Handbook for Mortals: An Autopsy

You probably know that Lani Sarem’s novel  Handbook for Mortals is a total mess. The prose is repetitive, given to stream-of-consciousness tangents about seemingly meaningless details. There are numerous typos, comma splices, and a conspicuous fondness for em dashes. Point-of-view shifts mid-paragraph, only to revert a sentence later; Psychic powers are introduced and then vanish in the space of a single chapter. The love triangle that makes up the bulk of act 2 is utterly inconsequential, as is the magical duel in a mall parking lot. And there are hints strewn throughout that certain characters are not who they seem, but none of this is ever developed, leaving the reader to wonder if they hallucinated entire plot points.

Writing a book is hard, and writing a good one is harder. Most professionally published novels go through countless rounds of revision: anything superfluous is surgically removed, bits that don’t work are tweaked until they do, and, after dissecting every line of their work, the author has to stitch it all back together well enough that prospective readers don’t notice the scars.

My point here is that Handbook for Mortals died on the operating table, and I am here to figure out what even these quacks were trying to accomplish.

Which I guess makes me the coroner?

Part Negative One: Why does this exist at all?

-1.3 : Zade is a vehicle for wish fulfillment

The most obvious problem with Handbook for Mortals is its protagonist, Scheherazade  ‘Zade’ Holder. In the very first line of the novel, Zade tells us that she’s “always envied those with normal lives,” and goes on to explain in vague terms that her life is enviably bizarre; in the same chapter, she spends multiple paragraphs describing her hair, physique, and attire. Beyond that, though, she tells us about how she’s an unpopular weirdo, explaining that she’s leaving her sleepy Tennessee town to pursue a role in a popular Las Vegas magic show for the reason that she wants a “normal” life. Once she gets there, she performs a trick that leaves everyone’s mouths agape; she instantly gains the favor of the show’s famous star, angering his “supermodel-hot” girlfriend.

As the novel continues, Zade gets stuck in the world’s most boring love triangle and neither of her devoted love interests seem to mind how long it’s taking her to choose between them. There are several inconsequential scenes where random male characters become infatuated with her. At one point, Zade meets Carrot Top and Wayne Newton in a shopping mall, and they greet her like an old friend. In the same chapter, Zade is magically attacked by a mysterious girl who is amazed by how magically powerful she is and then speeds off in n orange Lamborghini. This character (henceforth known as “Lambo Girl”) shows up briefly once more, but these scenes could be removed without changing the story at all.

If you have ever read (or written) a self-insert fic, then all of this probably feels familiar. In an interview with Lila Shapiro for Vulture.com, Sarem explains that she started writing Handbook a few weeks after a split with her fiancé, describing the experience as “cathartic”

When I started writing, I really wanted all the things that I couldn’t have at that moment. I wanted somebody’s love story to work out. I wanted this character to have all the things I was lacking, and then live vicariously through her.

I am certain that this is a surprise to no one. Wish fulfilment is an extremely common (and perfectly valid) reason for writing and reading fiction. Handbook has all the hallmarks of a self-insert fic. But that’s usually something writers tone down by the time they’re trying to get published. But, as you probably know, Lani Sarem’s dream was never to be published. Her dream was to be a movie star.

-1.2: Zade is literally a vehicle for wish fulfillment

It’s no secret that Handbook for Mortals began its life as a screenplay in which its author intended to star. In an interview with 3Geeks Podcast, Sarem makes it clear that she has always had dreams of stardom. Handbook is not her first venture of this nature:

I started writing scripts when I was eleven. I always kinda thought ‘why should I wait for someone to write me a really great part? I’ll just write my own parts.’ And so that’s why I started writing. (3:35)

So we get a two-for-one: Sarem wrote Handbook when she was in a really low place, and she wrote it for the purpose of catapulting herself to fame. The result is that “Zade’s Awesome Life” is the only story Sarem set out to tell, for the sole purpose of self-aggrandizement. I’m not sure if anyone ever advised her to tone down the Zade-worship, but I think that giving Zade flaws or an inner struggle would defeat the purpose of the entire exercise.

-1.1: People were actually interested in this as a screenplay

After Sarem finished the screenplay, she sent it to friends for feedback. Her friend, Skye Turner (an author whose work includes this novel’s foreword), enjoyed it, praising it as “good.” According to the Vulture.com article, Sarem showed to script to actor Thomas Ian Nicholas, while working on an unrelated project. Nicholas, whose great uncle once worked in Las Vegas as a stage magician, connected with the project, and agreed to help produce and act in the film.

With Thomas Ian Nicholas on board, plans for a film gained steam.

Part Zero: Franchise Potential!

In the 3Geeks interview, Sarem explains this pretty explicitly:

 I had written this as a script, and it was just gonna be like one story, you know; it had a beginning, a middle, and an end. And I had a book publisher read it and she came back to me just like really excited, and I hadn’t really thought about it in this way. She was like ‘oh my god, this is amazing, you have to change the ending, it needs to be sequels, and you need to turn it into a book. And I said ‘But, I’ve never written a book,’ and while I’m a very good creative writer, my grammar is not always the greatest; I don’t know where the commas and the periods go. But I guess that’s why there are editors. So she was like ‘I’ll help get you started but you gotta turn this into a book.’ (4:35)

As Sarem eloquently explains in the Vulture interview: “A lot of the things that grow to be the biggest tend to have both a book and a movie.”

And thus, the novelization of Handbook for Mortals began.

Disclaimer: While I use both the text and external sources as evidence, conclusions drawn are purely speculation.

Part One: So how did bookifying and franchisifying it change things?   

1.1 A lot was added

In the 3Geeks interview, Sarem gives us some quantified information about the screenplay version of Handbook:

The script was like a hundred and something—a hundred and twenty eight pages or something. The book started out being forty pages, and so from there it’s now I think four hundred and fifty. So it took me some time to fill it out. (5:50)

According to Screenwriting.io, most movies have a script length of about 110-120 pages. This means that Handbook was a little bit long, but not ridiculously so. Especially since the bulk of the material is dialogue, my guess is that its runtime would have ended up being around two hours if nothing were added or cut. The fact that the original novelization of the script ended up being 40 pages makes me consider that it was essentially the script, but with dialogue tags added and action notes copied wholesale into prose. Assuming about 600 words per page (and that’s a generous estimate), this would result in an approximately 24,000-word manuscript. According to tameri.com (http://www.tameri.com/format/wordcounts.html), 24,000 words would be on the very high end for a screenplay, but then, 128 pages also on the long side for a screenplay. My point here is that the numbers add up, and I think it can safely be assumed that Handbook was originally somewhere in the range of 15,000-25,000 words long. Since the final wordcount of the novel is over 100,000 words, it more than quadrupled in length. While some of that can probably be accounted for by the numerous tangents that Zade is given to, I think the aforementioned “franchise potential” demanded more conventional YA material, as well as potential for greater conflict.

1.2 Jackson and the Love Triangle

The love triangle between Zade, Jackson, and Mac in Handbook for Mortals was initially one of the most baffling parts. From a conflict perspective it’s pointless because neither love interest seems to mind the other very much, and while Zade thinks about how she should probably get around to making a decision one of these days, there is zero sense of urgency as neither guy seems at all impatient.

1.2.1 Mac is clearly endgame

It’s also extremely obvious that Zade is going to end up with Mac. The couple starts off with the typical romcom aversion to one another, and eventually discover they have a lot in common. There are entire sections told from Mac’s point-of-view, and I am positive that these were in the original script version: in the 3Geeks interview, Sarem describes struggling with how to feature scenes where Zade was not present in a novel where Zade is the first-person narrator:

 On the flip side, there are things you can do in a movie that are much more difficult in a book. So it was an interesting thing to kinda have to think about how to make them work in both realms. For instance, the book is written from the main character’s [. . .] perspective, but in the script, there was a few times where she would not be onscreen, or not be around, and something would just happen. And it was important to the story, and sometimes it would be important to the story that she also not be there. So I had to come up with some sort of a clever way because some of those points were really important, and yet I still had to think ‘well how can I still have those happen in the book, yet it still be from her perspective, yet she still kinda not be a part of it happening,’ you know? So that was kind of hard.  (7:10)

While Jackson features in a few of these third-person scenes, the point-of-view is always on Mac, which has the effect of making the reader identify more closely with him.

Zade and Jackson’s relationship is very much “told”: a lot of their dates and conversations are summarized, and the two never seem to have any sort of conflict. As a character, Jackson is completely underdeveloped; all we really know about him is that he’s a guitarist.

Mac, on the other hand,d gets thoroughly fleshed-out: we know his backstory, his values, and even his favorite candy. Zade and Mac have conflicts throughout the story; in fact, one of these conflicts leads to the dramatic climax, and the entire third act is him trying to correct his mistake.

1.2.2 Jackson has no effect on the plot EVER AT ALL.

Speaking of the third act: Jackson is practically absent from it: he gets a few sporadic mentions, a single brief appearance at the end, and Zade and Mac have a conversation about him, but he does nothing of importance.

And beyond that, though, Jackson never moves the plot forward. Every single one of his scenes features him complimenting Zade, kissing Zade, catching Zade after she bumps into him; no one except Zade (and Mac, on one occasion) interacts with him.

1.2.3 YA = love triangle needed

Therefore, I think it’s safe to assume that Jackson was probably inserted into Handbook in order to fulfill the obligatory YA-franchise love triangle. I also think that it’s probable that Sarem thought that by giving Zade an unresolved love triangle she was making it more franchise-friendly.

1.2.4 Is there more than meets the eye?

Throughout Handbook, it’s occasionally teased that there might be more to Jackson than is originally let on: He hangs out with Zeb (who’s a suspicious character), Zade thinks her tarot cards indicate that there’s something about him she can’t figure out, and he makes jokes about being a mind reader. Furthermore, there’s a bit of attention paid to the fact that witches aren’t supposed to be with muggles, so if Jackson turns out to be magic, that would actually cause some conflict then. But none of that has any impact at all on the events of Book 1 of the series.

1.3 Lambo Girl

In chapter 7, Zade is randomly accosted by a strange girl who challenges her to a magical duel in a mall parking lot, and then hops into an orange Lamborghini and speeds away. This 1100-word scene is the only thing like it in the entire novel. While Zade thinks about Lambo Girl a few more times, these mentions are only a few lines long. And Lambo Girl does show up again, but this time her appearance is even shorter at only 300ish words, and totally inconsequential.

Because of this, my guess is that Lambo Girl is only here as a sloppily-grafted-in sequel hook. I am almost positive that her addition was one of the Sarem’s final revisions.

1.4 Mysterious Zeb(?)

Charles’ assistant Zeb is introduced early on, and Zade immediately thinks he doesn’t like her. Like Jackson and Lambo Girl, Zeb doesn’t impact the story much. However, I am unsure of when he was added (of if he was always there?) because his character seems to change several times throughout the novel.

1.4.1 The Many Faces of Zeb

When Zeb is introduced, it is specified that he helps Charles design illusions but that little else is known about him, giving the impression that he’s a bit reclusive and is possibly hiding something. As stated above, Zade has a negative first impression of Zeb, feeling as though he’s cold and that he dislikes her. Initially, in  chapter 1, Mac asks Zeb for support when he points out how dangerous it is to let Zade do her audition, and Zeb pegs it as a lost cause.

But then, after Zade auditions, and Mac voices his concerns once more, Zeb mysteriously now agrees with him.

The next time Zeb appears (which is in chapter 5), he’s at a bar with his coworkers, engaged in conversation, like a normal dude.

In chapter 6, Zeb is on a camping trip with his coworkers, chatting with Jackson. This time, Zade thinks that Zeb looks evil. When Zade goes to chat with Jackson, Zeb gets up to leave and acts cold towards her. Jackson explains that Zeb takes awhile to warm up to new performers. So in this appearance, we’ve got “normal guy” Zeb and “mysterious Zade-hating” Zeb.

In chapter 7, Zeb is at Jackson’s rock concert which is packed with fans. Upon seeing Young Riley super wasted, he says that when he was Riley’s age, anyone that drunk would definitely have their face “messed with”. He gives Cam a ride home, since he’s sober. Once again, Zeb seems like a normalish dude who’s close with his coworkers.

In chapter 11, Zade catches Charles and Zeb arguing cryptically about how dire things are getting. When he spots Zade, he’s not friendly (though he’s not outright rude). But in this instance, Zeb is back to being weird cryptic guy.

In chapter 12, Zeb confronts Zade, and says more cryptic stuff; it’s ambiguous as to what he’s talking about. When Zade asks why he doesn’t like her, he denies that this is the case, and says he’s willing to help her (with something that goes unspecified). In this case, Zeb is still mysterious and cryptic.

In chapter 15, after Zade’s catastrophic act, Zeb is the one to catch her. She feels “comforted” by his embrace, and then he whispers several words that are “definitely not English.” So here, Zeb is cryptic and mysterious, but he seems to be less cold now.

Then, in Chapter 20, Zeb is at Zade’s welcome home party and he tells her he’s happy she’s back. Once more, Zeb seems pretty much like a normal guy.

1.4.2 So Zeb: huh?

I am honestly unsure of Zeb’s place in all this. He’s present in the first chapter, and he’s an ominous presence that fits in pretty seamlessly. As the book goes on, he interacts with Jackson quite a bit (who, as I noted might be magic), he cryptically talks to Zade about needing to be careful, and finally he turns out to be not-bad-guy.

1) Zeb was the antagonist in the original screenplay. Maybe he was responsible for the platform malfunction in chapter 4. Maybe he originally played a role in Zade’s accident in chapter 15.

2)Zeb was just supposed to seem evil at first and the conversation from chapter 12 bit would be revealed as a good guy the entire time. Maybe he was meant to be Zade’s Magic Mentor.

3) Zeb was added at the same time as Jackson to add Franchise Potential by hinting at disasterous things to come.

4) A combination?

But that’s as good as I’ve got.

Part Two: So what did the original screenplay look like?

My guess is that Act I was pretty much the same, but with Sofia’s jealousy turned way up. Maybe in the scene where she hits on Mac she talks about how Charles has a crush on Zade, and she’s trying to make herself feel better seducing Mac. On the camping trip, maybe Zeb does more ominous shit or something. Zade and Riley talk about Mac’s rule of not dating performers, etc. Instead of Jackson inviting Zade to his concert being the thing that prompts Mac to make his move, it might be that Charles starts working longer hours with Zade on their big illusion. Motorcycle kisses. End Act 1

Act II is definitely the act that gets the most changed: Zade goes on her shopping spree at the mall, she goes to her date with Mac. When Mac tries to convince Zade that Charles would be no fun to date, Zade asks if he’s jealous; Mac says he is a little, and Zade assures him he has nothing to worry about. Zeb is there, and maybe he tells her not to work on the new illusion, if she knows what’s good for her.

I would put Mac and Zade’s walk in the park is here: Zade drops her cards, Mac gets all “eww”, but they work through it and kiss. Maybe she says that they can go camping this weekend? Mac gets excited. But then, the scene where she cancels to work with Charles happens. Maybe Sofia’s involved too. Who knows?

When Zade goes to see Charles to work on the illusion, Charles and Zeb are having an argument; Zeb is maybe like “Wouldn’t it be terrible if something were to. . happen to Zade? And Charles is like “What are you implying?” but then Zeb sees Zade, and Zeb and Charles play it cool. Zade maybe asks what that’s all about, and Charles is like “silly stage matters!” or something.

Mac and Zade have dinner at her place, he gets jealous, etc.

Dela’s Tarot scene! She foresees disaster for Zade. She explains free will, or something.

Zade hears Sofia singing in the shower, and they make friends, etc.

Mac and Zade canoodle during rehearsal, Charles has his talk with Mac. Then the premiere dinner happens, and Charles tell Sofia and Mac to go fuck off. Mac gets cranky. Then, just before the show, Mac sees what looks like a makeout session between Zade and Charles.

Mac confronts Zade, etc. Creation illusion! Zade bleeds all over everyone. It turns out that Zeb is saving her, and that he knew the magic she was using was super unstable!

Act III is basically what it is in the book: Hospital, “I am Zade’s father!” reveal, trip to Tennessee, ritual, Charles+Dela, welcome home Zade! Marriage! Happily ever after for everyone!

That sounds long.

Part Three: What impact did changing all this for Franchise Potential have on the quality of the final product?

Honestly, I’m inclined to believe that the original screenplay was an OKish romantic dramedy: Once you take out the bulk of Act II, it’s pretty paint-by-the-numbers structurally.  It’s likely that without her narration, Zade’s awfulness is far less egregious, and if I were an 11-year-old, I might like it. In my reconstructed version, everything fits together well (except Zeb; he’s still giving me trouble), and there are no dangling plot threads.

We know for a fact that Sarem was told to add a sequel hook, and I very strongly suspect she was advised to add in a love triangle because it will lend itself to sequels, and while Mac/Zade/Charles kind of works in the script version, there’s no onscreen sexual tension that readers love between Zade and Charles (because he’s her dad). Jackson came in to fill that role, and more scenes were developed around his addition. And Charles stayed on the back burner until Act III. In light of this, Zeb’s role was altered, and Lambo Girl was added in the last round of edits to add more intrigue.

So that’s it. I’m probably wrong about most of this, but I’ve just spent that last three weeks getting far too intimate with this novel to just abandon it now.

Cause of death: Botched plot augmentation. The new implants were not properly constructed, and due to inadequate sanitation, all sorts of stuff that never should have gotten in there did, and festered. 

4 thoughts on “Handbook for Mortals: An Autopsy

  1. Cause of death: Botched plot augmentation. The new implants were not properly constructed, and due to inadequate sanitation, all sorts of stuff that never should have gotten in there did, and festered.

    The script’s facelift and fake boobs didn’t work out. 😉

    As for Zeb, maybe he wasn’t originally magick, and when LS decided to imply that Jackson could be, Zeb was given a potentially magick makeover as well? I bet he was originally an antagonist, because it’s glossed over, but Zade stole his job as well, by coming up with new illusions with Charles. Alternatively Zeb was always magick. We know Dela helped Charles incorporate actual magick into his performances, and Charles was never good enough on his own to attain fame, so I’d bet Charles attached himself to another magick user to keep his momentum going, which would explain Zeb being mysterious and magickal.

    The difference seems to be that Zeb knows something about stage magic and how it works, or else he’s at least capable of streamlining his magick with the practical knowledge that Charles has on the subject. Then Zade turns up, snags Sofia and Zeb’s place on the roster in one go, and Zeb is reasonably irritated. Not only is she taking over out of nowhere, with the position being handed to her in a heartbeat, rather than earned, but it looks like Zade can’t be bothered to cover her tracks with stage magic functionality! This is unsafe, unethical, and liable to get the attention of OSHA and some evil magick immortals. Zeb has every reason to dislike Zade upon meeting her, but he’s more compassionate than she gives him credit for, which explains why he’s also a normal guy who does kind things for his co-workers and friends. He seems to be her antithesis in this regard; Zeb is Zade’s foil, just as Sofia is initially.

    The problem stems from a refusal to fully commit to this angle, or to give Zeb more screen time. Maybe he was originally the antagonist who tried to harm Zade, but then Jackson was added in and it was supposed to be “family friendly”, so his hidden evil side was scaled back. Or perhaps someone recommended turning him into a Severus Snape type, with specific suggestions, and Lani Sarem never buckled down to develop him further. Since he was no longer the clear villain, she didn’t care enough to elaborate.

    LS went out of her way to avoid creating a magick system or set of morals for her witchks. While I respect going lighter on the magick info-dumping (some stories don’t require an insane amount of depth in this regard), that LS ignored it almost entirely is what came back to bite her. There’s no real tension without being able to understand what the hell is going on throughout the magick world. Zeb’s hidden potential doesn’t resonate as much, so we’re left with a husk of what he once was or could be. I wouldn’t be surprised if Jackson’s hidden magick potential was another a suggestion from an editor, which is why it’s barely touched on and the only good thing about him.

    I can’t wait to see some articles on the fan theories btw, if you’re not too exhausted from all of this nonsense. Maybe just Charles=Jackson=Zeb, and then another article that’s simply a nod to all the ways the book could’ve been revised for the better/possible plot hooks for fanfiction writers? That might be less work and more comprehensive, since there’s so much to run with and some of it could be overlapping. 😮😌

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  2. Oh, I forgot! If Zade’s prophecy and Chosen One status showed that she is the living embodiment of the Axis Mundi, that could explain why she’s a perfect duplicate of Dela (since she’s not actually the daughter of Charles.) Maybe Dela just never suspected, because it’s so unprecedented, or she lied? Either way, It could be some very tongue-in-cheek humor and some wacky shenanigans or whatever. I don’t know how to pull it off, but I think it’d be funny to make her “center of the universe” shtick literal and then she’d be a McGuffin, which means she could be off-screen and unconscious more often, hopefully. 😀

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  3. Love these theories. It’s interesting because one of my favorite series has a lot of this – super powerful person who doesn’t completely understand his magic, center of a prophesy, sort of gets stuck in a love triangle, he’s going to outlive all his friends and family, EVERYONE wants him, but in the Lightning Struck Heart trilogy, it works and it’s completely ridiculous, but it’s played for laughs so it’s funny.

    I can’t even believe LS thought this train wreck should oust The Hate U Give (excellent book, BTW) as number one. I saw an interview and LS said she was creative because she’s a writer. No, shouldn’t it be she’s creative SO she’s a writer? Thanks for reading it so I don’t have to.

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