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 …?

Jay Michal Robinson, the Fresh Coast Killer

So far I’ve been trying to limit myself to teasers based on the back-of-the-book summary, but Not Your Mary Sue has been out for over a week now (ahhhhh!) so I think I can stretch a little further. Everything from today’s post has to do with Part I of the book, so if you really don’t want anything spoiled, bookmark this and wait to read it until you get to Part II.

We open on a private island with exactly two occupants: Marcy, our POV character, and Jay, who’s more of a mystery. Marcy knows a little bit about him:

I’ve been trying to figure out what I know about this guy, and all I’ve come up with is that he’s a high school choir director who spends his summers here, tending the cabin and the people who rent it.

… but, when you wake up after a drugged sleep with a chain locked around your ankle, that’s really not enough.

Let’s get to now Jay a bit better care of this portrait I commissioned from Shegry. Click on that link if you, too, would like to commission something. (Because seriously, how cool is this?)

Jay Michael Robinson by Shegry

I provided references for things like Jay himself and the very specific dagger in his hand, and Shegry took what I wrote about Jay and used it for the imagery.

the waves

The waves are Lake Superior. We first meet Jay on the island, and there’s a lot of similarity between the water and Jay himself – apparent calm, coldness, unknown depths. Marcy’s on an island, which at least means she’s currently safe from drowning, but it’s clear right off that Jay himself isn’t actually safe. He might say he wants to protect her, but … well. Jay’s idea of keeping someone “safe” doesn’t entirely match up with what the rest of us might thing.

Lake Superior is absolutely huge. I mean, all of the Great Lakes are, but there’s a little something extra to Superior. It’s dangerous, with at least 350 shipwrecks (one of which has been immortalized, of course, by Gordon Lightfoot) and no, you can’t see across it. It takes the Ranger hours to get to Isle Royale – which is bigger than Jay’s island, and much further out, but come on. If you’re out in Lake Superior, you’re really out there.

Being out on Superior means being isolated, out of communication with other people through everyday means, and you need specialized skills to survive. So … Jay’s Lake Superior.

the music

During the school year, Jay’s Mr. Robinson, high school choir director. (He’s only the Fresh Coast Killer during the summer. There’s no mixing business and pleasure.) But … why a choir director?

I’ve written a bit about “casting” Jay in my head, relying on the Tumblr dichotomy of Tom Hiddleston for UNICEF vs. Avengers-era Loki killing 80 people in two days. Jay’s the reverse: his good-guy persona is the act, and the murderer is his real self, so I wanted to feed into that generic idea of what makes a man attractive. Looks, yes, but isn’t there a reason guys bring their guitars to college and play them out on the quad?

Jay himself was homeschooled before going to college, so his only public high school experience is as a teacher. I didn’t want him to be an English teacher, because then why would he need or want Marcy to write his biography? Choir’s an elective where students self-select participation, and Jay’s at a high school that, like mine, puts on a musical every year. So he’s heavily involved in those, and I couldn’t really pass up the chance to have him involved with Sweeney Todd.

There’s also a large element of performance to choir, much less musical theater, and a large element of performance in Jay’s life.

the morning glories and the dagger

Floriography is the secret language of flowers. (Fun fact: I’ve got a novel I wrote in high school where the characters use Victorian flower language like code, and I covered the paper folder with handwritten explanations of all the meanings.) Shegry picked morning glories because of their associations with mortality. (Flowers have all kinds of associations depending on type and color and era, so you can really get lost in there.)

But that dagger …

It’s probably the thing I’ve most wanted to talk about that isn’t entirely a spoiler but didn’t make it into any of the summaries of the book.

When Marcy takes herself on a tour of the island, she discovers that there’s a workshop attached to Jay’s living quarters, and she sees a sword forge inside. (My mother wants to know how Marcy even recognized it. Mythbusters fans have seen them in multiple situations, although usually having to do with curving gun barrels or cooking shrimp instead of forging swords.) It turns out that Jay isn’t just a choir director and the Fresh Coast Killer – he’s also a journeyman bladesmith.

Jay has made multiple examples of his favorite dagger, the Fairbairn-Sykes fighting knife: one for each of his victims. Then, after each murder, he can modify or recycle the weapon so it can’t be matched to the wounds. I didn’t just get my information from Forged in Fire. My husband’s an amateur bladesmith. I asked him to pick Jay’s favorite weapon, and he chose the Fairbairn-Sykes dagger.

This was fairly early on in my plotting, because Jay’s favorite weapon has a major influence on his serial killing. It’s a dagger – sharp on both edges – and a certain length, originally designed for a certain purpose. That means Jay likes to kill in a specific way. (And then head back to the forge, likely chuckling to himself, because he’s so carefully meshed his hobbies.)

Oh, and the plaid blanket? It’s because Jay’s a Yooper, and plaid isn’t just for Plaidurday. A Canadian tuxedo might be denim on denim, but when Yoopers put on their best it’s the jeans and plaid shirt without the holes.

Shegry drew Marcy for me, too. We’ll check her out next week.


Have you ever commissioned artwork of your original characters? How did that turn out?

one final teaser post

First, if you’ve been waiting for a hard copy of Not Your Mary Sue, you can order it here! It’s less than a week until publication and this is something I’ve wanted for decades so yes waiting for the book has basically become my personality at this point. Sorry not sorry. At least you’re not living with me.

There are still a few teasers from Jay before you actually get to meet him. Come join me at the beach.

“This isn’t your ending.”

I took this photo at Agate Beach after a morning of thunderstorms and hard rain. Just look at that sky … and the whitecaps on the water. It’s beautiful, but cold, and maybe a bit ominous.

Let’s just say there’s a reason all of Jay’s quotes are on the shore of Lake Superior. He’s a Yooper, sure, but we’ve got more than water here. It could’ve been pine trees.

Jay isn’t the woods. He’s Superior.


“Do you ever define yourself by what you are instead of what you are not?”

This is a direct challenge to Marcy. “Not Your Mary Sue” isn’t just the title of the book – it’s her social media handle. She very specifically defines herself online as not your Mary Sue (and also not your Mary Sue) to separate herself from the public persona she has as her father’s daughter. For Marcy’s it’s flippant, and a bit of a play-on words. She knows what a Mary Sue is when it comes to fanfiction and she wants to mock it.

She’s just never had someone throw that mockery back in her face before.


“I am many things, but a joke is not one of them.”

And okay, maybe Jay’s a bit of a hypocrite here. If he’s saying he’s not a joke, then …

Yeah. Nobody ever accused Jay of being far too introspective. He’s a bit too smug and self-satisfied for that.


“I’m about to become the biggest thing that ever happens to you.”

This is one of the first things Jay says to Marcy. I just love how overblown and confident he is. If you’re sitting across the table from someone’s who’s just admitted to drugging you, and you know you’re stuck here with him on this island until someone comes to rescue you … which isn’t likely, since they’re all convinced you’re safe in your screen-free retreat … and he comes out with that

I’m just saying it’s a pretty good indication of how the rest of your summer is going to go.


“The clock is ticking.”

Yes of course I saved this for the last Jay post before publication day, but he’s talking about his own timeline. From page one, Jay knows that his time is limited. He’s been the Fresh Coast Killer for years now, but the police are closing in. Jay knows it.

He’s planned for it.

Everything he’s asking of Marcy has a deadline – maybe not the best word when there’s a serial killer involved. He has a list of things that need to be done before the police catch up with him, and she’s heavily involved in making all his dreams come true.


I am excited/nervous/ahhhhh! for people to actually read Not Your Mary Sue and it’s so hard to believe that, after all these years of writing and working and writing and rejections and writing and trying again and writing some more, I’ve got a novel coming out. (Did you still need to preorder a copy? I’ve got you: Kindle– Kobo – Google Playpaper copy.)

And I’ve got so much I want to share about the writing process, and the original ending, and what Marcy’s hobby was initially going to be, and …

You get the picture. Only a few more sleeps!

much more Marcy

First, it’s only two weeks until Not Your Mary Sue comes out, and I might be vibrating like a frog that swallowed a hummingbird. I started the countdown on my phone with over 300 days to go, and now it’s only 14. Ahhhh!

Okay. Deep breaths.

It’s been a while since we checked in with Marcy, so let’s get caught up.

How often do normal people think of Bundy, anyway?

Jay tells Marcy that he wants to be the next Bundy. Think of Bundy and then, in the next breath, mention Jay Michael Robinson. So on the one hand he’s got a clearly defined goal, but on the other … Marcy’s not quite sure he understands what he’s asking.

Background: the Enchanted Rose Hood by Amy Noelle Walker (Facebook link). I used KnitPicks paragon in pimento. Fun fact: when I posed for FO photos, I used a book that I’d just gotten in the mail that day. It was The Phantom Prince. Which is a book about Ted Bundy.


If I don’t ask, I never have to know.

Jay likes monologuing. He’d prefer to be monologuing while Marcy’s taking notes, but he’ll settle for monologuing while Marcy’s in the room. So she’s already getting all this information that she never once asked for, and does it haunt her? Oh yes. So if there’s something she’s curious about, she very carefully thinks twice before deciding whether or not she really, really wants to know.

Background: the Lady Russell Shawl by Joy Gerhardt (personal website), originally published in Jane Austen Knits fall 2012 and collected in The Best of Jane Austen Knits. I used two precious skeins of Candy Skein yarn that I got while traveling. Note the ruffle on the shawl – this is one of the reasons that my Marcy Shawl also has ruffles.


Is this another Norman Bates, 21st century style?

Marion Crane ended up at the Bates Motel (and even if you haven’t seen Psycho, you probably know how that all worked out for her). Marcy’s at this luxury cabin on a private island, but she doesn’t have the luxury of thinking for one moment that the caretaker is Norman – er, I mean normal. From their first meeting, she knows something’s up about Jay … and yeah, she has to wonder if some dramatic violins are in her future.

Background: Stay Out of the Forest by Natasha Stills (personal website). I used my favorite Madelinetosh Twist Light base in no farewell, dead calm, black sea, and fate. The colors even seem to tell a story about a sailor who ran off to sea … and never returned. And yes, the shawl name comes from My Favorite Murder. Sometimes I pick patterns for their names, the same way I pick yarn colors.


My curiosity is dangerous.

So you might know that curiosity killed the cat and satisfaction brought it back, but what’s Marcy got to be curious about these days? A serial killer. It’s not just the knowledge and dreams that could threaten her. The man has killed over a dozen women – it’s not like her death would be something new to him.

Background: Coastal Hoodie by Tori Gurbisz (personal website). I used Sueno Worsted in shifting sands, slated, silver sage, and grasshopper. It’s a super fun pattern with a folded band that hides all the ends from the color changes.


Worst case scenario, they think I’m the real killer.

Marcy’s on this island with Jay because he hasn’t been caught yet. He’s pretty sure they’ll narrow things down soon an identify him as the Fresh Coast Killer. However, he hasn’t actually come out and told Marcy that he’s confessing to anyone but her. If she actually makes it off the island, she might be the only one with all the details of the murder, which might lead others to conclude …

Background: Very V Neck Raglan by Jessie Maed Designs (personal website). I used the (sadly now discontinued) Mrs Crosby hat box in “squid ink.” My username everywhere else is krakengoddess, so I have an affinity for all things related to tentacles. (Remember what I said about choosing yarn colors just because of the name?)


He locks the door behind me. Twice.

Not Your Mary Sue opens with Marcy picking a lock. Clearly she knows how. (I do not – I consult my husband on such things. He’s even done some practical experiments to see if various items could actually be used on common door locks. Isn’t he awesome?) But when Jay locks Marcy in her room, it’s not just the door knob – he’s got a padlock on the outside of the door. She can’t pick what she can’t reach.

Background: Wings of Meditation by Wollmuschi (personal website). I used Blue Moon Fiber Arts (you know how much I love their yarn) silky victoria in tempest. I’m not really a fan of bobbles, even using the crochet hook method, but as soon as I saw this pattern I fell in love and knit it in just a few weeks.


God, there’s so much I really don’t want to think about.

Marcy’s stuck on an island for who knows how long with nobody but Jay. And it’s an island in Lake Superior, so there’s no internet and no cell service. All of this really means she’s stuck in her own head, but it’s not just Jay she doesn’t want to think about. This was supposed to be a summer of rest and relaxation because of things that happened before she had breakfast with the Fresh Coast Killer.

Background: Liljana by Lisa Hannes (Lovecrafts link). I used Wonderland Yarns Cheshire Cat in treacle and too much pepper. I love Lisa’s patterns because they’re so frequently written with percentages in case your yarn is a different weight or amount than her sample. In this one, for example, you work one way until half your yarn is used up, however much that is, and then switch to the other way for the second half. Her shawls are wonderful for stash diving because you can make them work with what you already have.


He’s this odd mix of forethought and poor planning.

Jay immediately confesses that he’s a serial killer, except Marcy’s still alive. He apparently intends to keep her alive for his own devices, except … he’s clearly never tried to do this before. If Jay wanted to commit a murder, he’d have it down pat from all of his experience. But trying to keep her alive? To Marcy his attempts feel slipshod and poorly thought out, and that doesn’t really inspire confidence.

Background: Green T by Takako Takiguchi (Etsy store), using Handmaiden Fine Yarn casbah in crema (which, I know, isn’t green). I picked this sweater as the background because it’s actually very well thought-out: the cables start under the arms and meet exactly in the middle at the hem.


Oh, this could be bad.

If you’ve read the opening pages, you know how early on Marcy thinks this. Let’s take a look:

What does he know? It seems like he doesn’t know what I think he should know, if I’m waking up in chains, but then … what other reason could he possibly have for this? I’ve said nothing that could betray the secret – I haven’t had time to say anything – but if he doesn’t know, and that’s not the reason …

Marcy knows why she’s on that island, but it seems like Jay doesn’t – and now it’s her own knowledge that could be dangerous.

Background: Dreaming in a Field of Wildflowers by Lisa Hannes (Lovecrafts link), once again in Madelinetosh Twist Light. I used liquid gold, deep, great gray owl, and onyx because … well. See if you can figure it out.


I’m almost to the point where I can stop teasing and start talking about the book, which is surreal. The characters have been in my head for years now and it’s almost time for other people to meet them.

I really hope you like them.

14 days and counting.

12 challenge, book 5 – The Family Plot

It’s time for book 5 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 four books.

The fifth is The Family Plot by Megan Collins.

First, this one wasn’t entirely recommended. I remembered seeing a friend mention it in her blog. She included the full back-of-the-book blurb, but I only needed to read the first part:

At twenty-six, Dahlia Lighthouse is haunted by her upbringing. Raised in a secluded island mansion deep in the woods and kept isolated by her true crime-obsessed parents, she is unable to move beyond the disappearance of her twin brother, Andy, when they were sixteen.

After several years away and following her father’s death, Dahlia returns to the house, where the family makes a gruesome discovery: buried in their father’s plot is another body—Andy’s, his skull split open with an ax.

… and thought “Oooh, yes, I need to read this one!” Except this friend doesn’t read many thrillers – she’s first and foremost a romance fan – and when I announced it was on the list, she messaged me to say she hadn’t actually finished the book. Which means technically this isn’t a recommendation.

Too late. I read it.

So: if you don’t like thrillers, you probably won’t like this thriller. Because it’s totally a thriller.

Now for the tricky bit. I tend to go by how much information is given away on the back cover when deciding what qualifies as a spoiler and what doesn’t, especially since the whole thing about thrillers is that there’s a bunch of mystery and things you try to figure out before the characters get there. So my first non-spoilery thought is:

What’s up with the kids’ names?

All four of the Lighthouse kids (now grownups) get introduced in the first couple of paragraphs. There’s Charlie, named after Charles Augustus Lindbergh, Jr. (aka The Lindbergh baby); sister Tate, named after Sharon Tate; and the twins Andy, named after Andrew Borden (father and potential victim of his daughter Lizzie) and Dahlia, named after Elizabeth Short (aka “The Black Dahlia“). The lighthouse family is obsessed with murders and Honoring murder victims on the anniversaries of their deaths, so yeah, okay, all four kids are named after victims. But … I’ve still got some questions.

Charlie and Andy are given the first name of “their” victim. The boys have traditionally masculine first names. But the girls …

Tate is Tate, not Sharon. And Elizabeth Short was never called “The Black Dahlia” when she was alive – it only became her nickname after her murder (which Dahlia, also known as “Dolls,” describes in those early pages. What happened to her was gruesome, and graphic, and be warned if you go Googling for photos.)

So basically right away I was a bit suspicious of the apparent devotion to murder victims because of the daughters’ names. Dahlia stresses over and over again that her mother, who homeschooled the children, focused on the victims as real people, and yet she named her own daughters skewed versions of victims’ names.

If I were attending a book club about The Family Plot, we’d totally discuss this.

Holy true crime references, Batman

You caught the “true-crime obsessed parents,” yes? The Lighthouse kids were homeschooled, and guess what the curriculum centered around. Except, again, the focus is on the murdered people and not the murderers, the way most true crime leans.

Dahlia drops in random and not always casual references to murder victims not just inside her head, or because of something from her childhood she encounters because she’s back home, but also to needle other people. To sort of point out that yes, fine, we’re looking at a murder investigation here, but maybe your whole approach is a little off. It’s not “Oh, cool – a murder!” (especially since the island she grew up on also has its own serial killer) or some sort of emotionally-distant thing. It’s not even as removed as the crimes her mother made them all study as kids, because this is her own twin brother.

You might not recognize Charlie, Tate, Andy, and Dahlia as murder victim names if that was all you had, but Dahlia explains them straight off. The Lindbergh baby, the Manson Murders, Lizzie Borden, and the Black Dahlia are some of the more famous true crime cases, but they’re also easy enough to Google – and to find a lot of information about – if you don’t recognize them even after the explanation.

More subtle are the names Dahlia drops in conversation, to the point where you might wonder if they’re made-up for the book or if they have real-life counterparts. And you do kind of wonder if you should really feel as bad as Dahlia wants other people to feel when she uses them, not quite deftly, to deflect attention or the current line of questioning.

So in this hypothetical book club, we’re also going to discuss the Lighthouse family’s orientation to murder victims.

Instagram handle alert!

I would also totally ask everyone else in the book club if they looked up the Instagram account given to sister Tate, because I’m totally the sort of person who’ll go online and look for those things. Jeffrey Deaver used full email addresses in one of his books connected to a website that wasn’t Gmail or Hotmail or Yahoo, so you can bet I put in the address to see if it actually existed.

This sort of thing fascinates me because it’s a real-world reference that people can check, sure, but it could also be invasive. What happens if you don’t snag the website or screenname yourself and then someone comes along later and makes the account? Or what if you didn’t check and it turns out it was already someone’s account? (In this case the only thing on the account is a photo of the cover of the book, in case you’re wondering.)

But it’s also a cool character aspect because you’re working within real-world restrictions as far as choosing the screenname. Authors make up character names all the time, but screennames connected to social media accounts have to fall within specific restrictions. (And how early in the process did she claim the screenname? Was she drafting and like “Oooh yes, let’s go!” before she was even sure it would be published? Or …)

Okay and I’d also have some more questions that I can’t fully discuss here.

For starters: so … how do we classify that ending? Happy? Sad? Somewhere in the middle?

How do we feel about concepts like “justice” and “fairness” when applied to this book and these characters?

Do you think we ever got the “real”/full story?

How do we decide who’s trustworthy here (or really in any psychological thriller)?


If you’ve read The Family Plot, I’d love to hear your thoughts. I think this one’s left me feeling more like a walking question mark than Night Film.