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. 

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.

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.

Querying in Batches: Is there an advantage?

Photo by Tomasz Filipek on Pexels.com

When it comes to querying, do you dip your toe into the chilly waters or do you wade right in?

After you have scoured AgentQuery, Manuscript Wish List, and Twitter for names of agents representing your genre, written an exciting hook for your novel along with a writer’s biography and a sales pitch that includes a comparison title, the next step is putting your query out there. If you’re like me, a compulsive reader of writer’s blogs about writing, you’ll already know there are many blog posts devoted to this process. That shouldn’t surprise anyone: there’s advice out there for just about every aspect of publishing.

Some of it good. Some of it dubious.

One common bit of advice I’ve seen is to query in batches, a strategy that entails sending out only seven to ten queries at a time. But is batch querying the right choice for you?

The testing the waters

First, sending queries in batches can be a strategy for success.

The big idea here is that each batch acts as an experiment that tests whether the query is any good. If you end up with no requests for either a partial or a full manuscript, then you can tweak your query hook and resend the updated query letter to a new batch of agents. In theory, you can rinse and repeat this strategy until you have exhausted your agent list.

At first, I found this advice exciting. It seemed sensible. In fact, it was better than sensible. It was a plan. The problem, however, is that the strategy seems impractical. Testing a query hook requires that your agent list contains a large number of agents with quick response times. While there are a few highly organized agents who respond the next day- sometimes the same day, these are few and far between. You’d at least need to have a small group of agents that respond within a two to four-week period. This might be likely if you’re looking for an agent that represents a perennially popular genre like mystery, but if your work is more niche, you’ll find your supply of guinea pig agents sorely lacking.

Another major issue with this strategy is that you have no way of knowing what an agent liked or didn’t like about your query hook. Most rejection letters are nicely worded form letters, and often times, the reason for the rejection is vague. The most common one I’ve received is that the book doesn’t fit their list. Knowing that can’t possibly help you tweak your query letter.

On top of that, an agent can pass on your book for a myriad or reasons unrelated to the hook, including word count, subject matter, character gender or ethnicity, etc. There’s a reason why a common refrain in rejection letters is how the business is subjective. Going back to tweak the hook in these cases would be fruitless, like spinning your wheels. You might even end up harming your well-written query hook.

What I suspect is that the benefits of batch querying are psychological. It gives a hopeful author a semblance of control in a situation where they have none.

Manage feelings of rejection

In fact, another touted advantage to batch querying is psychological (see here). In the article I linked to, there’s no tweaking of query hooks. You merely send out queries in batches, then wait for responses. When one comes back negative, you merely send out the next one.

At first, I thought, okay- it’s a little like gardening. Anyone who grows vegetables during the summer knows that you have to keep sowing seeds to replenish anything you harvest, and by doing so systematically, you can guarantee yourself a supply of lettuce all summer long.

But what are you guaranteeing yourself here? I suspect what you are sowing is hope- keeping it alive, but why you’d want to is puzzling. The obverse of sowing hope in this manner is having a prolonged period of rejection letters. And who wants that? I mean, isn’t it better to know right away if the industry isn’t interested in your project so that you can psychologically move on to your next project?

So, should you send your queries in batches? It all depends on your psychological makeup. Do you gently tug at a Band-Aid or just tear it off? I remember watching a fluff piece on morning television about groups of speedo-clad men bathing in the Baltic. They rushed headlong into the chilly water. No toe-dipping for them. And that seemed to work best.

That said, happy querying.

Let me know in the comments if you’ve queried in batches and found it useful. I’m on the fence about it.

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Meeting 2020 Writing Goals, Burnout, Symptoms and Cures

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New Year. New work in progress.

That was the dream.

Well, that didn’t happen, but I came close. I finished making content changes to my novel in early December. This was a protracted process during which I chopped twenty thousand words out of my manuscript and added a second narrative point of view. My target goal was 85,000 words. I ended up missing this goal too, but I’m happy with the novel’s current length (89K).

During the rest of December and the first weeks of January, I focused on line editing. My primary goals were to fix paragraph flow and maximize readability. After all the chopping I did earlier, there were issues with transitions both within and between paragraphs. More often than not, I found stray sentences that broke the smooth flow of the rest of the paragraph. I either had to delete those sentences or move them to some other place in the manuscript. Usually the latter.

The third editing phase was copy editing. Here I went line by line, fixing the grammar and correcting typos. A lot of the errors were missing commas. Occasionally, I’d find a misplaced modifier. Every copy editing session starts off fun, but boy does it get mind-numbing. That’s when I have to stop. If your head isn’t in copy editing mode, then you’ll end up overlooking errors. Because I often did my copy editing after work, when I’m mentally exhausted to begin with, this process took a few weeks.

So, I’ve basically missed my end-of-the-year deadline by a month.

If you’re asking why, the answer is burnout.

What is burnout?

Interestingly, the word was first coined to describe the mental state of people suffering from severe work-related stress, particularly of people working in the “helping” professions (i.e. nursing). The term was later expanded to include people in other professions- to any overworked individual. This includes anyone running the career rat race.

So can a writer- one who isn’t under contract to produce- feel burn out? I’d say yes. Writing is a career and is therefore a trajectory that one has to be on. Even people who publish using Kindle Direct Publishing (or want to) will feel burnout. The push to create output is intense.

As for me, I’m not sure what the cause of my burnout is. One possibility is that I’ve been working on this manuscript for more than a year. Maybe that’s just too long.

Symptoms of Burnout

So, what was my experience of burnout like?

Writers report many symptoms such as exhaustion, lack of motivation, negativity, declining memory, and bad writing.

Except for lack of motivation, I’ve experienced all these symptoms to some extent. A lot of these exist separately from my writing, however. Negativity, for instance. Also, I’m a sufferer of chronic insomnia, so things like exhaustion and declining memory go hand in hand. The symptom that made me stop and take notice was the bad writing.

As I did my content editing- deleting what wasn’t necessary and adding what was, I realized that the sentences I was writing/ rewriting/ adding were getting shorter and simpler. It became a struggle to add feeling to them. I eventually got there, but it was a struggle.

What I now mostly feel is depletion. In some sense, this is normal. I can’t find the quote, but I remember reading some article, either in the Guardian or the New York Times, in which a writer says that finishing a manuscript leaves a hole in your head (something like that; I think it might have been Salman Rushdie). I’m definitely feeling that now.

To recuperate, I’m going to just write sentences. Maybe twenty sentences a day, and I’ll work at them until I can feel something. Drawing masters often practice making lines to warm up the muscle memory in their shoulders and their arms. What if writers need to do the same thing? It’s worth a shot.

Anyway, I’ll have fun, regardless.

And who knows? Maybe like a sketch artist I can work alfresco.

(Who am I kidding? There’s a pandemic going on. There’ll be no sitting in a coffee shop eavesdropping on conversations for writing inspiration. I’ll have to stay put, in my gray, gray room.)

Let me know what your experience of creative burnout was like in the comments.

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