Cheating Your Reader is Cheap

The more thrillers I read, the more I gravitate to ones with well-drawn unreliable narrators. They’re fun because those characters seem to be the most interesting, but also because it’s such a mixed bag. The books that pull this off tend to be really amazing, while the ones that don’t can be so bad that they entertain us regardless. And that’s what we really want out of a book–to be entertained.

Then, there are the ones that just leave us feeling used and dirty.

Alright, then! Which books fit in this thriller sub-genre, and which are worth reading?

For me, the go-to stellar unreliable narrator novel that comes to mind is Bret Easton Ellis’s American Psycho. Patrick Bateman is certifiably insane, and seeing the world as distorted through his eyes is absolutely fascinating. It is the character of Patrick that makes this book so special.

I also liked American Psycho because of Patrick’s obsession with Huey Lewis and the News and his tendency to quote the band ad nauseam. That, and a few other details, firmly date this book as set in the late 1980s and completely works in context. (Kind of like all those pop culture references in Clueless, only with more murder. But I digress).

Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn is another prime example. Every thriller writer post-Gone Girl wanted/wants to write the next one. (I read a Goodreads review for a bad book the other day and had to snort at the comment, “You’re trying to be Gone Girl. Y’all are not Gone Girl.”). Gone Girl’s unreliable narrator element has the added twist of being a fabricated diary. It’s only half-way through that we realize that the entries that have made us like Amy all along–and assume that her husband killed her–are a device in her sociopathic scheme.

There’s You by Caroline Kepnes, which follows killer and romantic-obsessive Joe Goldberg’s doomed relationship with Guinevere (who is much less charming in the book, which was probably intentional given her fate). I personally believe Penn Badgley accepted the title role for the adaptation as unreliable narrator penance for what he did to the audience in Gossip World.

And in The Woman in the Window by A.J. Finn, the reader thinks they know the reason for the main character’s unreliability, but the full picture doesn’t emerge until later. As a mother, I had some issues reading this book; but as a writer I really respect the twists and turns.

I can’t name the book that is probably the best at the unreliable narrator aspect, because calling it out would ruin the surprise. Let’s just say it’s a nice one to read quietly when you don’t feel well.

Unreliable narrator books are something of a crapshoot, though. For each good one I’ve read, there’s one that’s just been a cheat. I’m not going to list examples–I don’t like to comment negatively in public space, especially as I have my own work to be judged–but I want to talk mechanics.

Here’s the deal. If you, as a writer, are going to paint an unreliable narrator, you cannot cheat your reader. You can omit certain details, but only if it makes sense to do so. For example, if your main character spends a significant portion of their time at a location where they plan to seek revenge against a particular person, maybe it doesn’t make sense for them to not once name, or think of, that person in their head.

Or, if the killer is the narrator, it does not make sense for a 300-page book to spend the entire time from that person’s perspective with no indication, clue, or internal thought related to the fact that they are, indeed, and murderer the police have been searching for the entire time.

Books like this always make me think of this scene from Liar Liar:

Unreliable narrator books are tricky because by nature, the writer is lying to the reader to some degree. The way that character sees the world is inaccurate. The key difference is the degree to which the reader is aware. In the books that pull this off, the reader is aware of the instability of the main character, or the fact that they’re not getting the full picture (for whatever reason, but again, so long as it makes sense in context). In the books that don’t pull this off, the big reveal is a “gotcha, sucka!” moment that always makes me toss my Kindle because I wasn’t fooled due to craftiness. I was cheated.

My refrigerator bears a post-it note: “Tell the Truth.” This was advice from Stephen King’s On Writing, where he advised that no matter what, follow where your story takes you. Tell the truth with respect to what your character would do. (If I recall correctly, this advice was offered in the context of him explaining why Paul Sheldon didn’t end up being fed to Annie Wilkes’s pigs and his skin made into the last Misery book. God, I love that man.) If what your unreliable narrator is up to, or thinking, makes sense–even if it is unreliable–the writer is doing their job. The reader is being fooled, not cheated.

And they will not toss their Kindle.

Did Nothing I Learned Matter?

I’ve been trying to be a professional writer for well over ten years now. Because books mattered most to me when I was in grade school–as an introverted kid who LOVED the smell of books, the feel of that heavy book bag while walking from the library–that was my intended audience. From 2008 onward, I tried to write for them, eventually snagging a literary agent from a top-tier agency, and thinking that finally, finally, it was going to happen for me.

Well, it didn’t. Not with that agent, and not with the next two. Or the five or six collective submissions we had to publishers.

During all that time, I followed the writing rules. I found QueryTracker, a great site with an online forum for writers, and got my first permanent writing partner, Veronica. Eventually, I added Frans and Claire to my list (both published writers), and I never let anything I wrote go out to any third party without their review. Same with my query letters, which are the pitches a writer sends to an agent in an effort to get them to review their work.

Then I had kids, and something happens when you have kids: you don’t sleep, ever. Or take care of yourself the way you used to. I’m not complaining–it’s simply what happens because those beautiful little monsters come first.

So, instead of writing, I found myself reading thrillers. A lot of thrillers. Some were fun to read, and some gave me nightmares. And I began to think to myself, why can’t a thriller also be funny? Must I have nightmares?

Then I moved to Alpharetta, and I had a great idea for a dark comedy thriller that was a caricature of suburbia–rich people getting murdered by a killer with an agenda. I saw Ray first–that character was fully-formed immediately. The same applied to several others.

The problem, however, was I didn’t have time to write. I’m an attorney, and my babies are still small. And I can’t write via a protracted method. But I didn’t stress too much about that. One of my favorite books is The Stand by Stephen King, and that’s written in linear fashion from the viewpoints of the different characters. As an exercise in writing, I wanted to give it a try. It also made sense given my setting and cast of characters.

I finished writing Neighborhood Watch in two months, and I know that’s right because I have the date stamp of when I began: November 3, right after Halloween and my inspiration for a certain chapter in the book. I wrote only when the kids were gone in school for a few hours at a time, saving my legal work for when they were in bed. Something like 1,500 to 2,500 words a day, because I knew that if I fell off my schedule, if I had gaps in writing, I was toast.

When it was done, I didn’t do anything I normally did with a new book. I didn’t show it to Veronica and my other writing partners. Not even a chapter. Same with the query. It wasn’t arrogance–trust me, I’ve been beaten down too much over the years to have any of that.

I just . . . knew it was ready.

I also didn’t try too hard to get an agent. I sent off a few queries, but it was a half-hearted process. When you attempt to get an agent, the rule of thumb is that, after they’ve requested a full manuscript, you don’t check in for six months unless you have an offer to relay to them. I’m sorry, but that’s simply insane.

Instead, I looked into smaller publishers. Nowadays, a lot of them don’t require submissions to be made via an agent. I liked the autonomy of representing myself, and, as noted, getting an agent can take forever. This was a huge long shot though–even if publishers will accept a non-agented submission, agented submissions have the advantage because representation is a form of filtering (i.e., the book is good enough to have someone agree to represent it on commission).

When I sent the email to my publisher which resulted in my book deal, I was in the passenger seat of a moving car on the way back from a family vacation, using my hot spot. When they picked it up, I couldn’t help but ask my editor what percentage of book submissions turned into deals, and it was something like .001%. (I had interest from another publisher as well). I got hugely lucky, particularly because it simply got noticed. Neighborhood Watch could have easily slipped through the cracks.

Here’s my thesis statement, to the writers out there: go where the process takes you. I wrote middle grade books for TEN YEARS, and while I would have loved to have written for children for a living, the reality is that Neighborhood Watch is better than any of those prior books. However, it would not exist but for those books–the practice of my continuing to write, never giving up, and keeping at the craft because I simply love to write. Every book should be better than your last because you learn with each one. Be open to alternatives, and have faith in yourself. If you want to be a writer enough, it can happen. . . it just might not be as you imagined it.

When I Was Plucked From the Slush Pile (And It Only Took Ten Years)

Since I’ve been a struggling writer for over a decade now, I’m well aware of publication myths. I swear, I wish that story about Stephenie Meyer sending out a grand total of nine queries had never hit the Internet. Nine queries, and she landed a great agent and went on to make a kajillion dollars with the Twilight series. (She was first starting out! She didn’t even know how to write a query!). Then there’s Veronica Roth, who wrote Divergent in college and is now a household name. And I recall reading about how Diablo Cody wrote Juno in two weeks at a Target Starbucks, although I can’t seem to be able to verify that now.

Those stories never interested me. They depressed me. I wanted to be a writer so badly, and success seemed to just fall into others’ laps.

Other stories helped me, fed my desire. These were the stories about writers who were rewarded after epic displays of patience. The ones who were rejected, over and over (and then over and over some more), and then suddenly rewarded with mainstream success.

I haven’t yet experienced mainstream success. My new book comes out in April of 2024, which is over seven months from now. But I have a traditional book deal, and the road to that was so long and twisty I want to share it because maybe it will give hope to other writers like me.

I started writing in 2008–always middle grade fiction, because it catered to kids of the age where books most impacted me. 2008 was when I graduated law school, and also when the bottom dropped out of the economy. From 2008 until 2012, I wrote three books and sent out literally hundreds of queries to to literary agents. Every time I received a request, my heart jumped. It never, ever got less exciting, less numbing, even though the next email from the agent was always a polite pass.

It was EXACTLY like this:

Copyright Bill Watterson (Calvin and Hobbes)

Finally, in 2012, I landed my first literary agent. In fact, I had TWO offers, both from really great agencies. Really great agencies. Like, top-tier. My now-husband came home with flowers from Costco and a bottle of fancy wine and said quietly, “I know how hard you’ve worked for this, and for how long. I don’t know what else to say.”

And then the book that got me my agent didn’t sell. OR the book after that. And then we did an exclusive submission to another publishing imprint. No dice. Three books, three sets of closed doors.

When my agent wasn’t interested in my next project–and honestly, I felt guilty about all the time he’d invested with no output–I shopped it around and got my next agent. That book sold to a small publisher, and I’m choosing to omit details on that experience. Soon thereafter, I parted ways with that agent, and my next was enthusiastic about my project, All Sales Final, a middle grade twist on Stephen King’s Needful Things. I loved that book, and I was devastated when it didn’t sell.

Because my husband has been unflaggingly supportive about something I’ve wanted so much, and for so long, he instructed me to send All Sales Final to Kirkus Reviews. He said we both knew it was good, and the validation would help me not be so down about my (lack of) writing career. I balked, but I eventually relented. All Sales Final received a Kirkus star and was included in its Best of 2020 publication. Still, when I chose to hire a professional cover designer and to self-publish it, it probably sold a total of about 200 copies. And that’s being generous. That’s not a big deal, as I hadn’t expected anything spectacular to happen, but it was still depressing. All Sales Final deserved more.

During COVID-19, I wrote another book. That was rough; because I had an infant and a toddler, I very rarely had time to write, and it took forever to finish it–a protracted, painful process reflected in the finished product. I didn’t even bother to shop it around. Still, this was–what? Attempt number nine?

Then, my family moved from Naperville, Illinois to Alpharetta, Georgia. Once there, I was struck with a great idea for a black comedy thriller, for the first time venturing into adult fiction territory.

In writing this new book, I broke my major rules. These are major rules every writer needs to adhere to in trying to get a book out there. One, I didn’t show it to anyone, including my two writing partners who have seen everything I’ve written; and two, I didn’t prepare anything resembling an outline.

And I wrote it in two months. Like, for real two months. That is not an exaggeration.

When I was done, I looked back on my storied history. Three agents, five books on submission, and no career. The publishing landscape was changing. And this book–it was good. I had never had a feeling about a book the way I did with this one. It was fun, and dark, and I knew it had the benefit of diverse, strong women characters.

Maybe I didn’t need an agent. Maybe I should approach publishers directly, just to see what happened. So, as my husband was driving us back from a family trip to Asheville, North Carolina, I sat in the passenger seat with my hotspot and fired off queries to publishers that accepted un-agented submissions.

Then I sent no queries for two months. I had no time. Ever. I have two littles, and I also practice law. Hence, sending queries from a car hotspot.

In June, as I was helping the kids beat the crap out of pizza dough from Trader Joe’s, my phone lit up with an email. On the screen, I could only see the first few sentences, and right away it caught my eye because it was phrased differently than the normal request or rejection. I opened it up, and it was an offer to discuss how to “bring Neighborhood Watch to Turner.” I was so excited I jumped up and down and accidentally popped my three-year-old in the face. Then, I spent the next five minutes consoling him, and finally re-opened the email. There it was. An offer, which turned into an official-official offer after a subsequent discussion.

According to Ryan, my editor, Neighborhood Watch found its way on the slush pile, where an assistant started reading it and loved it. “Hey, you should check this out,” she told Ryan. “It’s about these really awful people getting killed in this rich neighborhood, and told by a bunch of different viewpoints.” “Alright,” he told her. “Keep reading, and let me know if it holds up.” “It holds up! Seriously, Ryan, I think you need to read this.” (I’m killing the actual dialogue, but that’s the gist.). So he did, and Neighborhood Watch became one of roughly a dozen books Keylight (the fiction imprint of Turner) will publish in 2024.

From the slush pile. The slush pile. The one book no one else saw, the one that took me no time to write, the one not backed by an agent. Turner/Keylight has been amazing (ARCs were ready nine months ahead of the publication date), and I’m so grateful to be in good hands.

We have a ways to go, of course. April of 2024 is a while from now, and who knows what kind of a success Neighborhood Watch will be? But damn, I’m already a writer’s myth. Let’s go for broke!

Danny DeVito is My Muse

I don’t know anyone who doesn’t like Danny DeVito. What’s not to like? He’s tiny, and affable, and never afraid to be a little bit (or a lot) gross. I mean, have you seen The Gang Goes to a Waterpark episode of Always Sunny in Philadelphia? Or, Frank’s Little Beauties? And he’s been in everything, from the classic One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest to the longest-running live action sitcom of all time (Always Sunny).

Still, Danny DeVito isn’t Jeff Bridges or Jack Nicholson. We all like Danny DeVito, but no one puts him in Oscar bait.

So, maybe it sounds strange for me to say that when it came to writing Neighborhood Watch, which by a series of extremely unlikely events is being traditionally published in April of 2024, Danny DeVito provided a primary source of inspiration.

First of all, when I was about ten years old and already knew I wanted to be a writer, my favorite movie about writers was Throw Mama from the Train. God, I love that movie.

In it, Larry (Billy Crystal), a writer whose ex-wife somehow stole his novel and used it to get herself famous, teaches creative writing at a community college. He suffers from writer’s block and daydreams about his wife’s demise. Owen (Danny DeVito), lives with his horrible mama (Anna Ramsey), and gets under Larry’s skin with his hack writing (“The man with the hat killed the other man with the hat”) and random usages of phrases Larry himself employs in his writing attempts (“The night was humid”). During a conversation, Owen misconstrues advice Larry is trying to give him about establishing motives in crime writing as a veiled request to kill his wife, in exchange for Larry killing Owen’s mama. Owen then embarks on meeting his end of the “deal,” and hilarity ensues. It’s a comic homage to Strangers on a Train, clips of which are shown in the movie.

There’s so much to love about this movie. (Anna Ramsey, who played Owen’s mother and was also in The Goonies, got an Oscar nod for her role). Billy Crystal and Danny DeVito are at their best, and they’re absolutely complementary in their personalities and demeanors. Danny DeVito is a would-be murderer, and he comes across as the sweetest guy ever. And Larry is crotchety, but he’s also kind and funny.

And the writing aspect! “A writer writes, always.” That was Larry’s mantra, despite the evil ex-wife, the writer’s block, and being dropped by his agent. He still wrote, because he had to. Because a writer always writes.

I have NEVER forgotten that expression, and in fact think of that often, because it’s true! I know it is because, despite eight books over ten years, three agents, and only one disappointing traditional publishing experience (NOT Neighborhood Watch), I have never stopped writing. Because, a writer writes, always.

Second, there’s Drowning Mona. Drowning Mona, alas, is a much better concept than it is an actual movie. Danny DeVito plays a small town cop investigating the murder of Mona Dearly (played by Bette Midler, who is mean as a snake in that role), a task complicated by the fact that no one gives a crap that she’s dead and everyone has a different version of events that preceded her murder. Also, everyone drives Yugos for reasons unexplained. Still, despite an awesome cast –including also Casey Affleck, Neve Campbell, Jamie Lee Curtis, and Melissa McCarthy in an early role–Drowning Mona isn’t as fun as it could have been. Something in the execution doesn’t stick the landing, and I always dreamed about writing a book that did Drowning Mona right. A black comedy thriller where everyone’s version of events differs. Where the victims are such terrible people it’s fun to see them go.

Third, there’s Ruthless People. Also starring Danny DeVito and Bette Midler (a random coincidence), Bette Midler is kidnapped and ransomed by two people Danny DeVito screwed over in a business deal. Unfortunately for the hapless kidnappers, who are actually nice people, Sam (DeVito) is delighted at the idea of someone getting rid of his wife (Midler) for him. Ransom, shmanson. Go ahead and kill her! (The scene with him giggling over a bottle of bubbly and mumbling, “Bye, bye Barbara!” low enough so the cops can’t hear is classic). Ruthless People is fun for lots of reasons, but also because of how the good folks stick it to a bad egg by committing a crime. It’s forgivable, because he deserves it.

When I had my first call with my editor, to discuss publication (!!!! It’s been a year and I’m still not over it), he asked me about my writing background, and how I got the idea for Neighborhood Watch. As I told him, I realized that several major sources of inspiration led back to one little man with a huge presence and career. To him, I say, “THANK YOU, DANNY DEVITO!”