Not Your Mary Sue: the stitch markers

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

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

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

My knitter’s chatelaine from winemakerssister on Etsy.

The book

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

The dagger

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

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

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

The measuring cup

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

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

The typewriter

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

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

The cabin

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

The elephant

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

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

The scissors

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

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

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

The ball of yarn and knitting needles

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


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

Not Your Mary Sue: the original ending

So there are totally spoilers for Not Your Mary Sue in this post. If you haven’t read it and want to experience it all without knowing what’s coming, this is your cue to stop reading.

Okay?

Okay.

This post isn’t exactly one of those killed darlings, because this is the first time I’ve actually written it. I didn’t have to delete it from my first draft because, once I got to the end of what ended up being Part One, I didn’t want to write it anymore. It just didn’t fit.

But, once upon a time, leading up to about mid-November of 2017, this was how Marcy’s story was going to end. We see the others come to the island and eventually make their way into the bedroom, finding Marcy curled up in the corner of the bedroom, and she starts crying. There’s a break, and then this brief epilogue from some months later:


Marcy steps out into the sunlight and sighs, arming sweat off her forehead. It’s not entirely clear where she is – she’s just outside, and sweaty. She moves out of the way of the door, but you don’t know how big the door is. She just steps sideways enough to lean against the outside of the building but, before she does, she pulls something out of her back pocket: the first sign that she’s wearing jeans.

She unfolds the paper and it becomes clear that it’s getting thin along the creases. We can’t read all the words, anyway, but they’re written in a familiar, spiky-yet-cramped hand. And what we can read is the last sentence: Remember, Marcy: when you save a life, you’re responsible for it.

“Marce?” someone calls from inside the building, and he comes out – not through a person-sized door, but through an open garage door. He’s a stranger, and he’s wearing a leather apron. “You all right?”

She folds the letter from Jay quickly but carefully and slips it into her back pocket. She’s wearing an apron, too, and her hair’s pulled back into a tight bun. “Yeah, just … needed some air.”


He smiles and somehow it becomes clear that she’s his student. Maybe he says something about how he can’t have his best student collapsing from heat exhaustion, or maybe it’s less obvious. When he reaches out toward her, she pushes away from the wall and lets him lead her back into the building where the sword forge, and her blade in progress, are waiting.


Yeah I always imagine my scenes as movie shots, I guess. It’s a lot of telling and a complete lack of interiority because I never actually turned it from the idea into a scene for the book. I wrote the first draft in third person but, aside from one scene – the very second in the book – from Jay’s point of view, I stuck close to Marcy the whole time. When I rewrote it for the second draft, about the only thing I changed was the point of view from third to first, and the tense from past to present. Nearly everything else from the first part of the final book is what I wrote in November 2017. How amazing is that?

The thing was, though, once I got to the end of part one – once Marcy put her head down on her knees and cried because they’d found her – I didn’t want to let her go. Sending her into the forge was no longer the proper slightly ominous ending for her as a character. She’d spent the entire story so far reacting instead of acting, and I wanted to give her some agency.

Reality check, though: originally Part Two started with the words Edison Crane had a girlfriend. The original Part Two was told largely from his point of view, because I hadn’t really figured her out yet. Marcy on the island, yes, that had been swirling around in my head for months. Marcy off the island? Big shrug.

I had to figure out what all was going to happen to Marcy before I could figure out how she was going to handle it. And, as a nod to my original ending, in that first draft Edison was a master bladesmith. (Remember Jay only reached journeyman.) His house had a forge in the backyard, and Marcy asked him if he could teach her. Except, once she learned the techniques, she used the skills to make some elaborate sculptures, like a metal nod to Chihuly’s sea life tower or an interpretation of a whale fall, which ended up being the centerpiece of a show she eventually put on (with all proceeds to go to charity, of course).

But, once I’d rewritten the first half again, years after the original draft, I knew I couldn’t let Marcy go like that for the middle. Part Three’s back to her, fine, but even though sudden changes often happen in thrillers at a new part, it didn’t make sense to start with Edison. Mostly because her life After Jay didn’t start with Edison.

I had to follow Marcy, in her fog, to Iowa before I could follow her to Illinois. Make those transitions with her. See her resisting Edison at a few opportunities before allowing herself to be drawn in because of Stephen King, and then because he reacted to her distress. A lot of those scenes were there in my first draft – and a lot of them got cut in the second and restored in the third, but now from Marcy’s point of view – but the changes seemed far more significant.

If “Edison Crane had a girlfriend,” you don’t get to see so much inside Marcy’s head.

And really, you didn’t. That first draft de-centers her from her own story until Jay’s escape. At the time I was just trying any angle to get the events on the page and figure out where the heck things were going, since now I was pantsing instead of following a mental outline. I had no idea what was happening next, or even who the heck Edison Crane was. I can’t even remember how I came up with the name. The goal was to just keep writing, and to know that I could always come back, and edit, and make it look like I’d known what I was doing all along.


Do you think Marcy’s still the sort of person who’d reclaim the skills Jay had and use them for creation instead of destruction? Or does it make a lot more sense that the original ending didn’t happen?

Have you ever made a change like this partway through a first draft of your own?

this one’s for the writers

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

It’s not actually my first novel.

I didn’t start off writing like this.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Henry Miller

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

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

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

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


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

Marcy, aka “Not Your Mary Sue” herself

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

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

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

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

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

Marcy by Shegry

Let’s start with the parts again.

the mountains

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

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

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

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

the blue symbol

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

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

the flowers

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

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

Marcy herself

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

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

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

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


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

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


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

Jay Michal Robinson, the Fresh Coast Killer

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

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

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

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

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

Jay Michael Robinson by Shegry

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

the waves

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

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

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

the music

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

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

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

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

the morning glories and the dagger

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

But that dagger …

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

time to talk Marcy again – two months to go!

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.

Some of them, like Ed Kemper, had a lot to say.

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.

Pattern: Campside Poncho by Alicia Plummer (Rav link)
Yarn: Gingerbread Rainbow DK from Dye Mad Yarns


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.

Pattern: Enchanted Rose Hood by Amy Noelle Walker (Rav link)
Yarn: Knit Picks Paragon in pimento


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.

Pattern: The Lady Russell Shawl by Joy Gerhardt (personal website)
Yarn: Candy Skein Yummy Fingering Superwash Sock in sage


When Psycho first 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.

Pattern: Stay Out of the Forest by Natasha Sills (personal website)
Yarn: Madelinetosh twist light in no farewell, dead calm, Black Sea, and fate


So the countdown is on! You have until June 7, 2022 to be cool and preorder Not Your Mary Sue (Amazon – Kobo – Google Play) before it becomes a boring old regular order.

Seriously, preorders help authors a lot, so if you’re thinking about getting a copy … click now! Then we can all (finally!) discuss all the cool things I’ve been keeping to myself.

The Marcy Shawl – a knitting pattern

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.

The Marcy Shawl – DK weight version

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.


The Marcy Shawl – sock weight version

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 Marcy Shawl – basic schematic

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 Prairie idea 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.

The DK Marcy Shawl

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.


Errata and most recent file date below.

And, of course, since we’re at the download link, here are the purchase links again so you don’t have to scroll back up:

Thank you for helping me keep writing and keep blending my love of words and my love of knitting.


Errata – updated April 2

The original upload got mixed up and had the pattern out of order. It should be:

  • provisional cast-on
  • set-up rows
  • body increase row

The new upload has these steps in the proper order.

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.

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

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

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

So. Here we are.

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

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

What do we decide to do with our meat prisons?

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

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

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

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

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

I want to give you some leeway.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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