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

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

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

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

Phew. So. What does that mean?

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

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

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

Let’s take a look at a plot diagram.

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

I ended up with nine reasons:

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

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

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

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

So why King?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

12 Challenge, book three – Who is Maud Dixon?

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, and book two was State of Terror by Hillary Rodham Clinton and Louise Penny.

Book three is Who is Maud Dixon? by Alexandra Andrews.

This one came as a recommendation from Alicia Thompson when she was doing her roundup of books she’d read in 2021. I honestly don’t remember what all she said about it because I read “This is The Talented Mr. Ripley meets …” and I was ready to buy it. I absolutely love The Talented Mr. Ripley, so if you happen to know of any more books that remind you of it, tell me about them!

Who is Maud Dixon? started out rather slowly for me. We’re following Florence Darrow, who’s in New York trying to get her career in publishing off the ground, but she’s struggling in a lot of ways. Florence doesn’t always make the best choices, for example, and it takes her a while to actually meet “Maud Dixon” and get the main part of the story underway.

The deal is that Maud Dixon is the penname of an author who wrote an amazing, bestselling debut … but is now struggling with Second Book Syndrome. She hires Florence as her assistant, which means Florence gets to actually meet her and learn her true identity. (Earlier in the book some of Florence’s coworkers insist that Maud Dixon is actually a man.) This also means Florence can’t tell anyone where she’s actually living (with Maud Dixon) or what she’s doing (working for Maud Dixon) but it’s also an experience Florence can’t pass up, especially since she needs the work.

You might say the job is too good to be true.

Once we meet Maud Dixon and her eccentricates start clashing with Florence’s the true fun begins. Fans of Tom Ripley will be totally primed for some – but not all – of what happens next. (Is it a spoiler if I talk about what happens in The Talented Mr. Ripley? The book came out in 1955 and the movie’s from 1999. Do we all know that Tom does by now? Yes? No?)

My husband can tell you I’ve wondered if you could pull off a Talented Mr. Ripley in the 21st century, and that’s what Florence attempts here. There was one point, maybe halfway through the book (I read it all in one day) where I put it down and told my husband how I really, really hoped things were going to play out before picking it back up and seeing if I was right. (I was! And this was an instance where it wasn’t super obvious, but a pleasure to see how Andrews laid it all out and let it all unfold.) So even if you know and love The Talented Mr. Ripley, it’s not a simple rehash of the story, updated for better passports and all the forensic advances of the past 60-odd years.

Once things get rolling, they go downhill – both as in “Florence finds herself in a lot of trouble” and “things keep going faster and faster.” Sometimes you want to shake Florence (and maybe ask her if she’s never read a thriller in her life), and other times you’re rooting for her. Does it have a happy ending? I think that depends on how you feel about Florence and the others by the end of the book. Which might actually just be my way of saying “You know, I’m not really sure.”

If Tom Ripley is your jam, then this book is for you.

And if Tom Ripley is your jam, I could use some more recommendations! Comment with more books fans of the talented Mr. Ripley should be picking up.

[Galinda voice] Popular!

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

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

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

I get the most views on the true crime stuff.

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

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

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

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

But you can’t determine your own popularity.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So what can you do?

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

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

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

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

And maybe finding even more who also like my Xenomoprh.

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

current state of the (nonfiction) manuscript

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

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

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

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

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

I settled on a couple guidelines:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Here’s a tip:

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

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

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

I also like the Pomodoro technique.

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

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

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

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

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

Ripper suspect: Richard Mansfield

We must once again remember that it doesn’t take much to be accused of having been Jack the Ripper. If a man can be shown to have been near the East End in the fall of 1888, then his name has likely shown up on the list.

Richard Mansfield, an English actor, was accused of being Jack the Ripper in an anonymous letter dated 1888. It’s hard to determine exactly how seriously the suggestion was taken, especially considering how phrenology and atavism were still in vogue. People were (and still are, to an extent) convinced that the darkness in someone’s soul would have to show on their faces and in their bodies. The more “rough” a person looked, than the rougher his character, and brutal murders of strangers was about as rough as it came.

But what, people started wondering, if there happened to be a man who could change his appearance so that he only looked like his essential self – a brutal, ugly murderer – part of the time? Sort of like how people think Ted Bundy is attractive despite the whole murder thing. In part that explains how he was able to isolate and then murder so many young women, but it also makes things scarier when we can’t look at someone and immediately identify them as dangerous.

Promotional material emphasizing Mansfield’s shift from Jekyll to Hyde.

Enter Richard Mansfield, who happened to be playing the dual roles of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde in a West End theater during the Autumn of Terror. Audiences at the Lyceum watched as Mansfield transformed in front of their eyes, contorting his body and his face into the violent and base Hyde. The rumor was even spread that he managed all of this without any help from makeup or prosthetics, although the lighting choices certainly helped his transformation. It turned out that Mansfield did have some assistance, but at least one theater-goer bought into the belief that he could, in fact, change his physical self at will.

The novella was published in 1886, two years before the Ripper murders, and explored the idea of the alter ego or the gothic double. It seems that the restraint of the Victorian era was too much for Dr. Jekyll, outwardly the perfect gentleman, and he only needs the slightest push to revert to his baser instincts. This “push” comes in the form of a serum Jekyll drinks, so at least it’s not going to spread like some sort of social disease, but it’s also incredibly addictive. Even though Jekyll promises he won’t drink anymore and won’t become Hyde again, he can’t help it. First he drinks out of compulsion, and then he transforms into Hyde without even needing the serum.

On the one hand, it might make sense to accuse an actor of being the Ripper, since he would apparently have had the skills needed to blend in with others in the East End at least long enough to commit the murder and make his escape. On the other, Mansfield was only accused because of this dual role and his apparently perfect inhabitation of both of the characters. It was a role that made Mansfield’s reputation as an actor, so he must have done well.

The accusation did have an impact on Mansfield’s career, so it wasn’t completely ignored. In response to the publicity surrounding the suspicion, he put on a performance of the comedy Prince Karl as a benefit for reformed sex workers. Whether or not the police took the letter seriously, he certainly convinced his audiences that there was something to it.

Mansfield continued acting, including taking many roles on Broadway, and also went on to have a successful career as a theatrical manager. After his death at age 50, the New York Times declared that “As an interpreter of Shakespeare, he had no living equal.” Despite being accused of being a serial killer in his own lifetime, at the time of the murders, Mansfield managed to shake off suspicion and prosper.

Introducing Jay Michael Robinson, the Fresh Coast Killer

You’ve already been introduced to Marcy, the main character of my upcoming novel Not Your Mary Sue (first Marcy postsecond Marcy post) but she’s not the only character in the book. For the first half, there’s exactly one other.

If you’ve checked out my reading of the book’s opening, you know a little bit about Jay already. Marcy’s spending her summer on a private island, in a luxury cabin, and he’s the caretaker. If something goes wrong with the amenities, or if she runs out of apple cinnamon cheerios, he’s the one she tells.

He’s the only one she can tell. The island happens to be in Lake Superior, out of sight of the mainland Upper Peninsula, and they’re very seriously isolated. No Wi-Fi. No cell phone signal. Just Marcy on her own personal retreat, and Jay, who’s supposed to be taking care of her.

Unfortunately, he tells her very early on that he’s got something else in mind. He happens to be the notorious Fresh Coast Killer, and he knows the police are catching up to him. Jay wants to tell Marcy his life story so that she can then write it down, publish it, and make sure he gets to fulfill his dreams.

“I want to be the next Bundy.”

This, by the way, is Jay’s dream: he wants to be the next Bundy. That would be Theodore Robert Bundy, American serial killer, most recently seen on the documentary Conversations With a Killer: The Ted Bundy Tapes and played by Zac Efron in Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile. The title is from the judge’s closing statement after Bundy’s conviction, and no, I can never remember it, either. (The Deliberate Stranger, starring Mark Harmon, is much easier.)

But what does it mean to be “the next Bundy?”

Well.

Jay’s already a serial killer. What he wants is the fame. The book, like The Stranger Beside Me. (Or, yes, The Deliberate Stranger.) He wants to be a household name.

“Chance of a lifetime, you know. That’s what I’m offering you.”

The thing is, The Stranger Beside Me made Ann Rule‘s career. It was her first book, and the first thing she wrote under her real name instead of her penname. It’s also the reason she testified before Congress about serial killers and gave lessons at the FBI. So really, if Marcy accepts Jay’s offer, it would be the chance of a lifetime. Imagine writing a book about “The Serial Killer Who Kidnapped Me During My Summer Vacation.”

“Everyone fights the truth.”

Okay but maybe being stuck on an island with a self-confessed serial killer, without any way of contacting anyone else – and, say, passing along that confession – isn’t really the best scenario. He’s already killed nearly 20 women and Marcy is, after all, a woman, and incredibly vulnerable.

And then she’s stuck here with someone who looks steadily at her and says things like “Everyone fights the truth” when he’s trying to convince her that first, she really wants to listen to him, and second, she really wants to write it all up.

Take a look at that picture specifically, by the way – “Everyone fights the truth” was taken at Eagle River, Michigan, right next to the Fitz. If you’re ever up that way, make a reservation – the food is amazing. But I specifically took my letterboard there because of the rocks and the fact that, yes, Superior stretches to the sky. When I picture the beach of Jay’s island, this is what’s in my head, so now you can see it, too.

“I only want to come across as intriguing. You actually think I am.”

I should probably also point out that Bundy took some psychology classes. And he wasn’t the only serial killer to play with minds – Ed Kemper was trusted to give other prisoners various tests and therefore learned all the answers. So, being stuck alone with Marcy on this island for weeks on end, with his ultimate goal of educating her enough to be his biographer, Jay’s going to use every trick in his toolbox. He’s going to work on her and convince her that this is not only in her best interest, but that she honestly wants to do this.

To sit around and take notes as she listens to him talk about his life and crimes, that is.

In detail.

I can’t wait until June when you can properly meet Jay, although you should probably be careful. As Marcy can tell you, being stuck on his island can give you nightmares.

More about Marcy

It’s been a few weeks since we last talked about Marcy – the main character of my upcoming novel, Not Your Mary Sue – so I’ve got some more letterboards (and knits) to share. Marcy’s a knitter, so that’s why her musings get backed by knits – some of them very carefully chosen for the quote.

Note: all links to Ravelry are labeled. Not all of these designs are available off-Rav, since some of them are from years ago. If you don’t know about what the new site design and accessibility have to do with each other, there’s a good primer here.

It’s intended to be my private retreat.

Location, location, location: the thing is, everyone knows exactly where Marcy is, and that they won’t hear from her for months. She’s just had some pretty dramatic upheavals in her life and her televangelist father has rented this cabin for her so she can pull herself together without being in front of a camera. She’s on this private island in Lake Superior with no WiFi or cell phone signal, and … she’s supposed to be alone. (Cue dramatic “dun dun dun.” Thanks, Belt.)

The background: Wrap & Run by Casapinka (Instagram Facebook Ravelry). This is one of the front panels, since I haven’t actually finished the back yet so it’s not done, but I’m using Miss Babs Yowza in blackbird, daguerreotype, and beautiful dreamer. This is the first time I’ve used Yowza, and holy cow, it won’t be the last! If you like big, beautiful, squishy skeins, you have to try some.

“None of the reviews mentioned the chains.”

When Marcy first wakes up on the island (read the opening chapter here) it’s to discover that there happens to be a chain attached to her ankle. She manages to pick the lock (using the key from her interchangeable knitting needles) before she has her first conversation with her caretaker. This is one of the first things Marcy says to Jay. She’s snarky because she’s nervous and trying to figure things out, but it also throws him off, since he’s never had this sort of reaction before.

Background: Tempest Skies by Emily Wood (Payhip Ravelry). I knit this shawl in Blue Moon Fiber Arts Cake DK in everyday gray. (At this point you might guess that I have a thing for huge skeins of DK yarn. You’d be right.) I specifically picked this one because the gray cables made me think of chains.

Clearly he’s never kept a prisoner alive before.

Jay informs Marcy right away that he’s a serial killer – Michigan’s infamous Fresh Coast Killer, in fact. The Great Lakes are, of course, unsalted, so that name distinguishes their shorelines from either the East or the West Coast. The Fresh Coast Killer has murdered over a dozen women, all of them less than 24 hours after he abducted them. The fact that Jay has let Marcy live this long is already concerning … especially since, from the very beginning, she has reason to suspect that he doesn’t know what he’s doing.

Background: the back of my #13 Deep V Hoodie by Margeau Soboti (Instagram Ravelry). I knit mine with Stonehedge Fiber Mill shepherd’s wool worsted in white, denim, and raspberry (not pictured). And yes, that’s hedge, not henge. Stonehedge Fiber Mill is located in my home state of Michigan and offers some really amazing yarn. I picked this sweater for the background because the stripes make me think of “classic” prison uniforms.

How long has this man been stalking me?

So here’s the thing: Marcy has no idea who Jay is aside from “the caretaker on this island,” but he’s been auditioning her for the role of his biographer. He’s tracked her down across various websites, including Marcy’s twitter and Marcy’s tumblr, and Marcy starts to realize exactly how much she’s shared without realizing it. She doesn’t think anyone even reads her posts, but Jay’s read them all. He is, in fact, quite a student of her words.

Background: the Study Hall Shawl by Sarah Schira (personal websiteRavelry). I use Madelinetosh twist light in paper and Squoosh Fiberarts beefcake sock in the Eat.Sleep.Knit exclusive Rhodophyta. Twist light is my go-to sock yarn, and I just love how the design lets the hand-dyed aspect of the beefcake sock shine.

I am sitting here having breakfast with a serial killer.

The fact that Marcy isn’t alone on this island and that Jay is far more than just the caretaker is a lot to take in, so she has to run things through her head a few times. She is indeed having breakfast with a serial killer, but this is only day one. It’s going to take a lot of quick thinking if she’s going to make it through the summer alone with Jay, cut off from the rest of the world.

Background: Cahokia by Emily Wood (Payhip Ravelry), because I knit a lot of Emily’s designs. This one’s in Dream in Color classy in the Eat.Sleep.Knit exclusive New York City, because ESK is my favorite place to order yarn. I love the depth and complexity of the color, and the garter body of this shawl allows it to shine.


Not Your Mary Sue comes out June 7, and I can’t wait to share more than a single letterboard at a time. You can preorder your copy here: Amazon – Kobo – Google Play.

the one about failure

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

*deep breath*

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

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

I have 87 abandoned projects on record

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

To outline or not to outline: that is the question

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

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

I have friends who:

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

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

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

I don’t outline my fiction with sticky notes.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Okay but that’s a success story.

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

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

12 Challenge, book two – State of Terror

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, and book two is State of Terror by Hillary Rodham Clinton and Louise Penny.

So, first: I don’t usually read political thrillers. Expanding reading horizons is part of the challenge, and the friend who recommended it pointed out that maybe it’s a stretch.

That being said, it reminded me a lot of Dan Brown‘s Robert Langdon books. You know. Angels and Demons? The Da Vinci Code? There’s a lot of globetrotting and seeing the sights, calling out different locations and well-known sights. There’s also the sort of “very few people in the world even know what I’m telling you” aspect to it that always made me wonder how, exactly, Dan Brown learned this secret information (and why it’d be safe to just tell the world in a best-seller if the information is indeed secret) but, in State of Terror, makes you remember who one of the authors is.

I spent a lot of time being very aware who one of the authors is.

The main character is, after all, the Secretary of State. She’s just come on board after a very awful president who gets a bunch of jibes thrown his way. Ellen Adams is also blonde and gets called names that quickly go viral – it’s not “nasty woman,” but … you know it totally is. So clearly any state secrets Ellen Adams reveals to readers can’t actually be real, but … I mean, it makes you wonder.

If I hadn’t known Hillary Rodham Clinton was one of the authors, some of those things probably wouldn’t have jumped out at me like they did. It’s all “write what you know” until “what you know” happens to be about a high-ranking informants’ council but I do trust that, when Ellen Adams says something in Washington, DC is a ten minute walk, it’s a ten minute walk.

I did struggle some with the chronology. I’ve talked about narrative timelines before, but this wasn’t an issue of how all travel takes place between chapters, with a single turn of the page. They sleep on flights or hey, nothing interesting happens, and then they go for hours and hours without sleeping. They’re running on adrenaline. That’s fine.

What really threw me – and it’s something that happened for the first time on page one – was how a chapter would open with a line of dialogue, bang, in media res, and then the narration would back up so we knew where we were, who was there, and what was going on … but that dialogue never showed up again to place it in proper context.

If a chapter opened at 8:00 PM sharp, the narration would back up to 7:30, where we’d last left everyone, and then apparently go until 7:59 … but skip ahead to 8:01? Maybe? I’m still not entirely sure, but until I caught on to what was happening, I was just forcing myself along and hoping it would make sense later. (Which happens a lot when I read large cast books for the first time. Stephen King, I’m looking at you.)

There’s also the fact that, as I said, I don’t read political thrillers, so maybe that’s a genre thing. You get the snappy dialogue immediately and then have to sort out all the rest as you go.

There was also a fair amount of head-hopping. It’s totally the bane of a lot of writers’ existence. It’s really easy to do subtly – have your point of view character understand what someone else is thinking, oops – but this was jarring at times. You’re following Ellen and suddenly you’re in someone else’s head, looking at Ellen and reading about her in terms she wouldn’t use for herself.

But those are structural things. Maybe generic things. (As in, specifically genre-related.) Was it a good book?

Wait, how do we define a good book?

I don’t like rating books for this very reason. I just keep a list of which ones I’ve read and that’s that. But if, for whatever reason, I want to keep reading to figure out how it all turns out – even if it’s because I want to know if the author’s actually going to give a good explanation (cough Stephen King again cough) then I consider it a good book. It did what I wanted it to do: took me away from whatever’s going on in the world or my life at the moment and made me care about something else for a bit.

So, by that standards: yes, State of Terror is a good book. I read it in a day. I’m a fast reader, sure, but if I don’t like a book, it’s slower than molasses. I wanted to know what was happening with Ellen, and to see if I figured out the FSO’s secret, and how some of the other characters’ relationships would shake out in the end. Plus I wanted to know the big whodunit, and there were a couple times I doubted my original impression, which is major for me. I read so many thrillers that it’s rare for a twist to truly shake me.

But I still don’t think I’m much of a political thriller fan.

Have you read State of Terror? Or do you read political thrillers and have some answers for me?