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Learning From Other People’s Writing

by Doug Lewars (originally posted on

It’s possible to learn quite a bit from other people’s writing.  I’m sure everyone knows that but sometimes what you learn might be a bit surprising. For example, consider author Janet Evanovich. She consistently tops the New York Time’s bestseller list but in terms of pure literary merit her books might raise some eyebrows.

She makes use of stereotypes, something that most authors shy away from. In addition, she doesn’t develop her characters much if at all. She writes in series format and her most prolific work is in the Stephanie Plum novels but those characters haven’t changed or developed a great deal throughout the twenty-five or so books that comprise the series.

Her plots vary from book to book; nevertheless, her plot structure is pretty consistent. She stays away from common social issues that many like to dwell on and I doubt she’ll ever win a Man Booker award or a Giller prize so how does she do it?

To start with she makes her books fun. This may seem trite or trivial to some; however, if she understands one thing it’s her readers. They’re not looking for deep insights. They don’t need the protagonist to tackle massive social change. What they want is a good exciting story with lots of humour and she delivers that consistently.

Consider some of the stereotypes she uses. One of her characters is Grandma Mazur. She’s elderly, feisty, unconcerned about social norms, a gossip, and likes to consider herself sexy. This may not be a true stereotype insofar as few individuals associate age with these characteristics; however, it is how many would like to perceive the elderly.  Remember the character Sophia Petrillo from The Golden Girls, or, if you’re old enough, Granny from The Beverly Hillbillies. They were also irascible and elderly. Most found them charming.

Another example is Stephanie Plum’s – the protagonist’s – mother. She’s domestic, highly concerned with social appearances, and strongly nurturing.  She worries constantly about all the members of her family and her chief ambition it seems is to see they’re all well fed. This is not the sort of individual you might come across in most homes, but by playing her off against the other characters the author derives considerable humour.

Stephanie herself is the wish-fulfillment of some readers. She has an exciting job that is dangerous but not too dangerous. She has three very well-muscled and attractive men in her life and she has a comic-relief sidekick who never provides any serious competition.

While the plots vary the plot structure remains consistent. Stephanie works as a bail bondsman – a bounty hunter. She tracks down any number of idiosyncratic ner-do-wells but through her ineptness, they frequently escape. She and her companion frequent plenty of fast food establishments and she finds herself in a romantic situation with at least one of her male admirers – something she thoroughly enjoys. Among all these minor bad guys is a serious villain who eventually threatens her life, and not surprisingly, she is rescued at the last minute by one of her handsome men.

The above may seem trivial but it works and works well. They key is understanding there is a large audience who wants the books they read to be fun. It might be possible to slip in a bit of edginess. Character development can be made to work. But first and foremost what Ms. Evanovich does is tell an entertaining story.

The second thing she does is establish a rhythm to her words that isn’t obvious but is there nonetheless. It seems like a softer version of detective stories that were common back in the late 1940s or early to mid-1950s. Detectives such as Phillip Marlowe and Sam Spade are examples. Sentences are short but not as short as they would be in an action scene. Perhaps ‘terse’ is a better word to use.

Consider the following examples: “Simon looked like death warmed over.”, “If Simon doesn’t show up on time, I’m sent out to fetch him.”, “It’s not widely publicized that they exit.

These are short, brusque, declarative statements. They also can be read as two beats. “Simon looked” – one beat, “like death warmed over” – second beat. “If Simon doesn’t show up on time” – one beat, “I’m sent out to fetch him” – second beat. “It’s not widely publicized” – one beat, “that they exist” – second beat. The last one would work better without the word ‘that’.

This sentence structure is widely used throughout her books. It’s a little softer than the earlier hard-core detective novels but it still maintains a pacing that moves the reader through the story quite quickly. Naturally there are plenty of sentences that don’t use this rhythm. There have to be to prevent monotony but there are enough to be noticeable and to maintain the pace.

To summarize, use stereotypes with caution. They risk becoming boring but they can be useful to provide levity. Pay attention to your plot structure.  Convoluted isn’t always better. Note how your words flow. It’s true you’re not writing poetry but your sentence structure can go a long way towards creating mood and pacing. Sometimes stop and think of your reader. You don’t, and won’t, appeal to everyone and it’s important, I think, to write a book you can relate to yourself; however, you can likely do that and provide something enjoyable at the same time. Many people read for enjoyment and they shouldn’t be disappointed.

Guest post contributed by Doug Lewars. Doug is not necessarily over the hill but he’s certainly approaching the summit. He enjoys writing, reading, fishing and sweets of all sorts. He has published ten books on

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