Handbook for Mortals Recaps
Part I: Introduction, Foreward, & Chapter 0
I was trying to avoid getting into this. At first, when the whole story of a so-called Young Adult novel scamming its way into the top spot of The New York Times list broke, I had the same reaction a lot of literary Twitter did — I watched the amazing detective story unfold. It is covered in intricate detail by Kayleigh Donaldson at Pajiba. For the few who haven’t heard, Lani Sarem, is a band manager and actress who wrote this book as the premiere story from Geek Nation publishing. Since she’s been a promoter on the Wizard World comic convention circuit, some famous friends of hers tweeted support, like some of the Buffy cast and her cousin J.C. Chasez of NSYNC. After the scandal broke, bands that had worked with her like Blues Traveler and Jackson Rathbone’s 100 Monkeys also had their own snarky clapback tweets. Overall, part of the humor and mystique of this whole debacle was that it seemed to involve a ton of C-list celebrities from the 90s and early 2000s. Perhaps the oddest connection is that her business partner in this venture is Thomas Ian Nicholas of Rookie of the Year and American Pie fame.
There are already some great take downs in process about this. I think The Mary Sue had a great piece about how this was a symptom of white entitlement in the publishing world. Jenny Trout is also recapping this story, and her recaps of Fifty Shades of Grey are so legendary, that I am rolling on the floor laughing at each installment. Similarly, writer Claribel Ortega did a blistering Twitter live read and is now writing a clever hatefic from another character’s point of view. I didn’t think at first that I had much to add to this, but, as a writer and as someone who works with writers, I found Ms. Sarem’s apparent scam insulting. I also found her continued tactic of playing the victim and insinuating that some YA cabal was keeping her book from success beyond annoying. Honestly, I think if she’d at least had the decency to apologize for what she tried to pull, the position she tried to steal from Angie Thomas and The Hate U Give, and let it all go, then people would have forgotten about it. She keeps digging in even at Amazon forums and insisting she’s not getting a fair shake.
Also it appears that somehow, despite a low Amazon ranking, the book sold 7,000 units the second week and landed on the USA Today Bestsellers list for a second time.
ETA: Typed too soon. Apparently, the site Astrochicks has gotten on the promotional bandwagon for Ms. Sarem. Their post basically boils down to it’s only trolls who haven’t read this book criticizing it. They suggest heavily that this book and series will still make a great project for Netflix or Amazon, maybe even a streaming TV Series. Yup, you can’t say that Lani Sarem doens’t keep trying every trick she can think of, can you?
Clearly, Ms. Sarem won’t let this die. She persists in trying to make “fetch a thing” to quote Mean Girls, and Sarem seems to keep dealing in creative sales tactics in order to hit the lists she still can. If she insists on still making this a thing, then, by all means, let’s evaluate this book on its merits. Oh, and yes dear readers, I’ve already read the book so I can critique it all I want. However, I think if you read the sample Chapter 0 on Amazon, you’ll know what you’re in for. After all, a grammatically incorrect, poorly written Mary Sue fic isn’t likely to rise — as the Astrochicks say — like a phoenix from the ashes and suddenly become Six of Crows.
The first thing that strikes me about the foreward is that there is one. Most YA books or, frankly, fiction books don’t have one until they release special anniversary editions. It seems to be a waste of space that drains the amount of free digital preview one can give to entice readers at online retailers. I’m not going to drag Ms. Skye Turner much here. I think she was trying to help her friend. She probably had no idea that Lani Sarem was going to use Result Source (whom she thanks in the acknowledgements) to help game the system. That said, there are a few funny highlights in the foreward that I can’t help but love.
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…
It just never seemed to me or most people who’ve read about Handbook that “Lani” was that hard a name to say but okay.
We met in quite an unprecedented way. You see; this bestselling young adult vampire series was filming the final two of the five films in the series near my home in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. Because my friends were superfans of the series and one the actors in the films…
I think Ms. Turner is coyly alluding to Jackson Rathbone who played Jasper in the Twilight films (think ridiculous Southern accent vampire). There will be a lot more about Jackson later. Dear lord, so much more.
Anyway, the foreward goes on to talk about how Sarem and Turner got to know each other at first. Later on, Turner would contact Sarem to get inside information for some rock star romances she was writing. Then, when Sarem started writing a screenplay, she got Turner’s feedback for what would eventually be worked from screenplay into the novel Handbook for Mortals. I love that no matter how hard Turner tries to praise the book, she still talks in the maddening generics of a Hollywood pitch:
The world she’d created was spectacular. A young woman from Nashville with dreams of making it big as an illusionist in Las Vegas. Two men she’s drawn to, who both call to her on different levels. Secrets that come to light. Intrigue, romance, twists and turns, and above all else… magick. I was completely enthralled.
Even for a book that supposedly started as a screenplay where timing and act structures are so important, there doesn’t seem to be much of, well, a plot happening here. It has secrets! Romance! Twists and turns!
In other words, it could be almost any story out there, generic beyond words.
I told Lani that I enjoyed this book far more than other books of the genre that have exploded.
Again, another odd thing to me about Ms. Sarem’s gambit. Twilight did hit it big in 2008. Harry Potter films first came out when I was in high school, and I’m thirty-three now. In the interim, there have been so many failed attempts at franchises for YA fantasy and YA paranormal romance like Beautiful Creatures, Vampire Academy, and Percy Jackson to name a few. Even the arguably most successful franchise after Harry Potter and Twilight, Cassandra Clare’s The Mortal Instruments series bombed in the theater and had to be salvaged as a show on Freeform called Shadowhunters, which I like a lot, to be honest. To try and make a book with the hope of a movie franchise in 2018 (its IMDB page says its pending) based around some variation of YA fantasy is pretty dense. The YA movies now are more contemporary and realistic, like John Green’s work as well as Yoon’s Everything, Everything and the forthcoming movie version of THUG. Sarem doesn’t know her market place, and she shows how little she knows it in Chapter 0…
The first card of the tarot deck we’ll encounter. It won’t be the last.
Every chapter, including Chapter 0 (yeah that’s a thing now), is based on a tarot card because back home in Nowhere, TN, our main character and her magickal mother (yes with a K) make money by reading fortunes for the local, suspicious, small-minded, religious Southern folk. So, the card names for the chapters are a motif, reflecting Zade’s magical upbringing and heritage.
I’ll also bet you five bucks that Sarem has no idea what a motif even is.
This chapter is not needed as nothing happens. There’s little action, and it’s basically Zade reflecting in her mind on her life. That’s also going to be an annoying pattern through the course of this book: Zade thinking instead of doing. However, let me take a stab at telling you what happens.
Our heroine, Zade (we’ll see what it’s short for eventually and hoo boy), wants to live a normal life so she storms out on her mother, puts her belongings in a truck, and heads out to find her fortune in Vegas.
Done with that action-packed sequence.
It takes Sarem thirteen pages to say this.
Ready for the #1 New York Times prose?
Other recaps go by sequence. I think I’m going to structure my recaps a little differently. First, I’ll pick out some of the most egregious quotes. Then, I’ll tell you the top most loathsome thing our purported protagonist does (Ms. Sarem seems to have an opposite approach to Save the Cat here), and I’ll let you know how Mary Sue she was this chapter. Additionally, I’ll have a brand name drop tally and famous people cameo counter. Finally, there will be a highlight of my favorite teen-friendly reference per chapter. It’ll be rad.
Okay, let’s do this:
A) Choice Quotes
I’ve always envied those with normal lives. 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.
This is how the book starts. You can already get the woe-is-me Mary Sue vibes from sentence one. She’s a special, magickal girl who has a burden of not being like other girls, but somehow most people still envy her. We all write fanfiction where there’s an avatar of us who kicks ass, is the best at everything, and is so beautiful all boys or girls (or both) fall in love with us. Then, we turn thirteen, delete our fanfiction.net accounts and never show those stories to other people on pain of death. Have to give it to Ms. Sarem, the majority of us don’t turn our self-insert fiction into a book. (To be fair, I’d like to posit that Clary Fray of The Mortal Instruments, Bella Swan of Twilight, and Ana Steele who is basically just Bella Swan in college are Mary Sues). However, most professional writers try not to do that.
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.
Not really a funny ha-ha thing to point out, but I think the perspective from which Zade narrates is an odd choice. Yes, we get a close third person perspective after a fashion (though we’ll see drastic changes soon), but since this entire story seems to be told by an older, wiser Zade in retrospect, it takes on a detached sentiment more like Scout recalling her childhood in To Kill a Mockingbird. Also, I apologize for making that comparison. That book didn’t do anything to be mentioned in the same breath with Handbook. Still, it creates this removed tone for Zade’s narration which is the exact opposite of the first person, sometimes present tense, voice used in most Young Adult fiction.
Also, we have the hallmark of a Mary Sue. After all, this is the current PR picture of Lani Sarem:
I’d lived in that one-horse southern town my whole life, practically a quarter of a century.
Oh and Zade Holder is twenty-five or close to. YA is for characters from ages 13–19, and I’d tend to argue that if you get further into college age, you might be bumping up against New Adult. However, twenty-five =/= teenager. That’s okay, despite the ripped-off cover, there’s no knife throwing trick in the book either.
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…
Brand name count already. We have Converse (and do people under thirty-five wear those?), Levi’s, and Lucky;s. This is poor writing. First of all, these are inane details since what the character is wearing in this much detail is not usually relevant to the plot and bores readers. Second, using brand names is a shorthand for not having to actually describe the items. Not everyone is familiar with Lucky’s brand…etc. so using a brand name shorthand can take these readers out of the story. Also, I have to laugh at how desperately this is being set up to be a longing look scene for the trailer.
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. In a small town where everyone looks like they fell out of Mayberry, I think I look different.
More Mary Sue-isms. First of all, never, ever have your character look into a reflective surface so they can tell us what they look like. It’s a cliche, it’s a straight ticket to the slush pile, and it lets editors know you’re too amateurish to know what you’re doing. At the RWA national conference this year, I heard the most groans from a panel of editors about what turns them off when the infamous “stare in a mirror” bit was mentioned. FYI, they also hate when a character wakes up to start their day or the book starts with a lot of action that turns out to be all a dream. I guess we’re lucky Sarem didn’t do the “it was all an exciting dream” trope. Then again, something might actually have happened in this chapter.
Six of one, half dozen of the other.
Second, here’s more of the “I’m not really beautiful, but I’m totally beautiful” hints. I mean, she’s not “hot-girl skinny,” but she’s still got toned legs. Sure. She’s one of those hot-but-she-doesn’t know it yet chicks. If this were an early 2000s movie, she’d be the nerdy girl in glasses who will have a makeover scene halfway through and become all that.
“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.”
“I was looking out for you! I didn’t want you to ever go through — ”
My anger erupted, if she hadn’t been my mother I probably would have punched her. I couldn’t believe she was pulling such nonsense again. It was an age-old excuse: “I want to protect you from making the mistakes I made.” I started to grind my teeth. If I had been a cartoon, smoke would have come out of my ears. I began to wave my hands in exasperation, a habit I had gotten from her.
This was unclear to me at first. It was Jenny Trout’s recap that put together that Zade’s mother, Dela (like in Touched by an Angel?), had put some kind of spell over their property for a long time to keep Zade from leaving. Nice clarity. Second, I copied this directly as is. Sarem has Zade and her mother both talking to each other in the same paragraph with incorrect dialogue attribution. It’s Zade who is saying “I can’t believe you would stoop to anything so low” but her mom who starts the paragraph with “Uh — ”
Technically, Sarem credits an editor in the acknowledgements. I assume she’s being honest and paid one. However, if she did, Sarem needs her money back stat!
Also great heroine. I love her already. She’s raring to punch her mother in the face and has anger control issues. However you feel about — forgive me literature — Bella Swan, at least she pretends to be self-sacrificing and claims she moved to Forks for the benefit of her mom’s new marriage. Again, one of the greatest crimes that Handbook has committed is making me say semi-decent things about Twilight and Fifty Shades of Grey. That’s just unnatural!
To be fair, Zade and Dela fight some more, come to a bit of a detente, and hug. Then Zade dives into her car while the most appropriate song play s on her stereo— “Wide Open Spaces” as sung by The Dixie Chicks. Yes, I know what you’re thinking. Apparently, the original writer of the song on Twitter said she gave permission for lyric reproduction. I guess that’s true; who knows. No one has sued her over Dixie Chicks music use yet so I assume that counted as clearance.
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.
Trust me. I’ve read the whole thing. There are no high stakes. Also, cool songfic. I also graduated from this back in middle school. People theoretically paid as much as twenty dollars for this as a hardback. Maybe not many people, but we have photographs some poor, gullible convention goers who did. Ouch.
And that’s it. That’s all our chapter did. In other tallies and round-ups:
B) The biggest anti-save the cat moment — Who daydreams about punching their mother? Seriously!
C) Biggest Mary Sue moment — The literal wishing for a glamor shot on the porch. Like I said, you can just imagine Sarem typing this and being thrilled at what an epic trailer moment that would have made.
D) Brand names dropped and plugged — Levi’s, Lucky’s, Converse, and Dakine
E) Most teenager friendly reference — Mayberry (the fictional town that The Andy Griffith Show was set in). Dude, I’m thirty-three, and the only reason I know what Mayberry is was because my grandmother was born in the North Carolina town the show’s based on. I would be impressed to see any teenager not literally from Mount Airy, NC, who knows what the hell that reference is about. Just saying.
Up Next — Chapter 1 The Magician a.k.a. Can you tell these characters apart?
Margaret Bates is the president and co-founder of Legendary Women, Inc., a site that seeks to promote positive portrayals of women in the media. She’s also a ghostwriter, developmental editor and writing coach. You can find more info at her site.