the overthinking of the author

The other day I was listening to someone talk about a book and they did something interesting. This was a public talk, timed and with an audience and everything, and it’s entirely possible that this was one of those mistakes you make on the fly and have to push through because hey, it’s a public talk, so I’m not being vague to be coy – it’s because I don’t know for sure that this was a conscious choice or an interesting verbal slip.

The speaker mentioned how an author said that the events in a specific book had been based in part on his own personal experience, as related in a past interview. In the book, though, it’s a woman that gets put in that position instead of a man, and with far worse consequences. The speaker said that the author put his wife in his place, and then continued to refer to the character as “author’s wife” instead of “character’s name.”

It’s possible the speaker blanked on the character’s name. I think we’ve all been there – we’re sure we know our stuff, but once the clock starts ticking and we’re confronted with all those faces (or black zoom windows), it all disappears. But, intentional or not, it got me thinking about the assumptions that particular naming practice implies. (And of course got me musing some more on the death of the author and who gets to argue which interpretation is true.)

First possible assumption: if a character isn’t the same gender as the author, then it’s totally not the author.

The speaker framed that part clearly: he experienced this thing in real life but then transferred that experience to the wife character instead of the husband character. The husband shared some characteristics with the author – all well and good – but the underlying assumption here was that the wife wasn’t the author, at all. She was The Wife, very much separate and other from him, and he put The Wife in his own real-life situation rather than putting himself in her shoes.

On the one hand, author surrogates are a recognized thing. But on the other, authors have stated that they put pieces of themselves in all of their characters. So do we have to limit the author-self within a piece of fiction to one single character that is him, and all of these other characters who aren’t? (Spoiler: I don’t think so.)

I’m not going to get into a full discussion here of whether authors can realistically write other genders, but I think part of humanizing our characters does mean giving pieces of ourselves to each of them. One of them might be the most me, but all of them are a little bit me.

Second possible assumption: characters who have real-life counterparts in the author’s life are automatically reflections of those counterparts.

In this case, it’s wife: the author had a wife, and one of the main characters was a wife. Therefore, the wife is the wife is the wife.

Back when my dad was reading the first draft of Not Your Mary Sue, there were certain points where I felt compelled to remind him that the dad in the story is not, in fact, him. (Not all of those scenes made it to the final draft, in case you’re curious – I’ll write more about that after the book comes out.) So clearly I’m aware that this is an assumption that can be made, and that a young woman writing a first-person point of view of a young woman can confuse the issue, but …

It becomes more problematic (to me) because the Book Wife had done some seriously morally questionable things. The book clearly positioned these as issues and then, like fiction can, punishes her for them. So are we supposed to assume that Author Wife did the same things Book Wife did? If we’re already calling one by the other’s name, where do we draw the comparison line? Are they the same as long as the reader doesn’t personally have proof that they’re not?

Third possible assumption: authors really suck at hiding the biographical.

We’re back to “the wife is a wife.” There’s nothing tricky there. It’s a very direct point. Say the author wanted to criticize – and then punish – his wife for her real-life actions, so he wrote a wife character who did those same things and then added his own plot with the bad ending for the wife character. Therapy he gets to sell, maybe, and then everyone reading it is privy to the deepest inner workings of his marriage.

Personally I think the majority of authors are capable of being a lot more subtle about the whole self-insertion thing. There’s a reason we mock Mary Sues: they’re wish fulfilment and therefore perfection. Author surrogates (presumably written “well enough” to be literary instead of Mary Sues) remain complicated and messy, like real people.

In my example, the author himself gave an interview explaining how an incident from his own past inspired the situation he wrote about, and the trouble he dropped his wife character into. That’s straight from the horse’s mouth, really: this happened to me, so I dropped it into my book. The complication apparently springs from the fact that he didn’t make the bad thing happen to the me-figure, but the wife-figure.

At this point I can’t tell if the author stayed too close to real life, and that’s the trouble, or if switching the figure in peril is what’s causing the issue. But I will say that it’s something I do all the time: drop in real-life events or snippets or tidbits into the plot, regardless of how much “me” the character is, as long as they fit. If my novels are grounded in real life, then why not use my own real life as inspiration?

Okay so if nothing else, at this point you’ve learned that I can overthink anything. A simple verbal slip has me pondering all the author/character/reader interpretations all this time later. Do fiction authors interpret fiction different from readers who don’t also write fiction? Was it just a nervous speaker making a mistake? Or does this person know something we don’t about this particular book and its representations?

Here’s my question to you, whether you’re an author or a reader: how much do you think we can read into those kinds of characters? What’s fair, and what’s completely over-the-top?

Musings on unsolved crimes, inspired by the Writing Community Chat Show

I was on The Writing Community Chat Show last week – here’s a link to the episode – as part of a panel of authors. Panel talks are cool but also challenging: you want to talk, but you don’t want to go on and on and make it all about you, or cut in if someone else has something to say, or veer back if the topic’s already moved on. So, for instance, when a really cool question comes up … you don’t always get to answer it.

But this blog is all about me, so I’m answering it here.

When considering True Crime, how important is it to the guests that the crime is solved? Are there any unsolved crimes that intrigue and have inspired the panel?

Darren Pengelly

First, thank you, Darren, because I love this question. I could go on for hours about it. So it’s probably good other people jumped in and we moved on.

The thing about true crime is that, as a genre, it loves crimes that have been solved. When Ann Rule signed the contract to write about “the Ted Murders,” she knew she wouldn’t be getting it published until after there’d been a trial and sentencing. The Stranger Beside Me was first published in 1980, after Bundy had been found guilty of two murders, three counts of attempted first-degree murder, and two counts of burglary. It came out quickly enough that an update needed to be added when he received his third death sentence for the murder of Kimberly Leach, but it still wasn’t sent to print until Bundy had been found guilty.

True crime likes stories that get wrapped up neatly and tied with a bow. It’s all about the solved cases and the plucky law enforcement agents who went toe-to-toe with the cunning criminals and came out on top. True crime doesn’t like unsolved cases or systemic problems that can’t be pinned on a single person in a catchy mug shot.

Okay, there are some exceptions.

Says the woman who’s written two books on Jack the Ripper. But, in that case, the Ripper isn’t still out there, ready to murder anyone reading a book about him. (Imagine the Golden State Killer reading I’ll Be Gone in the Dark before he was finally caught. That’s the premise for Catherine Ryan Howard’s The Nothing Man. The Golden State Killer didn’t actually go on to murder because of the book, but in that case, it was a possibility. He hadn’t been caught. Not enough time had passed to be sure he was dead.) But the Ripper was in 1888, he only killed poor East End sex workers, and he’s dead by now – all layers of safety between the Ripper and the average true crime reader.

If someone writes about an ongoing crime that’s unfolding right now – say, a serial killer – then there’s not that barrier. Maybe, like the Green River killer, there’s a clear victim type and readers can assure themselves that they don’t fit it. If we don’t get into cars with strangers, and never go out after dark, and always take a buddy, and learn self-defense, and message our friends to tell them where we are, and check in with each other, then we won’t be the next victim.

That’s what true crime wants us to believe, and it’s so much harder when there’s an unsolved case out there. Jack the Ripper, the Zodiac Killer, and the Monster of Florence are the exceptions that prove the rule. Two of them aren’t even American, and we all know America likes to think it’s the world leader in serial killers, both having them and catching them.

Considering Ripper’s Victims and Media and the Murderer (and the whole Jack the Ripper tag on my blog) I probably don’t have to go on too much about any unsolved cases that particularly influence me, but I’d like to mull on a related topic for a moment:

What about unsolved crimes in fiction?

This is where it gets tricky. We like fiction because it doesn’t have to follow real-life examples. We can add a full narrative structure, including a proper beginning and an end, the way we do when telling stories about our own lives, but we don’t actually live in a narrative structure. (Narrative theory was one of my three comprehensive exam areas. Can you tell?) We try to make real life into stories, but we’re often restricted by details like evidence and proof. If we’re making the story up, though …

I do think there’s a difference between a character solving the case and the audience knowing the answer. It could be that the main characters have to give up, for whatever reason, before finding the solution. Or, like was mentioned during the chat, there could be a Hitchcockian suspense scenario where the audience knows the killer early on but can only watch as the main character tries to figure it out. That dual cat-and-mouse layer features in true crime: the police hunt the killer hunts the victims. It’s like one of those math problems where two trains are moving at different speeds toward a destination and you have to calculate how long it’ll be before one overtakes the other.

I’m thinking of things like the Lincoln Rhyme series where you can have a character like The Watchmaker who gets identified as the criminal … but not truly identified. He’s the Moriarty or the Big Bad, Rhyme’s intellectual equal and therefore more than capable of keeping out of the clutches of the police. Even the “real” name they come up with for him might not be right, and he’s been behind some of the single-book bad guys who don’t get to come back for a curtain call. The case isn’t solved in a legal sense, since he’s never put on trial and sentenced, but Rhyme knows. And the readers know.

It’s not like The Colorado Kid, which might be the only completely unsolved fictional mystery that I’ve read. Stephen King wrote a book about how frustrating it is for a crime to be a true unsolved mystery, with an unsolved mystery at its center. The main characters even say multiple times that it’s not a story, not exactly, because there’s not a single mysterious element and a single “must-have-been.” A man from Colorado ended up dead on an island off the coast of Maine with a Russian coin in his pocket and a bite of steak caught in his throat. And … that’s about it.

You don’t even know for sure that it was a crime, or just a very weird accidental death. There’s enough to make you think that yes, you’re missing a lot of the pieces, but even the characters who have spent decades knowing the story haven’t been able to find them. It’s an incredibly frustrating story that isn’t really helped by the fact that the characters let you know from the start that it won’t be neatly tied up with a bow. You’re right there with Stephanie as she hears the story for the first time, asks questions, and keeps running up against the fact that there aren’t any answers.

And honestly, it’s probably something only a household name could get published on a grand scale, because that’s not what we want from our fiction, is it? It doesn’t matter if Stephanie and the two older reporters don’t know the full backstory for the Colorado Kid, but King doesn’t even relent and let Constant Reader in on it. We just get to the end and think “Wait did I just waste my time reading that or …?”

Have you read any fiction that deals with an unsolved crime that remains unsolved at the end of the book? Did it feel like a waste of time? Do you think all crime fiction needs to be solved in order to fit the genre? Share your thoughts!

[Galinda voice] Popular!

I’ve been musing about this lately and today seemed like a good time to bring it out. What do I post? What should I continue to post? If the purpose of posting is to get engagement and eyes on my work, how do I judge what’s worth posting? Maybe my posts seem eclectic and weird and you wonder why.

Maybe when you look at my blog you see my posts about writing and wonder why I keep scattering in the true crime stuff. Sure, someone who writes about true crime would be able to do both, but why keep it up?

I get the most interaction – likes and comments – on my writing posts.

I get the most views on the true crime stuff.

For example, I’m pretty sure there was a school in Britain asking students to search for a specific Ripper suspect last week, because man, the views were up. Interaction, no, but views? My most-viewed pages are all Ripper- and Holmes-related.

Let’s take a step back and ask why I started a website and blog in the first place.

Drumroll, please: to build a platform. (Yes, that’s probably the most common answer.) To give people a place to come if they wanted to talk to me or learn a little more about me (before buying my books, of course). So I want that engagement, and I want those views, and it would be so nice if I found the magic formula that let me get both on the same post, but … we’re all out here doing our best.

And figuring out how to stay true to ourselves, of course. I’ve got books out about the Ripper and Holmes, so this is what I know. I’ve got the background knowledge and still, somehow, after all these years, the interest. So when it comes time to whip up another blog post or two, true crime and writing are easy topics. I care about them, and I think it shows in writing whether or not someone’s actually interested in their own subject.

But you can’t determine your own popularity.

One of my posts got a surge of hits (and still continues to see some action) because it was mentioned in a Smithsonian Magazine article about Holmes. I couldn’t plan for that. And that weird peak on one of the Ripper’s victims from last week? No idea where it came from, either. (For the record, it was Charles Allen Lechmere.) You don’t get to pick your own best work.

Right now I’ve got a thread over on Twitter that’s totally blowing up my notifications.

I posted it on a whim yesterday because I was frogging – ripping out – an old project that just wasn’t wearable. Beautiful, yes, but a shrug that won’t stay on your shoulders and just keeps falling off and hanging from the cuffs around your wrists isn’t useful in keeping your arms and shoulders warm. I knit it three years ago, wore it once, and left it in a pile of things.

So when I started undoing it, I documented the process with photos in a twitter thread. I don’t usually do twitter threads. Maybe I was in a weird mood yesterday. I figured my followers would see it, if the algorithm let them, and that would be that. But instead it’s blowing up my phone with notifications.

Why this? Why not my novel or my true crime or something I’d really love 15,000 people to see within 18 hours?

Because we don’t get to pick the things that blow up. The things that get likes and comments over the things that get over a hundred views in a single day … and no likes or comments.

Look, I’m glad it’s helpful. I’m glad people are seeing a part of knitting they’ve never considered before, or getting the push to frog their own projects, reclaim the yarn, and knit something they’ll love and wear. (I’m less glad at the people who, hours later, are insisting I should’ve kept the original because it’s beautiful. Yes, thank you, it was, but first off it was literally useless, and second, it’s my time we’re talking about. If I want to tear out my own work, that’s my decision. Hmph.)

But the thing is, once you post something, it’s out of your hands. Once you write something and put it out into the world, it’s not just yours anymore. Yes, you have an intention, but the readers can turn it into something else.

Writing is rhetoric. (Did you know I’ve got a PhD in rhetoric?) Rhetoric doesn’t end with the author, and it doesn’t matter if the author cries or laughs or any of that while writing or giving a speech. If you recall your rhetorical triangle, the audience makes up one whole side. Without them, it collapses. If the audience laughs or cries while engaging with the text (and if it’s the reaction the rhetor wanted to elicit), then it’s a successful piece of communication.

So things can fail. You can tell a joke that falls flat, or write what you think is a heart-wrenching scene and get told your beta readers only yawned. The audience can take the text and turn it into something you never anticipated.

So what can you do?

Write what you love. Or, as Chuck Wendig puts it a bit more colorfully:

I wanna read the book that pops out of your goddamn chest like a goddamn baby Xenomorph. No matter how many Tums you have taken. No matter how many guests you have at your dinner table. You cannot contain it. It’s just — oops, splurch, sorry, that book just kicked open my breastbone like a set of saloon doors and oh, shit, here it is, flinging itself into the room.

Yes, you’re probably writing to a schedule at the same time, with due dates and deadlines and all the rest, but … honestly, that authenticity of writing the Xenomorph is what tends to rise to the surface. My twitter thread of just me messing around? Authentic me. I was doing the thing. Something I’ve done multiple times before, but never documented, and I thought maybe it would be interesting to a handful of people.

And it’s nice to get the validation, don’t get me wrong. I totally wonder why all those people reading those posts don’t even click on the like button, but I know I’ve hit on something good when I get almost as many likes as views, even when those numbers are lower. But I like the kinds of things I post, and at least it’s reason enough to keep posting the different things, reaching different people.

And maybe finding even more who also like my Xenomoprh.

If you’ve got a blog, how long did it take you to feel like you got “into the groove” and found your niche? Does anyone ever really feel that way? Is this an imposter syndrome thing again?

current state of the (nonfiction) manuscript

I don’t often talk about my in-progress writing, except, whenever I do, it’s with other people who are also writing (or trying to write) and it’s a useful conversation for both of us. It’s also something I see less of when it comes to nonfiction/academic writing. I don’t think that’s just because I hang out with a bunch of creative writers, since it didn’t even really happen in grad school. We had to take that class and buy Writing Your Journal Article in Twelve Weeks, but … that was kind of it.

I’m also going to be all superstitious and secret about the actual content of this project, for the record. Partly because hyping it all up and then still having to write it feels like knitting the second sock (I don’t knit socks because I have to do the exact same thing twice) and partly because … well of course my ideas are so good you’ll want to steal them. Right? [Insert sweat smile emoji here]

So this week I picked up a draft I’d started back in November. When it grows up, it’s going to be a book, maybe 80,000-90,000 words. I haven’t really touched this one since the end of last year. It was about 33,000 words when I opened it up again to see what, exactly, I’d been trying to say.

Since it’s nonfiction, I’ve got the whole outline established. (This is in direct opposition to my fiction drafting.) All of the chapters are there, and even major headings within the chapters. Perfect.

I’ve been out of my normal routine for a while, so I wanted to re-establish that and make some realistic goals. Now in the past I have drafted academic writing at 5,000 words a day, every day, with no breaks, until it was done. That’s how I wrote Surviving Stephen King, for example, but a side note there: that was in April 2020, when I could pour all my emotions into my writing and let it distract me, and I’d just quit my job to write full time anyway, and I didn’t have any freelance work just yet. I’d also been researching King academically since 2014 and reading him longer than that. So. 5k/day was not a realistic goal for this past week.

I settled on a couple guidelines:

  • 1,000-2,000 words a day for all 5 weekdays
  • sit down to write by 10am

It looks so innocuous and simple, doesn’t it? But let me also explain why these were my goals.

First, like I said, I know I can produce 5k words a day. It’s physically, mentally, and emotionally possible. I’ve done it before. But that was then, and this is now. It’s a different book, a different topic, and I’m in a different place in my life.

Plus I’m coming back from a pretty long break. So. I wanted it to be realistic and achievable, but with a push. A push with breaks – weekends are still weekends. No need to go into burnout and frustrate myself trying to expand this draft.

As far as the “sit down by 10am,” I’ve got a couple things going on there. If I say “write from 10am until noon,” I might not get my word count goal. If I get up early, then I don’t really want to force myself to sit around until 10am to start. My sleep is something I try to put into my schedule, but it doesn’t always happen when I want it to, so some flexibility is good. Start by 10, check. Can do.

I’ve also clearly got that time free to schedule as I want – some of my freelance work is at specific times – and I know what time of day I’m most likely to be productive. So the point is to set myself up for success as much as possible, but also to show up and get my butt in the desk chair even when I don’t feel like writing.

I’m still at the point in the draft where I can easily skip around and fill in different parts depending on what catches my attention the most. I like this part. Monday I worked on Chapter 7, Tuesday Chapter 6, Wednesday Chapter 3 … I’ll have to go back through and make sure things flow properly, sure, but I know where the blank spots are.

Here’s a tip:

One of the first things I did was skim through what I’d already written and add [more] at the places that still need something: a transition, a whole section, whatever. The highlight helps me scroll through the document and see where I still need to do some work, and I chose the brackets because I don’t use brackets within the text. This makes it easy to search and see exactly how many places I still have left to work on.

Some of them are small (a transition) and others are pretty big (the conclusion chapter), but that part doesn’t matter for me right now. The important thing is that I can easily tell where more work needs to be done, and I can fill in all of the 0ther [more]s before tackling the conclusion. That’ll save me from printing it out for what I think is a final proofread and realizing I’ve left out an entire section.

Now when I sit down at or before 10am to write at least a thousand words, I can search for the missing piece that grabs me the most and start there.

I also like the Pomodoro technique.

Some days it takes longer than others to write a thousand words, so that can seriously be an extended time when I’m trying to force myself to focus … and nothing else. So most days, and especially days when I feel sluggish and like there’s no way in heck I’m getting 10 words, much less a thousand, I’ll start the timer. 25 minutes on, 5 minutes off. Or I’ll use my Pomodoro – Focus Timer app (I paid the one-time fee and it’s totally been worth it for me) and set it to 15 minutes on and 5 minutes off.

For the record, when I use the app, I set my phone on a stand where I can see it count down. It helps me to know how much longer I have to force myself to focus, or how much longer I can be on Twitter, and I like how I can set it to automatically run. Once it starts, it’ll tell me when the focus session is over and I can take a break, or when the break is over and I can get back to work. There’s no messing with individual timers to switch back and forth between 5 and however long I’m focusing. I really only use it in the moment and don’t even look at my stats, but you can try the official 25 minutes on, 5 minutes off for free. It’s setting up your own timing that’s part of the paid app.

Otherwise, it’s really just one word at a time.

If I hit my minimum goal, that’s 5,000 new words this week. If I max out, that’s 10,000 new words. They’re not necessarily all keepers, no, but once again, you can’t edit a blank page. Right now I’m still in full rough draft mode: nobody ever has to see this. I’m just shoveling sand in the sandbox and telling myself the story. Once I get all of those [more]s filled in, I’ll have to switch gears and get into revision mode, but that’ll be a while yet.

Current state of the manuscript: rough draft, over half of the way there

the one about failure

All right, as promised (because I knew I could make myself write about this, but only if I’d actually put it out there): the failure stories. Okay. Honestly. Here we go.

*deep breath*

I actually feel pulled two ways about this. Some of my abandoned WIPs have gems buried in them: awesome phrases, sparkling dialogue, or a nugget of an idea that’s still worth pursuing. Others totally faltered for good reasons (mostly the reason being “I have no idea where I’m going with this”). But I think I’ve managed to hang on to at least 90% of them, so I can give you some actual numbers. (Even though I’m not sure I really want to look at the numbers myself.)

I wrote my first original “novel” in 2000, so in the past couple of decades …

I have 87 abandoned projects on record

Okay. I’m not sure if it hurts more or less to have the actual number written down like that. It works out to just under 4 abandoned projects a year, but in the cases where I’ve got the original dates, they totally group up. Some months I try and try and try and try and … nope.

Some of them are only a paragraph or two. Others are already tens of thousands of words (and I really want to know how they end, but … I still don’t). Many are variations on a theme, where I kept trying to find the proper path into the dark forest. For some of them, I eventually made it … after a dozen attempts. Others are just abandoned.

I’m not entirely sure why I saved them all, even if I’m grateful I did. Some were saved on a CD. Others were printed off and put into a three-ring binder. The more recent reside in the “nuggets” and “established beginnings” folders on my computer (with a sort of arbitrary line for when something’s long enough to become the second instead of the first).

And, if we compare my numbers with the titles in my “completed” folder, we’ve got 10:1 odds here.

For every plot arc I’ve completed, I’ve made 10 attempts

That’s just overall. Sometimes – the magic times – I complete a plot arc on the first attempt. Others take four or six or twelve false starts.

I think if I wanted to do more math I’d find that the ratio started out much higher and has come down over the years. I also don’t think it’ll ever be 1:1, but 3:1? Maybe. And I also think that’s only happening because I do keep trying.

I mean, aside from the obvious “You’ll never finish anything if you quit starting,” I like to think that bringing the ratio down is all part of the process. Maybe I’m finding myself more easily, or maybe I’m more wiling to circle the dark forest longer before trying to make my way in. And for me, finishing is the ultimate goal: getting a draft with a complete plot arc so I don’t flip the page years later and groan because it’s blank and I have no idea what happens next.

But I’m also really proud of Teenage Me for the fact that, despite the 20:1 or so ratio, I kept writing. Like I seriously want to go back and give myself a hug for it. I made repeated attempts and even kept the record of those attempts, even though it’s basically a record of failure. And that momentum has made it easier, or maybe even necessary, to keep saving everything like that. To keep on dropping breadcrumbs on my way.

So I’ve kept them, and every so often I’ll pull them out and go through them. I’ve even made lists of the lines that still strike me as good and the ideas that still intrigue me, just in case.

If I’m feeling very brave, I might even share some of those someday. (Right at this moment I’m not feeling very brave …)

When’s the last time you looked at your WIPs? How does your stack compare to mine?

To outline or not to outline: that is the question

I know I’ve already shared how I, personally, outline books – or, at least, how I outlined Ripper’s Victims specifically – but since I’ve also pointed out that each new project can feel like learning to write all over again (and since that first post is pretty darn old by now) I thought I’d come back to this question with a broader scope.

Yes, I outlined Ripper’s Victims using sticky notes before I ever started writing it. Yes, I’ve still got that poster board. And there are a lot of times I use sticky notes and poster boards to organize my ideas in the early phases, especially of nonfiction projects, but of course that’s not the only way.

I have friends who:

  • jump right into a project without any notes or outline or anything. She just sits down, goes “Hmmm,” and writes the first page. And it works. She’s written entire novels this way.
  • come to the first page with a pretty detailed world and the first couple scenes in mind, then see where that takes them.
  • outline everything very meticulously. And I mean very. To the point where it’s less of an outline and more … nearly-completed scenes. But she doesn’t like revising, and she can manage to keep up the energy not only of these outlines, but also then writing the book.

They’ve also all written more than one project, so these methods are the ones they’ve figured out to help them keep moving forward. It’s like Stephen King‘s “Write every day” advice (I wrote my own thoughts on that here): it works for him because he knows what doesn’t work for him. My outlining friend does so much work before “officially” writing because she’s seen what happens if she doesn’t. The friend who writes by the seat of her pants hasn’t had to change her method because it works for her.

And along with the “each project is new” aspect of it, I’ve also realize that – shock, I know – there are major differences between my nonfiction and my fiction approach.

I don’t outline my fiction with sticky notes.

Sorry. I should’ve warned you. That one’s probably a big shocker.

For Not Your Mary Sue, I don’t think I have any written notes … at all … before starting it for NaNoWriMo (at 12:01am November 1, because I’ll force myself to wait for November, but no longer). Even though the idea had been in my head since February that year.

I’d been thinking about Marcy, and her family, and her background, and how she’d react to waking up on that island, but I don’t have any character sheets written down. No timelines drawn out. I “cast” Jay in my head but I had even less on his background than Marcy’s.

Since it’s from Marcy’s POV, she was the one I needed to know better. I also knew Jay’s main goal would be talking and telling her all about himself, so … I figured that I’d be able to learn along with her. (Hey, it’s a first draft. Nobody ever has to see your first draft. If it crashed and burned, nobody ever had to know.)

And the thing is, the story I thought I’d be writing ended up being only about half of what actually came out. I saw where it could go, to a specific point, and assumed I’d then write a little tag scene to sort of wrap things up, but … the story didn’t want to be wrapped up there. I knew who Marcy was by then, had spent so much time with her, and realized her story wasn’t done yet.

So I had even less of an idea of how the second half of the book would go, but I followed her anyway and let her do her things and live her life, and followed her like Joe Goldberg and wrote it all down. (Maybe someday I’ll share how I thought Marcy’s story “should” have ended, before she told me how wrong I was.) But I was like my first friend and had no idea at all what was going to happen next until I typed it, and … it still worked. The story came out. It made a complete arc.

Okay but that’s a success story.

I get it – there are plenty of ways to outline a story or not, and they all work for different people, and look at how well they worked for me! Whee! But what about when something doesn’t work? What about all the failures and the discards and …?

Next post, I promise. We’ll talk about about the failures next. I’m going to need a lot of space for those.

so you want to talk about flesh prisons (aka characters’ physical descriptions)

The other night at dinner, my husband was talking about Ready Player One. He read the book (in English) first shortly after it came out, then saw the movie, and now he’s reading the book in Italian. (Which he’s taught himself, because this is the guy I married.) He commented on how, since he’s seen the movie, he kept picturing the character Art3mis as her on-screen version and not the book version.

Which got me going about describing characters and using the phrase “flesh prisons” (yes, while we were eating) and he asked a) if I’d write it up, and b) if I’d use the phrase “flesh prisons” in my post.

So. Here we are.

I’m even going to throw in the asterisk that I gave him before going on my rant: this doesn’t work for all genres. If you’re writing romance, for example, you’re going to go right ahead and slow down while focusing on the love interest. There are times, be it in genres or just scenes, when more description matters. Just bear in mind that longer descriptions do slow down the action, so they’re more suited to certain places in your book than others.

Okay. Asterisk out of the way. When boiled down, my own personal decision on how much to describe my characters is this:

What do we decide to do with our meat prisons?

Bearing in mind that my characters are contemporary figures who get put into “basically today, usually Michigan” for their thriller settings, they’re humans. And human beings can be interesting, but part of what I’ve come to realize about myself is that physical appearance is most interesting to me when it ties into characterization.

Maybe also that I’m just not good at in-depth character descriptions. Anyway.

Let’s take Jay for a minute. I know, I know, only a handful of people have read Not Your Mary Sue so far since it’s not out until June, but you can meet him in the opening pages here. And most of the description comes when you first meet a character, right? So we can see some elements of Jay’s appearance: reddish hair (currently messy instead of purposefully tousled); blue eyes; tall; has a smile that lights up his entire face. I’ve even dropped in a clue about whether he’s right- or left-handed, but that’s not really a physical descriptor.

The thing is, in the first draft of the novel (from NaNoWriMo 2017) I did something that made me cringe a little when I went back over it: I described him based on which actor would play him in the movie version. It made sense within the book itself – Jay wants his story to be told and become a bestseller, so it’s not a stretch to imagine it then getting turned into a movie, the way both Mark Harmon and Zac Efron have played Ted Bundy – but I ended up cutting it.

Naming a well-known actor basically locks us all in to the same Jay, forever and ever, amen, the way my husband’s been picturing the Art3mis from the movie while reading the book. If I describe someone as “Avengers-era Chris Evans” (not my Jay model, in case you were trying to make it work), then we’re all stuck with Avengers-era Chris Evans in our head. We might not complain, but … we’re still all picturing the exact same thing.

I want to give you some leeway.

Pick whatever kind of nose you want for Jay. Imagine his eyebrows. Fill in the rest of his face.

You’ll learn later about why his smile maybe isn’t such a welcome thing, and Marcy has her own reasons to focus on his physique in the early pages of the book, but there’s enough to play with so that your Jay doesn’t have to be my Jay. And I’ve gone for sort of the low-hanging fruit: hair color, eye color, and height. Basically sketched in a roughly humanoid figure.

The rest of what you learn about Jay has to do with his character: who he is as a person. When Marcy describes his physique, it’s in comparison to what she associates with his favorite hobby. (Spoilers there, so that’s vague. No, it’s not serial killing.) His hair matters because it is messy instead of deliberately tousled, each of which says something different about a person.

What I like to describe about my characters’ physical selves are the things that tell us something about them as people.

It’s usually not something they had no control over – whatever genes blessed or didn’t bless them from birth – but the things they do: hair style. Tattoos or piercings. Hair dye. Clothing. Hobbies and learned skills that show themselves physically, like a guitar player’s calluses. Sometimes things they didn’t necessarily have control over, but tell us about their lives, like scars.

In the Ready Player One example, Art3mis is encountered first – and for the vast majority of the book – as an avatar. Cline spends a lot of time having his main character describe that avatar, in part for those romance novel reasons (Wade knows who Art3mis is before encountering her “in person” so he already knows she’s interesting) but also because the avatar was entirely created. Art3mis chose not only her screenname, but every element of her avatar. Everything about her appearance is therefore a deliberate choice that tells Wade something about her before he ever meets her.

And to be fair, I have wondered if character descriptions are one of my weakest points. (If you’re going to tell me I’m right, please be kind while you do so.) Maybe it’s something to do with being ace and just not looking at people the “usual” way. Or maybe I just think motivations and internal aspects of character are more interesting than flesh prisons.

How do you approach describing characters’ physical appearances? Do you have any favorite authors who seem to be really good at it?

Learning to write all over again

Writing can feel really isolating: just you and your computer as you stare at the blinking cursor and wonder when the document is going to have the desired word count. How you get from 0 to that word count is pretty much up to you. If you’ve got a deadline, you just have to be faster and figuring it out.

It’s also one of those things where you don’t always realize what you know or how valuable your own struggles – uh, experiences – might be until you’re talking to another writer and someone says “OMG, me too!” in clear tones of relief.

In grad school, we didn’t really talk about the writing process. It was like everyone assumed we already knew how to write and just had to be told the assignment parameters. When I submitted for my first conference, I felt like I was winging it. Same for my first chapter. We didn’t talk about writing, and it didn’t seem acceptable to ask anyone about writing. It was just this weird taboo.

So it was hard to tell if my own experience actually related to anyone else’s, or if mine was somehow … subpar. Like I’d missed a bunch of key information that everyone else somehow magically knew.

Part of my intent with this blog is to share the things that get me the “OMG, me too!” responses so I don’t play into the secret-keeping aspects. I’m (somehow) at a point in my career where people look up to me and think I’m a real writer (imposter syndrome what?) and there are so many things I wish I’d heard from someone when those positions were reversed, so …

Starting a new project can feel like learning how to write again from scratch.

There. It’s out.

You’d think, or maybe hope, that after you write one book, you’ve got it down. You’ve managed to go from 0 to 80k or so, get it passed editors and proofreaders and through the printing process, and you’ve learned a bunch of lessons along the way. All of which can be applied to Book #2. Right?

Uh. Well.

To be fair, at first I thought maybe I was just making things harder for myself by not approaching a new book project the same way I’d gone about the first. Like I was just reinventing the wheel to keep my stress level high for the fun of it. Except each book project is different, so why should the process look exactly the same?

For me, Book #1 was about Jack the Ripper. Book #2 was about H. H. Holmes. Two nineteenth century serial killers, right? Well, yes. But …

Ripper’s Victims came out in 2018, but I’d started reading about the Ripper in 2007. I’d already racked up a respectable number of books by the time I signed the contract, and bought even more in the process of researching it. But it wasn’t like I’d only looked into the Ripper from the moment of signing the contract. I’d already had a better part of a decade not only reading about the Ripper, but writing a paper on the women for a graduate independent study course and then presenting that paper for my first conference. I had this whole history with the Ripper, and there was such a huge bibliography to make my way through.

Take a look at this:

I know you can’t read it, but the framed poster board at the bottom with all the neon sticky notes is my outline for Ripper’s Victims. I went through and wrote down the titles of books about the Ripper and organized them chronologically. Which worked quite well until the 1990s, which spilled over, and then for the 2000s I ended up parsing out different themes because yowza. The Ripper was popular and still gaining.

Holmes isn’t that popular. I’ve had people hear I do true crime and name Holmes as their sort of “gotcha” killer, because apparently we’re gatekeeping true crime now. (Also apparently Erik Larson’s book, despite selling so many copies, hasn’t made Holmes mainstream. Who knew? Maybe everybody reads it for the architecture.)

But already straight off you can see I couldn’t start the same way with Holmes as I had with the Ripper. I’d read I think three books about Holmes when my editor asked if I’d be interested in writing my own, and three compared to my Ripper history seemed kind of pitiful. Except … there aren’t over 100 books about Holmes. My bibliography didn’t stay at three, but it certainly didn’t explode like my Ripper posterboard.

That’s just one major difference. Another is the subjects themselves: the Ripper was never named, but Holmes was. He’d been identified, put on trial, and even wrote both an autobiography and a confession before his execution. You can’t approach them the same way. It makes no sense to try.

And still I thought maybe I was just trying to make life difficult for myself.

Is this a case of form following function? (That’s for you architecture fans out there.) Granted, the final form – a book – looks very much like any other book. There’s a different cover, but … sentences and chapters and pages.

I think the biggest takeaway here is flexibility.

When you’ve written a book, you’ve learned one way to write a book, but it’s not the only way for anyone to write a book … and it’s not even the only way for you to write a book. The tips and tricks you’ve amassed are certainly there in your toolbox to be used as often as you need them, but they’re not the only tips and tricks in the world. And they might not always work on a new project. (I’d try for another architecture metaphor, but I personally read Devil in the White City for the serial killer.)

I’ll revert to Joseph Campbell and the hero’s journey: he says that the hero has to find his own path into the woods. If the journey’s easy, then you’re on a path someone else has made, and you’re not going to be a hero.

Writers have to find their own path into the woods … for each book. Maybe you can make some headway on a path you’ve made before, but not always. Sometimes you have to reassess your approach and start hacking away in a different direction, because this book isn’t the same as the last one. You’re not looking to end up in exactly the same place, and you’re probably not starting from the same place, either.

The woods are lovely, dark, and deep … and enormous. Starting a new book can feel like learning to write all over again, and that’s not a bad thing. It can be frustrating, but it can also be thrilling and rewarding.

What do you think? Do you find yourself still learning how to write, no matter how much you’ve written before?

“Do you ever get into a writing funk where you just can’t summon the energy to write?”

If you google “write every day,” you get over a million results. I mean, it’s Google, so there are usually tons of responses, but … it’s common advice. I don’t know if it’s the most common, exactly, but it’s out there enough that people who don’t write everyday are worried, or even convinced, that they’re doing it wrong. To the point where someone I know, who is in no way a slacker, asked me this question: do you ever get into a writing funk where you just can’t summon the energy to write? Because maybe she assumed that, being a “real” writer, my answer would be “no.”

How accepted is this idea? I wrote back “YES” and she responded “THANK GOD.” (We proceeded without shouting after that.)

The thing is, we get people like Stephen King telling us to write every day. And you’d think he knows what he’s talking about, right? World-famous bestselling author, and he says:

Once I start work on a project, I don’t stop, and I don’t slow down unless I absolutely have to. If I don’t write every day, the characters begin to stale off in my mind … I begin to lose my hold on the story’s plot and pace.

Stephen King

So … write every day. Right?

Not according to Cal Newport. Or Kristen Simental. Or Luke Eldredge.

I’d like to pick apart King’s quote, because even though it often gets repeated as the simple “Write every day,” he actually tells us more than that. In fact, he reveals a bit about his own writing pitfalls. Once he starts a project (so presumably not 365 days a year), he feels that he, personally, has to write everyday because otherwise he sees issues in characters, plotting, and pacing.

Remember how not all writing advice is universal? How there are so many books about writing out there, and they all have different advice? We call come from different backgrounds and have our own potential pitfalls. Not all advice is for every writer, and not all advice is shared in a way that’s actually helpful.

That’s why we need the full quote: to see what, exactly, “write every day” means to King, and why he stands by it. He’s noticed, in his own many decades of experience, that he, personally, has to write every day once he starts a project, or else these issues arise. He’s not “writing every day” because it’s been repeated so often, but because he knows what’s likely to happen if he doesn’t. For King, writing every day is the solution.

I’d say I more or less align with King here: once I get started on a project, I’m likely to write something in it every day until I hit my goal. Sometimes the goal is a completed draft; other times it’s a completed section of a draft. If I’m at the very beginning and I’m excited, then “every day” means 7 days a week. Other times it means 5 days a week, because even people with “real” jobs get weekends. (Mine aren’t always Saturday and Sunday, or two days in a row, but they’re still days when I don’t expect myself to write.)

The biggest argument I hear for “writing every day” is that writing is a job. If you’re serious about it, then of course you’ll do it every day.

Think for a moment about what you do every single day of your life. Breathe, eat, sleep. Take care of other humans or pets in our household. But even exercise plans have rest days built in. Work limits your hours if only because they don’t want to pay you overtime. We recognize the need for rest, recovery, and making space for other things when it’s not writing, so …

If writing every day burns you out, then it’s bad advice for you. Like all other writing advice, it’s something you need to consider for both practicality and personal adaptation. If you’ve never tried it, maybe it’s time to pick a project and adhere to the advice for a set amount of time – say, a month. Give yourself long enough to figure out if it’s working, and maybe long enough to become a habit. Maybe you’re a big don’t break the chain kind of person. But even then, remember that the true test of your chain is missing a day … and getting right back into it on the next.

You might mess around with expectations. Are you trying to write a specific number of words each day, or carve out a specific amount of time for writing? When you say “writing,” do you mean “putting words on the page” or will you count research, plotting, daydreaming, and so on? Are you willing to switch up your goals and your schedule to better match your actual daily output? Is this a 24/7/365 sort of goal, or a project-based goal?

So no, I don’t put words on the page every day. I don’t sit in front of my laptop for a set amount of time every day, either. When I’m working toward a deadline, it’s far more likely – but even then I remember that weekends are a thing. And, like King, I’ve been doing this for a while, so I have a pretty good idea of what works for me and how to avoid my worst pitfalls. But that doesn’t mean you have to do exactly what I do.

Sometimes I get into a funk and can’t summon the energy to write. It happens. I’ve barely worked on my book projects all month because so many other things have come up. Stress is real, and burnout is real. If writing every day adds to either of those, then it’s probably not your best solution right now. Because that’s what writing advice should be: a solution, not stress or shame.

How was your January? Were you more productive, word-wise, then I was?

Remember to look back

Sometimes things just come together for inspiration. Take this tweet from a friend of mine:

Dan’s clearly a skilled maker – he’s also a fiber artist as well as doing woodwork – and he’s got this striking visual example of his progress. We can see how intricate his work gets, even if we’ve never made spindles ourselves. And we can see it at a quick glance.

I’m connecting this back to writing. Of course I’m connecting this back to writing. Because lately I’ve been a lot more involved in communities of writers, which involves things like feedback and support and beta reading.

Beta reader (n.) A beta reader is a test reader of an unreleased work of literature or other writing (similar to beta testing in software), giving feedback with the angle of an average reader to the author about remaining issues.

definition from Cali Bird

For authors, beta readers are a sort of reality check. Is the piece doing what you think it’s doing? Is that loveable rapscallion of a character actually loveable? Does that tender scene between your main character and the love interest actually bog the plot down and make readers yawn instead of sigh with heart eyes? Betas help us figure out what’s working, what’s not, and which darlings need to be killed. (Sob!)

Now, not all beta readers are “right.” We’re all coming from our own backgrounds, with our own impressions and preconceived notions and references and all the rest. Just because I interpret something in a specific way doesn’t mean everybody will. That’s why there’s usually more than one beta reader in the process: if all of them say something’s not working, then it’s probably not working. Sorry. But if one says the darling needs to be murdered and the others don’t … author’s choice.

I’ve been writing all my life. I can’t remember not engaging in reading and writing. I do know that I wrote my first original “novel” (okay, it’s more the length of a novella) when I was 15, and that’s a couple decades ago by now. I’ve been writing more than half my life. I’ve had, and even taught, classes on writing. If you have to write a million words before you get to the good ones (who first said that? it’s complicated), I had them all down at quite a young age.

The thing about those first million is that you’re supposed to discard them, because they’re crap. Did I? Well, not all of them. Like Dan, I can look back over my work from bygone years and compare it to what I produce today. (Unlike Dan, I can’t convey this in a short video, since you’d actually have to read my stuff. Also unlike Dan, I don’t feel like sharing some of that past work, thanks.)

But I do have it. In fact, I have a lot of it on my Kindle right now, next to my current WIPs, so I can easily revisit them. It helps to remember where I am in my own journey especially when I’m volunteering to be a beta reader for someone who’s in a different place on theirs.

There’s a lot that goes into being a good beta reader, and I think part of it is the recognition that it’s not just the words on the page that’s a work in progress. I mean, that’s the whole point of sharing a piece with betas: to get feedback, because you know it’s not quite there yet, wherever “there” is. As authors we probably also feel like we’re not quite “there,” either. There’s always something to learn, and we only learn to write by writing. Hence the million words. You don’t have to count every single one, but the writing has to happen. There’s no shortcut there: to be a writer, you have to write. (But that’s also the only step: to be a writer, you have to write.)

I think it’s good for all of us to take a look back at something we’re good at doing (now) to remember when we weren’t. Especially if we’re remembering a time we totally thought we were good, until we revisited it at a later date and … well. It’s good to remember, and to help each other along our journeys the way other people helped us along our own.

It’s good to look back and recognize our progress, too, even if that might feel a bit more selfish. Maybe we want to get better, but there should still be room to measure the distance between where we were before, and where we are now.