end with a … bang?

I feel like I should do some sort of end-of-year wrap-up because hey, social pressure says that’s hot right now, but … well. I’m never really sure how to approach those kinds of things.

There’s the total high points version

(please imagine that font in sparkles and with accompanying trumpets)

… and those are all awesome things, totally deserving of exclamation points. They’re also the sorts of things we’re used to seeing on these year-end wrap-ups or, say, in your relative’s holiday letters.

Nobody wants to make depressing lists in the middle of winter.

Like, as a completely non-specific example …

Okay I just added this up and now I don’t want to say it.

82 rejections.

That’s across multiple projects. Multiple rounds of querying. Various places. Over the entire year. So and on and so forth, but … ouch.

Or, hey, if we want to go with “middle of the night depressed thinking,” how about the number of manuscripts I’ve written this year that probably won’t be read by more than my usual small group of friends?

4, if we’re going most pessimistic. Because hey, maybe in a few years I’ll be able to come back and check one of them off. But … well. I’ve drafted 4 novels this year (1 rewrite and 3 new ideas) and right now they’re all in various stages of revision that may or may not end up, eventually, one day, with publication.

Or! How about the number of files I’ve opened and started typing, but haven’t finished? That looks like an even dozen. And oof, one of them I’ve been trying to write for over a decade now, but I still haven’t found my way in. (Flashback to the one about failure.)

I know, I know: that’s the most “glass half empty” way to think about things.

Not my earlier post about failure. That one’s very “glass half full.” Because it shows how I’ve kept trying. And all of these stats, both the “yay!” and the “:sadface:” stats, show all of that, too.

I don’t want to end with toxic positivity (Rejections mean you’re putting yourself out there! Abandoned-for-now projects are proof you’re trying!) but it definitely feels better to acknowledge both sides of the year. To say “Buy my debut novel!” but also to allow a peek behind the curtain a bit at the piles of work that don’t always show, for example.

The stuff that can feel like failure.

I’m not good at New Year’s resolutions, for the record.

It feels like too much pressure. And I know that the whole measure of success of “don’t break the chain!” is when you miss a day and just hop right back into building a new chain, but … that’s never really worked for me. (I guess that’s why there’s so much self-help advice – like writing advice, it’s definitely not one size fits all.)

So I’m looking ahead to 2023 more as challenges and deadlines (the good kind, because these deadlines come from a yes! instead of a rejection) and opportunities, and I’m hoping the sparkle font list and the depressing list keep balancing each other out.

Here’s to you and yours being happy and healthy in 2023.

It’s been a while

Let me just dust off this blog a bit …

I’ve been incredibly busy for the past, oh, eight weeks or so. It turns out the local high school was in need of a part-time English teacher for juniors and the concurrent enrollment seniors class (aka teaching a college comp course as an affiliate of a university, to high schoolers, over the course of a full year). So I’ve shifted from part-time freelancing and part-time writing my own stuff, to part-time teaching and part-time writing my own stuff. (Although, with the adjustment to all the new things, it’s meant very little writing my own stuff. As you might have noticed.)

So I’ve been getting used to a new schedule, which means all the normal stuff of a new job plus planning, teaching, and grading. Figuring out all the differences between high school and college. (I knew there’d be more than I anticipated, but wow.) Getting to know a whole bunch of students all at once, but seeing them five days a week instead of two or three, and knowing I won’t have to meet a whole new round of people come January.

Having the seniors for college comp five days a week means I get to do a lot, if not all, of the activities I’ve liked doing with my college comp class before. We’ve already covered, for example, my Golden Record activity, and the rhetorical analysis of propaganda posters and music videos alike. For that class, it feels like being able to slow down and take my time on things, since I don’t have them for just one semester.

But – hopefully? – I’m getting a handle on the teaching side of things and figuring out how much time and headspace it needs, because … well, there’s still the writing thing, too.

I had a book chapter for an edited collection due October 1, and I was able to turn it in exactly one day early. So I’m waiting for editorial comments on that one.

I’m also waiting for editorial comments on my next novel. I can’t really say much more than that, but there is a next novel, and I’ll be diving into revisions on that soon.

I’ve also signed a contract for my next nonfiction book, which I proposed mere days before getting the new job offer. So that hasn’t exactly helped with the stress, but I’ve been able to divide my time a bit more lately and have specific “research time” to work on that.

There’s another book chapter that’s been proposed and accepted, but it’s not due until next August, so we can ignore that one for now.

And of course November is National Novel Writing Month. I’m the only Municipal Liaison (aka regional volunteer) for my region this year, but I’m grateful that other people throughout the (huge) region are willing to host events closer to their homes. But of course that means I’m planning a bit for a new novel on top of everything else, and figuring out where I’m going to get novel-writing time next month.

So that’s where things stand with me right now: busy, as always.

How’ve you been?

Not Your Mary Sue: the stitch markers

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

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

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

My knitter’s chatelaine from winemakerssister on Etsy.

The book

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

The dagger

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

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

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

The measuring cup

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

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

The typewriter

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

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

The cabin

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

The elephant

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

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

The scissors

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

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

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

The ball of yarn and knitting needles

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

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

12 challenge, book 7 – The Fields

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

Book 7 is The Fields by Erin Young.

Welcome to the Midwest.

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

Right. Not everyone in the world lives here.

There’s lots of corn.

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

Say hello to Riley Fisher.

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

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

Did I mention the corn?

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

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

And here’s where I run into a wall.

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

So. Spoiler-free …

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

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

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

one final teaser post

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

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

“This isn’t your ending.”

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

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

Jay isn’t the woods. He’s Superior.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“The clock is ticking.”

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

He’s planned for it.

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

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

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

You get the picture. Only a few more sleeps!

Jay would like to remind you that the book is actually about him

I, personally, would like to thank everyone for the absolutely overwhelming response to my Marcy Shawl pattern. I went about it thinking it would be a fun little diversion that maybe ten people saw, and yet … holy cow. Thank you so much!

Jay, on the other hand …

Things I can tell you about Jay: he’s a high school choir director during the school year and the Fresh Coast Killer during the summer. And he does have a hobby, but I’m sitting on that for now. I don’t know if it’s a spoiler spoiler, but … it’s not on the back cover blurb or in the first pages, so my lips are zipped.

It’s also not a hobby that I share with my character, like knitting. It’s actually one of my husband’s hobbies.

This quote, however, is from the first pages. It’s one of the first things Jay says to Marcy: “You’re where this all ends.”

At that point she doesn’t know he’s a serial killer. She just knows she’s alone on this island with Jay, and he’s looming over her and saying ominous things like “You’re where this all ends.”

After she woke up from a drugged sleep to find herself shackled, that is. Which was pretty darn ominous by itself. She’s a young woman stuck alone on an island with a strange man who clearly doesn’t go out of his way to make himself less creepy.

Sorry, Jay. I’m talking about Marcy again.

Jay mostly talks about himself – that’s the whole point of his plan – but every so often he has to acknowledge that he’s talking to a person and not a tape recorded. He wants Marcy to write his autobiography (and make it a bestseller) and every so often he has to stop the monologue about his life and recognize the current situation. Jay may have chosen her for the position, but Marcy doesn’t remember auditioning, so sometimes he has to chide her along.

I’m not saying this works. Put a serial killer across from a televangelist’s daughter telling her “We’re the same, and you know it,” and that’s probably not the most inspirational thing Marcy’s ever heard. Most people probably wouldn’t want to be told that a serial killer sees some kind of kinship between them. (The Mindhunter guys might be an exception here.)

Jay chose Marcy because he thinks Marcy can truly understand the real him (NBC Hannibal vibes, anyone?) and then write about him in a way that can make the rest of the world actually understand him.

Which might be easier for Marcy if he didn’t keep mocking her and throwing verbal barbs her way … and especially if the aim on those barbs was just a little off.

Take the title of the book: Not Your Mary Sue. Jay knows exactly what a Mary Sue is: the idealized fictional character of female fandom fame. And it’s Marcy’s public, in-front-of-the-camera name. Her father, the famous televangelist, calls her “Mary Sue” because “Mary-Rose Suellen” is just a bit too long. Only a handful of people call her “Marcy,” even if that’s how she thinks of herself.

Even Jay doesn’t know she’s really Marcy to start off. He calls her “Mary Sue” and mocks her for it, especially her social media handle of @NotYourMarySue. Jay likes to play armchair psychiatrist and he picks apart why, exactly, she chose that name, denying herself and her identity.

And I can’t say he really cares about how Marcy feels about these throwaway comments that don’t seem really throwaway to her.

Not Your Mary Sue comes out June 7 from Aesthetic Press. Preorder your copy here:

Amazon – Kobo – Google Play

The Functions of Unnatural Death in Stephen King – available now!

It’s here! Out now from Lexington, my latest book, The Functions of Unnatural Death in Stephen King: Murder, Sickness, and Plots. Here’s the back of the book blurb:

The Functions of Unnatural Death in Stephen King: Murder, Sickness, and Plots examines over thirty of King’s works and looks at the character deaths within them, placing them first within the chronology of the plot and then assigning them a function. Death is horrific and perhaps the only universal horror because it comes to us all. Stephen King, known as the Master of Horror, rarely writes without including death in his works. However, he keeps death from being repetitious or fully expected because of the ways in which he plays with the subject, maintaining what he himself has called a childlike approach to death. Although character deaths are a constant, the narrative function of those deaths changes depending on their placement within the plot.

By separating out the purposes of early deaths from those that come during the rising action or during the climax, this book examines the myriad ways character deaths in King can affect surviving characters and therefore the plot. Even though character deaths are frequent and hardly ever occur only once in a book, King’s varying approaches to, and uses of, these deaths show how he continues to play with both the subject and its facets of horror throughout his work.

Phew. So. What does that mean?

A couple years ago now, I sat down with my little red notebook full of Stephen King titles and started making two lists: one of characters who were already dead when the story began, and one of the characters who died throughout the course of the book. For example, ‘Salem’s Lot has vampires – Kurt Barlow was dead before the story started. Duma Key also has some undead, but they’re not vampires. And we all know the Overlook Hotel is haunted.

But it’s not just the undead or the long dead or the who-really-knows-what. Stephen King’s books are full of murder. There are human serial killers (The Dead Zone, “A Good Marriage”); animal serial killers (Cujo); and mass death both disease (The Stand) and homicide (Under the Dome). In fact, I think I counted one King novel that didn’t have any death in it at all. Death is, after all, a large part of horror.

But the two lists – deaths before the story opens and death during the story – weren’t specific enough. I needed to divide them up some more and sort them somehow. The “how” came when thinking back to my comps days and Carolyn Miller’s “Genre as Social Action.” Miller says we sort and define genres by what they do, so I started sorting King character deaths by the role they play in the narrative.

Let’s take a look at a plot diagram.

I took my list of deaths and sorted them according to the diagram. I already had “Who dies before the story starts?” but the in-story deaths got categorized along the rest of it. Usually they don’t happen in the exposition, where we learn about the characters’ “normal” life, but they can certainly be inciting events that lead to the rising action; or happen during the rising action; or at the climax of the book. The falling action and resolution usually don’t have death in them, but in each section I was able to sort the deaths into smaller categories of usage.

I ended up with nine reasons:

  1. to create the thread
  2. to perpetuate the monster
  3. to build suspense
  4. to narrow the focus
  5. to urge the characters on to action
  6. as revenge
  7. as the antagonist’s helper
  8. as heroic sacrifice, and
  9. to restore order

… which is still a lot of death, but I always find things more manageable after sorting things. (Eminent King scholar Tony Magistrale calls it “A cadaverous catalog,” which is just about my dad’s favorite phrase ever.) But, once things got sorted, I could start comparing and contrasting before making even smaller categories.

Which, to be honest, was a lot of fun.

I like re-reading King, making scribbled notes connecting this work with another one and creating my own complicated web. I like listening to the audiobooks and hearing things presented in a slightly different way. Conceptualizing and organizing was fun. Writing and revising based on reviewer comments? Well … not as much fun. But necessary.

So why King?

Isn’t he just the literary equivalent of a Big Mac and fries? Too popular (and maybe too pulp) to be academic?

That sounds familiar. Remember, I also study true crime.

The thing is, the popular stuff – the things it seems everybody reads – is just as worth studying as anything literary or “inaccessible.” The things we read, and especially the things we tend to read without critique, matter because they not only reflect our world and worldview – they shape them. I’ve heard plenty of derisive comments about people devouring true crime or King, especially in paperback form on the beach, but think about how many books get read that way. How many people pick up the paperbacks because of the genre or the author’s name. Just how wide of a reach these things have.

One of the critiques of horror as a genre is indeed its frequent use of death. As Patrick McAleer says in his review of my book, I explore “the numerous and nuanced steps that comprise the ‘danse macabre’ that charge the Constant Reader to look at death as more than happenstance or cheap fright.” After my sorting was done and the analysis started, I ended up writing a generally positive look at King and death. (Yes, that’s a weird sentence to type.)

As often as King might be accused of phoning it in, there are more examples of character deaths taking on a crucial function in the plot of his books. Even when he repeats or makes use of Gothic doubling, there are in fact nuances. As Philip Simpson points out, “Through Dr. Frost’s insightful and refreshingly readable analysis, we discover that the characters who die unnatural deaths in King’s fiction indeed play a significant role in the author’s overall agenda to both support and subvert the generic conventions of horror.”

(Can I just say how grateful I am to have reviews from established scholars in the field that make it clear I hit the notes I meant to?)

King might be prolific, and he might recycle character names (we’ll talk about Alice Maxwell sometime), and not every book hits it out of the park, but there’s a lot to look at and a lot worth analyzing in King.

As a footnote: I know the price of the hardcover and the kindle version. It’s an academic book from an academic publisher.

But! Did you know … you can ask your library to get a copy? And support your favorite authors without having to buy the book yourself? It’s true! If you want to read it but it’s not in your budget, ask a librarian. They’re cool people and experts at getting the right book in your hands.

Do you “cast” your characters in your head?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The “rules” are for revisions.

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

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

Shannon Hale

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

H. H. Holmes’ victims: Dr. Russell

You may recall that Holmes’ first alleged victim, Robert Leacock, was also a doctor. Leacock was “a friend and former schoolmate” whom Holmes killed in for his life insurance. (If you’re at all familiar with serial killers, you know that choosing a victim who’s actually connected to you is just a bad idea if you want to stay out of jail.) Holmes’ second confessed victim, Dr. Russell, was a tenant in Holmes’ so-called Murder Castle.

It seems that, while Holmes plotted and intended to kill Leacock, Russell was in fact a mistake. He had been behind in his rent and, when the two men argued about payments, Holmes “struck him to the floor with a heavy chair.” This single blow was enough to make Russell stop breathing.

Since the men had been in Holmes’ office, he locked the door and then thought quickly. He had a second body on his hands and no planned means of disposal, and his first thought – handing the body over to a Chicago medical college to be used for dissections – was apparently foiled, although he doesn’t say how. Instead Holmes sold Russell’s body to a man he refuses to name, although he hints that he’s told other people the man’s name in the past.

Holmes spends more time talking around this anonymous buyer than he does about Russell’s murder. He informs his readers that this man paid between $25 and $45 for each body and that, when Holmes doesn’t explain how he disposed of his 27 victims, he sold their remains to this man. Even though Holmes is writing and publishing this confession mere weeks before his own execution, he refuses to name this man.

There is also nothing in Holmes’ confession about how he covered up this supposed murder in other ways: cleaning out Russell’s apartment, or fending off concerned friends and relatives, for example. He only writes about – or rather, around – getting rid of Russell’s body before moving on to the murders of Julia and Pearl Connor.

Unlike Julia and Pearl, whose mysterious disappearances had been noticed and connected to Holmes prior to his newspaper confession, Dr. Russell does not seem to have been a true victim. His name and the scant details of his death, very much mimicking the fictional death scene of Nannie Williams in Holmes’ Own Story, seem to have been added to boost Holmes’ supposed body count.

The speed of Russell’s supposed death after the single blow with the heavy chair is suspicious, although there wasn’t enough time left for anyone to question Holmes about it. He simply presents Russell’s murder as part of his argument about how, now that he’s taken a human life, it’s so much easier to do it again. Leacock was killed for money, but Russell was murdered accidentally in a moment of high emotion. It was a mistake, yes, but Holmes was able to respond in such a way as to remain free – and free of suspicion – in order to enact 25 more murders.

The main argument about Dr. Russell’s death seems to be that killing is a slippery slope, and that Holmes had found his preferred means of body disposal early on in his career. Nothing exists of Russell but his last name and he’s quickly bypassed as Holmes moves on to two better-known victims his readers will have already heard about.