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Rebel, Rebel: Kevin Wilson

Updated: Apr 3, 2023

In this series, I discuss the so-called rules of writing--and how great authors manage to break them.


The Book NOTHING TO SEE HERE by Kevin Wilson (Ecco/HarperCollins)


This one has been on my TBR list since it came out in 2019. Now I wish I'd read it sooner! NOTHING TO SEE HERE is a family story with a super clever premise, heaps of wry humour, and a touch of the speculative. I gulped it down in only a few sittings. In fact, the plot moves so swiftly that I almost didn't notice the rules Wilson breaks along the way.


The year is 1995, and broke, twenty-something Lillian receives a letter from former schoolmate Madison, now the wife of a rising-star politician. Madison offers Lillian a job minding her twin stepchildren for the summer, which turns out to be a pretty tough gig--especially since the kids catch fire (literally) whenever they're pissed off about something. Lillian accepts the job partly due to her complicated history with Madison, which we learn about through a fourteen-page flashback (!!!!!) in the first chapter (!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!).


Why you might want to follow the rules

Many agents and editors would balk at a flashback in the first thirty pages, let alone the first five. Often, it's a sign that you've started your novel in the wrong place. If what happened yesterday is more interesting and important than what's happening today, why not open the story there? By jumping around in time, you run the risk of disorienting the reader, who's trying to figure out who your characters are and why they're worth rooting for.


Why it works to break the rules in this case

From what I can tell, the best flashbacks tend to provide the reader information without which the "now" of the story wouldn't a) make sense; or b) matter. Through the first-chapter flashback in NOTHING TO SEE HERE, we learn that, after taking the fall for some cocaine Madison left in their dorm as teenagers, Lillian was kicked out of the prestigious boarding school she attended as a scholarship student. This helps us understand the strange nature of their friendship and raises the stakes when we see them reunite a few pages later.


The flashback also allows the reader to empathize with Lillian. Boarding school was her one chance to escape the loveless, relatively impoverished home she shared with her struggling mom. The cocaine incident crushed her hopes of making a better life. When we meet her in the "now," she's depressed, despondent, and living paycheque-to-paycheque. Given the events of the flashback, her current reality makes sense--and it hurts. Already, we like her and want to see her succeed, especially if that means contending with fire children!

The 90s Question

As far as I can see, the only reason this story is set in 1995 is that the plot would fall apart if camera phones existed. This is another no-no: don't set your story in the past simply to avoid technology. Wilson gets away with it here partly because the book is told as a first-person coming-of-age story. Lillian narrates the novel in past-tense, so it feels like she's recounting these events in our present-day, telling the story of how she found her way in the world as a young person.


Which is further proof that no one cares what rules you break so long as your book is awesome. (Bonus points for pyrotechnics!)

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