this one’s for the writers

Since Not Your Mary Sue has been out for three weeks now (ahhhh!) there have been reviews being posted in various places that clearly mark it as a “debut novel” or “first book.” Which it totally is. All my other published books have been nonfiction, and this is where a bunch of people are encountering me for the first time. So this has nothing to do with the word choice of anyone kind enough to read my book and post about it – you’re factually correct. Not Your Mary Sue is my first published novel. But I want to offer a clarification for the writers out there.

It’s not actually my first novel.

I didn’t start off writing like this.

I started, the way many people do, with fanfiction. Some of that probably still even exists out there somewhere, under one of my old screennames, but I never had more than a handful of readers. Which was fine – I wrote because I had fun writing, not because of the praise. That was in junior high, which was … yeesh … over two decades ago.

Then, when I was 15, I wrote my first “novel,” which I talk about a bit in this post. I printed off a couple copies and one of them actually made the rounds of my classmates a couple years later – I let one person borrow it and it got passed around and people I barely knew mentioned it to me in the hall. Which was weird and kind of scary, but obviously didn’t scare me off writing completely.

In my post about failure I go into how many novels I haven’t finished – how many ideas I started but never quite figured out a full plot arc for. That’s where I get my 10:1 ratio of “started documents to completed novels.” And at 87 partial efforts, I’ve clearly written more than one novel.

Some people end up publishing the first novel they ever wrote.

It can be their first published novel or, as in the case of Stephen King, their novels can be published “out of order.” Carrie was his first published novel in 1974, but he wrote The Long Walk when he was only 18. (Granted, he wasn’t ancient or anything when Carrie came out, but still.) The point is that King had completed other novels, tried to find interested publishers, and then laid them aside as he wrote new ones and tried again.

And that’s the situation with me: Not Your Mary Sue isn’t the first novel I ever wrote. By a long shot. I’ve been doing NaNoWriMo – that challenge to draft a 50,000-word novel in a single month – since 2010, including the two extra “camp” months since 2011, and that’s added a lot of “novels” to my list. But I didn’t write Not Your Mary Sue until 2017, and it was around that time that NaNo reported I’d logged a million words on their site.

You have to write a million words before you find your voice as a writer.

Henry Miller

I doubt Miller meant a hard-and-fast million, and my NaNo stats are missing more than a decade of what I’d written prior to joining up my first November, but that’s where things stood for me: I’d written over a million words by the time I sat down to start Not Your Mary Sue (and I’ve written who knows how many since then). My current NaNo lifetime stats stand at 3,011,716 words.

It’s not about the word count – it’s about perseverence.

Writing a little bit each day adds up. Tossing an idea aside when it’s not working, but then picking up a different idea, adds up. Going back to one of those previous ideas (tossed aside but not into the garbage) adds up.

Not Your Mary Sue both is and isn’t my first novel. It’s only my first published novel because I kept going – I kept reading, kept revising, and kept writing. What you hold in your hands isn’t anywhere near a first draft, and it shows all the decades of experience behind it. All those words add up.


Do you have any tips for authors looking to push through that “first million”? How do you keep writing when it all feels like an uphill struggle?

Marcy, aka “Not Your Mary Sue” herself

We talked about Jay last week, so now it’s Marcy’s turn. But before we get to the portrait I commissioned from Shegry, we have to do a little bit of creative writing class.

Jay’s a static character: he doesn’t change throughout the story. Internally, externally … Jay’s convinced he knows who he is, that he’s his best self, and he’s not going to change that for anyone. Or even be changed by anyone. So it was easy to describe Jay for Shegry to draw, because I didn’t have to ask myself “Which Jay?” Jay is Jay.

Marcy, on the other hand, is a dynamic character. She goes through changes and growth, both inwardly and outwardly. So Marcy was my second commission, because I had to ask myself: “Marcy from when?”

This is Marcy shortly after the start of Part II, so if you haven’t read that far yet, yes, you might have questions.

Also, mild spoilers if you haven’t gotten that far yet.

Marcy by Shegry

Let’s start with the parts again.

the mountains

Even though it was a few months between Jay and Marcy, Shegry pulled up Jay again and did a lot of work making the two pieces a set. In this case it’s opposites: Jay has Lake Superior, but Marcy has a much more grounded, earthy design. Marcy is definitely not Lake Superior. She might not be as grounded as she really wants to be, but that bedrock has plenty of meaning for her.

An old grad school friend read Not Your Mary Sue in one day and then messaged me

“Glacier, not an asteroid” f—ing brilliant – loved it 💜

… but that’s further into Part II than just the beginning. If you’ve read the book, you know what “Glacier, not asteroid” means, and why the bedrock matters. If not … you’ll see. (And it’s probably no surprise that my favorite character’s the one who says it.)

the blue symbol

Marcy’s very blue at this point, sort of a struggle between the idea of calm blue and sad blue, and Shegry chose to use a stylized version of the symbol awen, a Celtic symbol of hope, for the next section in Marcy’s portrait. At this point Marcy’s gotten off the island, so she’s physically survived the Fresh Coast Killer, but … survival is more than breathing.

The whole color scheme contrasts with Jay’s. He’s only got blue in one section, the waves at the very top, and the rest of him is very earthy with reds and browns. Seriously, those blankets look super snuggly. Marcy’s blue everywhere Jay isn’t, just a little extra touch that sets the portraits off against each other.

the flowers

Marcy’s snowdrops are absolutely laden with imagery: modesty, hope, innocence, purity, and rebirth. Like yes, hello, that’s my Marcy. (But not in a creepy Jay voice.) Even then she’s struggling with all of those elements. How much is actually her, the real Marcy, and how much is what others have shaped her to be? (And is it authentic to accept the shaping of others, or do you always have to rebel and twist away from it?)

Marcy’s younger than her age in some ways since she’s always been under the protective wings of her parents, their beliefs, and their lifestyle. She hasn’t really had the chance to figure out who she really is yet, that tension between who she wants to be and who she’s actually capable of becoming. Part II is where she finally gets to start figuring that out.

Marcy herself

So part of that – a part that looks off if you’re still in Part I – is how she has oil slick ombre hair. It’s a big change from her conservative background. (And yes, in my first draft, she totally cut her hair short and then dyed it pink, but … fine, that was a bit too Mary Sue.) She keeps it long but dyes it as a physical, visible reminder not only that the island in fact happened, but that she’s come out the other side.

I spent my junior year of college in Germany at the Friedrich-Alexander-Universität Erlangen-Nürnberg (the longest name of any university in Germany, in case anyone should ever ask) and coming home after 11 months away was … weird. Almost like nothing had happened. Part of that was probably the jetlag but it seemed surreal that I’d actually gone away and experienced all of that. I printed off a bunch of photos and made an album; Marcy doesn’t have photos, so she changes her physical appearance.

In a way that’s her own choice, mind. She’s got her feet hidden in the sheet in the portrait. I told Shegry she had to at least have her right ankle hidden, because this Marcy, mid-book Marcy, isn’t confident enough to show (or ignore) her scar. That plays into her pose, too: she’s hunched and protective, not (yet?) ready to be open and inviting, carefully covered.

Even though she’s still looking straight out of the image. Maybe she’s not “Lounge around barely covered with my favorite knife” confident, but this Marcy wasn’t going to be looking down or away. She’s not ready to face you full on just yet, but she’ll hold your gaze.


Working with Shegry was tons of fun for a couple reasons. First, it made me think about Jay and Marcy in a different way: how do I sum up their personalities and get everything short and to the point, cutting to the heart of the characters while still leaving room for artistic impression? Picking out reference photos was also fun. I had face models in mind, especially for Jay, but I got to send one for “this expression” and one for “with this hair.” The same with Marcy: I did one for her face, one for her hair, and one for the general pose. All of that narrowing down to the most important aspects and, for Marcy, to a specific moment helped make it seem new and interesting again.

And second, it’s collaboration. Shegry took all my words and references and came back with a sketch and an explanation for the design choices. I had a chance to correct things, but it’s also super cool to see someone else’s interpretation of my idea like this. Writing isn’t actually sitting alone in an unheated garret and only descending with a perfectly-formed draft, but there are times it feels pretty darn close.


What other ways do you like to think about your characters? Do you cast them in your head, or draw your own, or use picrews, or …?

Jay Michal Robinson, the Fresh Coast Killer

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

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

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

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

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

Jay Michael Robinson by Shegry

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

the waves

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

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

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

the music

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

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

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

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

the morning glories and the dagger

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

But that dagger …

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

one final teaser post

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

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

“This isn’t your ending.”

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

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

Jay isn’t the woods. He’s Superior.


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

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

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


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

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

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


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

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

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


“The clock is ticking.”

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

He’s planned for it.

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


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

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

You get the picture. Only a few more sleeps!

much more Marcy

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

Okay. Deep breaths.

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

How often do normal people think of Bundy, anyway?

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

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


If I don’t ask, I never have to know.

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

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


Is this another Norman Bates, 21st century style?

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

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


My curiosity is dangerous.

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

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


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

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

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


He locks the door behind me. Twice.

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

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


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

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

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


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

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

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


Oh, this could be bad.

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

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

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

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


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

I really hope you like them.

14 days and counting.

12 challenge, book 5 – The Family Plot

It’s time for book 5 of my 12 challenge: late last December, I decided to go ahead and do the “12 Challenge” that was going around Twitter: 12 months to read 12 books recommended by 12 friends. I specifically requested true crime and thrillers, looking for good books I haven’t read yet. Follow that link for my thoughts on the first four books.

The fifth is The Family Plot by Megan Collins.

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

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

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

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

Too late. I read it.

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

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

What’s up with the kids’ names?

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

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

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

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

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

Holy true crime references, Batman

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

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

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

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

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

Instagram handle alert!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

going to the faucet

So we already know that I don’t actually write every day, as in putting pen to paper or my fingers on the keyboard 365 days a year, and I’ve written a bit about my writing schedule previously, but I wanted to add a sort of real-time musing update on this.

Yesterday the thought of writing made me groan. All of my emotions on the subject were “Nope.” Even though – or maybe even “because” – I’d written a bunch the day before that. I’m working on revising a project, which in this case basically means starting over from zero, and that’s not always something you want to do. Really it’s just one more reason to dig in your heels, pout, and say you’re not writing today.

But, since I’ve started actively working on this project, I figured I’d do it. Pout and all. I made some coffee and told myself I’d stare at the cursor for half an hour and then get breakfast.

I didn’t end up eating breakfast yesterday. I got working and didn’t look up for a couple hours.

So the moral to the story …

Here’s the thing: I’ve been writing for over two decades at this point, and I still can’t guess at which days hold the words and which days don’t. The wordful days are sometimes obvious (is that in the Newspeak dictionary?) but the unwordful days are frequently liars. Surprisingly frequently.

This sort of thing even pops up in my Facebook memories from time to time. “Yesterday I wrote a ton of words. Today I sat down thinking I just need a dozen, okay, please? And ended up writing two tons.”

It’s unpredictable.

So really, you do just have to turn the faucet on and see what comes out. I don’t particularly want to get all It in this post, but you don’t actually know what’s waiting (blood or water?) or what else might be down there in the sewers. Georgie Denbrough might tell you not to look, but we’re writers. We’re curious. And that second, oft-unspoken part of the famous cat phrase is “but satisfaction brought it back.

And okay, we’re talking about the magical wordful faucet and not the thing on your bathroom sink. Some days the faucet is rusty and refuses to turn, or somehow it’s grown tall and is nearly out of reach. Maybe it feels like it’s hot enough to burn if we touch it, or it’s shrunk down to Borrowers size and we’re more likely to step on it and break it.

It’s one sneaky, changeable faucet, but we still need to turn that sucker on.

And the thing is, I don’t think I’m being entirely negative here. There are some days when the faucet is shiny and bright and I can’t even conceive of a spider hiding in the sink, but … those are rare. Off the top of my head, I can think of two (fiction) pieces that demanded to be written and wouldn’t let me go. I couldn’t turn the sucker off if I wanted to. Two, in two decades.

That’s a lot of forcing myself to the faucet.

But I go. I go because – as Stephen King apparently is the only one to remember Alfred Bester ever saying – “The book is the boss.” (Seriously, a Google search for the quote plus Bester’s name gets you a whole page of King quoting Bester, and who clicks onto the second page?)

The book wants to be told, and it’s not like anyone else is going to tell it. If it’s going to be written – if I want to find out what happens – I need to write it myself.

Go to the dang faucet. Turn it on. See what comes out.

And keep going, day after day, until you get enough.

If you’re lucky, I think, you won’t ever get enough.


Is your writing like turning on Louis L’Amour’s faucet, or do you see it differently? Does your faucet work better than mine? Have you ever had something entirely unexpected come out?

catching up with Jay

Late last summer, I sat down with my manuscript and started pulling quotes. That first batch ended up being mostly quotes said by my serial killer character, because … well, for one thing, he talks a lot. And he’s also rather quotable. Master of the sound bite, that’s Jay Michael Robinson.

I was kind of in a rush because, if you’ve ever visited the UP, you know we can get snow at any time. Not Your Mary Sue takes place in the summer, though, and I wanted to catch things before snow and ice moved in. So basically I’ve had these photographs for months, over half a year, and it blows my mind that I only have five more Jay quotes to post before the book is actually out.

Five weeks from today. Holy cow. Five weeks from today, people will be reading my book and putting these quotes in context.

“We’ve all got something dark inside.”

Part of what Jay does when he’s talking is try to convince Marcy – and the eventual people he imagines will read the book she writes about him – is attempt to normalize himself. Sure, fine, he’s a serial killer, but he’s not all that different from the rest of us. He’s acted on his darker impulses, but we all have them. Right?

Have you watched Conversations With a Killer (either the Ted Bundy season or the new John Wayne Gacy season) or read something like The Gates of Janus (written by Moors Murderer Ian Brady) or “I”: The Creation of a Serial Killer by Jack Olsen and Keith Hunter Jesperson? These are the serial killers who have been identified, sentenced, and have discovered they have an audience. They don’t have to hide who they are anymore, and maybe they get to perform a bit.

That’s where Jay is when he meets Marcy: ready to spill everything, because he’s about to be caught. She’s just the, uh … lucky person who gets to hear all of it first.


“You are my guest.”

Jay is polite, for certain values of “polite.” Yes, fine, he’s murdered over a dozen women, but he can still make sure to act as the perfect host for Marcy during their summer together. She’s not like those other girls, and he’s not going to treat her that way.

But it might also be creepier, because he’s clearly capable of thinking about her comfort … at least when it’s going to serve his needs. If she’s going to write his life story (and make it a bestseller), then he needs to make sure she’s fed and comfortable and able to both listen and take notes. So even his apparent kindness has that ulterior motive.


“Maybe killing is the only thing I’ve ever been good at.”

First, I’d like you to imagine me on a public beach with this sign in my hand. It’s in Eagle River, right next to The Fitz, which is an absolutely amazing restaurant you should visit if you’re ever in the area, but I timed my arrival not to be at lunch or dinner. For some reason. There were still a few people out, but I don’t know how closely they paid attention to me.

Jay has some self-esteem issues. He’s telling Marcy his life story, and he can’t exactly keep all of this hidden. If he’s asking Marcy – and his eventual readers – to relate to him, then he figures he’s got to really open up and tell them everything.

Whether or not he’s “good at” killing is something I’ll leave up to you.


“Trust me. It will be better for you.”

This is Agate Beach, and I had it to myself that day because it was just after a huge thunderstorm. Both Superior and the sky were absolutely gorgeous, and even though my hands froze in the wind, I didn’t drop any of my letters in the sand while changing between quotes, so that’s a win. The difference between the days really shows the difference in Superior’s moods, too.

Jay tells Marcy to trust him early on, but not before he’s admitted to being a serial killer. She knows that the man telling her this – and offering her some sort of drug – has already killed almost twenty women, and she’s really only got his word that she’s not going to be the next one. She’s his guest, yes, but …

Well. How much should anyone trust a man on short notice even if he hasn’t confessed to serial murder?


I am really looking forward to being able to talk about Jay (and Marcy) without being quite so cagy. There’s so much I’m looking forward to sharing – and I only have to wait five more weeks!

Here are those preorder links in case you need them: Amazon – Kobo – Google Play

And if you make it up to the UP, make sure to check out The Fitz. It’s a small restaurant, so make those reservations early.

It’s my birthday!

Preorder Not Your Mary Sue (Amazon – Kobo – Google Play) and in 6 weeks we can get drinks and discuss:

– my serial killer’s (other) hobby

– cell phone dead zones in the 21st century

– using knitting supplies for self-defense

– musicals in general, but especially Sweeney Todd

I’m especially eager to talk about Jay’s hobby, because so far it’s been kept under wraps – the only people who know about it are the ones who’ve read an advance copy. He’s a high school choir director, which might explain the Sweeney Todd reference, but as for what else he does when it’s not a school day …

I also can’t believe it’s less than six weeks until this book is published! I’ve known these characters for years and it’s almost overwhelming to think that other people will soon meet them and form their own opinions and argue about whether or not they like the ending. (My husband doesn’t, so if you don’t, then you’ve got someone good on your side.)

At some point I’ll also be posting what the original ending was going to be, back when I was plotting for NaNoWriMo 2017. It’s an ending that never got written because I discovered I couldn’t just leave Marcy there, at the end of Part I, with only a little epilogue. There’s a lot more to her story, but I’m still pretty fond of the original idea, so that’ll become a future post (once people have had time to make it through Part I).

Plus there are all these other characters you don’t even know you get to meet yet – Marcy’s world is in fact bigger than just her and Jay, even if it takes a while for us (and Marcy, really) to see it.


And, as another birthday present: tell me your favorite book! What one should I absolutely read and why? I’m always looking to expand my list and today is, of course, the day for me to treat myself to some new goodies.

12 challenge, book 4 – Night Film

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. Book one was Dark River: The Bloody Reign Of The Ohio River Pirates; book two was State of Terror by Hillary Rodham Clinton and Louise Penny; book three was Who is Maud Dixon? by Alexandra Andrews.

Book four is Night Film by Marisha Pessl.

I bought the kindle book so I had no idea that it was over 800 pages until I checked how far I was. I checked because I wanted to see how much room Pessl had to (attempt to) explain everything that had happened so far. That’s the kind of book this is: (how) will the author ever explain all of this?

The main character is now-disgraced investigative journalist Scott McGrath, whose downfall and obsession center on mysterious cult filmmaker Stanislas Cordova. No one’s seen Cordova in years – if perhaps ever. He hasn’t made movies since the 1990s and the ones he did make tend to be shown in out-of-the-way places, advertised by secret messages passed around by his devoted fans, banned from the mainstream because of their violence. Many people who’ve worked with Cordova have either withdrawn from the public or mysteriously disappeared, but they all agree that he changed their lives in a deep, incredible way.

Scott’s pretty sure that none of these changes are positive, and he set out to prove it a few years ago. That’s when he did an interview and spilled unverified information from a source he only spoke to over the telephone, resulting in a quarter million dollar payout to Cordova. (Scott is the kind of person who can apparently easily make a quarter million dollar payout, for the record, because he did. It’s been years, he’s not a trustworthy journalist anymore, and he’s still getting along in NYC. So.)

The thing that gets him back on his Cordova obsession is the death, and apparent suicide, of young Ashley Cordova. Scott, of course, refuses to believe it’s a suicide – to him it’s just another piece of the dark and demented Cordova puzzle. And he decides it’s time to reveal the truth about Cordova, once and for all. (Cue dramatic music.)

If you’re reading it on a kindle, you’re going to be annoyed by all of the “sources” that keep popping up: screenshots from the internet (complete with the address in the web browser at the top), pages from magazines, police files, that kind of thing. They’re a weird size, so you have to zoom in, but they’re also completely necessary to the story, so you can’t skip them (even when they feel scattered and disjointed at the start). I’m sure they look cool in the printed book, and there’s even exclusive bonus content on the website that makes it seem even more like Cordova’s a real person. Like yeah, sure, you’ve totally heard of one of his movies. Maybe when you were in college?

Basically Cordova is so secretive, so rich, and so much a cult figure that you know from the beginning that going after him is a very bad idea. Especially when the person going after him is Scott, and Scott’s introduced with his big downfall. You kind of have to wonder exactly how good of an investigative reporter this guy really is, to be honest, and whether he can really keep himself together long enough to see this through.

This is one of those books where the less you know going in, the better, so I’m not going to give any more details about the plot. I will say:

  • it pulled me along. 800+ pages or not, I read it in two days. I wanted to see if/how things would be explained.

  • this one walks the line between gritty reality and … would you call it magical realism? It uses that line as a tightrope and doesn’t really choose a side, unless you, personally, think it chooses a side (but even Scott himself isn’t entirely sure if his own life chooses a side). But that’s Cordova for you. (Seriously, it’s kind of weird how much the book centers around this fictional character that you really feel you must’ve heard of before, and how much it aligns with his fictional oeuvre. You know the type right away.)

  • I like the ending. I was worried for a while, but there were still more pages, and I like the ending.

It’s haunting and weird and suspenseful and disturbing and sometimes a bit over the top, with everything in shades of gray. It pulls you along, but also deeper in the muck and murk, so it’s not some quick, lighthearted beach read. It’s troubling, but it doesn’t want to make sure you feel better by the end.

That’s not how Cordova rolls.


What have you read recently that you couldn’t put down?