Five Writing Lessons from A Darker Shade of Magic

There’s a lot of debate about whether authors should write book reviews, particularly when we have less-than-glowing things to say. I can see both sides of the argument (check out Cristina R. Guarino’s take on some of the pros and cons, for instance), and to be honest, my jury’s still out on this one.

But! I do want to be able to talk about books I’ve read, so rather than write outright reviews, I thought I would follow the example of other writer-bloggers and instead share some of the writing lessons I learned whilst reading. (Yes, I just said whilst.) Less helpful for readers looking to know whether the book’s worth reading, but more useful for writers trying to improve their craft.

And so…


Five Writing Lessons from V.E. Schwab’s A Darker Shade of Magic

[WARNING: Ahead there be spoilers!]

1. Not all foreign words have to be translated.

ADSOM moves between three parallel versions of London, in each of which a different language is spoken. In Grey London it’s English, in Red London it’s English and Arnesian, and in White London it’s…something that looks Danish. Schwab does a good job translating some things while letting us figure out others, erring on the side of more translations rather than fewer.

In general, I like when an author gives me enough context to guess for myself, perhaps providing a translation later in the book rather than right away. Not all of the commands in ADSOM, for instance, needed to be translated—if Kell says a spell and the pavement breaks into pieces, chances are the reader can make an educated guess. Don’t confuse your readers with made-up words, but don’t underestimate their deductive abilities, either.

2. Settings shouldn’t just look different, they should feel different.

This is one of the things Schwab NAILED. Red, White, and Grey London all have distinct feels—vibrant, tense and terrifying, and dull yet dangerous respectively. Even Black London, which we never actually visit, has a distinct vibe owing to the way the characters talk about it. Sights, smells, and sounds all contribute to how we experience a setting, but so do the feelings of the characters visiting those places and the behavior of the denizens who live there—the Red Londoners are cheerful and energetic, the White Londoners are starved and desperate and cruel.

The great thing about ADSOM is that this not only creates distinct settings, it also makes the world’s magic feel incredibly well-rounded, a character in itself which takes on very different forms and feels in each world depending on how the human characters interact with and use it.

3. Use one character to make us like another.

Let’s just pause and grin over Prince Rhy.


Okay, set. Moving on! How much Rhy did we actually see in this book? Not very much. I think he’s in Kell’s thoughts/flashbacks almost as often as he is in the flesh. In the first paragraphs, Kell’s already thinking about how Rhy’s been a bad (well, fashionable) influence on him and imagining what his brother would say in certain scenarios. The result was that I liked Rhy before we even met him properly, all because of the way Kell thought and felt about him.

If you can get your reader to like and trust your protagonist, you can project that onto other characters who are close to him, creating a reader connection to people we rarely see, or haven’t even met.

4. Connect your character’s internal conflict and external struggle.

This is one that worked less well for me, though admittedly I was paying extra-close attention because it’s something I’m struggling with in my own WIP.

I never felt like I got a strong handle on what Kell as a character wanted—love, acceptance, and belonging seemed to be his primary concerns, and there’s nothing wrong with that. The larger problem, though, was that Kell’s desire to be loved and belong wasn’t tightly connected, in my mind, to his external problem (destroying the stone). I think it was supposed to be “give up family or let world be destroyed,” but Kell’s already conflicted feelings about his family—is he a son or just a possession?—lessened the punch considerably. There was less for him to give up because he wasn’t even sure he had their love to begin with.

In the end, make your character’s inner want and exterior goal as opposed as possible. The further you can take them from their comfort zone and the higher you can raise their personal stakes, the better.

5. Be clear about your characters’ motivations.

Now, I don’t mean “beat your reader over the head with reasons for absolutely everything your character does.” What I mean is…well, Holland.

I started out feeling creeped-out by Holland, moved on to feeling really sorry for him after hearing his backstory, and then didn’t know whether I was supposed to keep feeling sorry that he was being forced to be a jerk, or start hating him for being a jerk in his own right. Was Holland actually evil, or was Athos making him do evil things?


Giving your villain a human side, a point of sympathy, is absolutely a YES—unfortunately, I felt like Holland’s humanizing point, being sealed to Athos and forced to obey, was suddenly much less meaningful when he didn’t seem bothered by what he was being made to do. Only at the end was there any hint that he regretted his actions, and by that point it was a bit too late. Perhaps I’ll get more in the next book (because, let’s face it, there’s no way he’s dead).


Have you read ADSOM? What did you think? What did you learn from reading it? Share your thoughts in the comments (but no AGOS spoilers, please!).


Just a reminder…

Hello readers!

Today I am excited to announce my first blog series, to be called…


…the Monday Reminder. (Oooooooh, aaaaah!)

For this series, I’ll be asking you to send me your to-do lists, then posting them here on Mondays so you’ll be reminded of all the things you have to do whenever you visit the blog.


…ooooor maybe not.


What I’m actually going to be writing about starts with the story of my very limited experience with writers’ conferences.

Now, when I say “very limited”, I mean I’ve been to two: the Gen Con Writer’s Symposium and… the Gen Con Writer’s Symposium a second time. 😛 I’m still in that early stage where the head-voices say I’m not good enough to go to writers’ conferences, despite the fact that half the point of such conferences is to help writers get better!

The GCWS featured panels full of advice, wisdom, and stories from the author life, as well as opportunities to have your work critiqued and to talk to the authors. Last year I spazzed out over met Michael J. Sullivan and Scott Lynch, both of whose books I happened to be reading at the time.


One thing I noticed while sitting in panels was that a lot of the advice consisted of things I’d heard before. Things I’d read, or learned in college writing courses, or just picked up. Even a few things I was already putting into practice in my own writing.

But I didn’t feel cheated, or like I’d wasted my time. On the contrary, I was bolstered. Just because an author’s published and sitting on a panel doesn’t mean s/he’s automatically right, but at the same time, there’s something immensely encouraging about hearing that someone successful has gone through the same struggles, used the same methods, and followed the same writing tips that you have. It makes it real, hearing an actual person tell you, “This works.”

I left those panels feeling that, as much as we all bend and break the rules/guidelines of writing, there really are solid foundations upon which we can build our stories, foundations which don’t limit creativity but lead to spectacular results. I was convinced that I, too, could achieve the same success if I stuck with it. I was even a little bit surer that I was on the right track—or at least in the right arena.

What I learned in those panels was that we don’t always need new wisdom. Some days we need fresh perspectives on old, “tired” advice. “No-brainers” rephrased in ways that make us want to think about them again. And sometimes we simply need to hear someone else say something we already believe, just so we don’t feel alone.


The point of this series, then, is going to be to put some of those reminders out there, in case you need to hear them. I’m not going to try for anything brilliant and inspired, nor particularly long. In fact, many of the Monday Reminders will probably be tweet-length in essence, with a bit of elaboration or an example from my own experience. While some will be specific to writers, I hope that many will be relevant to all creatives, focused less on the craft of writing than the creative life overall.

I’m not a super-successful published author sitting on a panel at a conference, but it’s my hope that these posts will leave you feeling encouraged, knowing there’s at least one other person out there who knows what it’s like and is cheering you on.


(Note that there won’t be a Monday Reminder every week, but when they appear, it will always be on Mondays. Because who doesn’t need an extra boost on Monday?)