The Key to a Good Villain Origin Story (Discussion)

Every once in a while, I read a review on a villain origin story (think Heartless by Marissa Meyer or The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes by Suzanne Collins) where the reviewer complains that the protagonist is “unlikable,” a fatal flaw for many readers of YA who wish to admire and, even better, relate to their protagonists. The point that some of these reviews seem to be missing, however, is that villain origin stories are about….villains. And while the point of an origin story is that the character is not fully a villain yet, the key to writing a convincing explanation of how a villain comes to be is showing the character as human: someone who has good characteristics but also the flaws that will lead them to turn to evil.

Most villain origin stories seem to depict the villain in their youth, which means the character needs to have some of the innocence and optimism and whimsy of a child or teen, regardless of whether they are growing up in privilege or in difficult circumstances that one would imagine would squash a rosy view of the world. Young people are resilient, so it makes sense that even a young villain might be kind or cheerful or humorous or have dreams of making a better world. These are the qualities that show the reader that the villain is human; they are not all bad, they were not born evil, and perhaps things could have been different for them.

However, the potential villain also needs flaws– and specifically they need the flaws that are going to turn them into a villain. When readers complain a pre-villain character is unlikable, perhaps they are imagining that the only thing needed to turn the character into a villain is a catalyzing event: their father is murdered and they want to take revenge, some mean girl at school ruined their reputation so they never graduated and got the degree they needed to get the job they wanted and their life was ruined, someone “stole” their lover, they were abused as a child, they witnessed some horrific event, etc. But the event isn’t enough. The character’s flaws are what help determine how they respond to the catalyzing event, what determine whether they choose to become a villain or a hero (or, you know, just an average person history would have forgotten about).

Was the character always proud? Did they learn from their parents not to show any love or affection? Were they so privileged they never had any compassion for the suffering of others? Were they always competitive and needed to be the best at everything? Or were they insecure and desired to hide that? These are the reasons the character might be “unlikable,” but they’re necessary to show how the character ultimately becomes a villain, when their flaws overcome the better aspects of their personalities.

The trick, of course, is balancing the good and the bad. An origin story is just that: a story before the character is truly a villain. they have the potential to become a villain, but at this moment in time, they also have the potential to become someone else.


Brave the Page: A Young Writer’s Guide to Telling Epic Stories by National Novel Writing Month

Brave the Page by National Novel Writing Month book cover


Goodreads: Brave the Page
Series: None
Source: Library
Published: August 27, 2019

Official Summary

The official NaNoWriMo handbook that inspires young people to tackle audacious goals and complete their creative projects.

Includes pep talks from today’s biggest authors!
John GreenMarissa MeyerJennifer NivenDaniel Jose OlderDanielle PaigeCelia C. Perez, and Scott Westerfeld with an introduction by Jason Reynolds!

Partly a how-to guide on the nitty-gritty of writing, partly a collection of inspiration to set (and meet) ambitious goals, Brave the Page is the go-to resource for middle-grade writers. Narrated in a fun, refreshingly kid-friendly voice, it champions NaNoWriMo’s central mission that everyone‘s stories deserve to be told. The volume includes chapters on character, plot, setting, and the like; motivating essays from popular authors; advice on how to commit to your goals; a detailed plan for writing a novel or story in a month; and more!

Star Divider


Brave the Page is an excellent introduction for younger readers to NaNoWriMo and to the writing process in general.  And even though the prompts, examples, and voice are geared towards middle schoolers and teens, there’s enough advice that older aspiring writers might find it interesting, as well.

I don’t think there’s much I would personally use in this book, but that’s solely because 1) I’d say I’m familiar with a lot of the advice—making time for writing, limiting distractions, observing the world for inspiration, etc. and 2) I’m not the type of person to refer to a multi-day plan in a book.  I read through the four week novel writing plan at the end and thought it had good idea, perfect for NaNoWri, but I’d be really bad at following through actually referencing this each day during November.  So knowing yourself and your strengths/weaknesses as a writer is useful here.

I do think the book’s biggest strength is driving home the idea that writing is a process and it’s something you can commit to doing and learn to do well.  As someone who taught college composition classes, I know even adults often think that good writing some innate talent that some people possess and others don’t or that they think inspiration, motivation, and time management are just going to strike from the sky.  Brave the Page emphasizes time and again, in the voices of a wide variety of published authors, that the most fundamental thing you need to do in order to write something is to…sit down and write.  And then sit down and write again.  And again.  And again.  And then revise it all because the first draft is probably mediocre.   The authors admit sometimes it’s hard, and they don’t always even enjoy writing, and they frequently have to purposely brainstorm ideas or make outlines instead of being divinely inspired with interesting plots.  Novels don’t just magically flow out of them.  And this is a really valuable lesson for young (or any) writers to learn.

So if you need a little motivation or inspiration for getting your novel started or know a young writer who might like to learn more about the craft, check out Brave the Page.  If you’ve already read a lot of writing advice, there’s probably nothing new here, but you might still want to check out the various writing prompts and exercises to see if there’s anything useful to you there.

4 stars

Your First Novel by Ann Rittenberg and Laura Whitcomb

Your First Novel CoverInformation

Goodreads: Your First Novel: An Author Agent Team Share the Keys to Achieving Your Dream
Series: None
Source: Library
Published: August 25, 2006

Official Summary

In Your First Novel, novelist Laura Whitcomb and seasoned literary agent Ann Rittenberg team up to provide you with the skills you need to write your dream novel and the savvy business know-how to get it published. In this all-in-one resource, you’ll discover essential novel-writing techniques, such as:

-How to best structure your research so that you can save time later
-How to card your story before you start writing
-What to consider when developing your cast of characters
-How to adapt classic story structures to fit your own ideas

…and insider information on what it takes to get published, including:

-What agents do at those three-hour power lunches–and how it affects you
-What makes an agent instantly reject a manuscript
-How to correctly translate submission guidelines
-What happens if you get multiple offers–or no offers at all

Plus, learn about the publishing process from the firsthand accounts of such noted authors as Dennis Lehane, Kathryn Harrison, Jim Fusilli, Kathleen George, and others!

Star Divider


I’m not typically in the habit of reading advice about how to write, but I saw this at my library and was intrigued, not least because the reviews seem to be polarized.  People either love or hate this book, and now that I’ve read it, I can see why.  Some of the fundamentals are valuable, but overall the book is dated and prescriptive in a way I personally found off-putting.

The first section, which is about writing your novel, has a variety of advice and exercises that writers can try, for just about every part of the writing process.  Whitcomb walks readers through how they can try to build characterization, how they can write more engaging description, and a variety of other topics.  I didn’t personally try any of them, but I think this section could have value for someone actively writing or revising a novel who wanted to use the book as a reference. Obviously, it doesn’t have the same value if, like me, you’re kind of just reading about the exercises and not actually walking through them.  Whitcomb does seem to have certain opinions on writing and what makes it good that others may or may not agree with, but overall I think you can take what works for you from this section and ignore the rest.

The section by the literary agent is less helpful.  Rittenberg does discuss the general process of publishing and the role of literary agents, which will be useful to new-ish writers but old news to people who already are familiar with how the book publishing industry works.  Her advice for how to write well enough to get an agent, however, is out-dated and often based on her personal quirks.  For example, she insists that revision must be done on manuscript papers that you have printed out, that she does not know a single author who has successful revised something entirely on the computer.  This seems like an odd statement to have made even in 2006, but it’s there in the book.  She also insists that aspiring authors should not hire a freelance editor to help them with their book, not because it’s not necessary and they could save their money (which would be reasonable advice), but because she thinks that this is somehow cheating.  She has a personal rule not to take on writers who have sought professional feedback because they need to have revised “by themselves” to get a real feel for their book.  This seems wild to me, particularly in an industry where “whether you can work with an editor and take feedback” is actually a determining factor for editors when they acquire books.

So, overall, this was just a weird read.  I think most of it’s not useful, and maybe it would be actively bad advice for someone who accepted it all at face-value, but I think there are enough gems in it that anyone serious about writing a novel might want to check it out.  Just search your library first or try to find a cheap copy.

3 StarsBriana

Tolkien Lessons: How His Work Influences My Work (Guest Post by Linda White @BookManiaLife)

Tolkien Reading Event 2017

Every year on March 25, the anniversary of the Downfall of Sauron, the Tolkien Society hosts Tolkien Reading Day. This year’s theme is Poetry and Songs in Tolkien’s Fiction. The primary goal is to promote the reading of the works of J.R R. Tolkien! To celebrate, Pages Unbound will be hosting two weeks of Tolkien-related posts. In addition to our own thoughts, we will be featuring a number of guest posts! Check out the complete schedule here.

Tolkien Books

Last year, I attended a local con here called CONvergence. I was an Invited Participant (their caps, not mine) and they asked that I be on at least four panels. I was looking at the schedule and one session jumped out at me right away – Perambulatory Journeys. All I could think of was Tolkien. I mean, I could think of no others.

Curious, I put out a call on Facebook, and lots of folks came back with other suggestions. Who knew? But Tolkien was tops on my list. The conversation at the panel was great, and even delved into Pokemon territory (this was right before the game got hot).

Sometime during this whole process, it hit me that I was, myself, writing a perambulatory journey. I wasn’t trying to copy Tolkien, but my characters needed to get from point A to point B, and since my work is set in Neolithic Great Britain, there weren’t a whole lot of options. They walked.

How long does it take to walk from Salisbury Plain to Orkney? How many obstacles would they encounter? What would happen to them along the way? How would they eat? These were all questions I would have to face. Research. Lots of research. My world was real. I knew that my characters were walking a fixed number of miles. Tolkien had no such limitations. How far was it to Mordor, anyway? In some ways, I kind of envied him. Why hadn’t I been brilliant enough to invent the whole world, even if only to save myself all these bothersome details? But that didn’t fit the story I wanted to tell, so it was a moot question. Would sure have made things easier, though.

And the other obstacles. Crossing water made me research the types of boats that would have been used at the time. I couldn’t just invent it. And for food, I am not going to go ahead and invent something like cram or lamas bread, because really, that’s been done. For me, it ended up meaning a lot of research into the foods that would have occurred naturally – berries and nuts and other hunter-gatherer fodder. But these were real considerations. And Tolkien had to consider them too – if only so that his world would be consistent. He couldn’t have wooden boats used in an area devoid of trees. He couldn’t have too many gentle comforts (think how many times they had to run or were captured and lost everything!). The small thing like Bilbo finding his pipe intact towards the end of his journey made it all that much more touching.

I am rereading The Lord of the Rings right now, and enjoying it. I think I have read it twice before, but it has been years. I am finding swaths that I don’t remember, because the movies are so ingrained on my brain. But those parallels are helpful too. What did the movie makers leave out? Why? What is really necessary to tell the story? It is helpful to look at a story that I know really well (and to be fair, doesn’t have the emotional attachment that I probably have to Harry Potter), and make these comparisons. Then I look at my own work and think, huh. What is this scene doing? How can I set up this bit so that it is useful later? And if I introduce this character just once, and never mention him again, is he really necessary?

So while I don’t want to write the same story – I don’t want to be derivative in any way – there are lessons here. I have realized I have several books about the world, apart from the multiple copies I own of the stories. So complex, and so deep. This time on my reread, I am looking further into the background. I am actually using the books that I have, like A Guide to Middle Earth by Robert Foster and The J.R.R. Tolkien Handbook (which is like an encyclopedia).

Apart from the obvious walking parallels, Tolkien is never far from my mind when I think about writing. If you’ve read the biography by Humphrey Carter (which is excellent), you will know that Tolkien started out with languages, and generally invented the story and the world to give his languages a culture to belong to. It’s absolutely fascinating, especially for me, someone who once tried to build a major in linguistics (it didn’t exist at my college and there weren’t enough classes to cobble one together). He spent years playing with these languages. Then he spent years writing the stories.

Unfortunately, he also spent a lot of time playing solitaire in his study, and every time I think of what he could have been doing instead, it makes me cringe. And I take that as an example for myself, when I find that I am a) spending too much time on bookstagram or Twitter or b) spending too much time diddling about doing things that simply will not matter.

We only have a given amount of time on this earth, and we must use it wisely. And if you’ve got a story to tell, a world to tell people about, do the telling! Don’t fritter away your time. And do the homework. Make it worthwhile.

About the Author

Linda White will be collecting books as long as the floors hold out. And she wants to read them all! She loves beautiful books. Read, travel, hike, book arts, paper crafts. She runs BookMania, an editorial services agency, and Publishing Bones, a website for writers. You can also visit her on Twitter and Instagram.

Writing Rambles: Tips for Writing Historical Dialogue


Are you interested in writing historical fiction? Or a story set in a pseudo-historical time period? Here are some of my best tips for writing authentic-sounding, readable dialogue.

Immerse Yourself in the Language

I noted in a post I wrote a couple years ago about fantasy dialogue that one of the number one issues authors can run into is not really knowing what the dialogue they’re aiming for should sound like.  For instance, it is very common for people to use the term “Old English” to refer to anything from Jane Austen’s language to Shakespeare’s.  In fact, Old English (or Anglo-Saxon) was spoken from about 450-1100 AD–and it’s not even readable to people without training.  Before you write historical dialogue, you want to have a grasp of the facts.

My number one tip: Read a lot literature from the time period you want to emulate.  Immerse yourself in the language.  Get a feel for the sentence structure, the vocabulary, and other patterns. And, beyond simply reading a bunch of books from, say, the 1700s, try paying attention to detail and taking notes on what catches your eye about the language.  You don’t have to emulate the language exactly, but you want to have a working knowledge of what it really sounds like from people who actually spoke and wrote it.

Be Realistic: Literary Vs. Everyday Language

Keep in mind, however, that “literary language” has always existed.  It’s well-documented that the language everyday people spoke in various time periods often significantly differed from the language writers would use in their texts.  The language of The Iliad is not truly the language of Ancient Greece.  The language of Shakespeare is not always the language of the English Renaissance.  So if the writing from a particular time period sounds rather formal and sophisticated (or just plain artificial) to you, there’s a chance it is.  You’re perfectly free to tone it down for your characters, particularly ones who wouldn’t be well-educated or well-read.

Aim for Moderation: Give a Sense of the Period

Realistically, most authors are never going to write “perfect” historical prose.  (In the case of Middle English or Old English, you wouldn’t even want to because few people would even be able to read what you’ve written.)  Something to consider, then, is adding just enough “older” touches to your language, either in terms of sentence structure or vocabulary choice, to give your readers a taste of the time period you are going for.  Too much old-timey language could be distracting or annoying. (Think about novels you’ve read where an author has overdone a character’s accent, and the character came across as a caricature rather than a believable person.)  You just need to give your readers an accurate impression of historical language; you don’t need to give them the full deal.

Watch for Disjunction

The key to writing any dialogue is making it sound realistic enough that the prose itself is actually unremarkable.  You never want a reader to stop and think “That sounds really odd” or “Sheesh, teenagers don’t use this much slang” or “This character has such a thick accent it’s just silly.”  You simply want the reader to be able to keep reading because nothing is unusual enough to pull him or her out of the story.  In novels (either historical fiction or fantasy) where you are going for an “older” tone of dialogue, these are some areas to keep in mind:

Narration Vs. Dialogue

Think about how well the prose of your narration blends with the prose of your dialogue. Is one far more formal than the other?  Are the characters speaking something that sounds like authentic Middle English, but the narration is far more modern?  Any distinct differences between the narration and the characters’ speech will pull readers out of the story each time a character starts or stops speaking, as they will have to readjust to the language.

This is particularly true if your novel is told from a first person point of view. It’s going to be noticeable if your protagonist narrates events (or “speaks to the reader”) in modern English but speaks to other characters in Shakespearean English.  This will create the odd illusion the the character is capable of speaking both forms of English and is for some reason code-switching throughout the novel.  In this case, you might consider going for a casually “older” style of prose throughout the novel, adding just enough touches to make the language seem authentic for the period but not going so over the top your readers have trouble following the story.

Switching Narrative Time Periods (Flashbacks)

If you’re writing a story that switches between modern events and historical events (for whatever plot reasons), consider toning down the historical language in the scenes that take place in the past.  This is a story in which you really might want to give your readers “just a taste” of historical dialogue. It could be jarring to readers if one chapter they’re reading about teenagers from 2014 and the next chapter they’re reading about people from 1600.  Each time the prose style drastically changes, the readers will notice and need to mentally readjust.  (Imagine trying to alternately read sections of Shakespeare and Steinbeck.)

Mixing Historical Periods

This goes back to point one: knowing the language of the time period you want to emulate.  Whatever you do, you want to be consistent in your language usage.  A reader might not notice if an eighteenth century character generally speaks very modern English, as long as the characters in the book always speak modern English.  It will, however, catch readers’ attention if the characters fail to stick to one time period with their language usage.  You don’t want to use language that just sound generically “old” without discretion.  If your characters mix styles from the nineteenth century, the seventeenth century, and the fifteenth century, it’s going to come across as odd.  Pick one and do your best to stick to it.


Remember, readability is often more important than getting your historical diction 100% accurate. Of course, you don’t want to write something completely absurd or noticeably anachronistic. However, if your target audience isn’t historical experts, keep in mind what their reading experience will be like.  Often, giving them the flavor of the time period rather than a full-on immersive experience into an older-sounding language will be what keeps them in the story.

Have you written historical dialogue?  What are your best tips?  Have you read any books that did the older language particularly well (or particularly badly)?


Writing Rambles: Cultivating Ambiguity

I have a vexed relationship with contemporary short stories.  Writing a short story is in many ways an entirely different skill from writing a novel, so when even my favorite, most-loved novelists contribute to a short story anthology, I usually end up disappointed with the results.  (And when Edgar Allan Poe, king of short stories, tries to write a novel, everyone ends up disappointed with the result.)  For a while I accepted this situation pretty much at face value.  I figured these authors didn’t focus on crafting short stories, so of course they weren’t as good at it as they were producing longer fiction.  They just needed more practice, which they were unlikely to get because once you’re a bestselling author, there’s little point in moving to the less-glamorous short story market these days.  But the more I thought about why I don’t like many of these stories, the more I began to realize there was a trend.

Perhaps it’s the Edgar Allan Poe influence, but a disproportionate amount of writers seem to believe that a short story has to be suspenseful; it has to be ambiguous.  But there are more and less effective ways of trying to twist your readers’ brains with ambiguity, and for it to work particularly well, the story often needs to be exceptionally clever.  Many stories stop short of cleverness and end up just being frustrating in one of three ways: 1) being so vague that it’s hard to imagine even the author had a clear conception of what was supposed to be happening in the story, 2) just not telling the reader the answer to whatever riddle/mystery/situation was set up, 3) suggesting two answers are possible when they’re clearly contradictory and both are illogical.

I recently ran into this issue with Among the Shadows: 13 Stories of Darkness and Light.  To be fair, this anthology was released around Halloween and was themed around “dark” tales, so there was particular incentive for creepy, ambiguous tales to be submitted.  However, many of them fell flat for me, despite the fact I loved the novels of several of the contributing authors.  A couple of the stories were standouts.  I especially enjoyed Lenore Appelhans’s “Panic Room.”  In a few short pages, she gave me a character, a plot, and enough world-building to make the story work.  Many of the other stories contented themselves with hazy world-building and inexplicable magic, as if writing a short story automatically excuses you from giving your readers context.

Yet this unanswerable ambiguity also makes its way into novels.  I’m somewhat of a black sheep for not loving The Accident Season, and though there were several reasons the novel was not my favorite, the illogical ending sealed the deal for me. [Spoilers ahead.]  The story simply wants to have its eat and eat it, too.  The ending isn’t just artfully unclear; it’s contradictory.  It tries to tell me that the “accident season” isn’t real at all and it’s all in the characters’ heads—but it also wants  me to believe there were supernatural forces at work.  So…some of the accidents were caused by “magic” but not all of them?  I frankly have no idea, but my reaction here is not thoughtful acknowledgment that we cannot have all the answers in the world; it’s frustration because the ending doesn’t make sense.

Total Recall (1990), in contrast, does the ambiguous ending well.  There are two possible interpretations of the move: Quaid is still in the dream-sequence, or he actually woke up at some point during the sequence and the story all really happened.  (Inception could be another example, though I think that movie gives broader hints at the end about which interpretation is correct.)  The key is here that both interpretations are logical—either of these things could reasonably have occurred, given the world-building, and there is enough evidence in the movie for a viewer to argue a case for either interpretation.  Both endings are equally believable.

I enjoy ambiguity, but it’s difficult to do well.  It takes cleverness and a solid set-up.  If one of the two presented options clearly isn’t right based on information or plot occurrences previously given in the story, the ending will fall flat.  If the story just cuts off, it’s not tantalizing or mysterious; it just looks as if the author didn’t have a possible explanation for the strangeness of the story in mind, which makes the whole thing less believable.  Creating ambiguity, it turns out, requires creating a lot of consistency in other areas of the story.  The goal isn’t to have no explanation, but rather to imply there is one, there could be one that works with the rules of the world, even if the readers don’t quite know what it is.



Secrets from Your Writing Instructor: How to Interpret Feedback

1. We’re supposed to limit the number of marginal comments we write on your draft.

For an essay of roughly 1000 words, research recommends that writing instructors add 10 marginal comments at most–both positive and negative. This means that you can’t assume you don’t need to revise something simply because your instructor didn’t comment on it. We’re supposed to pick roughly three areas you can improve on your essay so we don’t overwhelm you. So we comment on the three things that are most important and wait to comment on other areas in subsequent drafts (read: after you’ve revised the first three things).

2. There should be a hierarchical order to the long end comment we leave.

Writing instructors are encouraged to use the “criticism sandwich.” We open by commenting on something you did well and end with a second positive observation. It’s important to highlight what’s being done well in the paper so you’ll keep doing it and not delete it during revisions. This tactic also reminds everyone (both instructor and student) that teachers are there to help and encourage you, not just point out everything you did “wrong.”

After the positive opening, the comment should be listed in order of importance. Comments on argument and global structure should go first because it’s imperative these areas be revised first. Comments on style and grammar go last because it’s less pressing for you to address them.

3. At the college level, we’re not really going to comment on grammar.

Even though a lot of students express dissatisfaction with their knowledge of grammar, we have to move on and help you with higher-level writing skills: how to form a logical argument, how to incorporate research and evidence, how to structure your paper. We hope you learned enough about grammar in middle and high school that, if you’re motivated, you can continue working on learning grammar on your own.

We also worry that if we comment on grammar, it will shift your focus away from what’s important in the revision process. There’s no reason for me to tell you to fix a problem with subject-verb agreement in a sentence in your draft if you’re just going to rewrite that sentence anyway. If I do fix the grammar, you might be discouraged from changing the sentence.

Recently a student came to my office and we spent over an hour going over the grammar and word choices in every sentence of her draft. She said she learned a lot and now recognized some of her own patterns of error. The problem? I had told her earlier that she had large-scale structural issues that needed to be addressed first. In some cases, she would have to entirely rewrite a paragraph or two to better convey her point. I now worry she won’t rewrite those paragraphs because the grammar in her current paragraphs has already been “fixed,” and she won’t want to risk introducing more errors into a second draft. If she makes this decision, it will hurt her grade because having a solid argument is weighted more in the rubric than having correct grammar.

4. But we do really want to correct your grammar.

We’re writing instructors. We like the English language. We’re obsessed about the correct use of the comma. On one level, we just really want to fix your grammar because it bugs us.

We also know that improving your grammar is beneficial for you but there may be nowhere for you to go. Your writing instructors aren’t supposed to focus on grammar. The tutors in the writing center aren’t supposed to comment on grammar. The students in your peer review group are often as uncomfortable with grammar as you are. If you aren’t motivated to study grammar more on your own, you may feel stuck. And we know that other teachers might not be as lenient as we are, that your struggles with grammar may be a problem for you in other classes if not in ours. We’re sorry.


Three Things to Find Before You Write Your Memoir



Find Your (Original) Story

If you’re thinking of writing a memoir, you probably already know you have an interesting story to tell. The next step is figuring out what’s different about your story, and how you’re going to pitch that difference to readers. If they’ve already read six chronicles of life-changing backpacking trips across Asia, what’s the hook that’s going to make them want to pick up yours?

Find Your Focus

When writing about your own life, it’s tempting to start at your birth and keep chugging along until the present-day. However, readers will be more interested if you stick to the most fascinating parts of your life. If your memoir is about your experience touring with a band in the 80’s, you’ll want to set the bulk of your book in that decade, since that’s where the action is. A reference to the fact you were given your first guitar at the age of six might be fitting, but you may not need to dedicate an entire chapter to how you learned to play.

Find Your Audience

Memoirs written by celebrities have a built-in audience, but who is going to be yours? Before you write, you need to decide. How much does your audience already know about baking, or the military, or what it’s like to dredge up ancient treasures from the bottom of the Pacific, and how much do you need to tell them about it? What tone are you going to use—confiding, witty, academic? Are readers going to find your stories as funny or wild as you do, or are some of these events of the “you had to be there to understand” type?

*Based on my experience evaluating manuscripts as a literary agency intern


Writing Rambles: How to Write a Compelling Romance

Writing Rambles is a feature at Pages Unbound where we discuss what makes good writing in general, rather than focusing on the writing of a specific book.

Romance sells.  Plenty of authors have written what they deemed great stories, only for someone to suggest that, if they want the book to be better or more marketable or better-selling, they should add a love interest.  However, the trick isn’t as simple as just plopping a handsome bachelor or a charming young girl into the plot and adding some witty banter or moony-eyed looks, depending on the couple’s penchants.  Good romances, one readers can feel invested in, take time to build and require detail.  Below I list some elements I think contribute to a quality swoony romance.

The characters get to know each other.

There are times and places that audiences will accept insta-love: in Shakespeare, in fairy tales, and in Disney movies, for example.  In most cases, however, readers cannot “feel” a romance that grows out of nothing.  For many readers, the build-up and the sexual tension are as important to a fictional romance as the actual relationship.  Good authors (the ones who aren’t trying to take a cheap shortcut to love) know that their characters need to start out as friends, or enemies, or people who know each other in whatever capacity if their relationship is going to have any valid foundation.  And, accordingly, they write scenes where the characters meet, interact, and learn each other’s personalities before they jump straight into kissing.

The characters have flaws.

It’s fun to imagine the perfect lover, so it’s probably pretty tempting to write one.  As long as you’re in the process of inventing people and worlds and crazy situations, you might as well give your protagonist the best, right?  That charming, intelligent young man or woman who couldn’t be more gorgeous?

Unfortunately, perfection is only passingly enchanting.  It’s satisfying for a daydream, but it is not sustainable long-term.  Readers will quickly tired of, or become annoyed with, a character who is so perfect he or she doesn’t seem real.  And when readers start questioning the realism of a love interest, they begin questioning the realism of the romance itself.

But there are reasons they are compatible.

Swoon-worthy romances involve characters who are not simply awesome on their own, but who somehow click and are made better together.  This goes back to point one, where the characters get to know each other, but they really need something in common: a hobby, a worldview, a personality trait.  They should not only talk about these common factors, but work on them together, so readers get to see their passions in action.

The relationship faces challenges.

Relationships need to grow if they are to remain relevant to the parties involved and interesting to readers.  The challenges the characters face can be either personal (relationship drama, one character’s struggles) or external (saving the world, surviving an apocalyptic wasteland), but they should face something together and come out the other side stronger.

There’s that one sweet moment.

Finally, successful romances are at least occasionally, well, romantic.  Neither character has to be a chronic sweet-talker or plan extravagant stunts, but it’s always great to see a love interest go out on a limb, or put their heart on the line.  When things get tough for the characters, they can always think back to that conversation or that moment, remember what someone was willing to do for them, and think, “Yes, I really am loved. “ And isn’t that attractive?


Romances come in all shapes and sizes.  Some love interests are sweet. Some are cocky.  Some relationships are fiery with passion.  Others are quiet and deep.  The one thing that seems to get readers invested in a romance, no matter the type, is being able to know the characters and follow them on their journey.  Readers want to see why characters have fallen in love, so they can root for them to succeed.

What do you like to see in a romance?


Writing Rambles: Description

Writing Rambles is a feature at Pages Unbound where we discuss what makes good writing in general, rather than focusing on the writing of a specific book.  If you like this post, check out our most popular posts: Writing Fantasy Dialogue and Three Things to Find Before You Write Your Memoir.

“Show, don’t tell” is a staple of modern writing advice.  Writers are supposed to describe characters and settings and things and hope that their descriptions are good enough that readers form the desired conclusions.  A home is comfortable because of the crackling fire and warm braided rugs, not because the author informed the reader, “This was the most comfortable home imaginable.”

This approach to writing is, generally speaking, quite admirable.  I hesitate to say this is the “correct” way to write or that readers should never “tell” anything, but a good description is both informative and fun to read.   However, description can be a huge pitfall for writers, as well as a huge bore to readers, if done poorly.  Below are some characteristics of the descriptions I like to read.  Feel free to express your thoughts on the topic in the comments!

Good Description Adds Something to the Story

Description should not be filler, but instead should operate as an important piece of a narrative.  It can help readers build a mental image for something or someone that is somehow important to the plot, such as laying out the terrain that questing characters will have to cross.  It can also help creative a mood for the entire novel, or for a single scene.

At sunset Emily sat in the lookout room. It was flooded with soft splendour. Outside, in sky and trees, were delicate tintings and aerial sounds. Down in the garden Daffy was chasing dead leaves along the red walks. The sight of his sleek, striped sides, the grace of his movements, gave her pleasure–as did the beautiful, even, glossy furrows of the ploughed fields beyond the lane, and the first faint white star in the crystal-green sky. (Emily of New Moon by L. M. Montgomery)

Good Description Describes Something Real

Have you ever read a piece of amateur creative writing, where the descriptions were incredibly over-the-top because the writer was more interested in being “creative” than in actually describing something?  Perhaps falling in love was like “entering a multi-faceted vortex of pulsing and psychedelic feeling.”  Which hardly means anything at all.  Description does not need to be literal, but it should evoke an image or feeling that readers can understand.

She moved like a poem and smiled like a sphinx.  (Daughter of Smoke and Bone by Laini Taylor)

Good Descriptions Are Interesting and Well-Written

A boring description is one that should that should have been cut.  In the first place, it may be boring because it broke Guideline 1: It is not important to the story in any way, so no one cares.  It is possible, however, that it is relevant, but that it is too long, too detailed, and or just phrased plain language.

As mentioned in Guideline 2, a description only really needs to be an image.  Saying a character looks “like an angel” can be effective (assuming readers react as desired and work under the assumption that angels are beautiful) because it allows readers to conjure their own, individual images of perfect beauty.  No one is disappointed here, or mentally arguing that the freckles on a character are not an asset.  Sketching in some details, of course, can help and is perfectly appropriate, but two pages on the girl’s pert nose, with one nostril slightly larger than the other, and her luscious emerald eyes specked with minute flecks of gold is just going to lose people.

The best descriptions are often an idea, rather than a written photograph.

I am old, Gandalf. I don’t look it, but I am beginning to feel it in my heart of hearts. Well-preserved indeed! Why, I feel all thin, sort of stretched, if you know what I mean: like butter that has been scraped over too much bread. That can’t be right. I need a change, or something.  (The Lord of the Rings by J. R. R. Tolkien)