MISS DEMEANORS

Continuing a series after the big reveal. Case Study: Mr. Robot

Mr. Robot is my favorite television show. About mid-way through the first season, writer Sam Esmail reveals–SPOILER ALERT–that the main character, Elliot, suffers from a form of schizophrenia. The protagonist, Elliot, and the antagonist, Mr. Robot, are the same person!  Some critics argued that the show would have difficulty after such a big reveal. How could Esmail ever again surprise the audience post pulling the Palahniuk card? Won’t the viewer get bored watching Elliot battle clearly defined demons?  Season two started this week and I think Esmail has answered those questions with a resounding No. As long as the characters are interesting and have new challenges that allow them to evolve, it’s easy to watch and wait for the next big reveal.  The key is the confidence the audience has in the writer to take us to new places. As Esmail wrote, “A con doesn’t work without the confidence.” And what’s a series except a long con–a story that continues to confound our expectations with each new plot twist?  

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Writer's Best Friend

Writing is a lonely job. Your only friends are the voices in your head and, if you’re a mystery writer, at least half of those voices are not the kind of people you want to encounter on the street. The other half are supremely stressed out about something dramatically awful. As a domestic suspense writer, I often feel that I spend all day sympathizing with someone who is having the worst day/week/month of their lives. It’s exhausting. And, after I’m done spending all day with my main character-in-crisis, I need time to recharge before I deal with people who expect me NOT to act like someone who has been talking to a woman running from, say, human traffickers.  Wine helps me destress. But nothing compares to my dog.  If I am writing an intense scene, my dog seems to know. He’ll come by and put his head on the knee not balancing my laptop, reminding me that no matter where I am in my head, my physical person is safe in my house with a furry companion. Petting him after a marathon writing session brings me back to reality. Walking him gets my muscles moving after sitting for hours, hunched over a laptop. Apparently, moving major muscles helps the mind. (More research on that here.) So, here’s to my dog. You’re cheaper than a shrink and you work for food.   

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What makes a good villain?

I hate serial killers, and not just because they murder people indiscriminately–though that’s bad. I hate them because I don’t find them interesting. Uniformly, they have a vaguely disturbed childhood or mental illness that spurs them on a bloody spree. They are as much victims of circumstance, in some ways, as their actual victims; just as unable to control their evil fate.  The best villains, in my opinion, have more varied motives. They kill one person because a combination of threats to their livelihood, sense of self, or personal safety made them act violently. Then, they kill more people to cover up the initial killing.  That’s what made Walter White in Breaking Bad such a great villain. His back was against the wall and he made an immoral choice that promised easy money. Then, he made another and another until he was scarface with chemicals instead of coke.    

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Book Trailer Dos and Don'ts

We’ve all seen awful book trailers. You know them. They look like the teaser to the high school AV club’s newest production. They have actors who are as animated as my eight-year-old pug after a steak. The guy doing the voiceover is as garbled as a livestock auctioneer. No one watches past the first ten seconds.  But what makes a good trailer? In my opinion, it’s a trailer that doesn’t try to be a cheap imitation of the film version but revels in the idea that it’s showcasing a book. It shows images for scenes in the story. It gets across the main storyline. Ideally, it has some reviews.  Author C. Michele Dorsey’s book No Virgin Island takes place in The Virgin Islands. So, she showed images of The Virgin Islands and a courtroom. You get a sense, immediately, of setting and tone from the trailer. And that’s the point.  I tried to do this with my book trailer for Dark Turns as well. The story is a thriller that takes place at an elite prep school with a highly competitive ballet dance program. I used the newspaper articles to get across some main plot points in the story. You have to read a bit in my book trailer. Hopefully, if you’re a reader, you don’t mind that.   

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Wednesday's Writing Tip

I have a dirty secret to tell you involving my pants. I do not fly by the seat of them. Writers love to say that they do. They claim that their stories emerge, Athena-esque, fully formed from their split heads: beginning, middle and end intact; armed, even, with a marketing plan. Anything less is not art, they claim. So, here’s another confession. I am more craftsman than artist. My stories are painstakingly plotted. Each chapter is a carefully crafted image in a photo mosaic that I recolor and arrange until the whole can only be seen by standing back. I set out my plot twists like points on a map. Sometimes, I am surprised by how I get there. Sometimes, the characters become different people who refuse to go where I’d like, necessitating another storyline or idea. But, more often than not, they are designed with particular characteristics and backstories in mind that should set them off on the path I’ve envisioned.  If writers are Gods of our little worlds, then I am a deterministic one. My characters can no more escape their inclinations than I can escape my genetic compulsions.  So I don’t sit down and let the muse take me where she will. I cajole her. I conspire with her. And when I write, I know where I expect her to take me. Though, if I get somewhere good, I might take a seat and enjoy the view.   

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