location, location, lo…

It’s a frequent question in writer circles: can I set my story in a place I’ve never been? How much research do I really need to put into my setting? Can I name real places in my book?

There are about as many answers as there are writers, but here’s my two cents.

In Not Your Mary Sue, the first half of the book takes place “on an island in Lake Superior” and the second in an unidentified town in Illinois, so you can probably guess some of my answers from that. There are plenty of islands in Lake Superior, so just because you’ve never seen an island like the one I described, that doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist. (I’ve also had to explain to multiple people that yes, the water goes all the way to the horizon – largest surface area of any freshwater lake in the world, after all – because Superior is hard to imagine if you’ve never been here.)

Jay’s unnamed private island was my solution to the challenge of finding a location in the 21st century where my main character could be held captive and not be able to call for help. In Misery, Stephen King traps Paul Sheldon by a combination of factors including a dead landline (King didn’t have to deal with cell phones in 1987) and a pair of broken legs keeping him from escaping the isolated house in which he found himself. NYMS was written in 2017 and published in 2022, so I had to figure out the cell phone problem.

Cell phone coverage has increased in the UP since I first moved here, but it can still be slow or completely absent. Before we moved into our house we had to check and see if the internet even reached it, so not all of these technological advances are a given. When you drive across the UP, there are places where you phone goes wild because it suddenly has signal again and pings everything at once. And there aren’t cell towers in the middle of the lake. Add in the fact that Marcy can’t swim …

So it looks like I lean toward making it all up.

Especially with that unidentified Illinois city in the second half, right? Except, for the story, that location didn’t matter as much. Marcy wouldn’t have gravitated toward Chicago, because she didn’t need to be near another Great Lake, and it had to be still somewhere in the Midwest for plot travel time reasons, but otherwise … it wasn’t as restricted. There was nothing particularly special that meant I wanted, or needed, to tie it down to a single location. Let me put things where I want them, because there it’s the relationships and interactions that matter.

On the island, knowing about the location mattered.

Remember these?

I went to various beaches and took these photos because of how much Superior played into the story. I knew about the isolation and the cell phone signal issues and water as far as you can see. If I’d never been to the UP or lived in these rural areas, it wouldn’t have occurred to me as a solution to my isolation issue. But I do live here, and I know what it’s like to live here, and isn’t Superior gorgeous after a storm?

Blood Sisters all but swings to the other extreme.

It’s probably the more expected version of “Write what you know.” The book opens in Cyberia Cafe, in Houghton, Michigan – I could point you to the exact table where Skye waits with her theory that her twin sister isn’t dead, but a murderer in hiding. Characters meet at the KBC (Keweenaw Brewing Company, for the uninitiated) and get burritos from Rodeo and eat at The Library (which is near the one with the books) and get fishbowls at the Ambassador and celebrate at McLain State Park with cakes from Roy’s Bakery and and and …

You could go to all these specific locations because they exist. (Well, at least for now – the parking deck won’t be around much longer, and 5th and Elm moved across the canal to Hancock, but the book’s set in 2019.) I know how long it takes to travel various places, how to navigate the Yooper Loop, and how you can expect traffic to stop when the bridge lifts for the Ranger to come back through. I was at Michigan Tech for graduate work from 2007-2015, and I’m still close enough to easily visit, so I know the area. I don’t have to depend on Google street view.

And, as a reader, I’ve been burned before.

There’s a certain disappointment when you read a book that specifically names the location as, say, the city you grew up in … and then completely botches the layout. I once read a book where the chapter title listed my hometown, city and state, and then said the character was in the parking lot outside of two stores … that have never been next to each other. (It went downhill from there.)

Now I understand that the author wasn’t from Michigan. In this particular case, the author wasn’t American. It doesn’t seem likely to me that the author had ever been to my hometown, or at least hadn’t gone looking for those business to get the lay of the land. (It’s not just that they’ve never been next to each other – a character got into the surrounding area and it wasn’t realistic, either. If you’ve never been to my hometown or haven’t paid attention to those businesses, you wouldn’t know, either.

But I knew, and it bothered me.

Which probably explains my own personal response:

Keep the location vague so I can make it up entirely, or make it something I know quite well.

That’s my two cents. How about you? Have you set a book in a place you’ve never been? How did you handle the research?

announcing my next novel: Blood Sisters, out in August!

I am so excited that I can finally talk about my next novel!

BLOOD SISTERS is an adult thriller about twin sisters with a deadly secret and a serial killer framed for murder…or was he?

I can’t spill all the details, but I can say Blood Sisters will be out August 22, 2023 from Aesthetic Press, and give you this blurb:

A college girl notices that a serial killer’s victims look an awful lot like her, so she figures out a way to frame him and fake her death. At least that is the story her twin sister desperately clings to even as her intrusive thoughts about her sister’s supposed murder haunts her 10 years later.

Cue the dramatic music!

Yes, I’ll give more teasers as we get closer.

And yes, there’ll be a knitting pattern to go with the preorders – Marcy got a shawl, and Nessa’s getting a shrug. My sample’s been done since last May, and I’ve been sitting on it except for this shot of secret kitten posing with it on my mannequin:

… because publishing timelines are long and involve a lot of sitting on things you really, really want to talk about.

There’s still a lot I can’t tell you just yet, so today I’d like to pull the curtain aside a bit and get into those timelines.

The thing is, I told people I had a book announcement coming and got a lot of “I can’t believe you wrote a book while teaching high school!” But the thing is … I didn’t.

Let’s take a look back on everything you haven’t seen, shall we?

Early 2016: James Patterson’s MasterClass has a competition to be his coauthor on a book. I get an idea, incredibly vague, about identical twins. One of them goes missing and the other is … accused of her murder? I wasn’t sure. That wasn’t the idea I ended up submitting for the competition, but that’s the first seed of the idea for the book that eventually became Blood Sisters. Note that this even predates Not Your Mary Sue by over a year. I hadn’t thought of Jay and Marcy yet, but Sunni and Skye were there, and those have always been their names.

April 2021: I finally came back to the twins for Camp NaNoWriMo and made two lengthy attempts to figure out their story. How lengthy? According to my stats, that month I wrote 106,622 words, so it was around 50k per attempt. That shows you how badly I wanted to tell their story, but neither of those really worked. I’d done a bunch of research into Jaycee Dugard and other children who’d been kidnapped for long periods of time, thinking that that was the twins’ story, but … it didn’t pan out.

Summer 2021: I did it! I got a full draft of the book! It turns out that Sunni and Skye are important, but there are other people at the center of the novel. The first draft had a first person POV for one of those other people.

December 2021: I completed my revisions – the ones I felt I needed to do to polish it up before submitting it – and rewrote it to be in third person with two points of view (neither of which was Sunni or Skye).

Spring 2022: I signed the contract with Aesthetic Press. The shrug design and cover design quickly followed … giving me more to sit on as I waited.

So, even though the process of writing this book took about six years …

None of it was written while I was teaching. If you don’t know how I do it all, it’s because … I don’t.

So I’m looking forward to telling you more about Sunni and Skye, and Nessa and all the others, and to introducing you to the plot and setting of Blood Sisters. I’ve been thinking about all of this for a long, long time, so you know I’ve got plenty to say.

the scariest part of publishing a book

I was giving a talk this weekend about … myself, really. How I’ve come to know what I know, research what I research, and write what I write. I talked about all of my books, and read from the first few pages of Not Your Mary Sue, and gave a teaser about what happens in the rest of the book. And then one of the audience members raised a hand and asked if Marcy falls in love with Jay.

And I didn’t answer.

It seems like a simple question, right? Either she does or she doesn’t, so yes or no.

You might even think that you’d be able to ask the character herself. Maybe she says it somewhere I could quote and cite and all the rest, except … it’s also possible that characters don’t always want to admit the truth. (If you were the daughter of a famous televangelist who’d been stuck on an island with a confessed serial killer for weeks as he told you his life story and was rescued in such a condition where you were taken straight to the hospital, would you ever conceive of a situation where you’d say “Yes”?)

Except … I know how I wrote it.

But I also know not everyone reads it that way.

And I know that, once it’s published, the book isn’t yours anymore.

Look, I engage in literary criticism myself. I’ve analyzed books about Jack the Ripper and I’ve analyzed books by Stephen King. I’ve heard how Tony Magistrale gave a presentation about one of King’s short stories and King himself was in the audience, stood up at the end, and told him he was wrong … and how Tony told him that, whatever King thought, Tony was able to find evidence to support his point. (This was of course back when Stephen King attended conferences where people talked about him and his work, but I’m not sure how close it was to when he stopped this practice.)

Once you publish a book, it’s no longer your own … and maybe it’s only when other people read it that you realize exactly how much of yourself you put between the pages, and how many things you said without fully intending to say them.

On the one hand it’s great fun to see how other people read your work.

I had people I knew from high school catching teachers’ names or telling me they couldn’t stop picturing our high school choir director. (Who looks nothing like Jay. If you need to remember, this is the portrait of Jay I commissioned. That particular reader sighed with relief, stopped picturing our old choir director, and was able to move ahead.)

My own mother-in-law told me she cracked up on the very first page when Marcy starts to realize something’s weird not just because of the manacle around her ankle, but because her toothbrush is on the wrong side of the sink.

My high school kids were reading selections from Bird by Bird and asked how, exactly, authors can tell the truth if they’re writing fiction, so I read them those same first pages and asked them to call out how much of that was me.

There are things that I meant, and things that I’ve realized since publication, and – I’m sure – things I still have no idea about.

But I told them that I can’t actually tell them whether Marcy falls in love with Jay.

I do have an idea about that one. I know what I believe and I know how I meant it, but that doesn’t mean that’s how you read it.

This is actually something I have very strong feelings about, but I also don’t think it’s really my right to tell you, outside of the book, what the right answer is.

If you read the book, and find evidence for a different answer than the one I feel, then I can’t really tell you that you’re wrong. I might want to point out all this other evidence that argues my side, but that doesn’t mean the evidence you found isn’t there.

It’s complex. And it’s not just mine anymore.

And that, for me, is the scariest thing.

What do you think: was Marcy in love with Jay? (Was Jay in love with Marcy?) And do you, personally, feel like your readers might indeed sometimes be wrong?

why hello, December

I’d ask where the time went, except I know the answer to that one: NaNoWriMo. You’d think I’d be used to it by now, especially since it’s my 13th November, but no. Apparently I just have to keep learning this over and over:

You never learn how to write a novel. You just learn how to write the novel that you’re writing.

Gene Wolfe

For NaNoWriMo, I decided to write a thriller set in the UP. I’ve done that before, so that should make things easier, right? Well.

Normally I write my novels chronologically. I’m more of a discovery writer than an outliner. In NaNo parlance I’m a plantser. Before I start writing a novel, I’ve spent a good deal of time thinking about things like setting and my characters’ backstories. I tend to go into things knowing the opening scene and the first big thing I’m going to throw at them, and I’ve done enough prep that I can be fairly certain how these characters are going to react. Then, in the words of my high school mythology teacher Mr. Noller, I kick the characters in the butt and follow them.

For this November, I was dealing with a cold case. Here’s the basic setup – what I knew before going into November 1.

Ten years ago, Ollie's mom and sister were killed while she and her dad were out at the family cabin. Her high school boyfriend was put on trial for the murders and found legally not guilty, but the community decided otherwise. Recently a serial killer took responsibility for the murders, and a true crime reporter has been contracted to write a book about the case. He's on his way to Ollie so he can visit her hometown and collect interviews when she gets a call that the serial killer actually has an alibi for that night, so the case is far from solved.

So right away I started with a bang: the reporter’s about to show up, but Ollie gets this phone call, and where do you go from there? I knew it was going to be a lot about relationships: Ollie and her dad, Ollie and her mom, Ollie and her sister, Ollie and the high school boyfriend … Ollie and the reporter … so Ollie was going to be at the center of a lot of it, but there was also a lot she didn’t, or couldn’t, know. She wasn’t there that night. She didn’t actually know what her mom and her sister were thinking. So. How could I deal with it?

This is where I tried something new.

Part of the novel – every other scene – follows Ollie Today as she gets the news and things unfold in reaction to it. The other parts aren’t in chronological order and are made up of false documents that largely rely on my reporter’s interviews with other people about Ollie’s mom and sister and what they think happened. Which is confusing on its own, because they’re all recalling something that happened a decade ago, when they’ve had all this time to mold and shape their memories to fit the dominant narrative (in this case, of the former boyfriend’s guilt).

Because I’m not an outliner, I wasn’t sure how it would work. If I’d have enough interview transcripts or newspaper clippings or what have you to continue alternating between the “Now” and these other elements.

I also made things more complicated for myself because that meant figuring out a lot of the old friends and neighbors, or parents of the old friends, and what their points of view would add to the narrative … or, of course, complicate about it. There’s an incident involving the sister, for example, that we see from the dad’s, a friend’s, a friend’s mom’s and a former babysitter’s points of view. Who heard which variation, and what details do they want to pass on? All of this jumping back and forth where you first think you’ve got a handle on it, and then realize hey, actually, we all do this, don’t we? Pick which parts of ourselves to share with which other people, and why.

So I continued doing these jumps, back and forth between the plot I was discovering and the past I was pretty sure I had a handle on, fleshing things out and working toward the climax.

… and I think it worked?

I’m not going to be more certain about it for a while yet, since I’m still too close to the story, but the writing part worked. I was able to sit down and keep up with my intended word count each day while at the same time moving back and forth between Now and Supplementary Documents. It forced me to think about things in new days, with new depths that I don’t usually find until it’s time for the second draft.

It does need time to sit, though, and get out of my immediate consciousness so I can come back to it in a couple months with a less-biased eye. It’s impossible to be completely unbiased about your own work, but the pause can certainly help. Plus by then my usual immediate readers might’ve had the chance to go through it and tell me their initial thoughts.

Because that, of course, is the next scary but necessary step: finding out if other people think it worked. If maybe I overdid it. If it’s too confusing even for a thriller with false documents and unreliable narration. It’s not just about a search for the truth of that one night, but one of my favorite topics: personal identity. Who really knows who we are? Do we even know that about ourselves?

All in all, I think it was a productive November and not just a busy one. I’ve got a complete draft, at any rate, and even if nothing comes of it, I’ve got these new experiences from writing it. I kind of doubt the rest of the year will slow down at all, but at least I know where November went – I’ve got the document to prove it.

Did you participate in NaNoWriMo this year? How did that go? Did you learn anything new about yourself and your writing?

thoughts on this NaNoWriMo eve

It’s almost November, one of my favorite months of the year. If you’ve yet to hear the good news of NaNoWriMo

I’ve been participating in National Novel Writing Month since 2010, when my friend Karen mentioned it to me and suggested I might enjoy it. Well, she was right. I’ve been hooked.

Although there are rebels and the “rules” have relaxed a bit since those old days, the main goal of NaNoWriMo is to quickly write the first draft of a novel during a single month. To “win,” you write 50,000 words over the 30 days of November, which averages out to 1,667 words a day. (Although there aren’t any NaNo police. There’s no penalty for signing up, trying, and not hitting 50k. No police, but plenty of cheerleaders if you want to sign up.)

I had no idea what to expect of myself that first November.

I’d written stories before, sure, and long ones, but I’d never tried to hit a certain word count goal with a specific timeline. I signed up for NaNo on October 6, 2010 (coincidentally that’s my dad’s birthday – you know, my biggest cheerleader?) and then spent the rest of October working my way through not only three different plots, but working out an entire village of characters. (I’ve still got that notebook. I worked out the hours of each shop on the village main street, for crying out loud.)

And then, come November, I ignored every last bit of my outlines and just … went for it. I wrote at a speed that felt good for me and ended up writing 120,039 words, so that means averaging 4k/day while being excited and pushing myself, but not too hard.

My second year, in 2011, I pushed harder and ended up with 180,508 words. The site keeps track of such things for you. Sadly my first year’s data got lost, but I still have the file for my final word count. From 2011 on I can go back and look at graphs like this one:

The gray line shows the proposed steady progress of the magical 1,667 words per day. My blue line shows how I sped up and over 180k. (And the story still wasn’t done – I’d written myself into a bit of a corner with this epic, but in April 2018, for a Camp NaNoWriMo session, I ended up finishing it. Whatever little idea I’d had at the start of November 2011 turned into five books of an epic that became a whopping 249,152 words.)

By 2011, I’d already started seeing a pattern in my NaNo that has more or less continued to this day:

I go into it knowing more or less the first half of the story.

Usually less. When I prep, I build up locations (that’s become easier since I’ve moved from fantasy to real-life places and I pick the ones I know well) and character’s bios up until the moment we meet them on the first page. I do a lot of work fleshing out who they all are, so I have a good idea of how they’ll react when I throw different things their way. Then, in the words of Mr. Noller, my twelfth-grade mythology teacher (who, I believe, was passing on something one of his college professors told him), “Kick your characters in the butt and follow them.”

For me, NaNo is a lot of following. I know (more or less … sometimes a lot less) where they’re going for the first half of the novel, and then …

Then. The muddy middle.

Every. Single. Time.

And look, I’m not alone. In Neil Gaiman’s NaNo pep talk from 2007, which I have found and cherished and passed on to so many other writers, Neil himself explains:

The last novel I wrote (it was ANANSI BOYS, in case you were wondering) when I got three-quarters of the way through I called my agent. I told her how stupid I felt writing something no-one would ever want to read, how thin the characters were, how pointless the plot. I strongly suggested that I was ready to abandon this book and write something else instead, or perhaps I could abandon the book and take up a new life as a landscape gardener, bank-robber, short-order cook or marine biologist.

I don’t know how many times I’ve gone back and read this pep talk because I really, really need it.

(The solution, in case you’re wondering, isn’t giving up and becoming a landscape gardener, bank-robber, short-order cook, or marine biologist. It’s to keep writing.)

So the rest has to come one word at a time.

Which, to be fair, is how the fun first part gets written, too. It just happens a lot faster when the idea is new and shiny and I’m closest to the bit I already know: the opening scene. The further I get from there, the more things veer off.

What I’ve learned about myself and my writing, though, is that I need to be consistent. Like seriously consistent. Some of my more recent graphs clock in at almost exactly 5,000 words a day for every. Single. Day.

Remember how my original 2010 speed of 4k.day was pushing myself, but not too hard? Let’s have a peek at my graph from 2020 for comparison.

Yeah we don’t even need the whole month on this one. In case you’re wondering, my word count for November 1 was 31,423. I hit my 50k before 8pm on November 2. Why? Because in 2019 I’d hit 50k on November 3, so I wanted to push it. This was my Everest: why climb it? Because it’s there.

Look sometimes we have to go too far and then spend a long time afterward babying our hands and getting Dragon to dictate things instead of type them before we’re willing to try something like moderation.

My 2020 novel is still unfinished. It was a rush to hit 50k that quickly, but it sucked a lot of the fun out of the process. Maybe even all of the fun, in the end. I barely slept on the first, and man, November 2 was pretty darn awful, because I had to force myself through the muddy middle at record speed. Not recommended.

Since then, I’ve stuck with my own personal Goldilocks number. On the fast days, I hit my 5k pretty early … and then push back from the keyboard and go do something else. (Put some words back in, you might say.) Then, on the muddy middle days, I push through … up to 5k. I don’t let myself stop, but I don’t force it like I did in 2020, either. I have goals, but I am allowed breaks.

So I imagine this November will be about the same.

I’ll sit down tomorrow to write the scene where I’m 99% sure I know what’s going to happen. The first week, maybe more, will be coasting on that energy and my general idea of where my characters are headed. I don’t know for sure if I’ll be able to do the 5k/day thing with everything else going on in my life, but, aside from my local region’s writing marathon scheduled for the 5th, I won’t be aiming for more than 5k.

I do want to write every day, no matter what the word count, to help push my way through that muddy middle. That, at least, should be doable – if nothing else, I can steal 20 minutes here and there between grading and prep, and chant to myself “A change is as good as a rest.” Like I said, November is busy. But I’ve got goals, and I’ve got experience on my side. Writer, know thyself.

Are you doing NaNoWriMo this year? Have you done it before? What tips and tricks do you have for other Wrimos out there staring down the next 30 days?

Put some words back in

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Time to refill.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Not Your Mary Sue: the original ending

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



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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

okay, next?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(It was totally that important.)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Trusting it feels like jinxing it.

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

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

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

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

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

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.


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?