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.”
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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
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!
– 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.
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.
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?
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?
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?
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.
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!
Not Your Mary Sue comes out June 7 – I can’t believe it’s only two months away! Two months and you can read about Marcy and Jay (and the characters you don’t even know exist yet) and we can finally talk about alllll the things I’ve been keeping to myself.
One thing that’s been obvious from the start: Marcy’s a knitter. Hence the Marcy Shawl pattern that I designed for her and wrote up for all of you. And that’s also why all of the backgrounds for her quotes are knit patterns. Let’s catch up on the ones I’ve posted over the past month.
So you probably know that there are, in fact, people willing to sit down and chat with serial killers, whether that’s from the Netflix series or the book Mindhunter. FBI Special Agents John Douglas and Robert Ressler decided that someone needed to actually talk to violent offenders so they could try to figure out how to identify people sooner and stop them before they actually committed violent crimes. They basically set up times to go in, meet with the men they’d chosen, and just … get them talking.
The thing is, those agents, and the ones who followed, all wanted to talk to violent offenders. They chose to be in those rooms (and sometimes had moments when they actually had to confront the fact that they were in fact violent offenders and this wasn’t just a chat with a friend). Marcy’s stuck on that island with Jay, the confessed Fresh Coast Killer, and he wants to talk … but she never agreed to listen.
Even though he keeps insisting that he chose her, that he somehow auditioned her and specifically picked her for this … she really doesn’t think she’s the right person.
Jay Michael Robinson wants to be the next Bundy. Okay, fine, maybe his victim count isn’t quite high enough, but he means as far as fame goes. He wants Marcy to write his biography in a way that’ll sell. Jay wants his name at the top of the charts. Whenever someone thinks of Bundy, they should think of him.
Later, when she’s alone in her room, Marcy wonders how often normal people think of Bundy. Which is a pretty good question. Clearly Jay thinks of Bundy quite frequently, and true crime fans are probably sick of his name, but what about your average Joe? Exactly how much is Jay asking from her? (And how much does he think he’s asking from her?)
Fun knitting fact: I wore my Enchanted Rose Hood for Halloween one year when I dressed up like Belle, and for a small photoshoot I had a book as a prop. That book was The Phantom Prince. It’s about Bundy.
If a magician tells you how a trick is done, you can never go back to seeing it as magic. You know the secret. You can’t Eternal Sunshine it out of your head to experience it again for the first time, like a kid who’s willing to be convinced there’s more to the world than just science and facts. Once you’ve learned something, it’s there. You can’t forget it.
Jay likes monologuing, partly because he wants to talk and partly because Marcy doesn’t exactly want to ask him clarification questions. Not trained to interview a serial killer, remember? Didn’t sign up for all this? So she’s got to talk that line between keeping him happy enough to let her live and keeping herself from learning too much and being tortured by the knowledge for the rest of her life.
Bad dreams are the least of Marcy’s worries.
Fun knitting fact: The Lady Russell Shawl was one of the first times I’ve knit a ruffle. It’s one of the reasons Marcy’s Shawl has ruffles on it.
When Psychofirst came out in theaters, Hitchcock did something very strange for 1960: he had signs placed in the lobby saying audience members weren’t allowed to come in late. Movies were more casual – I can’t remember ever wanting to show up late for any during my childhood, even with the buffer of all the ads and previews – and people would come in halfway through a showing, watch the end, linger, and watch the start of the next showing.
You can probably guess why that wouldn’t actually work for Psycho.
Norman Bates runs a motel in California and Jay rents out a luxury cabin on an island off the coast of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, but you get the similarities. Each is a man left mostly to himself, and just about the one thing Jay doesn’t want to talk about is his mother. Even if you’ve never seen Psycho, I bet you know what happens to Marion Crane.
Marcy does, too.
Fun knitting fact: the shawl was designed and named for advice given in My Favorite Murder. SSDGM.
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 Mindhunterguys 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:
If you’ve been following my Instagram posts, then you know I’ve been working on writing something a bit different for me: a knitting pattern, known as The Marcy Shawl. And I’ve said I’m posting it on my blog for free. Which I totally am. It’s here. Download at will. But I’ve got a favor to ask.
If you download the shawl, please preorder Not Your Mary Sue on Kindle, Google Play, or Kobo. (Hard copy links coming soon.) That’s one book and one knitting pattern for $9.99 – or, if you like: five years of my life for $9.99. Less than $2/year.
Here’s the thing: yes, this pattern is totally part of my marketing for the book. Absolutely. I’d love to do something like “Show me you preordered the book and I’ll send you the free pattern!” but I’m kind of hoping I’d be swamped and not be able to keep up with sending out the pattern at top speed, so … honor system, everyone. I’m trusting you. Pattern immediately. Novel June 7. Low, low price of $9.99.
If you buy my book, then maybe I can keep writing books and make this “main character shawl” thing a series instead of a one-off. If the book doesn’t sell well enough for me to get an offer for a second, then … one and done. I really want to keep writing, and I’ve been putting out content on my blog for over a year now basically hoping that, if you like what I do, you’ll buy the book that goes along with the posts you like. So this is just me saying it outright.
If that’s enough and you want to go straight to the pattern, scroll down to the torn paper image. The download link is below it. If you want to know a bit more about Marcy – why a shawl? Why knitting? – read on.
Marcy is the heroine of Not Your Mary Sue. It’s her story. And we see here in the opening pages that she’s got a set of interchangeable knitting needles with her, since she’s a knitter and she’s going to be on this island for the whole summer. A woman needs her hobbies. But take a look at that link if you can’t picture what I mean when I say she uses the cord key to pick a lock – it’s one of those four little twists of wire. That’s what she pulls out of her suitcase to get herself out of the most immediate problem. (It’s probably not going to be all that helpful with everything else, but you never know. Knitters, like all makers, are resourceful.)
Like me, Marcy knits when she’s stressed. (Write what you know, hey?) And, um … yeah, I’m pretty mean to her. So she’s frequently stressed.
I learned how to knit when I was 8 years old. Nana – my dad’s mom – was the one equipping the family with knit dishcloths, and I asked if she could teach me. At the time I produced half of one (pretty awful) headband, but I’ve improved a bit since then. I’ve been knitting longer than I’ve been writing, and I made leaps and bounds during grad school simply because the stress meant I was knitting more. Every night. (Which is the way to improve on something, by the way – keep doing it. Breaks are fine, but if you quit, you’re not going to get better. And you have to make the pretty awful headband before you make anything good.)
Knitting’s a background thing for Marcy in the book, but it got me thinking about the sort of thing Marcy would knit for herself. Something that she, in her old life, would both be comfortable wearing and be allowed to wear.
Her father’s a televangelist, so she’s often on display with him and has to dress to his standards. In this case that means she’s frequently in a dress with a cardigan for modesty’s sake, a very specific idea of femininity. I wanted to design her a shawl that could go over her dresses, and I had a few steps here:
The shape – I love the shape of the traditional sontag shawl, which I can’t help but think of as a heartwarmer shawl because of the OG American Girl Addy doll and her nightwear. Apparently that was retired in 2010, but I liked the idea of a shawl that could stay on Marcy’s shoulders, cross over the front, and tie in the back to warm her. (You might know this kind of shawl from Outlander, proving it’s a useful shape no matter what era you end up in.)
The stitch pattern – I didn’t want something that was plain stockinette. Marcy’s quiet (her dad very much subscribes to the Little House on the Prairieidea of children being seen and not heard, which he extends to adult daughters, as well) and very much a background figure in her father’s life, but that doesn’t mean she’s plain. On the other hand, she’s not overly fussy or troublesome – she goes out of her way to be helpful – so I picked the ray of honey pattern from my copy of 750 Knitting Stitches. It’s an all-over cable pattern, but each cable is only 1×1, so it’s an easy one to do without a cable needle.
The ruffle – this isn’t just about the extra touch of a traditional feminine element, but about the weight the ruffle adds to the shawl. I really like the feel of wearing my Cambridge Shawl by Carol Sunday and how the ruffle at both the neck edge and along the bottom makes it feel more secure. It’s not a shawl that’s going to blow away.
The construction – Marcy’s the sort of person who would save all her scraps and use up as much yarn as possible. (Was it Pa or Ma Ingalls who emphasized “Waste not, want not”?) By starting at one tip of the shawl and working increases for half of your yarn before working the decreases, you can maximize what you have. The ruffles are made with short rows, which means no saving any yarn back and trying to calculate how much to leave for it and then how much to bind off along it. You cast on 22 stitches and bind off 22 stitches, and I had less than 4g left for each of my shawls.
I chose neutral colors for my two samples, since Marcy’s dresses are usually of the flower-print variety.
My first one, the larger DK shawl, was knit in two skeins of Blue Moon Fiber Arts silky Victoria – one of my favorite bases, and each skein is a whopping 695 yards (!!!). It definitely makes my winder work for it. I used the color “spores” and did the slightly risky thing of not actually alternating skeins. I just started with the heavier skein and switched at the middle of the back.
For the sock weight version, I used two skeins of Handmaiden Fine Yarns Casbah sock in the color “bone.” Casbah skeins come in at 355 yards, so they’re a bit under what sock skeins usually run and, as you can see, two skeins still makes a nice size of a shawl. That middle photo has the sock version on top of the DK version, for comparison’s sake. The difference isn’t as much in the depth of the back as it is in the length of the wings (and measurements of my sample shawls are provided in the pattern).
My photos are all taken in winter (or maybe at the very start of spring if we’re being generous), but since Marcy’s spending her summer on an island in Lake Superior, she’ll appreciate all the extra warmth she can get.
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.
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:
to create the thread
to perpetuate the monster
to build suspense
to narrow the focus
to urge the characters on to action
as the antagonist’s helper
as heroic sacrifice, and
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.
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.