A Story Begins with a Hero: Save the Cat! Creates a Character

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“So, no, I’m not here to change your process. I’m here to enhance your process.”

That’s a quote from the introduction to Save the Cat! Writes A Novel. The book’s author, Jessica Brody, goes on to state that her book isn’t so much a collection of guidelines about plotting or pantsing, but rather a consideration of story structure. That’s the great appeal of Save the Cat! Writes A Novel.

Story structure is universal; an author’s process is specific to an author.

But then I got to chapter one, and right away, from the moment Brody suggests using hero instead of, say, main character to label a book’s protagonist, I sensed a hero’s journey redux coming my way. Then again, I should have known after reading the introduction. After all, the hero’s journey is THE structure writers have been crowing about since the second half of the last decade.

I, however, have always felt uneasy about the hero’s journey. It is a veritable glass slipper, and heels have been sliced off to make a foot fit.

So, quiz time. What is the hero’s journey?

[1] A basic pattern that informs all storytelling, one based on a universal psychology

[2] A framework to analyze stories with

[3] Both [1] and [2]

[4] Some nonsense bullshit

Depending on who you are, you’ll answer either [1], [2], [3], or [4]. While it’s too early to tell, Save the Cat! Writes A Novel will probably fall firmly into [3]. Any book espousing guidelines for story structure essentializes storytelling by default, which means Save the Cat! Writes A Novel will most likely present its reader with not only a basic pattern that informs all storytelling but also a framework by which you can analyze your current work in progress. Or any book, for that matter.

Brody writes:

“Because whether you’ve ‘pantsed’ your way through a first draft, and now you have to figure out what to do with it to make it work, or you’re starting out with a shiny new idea and you want to plot in advance, it’s all the same thing in the end. We all have to do some plotting work somewhere, somehow.”

But what if you’re just starting on your novel writing journey? Where does Save the Cat! Writes A Novel suggest you begin?

A Story begins with a hero

That’s right. Instead of beginning with, say, a marketing strategy or a premise, you dive right into character building. According to Brody, crafting an “interesting, memorable, and relatable” hero requires:

A problem: or a flaw that needs fixing

A want: or a goal that the hero is pursuing

A need: or a life lesson to be learned

This is Brody’s three ingredient recipe for what she calls a flawed hero. As you can see, the word “flaw” is doing a lot of work here: a flaw can be a character trait, but it could also just be something like being poor. In Save the Cat! Writes A Novel, the dullest hero would be God as anything short of omnipotence, by Brody’s open definition, is a flawed condition. On the plus side, this means coming up with a “interesting, memorable, and relatable” hero should be easy peasy. Unless your chosen protagonist is God, that is.

Thinking about these three aspects of your character’s life will in turn inform two aspects of your story:

The A Story: which is the external story

The B Story: the internal story that usually end’s in a character’s transformation

Novel writing, then, is the matching of the A story to the B story, by arranging a “marriage” between story and character. While this suggests a kind of equality between the two, for Brody, the B story is by far the more important one: “The true story of a novel lies in the hero’s need, which can also be called the internal goal, the life lesson, or the spiritual lesson.”

Such alchemical transformation is, of course, fundamental to the hero’s quest. The hero experiences the events of his story and returns to his or her status quo irrevocably altered. Brody suggests that fictions have several such “universal” and transformative rasas: (1) forgiveness, (2) love, (3) acceptance, (4) faith, (5) fear, (6) trust, (7) survival, (8) selflessness, (9) responsibility, and (10) redemption. Brody says all books fall into these 10 categories. Of course, if you ask Victoria Lynn Schmidt, she might offer 54 different story themes, not including a blank one.

So, then, what about me and my current works in progress?

Let’s just say, I felt a knee-jerk resistance while reading the first chapter of Save the Cat! Writes A Novel. For starters, the hero’s journey has never excited my imagination. The only book I’ve ever read that replicated the hero’s journey in an almost paint by numbers manner is Neil Gaiman’s Coraline, and while that book is wonderfully imaginative- as is everything Gaiman writes, I didn’t find the story particularly gripping. (Of course, I’m not the right age demographic, but still).

The nice thing, however, is that since I’m using Save the Cat! Writes A Novel in conjunction with the snowflake method, I already had the external parts of the story somewhat figured out. My heroes and heroines had a story goal: a want or a problem. What they lacked was a defined need- a life lesson to be learned. I’ve played around with Brody’s ten options and tried to shoe horn my character into one or another of them. Each time, it feels like an assault.

My characters resist.

I resist.

Let’s just say that this week’s adventures in outlining has ended in failure.

Thank you for reading. This is post three in a series on becoming a plotter. Come back to see if this dyed in the wool x-treme pantser can change their spots. 

So You Wanna Outline Your Next Novel? Where Do You start?

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Where do you begin your novel plotting journey? Let’s see if Fräulein Maria has any advice about learning a new skill.

“Let’s start at the very beginning,” she warbles while sitting on a rock in the middle of nowhere. “A very good place to start.”

Well, you can’t fault advice like that! She goes on to say:

“When you read you begin with A-B-C,
When you sing you begin with do-re-mi”

In short, you start with the basics!

But if that’s the case, where then do you start with the novel?

The answer to that is marketing, of course!

Know your target audience: marketing considerations, part one

In his writing guide, How to Write a Novel Using the Snowflake Method, Randy Ingermanson suggests you begin by imagining your reader.

Is she a woman? Is she a man?

Old? Young?

A teenybopper or a tyke?

Most writers will think, me! That I am my own target audience [see note]. After all, I’m not an anomaly- not much of one anyway- which means other readers just like me exist out there in the world. They will read what I write because in some sense they are me.

That’s sound thinking.

But I’d say this is the wrong way of looking at marketing. Publishing prefers clear-cut borders, and to see these borders structurally, and in the flesh, one can simply go to their local Barnes and Noble and see for themselves. There you will observe books split by age demographics: Adult, Young Adult (YA), Children. And also, by category: fiction and non-fiction being the two largest divisions. According to Ingermanson, old people only read non-fiction.

Of course, we know real readers don’t inhabit any such boundaries. Adult readers happily read YA and sometimes children’s books. Teenagers read books written for adults. And some children read YA or adult fiction. Heck, some kids read non-fiction. I certainly did when I was a wee child.

Anyway, Ingermanson suggests that there are psychological benefits to imagining your ideal reader. Chief among these is that their imaginary existence will provide much-needed motivational fuel as you tread the long path of completing your manuscript. They will also look over your shoulder as you scribble or type, hoping to be satisfied with the content of your output. Which leads us to reader expectations.

Know your genre: marketing considerations, part two

The next thing a writer must consider when using the Snowflake Method is their novel’s genre.

As there is an unfortunate association between genre and the target reader’s gender (and possibly age), oftentimes, your chosen genre will determine who your book’s audience will be. It will also determine what the cover of your book will look like. Will it be a man dashing into the shadows or a bare-chested buck striking a manly pose?

More importantly, when it comes to writing the actual book, genre conventions will have to be met. The choice will set what the basics of your novel’s story will be: how the narrative unfolds. Let’s hope that we writers have a basic knowledge about our most basic readers. As someone who reads widely, I often feel that my knowledge about genre expectations is inadequate.

But what about me?

As I mentioned in my last post, I’m going to try outlining three different novels. The first step of snowflaking is to write a 25-words or less, single sentence that states your book’s genre and its basic premise. Mine were all varieties of horror: a paranormal mystery, a slasher thriller, and a literary horror. The premises all fell within a word count of 22 to 28 words. So, mission accomplished!

Also, as a bonus, I jotted down comp titles, which means I now know just where Barnes and Noble will shelve my books.

So basic marketing done!

Thank you for reading. This is post two in a series on becoming a plotter. Come back to see if this dyed in the wool x-treme pantser can change their spots. 

Note: Ingermanson’s Goldilocks character says that her target audience is everyone. My silly answer to that question would be, anyone who likes a good story. I suppose my response is part and parcel to reading widely, across genres. I approach books with few story content expectations.

Jettisoning Your Writing Process: Can You Start Anew?

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In his book, The Snowflake Method, author/ fiction writing coach, Randy Ingermanson, mentions two different categories of writers: the outliner and the organic writer.

The outliner, well, outlines his book and does so in gory detail, a la Robert Ludlum, whose novel outlines could reach some 150 pages in length. At the opposite end of the spectrum are the ethereal-minded organic writers, who pen words only when inspiration strikes. Their heads float amongst the clouds while they wait for genius to descend upon them.

Not surprisingly, the portraits Ingermanson paints of both types of writer are unflattering. Outlining comes off as stodgy and boring, while organic writing is so inefficient, it often leads to a lack of productivity- stalled manuscripts and anxiety over putting words down on the page.

Of course, few novelists really compose their fictions in either fashion. We’re, most of us, somewhere in the middle of these two extremes.

I, myself, fall closer to the organic writer end of spectrum. My process is purely organic at first, but at some point, when a story emerges, I do some loose planning, like creating a scene list.

And yet, despite this hybrid approach, I’m a very slow writer. Any organic gardener will tell you composting takes time- about 6 to 9 months, and so does writing organically. Creating a book, at least for me, often takes a year. Sometimes a year and a half. And then there are the novels that fizzle out halfway through.

The one lesson I have learned about organic writing is not to start with premises. My successes have only come when I just let ideas flow. Where I started may end up at the beginning of the novel, but it might also be the middle or the end. I call this x-treme pantsing (see here).

Creating a New Process

Recently, however, I’ve been looking for a new writing process; one that moves me closer to the other end of the writing spectrum. As I’ve mentioned in a previous post, that while my current process is fun, it’s inefficient. What I want to create is a process that merges early stage outlining with organic writing.

To do so, I will consult three how-to-write-fiction texts for inspiration: the above mentioned, The Snowflake Method, Jessica Brody’s Save the Cat! Writes a Novel, and Robert J. Ray’s The Weekend Novelist. I chose the latter mostly because I’ve owned it for years.

I will take their collective advice and try weaving them into something that works for me.

Furthermore, I’ve also decided to be more ambitious this year. I’m going to attempt writing multiple novels at once. This will guarantee at least one book will get finished. (Or no books get finished. We’ll see.)

Wish me luck! And if you have any suggestions for other, possibly better, how-to-write-fiction books I can consult, suggest them in the comments below.

Thank you for reading. This is post one in a series on becoming a plotter. Come back to see if this dyed in the wool x-treme pantser can change their spots. 

Coupling Plot Points with the Grand Gesture: A Look at Netflix’s Shadow and Bone

SHADOW AND BONE (L to R) JESSIE MEI LI as ALINA STARKOV and BEN BARNES as THE DARKLING / GENERAL KIRIGAN in SHADOW AND BONE Cr. DAVID APPLEBY/NETFLIX © 2021

This is a would-be writer’s look at Netflix’s Shadow and Bone. Spoilers abound, especially for episode one.

A major hallmark of YA fantasies is that they focus on intercharacter drama.

At least according to March McCarron, author of The Marked series, who claims:

“While a YA novel isn’t going to bog you down with world-building, it will be more inclined to add tension through troubled character relationships. These books are rife with betrayals, love-triangles (and other manner of romantic difficulties), family issues, tested friendships, and power struggles.”

True to form, the central plot of Netflix’s Shadow and Bone is a love triangle between the show’s heroine and villain, Alina Starkov and General Aleksander Kirigan (aka the Darkling), and the heroine’s childhood friend, Malyen (Mal) Oretsev. In the first episode of the series, Alina learns that she is a Grisha, which in this universe is a fancy synonym for a bender- as in Avatar: The Last Airbender; only in the Grishaverse, besides blood bending and fire bending, there’s bodily tissue bending (healing/ cosmetic surgery), dark bending, and light bending. The last two seem to be the most potent. The Darkling is the only dark bender. The light bender, who is referred to as the Sun Summoner, however, is more a creature of prophecy: a savior/ chosen one. It should thus surprise no one that the series’ heroine, Alina, is the Sun Summoner.

In fact, the love triangle is in reality a love quartet as there is a minor character named Zoya Nazyalensky, who has a love/sexual interest in both the Darkling and Mal. So far, this fourth wheel seems pointless, adding nothing to the story except to verify that the two bland male leads are desirable. Interestingly, the actress who plays Zoya is the best looking of the four.

Besides this main plot, the rest of the series is also told in romance.

As backstory, the Darkling turns to darkness when a group of soldiers kills his lover, Luda. The two are being hunted because they are Grisha, who, like witches in Medieval Europe, are looked upon with fear and suspicion because of their power.

There’s also another romantic storyline that involves a Grisha named Nina Zenik and a witch hunter named Matthias Helvar. This subplot fleshes out “the can’t we all live together in harmony” theme, and will please anyone who likes a himbo romantic lead. This subplot hasn’t yet merged with the main story yet.

And finally, there is a simmering, unspoken love between two thieves, Inej Ghafa and Kaz Brekker; the former is a spy/ knife thrower/ informant, while the latter is a criminal mastermind.

Grand Gestures

The grand gesture is a supreme display of love, and at its most powerful, it’s often sacrificial. Though it often figures prominently in romance fiction, it is by no means solely a feature of that genre. For instance, Katniss Everdeen taking her sister’s place in the Hunger Games is a grand gesture.

In Shadow and Bone, what leads to the series’ inciting incident begins with just such an act. There’s a kind of Cathy and Heathcliff relationship between Alina and Mal. They grew up together in an orphanage, a place they didn’t fit in because they were racial outsiders. This led them to cleave to one another. After they grow up, they both end up in the army; he is a soldier, and she is a cartographer. When Mal is assigned to a dangerous mission, Alina decides she will not let him go without her. She burns a set of maps so that her cartography unit will be sent along, thus placing herself in danger. This is the first grand gesture, which will ultimately lead to the revelation that Alina is the Sun Summoner.

The second grand gesture involves Kaz Brekker and Inej Ghafa. Inej is an indentured servant to a woman name Tante Heleen, a brothel owner, but Kaz has been purchasing Inej’s freedom in a piecemeal fashion on a sort of layaway plan. As he needs extra money to set her free fully, he’s always on the lookout for a big job. One soon comes his way. A wealthy merchant named Dressen wants Kaz to kidnap the newly discovered Sun Summoner in exchange for a lot of money. Kaz, however, needs Inej’s help for the mission, but he can’t take her without Heleen’s permission. As a go around, he puts up his gambling club, and thus his livelihood, as collateral.

From the point of view of plotting, what’s interesting is how closely linked these romantic grand gestures are to the inciting incidents of the two story threads. They lend this important plot point an interesting layer of depth.

But such moments have to be carefully constructed.

Where Grand Gestures Can Go Wrong

One problem is that the grand gesture might appear selfish. After all, Alina isn’t just sacrificing herself but her whole cartography unit.

Indeed, in the end, her fellow cartographers are nothing more than red shirts. After they are dead, Alina spends zero screen time thinking about how she led to their collective demise.

It leaves a bad taste.

So, what did you think of Shadow and Bone? I didn’t read the book, so I’d be curious to know if the novels have the same setup. Let me know in the comments below.

The Trouble with Multiple POVs: A look at Guillermo del Toro’s Crimson Peak

This is a would-be writer’s look at Crimson Peak. Spoilers abound.

Here’s my mini-review: To watch Guillermo del Toro’s Crimson Peak is to endure 118 minutes.

To be sure, the film’s story has a distinguished pedigree. Indeed, an elevator pitch for the film might be: it’s A. S. Byatt’s novella Morpho Eugenia meets Henry James meets Edith Wharton’s The Buccaneers meets the Bluebeard fairy tale.

Despite this Frankensteinian construction, the setup, however, is simple enough. Impoverished nobleman, Sir Thomas Sharpe, is a fortune hunter trying to save the family manor. He sets his eyes upon an American heiress/ budding novelist named Edith Cushing, who is naïve and idealistic. She’s also not like other girls. While her female peers want to lay claim to Sir Thomas Sharpe for his title, Edith is higher minded. Naturally, when she finally meets Sir Thomas, there is a Jane Eyre-ish meeting of the imagination between the two, and Edith falls in love. But standing in their way is Edith’s beloved father, who sees through Sharpe’s sudden interest in his daughter. Let’s just say the father is summarily dealt with in a most brutal way.

Indeed, brutality is the natural order of the world. At least, according to the film. Del Toro presents us with this dark theme early in the movie. After Edith befriends Sir Thomas’ sister, Lucille, the two go for a walk in the park where they observe butterflies dying in the cold. Lucille explains the cannibalistic nature of butterflies, and the scene ends with a shot of a butterfly writhing on the ground as it’s being eaten alive by a swarm of ants.

It’s an eat or be eaten world.

But seeing that simple (and simplistic) truth requires a clear-eyed view of the world. Perfect sight. And it’s not for nothing that Sir Thomas Sharpe’s romantic foil, Alan McMichael, is an ophthalmologist. The world of Crimson Peak is not for the idealistic.

And certainly not for the dewy-eyed, idealistic artist, such as Edith Cushing.

Why Crimson Peak doesn’t work

Crimson Peak is a gothic romance, a genre that relies more heavily on mystery and suspense than it does on romance tropes. As such narratives typically revolve around unaccountable happenings and encounters with strange characters, the chief pleasure of the genre is learning what’s actually going on. The reader is promised a situation that is usually horrific or scandalous or both; and the revelation is well worth the wait. Indeed, gothic romances written in the 18th Century were proto-mysteries, but instead of a detective, the stories use amateur sleuths.

Edith Cushing fills that role in Crimson Peak. After she weds Sir Thomas Sharpe, he whisks her away to his isolated manor house, Allerdale Hall. No one lives there except Thomas and Lucille. There doesn’t even seem to be any servants.

Once there, the mysteries start almost right away. As Edith walks up to the house, a pampered little lap dog appears. But who does it belong to? The closest neighbors live miles and miles away. The dog, however, belongs to someone. It has a collar around its neck.

After that, other little mysteries start piling up. There’s an abandoned traveling trunk discarded in the bowels of the house, and one night, Edith finds a box of wax recording cylinders. We later learn that these hold the answers to all the mysteries, and they’ve just been left conveniently lying around!

But who needs those cylinders to know what’s going on? Certainly not the film’s viewers. If this were a novel, the author would probably have restricted the POV to Edith, but the film gives us not only her POV but Sir Thomas’ and Lucille’s POV as well. We know what’s going on, and so there’s no suspense. No mystery.

The film doesn’t even give us the pleasure of storytelling; there’s no suspense surrounding the climactic reveal.

I suppose this is the downside of meta-narratives.

Was Lindsay Ellis’ Casual Observation About YA Fiction So Bad?

Don’t say negative stuff about another author’s book is an unspoken rule among traditionally published authors. Ostensibly, this is because a writer never knows who they’ll bump into at a book convention or a signing and what unpleasantness may follow.

But the real reason is that they’re all published by the same five publishing houses. Publicly badmouthing another writer’s work hurts not only that author, it also hurts the investment a publishing house has made in that author’s product.

Which means you’re essentially biting the hand that feeds you.

As a traditionally published writer, Lindsay Ellis should know this, but I guess she didn’t get the memo.

Two weeks ago, she tweeted a casual observation about a new Disney Film: “Also watched Raya and the Last Dragon and I think we need to come up with a name for this genre that is basically Avatar: The Last Airbender reduxes. It’s like half of all YA fantasy published in the last few years anyway” [bold emphasis is mine, obviously]

Many read this tweet as saying all Asian inspired fantasies were derivative. Later, Ellis called out The Children of Blood and Bone and Blood Heir as examples, both works by minority writers.

Well, naturally, a dig like that cannot be allowed to stand. The book community came for her, and Ellis went on the defense. She saw the objections to her tweet as being an uncharitable misreading or her intention.

Is this all a misunderstanding?

People came to her defense. One suggested that she “def[initely] has foot in mouth syndrome.”

However, I’m not sure if this was a case of simply misspeaking.

Now, I’m not a fan of Lindsay Ellis’ work, or BreadTube/ LeftTube in general (outside of Maggie May Fish), but I’ve seen and enjoyed many of Ellis’ videos. To anyone familiar with her work, the tone of her tweet is instantly recognizable as her trademark snark that made her famous to begin with.

A major issue raised by her detractors is that criticisms of works being derivative are often only implied about novels produced by minorities. In her defense, Lindsay claimed: “I can see where if you squint I was implying all Asian-inspired properties are the same, especially if you were already privy to those conversations where I had not seen them. But the basic framework of TLA [The Last Airbender] is becoming popular in fantasy fiction outside of Asian-inspired stuff” [bold emphasis is mine, obviously]

In short, she’s protesting her innocence.

She continues her protestation of innocence by tweeting: “saying a thing is structurally similar to another thing is not a dig. Why do people immediately get defensive and think it’s a dig.”

Well, that’s an easy question to answer. It’s because Ellis’ whole brand is thoughtfully making digs at films and books. So, why would anyone think the tweet was anything else? In fact, it’s the reason I’ve watched any number of videos she’s produced over the years. But usually Lindsay Ellis doesn’t make digs for the sake of making digs. She does it because she’s making a larger critique.

But as far as I can tell, the larger critique here is missing.

After all, there’s probably a small hill of minority-authored manuscripts pitched at literary agents and publishers. That an overwhelming number of them that get the greenlight for publication are derivative of Avatar: The Last Airbender is more a systemic issue than anything else.

And surely, Lindsay knows that publishing expects comp titles. In a video she made about her own publishing journey, she said her own book, Axiom’s End, is the famous Chinese Science Fiction novel The Three-Body Problem but with girls.

Ellis could have done a critique of the publishing industry but didn’t.

She probably didn’t want to bite the hand that feeds her.

Writing Thematic Arcs: A Writer’s Look at The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian

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This is a would-be writer’s look at an own voices novel. Spoilers abound.

“Just take a look at the world. Almost all of the rich and famous brown people are artists.”

That’s a line from Sherman Alexie’s novel, The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian.

The title alone brings a smile to my face. The book purports to be a diary, but just a casual flip through the pages reveals that it’s nothing of the sort. The insistence that the contents of the book are absolutely true is doth protesting too much. And lastly, there’s something funny about having a part-time identity.

One simply is or isn’t something. Or so conventional wisdom says.

The book’s twee title also makes me feel as if I was about to crack the book’s spine and encounter a novel full of sentimental, quirky characters. And in some sense, that’s what I found. Weird is a word Alexie often uses about his Indian characters.

The characters are colorful too; only they are all colorful in the same way. The Indians dwelling on the Spokane Indian Reservation are mostly alcoholics or recovering alcoholics or people so depressed they can’t leave their basement bedroom. As you can see, The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian is something more than the usual bask in human sunshine typically afforded by twee art. The Indian reservation, or the rez as its inhabitants call it, is a place of death. The main character, Arnold Spirit Jr., who goes by “Junior” and is a clear stand-in for the author, at one point observes that the reservation wasn’t meant to be a place where Indians lived but a place they were concentrated so that they could die. In essence, it’s a place you try to survive, or at best endure.

At the start of the novel, Alexie presents us with two best friends. There is Junior, who is weak and at the bottom of the reservation totem pole (one of Junior’s jokes), and then there is his best friend, Rowdy, who is strong and athletic. They come from different circumstances: Rowdy’s home life is abusive, while Junior has loving, if extremely dysfunctional, parents. As a result, Rowdy is full of rage while Junior is mild mannered. But rage runs through Junior as well. Indeed, the novel’s inciting incident is an act of violence: in a fit of frustration with his condition in life, Junior throws a book at his quirkily named teacher, Mr. P, and breaks his nose. Mr. P forgives Junior, but also advises him to leave the rez before he self-destructs like the other Indians around him. Mr. P. goes on to suggest that Junior might be better off getting his education off the reservation at a nearby white school. With the blessings of his family, Junior does just that, but the other Indians on the reservation see this as betrayal. Rowdy takes it the hardest.

Thematically speaking, most books have a single through line; usually something simple like “love conquers all, trust is the foundation of everything, don’t give up” (see this blog on themes). The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian explores aspects of staying and leaving, but Alexie gives this underlying theme an arc by sequentially exploring: finding the bravery to leave, landing in a space in between (i.e. being marginalized), feeling guilt as your life moves towards a hopeful future while the world you left behind continues to disintegrate.

Finding hope in knowing you’re not alone: finding a new tribe

As Junior leaves the rez, he feels fear. Not only does he worry what the other Indians will do to him, he worries if his new white world will accept him.

Leaving one’s tribe requires a certain faith: a belief that somewhere out there exists people who are just like you and who will accept you. When Junior leaves the rez, he faces racism, most notably from his teachers and other adults. While his classmates bully him for being an Indian, a lot of this antagonism disappears as he integrates into the community. In fact, Junior’s life outside the rez is a charmed one: he gets a popular white girl to fall for him and becomes a star basketball player.

But there’s only half acceptance. Junior always exists in a class apart. At one point, Junior ruminates about how his excellence is always marked by his Indianness. The small town where he goes to school is like many small towns in that it’s obsessed with local high school sports heroes. The townsfolk remember their former greats by comparing current greats to the past ones. Junior knows no such comparisons will exist for him. That no one will one day say of a promising young white basketball player, that he plays like an Arnold Spirit.

Survival: the guilt of leaving your old tribe behind

This half acceptance takes up the first half of the novel, but once Junior lands on his feet, something else overcomes him. He starts feeling guilty about leaving his family and his best friend behind in a place of death.

The second half of the novel is punctuated with deaths. One by one, three characters who loom large in Junior’s life die. His grandmother succumbs to old age, and with her, her clear memory of Indian traditions (she is the one adult Indian character who isn’t an alcoholic). Then his father’s friend Eugene dies. He’s a compassionate man and a happy spirit, but he dies in a tragically silly shootout over a bottle of booze. And finally, Arnold’s sister dies. She has dreams of being a writer, but she burns to death when her trailer catches fire. At the time, she’s passed out after a night of binge drinking at a party.

The novel’s last scene brings the two boys back together: the boy who left and the boy who stayed behind.

If life is a pattern of people being unhappy in the same way, we have a sense of what will be Rowdy’s fate.

Of course, we don’t know for sure.

Be Afraid. Be Very Afraid: A Look at Nicola Maye Goldberg’s Nothing Can Hurt You

Here’s feminist Germaine Greer on fear:

“It’s interesting to me that women are encouraged all the time to be terribly, terribly frightened, and nearly always of the wrong thing.”

This isn’t an original observation. Mass media usually goes into a frenzy over the disappearance or the murder of young women, especially if that young woman is white and middle class. Fear sells papers, gets clicks, glues eyeballs to the screen.

The novel, Nothing Can Hurt You, feeds into this by depicting the world as essentially predatory towards women. This isn’t too surprising. A look at the back page of the book, in the “about the author” section, tells us that the author, Nicola Maye Goldberg, is a true crime writer. Fear is part and parcel of the genre. Nothing Can Hurt You is her first foray into fiction.

What’s strange is that the novel, which is about the murder of a young girl, mostly features sexual predation. In the opening chapter, a man named Ted Simpson, whose daughter is missing, stays the night with his friend and his friend’s wife, Marriane. When she comes to give him an extra blanket, he inexplicably puts his hand up her skirt.

What are we to make of this bizarre, if implausible, behavior? Certainly, we are to see the irony of a broken man consumed with searching for his missing daughter victimizing another woman, but what’s more is that we’re to see that this behavior is normal, everyday, even routine. A few chapters later, Goldberg gives us more sexual predation in a hotel scene, and in the last chapter, a neighborhood Dad gropes his children’s babysitter and then slips her ten bucks. There’s no penetrative rape, but we catch what underlies misogyny, namely entitlement.

The novel itself isn’t about sexualized crime, however. The book is about a rather simple murder. A young, moneyed, schizophrenic college boy named Blake Campbell stabs his art student girlfriend, Sara Morgan, in the neck while high on LSD. He confesses to the murder almost immediately, is taken into custody, tried, and mostly let off on a temporary insanity plea because he was high on LSD and off his usual meds at the time of the murder.

Young men killing their female partners is certainly a common phenomenon when it comes to murders. But unlike say spousal murder, the bread and butter of many true crime books and television shows, where money is the usual motive, murders committed by young men against their girlfriends are relatively unexplored. That was the chief draw of this book.

Only, that’s not what Nothing Can Hurt You is about. The fictional murder is mere back story, and we are given the salient facts of the case in little nuggets planted throughout the book. The novel is in reality a series of backward glances taken by people linked to either Sara or Blake. Each chapter has its own narrator, and though only a few of the chapters are written in first person, the writing has a confessional style. There’s a lot of blunt honesty, especially about dark desires or unthinkable thoughts, and very little of anything else. Everything is psychological; nothing happens due to circumstance.

Blake’s sister, for instance, has a daughter with behavioral problems, which leads her to wonder if violence is hereditary. The book later details a girl named Jessica, who Sara Morgan babysat. Jessica befriends a behind-the bars serial killer and writes him letters, in search of understanding. My favorite chapter was the penultimate one. In it, a local sheriff named Jonathan is investigating a missing child case with the aid of a psychic named Christabel, who we later learn is Sara’s mother. In one scene, Jonathan is searching the house, combing through the sordid mess of a girl’s bedroom, while fixating on a pair of pure white silk panties stained with menstrual blood. He looks out the window and sees Christabel on the swings, her shoes only skimming the dirt. Christabel’s odd spirituality has set her free from the sordidness of the world.

Of course, all violence is sordid. So the image is both uplifting and sad.

The novel also places Sara’s murder in parallel with the crimes of a local serial killer named John Logan. We all fear serial killers; they are a known quantity. The text seems to ask: but what about the Blakes of the world, these young men who frequently murder their girlfriends? They are a phenomenon of the world too. What drives them? Is it misogyny or something else?

The book has no answer simply because it doesn’t dare to imagine Blake. There can be no understanding. All you can do is be afraid.

Novelists and Twisted Stories: A Writer’s Look at the New Netflix Thriller, Deadly Illusions

Scene from Deadly Illusions

Spoilers abound

Do you need a twisted mind to write a twisted story? The question is perhaps the subtext whenever a reader asks a horror writer where they get their ideas from. For a certain reader, imagining the unimaginable portends a darkness within. It’s why we search for telltale signs of evil after every mass shooting.

Deadly Illusions, a psychological thriller now streaming on Netflix, treats this myth as reality. Mary Morrison, played by Kristin Davis, is a retired thriller novelist now living in domestic bliss: she has a sprawling, modern house, two children- twins, and a loving husband named Tom. It’s so idyllic, one’s surprised there’s no golden retriever running in the yard.

At the start of the film, Mary takes a meeting with her literary agent and a publishing executive during which they offer her two million dollars if she writes another thriller. The offer offends Mary. She rises to her feet in a huff and promptly escorts them off her property. Later that night, she comes across her husband Tom reading a letter. The publishing executive has slipped the offer into their mailbox in a last-ditch effort to get Mary to reconsider. Tom wants Mary to write the book. Two million is a lot of money, and they need it because Tom has made a lousy investment. This revelation forces Mary’s hand. She has to write the book. This is also when we find out why Mary is so hesitant about penning a new thriller novel. She becomes a different person, she says, when she writes.

But what does that even mean? It’s ominous, to say the least.

It’s clear the act of writing is a threat to domesticity. To allow time for Mary to write, the Morrisons hire a nanny from a fancy agency that hires out accomplished, practically Ivy League-educated young women to stimulate the next generation of elite children. It’s all very nineteenth century. And when depicted in art and literature, we know what all such governesses desire: to become the lady of the manor.

(It’s a shame some tropes never die.)

In the end, the Morrisons hire a bookish nanny named Grace. Though she is pretty and well-developed, having curvy hips and big breasts, Grace is mentally childlike. Mary takes an instant liking to her. But what is Grace’s appeal? Most likely, Grace reminds Mary of a younger version of herself as Grace wants to be a writer.

The connection, however, goes deeper than that. Mary starts having erotic encounters with Grace. It begins with bra shopping- you know, the sort of thing you do with your employer- before escalating to skinny dipping sequence and a scene of Grace masturbating Mary while she’s taking a fancy milk bath complete with floating (think vaginal) flowers. Whether any of this is actually happening is uncertain. It could all be a fantasy or just a delusion: Mary becoming a different person as she writes her thriller. Because of this, I found myself losing interest in the story. Scenes of delusions or fantasies are only interesting if we know something about the character having them. Mary, however, is a mystery hidden behind layers of upper middle class cliché. At one point, I pressed pause and was dismayed to learn there were still forty-nine minutes of the movie to get through. The fantasy sequences are too redundant and add little to the story. As a consequence, the middle of this film sags like a poorly constructed novel.

Then the fantasy morphs into nightmare. One day, Mary sees her husband and Grace having a sexual encounter in the kitchen. They are playing some BDSM game that involves Tom being blindfolded while he goes down on Grace. Soon after, Mary’s best friend, Elaine, who suspects the affair, is found murdered. This is when the narrative introduces split personality. Grace has an alter-ego called Maggie, a tough girl persona she created to shield herself after suffering from child abuse. Near the climax of the film, Maggie attacks Tom while he’s taking a shower. Mary, who has been away investigating Grace, returns home to find Tom bleeding to death in the bathroom, with his stomach slashed. Before she can call for help, Maggie attacks her. It’s not clear what Maggie/ Grace’s intentions towards Mary are; during the assault, she keeps switching personas, going back and forth between good Grace and evil Maggie personas. Anyhow, the thriller comes to a close in the usual way: Mary saves the day, and a happy family order is restored.

Interestingly, this coincides with Mary completing her manuscript.

It’s hard to interpret Deadly Illusions. Either it all happened or none of it happened. But if nothing happened, what’s the point unless the film gives us an insight into Mary’s psychology. Does split personality metaphorically reflect the author/ character divide?

Not unless you think art originates in the unconscious.

Let me know what you thought of the film in the comment below.