When I first heard about the controversy surrounding the previously-unknown YA novel Handbook for Mortals, I was immediately engrossed in a tale that seemed to constantly outdo itself in juicy, dramatic twists and turns. It would take an entire separate blog post to parse the dense threads of intrigue involved in this story, so I instead urge you to read the link I provided to contextualize today’s blog post.
And while yes, it would be fun to provide my amusement on just how deep this story goes, or how incredibly disgusting I find its author and its publishing company, I feel as though you can probably draw your own conclusions on those topics. What I instead intend is to use some of the awful writing in this terrible book as a sort of “What Not to Do” of sorts for newcomers to writing.
Now, I do need to say that I have not read this book. And, unless I find a free version, I will not read this book. I don’t really want to support this author and this publishing company. That being said, I will try not to judge the book by anything other than what is contained in the two excerpts I will be using.
(But, honestly, if I do end up judging the book by something beyond the excerpts… I still think I’ll sleep well tonight.)
The excerpts I will be using are pasted below. Both are passages from early on in the book, used mainly as description of the book’s main character and first-person narrator, Zade.
So, What’s the Problem with it?
While I think it’s pretty obvious that these two passages are written in a… let’s say… juvenile manner, it may be difficult to parse what exactly makes them sound so cringe-worthy.
So, let’s start with what’s wrong with these passages.
Slow and Lengthy Loses Everythinng
I think the first problem to discuss is the incredible length of both of these passages. Combined, these two passages probably equal about a normal novel-page of text. All things considered, that’s a pretty sizable amount of story we’re talking about. Sure, it’s not a whole chapter, but you could still expect a reader to spend a few minutes with this text.
Normally, as a writer, your biggest mission is to get people to keep reading. Most authors attempt to grab a hold of their readers by constantly presenting them with story beats to keep them interested and paying attention. For that reason, it’s important that every paragraph has a purpose. For some paragraphs, that purpose is to move the story forward, while other serve to provide exposition on important characters and settings.
These paragraphs, as I mentioned above, serve to give the reader a feel for the character of Zade by telling the readers what she looks like and how she relates to her environment. But it does so with the least amount of efficiency possible.
See, pretend you’re a reader who just wants to read a paranormal romance that topped the New York Times bestseller list for… a bit. You picked up “Handbook for Mortals” with an expectation that there will be a cool, magical storyline or intriguing romance. Either way, you’ll want things to happen as soon as possible, to progress towards either of these possibilities. And yet, in this entire page’s worth of text… neither of these things happen.
So what really happens in either of these chunks of text? Zade does some hair pushing and… she looks a bit at the sky? In nearly a page’s worth of text the story does not move a single inch forward. That’s a pretty good way to get your readers to put the book down immediately.
And sure, one might argue that, even as nothing has happened, the reader has still gotten a sense of the sort of person she is, but the thing is, well…
The First Person Problem
Zade is the narrator of this story. Every part of the novel will contain her own personal opinions on the world around her. For this reason, it’s more or less pointless to take this time to make her stop and comment on the weather of all things. The fact that she’s a little offbeat and out-of-place in her hometown is a fact that can be more naturally and efficiently revealed by having her do anything other than just stand there and wax poetic on the weather.
And what’s more, having Zade come out and say these things about herself violates suspension of disbelief. For those unfamiliar with the term – suspension of disbelief refers to the sort-of pact between a creator of media and the consumers. While consumers acknowledge that the thing they are consuming is a work of fiction, and therefore will not necessarily adhere to the rules of the real world, the creator of the media must adhere to some rules of the fictional world, though these rules might not be grounded in reality.
In this case, the breaking of this suspension of disbelief comes in the simple fact that we are given access to a person’s thoughts in the form of Zade’s first-person narration. As such, the narration should, more or less, conform to what a normal person’s thought process would sound like. There’s no in-universe explanation for why Zade would constantly think about her own appearance and personality in such an explanatory way, and so the illusion is broken. The readers know that Zade is only thinking these things to provide exposition, and thus the prose becomes false-sounding and not believable.
Everything, All at Once
Another problem afflicting these two passages is the sheer density of information being thrown at the reader. I mentioned before that this passage is too lengthy, but it’s also too dense in information.
In most cases, it doesn’t matter what the protagonist’s hair color or body type is. It may be worth it to mention physical traits of each character in passing, but long, overly-detailed descriptions are boring, and ultimately don’t help the reader understand the characters any more than a quick, simple description would.
This is because, in most cases, readers are forming their own mental image of what a character looks like. Just because a reader isn’t told the exact curvature of the protagonist’s body doesn’t mean the reader is picturing a floating head in their mind when they think of a character. It’s more efficient, and often overall better to allow readers to form their own mental images of characters and settings, only providing a few select descriptions where appropriate to guide their views.
In addition, as I mentioned above, spelling out Zade’s “quirky” personality so blatantly violates the classic rule of “show don’t tell.” There’s no need to blatantly tell readers this. It only adds to the information dump and will be ultimately unnecessary since personality information is always better shown through the character’s interactions with other characters and their surroundings.
So How Do We Improve?
So I’ve torn this passage down. How do we build it back up? Let’s take it step-by-step.
Just… Like… Chill
The problems both with length and with information density can be solved by simply… cutting all of this out. Almost the entirety of both of these excerpts could very easily be cut and would probably improve the natural flow of prose a ton.
“But then,” you ask, “How will readers know this important physical and characteristic information about the protagonist?”
Well… simple. Take this information and spread it throughout the regular story beats. Instead of slowing down and taking the time to describe everything about Zade all at once, allow the physical and personality characteristics to come up as they become necessary to the plot. It’s okay to mention little things about Zade in this scene where she jumps off the front porch, but don’t dump everything on the readers at once.
Perhaps, have another character mention her brightly colored hair? Or comment on how she’s changed the color recently, perhaps with a note of incredulousness? This could very easily lead not only to the physical information on Zade’s hair color, but also might allude to the way she doesn’t quite fit into her community.
Have a little trust in your readers not to melt into a puddle of confusion if they aren’t given all the information right off the bat. Just chill! Let the story reveal information naturally.
A Note on First-Person
I also think some of the problems of this prose could be solved by looking into some of the inherent difficulties that come along with first-person prose.
First of all, exposition is already kind of a difficult thing to integrate naturally into text. It’s hard to justify explaining important key details of the setting or characters without running into problems of suspension of disbelief. But these problems are compounded when you’re dealing with a first-person narrator. Because you’re more or less in the head of a character, reading their thoughts, it’s hard to justify the character thinking of things they should already know innately about their world, their comrades and enemies, and themselves.
So you run into a problem. How do you divulge this information to a reader without making your character seem like some sort of odd amnesiac?
One way is to put your character into totally new situations, so their inner narration commenting on the obvious makes logical sense, since they have just as much experience in the situation as the readers would. However, this doesn’t always work out for every story.
Another way involves allowing some information to remain vague. This can be a toss up as far as positives and negatives. On one hand, you don’t worry about suspension of disbelief and you also allow for some intrigue as the readers want to find out more about your world. However, on the other hand, you risk confusing readers. Really, it’s up for you to decide. Personally, I think a balance between intriguing and confusing can be struck, but it’s not always simple.
Or, you could consider a third-person narration instead. I understand the reason why first-person narrations are so popular. They can often create a very emotional and personal tone for a story. But they don’t always work out, especially for those stories that involve a lot of world building. Understand that first person doesn’t work for every story, and be open to experimenting from different perspectives.
A Final Note on Characterization
While I already said that I’ve never read Handbook for Mortals and I can’t comment on Zade’s character throughout the entire story, some parts of these two excerpts make me think that her characterization is probably a bit… er… flat.
This is a pretty common issue in juvenile fiction, but it is a little troubling in a story written by a grown, published author.
First of all, her character seems hinged on a lie that having personality quirks is something that only a few select people have. She speaks as if loving thunderstorms or coloring her hair is something that no one in the world has ever done. And that’s simply not true. So these statements that seem to be trying to make her character seem out-of-place and odd kind of fall flat.
There’s nothing wrong with wanting to make a character special and different from those around her. (I mean, dang, she’s the protagonist. It’s not exactly a crazy thing to want.) But it’s important to ensure that the traits you’re saying make your character special are actually special. It’s that suspension of disbelief thing again – you can’t just say liking thunderstorms or coloring your hair is a crazy thing unless you make it clear that in your fictional world, these traits have an actual reason to seem out-of-place.
As it is, it seems Zade is living in a world similar to our own, a place where many people enjoy adverse weather or hair dye. Now, a world where these traits are uncommon could very well be a fictional world that the author wants to create. However, if this is the case, they need to make it clear from the get-go that this is a different world with different values we’re dealing with.
And so these are the ways that Handbook for Mortals could, in theory, be improved. There’s a lot of other problematic aspects in these excerpts (and most likely in the rest of the book) that could be improved, but I hope the select few things I have discussed in this blog post could turn this honestly terrible book into a learning experience. Take my advice and take this as a huge example of what not to do.
Either way though, happy writing! And remember… Zade does not have a thigh gap. (She does not! How could you even think that???)