”

Thanks to a few vague kitchen product reviews, an unfortunate purchase, and a simple-but-elegant mechanism, I think I can now prove the essentialness of how and why.

Last weekend, I bought oat groats. I had never even seen what they look like, but in reading about rolled oats versus steel cut oats, it suddenly struck me that it was another case of “this OR that” and I abandoned both in favor of flaking my own oats for the freshest possible oatmeal.

Um, only trouble? Equipment. I’m not sure how pioneers and others rolled their oats, but when I searched how to do it, I found relatively few options. The reviews I read made them all sound more or less equal for flaking oats, as in “they all get the job done, no problems,” so I bought the cheapest one and figured that would do it. After all, I only need to roll about a cup of oats at a time for oatmeal. No sweat.

Oh, not so. That cheapest roller (cheap at $45 — still a large chunk of money!) arrived in the mail last Monday, and it felt too light, too flimsy. It rolled the oats, but they were thicker than I expected (even though I’m used to old-fashioned oats) and half the time I’d be turning the crank and nothing would be coming through because all the groats were jammed at the top, refusing to be squashed between the rollers. I had figured it would take five minutes or less to roll a cup of oats. With that thing, in five minutes I only had a third of a cup.

Hubby happened to walk into the kitchen at 10:30 p.m. as I was trying to get the oatmeal ready for breakfast. I also had wheat berries grinding in my Family Grain Mill powered by my KitchenAid stand mixer, and Hubby’s astute observation was, “Why can’t you use that thing for oats, too?”

“Because the oat roller attachment for that costs twice as much as this thing.”

“But if you’re going to use it all the time and have this big a headache every time, isn’t the more expensive one worth it?”

Bless husbands who can say such things! Neither of us likes to spend money, and I’d been trying to be frugal, but I am so glad he nudged me toward a better quality purchase.

Yesterday I drove to a Bosch Kitchen Center and bought the display model flaker mill (they were out of boxed ones, and I was thrilled to get a discount for the used version). It was heavy in a good way — substantial, quality — and I was excited to test it out.

Today I hooked it up to my hand crank (too lazy to drag out the KitchenAid for just a cup of oats), and it worked marvelously: a steady stream of thinly rolled oats poured out of the bottom.

Then I dismantled it and discovered the difference.

In the cheap unit, how it worked was that two rollers turned toward each other on the theory that they would pull the oats down between them and squash them, but that had a number of problems. Why? First of all, you could only get the oats as thin as the space between the rollers, but if the rollers were too close together the oats would never go down between them in the first place. That’s why I kept turning the crank and sometimes got a few, sometimes none, because you had to wait until the textured grip of the rollers caught each groat just right.

In my higher quality version, one roller presses the oats against a steel plate, the space between the roller and the plate narrowing to create a funnel that forces the oats down at an even pace. 

Smarter design, improved function.

So here’s my writing analogy of the week: to really figure out what makes something better — whether you’re reviewing kitchen equipment or a movie or novel, etc — you have to take it apart and figure out how and why it works.

If I’d come across a review explaining to me the difference between the $45 model and the $80 (used) model, I wouldn’t have bothered with the cheap one in the first place.

I’m not a reviewer myself, but what I appreciate about book or movie reviewers who do their job well is that they don’t just sum up the story and whether or not they liked it, but they dissect it and describe the how and the why.

For example:

How does the writer keep the audience hooked?

  • With gimmicky tension created by withholding information or tossing characters into ridiculous and unreasonable situations? (**cough, cough** The Proposal, where they invented an excuse to have Sandra Bullock and Ryan Reynolds run into each other naked.) 
  • Or with genuine tension based on realistic circumstances and situations that explore character through difficult decisions? (Every amazing book I’ve ever read, but first movie example that comes to mind: Gladiator, where Russell Crowe is pitted against the last wishes of a soon-to-be-murdered emperor and the power-hungry delusions of the emperor’s love-starved and emotionally unstable son — not to mention fighting for his very life, his family’s life, and the well-being of the whole country and a woman he cares for.)

Why does the writer include certain elements?

  • To fit a formula — whether a popular trend or a genre “recipe”? (Again, I’m going to pick on romantic comedies that create certain characters just to have the “nerdy best friend” and other formulaic roles filled.)
  • Or to serve a purpose unique to that story? (I’m thinking of books like Whirligig where the author makes the main character unlikable, normally a sin in novel-writing, in order to show the enormous change he undergoes in the course of the story.)

By including how and why, the reviewer helps me anticipate whether or not that movie or book or kitchen gadget will work for me. Maybe I like certain genre formulas and so a movie with a nerdy best friend will be perfect for me. Maybe I don’t like the tension of realistic drama and would rather have the gimmicks so I can just be entertained. Maybe I’m not going to use an oat roller very often and so waiting for the groats to squash between two rollers is fine with me due to the price difference.*

Also, as a writer, analyzing the how and the why of my own story is absolutely the key to improving it. How would my character react in this situation? Why is this scene crucial?

Anyhow, you get the idea. Any thoughts? Run across any great reviews lately?

Leave a comment!

*In case anyone’s interested, here is the rest of the price story: even at Costco, I felt like I was paying way too much for relatively few rolled oats. With the oat groats (which I bought in a 50# bag from a grain distributor for $28), it’s not only fresher — no chance of being rancid — but 1/2 cup of groats rolls into 1 cup of oats, so I’m getting twice as much for the same price. This means that even my $80 gadget will pay for itself pretty quickly since we eat oatmeal twice a week and I make my own granola. Hooray for tools that provide both better health and spending!

Three Tugs to Lure Me In

ONE: cracking open the paperback copy at the used bookstore over Christmas break to peek at the first page —

“When he woke in the woods in the dark and the cold of the night he’d reach out to touch the child sleeping beside him. Nights dark beyond darkness and the days more gray each one than what had gone before. Like the onset of some cold glaucoma dimming away the world. His hand rose and fell softly with each precious breath. He pushed away the plastic tarpaulin and raised himself in the stinking robes and blankets and looked toward the east for any light but there was none. In the dream from which he’d wakened he had wandered in a cave where the child led him by the hand. Their light playing over the wet flowstone walls. Like pilgrims in a fable swallowed up and lost among the inward parts of some gigantic beast. Deep stone flues where the water dripped and sang. Tolling in the silence the minutes of the earth and the hours and the days of it and the years without cease.”

Oh, that voice! I would have kept going and going, transported, turning page after page without realizing the passage of time, I’m sure, except that it was my husband’s purchase, so I had to let him read it first. And by then, even though he raved about it, I’d moved on to other books.

TWO: receiving a comment from a colleague on my post about nonfiction binges at the end of January—

“I just decided over the weekend that the NF binge is over. Now for some good old fiction. I think it was rereading The Road by McCarthy for an independent study I’m doing with a student — absolutely beautiful again.”

His comment made me remember the sweet pull of that first page in the bookstore, but unlike Ron my nonfiction binge wasn’t quite over yet.

THREE: reading my sister’s review on Goodreads yesterday —

“Loved it. It was sad and honestly frightening at times but I thought the dialogue — though very simple — was incredibly telling and moving. And depending on how you look at it, it ended well.”

It’s time. I’ve missed fiction. And I need something like this — “absolutely beautiful,” “incredibly telling and moving” — to help me remember how much I crave the best literature. I’m full of happy sighs just anticipating this book, and my plan is not to set it down again until I’ve committed a bookmark into a crease however many pages in I can pull myself away.

Does it ever take three tugs to convince you to read a book you knew you were going to love anyway? What books have you sighed over lately?

Leave a comment!

Stretching My Genre Limits

See this cover? This is so not my kind of book. Even hubby said so when he saw me reading it.

I mean, you can say, “Don’t judge a book by its cover,” all you want, but I much prefer the argument that judging the book is sort of the point of the cover. A cover with detailed art of dragons and sword-wielding heroes is meant to appeal to those who like high fantasy; a cover with a sexy, cleavage-bearing woman swooning in the arms of a muscular hunk is meant to be recognized as Harlequin romance. (They still make them that way, right? I haven’t seen one in a long time, not since I discovered my grandmother’s stash.) Covers are meant to indicate what kind of book it is. 

And a cover with bright-pink-or-purple cutesy fonts is meant to say, “Read me if you love all the drama of scoping out and scheming ways to catch hot boys in high school.”

I rolled my eyes at that stuff even while I was in high school. I mean, I liked boys. I had my share of crushes. But I had little patience for the sagas that so many girls seemed to crave. In fact, I hung out with mostly guys because of the simple fact that they didn’t show up at dances with their mascara running because some other girl had stolen their heart-throb and they didn’t rush over and huddle around the mascara runner anxious to be involved in and know every detail of the drama.

But here’s the surprise of the week: I loved this book.

The premise hooked me before I ever saw the cover. It’s about a high school senior who drops her phone in a fountain and suddenly the only person she can call is her freshman self. And since her senior self (code name: Ivy) just got dumped by the guy she’d wasted three and a half years on, ditched friends for, neglected school for, etc, it feels like the perfect opportunity to convince her freshman self (code name: Frosh) not to make the same mistakes.

Even though I could see pretty early on what the resolution would have to be, it was so much fun to read through all the twists along the way. I loved all the characters and loved watching them experiment with new identities throughout the book (high school was definitely that way). I loved the immediacy of the consequences, how Ivy would tell Frosh to change something and instantly Ivy’s present became completely different, sometimes for the better but often for the worse.

And I loved the message that balance is the life lesson of the day. That’s sort of my motto, too.

Plus, this book didn’t have the things I expected from the genre. It wasn’t about clandestine make-out sessions or back-stabbing girlfriends or any of that drama. It was just about navigating the hairy-scary teenage years when so much (college, friends, even graduation) is riding on your decisions.

In conclusion, I’m glad that I stretched outside my genre comfort zone. I should do it more often, perhaps. I’m sure there are gems in every genre, and maybe there are even whole genres I’ve misjudged.

What about you? Read anything outside your usual genres lately? How did it go? Do you believe in judging a book (or at least its genre) by its cover? What are some books you’ve loved whose covers totally didn’t look like something you’d be into?

Leave a comment!

4 Stars for EVERYTHING!

A month or so ago a neighbor borrowed a book from me and returned it a few days later when my husband happened to be outside, so she handed it to him. For the record, this wasn’t a book I had recommended to her but that a co-worker of hers had, and she just happened to read my copy of it.

When my husband asked how she’d liked it, she said (the way hubby related the story), “Eh. It was okay. Nikki gave it four stars on Goodreads, which I don’t get, but she gives four stars to everything.”

And hubby, who also gets my Goodreads reviews in his email, said, “That’s so true.”


Is it dumb of me to feel defensive about that?

Maybe it’s just that I have a supreme dislike for absolutes like always, never, everything and nothing. After all, the person accused only has to produce ONE example to the contrary and the comment is nullified. So of course I opened my Goodreads shelf and showed hubby examples of five- and three-star ratings, even a rare two-star label.

I could have also protested that Goodreads doesn’t allow half stars, so it’s not like I have a huge set of options, though I often mention in my review that I would give something three-and-a-half or four-and-a-half stars if I could.

But really, the thing is that I do genuinely “really like” most of what I read, and “really like” is the qualification Goodreads sets for four stars. Five stars is considered “amazing,” so I reserve that for books that I think I could read over and over again and not tire of or else books where the ideas and the writing blew me away. Three stars is just “liked it,” so I use that when it feels as though that’s what I’d honestly tell someone if they asked me about the book.

Honestly, I am honest about my reviews.


So maybe the real issue is that I only read recommendations. Even when I browse a bookstore looking for titles I haven’t heard of yet, I ask for recommendations from the bookstore staff and I look for a starred review from Kirkus or Horn Book or Booklist or School Library Journal or Publisher’s Weekly printed on the cover of the book. Although I adore beautiful cover art and think it makes reading the book an even greater pleasure, I don’t let the cover design recommend the book over other considerations. My TBR list is generally too long as it is, so I’m never really in the position of having to just pick up a book that “looks” good. And so, I usually only read books that others have already agreed are four- or five-star books.

But then, do I end up sounding snobby, and is that worse than being accused of only giving four stars all the time?

What made me think of all this this morning is that I finished Skellig by David Almond last night and decided to give it four stars. I really liked it. I’d read it again. It might not become an all-time favorite of mine, but I’m very glad a bookstore employee pointed me to it and I want to do the same favor for others.

Four stars just kind of fits that bill.


I’m tempted to jump from here into other discussions, like “to rate or not to rate” because of the danger of offending authors vs being helpful to other readers, and how to be tactful in your reviews so as to show that this is only your opinion of your particular experience reading this book rather than a dictate of what the book “deserves,” etc, but I’ll save those topics for future posts.

So for now, really the only question is what do your book ratings say about YOU? 😉

Leave a comment!

What Are You Reading?


Just learned about this via Well-Read Reviews, and it seems like a cool thing. I don’t read nearly fast enough to have a decent list of books finished in the past week, plus I show my books in the sidebar anyhow, but maybe I’ll do this once in a while to highlight books that have been especially awesome.


silksingerSilksinger by Laini Taylor

This is the second book in her Faeries of Dreamdark series, which centers around Magpie Windwitch, the last faery champion, and I have to say that both books are equally awesome. Her knack for story, characterization, and great writing sweeps me off my feet every time, not to mention the incredible world and magic system she’s built. This one introduces two new characters, Hirik and Whisper, but Magpie and Talon are still in the middle of everything, don’t worry!

maze runnerThe Maze Runner by James Dashner

The first book in James’s dystopian triology is freaky and suspenseful. Seriously, James has some kind of wild imagination to have come up with the Grievers and the other insane elements here.  And he’s not afraid to kill off characters, which keeps the tension high. He’s made no secret of the fact that the book has a cliffhanger ending that frustrates some readers, but I actually thought the end — especially the last two pages — was great, striking that difficult balance between setting up for the next book but wrapping up this one well.


lips touchLips Touch Three Times by Laini Taylor

From the gorgeous illustrations to the gorgeous writing and incredible stories, I can’t recommend this three-story collection highly enough. I’ve read the first two stories (novelettes) so far and am just a few pages into the third and final (a novella). The short format is strange and very cool for me in that, at least with the first two, you know viewpoint characters might die. You aren’t safe. You aren’t sure happy endings are even possible, let alone likely. And in a twisted way I think that’s super cool. The world is dangerous, and that makes the characters’ choices all the more interesting and powerful.


  • The Good Neighbors: Kith by Holly Black and Ted Naifeh

  • Going Bovine by Libba Bray

  • The Children’s Book by A. S. Byatt

  • Wake by Lisa McMann

And don’t worry: part three of the movies and writing series is still coming soon, as is an interview with my friend Diana from the webcomic Sweet and Sour Grapes!

What are you reading?

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