Wednesday, June 11, 2014

What keeps you reading a book?

Please welcome my Wednesday guest, Sheila Lowe. Like Claudia Rose in the award-winning Forensic Handwriting Mysteries series, Sheila Lowe is a real-life forensic handwriting expert who testifies in handwriting-related cases. She also authored the internationally acclaimed The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Handwriting Analysis and Handwriting of the Famous & Infamous, as well as the Handwriting Analyzer software. Finder her at and email her at


I recently finished reading a book by “Big Name Writer.” I’m a relatively fast reader, but this one took weeks to get through. It wasn’t badly written. The plot was interesting. One issue was the annoying POV changes mid-scene that the rest of us are told are verboten. Another was the way the female protagonist was treated by her former lover, which really ticked me off. But still, the plotting was fine, everything was “fine,” and the book was easy to put down.

On the other hand, as usual, I devoured John Sandford’s latest Lucas Davenport story in a couple of days. And yesterday I picked up a book by Hank Phillipi Ryan and found myself spending a lot of time on the porch, wanting to keep reading.

So, I’ve been puzzling over what “it” was that didn’t keep me interested in that BNW book beyond the ten or fifteen minutes a day it took to eat lunch or dinner. What is that certain something between a “good enough” book and a “can’t put it down book?” I suppose it’s different for everyone, but I do believe that the relationship the reader develops with the characters is a major factor.

I kept wanting to yell at the protag in the BNW book and tell her not to be so stupid and allow her ex, who was now her boss, to treat her so cavalierly. Bottom line, I didn’t respect her. And that brings back the comments of my own first editor, who told me that, frankly, my character, forensic handwriting examiner Claudia Rose, was not likeable because she was too weak. She was constantly feeling guilty, which I never realized until it was pointed out (nasty shock!).

That editor said, (paraphrasing) “Your readers want a character who is basically strong. She can grow through her arc, but they want someone they can look up to and believe in.” Once I followed that advice and bucked Claudia up, Poison Pen finally sold. That was after seven years of sending it out. Well, cutting out the adverbs helped, too, but it was amazing and empowering to see how small changes could make a big difference in the way people saw Claudia.

I’ve kept that in mind as I wrote the next four books. With Inkslingers Ball, released on June 10th, I did something new. For the first time, much of the book is written from the POV of Claudia’s love interest, Detective Joel Jovanic. Readers seem to like their relationship, so it will be interesting to see how they feel about getting to know Joel up close and personal. Will they keep reading past their lunchtime sandwich? All remains to be seen.


judyalter said...

Sheila, thanks for being here today. Your comment about weak heroines hits home because reading cozies often makes me so frustrated that I too want to yell at female protagonists who keep shooting themselves in the foot, particularly in matters of the heart. Yet I've been guilty of it myself. Thanks for the insight.

Terry Shames said...

I write a male protagonist, an ex chief of police, and I always pass the ms by one of my male writing buddies because he catches me if my guy wimps out. Being a woman, I think it's harder to make a protagonist--man or woman--forge ahead. Sometimes I think writers make the mistake of sending a woman protagonist into unsafe situations so as to make her look "tough." Instead, doing makes her look stupid. Being tough AND smart is the trick.

Sheila Lowe said...

Judy, the BNW book I was referring to was a police procedural, definitely not a cozy, and the protagonist had a responsible job as a detective.

Terry, I, too, had several men in law enforcement vet my ms to make sure I'd got the male detective right. It's an ongoing challenge!

Jackie Houchin said...

I actually enjoy the multi-points of view in Inkslingers Ball. As I said in my review, reading Detective Jovanic's POV makes the book almost a police procedural (minus all the boring stuff). In this book, I also can't imagine not hearing from Annabelle herself. She's so important to the plot. (Sheila is very good at "getting" the teenage personae too.) And Claudia's POV makes the perfect trio. I love hearing about how handwriting analysis works in general, and in this case, to help solve murders. Do it again, Sheila!

Mar Preston said...

Observations that make me think, Sheila.

June Shaw said...

So good to have this reminder, Sheila. Thanks!

Ellis Vidler said...

Good advice, Sheila. I'll have to take another look at my WIP heroine. She's running from danger, which I see as smart, but I'll have to make sure she doesn't appear weak in doing so.

Anonymous said...

In short, what I think makes a good book is conflict. Not necessarily fighting but conslict between characters and internal conflict and how the characters will resolve those conflicts is what keep the readers turning the pages.

For example, in my best selling novel, The Nano Experiment, the book opens with the protagonist being responisble for her sisters' deaths. That is the torment throughout the book and if she will every be able to come to terms with that.

As to a strong character, I have to agree. Here is a blurb on one of the 67 reviews comments on The Nano Experiment:
“A Strong Female Protagonist”

As far as characters being likeable, I had one reviewer of my novel, Silk Legacy, say they didn't like the protagonist but understood his motives.

Richard Brawer

Leslie Budewitz said...

I had a similar experience with my unpubbed mss. and the first draft of Death al Dente. I suspect that some of the choices we make thinking we're making our protags sympathetic and likable are the ones that actually make them look wishy-washy. Even simple verb choices make a difference.

Sheila Lowe said...

Great comments, everyone. I'm glad to have struck a chord. And yes, Leslie, every single word choice is important.
The adverb thing makes (I almost said "really makes") a huge difference. I discovered that using a lot of modifiers is a sign of lazy writing. Finding the right word makes the writing stronger.

Ferne said...

I totally agree about a strong female heroine; I stopped reading a popular author because her central figure was too winey and needy; I don't want women to think that this is the norm; she is supposed to be a heroine and I did not see her portrayed as one.