Nitty gritty: tense and POV

Last week’s writing post led into a conversation about creative writing courses and how they don’t always teach the actual basics of writing. So I was mulling over what I could say about the subject without getting too bogged down, and how it might relate to my life, and … well, I’m currently shifting a novel from first person present tense to third person past, and I’ve got some Thoughts about that.

Tense

Some people have Very Strong Feelings about books written in present tense. (She sees the dog. The dog looks up at her. She stretches out a hand.) The first time I picked up a book in present, I was thrown. We’re generally used to past tense, depending of course on genre and trends. (She saw the dog. The dog looked up at her. She stretched out a hand.)

Why I like present tense: it’s immediate. The characters don’t know what’s going to happen, either. They’re living through it and we’re trailing along over their shoulder.

Okay, granted, your character doesn’t have to be writing in past tense from an advanced age, meaning she clearly survived the encounter with the dog. I specifically remember reading Sir Apropos of Nothing by Peter David, which is told from Apropos’ point of view as an old man recalling his life, and thinking “Okay he’s going to survive everything” because clearly he already had. The tension there is in how he got out of all of those impossible-sounding situations, not if.

Depending on what genre you write, you might be more pressured to pick one or the other. The main thing, though, is not to mix them. (She saw the dog. The dog looks up at her. She stretched out her hand.) If it’s present, keep it present. If it’s past, keep it past.

Here’s a fun thing about past tense, though. (Can you tell I’ve taught grammar before?) Take a look at these two examples:

a) He had a cat.
b) He’d had a cat.

The second one is further in the past than the first. Weird, right? If you’re writing in past tense, sometimes you need to reference things that happened before the thing you’re writing about – things that are even paster than the past. So, if he owned a cat when he was a kid, but doesn’t now, you might get something like:

Chris looked at the cat and wrinkled his nose. He’d had a cat once, but once had been enough.

In the moment of the story, he’s looking at the cat and wrinkling his nose. Before the moment of the story, he’d owned a cat. Cool, right? (Or weird and complicated. It’s okay. You can say it.)

POV

Point of view is when you decide where your camera goes. We’ll start with first, second, and third.

  • First person: I. This is when you’re deep in someone’s head. You can hear all of their thoughts without them having to say “I think” or “I wonder.” It’s just “Whoa, Jenna’s skirt’s a bit north of the knee” or “What the heck did that mean?” So your first person would be: I saw the dog. The dog looked up at me. I stretched out a hand.
  • Second person: you. This one isn’t very common outside of choose your own adventure books. (And don’t get confused – the book You by Caroline Kepnes is actually in first person. The POV is inside Joe’s head. He just talks to Beck in his head. A lot.) You saw the dog. The dog looked up at you. You stretched out a hand.
  • Third person: he/she/they. This one’s outside of everyone, and comes with more choices: how many of your characters do you want to follow around? Whose shoulder does the camera peek over? How many people’s thoughts can you hear? How often are you going to move the camera to follow someone else? They saw the dog. The dog looked up at them. They stretched out their hand.

I tend to think about POV as how limiting I want to be. If I stick to first person, then anything that happens without my POV character in the room can’t be shown. Will that work for the plot I’ve got in mind, or do I need to see some of that other stuff? Is there going to be enough tension that way, or does the reader need to see the bad guy getting up to something?

If I’m going for third person, then how many (or really, how few) people can I follow? Younger Me really, really loved pulling a Stephen King, writing up a few dozen characters, and then trying to follow all of them. Sometimes it works, but sometimes it doesn’t. For multiple POVs, consider how quickly your readers will be introduced to them; how easily it’ll be for them to follow the switches; and make sure you don’t head-hop in the middle of a scene. (Jenny thought that was a bad idea. Jeremy wondered if it might work. That’s two heads, right in a row. If Jeremy is the POV character, he’s stuck with what he can see, unless he can read minds: Jenny wrinkled her nose, but Jeremy wondered if it might work.)

It can help me to color-code my scenes so I know which POV I’m following and how often I’m switching. Some books alternate chapters between two POVs; others jump all around and cue readers in with the character’s name as the chapter title. The important thing is to make it clear to your reader whose eyes they’re looking through and whose thoughts they’re hearing. Even if it’s meant to be the Mysterious Bad Guy chapter, make sure your readers knows it’s the Mysterious Bad Guy.

What can be seen? Who sees it? Who gets to think about it, analyze it, and interpret it for the reader?


One important thing to keep in mind in all this is that you don’t have to worry about it in the first draft if that’s going to trip you up. You can even switch tenses and POV partway through a draft if what you’d originally picked isn’t working. It’s not exactly fun to go through and change things into a different tense or POV, but it’s a lot easier than starting from a blank page. At least you’ve got the story down and a firm place to start.

What’s something you wish had been covered in creative writing class that nobody ever thought to mention?

H. H. Holmes’ victims: Miss Kate Durkee

After a sort of weird diversion with Holmes’ supposed murder victims, we’re back to his more usual motive with the stated murder of Miss Kate Durkee: she had land and money. Holmes wanted it. So he killed her to get it.

In his confession, Holmes refers to her solely as “Miss Kate” and describes how he “acted as her agent” when she came to Chicago from Omaha. He talks himself down a bit, admitting that he’d used multiple names to hold property, act as a notary public, and carry on general business, just to name a few of his activities, and it’s another instance where he actually tries not to talk too much. Even though it’s his confession, he writes that this has all been written about before, in such detail, so … he apparently doesn’t have to actually go into it himself.

According to Holmes, he’d made contact with Miss Kate before she’d even come to Chicago. He said he had a good deal for her, so he should help her convert everything she had to cash. She agreed and then came up to Chicago to take her money. Holmes gave it to her and had her sign a receipt, which was apparently also dated, because he was thinking ahead. He’d need proof that he’d been honorable in his single dealing with Miss Kate, because she was about to become the next victim of his room-sized vault.

She died slowly, but Holmes doesn’t seem to have been overly affected by it, even though “her prayers are something terrible to remember.” He didn’t care – he had the forty thousand dollars, and he had the receipt she’d signed to prove he’d given it to her. Oh, but he also adds in a coda that he didn’t actually kill Miss Kate’s sister, as had been rumored. And that’s the end of it.

Although printing that Holmes had murdered Miss Kate Durkee led to an issue: she wasn’t actually dead. In fact, in 1896, after the confession was printed, she gave the statement “I have never been murdered – not by HH Holmes or by anyone else.”

Adam Selzer has a great write-up about Kate Durkee – I love how enthusiastic he is about her as a person. (Adam’s the one who wrote H. H. Holmes: The True History of the White City Devil. If you loved Devil in the White City, don’t read it – you’ll be sad that Holmes wasn’t half of who that book says he was. But, if you’re interested in the truth behind the myths …)

He explores more of her character, backing it up with a transcript from one of Holmes’ lawsuits. Kate Durkee’s answers to the questions put to her are … let’s call them “cagey.” She admits to having known Holmes for four years at the time, so it wasn’t a single instance of interaction, and it’s difficult to tell if she was attempting to play Holmes or if she’d gotten suckered by him like so many other people had. Miss Kate hadn’t lost forty thousand dollars by being locked in Holmes’ vault – her name had been on multiple property papers, including that of the Murder Castle.

So why did Holmes claim he’d killed her? The rumor that she’d become a victim had started after Holmes had first made headlines. She was no longer in Chicago, and there was a time when Holmes was named as the explanation for any possible wrongdoing that could be connected to him. Kate Durkee had been known to associate with Holmes; Kate Durkee hadn’t been around for a while; so therefore Kate Durkee had been murdered by Holmes. It was rumored, and Holmes was going to hang in two weeks, anyway, so why not use his confession to claim it?

(The alternate explanation is, of course, that Holmes himself didn’t actually write the confession. Whoever did would have heard the same rumors and used Kate Durkee to boost the number of victims. And again, it didn’t really matter – the papers sold and the uproar would have just drawn more attention to it. Holmes was set to hang, anyway, so it wasn’t like a false confession was going to make things worse for him.)

Miss Kate Durkee stands out because she can be proven both to have been a real person, and also not to have actually been his victim. But again, the reason Holmes gives for murdering her – money – falls in line with a number of deals he was known to have made. Holmes wanted money, and he wasn’t overly choosy about how he got it. In fact, it seems to have been more fun for him to swindle people than earn it honestly.

In Holmes’ confession, Miss Kate is reduced to just another victim too foolish to be careful. According to Adam Selzer, she’s not only feisty, but also perhaps a bit of a black widow – far more interesting, especially when she’s at the center of her own story instead of a side character in Holmes’.

Why do you think Holmes’ confession lists “Miss Kate” as a victim? After a lifetime of swindling (and at least a few murders), do you think he cared about a lie?

What role does the setting play in your plot?

It’s one of the requirements for writing a story: where it all happens. You can have amazingly detailed and dynamic characters but, unless they’re floating in the vacuum of space, they’re not enough. You need to know where they are, and what effect that “where” has on them and on your story. Your setting doesn’t necessarily have to be a character in and of itself, but choosing the right setting matters.

Setting matters for characterization

Think about how the places you’ve lived have affected your own life. They’re going to influence your way of speaking, even when you’re not aware of it. I’ve seen lists of things about the Midwest that other people find weird and of course aren’t strange to me, but it’s important to know all of those “natural” things you say, do, or expect aren’t universal. If your characters say “Ope,” drink pop, or look for a corn maze in the fall, then your setting is going to have to support all of that.

Setting matters for plot

Also think about the challenges you want your characters to face. Should they be able to run to Wal-Mart any hour of the day and buy things to solve their problems? Do they have access to Internet and cell service? Are they living on top of each other in an apartment block or way the heck out there in the middle of nowhere? If there’s a family emergency, how quickly can they be at their parents’ side? If they have a medical emergency, where’s the closest hospital? Your setting will have an effect on all of these plot elements.

Setting matters for believability

Yeah, I know we can argue about what, exactly, is meant by “Write what you know,” but if your story is set in the real world – even if you’ve made up your own town, like Derry, Maine – your familiarity with the wider setting can really help make things seem believable (even when a killer clown comes out of the sewers). Stephen King is from Maine, so his stories set in Maine have a certain verisimilitude because of his personal experience. When he mentions Yoopers, though – he’s done it twice so far, in 11/22/63 and Billy Summers – it’s … not quite right. (Look, I’m impressed he even knows what the UP is, but Traverse City isn’t in it.)

If you choose to mention real places and you’ve never been there, you run the risk of alienating readers who have. Take Traverse City, for example. I was born and raised there, so King’s reference to TC was cool, but … wrong. There’s also Broken Monsters by Lauren Beukes, which messes with the city’s geography in ways that (sorry, Lauren) could have been fixed with a simple google search. Granted, how many people in the world are going to know where there is (and isn’t) a Mailboxes Etc. in Traverse City? Well, say the 15,500 or so people who live there, but … if you don’t know TC, you probably don’t even remember it’s ever been mentioned.

Still. It’s something to think about.

So how do I bring this all together in my own writing?

Not Your Mary Sue opens on an island in Lake Superior. I don’t name it – it’s just … a private island. The actual location along the coast doesn’t really matter. What does is the fact of isolation. I wanted my two characters completely stuck with each other for the first half of the book.

I’ve lived in the UP since 2007, so I know the area. The way Superior looks when it’s the only thing on the horizon. How to warn people if you’re going through certain dead zones because no, your cell phone won’t work – you know you’ve come out the other size when you get a whole slew of notifications. I wanted my characters to have the isolation in Misery but to somehow make this happen in the 21st century, when cell phones and Wi-Fi make that difficult. It’s hard to be a kidnap victim for weeks on end when you can simply dial 911.

Lake Superior as seen from Eagle River

My male main character is from the UP, and my female main character grew up in the Midwest and has done a bunch of traveling, which means I can use either my normal speech patterns or the way my friends talk. I don’t have to try to make sure that someone’s always from Brooklyn, for example, because they’re from the places I know.

For me, the setting and initial situation – two characters in isolation – occurred together. I’ve never tried to put Jay and Marcy anywhere other than their rocky island out there in Superior. (Unnamed island, remember, so nobody can tell me I got the number of pine trees wrong.) It just made sense, based on my own life experience.

What’s been really interesting, though, for someone who’s lived in Michigan most of her life, is remember that not everyone knows what it’s like to look out over Superior. How that view can change drastically depending on the weather.

Lake Superior at Agate Beach

Superior isn’t a main character in the book, but she’s certainly a presence. They’re literally surrounded by the water, isolated because of it, and any thoughts of escaping have to take the lake into account. In Not Your Mary Sue, the setting plays such a major role in that first half of the story that it couldn’t be picked up and transplanted anywhere else.

How do you think about setting when you write? What makes your settings necessary to plot and characterization?

H. H. Holmes’ victims: Miss Anna Betts and Miss Gertrude Conner

Holmes opens his confession in the Philadelphia Inquirer with a lament that his physical self has now, finally – post-trial, that is, when he was still claiming innocence – turned as monstrous and twisted as his inner self. Now, the illustration at the bottom of the front page doesn’t exactly illustrate it, but some of his offhand descriptions of his supposed murders certainly do.

“Holmes Writing His Confession.” The Philadelphia Inquirer, Sunday April 12, 1896.

Holmes admits to murdering two young women in a row, Miss Anna Betts and Miss Gertrude Conner, solely so he might be called to witness their deaths. That’s really the entire story. He even remarks that Miss Conner’s death “is so similar to the last that a description of one suffices for both.” That’s all she gets.

Apparently Holmes substituted poison for the women’s prescriptions. They each lived near enough to the Castle that he hoped he’d be the physician called to witness. However, Miss Betts was attended by her own physician, and Miss Conner had returned home to Muscatine, Iowa, before she died.

Let’s pick this apart a little.

As a pharmacist, Holmes purposefully turned two prescriptions into poison. In a row. They might not have been filled back-to-back, but he places these women as murders 14 and 15. Apparently he went on streaks of how he preferred to murder instead of mixing things up, or maybe he didn’t get what he wanted from Miss Betts, so he had to try it again.

Second, Miss Conner didn’t die until she’d returned home to Iowa. Fine, maybe he wanted the poison to be slower-acting to put some distance between its purchase and her death, but my first thought was “How bad do you have to be at poisoning someone for them to last that long?”

Third, Holmes notes that Miss Betts’ prescription is still on file in case authorities want to see it, since apparently her death was thought to “reflect upon Miss Betts’ moral character.” That’s one way to plant suspicion that might not even have been a rumor previously. Plus he not only murdered a woman, but apparently let her name be slandered after her death. (What kind of prescription would clean up questionable moral character? Anything that meant she wasn’t either being treated for a sexually transmitted infection or died as a result of an abortion, I’m guessing.)

Fourth, he writes, so casually, that “these two cases show more plainly than any others the light regard I had for the lives of my fellow-beings.” Uh, yeah. He poisoned two women in Chicago just to watch them die … and then didn’t even get to watch them die.

The thing is, so many of Holmes’ confessed murders have some sort of concrete cause. He wants money from them, either because he’s robbing them or because he’ll sell their corpses; they’re his mistresses and he’s tired of them; or they caught him doing something he doesn’t want made public knowledge. It’s a theme of self-preservation, and Miss Betts and Miss Conner break this theme. They didn’t annoy him, threaten him, or come with the promise of money or land. They simply lived near enough to the Castle that he thought he’d be the physician summoned if they took deathly ill.

The thing is, phrenology and atavism were strongly-held beliefs back then. Bad people were supposed to look monstrous. It should be easy to glance at a man’s face and tell that he should be avoided. But then this image is printed on the first page of the article, with Holmes calmly rattling off this entire list of murders he committed … and he doesn’t look like a monster.

This isn’t news to anyone today – Ted Bundy, anyone? – but Holmes, who gets frequent billing as “America’s first serial killer,” was a shocker. A well-educated, good-looking man killed so many people, was sentenced for one of those deaths, and then comes out with this confession of 27 murders (and six more attempts) two weeks before his appointment with the gallows. Someone like Holmes should not have been able to do such horrific things without it showing on his face, as some divine punishment … although someone who looks like the average man would certainly have more opportunities to continue to commit murders.

Even if Holmes never actually murdered Miss Anna Betts and Miss Gertrude Conner – even if they weren’t actually real people – this casual description certainly sounds monstrous. Being only two weeks away from his execution, what do you think he had to gain from it? Considering how his final words were a complete and total retraction, was Holmes just seeing how far he could push his infamy? Or did he have some other motive for this newspaper confession?

Do you “cast” your characters in your head?

It’s part of character building: figuring out their biographies and motivations, yes, but also their eye color and hairstyle. How they stand, sit, and speak. I spend more time on my characters than a plot outline because my usual strategy is “Put them together, give them an inciting incident, and chase after them.”

Sometimes I work up complete character sheets with all of this info actually written down, and then I do include a photo of a celebrity as a reference. At times it’s a specific screen shot from a specific role that celebrity has played, so my character is more cued in to that role than the person whose face I’m using. Other times it’s a specific expression that just captures what I’m going for. I can remember one specific character from 2012 where I just searched for “redheaded man” and found one perfect shot of an actor whose name I don’t know, with the exact expression that captured my character. Googling the actor at the time didn’t give me any other angles that really spoke of my character, but that one photo was just *chef’s kiss.*

Picking the photo – or the actor I associate with certain traits – can be key to helping me write the character consistently. In 2019, I had a character in my NaNoWriMo novel who was supposed to be calm. About everything. No matter what I threw at him. And I, myself, am not like this. So.

I picked Patrick Dempsey as my casting for that character even though they don’t really look alike. I’ve just seen Dempsey play a number of characters who are soft-spoken no matter what the situation. When things were getting exciting in the plot, I’d picture Dempsey in one of those roles saying my character’s lines, and it helped me focus on the character’s (almost unnatural) calm. It helped me get out of my own head and my own reactions and into the character who, being an immortal warlock, had little in common with me.

Or take my upcoming novel, which you’ll actually get to read. Not Your Mary Sue opens with two characters, Marcy and Jay. Marcy is a televangelist’s adult daughter, a white woman in her early 30’s. Jay happens to be the notorious Fresh Coast Killer. He’s also white and in his thirties, but … a male serial killer. That’s not within my personal realm of experience.

For Jay, I was playing with the idea of an actor who presents as someone absolutely horrible onscreen, but who is apparently a very nice person in real life. Jay is, of course, the opposite: the “nice person” is his act and the “absolutely horrible” is his real self, but it was a good jumping off point for me. I started thinking about that sort of character around the time when Sherlock and the Loki fandom were big, so you have Benedict Cumberbatch and Tom Hiddleston playing these characters who are, at best, jerks, and yet who have fans fawning over them because they’re apparently really nice people. I mean, you’ve got Loki killing 80 people in two days and Tom posing with kids for UNICEF. That contrast spoke to me.

I’ll say at this point that I haven’t done any looking into Benedict and Tom to actually confirm any of this. Their real lives, that is. Tumblr posts praising their public lives? Sure. Just this idea that they can have these two incredibly contrasting public faces, no matter what their private lives are actually like.

Jay is more Loki than Sherlock, and having that idea of someone who could present such a range of emotions – and inflict such a range of emotions on other people – helped me start sorting out his background, and his various reactions to things, and his view of himself. He had to be changeable, and secretive, and that’s got to take a toll on his mental health even before we add in the Fresh Coast Killer aspect.

I’m looking ahead to NaNo this year, and I haven’t cast my characters yet. I’m debating doing picrew versions, building them from the ground up instead of trying to find the absolute perfect actor and image. (I don’t draw, so that’s out.) I’ve got the basics – hair color, eye color, height differentials, that kind of thing – but sometimes being able to just look at a face really helps things fall into place for me and help me get into that headspace of who a character really is.

How about you? Do you cast your characters at any point in your writing process?

H. H. Holmes’ victims: Robert Latimer

Most of us tend to rather narrow in our definition of “serial killer.” We think of people like Jack the Ripper or Ted Bundy who killed for sexual pleasure. The sorts of murders that include mutilation and an up-close involvement. These killers are categorized as lust murderers, and yes, most of the “famous” serial killers qualify. H. H. Holmes, though, isn’t one of them.

You’ve probably noticed by now that his range of victims is pretty broad. He doesn’t just stick to killing women, for example, or even killing women who’ve been his mistress and are now apparently annoying. Holmes seems to have both no scruples and no people skills. If anyone’s continued life could threaten him in some way, or if their death could benefit him, he’s all for murder.

Robert Latimer had worked for Holmes as a janitor for many years when Holmes apparently decided, out of the blue, to kill him. The justification he offers is that Latimer knew about some of his insurance scams, but the confession states that all of that had happened “some years previous.” It wasn’t something Latimer had recently learned. It was something he’d apparently kept to himself for years, but apparently being a janitor didn’t pay well enough. Latimer wanted money from Holmes.

Money never flowed away from Holmes if he could at all help it.

Holmes murdered Latimer and then boasts about selling his corpse for a profit, like it’s mildly amusing instead of murder. He also very casually mentions that he trapped Latimer in a secret room in his Murder Castle and then slowly starved him to death. The room was, of course, soundproofed, so nobody could hear Latimer’s cries.

Apparently Latimer wasn’t dying fast enough or quietly enough, since Holmes needed the room for something else and “his pleadings had become almost unbearable.” Since this was the secret room equipped for gas, he could murder Latimer much more quickly. Except Holmes only did so because he was annoyed.

Considering this confession is in a newspaper and has to cover 27 deaths, there isn’t much room devoted to any single victim, but this one is particularly creepy. Think about it: oh, this guy tried to blackmail me for my past illegal actions, so I locked him up so he could starve to death. Think about how long that would take. Granted, it’s probably the lack of water that would actually do it, but we’re still talking days. Possibly over a week. Long enough for Holmes, who seems so blasé about so many things, to get annoyed. (And apparently the soundproofing wasn’t total, if he could hear Latimer’s increasingly weakened cries.)

Then there’s this final point: Holmes concludes his discussion of Latimer’s murder by pointing out that others had already noted some of the brick and mortar in that room had been pulled up. He notes that this “was caused by Latimer’s endeavoring to escape by tearing away the solid brick and mortar with his unaided fingers.”

Holmes moves right on to his next victim, but let that sink in. Someone’s alive long enough, and desperate enough, to start trying to tear down a brick wall with his bare hands. This makes it into the paper in a very offhand way, by a man who had previously claimed there was nothing monstrous about him. Now that he’s confessing, though, he seems ready to take it as far as he can and give minute, yet gruesome, details along the way.

Remember that, two weeks later, on the gallows, Holmes claimed all of this was a lie and he’d only accidentally killed two people in his life while performing surgery on them. Still, it’s there in print: he wanted to starve a man to death, but it was really too inconvenient to him to follow through.

What do you think? Is this the worst one so far?

What do you think of NaNoWriMo? Is it worth it? 

I was looking through 101 Author Interview Questions for some inspiration (and a distraction from my current writing to-do list), and came across this one. If you’ve been following me for a while, you probably already know how I feel about NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month), but just in case …

First, what is NaNoWrimo?

At its strictest, NaNoWriMo asks you to write 50,000 words during the month of November. That averages out to 1,667 words a day. You can’t start your novel until it’s officially November 1 in your time zone, and if you have to submit your final word count before the calendar ticks over to December. NaNoWriMo is also traditionally for new projects, partly so you’re not bogged down on trying to get it all “right.” The point is to get your first draft down. You can fix it later.

Traditionally it’s for fiction – single long works, since “Novel” is part of the name – but I’ve also used it for my nonfiction: drafting, revisions, editing, and proofreading. There are two “Camp” sessions in April and July that let you pick your own goal, but November (and 50k) is the main event.

What’s it cost you?

Nothing. You sign up for free and pick your screenname. Create a project – you can choose whatever filler title you want, or go all out and pick not just a title, but make a cover – and update your word count during November. Nothing happens if you don’t hit 50k. If you make it, you get sponsor prizes … and a first draft of a novel. Your own.

What are the negatives?

Well, November can be a busy month. You might get bogged down. Americans have Thanksgiving thrown in there, which usually comes with family commitments. And if you’re like me, you don’t pay attention to how many words per minute you write. Until I did NaNo, I had no idea where I fell along the fast vs. slow continuum. So you might not know how long it’ll actually take you to write 1,667 words.

There are lots of tips for time management floating around out there, specifically related to NaNoWriMo. Food prep, for example. Setting your schedule and taking advantage of even 10 minutes of down time. Following @NaNoWordSprints on Twitter for the prompts and the feeling that you’re writing along with other people. I’ve seen people talk about how they wear a special hat while writing to cue other household members into the fact that this is a Do Not Disturb time, especially when they don’t have a room with a door that can be closed.

I’ve also seen a lot of “Pfft anything written that fast can’t be any good.” Generally by people who wouldn’t dream of participating. And the thing is … you’re not going to turn around December 1 and query what you’ve written. What you’re doing is drafting, which is one very had and amazing step, but not the last one prior to querying. But think about it: you’ll have this draft by the end of the month, and you can’t edit a blank page. (Thanks, Jodi Picoult.)

What do you stand to gain?

Community. There are events during NaNoWriMo for everyone who’s made this commitment. You’re not alone. Other people are out there doing this too, struggling and succeeding and asking for advice. All 2021 events are going to be virtual, so check out the region closest to you to see how many writers there are and what platform events will be on. (I’ve been one of the co-leaders of the Michigan :: Upper Peninsula Region since 2012, and we’re on Discord. You don’t have to be a Yooper to chat – visitors are welcome.)

Accomplishment. Starting out is scary. Trying to write one word, knowing you have to somehow pull out 49,999 more to follow it. That you’re supposed to craft some sort of story, with a through-line and a beginning, middle, and end. But every single word you write is one that wasn’t there before. Whatever you’ve got at the end of the month, you made all that.

Writer, know thyself. It’s not just a learning experience about getting the words on the page, but getting to know yourself as a writer. Do you like to frontload the month and get a ton of words down as padding? Are you a steady 1,667-words-a-day sort of writer? Does the panic of the final week make your word count jump? There’s also the chance to talk to so many other writers to figure out what they did, and whether it might work for you. How much prep work do you need? Do you do character sheets and maps? Or do you just wing it?

The thing is, I’ve been doing NaNoWriMo – Novembers and Camps – since 2010. The first half of Not Your Mary Sue is barely changed from my original draft in 2017 (so take that, “Pfft anything written that fast can’t be any good.” You’ll never know unless you try). I love writing, especially writing fiction, and the level of energy that happens during NaNoWriMo is just amazing. I get all antsy throughout September and October, wanting to start my novel but putting it off until my laptop clock tells me it’s officially November, and it just all builds up and floods out. I absolutely love NaNoWrimo, and if you’re looking for that nudge to finally write a novel, it’s totally worth it.

Have you ever tried NaNoWriMo? Will you be joining me this year?

H. H. Holmes’ victims: Miss Rosine Van Jassand

One of the questions that frequently comes up about serial killers is how, considering their large number of victims, they were able to get away with it for so long. Wouldn’t they have been caught trying to dispose of the bodies? (Holmes says he wasn’t, because apparently he knew who to sell them to.) Weren’t there any cases where someone tried to escape? Well …

After his successful murder of Emeline Cigrand, Holmes claims that he tried to murder three young women who were then working at his restaurant. Apparently he would have received $90 from his agent, had he delivered all three bodies, but Holmes’ hubris interfered. He admits to attempting to chloroform all three at once. Apparently he couldn’t even manage to drug one of them, since they all “ran screaming into the street, clad only in their night robes.” (He doesn’t clarify where, exactly, he was trying to administer the chloroform.)

You’d think this sort of spectacle would get Holmes all sorts of unwanted attention, but all he says is that, though he was arrested the next day, he wasn’t prosecuted.

It’s not entirely unheard of for serial killers’ intended victims to escape, or even for the police to go ahead and deliver them right back so they can then be murdered. When 14-year-old Konerak Sinthasomphone escaped Jeffrey Dahmer’s apartment, that’s exactly what happened. Dahmer convinced them they were witnessing a lovers’ spat. But Holmes doesn’t go into any detail about the consequences of this failed triple murder, or even how he managed to avoid prosecution. It’s simply noted between the murders of Emeline Cigrand and Miss Rosine Van Jassand, and lamented because of the boost it would have given his overall body count.

Rosine Van Jassand was initially employed in Holmes’ fruit and confectionery store, but this was only Holmes’ initial gambit. Once she was there, he forced her to live with him, “threatening her with death if she ever appeared before any of my customers.” (Clearly he had enough employees to keep the buisness running without her, although he doesn’t mention if anyone asked what had happened to the newest recruit.)

Holmes doesn’t say why he killed her. He kept her hidden from other people, forcing her to live with him, and one day simply killed her with poison. Holmes apparently didn’t think this through, though, since he admits it would have been suspicious for a large box to be seen leaving the store, so he simply buried her in the basement. Since the Castle had been undergoing excavations to look for human remains, Holmes taunts his readers by saying he expected to hear that similar investigations would have been undertaken at the confectionery store, as well.

Was this woman even real? Holmes had spent his entire trial insisting that he had only been married to one woman, and that he had been faithful to her, and yet this tantalizing story reveals a forced mistress. Even her name is questioned, reported in other papers as Anna instead of Rosine. Perhaps she could have disappeared easily without questions, but how easy is it to bury a body deep enough in a cellar so that the smell won’t put off potential customers? Holmes claims he murdered Rosine “with more caution” than he showed with his previously attempted triple murder, but he still didn’t plan far enough ahead to sell her body to his agent and make any sort of profit off the situation.

Is Holmes just trying to pad his numbers (while including his story of the failed triple murder to make it look like he isn’t)? Or was he honestly so heartless that this story takes up a bare few lines and it’s time to move on to the next one?

Do you always finish every piece of writing you start?

It’s a fairly common piece of writing advice. Neil Gaiman’s got a few quotes about it. For example:

Whatever it takes to finish things, finish. You will learn more from a glorious failure than you ever will from something you never finished.

Neil Gaiman

I general like Neil’s writing advice. We seem to have a lot in common. So, do I obey Neil and always finish everything?

I’m going to be optimistic and say “Not yet.”

Recently I found a CD of my fiction from 2000 through early 2007 and, out of over 70 files, maybe a dozen were “finished.” Call it a completion level of less than 20%. Or … is it?

A lot of those partial documents were attempts at what, in November 2010, became my first NaNoWriMo novel – a completed story. Each individual document is incomplete but, because I kept trying, I eventually completed it. How do I count that one?

In 2011, I stared a NaNoWriMo project that ballooned into a multi-part epic fantasy. I wrote 180k that month and then … stopped, both because the month was over and because I’d written myself into a corner. For over six years, that story was incomplete … until Camp NaNoWriMo in April 2018, when I’d figured out the ending and was able to finish it.

There’s at least one idea left on that CD that I want to revisit, so it’s still in the category of “not yet,” although … that still leaves a bunch of files that aren’t finished. And, at this point, that I don’t think would be worth finishing.

I’d say, like any rule, it’s a bit flexible. You can bend it. Finish things, yes, absolutely – if you never finish things, then that’s an issue. But it’s also okay to look at something, nod to yourself, and agree to put it aside for now. Because you’re not ready for this story, or because you need time to figure out how to get your characters out of this bind. It’s okay to set things aside for later. (The key here being the plan to indeed come back to it later.)

What I see when I look back on these files (from high school and college – go ahead and do the math) I can see both my determination to get it right this time and my acceptance that certain approaches just … weren’t working. The ability to sigh, hit save, take a step back, and try a new path in. (Note that “save” is an important step – save your work! You never know when your ideas will catch on again, or be able to see how far you come, if you get rid of all the evidence.)

There’s also a sense of seeing value in your ideas even when they aren’t working right now. The thought that it’s still worth pursuing, even if this isn’t the right way to do it. The fact that I even saved everything, all my half-pages and random ideas, means I figured I’d want to remember them. They might not be worth anything to anyone other than me, but … I count, right?

There are absolutely lessons you learn from finishing things that you don’t get from abandoning them, but the reverse is also true. Although again, when you save something and set it aside, remember it’s really “for now.” Keep up the idea – or maybe the polite fiction – that this, too, will be finished one day. Maybe all it takes is the right spark, and those can come out of nowhere.

Plus it can be fun to look back on who you used to be, as a writer, and compare it to who you think you are now. (Then check in again, another 20 or so years down the road …) Keeping the old files helps you map out your literary journey in a way abandoning them won’t.

And who knows – maybe some day you’ll finish that one idea that still hasn’t let go. It’s just not done … yet.

How do you approach writing? Do you finish everything you start?

Do you think about writing rules or advice while you’re writing?

There are a lot of rules that go into writing, and a lot of advice books out there. Mind your grammar, to start with, and remember the punctuation goes inside the quotation marks. Use complete sentences, always finish everything you start, hit this plot beat by this manuscript percentage … if you’re not sure about something, Google it and I’m sure someone, somewhere, has a rule. How do you keep them all straight?

I … don’t. At least, not while I’m writing.

If there’s any single piece of advice I’ve adhered to, even before I read it, it’s Stephen King’s “Read a lot and write a lot.” I just found this CD I’d burned in January 2007 with fanfiction and original fiction dating back to 2000, and there were over 70 individual documents on it. A lot of them were various starts instead of complete plot arcs, but there were still a good number of “complete books.” (Hey, I was 15 in 2000. I wasn’t writing 80k, but I was completing plot arcs in things longer than short stories.)

Mostly because of the “read a lot” part, my grammar and punctuation is good, even back then. When you’re exposed to it on a regular basis – especially when it’s a regular, fun basis – you see how it’s done, so it’s easy to imitate. I don’t remember anyone explaining how to write dialogue because, by the time someone probably did, I would’ve just tuned it out. (My parents let me read anything and everything I wanted from a very young age, with one exception: they said Pet Sematary was too scary for a second-grader, even though it had a kitty on the cover.)

Now, is my grammar perfect? Nope. Have I taught multiple college-level grammar courses at this point? Yep? And still …? Nope. But here’s the thing: it doesn’t have to be. People hardly ever speak with perfect grammar. Plus, if you really need it to be polished and shined for a specific, that’s what revision is for.

And this isn’t just about my fiction. When I’m writing my nonfiction, I might try to shift the voice in my head to Full Academic, but … I don’t bog myself down by worrying about it too much on the first pass. The main goal of writing is, for me, to get the darn words on the page, however they’ll come. Jump around, sketch some notes there, plop something in the middle and figure out how to connect it later … whatever. Just get the ideas down.

The “rules” are for revisions.

The first draft of something for me is play. We’ll turn to Shannon Hale here:

I’m writing a first draft and reminding myself that I’m simply shoveling sand into a box so that later I can build castles.

Shannon Hale

And, for the record, my approach to that first draft is “shovel allllllll the sand!” Things can always be deleted later – plot beats, random characters, that one cool point I really want to make but probably doesn’t fit … shovel it all in. Get it all down. The hardest step is putting something on the page, so don’t worry about all the things that’ll just make me freeze and leave it blank. Shovel that sand.

Now, like all writing advice, this doesn’t work for everyone. I have friends who, somehow, meticulously plot out books – or even series – before they start shoveling sand. My revision process is a lot more intense than theirs because I’m still organizing my sand and they’ve already got it placed in neat little blocks with turrets and gables and other architectural flourishes from the start. Some of them started out working that way, and others started more like me and got bogged down in the revisions, so they backed up and changed their approach.

I think the number one rule about writing advice is that not all writing advice will work for you.

My biggest struggle is drafting, not revising or editing, so I’ve formed my approach to make that hardest part the easiest it can be for me. When I sit down to write, I throw the rules out the window. Just get the words on the page – form the sense of it so it can be massaged and perfectly shaped later on. Some days are easier and I can pay more attention to the rules, but others … they get thrown out the window.

The first draft is playing. I’m just shoveling sand. Then, once I’m done shoveling, I’ll switch tools and start shaping, matching tenses, paying attention to singular and plural, messing with punctuation, and knowing that, no matter how much I try, by the time my mom reads my proofs, there’ll still be plenty for her to catch. (I get emails like “On page 6, I know you meant x instead of y” and “On page 10, that’s a gerund, so you really need to …”)

So the short answer to whether I consciously think about rules and advice while writing is no, and the longer answer is “Because I come back to that later.” Plus I’m not the only one who considers it. Editors, proofreaders, peer reviewers … lots of people have the chance to catch the rules I’ve missed. It never has to be just you, trying to remember all the rules.

What about you? Do you think of specific grammar or writing rules when you’re tackling your first draft? Are there specific things you know you need to focus on?