Not Your Mary Sue: the stitch markers

About a year ago, I contacted Heather of winemakerssister on Etsy to ask if she’d be interested in making a knitter’s chatelaine based on Not Your Mary Sue. I didn’t come up with the idea on my own – I’ve been known to refer to Heather as “my stitch marker dealer” and she has plenty of literary-themed sets already on there.

I looked through the various charms Heather already had online and chose from those. She suggested red for the beads, because … well, murder. And that’s the most she knew about the plot: there was murder, and these charms meant something. Which was maybe a bit mean, since she had to wait so long to find out what they all meant, but …

Well. Spoilers ahead, because I’m going to explain them.

My knitter’s chatelaine from winemakerssister on Etsy.

The book

Jay wants Marcy to write his biography. That’s the main book at the center of, uh … the book. But there are other books, too. Marcy reads 1984 when she’s on the island (and some of my friends from junior high recognized Mrs. Crandall – she was my real 8th and 9th grade English teacher). And Marcy learns that her new neighbors Elena and Suzette, as well as handsome librarian Edison, are all Stephen King fans. Marcy’s a reader.

The dagger

This is the part that I really felt like I had to keep my mouth shut about, because I really, really wanted to share it. Jay’s a journeyman bladesmith who specially crafted a dagger to use during each of his murders. Even though he spent all this time combining his hobbies, he doesn’t tell Marcy about that part – she has to basically stumble on it.

Jay’s preferred weapon is the Fairbairn-Sykes dagger. (Yes, I know the link says “fighting knife.” We won’t get into the semantics of daggers and fighting knives – it’s like squares and rectangles – so I’ll stick with Jay’s preferred terminology.) My husband picked it. He’s an amateur bladesmith and I told him “Pick a weapon for my serial killer.” That’s what he picked.

The choice of the Fairbairn-Sykes dagger dictated Jay’s preferred style MO. It’s such a central element of Jay’s character at this point that I even asked Shegry to include it in the portrait of Jay. The proportions of blade to handle is pretty distinctive.

The measuring cup

After she gets off the island, and after she finishes the first draft of her memoir, Marcy casts around for some sort of creative outlet. It needs to be something new, not related to either her life before the island or connected to Jay. (In the original ending, you might recall, she learned some bladesmithing skills and then used them to make sculptures instead of weapons.)

In the final version, she turns to baking. It’s exact and precise and requires a lot of focus on the here and now, and then she can share the results of her labors with her new friends.

The typewriter

Heather warned me that the typewriter has typed “I love you” on it, and I laughed and said I’ll take it, anyway. There’s a division here between me and some of my first readers: I didn’t intend Marcy to be read as having a romantic relationship with Jay, but people are certainly interpreting it that way. Now, as a good Barthes scholar I’m down with the death of the author, so … if that’s how you read it, then fine. Marcy’s romantically interested in Jay.

(I will, however, add that sometimes the blue curtains are just … blue.)

The cabin

Okay this is another obvious one, I think. The entire first half of the book takes place on an island where Marcy’s stuck in a luxury cabin. It’s not exactly a gothic castle, but our maiden fair is certainly isolated.

The elephant

I giggled while picking this one because it’s just so out there. The on-the-page reason is because Edison and Marcy go to the zoo and they have a moment at the elephant enclosure. The “maybe the author isn’t dead, after all” answer is that my best friend and I have a history of going to zoos together, and she loves elephants. (When I go to a zoo without her, she gets texted pictures of elephants.)

This one was mostly an inside joke, but I also like what the scene shows about the budding relationship between Edison and Marcy. Marcy’s spent so much of the book feeling like she’s the only one who’s weak and has “issues,” but then she witnesses Edison going through it. And surprised him with her reaction.

The scissors

Heather told me she’s now dubbed this charm “the murder scissors,” even though that was shortly after she made me the set and she didn’t know how they were used in the story.

Marcy’s a knitter, but the scene where the scissors take the spotlight has nothing to do with knitting. It’s right after That Scene (I think it’s the part readers have mentioned to me more than any other) when Marcy manages to get her hands (er, hand) on them to cut through the duct tape. Now, they aren’t very big – these are the scissors you keep in your craft supplies for a single snip of the yarn or thread, and if you actually do use them on duct tape, they’d probably get all gummed up and ruined. But desperate times, etc etc.

(They probably wouldn’t make good murder weapons, anyway.)

The ball of yarn and knitting needles

Marcy’s a knitter. I’m a knitter. Heck, I designed a shawl for Marcy to wear. (Plus, you know … designed a whole set of stitch markers based on my book.) You know Marcy’s a knitter from the very beginning when she uses her knitting supplies unconventionally to pick a lock. (Seems like she’s always using her craft stuff to get free of whatever Jay’s got her stuck in this time.) So. Probably another obvious one.


Have you ever done something special like this for yourself to celebrate your upcoming book? Or have you ordered stitch markers from Heather? Share in the comments!

Put some words back in

I’ve talked a bit about my writing schedule, and mused about writing on both good days and bad, and compared writing to going to the faucet, but lately I’ve been thinking about the part of the process my friend Angela likes to stress: the breaks. Angela’s really big on telling me I need to take breaks. (I’m not really so big on listening to her.)

I’ve got what’s become a stock phrase for me, but when I dropped it in a Discord writing conversation, I realized that this thing so familiar to me is new and different to other people. When someone mentioned how draining it is to be working on a long-term writing project, I said oh, yeah – when you’re doing that, you need to pause now and then to put some words back in.

I don’t know if they actually blinked, but the “is typing” notification was up for quite a while before they came back with “Tell me more.”

I guess sometimes I picture my brain to be the Kool-Aid man.

Not because I’m made of glass or because I like to bust through walls, but because my words are the Kool-Aid. When I write, I pour them out. Now, I’m not entirely sure what would happen to the Kool-Aid Man if you emptied his pitcher, but I know how I feel after a long writing session: drained. (Ba dum tss.)

Aside from things like breathing and blinking, I’m not sure we’re built for sustained anything as a constant. Marathon runners train themselves to be able to keep it up for that long (or, if you’re Eddie Izzard, you run 32 marathons in 31 days.) I’d say “HOW?” but the answer is “training.”

National Novel Writing Month is a marathon. They have word sprints (because apparently running is a very apt metaphor for writing a novel) where participants see how many words they can write in a short amount of time, from 5 minutes to attempting a #1k30 challenge and writing one thousand words in thirty minutes, but NaNoWriMo itself is a marathon. For 30 days, the goal is to write 1,667 words and end up with 50,000 words of a first draft by the time November’s over.

At the average typing speed of 40 words per minute, that means writing for 42 minutes a day and 20 hours, 50 minutes over the course of the month to finish the novel. (One of my past NaNoWriMo notebooks has a nifty little writing time conversion chart in the back cover.) And maybe you think hey, 42 minutes a day? Totally doable. But that 42 minutes assumes that you know each and every one of those 1,667 words and don’t have to sit there and grasp for the next one.

Let’s say you have a good day and 42 minutes is all it takes. You’ve still pulled 1,667 words out of your head. So … now what?

Time to refill.

I personally don’t stop at 1,667 because I’ve been doing NaNoWriMo since 2010, so I know my own personal Goldilocks zone as far as word counts go. (Yeah, I know that’s for planets that can sustain life, but really it’s my wordcount that sustains both my life and my novel’s.) But the most important thing, especially as far as my friend Angela is concerned, is knowing when to stop.

Yes, you can absolutely write more than 1,667 words. Some people front-load their wordcounts and do what’s been termed a Reverse NaNo, getting ahead early in the month and only needing a single word on a final day. Others try a 50K Weekend to get all those words down in … well, that one might be self-explanatory. And if that’s what you’re looking for, then go for it.

I did 50k in two days in November 2020, hitting the goal before 8pm on November 2. There was more story to tell, but I was burned out at that point. I think I wrote another thousand or so words over the other 28 days of the month, but that rough draft is still unfinished. While a 50K weekend is possible for me, it’s not my Goldilocks zone.

Through decades and millions of words of practice, I’ve found my Goldilocks word count: on good days, I zoom through it before noon. On slower days, I can still make the goal, but it’s much more of a push. But the most important part of the process is this:

When I hit my word count goal, I’m done writing for the day.

It becomes time to put words back in my brain and fill that Kool-Aid pitcher back up.

What that actually looks like depends on the day. Sometimes it’s exercise. Sometimes it’s reading something, new or a re-read. It could be watching something. Basically my brain needs to do something other than shove words out through my fingertips, and it’s happiest when I put something back in it.

In case this wasn’t obvious with Angela having to remind me about breaks, I wasn’t always like this. I used to treat writing as write-write-write and nothing else. If I was awake, I should be writing … and nothing else. I didn’t have a broader definition of all the different steps writing requires, including (yes, Angela) breaks.


Has your approach to writing changed over time? Do you prefer to write as much as possible every single day, take it slow and steady, or something in between?

Not Your Mary Sue: the original ending

So there are totally spoilers for Not Your Mary Sue in this post. If you haven’t read it and want to experience it all without knowing what’s coming, this is your cue to stop reading.

Okay?

Okay.

This post isn’t exactly one of those killed darlings, because this is the first time I’ve actually written it. I didn’t have to delete it from my first draft because, once I got to the end of what ended up being Part One, I didn’t want to write it anymore. It just didn’t fit.

But, once upon a time, leading up to about mid-November of 2017, this was how Marcy’s story was going to end. We see the others come to the island and eventually make their way into the bedroom, finding Marcy curled up in the corner of the bedroom, and she starts crying. There’s a break, and then this brief epilogue from some months later:


Marcy steps out into the sunlight and sighs, arming sweat off her forehead. It’s not entirely clear where she is – she’s just outside, and sweaty. She moves out of the way of the door, but you don’t know how big the door is. She just steps sideways enough to lean against the outside of the building but, before she does, she pulls something out of her back pocket: the first sign that she’s wearing jeans.

She unfolds the paper and it becomes clear that it’s getting thin along the creases. We can’t read all the words, anyway, but they’re written in a familiar, spiky-yet-cramped hand. And what we can read is the last sentence: Remember, Marcy: when you save a life, you’re responsible for it.

“Marce?” someone calls from inside the building, and he comes out – not through a person-sized door, but through an open garage door. He’s a stranger, and he’s wearing a leather apron. “You all right?”

She folds the letter from Jay quickly but carefully and slips it into her back pocket. She’s wearing an apron, too, and her hair’s pulled back into a tight bun. “Yeah, just … needed some air.”


He smiles and somehow it becomes clear that she’s his student. Maybe he says something about how he can’t have his best student collapsing from heat exhaustion, or maybe it’s less obvious. When he reaches out toward her, she pushes away from the wall and lets him lead her back into the building where the sword forge, and her blade in progress, are waiting.


Yeah I always imagine my scenes as movie shots, I guess. It’s a lot of telling and a complete lack of interiority because I never actually turned it from the idea into a scene for the book. I wrote the first draft in third person but, aside from one scene – the very second in the book – from Jay’s point of view, I stuck close to Marcy the whole time. When I rewrote it for the second draft, about the only thing I changed was the point of view from third to first, and the tense from past to present. Nearly everything else from the first part of the final book is what I wrote in November 2017. How amazing is that?

The thing was, though, once I got to the end of part one – once Marcy put her head down on her knees and cried because they’d found her – I didn’t want to let her go. Sending her into the forge was no longer the proper slightly ominous ending for her as a character. She’d spent the entire story so far reacting instead of acting, and I wanted to give her some agency.

Reality check, though: originally Part Two started with the words Edison Crane had a girlfriend. The original Part Two was told largely from his point of view, because I hadn’t really figured her out yet. Marcy on the island, yes, that had been swirling around in my head for months. Marcy off the island? Big shrug.

I had to figure out what all was going to happen to Marcy before I could figure out how she was going to handle it. And, as a nod to my original ending, in that first draft Edison was a master bladesmith. (Remember Jay only reached journeyman.) His house had a forge in the backyard, and Marcy asked him if he could teach her. Except, once she learned the techniques, she used the skills to make some elaborate sculptures, like a metal nod to Chihuly’s sea life tower or an interpretation of a whale fall, which ended up being the centerpiece of a show she eventually put on (with all proceeds to go to charity, of course).

But, once I’d rewritten the first half again, years after the original draft, I knew I couldn’t let Marcy go like that for the middle. Part Three’s back to her, fine, but even though sudden changes often happen in thrillers at a new part, it didn’t make sense to start with Edison. Mostly because her life After Jay didn’t start with Edison.

I had to follow Marcy, in her fog, to Iowa before I could follow her to Illinois. Make those transitions with her. See her resisting Edison at a few opportunities before allowing herself to be drawn in because of Stephen King, and then because he reacted to her distress. A lot of those scenes were there in my first draft – and a lot of them got cut in the second and restored in the third, but now from Marcy’s point of view – but the changes seemed far more significant.

If “Edison Crane had a girlfriend,” you don’t get to see so much inside Marcy’s head.

And really, you didn’t. That first draft de-centers her from her own story until Jay’s escape. At the time I was just trying any angle to get the events on the page and figure out where the heck things were going, since now I was pantsing instead of following a mental outline. I had no idea what was happening next, or even who the heck Edison Crane was. I can’t even remember how I came up with the name. The goal was to just keep writing, and to know that I could always come back, and edit, and make it look like I’d known what I was doing all along.


Do you think Marcy’s still the sort of person who’d reclaim the skills Jay had and use them for creation instead of destruction? Or does it make a lot more sense that the original ending didn’t happen?

Have you ever made a change like this partway through a first draft of your own?

okay, next?

I recently completed the first first draft since Not Your Mary Sue came out, and … it’s been weird. Let’s face it, I didn’t think I was going to have any sort of sophomore novel jitters because a) I’ve written so many novels before and after that first draft of NYMS, and b) I know what novel’s being published next and it was already written before NYMS came out, but … still, it’s been weird.

I’m not a new writer. I’ve been writing novels since 2000, when I had a story I wanted to tell that didn’t fit into fanfiction. And yeah, okay, that one’s probably not long enough to classify as a novel based on word count, but come on. I was 15. I’m counting it.

I’ve written about how no, I don’t finish every manuscript I start. Yes, I’ve written novels into the double digits, but that’s nothing compared to the false starts. Which I did write about. And marvel over, because hey, Teenage Rebecca kept at it even when the starts-to-completion ratio was 20:1.

Let’s just say false starts feel a bit scarier now.

My academic writing has always felt different from my “fun” writing, and I don’t remember feeling this way after Ripper’s Victims came out. I don’t think it’s just the difference in process between proposing, and then writing, an academic book, or drafting a whole novel, but maybe. It is a different approach, after all.

I think it’s easier somehow for me to see academic writing as an honest draft, to be revised by me before anyone else sees it, and then revised again based on peer review or editorial comments. It’s easier, maybe, to think of academic writing as an actual process. There are multiple steps, and turning a blank document into a bunch of words is only the first one.

I didn’t really want to tell anyone I’d started a new novel. When I set my goals for the week, it was a bit superstitious: well I’d like to keep up my progress, but no worries, universe, if I can’t. It’s not that important. It’s fine.

(It was totally that important.)

The thing is, with all those partial files and all the work I’ve done in the past, I know what it feels like when a book isn’t working. Except “when a book isn’t working” can also be “not a great day on a book that is working.” So you have to push through the one not-so-great day and hope it doesn’t pile up into two, and then three, and then fizzle.

Plus you’re alone in the room, staring at the screen, and at the same time you know you’re the only one putting this pressure on yourself, it’s still valid pressure. “C’mon, you’ve done this how many times before? You know you can do it.”

While your recently-published book just sits there and stares at you.

The demonstrated ability to write a novel just doesn’t feel like a guarantee.

Yes, I’ve done it. I’ve been doing it for years. And now you can see that I’ve done it. This isn’t just something between me and a small group of people I can name and call up if I want to. Complete strangers can buy my book (and read it and judge me).

Because yeah, that’s part of it. This time when I sat down to draft, I thought “Oh crap, people are going to read this.” I’ve spent a couple decades doing these fun stories and sharing them with people who know me and who will be kind about their critique. People I know. And when the drafting’s going well, I don’t even think about them – how they’d react to reading a certain scene or anything. When the drafting’s going well, it just flows.

And this one (which I’m only writing about because the first draft is complete) did flow. I’ve got my Goldilocks zone for a first draft, based on word count: if I write this many words a day, then it means the story’s hot because I can write that many words. Some days are hot and fast and I’m done well before noon, and others are slower and harder (and make me worry that this thing’s going to go into the half-finished file and get lost), but I’ve found the word count that works for me.

Even on the days when it’s fast, I stop at that word count and then … do other things. Regular life things. Let the story sit until the next day and percolate in the background.

But, even then, even when I was like “Oh yeah tomorrow will be enough to finish this,” I didn’t want to trust it.

Trusting it feels like jinxing it.

Like yeah, maybe the writing ability – or just the joy – is a gift from some temperamental fairies who’ll take it back the moment they see me taking it for granted. (I’m pretty sure academic writing doesn’t come from fairies, temperamental or otherwise. That’s always more of a grind and feels more like honest work.)

I also feel like this draft was more of a first draft than I usually write. There are a lot of placeholders, mostly for names – a couple characters are X and Y LastName (no relation), because stopping to try to figure one out felt like it might derail the whole thing.

But it also feels like more of a first draft because I’ve spent so much time with a published book. It’s easy to forget everything that happened between the end of November 2017 and June 7, 2022, when it got published. All of the steps and revisions and feedback and more revisions that happened between the thing I wrote, having fun, and the thing other people get to buy.

I’ve also been a bit tired out from all that writing and the whole balancing act, which is why I haven’t written a post lately. Because writing is work, even when it’s fun.


How do you feel when you’re shifting between projects? Do you have any tips for starting The Next Thing?

12 challenge, book 7 – The Fields

It’s time for book 7 of my 12 challenge: late last December, I decided to go ahead and do the “12 Challenge” that was going around Twitter: 12 months to read 12 books recommended by 12 friends. I specifically requested true crime and thrillers, looking for good books I haven’t read yet. Follow that link for my thoughts on the first six books.

Book 7 is The Fields by Erin Young.

Welcome to the Midwest.

If you’re from the Midwest, you might have the same sort of thoughts I did at the start of the novel: okay why are you taking so long to explain the Midwest?

Right. Not everyone in the world lives here.

There’s lots of corn.

I mean, there’s a lot more to it – and one of the main character’s friends comes from a bit closer to home for me, hailing from Flint, Michigan, which means the water crisis gets mentioned – but this book starts in the corn, and has a lot to do with corn.

Say hello to Riley Fisher.

Some places list The Fields as Riley Fisher Book #1, so presumably we’ll be seeing her again. She’s been recently promoted to Sergeant and the good old boys in the department aren’t happy about it. At this point Riley’s not super happy about it, either, because she’s getting a lot of pressure from a lot of different places. Personal life, family life, work life … Riley’s under a lot of pressure.

It doesn’t help that the murder that opens the book (in the corn – there’s corn everywhere, did I mention that?) combines different facets of her life. Riley’s past is shown in glimpses and flashes because she doesn’t really want to go through it all, thank you very much, but you know there’s trauma there. And the woman who was killed was part of Riley’s life Before The Trauma, so a) she doesn’t want to admit she knows her because it means addressing said Trauma, and b) she hasn’t actually seen the woman in years. So it wouldn’t have been a happy reunion even if both women had been alive.

Did I mention the corn?

I mean, the book’s called “the fields,” opens with a death in a corn field, and takes place in Iowa. The corn’s going to play a role in this. From farmers using drones to inspect their fields, to the intricacies of private versus collective farms, to the science of growing more or better or different corn … there’s a lot of corn in this book.

It’s not the only thing. We’ve already touched on murder, and there are issues with homelessness and drugs. Families have secrets, and not just Riley’s. There’s actually a lot going on in this book, and even when Riley seems to get sidetracked, you just know it’s not really a sidetrack. There has to be something useful in what she learns, even if it all seems either irrelevant or, at best, a red herring.

And here’s where I run into a wall.

That’s the thing about thrillers: you can’t always talk about the stuff that makes them cool. I try to stick to the stuff that’s on the back of the book, or on the author’s website, or in a review, because you don’t want to give things away.

So. Spoiler-free …

The book is more complicated than it first seems. Filler stuff isn’t (necessarily) filler. (Or is it? Thrillers keep you guessing.) There are times when it feels more like a Michael Crichton style techno-thriller than I was anticipating, because most of it isn’t. But even that plays with the Midwest theme: there’s that tension between the idyllic image of the old family farm and the reality of food production in the 21st century.

It’s a book I’m going to want to read again, knowing the ending and how things do – or don’t, or maybe only might – come together. Some books are a trip I only want to take once: I’m glad I went, but I saw enough, thanks, and I don’t need to go back there. I don’t feel like I’m missing anything. With The Fields, I do want to make a second trip, now that I have a better idea of what I’m looking for … in the corn.


Have you read The Fields? Do you think it makes a difference if you live in, or have spent a lot of time in, the place where a novel’s set?

About all those writing rules that everyone should follow …

So a couple weeks ago now a friend of mine made an observation on Twitter:

And that, combined with some other recent twitter discourse, makes me want to repeat my response to Danielle a bit louder, and a bit longer.

The thing is, writing advice isn’t one size fits all.

Except it’s like math: they start of telling you that you can’t subtract a bigger number from a smaller number. You just can’t. If you’re kid who pipes up about negative numbers, they shush you until the curriculum says that it’s information you’re allowed to receive. “Don’t confuse the other kids!” (That may have been the last time in my life I was actually ahead of the other kids concerning mathematical knowledge.)

Here’s another elementary school memory that resonates: in second grade we had to write storybooks with a partner. Stephanie and I wrote about a bunny who went on an adventure to a strange land and then came home and … I don’t remember exactly what, but it was very Hero’s Journey of the little rabbit. We even included dialogue to prove we’d learned all the punctuation rules.

But I remember Mrs. Knitz reading it and telling us that we couldn’t start a sentence with a conjunction. (In this case it was “and.”) So we had to erase our carefully-penciled text and cover up the weird gap it left.

It goes beyond learning the rules so you can break them.

More recently – I guess this post is a bunch of anecdotes – I had someone tell me that you have to learn the rules before you can break them because I said I don’t know the beats of Save the Cat. The internet’s a weird place, and you don’t always know who you’re talking to. I’m sure they meant it for the best. But I had to point out that some of us learned the rules before the original Save the Cat was published in 2005.

And yes, it’s important to know the expectations of the genre you’re writing. That’s really the whole point of a genre: it tells audiences what they can expect. It helps us pick the thing we want to engage with next. Some days you’re in the mood for horror, and others you just want a romantic comedy. The third-act misunderstanding (and maybe a breakup) is absolutely expected and necessary, but so is that happily ever after (or at least a happily-for-now).

Can you mess with generic formats? Yes, but. That’s getting complicated beyond what I’m trying to say here. Hold on to your knowledge of negative numbers until the rest of the class is ready to learn.

The point I’m trying to make is that there are all sorts of rules about how to write.

You get grammar and punctuation and formatting rules. You get genre- and format-specific rules. If you take a class, you get instructor-specific rules. (I had one in college who was obsessed with food. Your characters had to eat something, and it was always meaningful.) Pick up a book on writing and get a few more rules.

So now we’re circling back to Danielle’s lament that a very common writing rule doesn’t work for her. And my response:

I think I’ve generally seen it as “Don’t edit while you write … if it’s going to bog you down and stop you from making progress.” Or maybe I’ve just always added the second bit in myself?

Danielle agreed that yes, that’s the context, but it’s also the quiet bit. That’s the kid trying to tell the teacher that yes, you can subtract a bigger number from a smaller number, because negative numbers are a thing! They exist!

Writing advice is some big blanket statement that someone (presumably with authority) makes to some sort of audience. If you’re in a classroom, the speaker has a better chance of knowing that audience, but even then you don’t know everything about everyone. You don’t know where someone is in their writing journey or how many years they’ve spent honing their craft, or how, with which books or which trends, so really it’s just easier to make big proclamations.

And miss the nuance of the quiet part.

Writer, know thyself.

Yes, you should know the rules and expectations. You’re entering into a conversation as a writer and not just existing in some sort of void. (That might be my They Say, I Say college composition syllabus coming through, considering I taught it for years.) You do need to know how you fit and what various people are going to expect.

But.

The point of writing is the writing. And the reason so many of us talk about writing is because we’re not going to be relevant to everyone. And even then we’re not going to be relevant to someone on every project. Writing, and writers, continually evolve as they read and write and engage and revise and daydream and scrap and edit and polish.

So: you don’t have to take every piece of writing advice someone hands you. If you think it’s going to work (for you), then absolutely put it in your pocket. If you’re skeptical, you might stick it in a drawer of your desk to pull out when everything else seems to have stalled.

Or you can chuck it in the circular file if, instead of helping you get words on the page, it’s going to stop you completely.


In the interest of those of you who already know about negative numbers: yes, this changes when you’re working with an editor or an agent who suggests changes or a publishing house that has its own style rules. There are always exceptions. But, like my math teachers, you have to start somewhere.


What “writing rule” can you never seem to follow? Do you even try anymore, or is it something you’ve decided you don’t actually need?

First Draft Rebecca

I’ve been working on revising a novel I drafted during NaNoWriMo in 2019. I picked it up again recently, read it, and thought “Hey, I still really like this. I could probably do something with it.” So here I am, working through it.

I’ve talked a bit about rough drafts before (see Do your rough drafts ever get less rough? or “Don’t compare your rough draft to someone else’s final product” or Remember to look back) but I think it’s a good topic to revisit. You learn different things about yourself with each project, and you learn new things about yourself with each revision. And I think it’s helpful for writers at all levels to talk about their current process and just … share a bit about what goes on behind the scenes.

First Draft Rebecca can’t be bothered with limiting POVs

The first draft is in third person and I didn’t limit myself to using only certain characters. I was just trying to get the story down and follow it through to the end, so if I wanted to know what was happening over there more than halfway through the story, even though I’d never used one of those characters as a POV character yet … it didn’t matter. I hopped into their head and figured things out from there.

My first step was transferring the manuscript scene by scene from Word to Scrivener, which I wasn’t using at all back then. (2019 seems like eons ago.) While I was doing that, I labeled the scene’s POV – or double labeled it, if it was written from Z’s point of view, but X or Y was there. In the rewrite I’m limiting things to two POVs.

This means losing a lot. First off, the new, cut document was about 25,000 words shorter than my initial draft. But what about those scenes? The tension I created by jumping back and forth at crucial points, leaving things hanging?

Well. A lot of those darlings are dead. Or, at least, left behind in the first draft. I’ll figure out how to work around them, and then I’ll be one of only a handful of people who could tell you there’s something missing.

First Draft Rebecca likes to repeat herself

So first, remember that NaNoWriMo means writing your first draft at top speed, aiming for 50,000 words in 30 days. I … didn’t. 2019 was the year I hit 50k on November 3, which is why I went on to push myself to hit 50k in two days in 2020. (Spoiler alert: I did, but it also hurt my hands, and I’m never doing it that quickly again. A fact my writing group reminds me of every late October.)

When you’re drafting quickly, just trying to get the story down, you’re bound to repeat yourself. Overemphasize the things you’re pretty sure are going to be important. Reuse cool lines because honestly you can’t remember if you already wrote it, or just thought of writing it.

The first draft is basically a mess.

The second draft is where you go and gather together the fragments of the explosion and figure out what it is you did, and make it look like that was what you always meant to do.

Neil Gaiman

I think I’ve said before that I have friends who plot things out completely before writing them, but I am not one of these people. I’m definitely the explosion first draft type, and this second round helps me get rid of a lot of things – extraneous POVs, unnecessary repetition – but also add some things in: foreshadowing, since now I know how it’s going. The sort of repetition I want, because it matters for the characters and the story.

First Draft Rebecca is just excited to find out what happens in the end

One of the things I really like about NaNo is that speed: just keep writing. Don’t go back and edit. Keep pushing forward and see what happens.

Even when I try to plot something, I come to the end of what I’ve plotted and discover there’s still more story left over. I did that with Not Your Mary Sue – I’d plotted what happened in Part I and then a short epilogue. The book would’ve been about half the length it is now. But, once I got to the end of Part I, I felt like I couldn’t just leave Marcy there. I had to keep going.

My current revision is a Beauty and the Beast retelling. I love reading them (Robin McKinley‘s even written more than one) and I had more than one idea myself. I started with one and figured that would be the book, but then … the other idea rose up again, and the book kept going. It turned into two different Beauty and the Beast stories, swapping out roles somewhere around the middle.

I’d planned that first one, but the second was just me hanging on for the ride and seeing where things go.

… which doesn’t save First Draft Rebecca from the murky middle

It’s also called the muddy middle, or the saggy middle, but it doesn’t matter who you ask – the middle is a sticking point. It’s that transition between “what Rebecca thought the story was going to be about” and “what the story told Rebecca it wanted to be about.” It’s the part I’m editing right now, and yes, it’s murky. And muddy. And it sags. So there’s more cutting in the future as I put my characters on a much more direct path to their endings, but …

It’s fixable. That’s the good news. The best news, maybe.

And I’m excited about it, because this time I know how it ends, so I have a much better idea of how to get there. First Draft Rebecca has her issues, but she managed to get all of this down and figure out the plot.


All that being said, this book may never see the light of day. But the process of writing and revising is good practice, even if it doesn’t. Hey, at this point only one of my novels has been read beyond my little circle, so this is the same sort of thing I’ve been doing for a couple decades now: writing and revising because it’s actually rather fun, and because I like seeing how everything comes out, for the characters and for me.

Do you have any first draft quirks you leave for Second Draft You to deal with? Are any of them the same as mine?

12 challenge, book 6 – Final Girl Support Group

It’s time for book 6 of my 12 challenge: late last December, I decided to go ahead and do the “12 Challenge” that was going around Twitter: 12 months to read 12 books recommended by 12 friends. I specifically requested true crime and thrillers, looking for good books I haven’t read yet. Follow that link for my thoughts on the first five books.

Book 6 is The Final Girl Support Group by Grady Hendrix.

A little bit Night Film

I mentioned in my post about Night Film that it’s full of “sources”: documents from the world of the book that keep popping up and forcing you to do some odd zooming and scrolling if you have the Kindle version. Final Girl Support Group does the same sort of thing, opening each chapter with background information about the women in the support group – the final girls. But this publisher added a lovely “click here for a plain text version” link beneath each document’s image so it was far easier to read as an eBook.

A “final girl” is the lone female survivor of a slasher movie – or, in this case, the real-life women on which 80s slasher franchises were based. To be a real final girl, the main character tells us, they have to have killed the slasher personally. Lynette Tarkington, our narrator, therefore isn’t a real final girl. She “had to be rescued” from her killers.

Lynette also seems to be having the most trouble getting on with life a couple decades later. Her apartment is a fortress. She measures the risk of every single move she makes, and therefore makes very few. There’s this constant fear of “getting a sequel” or “continuing the franchise” – she’s already been attacked twice, but the real-world murders that inspire the films also keep repeating. So it’s going to take a lot to get Lynette to leave her apartment for anything other than the support group meeting, and even more to force her to rely on other people.

A little bit Ready Player One

We didn’t grow up watching many movies in our house, and especially not horror movies. (Seems weird for the kinds of books I like to read, maybe, but even with Stephen King I’m far more into his books than the movie adaptions.) I know who Freddy and Jason are, but through general cultural exposure and Simpsons spoofs.

The women in the Final Girl Support Group all relate back to real-life franchises, presented under different names. If you watch and love horror movies, then I’m sure you’ll make a lot more connections than I did. Still, even without all the references, it’s a good read, the way I was pulled through Ready Player One despite not being into video games and being born a little too late to have fully lived it.

A little bit Wally Lamb?

Okay Wally Lamb doesn’t write horror, but he does write unlikable main characters. I first read She’s Come Undone and Dolores was all right – struggling and far from perfect, but I was rooting for her – but that didn’t hold for the male antagonists of I Know This Much is True or The Hour I First Believed. Anger issues, anyone?

I don’t particularly like Lynette. Part of it is probably how I can’t relate to her, having never been the main character in my own horror movie or had someone come back for the sequel. It’s also hard to determine exactly how long ago these things happened to her. How old is she? How much of her life has she spent living like this? And how, exactly, did she learn to keep herself safe? Because as much as that fear lives at the center of her life, not much of what she does seems to actually work very well.

Part of that is the point of the book, of course: that someone’s now coming after the final girls, which will leave the final girl of the final girls (who, the others sneer, won’t be Lynette, because she isn’t even a real final girl. But hey, maybe she’ll get her first kill?) And part of it is the disconnect Lynette has from real life. Which is understandable enough once you finally get to know a bit about what happened to her, but that’s still many long years between then and now.

Final verdict

After a bit of a rocky start with getting to know Lynette and trying to keep all the support group members straight, I devoured the book because I wanted to know how it ended. Who was after all the final girls? How did they get around Lynette’s protective measures so quickly? (But what the heck was up with some of those side characters? There was one sidetrack that made my disbelief a bit too heavy to suspend, but by that point I was invested, so I plowed gamely on through.) And there’s no way to say it without spoilers, so I’ll settle for “I liked a lot of what happened at the climax and in the wrap-up.”


If you’re a horror fan and you’ve read The Final Girl Support Group, what did you think? Or, if you’re like me and have only the vaguest slasher franchise knowledge, do you think it detracted from the book or it stood up on its own?

this one’s for the writers

Since Not Your Mary Sue has been out for three weeks now (ahhhh!) there have been reviews being posted in various places that clearly mark it as a “debut novel” or “first book.” Which it totally is. All my other published books have been nonfiction, and this is where a bunch of people are encountering me for the first time. So this has nothing to do with the word choice of anyone kind enough to read my book and post about it – you’re factually correct. Not Your Mary Sue is my first published novel. But I want to offer a clarification for the writers out there.

It’s not actually my first novel.

I didn’t start off writing like this.

I started, the way many people do, with fanfiction. Some of that probably still even exists out there somewhere, under one of my old screennames, but I never had more than a handful of readers. Which was fine – I wrote because I had fun writing, not because of the praise. That was in junior high, which was … yeesh … over two decades ago.

Then, when I was 15, I wrote my first “novel,” which I talk about a bit in this post. I printed off a couple copies and one of them actually made the rounds of my classmates a couple years later – I let one person borrow it and it got passed around and people I barely knew mentioned it to me in the hall. Which was weird and kind of scary, but obviously didn’t scare me off writing completely.

In my post about failure I go into how many novels I haven’t finished – how many ideas I started but never quite figured out a full plot arc for. That’s where I get my 10:1 ratio of “started documents to completed novels.” And at 87 partial efforts, I’ve clearly written more than one novel.

Some people end up publishing the first novel they ever wrote.

It can be their first published novel or, as in the case of Stephen King, their novels can be published “out of order.” Carrie was his first published novel in 1974, but he wrote The Long Walk when he was only 18. (Granted, he wasn’t ancient or anything when Carrie came out, but still.) The point is that King had completed other novels, tried to find interested publishers, and then laid them aside as he wrote new ones and tried again.

And that’s the situation with me: Not Your Mary Sue isn’t the first novel I ever wrote. By a long shot. I’ve been doing NaNoWriMo – that challenge to draft a 50,000-word novel in a single month – since 2010, including the two extra “camp” months since 2011, and that’s added a lot of “novels” to my list. But I didn’t write Not Your Mary Sue until 2017, and it was around that time that NaNo reported I’d logged a million words on their site.

You have to write a million words before you find your voice as a writer.

Henry Miller

I doubt Miller meant a hard-and-fast million, and my NaNo stats are missing more than a decade of what I’d written prior to joining up my first November, but that’s where things stood for me: I’d written over a million words by the time I sat down to start Not Your Mary Sue (and I’ve written who knows how many since then). My current NaNo lifetime stats stand at 3,011,716 words.

It’s not about the word count – it’s about perseverence.

Writing a little bit each day adds up. Tossing an idea aside when it’s not working, but then picking up a different idea, adds up. Going back to one of those previous ideas (tossed aside but not into the garbage) adds up.

Not Your Mary Sue both is and isn’t my first novel. It’s only my first published novel because I kept going – I kept reading, kept revising, and kept writing. What you hold in your hands isn’t anywhere near a first draft, and it shows all the decades of experience behind it. All those words add up.


Do you have any tips for authors looking to push through that “first million”? How do you keep writing when it all feels like an uphill struggle?

Marcy, aka “Not Your Mary Sue” herself

We talked about Jay last week, so now it’s Marcy’s turn. But before we get to the portrait I commissioned from Shegry, we have to do a little bit of creative writing class.

Jay’s a static character: he doesn’t change throughout the story. Internally, externally … Jay’s convinced he knows who he is, that he’s his best self, and he’s not going to change that for anyone. Or even be changed by anyone. So it was easy to describe Jay for Shegry to draw, because I didn’t have to ask myself “Which Jay?” Jay is Jay.

Marcy, on the other hand, is a dynamic character. She goes through changes and growth, both inwardly and outwardly. So Marcy was my second commission, because I had to ask myself: “Marcy from when?”

This is Marcy shortly after the start of Part II, so if you haven’t read that far yet, yes, you might have questions.

Also, mild spoilers if you haven’t gotten that far yet.

Marcy by Shegry

Let’s start with the parts again.

the mountains

Even though it was a few months between Jay and Marcy, Shegry pulled up Jay again and did a lot of work making the two pieces a set. In this case it’s opposites: Jay has Lake Superior, but Marcy has a much more grounded, earthy design. Marcy is definitely not Lake Superior. She might not be as grounded as she really wants to be, but that bedrock has plenty of meaning for her.

An old grad school friend read Not Your Mary Sue in one day and then messaged me

“Glacier, not an asteroid” f—ing brilliant – loved it 💜

… but that’s further into Part II than just the beginning. If you’ve read the book, you know what “Glacier, not asteroid” means, and why the bedrock matters. If not … you’ll see. (And it’s probably no surprise that my favorite character’s the one who says it.)

the blue symbol

Marcy’s very blue at this point, sort of a struggle between the idea of calm blue and sad blue, and Shegry chose to use a stylized version of the symbol awen, a Celtic symbol of hope, for the next section in Marcy’s portrait. At this point Marcy’s gotten off the island, so she’s physically survived the Fresh Coast Killer, but … survival is more than breathing.

The whole color scheme contrasts with Jay’s. He’s only got blue in one section, the waves at the very top, and the rest of him is very earthy with reds and browns. Seriously, those blankets look super snuggly. Marcy’s blue everywhere Jay isn’t, just a little extra touch that sets the portraits off against each other.

the flowers

Marcy’s snowdrops are absolutely laden with imagery: modesty, hope, innocence, purity, and rebirth. Like yes, hello, that’s my Marcy. (But not in a creepy Jay voice.) Even then she’s struggling with all of those elements. How much is actually her, the real Marcy, and how much is what others have shaped her to be? (And is it authentic to accept the shaping of others, or do you always have to rebel and twist away from it?)

Marcy’s younger than her age in some ways since she’s always been under the protective wings of her parents, their beliefs, and their lifestyle. She hasn’t really had the chance to figure out who she really is yet, that tension between who she wants to be and who she’s actually capable of becoming. Part II is where she finally gets to start figuring that out.

Marcy herself

So part of that – a part that looks off if you’re still in Part I – is how she has oil slick ombre hair. It’s a big change from her conservative background. (And yes, in my first draft, she totally cut her hair short and then dyed it pink, but … fine, that was a bit too Mary Sue.) She keeps it long but dyes it as a physical, visible reminder not only that the island in fact happened, but that she’s come out the other side.

I spent my junior year of college in Germany at the Friedrich-Alexander-Universität Erlangen-Nürnberg (the longest name of any university in Germany, in case anyone should ever ask) and coming home after 11 months away was … weird. Almost like nothing had happened. Part of that was probably the jetlag but it seemed surreal that I’d actually gone away and experienced all of that. I printed off a bunch of photos and made an album; Marcy doesn’t have photos, so she changes her physical appearance.

In a way that’s her own choice, mind. She’s got her feet hidden in the sheet in the portrait. I told Shegry she had to at least have her right ankle hidden, because this Marcy, mid-book Marcy, isn’t confident enough to show (or ignore) her scar. That plays into her pose, too: she’s hunched and protective, not (yet?) ready to be open and inviting, carefully covered.

Even though she’s still looking straight out of the image. Maybe she’s not “Lounge around barely covered with my favorite knife” confident, but this Marcy wasn’t going to be looking down or away. She’s not ready to face you full on just yet, but she’ll hold your gaze.


Working with Shegry was tons of fun for a couple reasons. First, it made me think about Jay and Marcy in a different way: how do I sum up their personalities and get everything short and to the point, cutting to the heart of the characters while still leaving room for artistic impression? Picking out reference photos was also fun. I had face models in mind, especially for Jay, but I got to send one for “this expression” and one for “with this hair.” The same with Marcy: I did one for her face, one for her hair, and one for the general pose. All of that narrowing down to the most important aspects and, for Marcy, to a specific moment helped make it seem new and interesting again.

And second, it’s collaboration. Shegry took all my words and references and came back with a sketch and an explanation for the design choices. I had a chance to correct things, but it’s also super cool to see someone else’s interpretation of my idea like this. Writing isn’t actually sitting alone in an unheated garret and only descending with a perfectly-formed draft, but there are times it feels pretty darn close.


What other ways do you like to think about your characters? Do you cast them in your head, or draw your own, or use picrews, or …?