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.

Is Delusion Compatible with the Thriller form: A Look at Tarryn Fisher’s The Wives

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Spoilers abound. This article is a would-be writer’s look at a popular thriller novel.

Adding a single ingredient, like mental illness or drug abuse, can transform a run-of-the-mill mystery into a psychological thriller.

For instance, Paula Hawkins’ The Girl on the Train uses an unreliable alcoholic protagonist to narrate a basic mystery novel. Likewise, A. J. Finn’s The Woman in the Window uses agoraphobia, only to a far lesser effect. Neither the alcoholism nor the agoraphobia is strictly necessary for the novels’ plots. In the case of The Girl on the Train, the protagonist’s drinking problem causes blackouts in her memory, thus delaying the unraveling of the mystery. Agoraphobia in The Woman in the Window serves primarily to create a debilitated/ reluctant hero. Again, the device is used to delay the novel’s progression.

And then there are thrillers that don’t use such gimmicks at all. They simply play with and undermine tropes. Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl and du Maurier’s Rebecca come to mind as examples.

Tarryn Fisher in The Wives, however, goes the first route; only she uses paranoid disorder as a twist. Whereas alcoholism and agoraphobia are part of the status quo of Hawkins’ and Finns’ novels, respectively, Fisher only introduces mental illness in the second half of her novel. Ultimately, delusion serves not to delay the plot but to explore the breakdown of a marriage.

The chief issue is whether using delusion as a narrative device is compatible with the thriller as a genre.

To answer that, let’s look at the book more closely.

Suspicion is the novel’s starting point

The Wives is a psychological thriller that reads like an old-fashioned domestic noir novel. Indeed, if it weren’t for the ubiquitous presence of cell phones, you could easily imagine the story taking place mid-last-century, especially with the regressive notions about marriage and wifedom.

(I know all that stuff is still alive and kicking.)

The novel is about a polygamous marriage. A woman named Thursday shares her husband, Seth, with two other women. As a joke between them, they nickname the two other wives, Monday and Tuesday. The purpose of this polygamy is both cultural and practical. Seth comes from a polygamist family settled in Utah, where such arrangements aren’t unheard of. The second reason is that Seth wants children, while his career-oriented first wife, Tuesday, doesn’t. As a compromise, Tuesday and Seth agree he will divorce Tuesday and marry Thursday, but he will also continue his relationship with his first wife, whom he still loves. As part of the agreement, neither wife will meet the other; their sole connection will be through Seth. It’s all very mature and adult.

The new, shiny, youthful third wife, Monday, comes into the picture when Thursday suffers a traumatizing miscarriage that requires a hysterectomy. Monday will now be the uterus in this polygamist affair. At the start of the novel, we learn Monday is already pregnant.

That’s the basic setup to the story: three women married to one man. Thursday, the novel’s protagonist and now the middle wife, feels that her place in Seth’s life is precarious. She doesn’t have the allure of the first wife, who has the longest history with Seth, is youthful, despite her age, and a bit glamorous. Nor is Thursday actually young like the second wife.

The novel’s inciting incident occurs when Thursday discovers Monday’s identity from a hospital bill she finds in Seth’s pocket. Monday’s actual name is Hannah, and she lives two hours away in Portland, Oregon. After a little internet stalking, Thursday comes across her picture. Hannah isn’t the blonde surfer girl she imagined, but has Nordic supermodel beauty. This inflames Thursday’s growing insecurity: she grows jealous and a little obsessed. Thursday tracks Monday/ Hannah to a beautiful, well-kept house that suggests a Norman Rockwell happy union, which is yet another stab to Thursday’s ego. But Thursday also sees cracks and fault lines. There are no pictures of Seth and Hannah in the house, and tiny bruises cover Monday’s arms. Thursday’s mind jumps to the conclusion that Seth is abusing Monday. In a sick way, this scant evidence of unhappiness gives her hope that she can gain a firmer/ more dominant foothold in the wife hierarchy. Soon after, Thursday’s growing obsession extends to the first wife, a successful lawyer named Regina. Because Regina has an online dating profile, Thursday catfishes her to get evidence that she’s cheating on Seth.

The novel’s second half gives way to paranoia

About halfway through The Wives, a major narrative twist occurs. Thursday finds herself locked away in a mental institution after she confronts Seth with her suspicions of spousal abuse. During her stay in the asylum, the doctor suggests that Thursday has been hospitalized in the psych ward before, which comes as news to both us, the reader, and the character. Why doesn’t she remember this? There are two possibilities: either the doctor and Seth are gaslighting Thursday or she is delusional. I immediately started thinking of novels like The Woman in White, in which the asylum plays a huge part of patriarchal control. As Fisher is more interested in creating a character study, she goes down the second route. The second half of the novel is in some sense pure fantasy: a paranoid delusion that illuminates Thursday’s psychology.

Drawbacks to writing a thriller around a delusional character

One aspect of the thriller genre is that they are semi-mysteries, but unlike regular mysteries, thriller novels progress through action packed scenes or, in the case of psychological thrillers like The Wives, through twists and turns in the narrative. Fisher carries on with the thriller elements well into the third act of the novel. After Thursday is released from the psych ward, she concocts a theory that her husband is a sick individual who gets off on impregnating his wives and then slipping them an abortifacient that causes the women to miscarry. This is based on the memory of Seth giving her an herbal tea just before her miscarriage. We later learn that Regina also suffered a miscarriage and that Seth had given her the same tea.

In the fourth act, during a confrontation between Seth and his three wives, is when Thursday suddenly remembers reality: (1) that she is not married to Seth, but is actually his mistress, (2) that she owns the house Monday lives in, and (3) that she was picked up at the hospital, not by her husband, but by her father.

This is the point when many readers will throw up their hands in frustration. As I mentioned above, thrillers are a little like mystery novels and therefore rely on facts; thus, using a delusional character undermines the genre. We don’t know what we can and cannot believe. In fact, Thursday could be sitting in a psych ward just imaging everything. Delusion robs fiction of reality and therefore impact. We tend not to care about things that aren’t real.

What’s more is that delusions feel like a cheat ending in thrillers: a sign of a novelist who can’t come up with a proper ending.

The Final Twist

Delusions, however, can serve as an excellent means to study a character’s imagination. And this is why The Wives is brilliant.

The final twist of The Wives is that it’s not a thriller at all, but a character study of a woman who was dumped by her husband after she lost her child. After the final confrontation scene between the husbands and wives- during which Thursday cripples Seth by shooting him in the spine, Thursday returns to the psych ward for further treatment. Thursday doesn’t get criminally charged because her lawyer makes the case that (1) Thursday is crazy and (2) Regina, the first wife, tricked Thursday into believing Seth slipped both Regina and Thursday an abortifacient.

In the last pages, Regina visits Thursday in the asylum. Thursday says, “I’m glad we both got away from him,” to which Regina replies, “This isn’t a little club. I’m not like you. You’re crazy.”

After that, Thursday goes off the rails and attacks Regina, smashing her forehead into Regina’s nose. “Help,” someone screams. “She’s going to kill her!”

Thursday thinks: “I am helping. I’m helping myself.”

And that may be the final twist of the novel. Regina and Thursday are the same person- the first wife who becomes the mistress, and that by destroying Regina, Thursday is freeing herself of Seth.

The story isn’t about paranoid delusion at all, but about a split personality.

Note: (Parallels to du Maurier’s Rebecca) In terms of both subject and theme, the book mirrors Daphne du Maurier’s classic gothic novel, Rebecca, which is also a book about a second wife and feelings of jealousy. The thematic similarity was so great that I actually guessed the ending to The Wives. I knew some calamity would befall Seth, and since there was no Manderley to burn down, I guessed he would end up crippled, a la Mr. Rochester. I even guessed Seth would end up wheelchair-bound.

Hetero-normative, but with a twist

The Henna Wars
The Henna Wars

This isn’t a review: it’s my spoiler-heavy thoughts about The Henna Wars.

The Henna Wars opens with the line, “I decided to come out to my parents at Sunny Apu’s engagement party.” The speaker is a 16-year-old, Bangladeshi Muslim girl named Nishat. What spurs this decision is the joy she sees in Sunny Apu and her fiancé’s eyes. That’s the kind of happiness she wants for herself. Hetero-normative, but with a twist.

Nishat is already out to her younger sister, Priti, with whom she has a close bond. The morning after the engagement party, Nishat sits her parents down at the kitchen table and tells them she’s a lesbian (she even looks up the Bengali word for lesbian, but promptly forgets). Her parents don’t get angry at her revelation. In fact, they say nothing at all. Later, Nishat eavesdrops on their private conversation and learns that they quietly hope that she’s simply going through a phase. They drop the subject of Nishat’s sexuality and carry on living as if nothing has changed; only they limit their interactions with their daughter. It feels a little like shunning, but it’s hard to read. One could also interpret their behavior as awkwardness.

While The Henna Wars is a contemporary YA novel about coming out, it’s also a young adult romance novel featuring a rivals-to-lover plotline. At Sunny Apu’s wedding, Nishat runs into her childhood crush, a Brazilian-Irish biracial girl named Flavia. Nishat had known her in grammar school, but then Flavia moved away with her mother after her parents divorced. She’s recently returned to the neighborhood, and as luck would have it, attends the same Catholic girl’s school as Nishat. They are both thrust into a rivalry, however, when they both choose to set up a henna tattoo business for their business class project, a competition with a thousand Euro prize.

What I really enjoyed about The Henna Wars was the main character’s voice, which was at once self-assured, self-deprecating, and wise to the world. A real feat for any teenager. We see her fieriness as she confronts Flavia on subjects like cultural appropriation and other matters of race. But there’s also a narrative cost to giving a protagonist such confidence. We never hear about her vulnerability, though the author often shows it in scenes of the character having over the top meltdowns or crying in the bathroom (but never wanting to discuss her issues). There’s one scene, when Nishat is heading home on the bus, and she’s thinking if she even has a home to return to. That scene should have been more gutting than it is.

The only major downside of the novel is that we see little of the actual henna war. We are told that Nishat makes beautiful designs, as does Flavia, who has aspirations to be an artist, but these designs are never described in the book. It’s a missed opportunity in a novel pushing the melding of tradition with modernity.

Since the novel is a romance, everything ties up neatly in the end. Flavia has a cousin named Chyna, who bullies Nishat when someone outs her at the school via an anonymous text message. This forces Flavia, who doesn’t want to have an open relationship with Nishat, to come out to her cousin. It is familial love that allows Chyna to overlook Flavia’s sexuality. In a similar way, Nishat’s parents come to accept her. This reminded me of how conservative politicians become pro-gay rights once their own child comes out of the closet. In the end, Nishat and Flavia’s queerness becomes a part of the traditional (hetero-normative and patriarchal) pattern.

This isn’t too surprising. The old rallying cry, “We’re here. We’re queer. Get used to it,” is too radical for young adult fiction, which requires respectability above all else.

If you’ve read The Henna Wars, let me know what you thought of it in the comments below.

Why You Should Take Part in #Pitmad (What I Learned)

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Hollywood rules commercial fiction publishing.

Don’t believe me? Just go look for advice on plotting a novel, and you’ll inevitably come into contact with a book called Save the Cat, a primer on writing screenplays. These days, books are novelizations before they are ever novels. Hence, it should surprise no one that when it comes to choosing books for publication, the publishing industry has adopted the Hollywood-style elevator pitch.

In recent years, elevator pitches have moved out of the elevator and onto Twitter. During a quarterly manuscript pitching party (called #Pitmad), an aspiring author can now pitch- in 280 character (including spaces)- their finished works out into the internet ether with the hope that an industry insider will discover them.

Note that not all agents take part in this pitch party, and some find the quarterly event, which for some reason is always held on a Thursday when many aspiring authors are tethered to their day jobs, an unproductive means to find new writers. “One-hundred and forty characters should never be enough to properly describe your book,” says Jessica Faust of BookEnds Literary Agency.

Still, if you have the time and a finished book, I think it’s worth taking part in #Pitmad. There’s also a lot you can learn.

Being an agent is hard

This was one takeaway from the experience. Not only did I participate by pitching my recently completed book, I also followed the hashtag throughout the day (sporadically as I was working), reading the pitches as they came up in my Twitter feed. As I read and retweeted, I became a quasi-agent for a day.

The above-mentioned agent is right: it is difficult to tell anything about a novel in a 280-character tweet. All of them read like entries in Plotto or Plots Unlimited. Things likes:

Carol, a struggling waitress, finds a magic lamp in a dumpster behind the restaurant. She rubs it and out comes Jack, a Djinni. (660a) (713) (1024)

That story could be boring. It could be great. So much of everything depends on execution. Just how does an agent decide?

The other aspect of pitching is throwing out comp titles. This isn’t required, but I noticed that the pitches using them often got many more retweets, especially if the comp title was incredibly popular.

I assume things like number of retweets can catch an agent’s eyes. I didn’t add comp titles to my pitch. So that’s another lesson learned about pitching.

Do a close reading of the rules for #Pitmad

This was my first go at this rodeo. I hadn’t really heard of #Pitmad before, which just shows you how new to Twitter I am. I first became aware of the event two weeks ago, when fellow writers I follow on Twitter started talking about polishing their pitches. I really wanted to put my recently completed manuscript out there in as many ways as possible. So I got to work.

Naturally, I went to the #Pitmad webpage for more information, but I stupidly skimmed the text. I didn’t read the part about being able to pitch three times during the day. As a result, I only prepared one pitch, and that pitch was of the Carol and Jack variety.

If I had to do it again, and I can on June 3rd, I would make three different pitches. One would be of the Carol and Jack variety and another would hit hard on comp titles. I’m not yet sure how to frame the third one I’d post. I guess I have time to figure it out.

I have no Twitter game

Another thing I learned is that I have no Twitter game. I use the app only for belonging to a writing community, one that is often helpful, I might add. The problem is that I kind of find Twitter really boring. I don’t think I spend more than fifteen minutes a day on the app, and when I do, I’m mostly searching for Tweets from authors seeking advice or encouragement. When it comes to getting retweets of your pitch, however, this kind of limited engagement is a handicap.

Indeed, none of the writers who follow me retweeted my pitch. Almost all my retweets were from strangers.

My pitch received only 9 retweets in total

The bulk of these came in soon after I tweeted my pitch, which is why writing three pitches and posting them throughout the day is much better for getting engagement. Pitches in the internet ether have a short half-life.

Still, I got nine retweets. That doesn’t seem like a lot, but in hindsight, getting even that many retweets of my pitch turned out to be the best aspect of the #Pitmad experience.

When it comes to writing, I always feel unsure if I’m treading the correct path, especially when it comes to knowing if the kinds of books I write are marketable. Are other people interested in the type of storytelling I’m interested in? Are my tastes just too odd or idiosyncratic? Am I just too unique? Maybe even a mad genius before their time? A visionary?

Thankfully, the answer is a resounding No!

Strangers retweeting my pitch tells me that there is an audience out there, however big or small.

And then there were the coveted likes. I received one from a developmental editor trying to drum up business. I checked out their website and learned that for a grand sum of $6,500 dollars I can have the full publishing experience- developmental, copy, and line editing as well as a final proofread. Too bad they were barking up the wrong tree. I’m too poor for that.

Two more likes came from people who probably don’t know about #Pitmad and its rules. It was yet another confirmation to me that readers might be interested in the book I wrote.

The fourth like came from an agent. I should be jumping up and down. Unfortunately, neither the agent nor the agency they work for shows up on QueryTracker. And though the agency’s website looks legit, when I clicked on the list of authors they represent, I quickly realized that none of them have a book deal. Also, the agent’s manuscript wish list indicates that they don’t really represent the genre I work in. Because of this, I’m on the fence about querying them.

So that was my #Pitmad experience. It was pitiful but also insightful and reassuring. I glimpsed a potential audience for my work out there. For look, I also got this comment on my pitch:

And that comment made my day.

Let me know in the comments what you think about #Pitmad or if you participated last week. Should I query the agent who liked my tweet? All advice will be greatly appreciated.

Also, want to know when I post something new? Follow me here or on Twitter.

What My Literary Agent Got Me

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Why would an agent ghost a client?

Now there’s a baffling question.

Aren’t we always told (in no uncertain terms) that a literary agent and a writer are business partners? And if so, shouldn’t open communication be a part of this relationship?

Still, in recent weeks, there’s been some hubbub over the fraught relationship between literary agents and the authors they represent.

In fact, ghosting was just one accusation leveled against superstar literary agent, Brooks Sherman. In a now deleted post on Querytracker, a former client alleges that Sherman stopped responding to their e-mails once their novel wasn’t picked-up by a publisher. When the writer attempted to sever their “working” relationship, Sherman never responded.

The allegations against Sherman, however, didn’t stop there. There was another, more chilling one posted on QueryTracker. Here, the anonymous denouncer mentions how Brooks Sherman lied about submitting manuscripts, lied about submitting for foreign rights, failed to give editorial feedback, and even neglected to read client manuscripts.

I suspect this is only the tip of the iceberg as far as Brooks Sherman is concerned. But the truth is, most of it will remain secret, or spoken about in whisper networks.

The reason I’ve been following this closely is because I queried Mr. Sherman at the beginning of February. In fact, the second allegation I mentioned was already in the comments. Thinking back, why hadn’t I stopped to consider it? Why did it not give me pause before I went ahead and queried the guy?

Probably because agents are the gatekeepers to traditional publishing. In fact, they are the first of many you’ll encounter on that journey. This gives an agent power. It even creates a power imbalance between the agent and his or her client. Any such partnership will be an unequal one, especially at the beginning. Which explains why all the allegations have been anonymous. Power can silence people.

It’s no surprise then that many publishing industry insiders have just swept this scandal under the rug. We’ve been warned many a time that there are agents and there are schmagents. I call this the bad apple defense of the publishing industry. Just take out the few bad ones before the whole barrel goes bad, and everything will be fine.

But I think Brooks Sherman is too high profile to be considered a mere schmagent. From what I can tell, he’s an agent to some and a schmagent to others. This isn’t too surprising for someone like me who comes from academia. We all know that some Ph.D. advisors are mentors and some are schmentors. And most are like Brooks Sherman: mentors to some; schmentors to others.

But why would an agent even behave in this way? What do they get out of it?

I have no idea. My guess is that they think they’ve found you, and therefore have some claim over you- on the off chance you create something truly marketable. It’s kind of like a conquistador sticking a flag in a continent. They don’t know exactly what’s there, but by God, they own it.

But that’s just a guess.

What I’ve really been pondering is what the agent- writer relationship is really like. Is it what people say? Is it a partnership?

An Agent Represent a Writer

While on Twitter, I came across a tweet thread posted by romance writer, Courtney Milan. It really spoke to me because I’m just the silly sort of writer she’s describing. I believe “A bad agent is better than no agent.”

Courtney Milan on agents and the writers they represent

My logic: having an agent means at least you’re in the game.

Milan then goes ahead and demolishes that line of thinking. I believe she is a lawyer, which explains why she’s so amazing at constructing arguments.

But towards the end, her tweet thread becomes even more interesting. She writes:

“One of the most painful things that agents do is treat the publisher as if they are the client, and themselves as talent scouts. This person might get you a deal, but it will bite you.

The agent who thinks that their relationship with a publisher is more important than their relationship with an author is not functioning as an agent.

Your agent represents YOU. Period.”

How sure that “Period” is!

But is this true? Does an agent represent you, the writer, and not the publishing house? As I said, Milan is a lawyer, and lawyers represent their clients. In fact, they have no relationship with the entity opposing you in a case. It’s possible Milan thinks that the relationship between an agent and a writer is similar. It makes sense. The more money an agent can bring in to his client, the more money they themselves make. Win-win.

But is this how agenting really works? I mean, we may want it to work that way. The actual truth, however, may be something different.

In fact, I’ve always considered an agent an adjunct to the publishing house. Once upon a time, publishers read their own slush piles. Nowadays, this is outsourced, and an agent mines this mountain of manuscripts and extracts whatever gold they can.

What I think is that literary agents are more like estate agents. Sure, estate agents drive clients around and help them find their dream homes, but in reality, they work for the property seller. Of course, this analogy doesn’t work either. If we overlay this analogy atop of the writer-agent-publisher scenario, the writer is both the client looking for the new house and the house/ property itself.

And boy, wouldn’t that be twisted.

What Publishers Paid Me

We may, however, not want to believe agent’s relationships to publishing is stronger than it is with their clients. And who know? Possibly, it’s not. I’ve never traditionally published a thing. I also suspect I never will.

But my free associating mind made me think of that Twitter hashtag: what publishers paid me.

This hashtag brought to light the large discrepancies between advances given out to white and non-white writers.

What really struck me is that no one blamed their agent.

Why wasn’t the rallying cry, “#Whatmyagentgotme”? Surely, it’s the agent who negotiates the advance (and everything else).

But that’s probably because everyone knows that the publisher has the real power. And the agent is his man.

Let me know what you think about all this in the comments below.

Also, want to know when I post something new? Follow me here or on Twitter.