Tuesday, 12 January 2016

Trauma, Fiction, and The Supernatural - Breaking Hymn, My New Novel

The novel I am about to query to agents (okay, let me be brutally honest: the novel I am currently nitpicking to death because I am actually TERRIFIED to pitch it to agents. Rejection sucks HARD, friends. Courting ‘No’ is never a pleasing endeavor, this I promise) is ostensibly my favorite piece of work to date. It is a heavily romantic, supernatural mystery that takes everything I’ve learned about trauma in the 20+ years I have been a social worker and gives it a dark, other-worldly twist.

      Can trauma go to the dark end of the paranormal spectrum? Answer carefully—for it’s a possibility that may not be as far-fetched as you think. I’ve worked alongside therapists and counselors for years, and a common denominator among us all have been a small, yet consistent, cache of stories that recount the unexplained; supernatural occurrences that seem to be derived from the pain of the psychologically wounded. Trauma, it would appear, can be represented by the mind, the body….or the spirit.


      Perhaps it’s because trauma is a compilation of such powerful feelings: a pain-shock-and fear combination which, when mixed up like a cocktail, can gut a person’s psyche. Re-write their whole future. Trauma derails the heart and the mind, and it is the single most impactful thing that alters what we in the therapy biz know is the mind-body-spirit trinity that comprises every human being under this sun.

      But…is trauma powerful enough to be an energy unto itself…?

      Andrew, the hero of my novel (which I call Breaking Hymn, but my beta readers insist that I call The Summit’s Shadow) has lived a life that’s been loss-upon-loss. He’s had experiences he refuses to disclose. He was once witness to the immediate aftermath of a gruesome suicide that polluted his sacred place of solace and innocence back where he grew up in the Canadian Rockies. In fact all that he’s lived through there, in the place he’d love to still call home, chased him out, away, and into the profession of law enforcement—a call of duty that’s far more self-punishment than any sort of noble mission to serve and protect (after all—one needs to know how to serve and protect oneself before one can competently expect to do it for others, right?).  Andrew has a sullen temper, a sharp mouth, and…a broken heart. I absolutely loved crafting this character and, over the lengthy course of time it took to tell his tale in all its high-concept (that’s a fancy writer-term that means complex) glory, I came to know him as a social worker would know her client. And to care for him, deeply. Andrew’s Happy-Ever-After was a triumph wrought through tears and laughs and many, many exclamations of “Holy crap! I can’t believe he just said that!”

      Because Andrew Gavin was the character I joked with my crit group that I “couldn’t take anywhere”; a loose cannon who didn’t know (but has learned—a bit) how to be remotely appropriate.

      And yet…knowing his history, would you cut him some slack? Here’s his pitch:

The iconic archetype Mrs. Robinson meets The Sixth Sense in The Summit’s Shadow, a 120k word supernatural romantic thriller, a high-concept ghost story with a twist.

Detective Andrew Gavin knows he’s haunted—by violence, trauma, and a horrific suicide—still, it’s only when he’s suspended from the force and returns home to the Rocky Mountains that he comes face to face with his real ghost. The Dead Boy has always been Andrew’s anxiety-induced delusion—until the apparition is no longer just his. When the Dead Boy appears to, and seduces, Andrew’s childhood sweetheart Elizabeth, the specter makes it clear that he’s always been real—and angry. Shocking Andrew further, the thing slithers into the life of a young boy Elizabeth adores, a kid who appears gravely ill, and insists that Andrew knows why the kid’s dying.

It’s specter vs. cop in a race to save the boy’s life, and The Dead Boy knows that every solution hinges on secrets Andrew just cannot tell. Yet Andrew believes the truth will destroy him—and most certainly will defeat any new chance he might have with Elizabeth. The Dead Boy, though, knows that every secret revealed will allow him, the specter, to once again walk amidst the living…


      And here, on page 22 of this manuscript-I’m-too-chicken-to-pitch, is a short segment that goes where Andrew’s emotion is, always just rippling beneath his surface of stoicism and sarcasm. In this scene he has walked his sister (Shaynie Grace, the heroine from my previous novel, Divinity & The Python) down the aisle…

…“So,” he said. “How many chickens are we sacrificing for this gig, anyway?”

    His sister slugged him, and her Goliath shifted so the guests could not see. Andrew laughed but as he held her hand out every memory flashed, right back to the day his mother had brought the wee pink bundle home, crouching down low so he could see. “She smiled at me, Mama! The baby smiled!”

    “Oh, Andrew. Shaynie Grace is too new to smile.”

    She’d been wrong. Shaynie Grace had smiled. On that day and every one after. He’d been her hero. She was his little friend. And he’d never been good at anything, but he had been good at protecting her. So now….give her away? But I’ve lost so much.

    Their gazes met and for a moment he wasn’t sure if the tears there were hers or just a reflection of his in their identical eyes. “I love you, Andrew,” she said, hushed.

   Good Christ. He wanted to bawl….’

I cried a million times writing this novel. I laughed a million times more. The experiences that shaped this character and the trajectory of his narrative drive are so incredibly typical of things we (therapists, not writers) hear in the counseling room, that I’m not too proud to say that sometimes Andrew’s story, and certainly his history, broke my heart.

      I hope his novel gets the opportunity to break a reader’s heart too. I’d love to be told that someone cried for Andrew. Rooted for Andrew. Hell, I’d love to hear someone swear out-loud for Andrew (and he’d love that too. One of his many dubious charms is a potty-mouth begging to lick soap).

      I would love to hear that someone (because there are so many someones, too many someones) with their own fractured past at last felt they could bravely recount it—because they have seen Andrew’s story and know trauma can be healed.

Peace, all

b.r Jan 2015


  1. I can hardly wait to read it - best of luck with your pitches!

    And I'm sorry to disagree with your beta readers, but I'm going to anyway. I like 'Breaking Hymn' better for a title. As a writer, I like the play on words; and I like the way Divinity and Hymn suggest that the characters are shared between the two books.

    As a reader 'Breaking Hymn' makes me sit up and think, "Wait, what? I need to know more." 'The Summit's Shadow' doesn't have the same interest factor. Sorry, I hate to sow dissension in the ranks, but there it is. ;-)

    (And I'd totally cut Andrew some slack! He reminds me of Hellhound, my favourite 'broken' character from my novels.)

    1. Hmm, I might want to meet Hellhound now!

      Thanks, Diane, for giving me another, totally fresh point-of-view on the title of this novel; I too remain really taken with 'Breaking Hymn'....