Writing

Lessons From the Rambling Writing of Handbook for Mortals

This cover was apparently plagiarized from a work by artist Gill Del-Mace.

Last year, Handbook for Mortals by Lani Sarem cheated its way to the top of the New York Times YA bestseller list. It wasn’t #1 for long, though. Observers quickly noticed how strange it was that a book no one had heard of by a brand new publisher had soared to the top. The book wasn’t in stock at most retailers, and the website Fakespot rated the book’s Amazon reviews as suspicious. Also, everyone thought Handbook for Mortals was really bad for a bestseller. After investigating, The New York Times removed the book from their list. You can get all the juicy details on Pajiba.

At Mythcreants, we usually restrict our searing critiques to bestsellers.* We’ve decided to make an exception in this case. Sure, we’re about a year late to the Handbook for Mortals party, but better late than never, right?

Let’s do this. If you want to follow along, just go to the book’s listing on Amazon and click on the image to “look inside.”

The Foreword I Thought Was the Story

When I went to see if this novel was worth critiquing, I messed up. I completely missed the big “Foreword” heading, and read the foreword believing it was the start of the book. Here’s how it opens.

Magic. Something that has fascinated the world since the beginning of time. The ability to do things that the mortal mind simply cannot comprehend. It cannot be explained by science or the rational mind; therefore, it must be supernatural… or magic.

I’ve known Lani; that’s Lani Sarem for a few years now. It is Laannee or as she would say Annie with an L, just in case you were also wondering. At first, I wasn’t even sure of the pronunciation of her name… was it Lae-nee or Lan-ee?! In the subsequent years, I’ve learned how to pronounce her name, and throughout our friendship I’ve also learned she’s a bit of a gypsy soul. She’s always traveling around with the bands she works with while living the nomad life and getting amazing views of the dumpsters near the tour buses parked behind the venues.

You’d think that once I saw the author’s name mentioned in the second paragraph, I would be like, “oh, right this is just an introduction to the book.” But no. Only vaguely remembering the name of the author, I just assumed Lani was the main character. What I actually thought was, “Wow, this writer really wants her audience to pronounce her character’s name right.”

Lani is also described as having a “gypsy soul.” I would like to take this moment to tell you that I have the soul of a 61-year-old man living in Calgary, Alberta. No, of course I don’t. We’ve reached the official first lesson of this critique: don’t wear other people’s identities like clothing. Even if “gypsy” wasn’t an offensive, derogatory term for the Roma (which it is), saying some white person has a “gypsy soul” is appropriative and racist.

After these two paragraphs, the writer of this foreword describes how she created a Facebook page that got tens of thousands of followers and how running this page gave her access to movie stars. Once done with her super popular Facebook page, she went on to write a bestselling book. Lani is described as a manager of bands with movie stars in them and a screenplay writer who wrote a masterpiece.

I was wondering which of these two candied characters was the story’s main character when I realized what I was reading. This was an introduction to the book by a writer friend of the author — someone named Skye Turner.

On learning this, I should have thought, “Well, that explains a lot of things.” Instead, I thought, “No way in hell is this nonfiction.”

  • The two people in it are over-glorified, just like in a bad work of fiction. It’s unusual that there are two candied characters instead of one, but I’ll get back to that later.
  • None of the achievements Turner mentions are named. She doesn’t state the name of her Facebook page, the movie the Facebook page was about, her actor friend who was in that movie, her bestselling book, or Lani’s band. I’ve read numerous nonfiction pieces by authors, and they are not shy about naming their books.
  • Some of it just isn’t believable. It took Skye years to pronounce Lani’s name correctly? The foreword is very poorly written, and I’m supposed to believe that it was written by a bestselling writer? Not that bestselling books are never bad or that writing fiction is the same as writing nonfiction. Even so, I would expect more competence with written words.

So I did some searching and found the book that Turner must be referring to as her bestseller. It’s Alluring Turmoil: Book 1 Bayou Stix. I saw it had over 500 reviews on Amazon, and while I’ve certainly seen more popular books, that’s not bad at all. I figured I was being too hard on this foreword.

Then I decided to check the reviews for Alluring Turmoil on Fakespot.

Just for reference, the current Fakespot rating for Handbook for Mortals is a C; as the site describes, “Our engine has profiled the reviewer patterns and has determined that there may be deception involved.” Fakespot says it upgraded this rating from a D-. The rating was probably upgraded after Handbook for Mortals got all the bad publicity and, therefore, real reviews. As for Alluring Turmoil? It has an “F.” As Fakespot says, “Our engine has profiled the reviewer patterns and has determined that there is high deception involved.” The emphasis is not mine.

I also found out that Lani did manage a band called Blues Traveler – a band that supposedly fired her because of stunts she had pulled. I’m sure there’s some Facebook page out there with several thousand bot followers, but I won’t bother to find it.

So Skye Turner is a real person with the same kind of deceptive tendencies as Lani Sarem. Someone who cares passionately about how we pronounce Lani’s name. Someone who gushes equally about herself and Lani. Someone who spends a paragraph on how she and Lani are “very different people” but only describes those differences in the vaguest terms possible. I’m not saying they are the same person, but… that’s exactly what I’m saying.

To be clear, there’s nothing wrong with changing your pen name and starting fresh. A pen name is just a brand name. Some writers with a poorly selling book on their record have been required to change it to get published again. However, changing your pen name and then writing a foreword under one pen name about the other pen name… that would be something else.

Okay, let’s be real. Skye Turner and Lani Sarem probably aren’t the same person. This book underwent a lot of scrutiny last year; if Sarem was also Turner, someone would have uncovered it. The foreword is just an appropriately skeezy opening to a skeezy book.

Now it’s time to move on to the book proper. Wait – no, it’s not.

Resist Including Quotes

Before the first chapter opens, we get this.

Some people are magic… While others are just the illusion of it. — Beau Taplin

It’s still magic even if you know how it’s done. — Terry Pratchett

I like the night. Without the dark we would never see the stars. — Stephanie Meyer

Some journeys take us far from home. Some adventures lead us to our destiny. — CS Lewis

What. Is. This.

I’m pretty critical of opening quotes in the best of circumstances. I understand that, theoretically, the right quote can help set the mood. The problem is that the mood or theme the writer tries to create is usually different from the result they end up with. In most cases, quotes feel like a heavy-handed attempt to tell readers what they should think of the story. It’s better to let the story speak for itself.

And this… four quotes that have nothing in common except the big names attached to them. It feels like a failed attempt to equate Handbook for Mortals with these writers.

Let’s move on to the story. For real this time, I swear.

Clichés Are Not Deep

The book opens with Chapter 0: The Fool. Why 0 and not 1? Your guess is as good as mine.

Here’s our opening sentence.

I’ve always envied those with normal lives.

This might be an okay starting line if it wasn’t so cliché. Having a protagonist that wants to be normal is just getting old. You can still do it if your protagonist is unusual in ways that are definitely bad, but urban fantasy in particular is filled to the brim with protagonists lamenting their amazing superpowers for no good reason.

However, if this line didn’t come off as cliché, it might make readers curious as to how the protagonist’s life isn’t normal. Let’s see what the rest of the paragraph does with that potential curiosity.

I don’t think I’ve ever even had a normal month, a plain week, or an average day. At best, I’ve had brief normal moments here and there. They tend to be few and far between. I’m sure most people would envy me, but some days I think I’d trade places in a heartbeat. To me, those moments of feeling normal or getting to do average things have always felt like a cool sparse breeze on the hottest summer day, or the first breath you take after holding it underwater for as long as you can.

She does nothing but double down on a concept that’s already a weak hook. Also, I look forward to reading an entire novel in which the protagonist never has an average day and only rarely has average moments. That’s definitely a promise Sarem can keep. And since the protagonist admits that “most people would envy me,” we can now be sure that her pining for being less cool will be contrived.

Now that we’ve spent an entire paragraph describing — in the most generic terms imaginable — how she isn’t normal and wants to be, will we learn something about her that’s actually interesting and unique?

Isn’t it true we always want what we can’t have? The grass is always greener, so to speak. Of course, if you really checked out the other side, you’d probably find out that the grass is Astroturf—fake and brittle and lifeless. It sure is pretty from your side of the fence, though.

What in the… an entire additional paragraph is used to elaborate on a clichéd phrase to further describe a clichéd idea. I’m actually rather pro clichéd phrases, or as I would call them — idioms. They aren’t creative, but I think they are fundamental to communication. They can feel anachronistic in some settings, but this story is urban fantasy. However, the advantage of idioms is that they can communicate complex ideas without explanation. Why is Sarem spending several sentences explaining an idiom that she knows everyone is familiar with?

It’s remarkable how little Sarem has said about the actual story so far.

I won’t cover everything […] I’ll start on the day I left home. It marked a turning point—a fork in the road, if you will. I knew I was choosing a path, and hoped it was the right one. Either way, I knew that once I made my choice that was it. I couldn’t double back and try again. It was to be how it was to be.

The clichés… they just keep coming. It’s not enough for Sarem to use one idiom; she has to use two different idioms for the same thing and then needlessly elaborate on it some more. Repeating yourself in writing is almost always bad, because it wastes readers’ time and makes the story less interesting. I can only guess Sarem’s doing it because she thinks this sounds deep or something.

But Sarem can only spout clichés for so long, right?

I personally believe some things in life are chosen by Destiny and some things are your choice. You have options in most situations, but there are certain paths that you have no choice but to go down. […]

I can’t

People say some memories will stick with you forever. They burn brightly in your mind and each detail is as clear as the day it happened.  […]

even.

Hire a Copy Editor

For me, I will never forget one particular July morning; the grey clouds that hovered over the ancient trees lining the street; the wind that blew swiftly through my blonde hair. It also spun about the chunky pieces on the lower half of my long hair, which I had dyed to be a multitude of fun colors. Today they were pink, purple, blue, and a turquoise green, but I have a habit of changing the colors frequently. My perfectly cut bangs stayed mostly unaffected by the wind except for a few squirrelly pieces.

Thank god! We have an actual time and place, not more clichéd rambling. My editorial instincts are telling me to just delete everything that comes before this and declare it the beginning. They are also telling me I should wait and read more because this beginning could be a lie.

On an unrelated note, the Mythcreants copy editors would like you to know that all mistakes you see in these excerpts come directly from Handbook for Mortals. They were not overlooked by our editing team.

We can see from this sample how much this book needs a copy edit. Look at that first sentence. Having two semicolons in a sentence is a big warning sign. Semicolons are normally used to join two complete sentences together.* If you do it with three sentences, you’re rambling. In this case, that first semicolon should actually be a colon, and the second one should be a comma. That’s because we have a complete sentence followed by two dependent clauses.

I also spent a long time wondering what the “chunky pieces” on her hair were. Does she have hair beads? Dreadlocks, maybe? I finally realized these were pieces “of” hair, not “on” hair like it says.

If you are self-publishing, hire a copy editor before you publish. It’s expensive, but without it, your readers will encounter error after error that will disrupt their experience and make you look unprofessional. If you can’t save enough to pay for copy editing, stick to traditional publishing. Then those costs will be paid for you.

And of course, we can’t move on without mentioning how much time Sarem spent on the protagonist’s cool hair. Wish-fulfillment characters like these are rather predictable; it’s always either cool hair, cool eyes, or both. If you want your character to be super badass, consider describing how awesome their forehead is. No one will see it coming.

Manage Time Jumps Carefully

Okay, Sarem, I challenge you to give me a concrete detail about this story that’s actually interesting.

Even though it wasn’t raining yet—and you couldn’t even hear the thunder—you could see the lightning. You knew the storm was coming. It was exciting; the energy from the storm that ran through my veins felt electric. The hairs on my arms stood up and goose bumps popped up all over my skin.

I’ve always loved thunderstorms. Most people prefer sunny days and puffy white clouds, but not me. […]

Sorry, Sarem, but the thunderstorm thing isn’t original either. A lot of people like thunderstorms. I like thunderstorms.

As you might imagine, Sarem spends the rest of this latter paragraph describing how the protagonist likes thunderstorms. While there’s nothing particularly interesting, there’s at least foreshadowing that there might be something interesting later.

I wished I had the time to stop and just watch the storm, but this day was important and I had to keep moving.

This day is important? Why? Naturally, Sarem doesn’t tell us why; that would require saying something of substance.

Next, she goes on for three large paragraphs about the protagonist’s small town in Tennessee. Her mother is a tarot-card reader and spellcaster, and the other townsfolk are all religious and judgy of her mother’s magic. She describes how most kids weren’t allowed to be her friends and how others wouldn’t talk to her. Standard “people don’t like us because we have magic” stuff. That stuff is tiresome because it’s trying to make a big advantage the protagonist has into a problem. Instead, consider giving your protagonist actual problems.

Also, what happened to that day with the storm? Was that it? It was a memory that protagonist remembers forever, so I assumed there was a little more to it than a thunderstorm. Maybe I underestimated just how much this protagonist likes thunderstorms.

After one long, deep breath I pushed myself off of the top step of the huge porch that wrapped around the antique house and pounded down the wooden steps that led away from the house my family has owned for more than 150 years.

Oh — now I see that Sarem is still narrating the day with the storm. A bit later, I also realized this is the day that she mentioned is a turning point. A fork in the road, as the saying goes. Where she has to choose a path that she hopes is the right one. And once she makes her choice that will be it. There’ll be no doubling back and trying again later.

I am now accepting bribes to cease writing this blog post like Sarem writes her novel. I’ll assume one of you will pay, so I’ll revert to my normal style.

Sarem is doing so much rambling that it’s difficult to keep track of the story. Whenever there are narrative time jumps, such as this jump to a stormy day, you have to be clear where the time jump starts and ends. If you jump to the past and then start going on about things that are not tied to that place in time, readers won’t know whether you’re still back in time. In this case, I think most of the novel is supposed to be back in time. The simplest solution would be to start in the past, as all that beginning commentary isn’t adding anything.

Also, that excerpt is all one sentence. I’ve warned in previous critiques to keep your description of physical spaces limited in order to avoid getting more elaborate than people can imagine. This description would be fine if it wasn’t all smashed together without pause. As is, it makes me dizzy.

Your Protagonist Can’t Be Both Hot and Homely

Because the long description of hair we got earlier wasn’t enough, Sarem spends most of her next three paragraphs on the protagonist’s appearance.

My well-worn and once brightly colored (but now badly faded with dirt spackle) Converse high-top sneakers made a quick tapping noise on each step. I had just replaced the laces on them so at least they looked somewhat decent. My favorite high-waisted Levi’s dark denim skinny jeans—ripped in all the right places—made the swishing noise as I lifted my legs and my perfect flowy Lucky’s top that I wear far too often billowed around me. I rarely think this but I wish a photographer had taken my picture at that moment as the outfit and the background and I may have produced a cool-looking photo.

[…]

I pushed my long, many-hued hair out of my way the best I could, as I threw my luggage into my car. A dark blue streak caught the light with a shimmer. I glanced at myself in the reflection of the car side mirror. People tell me I’m pretty all the time, beautiful even. I’m not sure I see what they see. I think I’m more of a cute, average-looking girl. I’m slender but I do not believe most would say skinny. Not “hot-girl skinny,” at least. I have long legs that are toned but I think my thighs are too large and I do not have a thigh gap. My arms are kinda flabby and while I do have an hourglass figure I have always felt my butt is a little too big and my face is a bit too round. Maybe people are just being nice.

It’s amazing how many books with female protagonists have this same weird contrivance. The writer will try to make it clear the protagonist is super hot and yet also make them an underdog in the looks category. In Twilight, Bella’s physical appearance is supposedly marred by being too pale. In Fifty Shades, Anastasia’s physical flaw — I wish I was kidding — is that her eyes are too big and blue. Here, the protagonist stares in the mirror, discusses her appearance in excessive detail, and thinks about what a great photo shoot she would make, but we’re also expected to believe she’s a modest and average-ish girl.

Trying to have your cake and eat it too like this isn’t great for the story or for real women. It’s reasonable for young women characters in contemporary settings to worry about how they look — the pressure is real and relatable. But when so many protagonists not only look perfect, but also look perfect without any effort, it only increases that pressure in real life. The protagonist’s denial of her own beauty reinforces the message that while women must look hot, they are never allowed to appreciate it. Their looks exist strictly for other people.

You’ve got countless other options for depicting your protagonist’s attractiveness. I’ll list some.

  • She’s not physically attractive, but that’s okay, because she has other qualities that draw people to her.
  • She’s not conventionally attractive, but she loves her body. She fights back against those who try to shame her for how she looks.
  • She has brown hair, hazel eyes, and broad shoulders. No word on how attractive she is — you decide.
  • She looks average. She sometimes feels self-conscious but doesn’t stress about it. The love interest likes the way she looks, and that’s enough for her.
  • She’s beautiful. She appreciates the advantages it gives her, even though she doesn’t like how many men harass her on the street.
  • She loves the way she looks, and she knows other people do too. She likes to play with and enhance her appearance by artfully applying makeup or shopping for flattering clothing.

Choose something that feels authentic and makes a fitting statement about your protagonist.

Conversations Should Work in Context

I turned around just in time to see my mother, Dela, coming down the steps. Even when she was in a hurry she never looked like she was rushing or running but instead floating gingerly. […]

My eyes darted to her dark blonde hair, which shone despite the lack of sunlight. I took a deep breath and decided to cut her off before she was able to speak. “Mom, what would you like me to do? Stay here and read cards with you for the rest of my life?” My exasperated question was sincere and sounded more like a plea than a question.

Were they just having a conversation inside the house? Since the protagonist was just enjoying the thunderstorm, that seems unlikely. But this line of dialogue feels like it comes from the middle of a conservation. The protagonist cuts her mom off before she can speak, but her mom shows no sign of being upset or critical. The protagonist is going off on her mother for no reason the audience knows.

Sarem also tells us this line of dialogue is exasperated, sincere, and more like a plea than a question. Even if readers were capable of quickly imagining the line of dialogue with all of these traits, it wouldn’t add anything that the dialogue itself doesn’t convey. Let dialogue speak for itself.

Sheepishly, my mother replied, “But, Zade, I thought you liked reading cards. I thought you liked this kind of life.”

After what feels like endless droning in the protagonist’s head, we finally have her name: Zade.

Is this the first time that Zade’s mother has heard of her leaving? You’d think that if Zade were moving out, they would’ve had this conversation earlier. If they didn’t, her mother would ask her where she’s going with all her luggage.

Unfortunately, these kinds of dialogue problems are pretty typical. Writers will focus on what’s convenient for characters to say in the scene they’re writing and forget everything else. What the character did before or after the scene or what experiences they’ve had in general aren’t factored in. It’s like the characters just popped into existence for this moment.

Powerful Prose Is Tight Prose

Next we have a ridiculously long paragraph of Zade’s thoughts. This excerpt is less than half of the paragraph.

I contemplated my answer for a moment before I responded. I shoved my last bag, my favorite Dakine duffle with it’s bold pattern into the car, struggling to make it fit. She was right. A big part of me loved the place and being there with her. It was comfortable. And, as much as I wasn’t always completely accepted by everyone in the town, I still belonged. It was home. I also really loved helping people and guiding them through difficult hardships and to a new place in life where they could be happy. My mom and I had enlightened some people in town and taught them to understand that not everything we are brought up to believe in the world is true. Some were starting to see things differently and, in a few years, maybe I would even be treated like everyone else. Regardless of all these things, I knew if I stayed I would regret it for the rest of my life. I had to do more. My mother’s glare and words caused me to drift for a moment into an almost daydream state of “what ifs” about staying. While those thoughts circulated through my mind…

That is more than a moment. Notice how in that last sentence of this excerpt, Sarem narrates that Zade is drifting into “an almost daydream state,” as though the daydreaming is beginning right there. Even aside from this obviously daydreamy paragraph, Sarem is so long winded that every bit of her narration feels like a daydream. It dilutes what few interesting things are present and makes the book boring as hell.

And what glare is Zade talking about in that sentence? We haven’t seen her mother glare; we’ve only witnessed her say something sheepishly. Zade keeps acting like her mother is a tyrant, but Sarem only shows her mother being a perfectly nice woman.

With this huge paragraph, Sarem is trying to narrate an internal conflict in which Zade is torn between leaving and staying. It doesn’t work because we aren’t given any compelling reasons why she should stay. Sarem mentions how Zade has memories here and how her family has been here for generations. But we’ve had no prior reason to believe any of this was particularly important to Zade. After hearing Sarem describe how Zade is discriminated against, learning that the townsfolk aren’t so bad after all feels like a contradiction. And despite Sarem’s insistence that this is a fork in the road with no turning back, that is not the case. Zade isn’t tearing down or even selling the family home. Her mother is ready to welcome her back any time she wants to visit.

Besides that, the attempt is just disorganized. If Sarem had chosen one strong reason for Zade to stay and one strong reason for her to go, she probably would have done better. As it is, the excessive space used on this conflict is divided into a jumble of different reasons given in random order.

While this paragraph could have been expressed better, Sarem’s biggest mistake is her choice of scenes. If she wanted Zade’s choice to leave to be a meaningful moment, she needed to narrate a scene where something happens to convince Zade to leave. Zade should start the scene expecting to stay because of a compelling reason; she should end it choosing to leave or leaving on the spot.

If It’s Motivating the Protagonist, It’s Not a Good Reveal

Buried by more huge paragraphs of exposition, this dialogue drags on. We find out that Zade is leaving to audition for some show that her mother supposedly doesn’t approve of. Even though Zade and her mother are together in person, all of the character development is happening through summarizing the past. Sarem, you gotta take some of those past moments and put them in the present!

Then we get to something that might actually be important.

“Yes, Mom. You know what? I don’t know how you ever got away with keeping me out here for so long, anyway.” My eyes narrowed as I confronted the issue we had never really talked about. I looked down again as I finished my sentence. It was a hard subject for both of us, and something we both seemed to usually avoid.

“I had my ways,” she said so quietly I barely heard her. […] When you’re five, your parents make decisions to protect you. Except the problem sometimes is, as much as their hearts are in the right place, the decisions don’t always protect you. Sometimes they hurt you and mess you up and even make you angry at them—and at the world. I think she noticed I hadn’t said anything and she probably felt the icy glare from me so finally she looked up, allowing her eyes met mine. My words were slow and deliberate. I was about to call my mother out, something that rarely (if ever) happened.

“Actually, I know. What do you think started this?” I said firmly.

“Uh—” she started, but her voice trailed off. My mother, the woman who always has an answer for anything, didn’t know what to say to me. I wanted an explanation. I rubbed my hands together nervously. She said nothing. I edged myself closer and directed my words so closely that she could feel my breath on her face. I wanted to be harsh this time. “For the record, I can’t believe you would stoop to anything so low.”

In that first paragraph, “something we both seemed to usually avoid” is definitely a winner in the clutter category. Sarem could have communicated the same thing with “something we both avoided.”

They continue their argument, but it never clarifies what happened between Zade and her mother. Whatever it was, it seems important to Zade’s motivation. Yet Sarem is being super coy about what it is. I think the implication is that Zade’s mother used magic to make Zade stay, and finding out is what convinced Zade to leave. If so, that’s the scene we needed to see. Sarem should have shown Zade finding out her mother violated her trust and choosing to leave — not just brushing off her mom and getting in her car once the interesting stuff is over with.

Why is Sarem being so vague? Perhaps she thinks it’s clear. Writers always overestimate how obvious everything will be to the reader. Or perhaps Sarem thinks she’s being clever by hiding this information for a later reveal. If so, that would make it a disingenuous reveal.

Either way, the damage to the story is evident. Zade is acting like her mother is a controlling tyrant, but readers can’t be on the same page with her because her mother doesn’t seem that way. If her mother actually tried to use magic to take choices away from Zade, then Zade’s attitude toward her mother would be more understandable. Zade would be less off-putting and more likable.

End on a Tense Note

After several more (thankfully lighter) paragraphs, the argument concludes.

“Haven’t you ruined enough of my life?” I immediately wanted to take it back. I didn’t mean it. Why had I said that? I looked down, ashamed of myself. I heard my mother’s voice crack again.

“Is that how you really feel?” she asked. She was on the verge of crying. My mother never cried. The anger in me was gone. My face softened and I smiled weakly. I grabbed her hands and stared at the bold veins that ran through them. I sighed deeply before I met her eyes.

I shook my head lightly. “No. You haven’t ruined my life, Mom, but you also have to let me go live it now. I need to—” I choked, unable to finish.

After this, they say they love each other. They part on good terms.

While a positive but complicated mother-daughter relationship isn’t a bad thing, ending on a more sour note would be better for a first chapter. It would give Zade a better reason not to call home at the first sign of trouble, and making up with her mother could be an important moment in the story. However, it feels like Sarem doesn’t really want these two to be in conflict at all. And since the mother is pleasant at every opportunity, right now the only way for a conflict to happen is for Zade to be mean, and that’s not good for a protagonist.

After that, Zade gets in her car and plays the Dixie Chicks’ song “Wide Open Spaces.” Three verses of the lyrics are even printed in the book. Here’s the end of Chapter 0.

She needs wide open spaces
Room to make her big mistakes
She needs new faces
She knows the high stakes

No truer words could be spoken as I headed for my own wide-open spaces out west. Even the “high stakes” reference was perfect, considering that I was headed toward Las Vegas. I had a long road ahead of me—and an even longer road when I got there—but it was what I knew that I needed to do, without any doubt.

Imagine if Sarem had not only started her book with a quote, but also began her story by explaining how the quote applied to her novel. Similarly, Zade thinking about how perfect these lyrics are is hilariously awkward.

Since Sarem likes the lyrics so much, why didn’t she end the chapter with them? Frequently, the best place to end a chapter or story is earlier than it actually ends. In this case, the lyrics would make for a tenser ending than “without any doubt,” but Sarem can’t help rambling on at every opportunity.

If you remember earlier, Chapter 0 was called “The Fool.” What does that have to do with anything that happened? In addition, “fool” is generally considered an ableist term. If you mean “jester,” say “jester.” I think “buffoon” also works. But “fool” has been used to deride people with mental illnesses or developmental disabilities. Avoid it.

Edit: It has been pointed out in the comments that that “The Fool” is specifically referring to the tarot card, which apparently comes with the number zero. If Sarem had make this clear with context, her title would have come off better. However, she did not do this, and no writer can expect readers to pick up on things they don’t explicitly put on the page.


Maybe once Sarem moves on to places and characters her protagonist hasn’t encountered yet, she’ll stop telling the story through bloated exposition. But if it continues like this, it won’t matter if there’s a solid story buried under all that rambling. Not many will stick around to read it.

Need an editor? We’re at your service.

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Comments

  1. Cay Reet

    I think I can enlighten you on why it’s ‘Chapter 0: The Fool.’ From another scathing review of the book (which I enjoyed, but the author stopped writing more about it after chapter 8), I have learned that the chapters of the book are named after the major arcana of the Tarot deck. The major arcana (individual cards, unlike the minor arcana, which are basically the early type of our regular playing decks with four suits of card -, ace, 2-10, and four court cards which were condensed into three with the playing cards) start with #0, which is The Fool, followed by #1, which is The Magician, and end with #21 (really the 22nd card), which is The World. They also include the High Priestess and High Priest, the Emperor and the Empress, the Tower, the Devil, Death, and many others. The deep mythical reason is that The Fool is the basic defaul, the nothing, the beginning, and thus at #0.

    • Rachel Thompson

      So if the reader doesn’t know Tarot cards she is screwed. It never pays to confuse readers or assume they know things. It’s a bad idea but if the intro explained it ,it’s a less bad idea but still not serving the reader. Why play with conventional structure and make the reader work hard to understand it? It’s like building a stairway with each tread a different height.

      • Cay Reet

        Yes, as others in the comments have said already, a bit of an introduction to the tarot instead of the rambling about how great Lanee is would have been helpful. As I said, without reading about it in another review, I wouldn’t have known it was a tarot reference – and I have been doing card reading myself for a couple of decades (gee, I’m so old). Of course, seeing the next few chapter titles, I would probably have guessed it, but someone who doesn’t know about the major arcana couldn’t make that connection.

  2. American Charioteer

    “But ‘fool’ has been used to deride people with mental illnesses or developmental disabilities.”

    This why every Disney villain is contractually required to say “You fools!” at least twelve times in a movie.

    • Cay Reet

      The tarot deck precedes that, I’m afraid.

  3. Kody C

    For all the stuff this book has been through, I shouldn’t be surprised that any editing that was done on it was a sham as well.

    That said, this reads like a middle school child’s writing. I’d love to see this critique written as though an actual 7th-grader presented to you their pride work and asked for “an honest critique.”

    I have no idea how to critique a new writer’s work, except to maybe focus on one or two problems and praise them for their hard work and commitment. Encouragement!

    I’d learn a lot from an article like that, ha! Thanks for sharing this one with us, Mythcreants!

    • Bunny

      “Pain haunts my sleep. I dream that I am burning an inferno as the shadows leap and the flames dance. Drowning in fire that eats at my skin and licks up my body. While beyond the flames mist twists and writhes like the twined bodies of millions of hazy white snakes, choking me.”
      …I wrote that in 7th grade. So I’m thinking more like 2nd grade?

      • Floats

        Actually they are very similar, from the odd spelling/grammar mistakes which change the meaning of the sentence, the overzealous descriptions based on cliche, and the overconfidence in your own skill.

        Nothing wrong with learning and admitting there is more room to grow, but I think overconfidence can often infect a work making it about showing off or trying to glamorize. That is what the author obviously became obsessed with and I believe it is a pitfall for many.

  4. Cip

    Whilst I agree with your analysis here, Cay Reet has the right of it regarding the term Fool, and chapter 0: they’re from the traditional Tarot deck.
    However, as you have shown if someone doesn’t know Tarot it doesn’t make any sense. I can only assume the author is trying to indicate her character is following the Fool’s Journey, but that’s meaningless without background knowledge. She’d have been better off replacing those opening quotes with a sentence or two on Tarot if it’s that big a deal to the story.
    Frankly all of the snippets you’ve shown here look like a poorly written teenage fanfiction. Multi-coloured hair, all the clothing being known ‘cool’ brands, being so special and different and….yeah, looking at you My Immortal (Hey, maybe it’s the same author years later!.)

    • Cay Reet

      She claims she and her mother are card readers, so there you have the connection between the main character and the use of the Tarot.

  5. Joe

    After the “I just want to be normal ” discussion I now want to read a book about a teen who is Chosen By Cosmic Forces to go to school, and spends all of their time angsting about how they want to live a normal life of fighting monsters and saving the world like everyone else.

    • Sarah

      Ah yes, I can imagine it now “But why can’t I go? Everyone else is going? Why can’t I just help slay a dragon ONCE? You’re ruining my life!” “We’re sorry, but you’re just going to have to accept your destiny. You’ll never be a knight. You’re the Chosen One. You will be the most average used car salesperson the world has ever known.”

      • Rachel Thompson

        It’s always more interesting when the character doesn’t know she is special and operates like a normal person until that special ability causes problems. This lets the reader identify with the character and helps gain sympathy which hooks the reader. Luke Skywalker is a good example.

    • Cay Reet

      Reminds me of the Darkwing Duck episode where he gets taken to a planet full of superheroes who have lost their ‘normal person’ and need a new one so they all have something to do. Since Darkwing is a lot like Batman (no powers, just gadget, brain power, and training), he’s a normalo in a world filled with people who can fly and shoot lasers from their eyes. Or the animated series ‘Norman Normal’ where Norman is the only normal person in his family, because they were all turned into superheroes during a freak accident in the kitchen (yup, even the dog and the baby) while he was in his room reading superhero comics.

  6. Sam Beringer

    Gonna sound like a broken record, but the reason for calling this chapter “The Fool” is a reference to tarot cards, specifically the Major Arcana. In a tarot deck, the Fool represents the start of a journey, inexperience, or poor judgement. So the intention behind the chapter title is probably referring to the protagonist jumping off to start a new life while hinting that she’ll face problems due to her spontaneously doing so. Or at least that’s what it should do. I like the naming convention, but if nothing clever is done with it (and I have a feeling that will be the case), it’ll be wasted.

    I read a better book, “Labyrinth Lost” by Zoraida Cordova, that did the “special protagonist wants to be normal” trope better. In there, the magic she has scares her (she saw her family do something with it that traumatized her and her powers make her a target for an ancient and evil being) and she kicks off the story by trying to get rid of them.

  7. YonYonYon

    What’s up with shitty YA books and describing items in brands? It’s so annoying, like reading an ad pamphlet instead of a book.

    • Cay Reet

      I always wonder if they’re paid for advertising the brands…

      Although, to be fair, there are a few older brand names which have become synonyms for specific things.

  8. Sophie the Jedi Knight

    I’ve read about the exaggerated descriptions of beauty and then the whole “but I’m not pretty” stuff, but this is ridiculous.
    You’d think that an “author” who was such a fan of Stephenie Meyer and quoted her would know that it’s spelled StephEnie and not StephAnie. Did this even go through editing?

  9. Rose Harlyn

    Wait, what?

    I don’t really keep track of book news, (even though I probably should), but I’m legitimately surprised that someone was actually able to get away with this, (even if they were caught later on, but that’s besides the point).

    That being said, the way the story is written (at least from what I’ve seen from the snippets here) is really disjointed, and doesn’t really seem to follow a straight line. It’s like a drunk driver trying to do a sobriety test after 10 shots of tequila. The whole beauty while feeling ugly thing is annoying, women should be allowed to be confident in their own skin without being alienated for being vain. Also, while the intent for the chapter title was following the theme of the Major Arcana, I feel as though that should have been made more clear, since a lot of casual readers don’t really know much about tarot cards.

    Writing a less than stellar book isn’t so bad, what really pisses me off is the fact that the author worked the system without putting in the effort. If she put in half as much effort into her writing as she did in making her book seem more successful than it actually was, it wouldn’t be so pathetic.

    (Sorry for the long comment, I just recently discovered your site and you guys make quite a few good points. I just wanted to put in my two cents, and I don’t really get to talk about this kind of thing too often.)

  10. Greg

    I couldn’t even read the excerpts without my eyes glazing over. I think I’ve seen better writing in my high school literary magazine. Editors, you have my deepest sympathies.

  11. Saumya Kulp

    Maybe you could try Son of Sobek by Rick Riordan-I’m curious what you’d think of it.

  12. Dvärghundspossen

    It cracks me up to discover that I resemble Lani Sarem! Looks-wise, I mean. We could easily be sisters! And I’m perfectly happy with the way I look – but I would never dream of playing the part of a 25-year-old so gorgeous that everyone constantly talks about how hot she is in a movie!

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