Book Review – Zenith by Sasha Alsberg and Lindsay Cummings

Rating: 3.5/5 Stars

This will be a spoiler-free review. For my spoiler-y thoughts, check out my Book Breakdown on my YouTube channel, which was posted on 4/18/2018 (My Channel).

I went into this book having read and watched a plethora of negative and/or rant reviews about it. I knew the general plot of the book, I knew about the trigger warning for rape, and I knew about the Spiced Rigna and how “hope is a raging asshole.” So when I cracked the spine of the library book I’d borrowed (because obviously I wasn’t going to spend money on a book people were shitting on right and left) I thought I was in for a dumpster fire. I thought I would be trudging through the book from beginning to end, rolling my eyes at the awful writing and wishing I hadn’t decided to review it for my Book Breakdown. Then, the unthinkable happened.

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Book Review – Burro Hills by Julia Lynn Rubin

Rating: 3.5/5 Stars

I was given an eARC of this novel via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review. This review will be spoiler-free.

I’d like to get this out in the open right away: I was disappointed with this book. Now, this may have been partially my fault. I think I went into it with high expectations, hoping it would be similar to one of my favorite novels, Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe by Benjamin Alire Sáenz. Not that I wanted it to be the same plotline. Rather, I was just hoping it would hit me as hard as that novel had. I wanted this book to make me feel something, and it just didn’t deliver.

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Book Review – One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest by Ken Kesey

Rating: 4/5 Stars

This will be a spoiler-free review.

I’m not going to lie. When I was assigned this book to read for my fiction workshop, I anticipated that I would hate it. Not because I don’t like classic literature–in fact, I love the classics–but because it was assigned to me. In my experience, if a piece of classic literature is assigned to read, it isn’t the good stuff. I’ve never been assigned to read Little Women or Pride and Prejudice, and although I read Wuthering Heights for a class, it was a classic that I was allowed to pick for myself. So, going into this novel, I was filled with dread. I thought I was in for a rough 325 pages. Thankfully, that wasn’t the case, and I actually ended up really enjoying myself.

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Let’s Talk About Writing – Taking a Big Ol’ Info Dump

Info dumps. They plague the writing community, and nobody is immune. Amateurs and professionals alike can find themselves with a bit too much information to give, and when that happens the test of a talented writer is whether or not they can get that info across without leaving it in a messy pile at the reader’s feet. And that’s why I’m here! To teach you the best practices for avoiding the info dump, or for polishing up your info dump when you find there’s no way to avoid it altogether.

But before we get into today’s topic, here’s an obligatory reminder that I’m always looking for topic recommendations for these posts, which can be sent to me via Twitter and Tumblr Ask, or in the comments section of the corresponding YouTube video to this post, which can be found here.

In my earliest writing years, info dumps were my bread and butter. Why aim for subtlety when you can just get the world building and characterization out of the way right at the beginning and spend the rest of the novel writing the fun stuff? And I know of a lot of writers, be they aspiring or published, who think the same way. They stuff all of this really important information in the front of their novel, many times as a prologue, and never look back. They may even think that their world building and characterization is so unique and interesting that a reader will want to kick off their reading experience by learning all there is to know about this world the author has built or the characters they’ve created. The thing is, this isn’t usually the case. Kick off a novel with an info dump, and the reader will either completely skip it altogether (therefore missing out on some pretty important information that they’ll need to know if they hope to understand what the heck is going on in the novel) or they’ll just decide to read a different book.

The way I realized this lesson was after starting about seven or eight different novels and never making it past the info dump. It suddenly dawned on me that if I was getting bored writing these info dumps, the reader would inevitably get bored of reading them. After that, I found ways to incorporate the information I was dumping in the beginning of my novel into the actual meat of the story, and that made all the difference. So, my first tip to avoid writing info dumps is to refrain from telling the reader everything they may need to know in one large clump at the beginning. Evenly distribute the info throughout the novel, introducing it only when it becomes pertinent to the story.

This isn’t the only type of info dump out there, though. By this, I mean they don’t always come at the beginning. And in these cases, sometimes they’re avoidable, and other times they aren’t. This can be frustrating, because either way, correcting it is never as simple as if the info dump occurred at the beginning of the novel. In these cases, you really have to assess if the information needs to be in the place you’ve put it or not. Like I said, information should only be introduced when it’s actually pertinent to the story. So if your character is learning about a fantasy world you’ve created but they don’t need to understand the magic system just yet, don’t teach them about it until they absolutely have to have that information. Or, if your character is one who already knows everything about the world, avoid having them explain it all to the reader at once. Again, have them only explain something once it becomes pertinent. The reader will survive if they don’t know everything about the world or characters right away, and will probably really enjoy learning more about these things little by little instead of having them shoved in their face.

But what do you do when you have a lot of info to give, and there’s no way you can put it off any longer? This was something I ran into a couple of times in my novel The Forbidden Prophecy. I did my best to sprinkle the world building throughout the book, but sometimes there were moments where I just had to spit out a bunch of it all at once. Dread filled me when I realized there was no way around it, and I thought that my novel was doomed to be boring and hated by all who read it. Then, I stood up straight, rolled my shoulders back, and decided that, no, I was going to make these info dumps interesting, damnit! So that was what I did, and though they by far weren’t the most exciting moments in the story, my beta readers assured me that they worked and didn’t slow the story down too much. And, really, that’s all you can hope for in those instances.

So how did I do it? Well, I used a couple of tactics: Dialogue and Textbooks. I’ll preface this by saying that these methods work best with information that the main character doesn’t know. If your main character does have inside knowledge that the reader doesn’t, then you probably won’t want to use these methods, because they can sound cheesy. “As you know” dialogue is one of the biggest no-nos when it comes to info dumping. It makes the reader wonder why these characters are even discussing this information if all of them already know what’s going on. The only instance this would really work is if another character doesn’t have this inside knowledge, and you have your main character explain it all to them (and, in turn, the audience). But, if this isn’t an option, then you’d be better off having your main character and/or narrator explain the information to your reader directly through inner monologue. If you decide to do this, though, try to give your main character and/or narrator a unique and interesting voice that could make reading all of this information fun for the reader.

If your main character doesn’t know any of the information, through, then dialogue and textbooks (or newspaper articles, news shows, etc.) might be right for you. If you decide to use dialogue, don’t just make one character yammer on and on endlessly at your main character. Have the two–or more–characters interact with each other. Have your main character ask questions. Have some back and forth, some teasing or misunderstanding. Add some humor. Do something, anything, to make the information just a little bit easier for your reader to swallow. If they see giant blocks of text with no end in sight, they’ll dread what’s coming next instead of eagerly pushing on to learn more. This goes for textbooks and the other forms of info dumping I mentioned, too. I mean, readers will put up with a lot from authors, but at some point they’re bound to break, and horribly boring info dumps could easily be the straw that breaks the camel’s back.

Also, combining the textbook and dialogue methods was the best thing I could have done for my novel. I would get a lot of information down in a couple of short paragraphs in textbook form, and then I would have my main character, Cas, ask his friends or teacher about what he’d read, gathering more information and getting their differently-biased views on the topic. This way, the readers got the information they needed, and an element of intrigue was added by giving my characters opinions on the different topics. If there were moments where I could only use dialogue, I also made sure to give the characters obvious opinions on whatever they were teaching Cas about, and sometimes I even made it where the characters didn’t know they were teaching Cas. Again, it’s all about adding those extra elements in order to give your reader a reason to care about what they’re learning, other than the fact that it’s important world building or characterization.

Info dumps are, frankly, a pain in the ass. They can give you  major anxiety when you have to get rid of them or, even worse, can’t get rid of them. But don’t fret. As long as you take the time to clean them up, they won’t ruin your novel. In fact, your readers may not even recognize them as info dumps, if you’re skilled enough at hiding them. So keep your chin up, and best of luck!

When Great Ideas Collide

This is a phenomenon that has only happened twice in my life now, but MAN do I love it when it does. Basically, what happens is that I’ve been kicking a few ideas around for a while, with one that’s really been drawing my attention more than the others. Still, whenever I try to write it, I can’t seem to get words down, or at least not many. I tend to not even make it past the first page. Then, one day, I suddenly realize that combining a few of these less-developed ideas with my big idea is exactly what I need to make this story work. And then BLAMO! I’ve finally got something I can work with!

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Book Review – The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas

Rating: 5/5 Stars

This will be a spoiler-free review. For my spoiler-y thoughts, check out my Book Breakdown on my YouTube channel, which will be posted on 3/21/2018 (My Channel).

Very rarely can I say that a book affected me like this one did. By the end of chapter two I was sobbing, and at that point I knew I was in for a very powerful reading experience. I wasn’t disappointed. In fact, I feel like I’ve come out of this experience changed in some way. This book really forced me to confront prejudices that I hadn’t even realized I’d had, and during the incredibly moving finale of this novel I made a promise to myself that I would no longer stand by and watch as atrocities like these happened to the people around me. My voice is my weapon, and I need to start using it.

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Let’s Talk About Writing – How Much Power Is Too Much Power?

Let me set the scene. The main character steps up to his final showdown with the Big Bad. It’s the moment we’ve all been waiting for. And as the battle starts, the Big Bad immediately gets a leg up on the main character, knocking the weapon from their hand… Except, wait, why is that a problem? The main character has telekinetic powers and can just summon their weapon back into their hand. In fact, why do they need the weapon at all? Can’t they just toss the Big Bad around with their powers? It isn’t like the Big Bad has any powers of their own, or at least not any more than the main character. Really, where’s the tension? This final battle kind of blows. Let’s go get Starbucks instead of watching this shit show…

Overpowered characters. They can suck any and all tension straight out of your book, like a biblio-vampire. I’m sure you can see, then, why you don’t want your own main character to be overpowered. So, today we’ll be discussing how to avoid writing an overpowered main character. But first, I want to remind all of you that I’m always looking for topic recommendations for these posts, which can be sent to me via Twitter and Tumblr Ask, or in the comments section of the corresponding YouTube video to this post, which can be found here.

For today’s post, I’m going to give you some ways to avoid writing an overpowered main character. You could use one of these suggestions, or combine a few, or even use all of them. Whatever you need in order to make your story work the way you need it to work.

So the first way to avoid writing an overpowered main character is to give their powers some limitations. You can’t just say, “They can do everything and they can do it perfectly with no issues and wow aren’t they the coolest?!” First of all, that’s stupid, and will leave your readers rolling their eyes. Main characters like this are the biggest giveaway that an author is an overenthusiastic amateur who wants their character to be the next Iron Man, Doctor Strange, and Deadpool all rolled into one. Second of all, this leaves zero room for tension. If your main character can do everything and they can do it perfectly then why should I be worried whenever they come up against any obstacle? Obviously they’ll get through it no problem, because there’s nothing they can’t do. There’s a reason Iron Man, Doctor Strange, and Deadpool can all do different things instead of being able to do everything. They wouldn’t be nearly as fun to root for if there wasn’t some chance that they might not win. I mean, hell, even Superman has limitations to his powers: He’s weakened and can even be killed by Kryptonite.

A good bookish example of a character who could have easily been overpowered but was given some limitations to their powers is Harry Potter. (The most minimal of spoiler warnings. If you do not want spoilers for this series, jump to the next paragraph.) I mean, magic can basically do anything in J.K. Rowling’s magical world, right? But in Harry’s case, he didn’t know anything about magic when his adventure started. Over the years he learned how to use his magic, but even by the time he had his final showdown with Voldemort he didn’t know everything. This absolutely added to the tension of every single book in that series, because it left the reader wondering, “How could a magical student stand a chance against one of the darkest, most talented wizards of all time?” Sure, in the end there were always a lot of lucky breaks and coincidences involved in his victories, but as far as his powers went, Harry never felt overpowered.

So find where weaknesses might lie for your own main character. It could be in ignorance of how to use their powers, or in an object that might have the ability to weaken their powers, or maybe their powers drain their energy every time they use them. Use your imagination. Get creative. And make sure it makes sense in the context of your story. You don’t want to give your main character a weakness that could interfere with the plot in a negative way, like making them unable to cross bodies of water but then needing them to somehow get to Ireland from America.

The second way to avoid writing an overpowered main character is to give them incentive to not use their powers. This will prevent ex-machina moments, where the main character uses their powers to solve all of their problems. I mean, it just isn’t interesting if every roadblock you throw up for your character can be solved in a matter of seconds. So, for example, say your main character’s powers drain their energy every time they use them. In that case, they may want to save their energy for when they’ll really need their powers. Another example is if their powers could somehow give away their position. Maybe there’s a spell or some kind of technology that can pinpoint where these powers are being used. That would definitely give your main character good reason to go about solving their problems the old fashioned way.

Let’s look at Kell and Lila from A Darker Shade of Magic by V.E. Schwab. (Very slight spoiler warnings. If you don’t want to be spoiled, skip to the next paragraph.) Not only does Kell have a lot of magical powers (he’s able to control all of the elements, plus he can also control blood magic, which is super powerful), but he and Lila also get their hands on a magical stone that can literally create or do anything. I mean, hellooooo convenient plot device, right? And it would have been so easy for Schwab to use that stone to solve every single one of the problems Kell and Lila ran into during their adventure. Instead, though, she gave them a reason to avoid using it at all costs: The stone’s dark magic was dangerous and negatively affecting them each time they used it. By adding this element to the stone, it meant the two characters were able to use the it whenever there was no other option, but that in all other instances they would find other ways to solve their problems. Plus, the danger element of using the stone created amazing tension throughout the novel. Pardon my pun, but it really was two birds, one stone. *ba dum, tiss*

The third way to avoid writing an overpowered main character is to prevent them from using their powers in some way. Maybe the Big Bad is immune to their powers. Maybe their powers have been taken from them somehow. The key is to force your character to figure out new, innovative ways to get out of whatever kind of trouble they may be in. This is similar to the previous two options I’ve presented, but more extreme. In this case, you have to think, “If my character doesn’t even have the option to use their powers, how would they react? What would their next course of action be?”

A good example of a character going through something similar is (and I’m about to get nerdy here, so bear with me) Hercules. Yes, from the Disney movie. I know this isn’t a bookish example, but a story is a story is a story. And this element really worked with this story, and might work with yours as well. Think about it: When Hercules relinquished his powers to protect Meg, did he give up and go, “Oh well, guess the Titans are just gonna kill everybody”? No! He went out and fought them, and then for good measure he went scuba diving to save Meg’s soul even though he knew he would probably die. It wasn’t his powers that made him a hero, but his actions once he didn’t have his powers. This could work for your character, too. The true test of a main character’s bravery isn’t how many special attacks they can throw at the Big Bad. It’s what their actions are once they’re forced to act without their powers to aid them.

The final way to avoid writing an overpowered main character is to make sure your Big Bad is bigger and badder than the main character. And this doesn’t mean they have to be physically bigger and badder. Maybe they’re a hundred times smarter than your main character. Or they’ve got deadlier powers. Or maybe they’ve got a full-blown army backing them up. The point is, your Big Bad needs to pose a threat to the main character in some significant way. This will create a the necessary sense of tension for the reader when the main character finally faces up for the final battle. Sure, maybe the character has telekinetic powers, but the Big Bad has them too, and is even more skilled with them. Your main character can walk through walls and disappear, but the Big Bad can literally pick the main character up and toss them around like a rag doll.

You guessed it, I’m throwing in one final example. Not that I really need to. I mean, any novel worth its stuff knows that the Big Bad needs to be, well, Big and Bad. So you could pick up any piece of genre fiction and find a decent example. But for the sake of this blog post, let’s just go back to a tried and true example: Harry Potter. (Decently big spoiler warning here. If you don’t want spoilers, skip to the next paragraph.) Why is Voldemort such an intimidating villain? Is it his red eyes or lack of a nose? Or is it because he’s an incredibly powerful wizard who has practically made himself immortal by splitting his soul seven times in order to create seven horcruxes? I’m going to have to go with option B. Every time Harry faces up with good ‘ol He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named, he’s infinitely outskilled and wouldn’t have a chance in hell of defeating him, anyway, since he has his horcruxes to keep him alive.

Something else to consider is that any dark wizard will always have a leg up on the good guys because they’re willing and able to use unforgivable curses, like the killing curse. So while the good guys are running around shouting “Expelliarmus!”, the bad guys are shooting magical bullets at them. It’s not a fair fight, which absolutely makes the bad guys feel like an even bigger threat, and that’s something you should consider when writing your own book. Is there something the Big Bad is willing to do that your main character isn’t? That can create a very interesting dynamic, morally or otherwise.

And that’s all of the wisdom I have to share with you today. Hopefully it was helpful! In the comments, let me know about any characters that you thought the author skillfully prevented from being overpowered. Or, even better, tell me about any frustratingly overpowered characters you’ve found in books. Let’s face it, there’s plenty out there.

Book Review – The Elysian Prophecy by Vivien Reis

Rating: 3/5 Stars

I was given an eARC of this novel by the author in exchange for an honest review. This review will be spoiler-free. (Disclaimer: I meant to finish and review this novel before its release date, but since it was only sent to me a little over a week before publication and I had other obligations, I wasn’t able to. Sorry!!!)

The best way I can describe this book is to say it was enjoyable. Not great, but not bad either. A true three out of five stars. I was actually considering giving it 3.5 stars, but enough issues piled up by the end that I couldn’t justify the half star.

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Book Review – The Savior’s Champion by Jenna Moreci

Rating: 5/5 Stars

I was given an eARC of this novel by the author in exchange for an honest review. This review will be spoiler-free.

For full disclosure, I want to put it out there that I am on Jenna Moreci’s street team for this novel. However, I can assure you that this did not cloud my judgement at all. I was prepared to give this novel a bad review if it deserved it, though, luckily for me (and for all of you), Moreci wrote an amazing book.

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So, Your Local Aspiring Author™ Is Querying Their Novel… What Does That Mean Exactly?

So your local Aspiring Author ™ is ranting and raving all over their social medias about how they are “officially querying their manuscript.” Which is all well and good, except… What does that even mean? After all, you work a regular nine-to-five job like a normal person, and all of this writing hoopla that they’re always tossing about never actually makes sense to you. So, okay, they’re querying their novel. Does that mean it’s about to be published and you can finally get some peace and quiet on your Facebook news feed? Well, my good non-writerly friend, let me explain to you a thing.

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