Narrative

AWARDS ANNOUNCEMENT – A Woman of the Sea

AWARDS ANNOUNCEMENT – A Woman of the Sea

Holy, smokes, guys! This is absolutely WONDERFUL news to wake up to on my Birthday!

I am absolutely floored and extremely thrilled to announce that my historical queer time-travel romance “A Woman of the Sea” has won a 2019 Watty Award for Historical Fiction!

A big, big thank you to Wattpad, all the judges and everyone who worked so hard on the awards, and to my fellow winners – congrats! Thank you for letting me share my stories with you all, and thank you for believing in the importance and power of fiction

. You can read the story here and view all the winners here or shelve the book on GoodReads here.

JM FreyAWARDS ANNOUNCEMENT – A Woman of the Sea
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WORDS FOR WRITERS: How to Plan a Series

WORDS FOR WRITERS: How to Plan a Series

I know I’ve discussed this little a bit in other articles before, but I wanted to talk specifically about the process of plotting a multi-book narrative. And how to make the ending satisfying because, from an emotional standpoint, this is the moment both you and your audience has been waiting for – the time when all the hints, all the adventures, all the hard work and suffering your characters (and you!) have gone through pays off.

First, let’s talk about the logistics of a series from a career point of view.

When do I start planning the series?

This is a complicated question because, depending on where you are in your career and in the book-writing process, the answer will be different.

If you’re an already-published or already-represented author, then you’re likely already quite familiar with the process of pitching a book to your publisher/agent. Pitching a series is not much different, except that you’d need to write a synopsis for all the books you plan to write in the series, and create a pitch document for the series as a whole, as well as for each individual book.

If you are querying agents or publishers for the first time though, it’s a different process. The first thing I would recommend you do is not write the series.

This seems counter-intuitive, if you plan to pitch the book you’re querying as the first in a series. But trust me. There are reasons:

  • What if the agent/editor/publisher comes up with something better? In discussing a novel with you, inevitably – if you are talking about doing a series – someone is going to say “So what’s happening in book two? What if you do XYZ?” and it’s very possible that this new idea might be a stronger choice or provide a more interesting outcome. In that case, you’ve wasted what is probably years on writing something that you may end up scraping.
  • You’re writing into a void, and without guidance. Your writing will improve as you work with your editor/agent on your first novel. Everyone would rather you wrote book two after having done all that work with your editor/agent, because it will inevitably be a stronger, better-written manuscript. It’s much better, and so much easier, to write a strong first draft than have to go back and rewrite a weak one. Or a whole series of already-written books.
  • Things can change in edits – a small change in book one can have a ripple effect in all the rest of the books, which can open you up to the risk of terrible continuity errors in later books, or even whole swathes of plot points or character moments that will need rewriting.
  • What if they don’t want the series, and only want the first book? It happens. (It also happens the other way around, too – the Accidental Turn Series was never meant to be a series, and I had never planned to write more than The Untold Tale.) They may ask you to put a less open ending on the book and just wrap it up, so there’s no further story to tell.  In that case, you’ll have wasted your time on the other books in the series, which can’t be published because your publisher likely has right of first refusal on works set in that IP, and has refused them. 
  • Your publisher may want to wait to see how book one does before investing more time and money in further books with you. And they may only want one or two more – even if you planned, say, five. You may need to restructure your story ideas to fit a smaller, or larger, number of books. It’s much easier to do that if the books don’t exist, because you don’t have the pressure of trying to make what already exists either squash or stretch.

So how do you get across to a publisher/agent that you’re querying that this is meant to be the first book of a series? These are the nine most important words for pitching a series: “This is a stand-alone novel with series potential.”

So what does that mean? It means that 1) you have to write a book that is fully contained, with a satisfying ending in and of itself, 2) that has enough plot seeds sown and open points where future plots could anchor that it could be the first of a series, 3) but not so many that if those seeds never get to grow or those open points remain gaping, it feels like a cheap and unsatisfactory ending. Think of it as a made-for-tv-movie that is also a back-door-pilot. If the MFTVM does very well, the producers may spin it out into a TV series. If it doesn’t, it remains just a movie. So it has to be both satisfying and stand-alone, but also useful as a kicking-off point to a longer and more involved narrative.

What’s different about writing a series?

The first, and most obvious difference between writing the books in a series and any other stand-alone  book, is that you have to draw the story out, and then finish what you start. Everything you set up, hint at, or have happen in previous books has to work toward the final climax scene in the final story, while also still providing satisfying novels individually.

It’s a lot to remember, and a lot to make pay off. (This is why I have a whiteboard wall and a pin-board in my office, so I can keep notes to myself about things I seeded when I started book one). 

And on top of that, you need to avoid Mushy Middle Syndrome – that is, writing books that happen between the first and last novels in the series that are clearly just made up of filler.  Each individual book in the series needs to be a whole story itself as well as part of the structure holding up the bridge of the overall narrative, and just as strong (ideally stronger) than the first book in the series.

 But how can you not only do this, but do it well?

As a Pantser at heart it pains me to say it, but the best way to make sure your foundation is solidly laid (and that you won’t have to go back and rewrite huge swaths of earlier books), you’ll need to Plan. At least a little.

As a trained playwright and screenwriter, I personally choose to write my books according to the three-act structure. 

Writing a book with the three-act structure generally looks like this:

When writing a series, each book will be structured to have three Acts.

BUT, when you are writing a series, (let’s say a trilogy for simplicity’s sake), each book itself becomes an Act in the narrative of the whole story.


So when you’re planning each book, not only do you have to write a whole, complete, compelling novel in and of itself (with no saggy middle book!), you also have to ensure that the tale you’re telling in each individual novel serves the overall narrative as well. Which means the final book in the series will be especially fussy to plan, because it must function both as a stand-alone novel, but also behave like the third act of the series and wrap everything up satisfactorily, and in a way that is not rushed.

To complicate things, you need to figure out what kind of story you’re telling, and what the structure tropes are for that particular narrative style. Going with my above example, The Accidental Turn Series is about a quintessential Tolkien-esque fantasy hero who never knew he was the main character all along, so had been acting like a sidekick. As such, each book follows the Hero’s Journey narrative map, while the characters deliberately attempt to escape from the Hero’s Journey cycle:

So each individual book looks like this:

But when you blow it out into the full series, the Hero’s Journey for each book looks more or less like this:

As you can see, some of the narrative beats overlap, because if there was a clear division between books, it would mean the first book has no real ending, the second book is filled with adventures that don’t culminate in any kind of climax, and the third book would be mostly denouement and return. So you do need to balance where the Revelations happen, how often, and how they drive the plot of not only that particular novel forward, but that of the whole series.

Now, this isn’t a hard and fast rule, or the only way you can divide up a series.  For The Skylark’s Saga, as a two-book series, I organized it like this:

Which meant a lot of conversations with my editor, a lot of scribbling on that white board, and what turned out to be a whole heck of a lot of rewrites, as the original ending wasn’t strong enough to finish off a duology and we had to reformat the final act of book two a few times.

No matter how you plan to plot your series, knowing which story structure you plan to use is vital, so you can mirror that structure into the layout of the series as a whole. Beyond the Three Act structure, This article offers a few more options for how to layout the narrative foundations of your novel.

For my next novel, The Maddening Science, (which is going to be a stand alone), I’m venturing away from both the Hero’s Journey and the Three Act Structure. I’m not sure exactly which model I’ll be using, but Steve Seager lists some other fascinating possible story structures that I want to explore in more depth before I swing into this novel for NaNoWriMo

I’m also really into the way Alan Moore structured the overall graphic novel Watchmen. I’m enamored with the idea of seemingly disparate stories coming together to create a solid understanding of the world and a shocking realization as the climax is playing out. All the different tales come together in the end to form one picture – like different coloured threads knotting together to form a friendship bracelet – and that is what I’d like to explore in terms of storytelling next.

Shall we call this the Woven Structure? Maybe let’s see if I can make it work before we name it.

The point is, no matter which structure you use, having a solid understanding of how it works, and which beats you’re going to put in which books, is an extremely important part of planning a book series. Mapping the structure of the novel onto the series as a whole is a simple (if brain-knotting) way to ensure that the series conclusion is not only satisfying, but gripping.

Okay – so we’ve talked the plotting.

But what about the emotional payoff?

So here’s the meat of series. You have to satisfy all the promises you made in the prose of the previous novels.

I’m not saying this means you must create Happily Ever Afters for all the heroes and Come Uppances for all the baddies. Nothing so trite. I am saying that you have set up expectations in the prose that things that are brought up, actions that occur and events that happen, will be resolved.

For example, Lucas couldn’t just tell the viewers that Darth Vader is Luke’s father and then not address it in the later movies, and not resolve Luke and Vader’s relationship in the final climactic battle. It’s a revelation that promised satisfaction to that emotional arc, even if viewers had to wait for the next movie for that satisfaction.

There’s also this article on how to use the Chekhov’s Gun approach to plant promises in your text, and explains the concept in further detail. But it boils down to this – make sure you’re closing all the doors, tying up all the loose threads, and addressing all the questions. 

Again, this doesn’t mean you need a seven-chapter denouement or an explanation of what happened to each character as the adventure ends. It just means that the ending you choose to give the novel has to end the series well, and leave readers content with the information that you chose to impart, and a feeling of being happy with knowing all they know.

As a big fan of fanfiction, I’m also okay with writers not closing every plot off. It is nice to have space to think about what might happen next, especially with side characters whose endings might not have been explained in greater detail or happened off screen.

To make sure I don’t miss anything like this, every time I make a Big Promise in my novels, I write it down on my whiteboard. Example: “Kin and Bevel have to talk about Bev’s desire to be a father / possibly agree to have a kid?” This was brought up in book two of The Accidental Turn series, as well as in the novellas Arrivals and Ghosts, in the short story Health, and the final novel. This promise was satisfied in the novella Magic, and finally tied up in the short story Pride (all of which can be found in The Accidental Collection).

These don’t have to be detailed notes – just a scrawl on the wall is usually enough to remind me when the time comes. And who doesn’t like checking things off a list when you’ve accomplished it?

There are lots of ways to make sure your final book packs an emotional punch. I asked fellow writers on Twitter to chime in, and these are the tips they offered:

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Still have questions? Read more WORDS FOR WRITERS here or ASK ME HERE

JM FreyWORDS FOR WRITERS: How to Plan a Series
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WORDS FOR WRITERS: How to Create a Pitch Package

WORDS FOR WRITERS: How to Create a Pitch Package

What is a Pitch Package?

Also called a Bible, or a Pitch Doc, this is a collection of very specific documents and write ups, which you’ll need along the publishing and marketing journey. But why do you need it?

Because agents, editors, publishers, and marketers are going to ask for it. The documents that you create for this package will help a publisher or agent decide whether they’d like to take you or your book on. But these documents will also have a second life in supporting the work done by your publicist, marketing team, and yourself when it comes to hype your book sales.  It can even have a third life as being the basis for a pitches used by your foriegn rights agents and / or dramatic rights agents, and if you snag a dramatic adaptation option, in the film / TV Bible or Pitch Doc.

In short, they’re dead useful, if… involved to create. Here’s what I try to create (and suggest you have) in every Novel Pitch Package:

 

  • The manuscript

 

The totally complete (betaed, edited, polished) manuscript. If you’re not done writing the book, don’t bother pitching it. You never know when someone is going to ask for the full within hours of you submitting the query, and if you don’t have it ready, you’re not going to look very professional, and thus worth taking on.

  • Super polished first 100 pages

Some agents / publishers ask for 3 chapters, some ask for five, instead of asking for the whole novel all at once. Make sure you have a few files separated out of

– just the first three chapters
– just the first five
– and just the first hundred pages.

And make sure they are super-polished. These are the chapters that will speak for the whole of your novel, so make sure they’re on their best behavior.

 

  • Synopsis (5 page, 3 page, and 1 page)
    I’ve already covered how to write a synopsis pretty extensively here, so go have a look-see at that article when you’re ready to write your Synopsis. Make sure you write one in all three lengths, as you’ll want to have them prepared for whatever size is requested.
  • Back Cover Copy

 

This is the one-paragraph description of the book that is simultaneously a sales pitch and a way to hook the person holding your book (or reading the description on a website), and entices them to buy it. It should be in the voice of the book, snappy, easy to understand without leaning too heavily on tired cliche, and leave the reader wanting more. For examples of cover copy for my books, check out my store. Sometimes I write this before I finish the novel, sometimes I write it after, but always make sure you really work this item to make sure it’s polished, intriguing, and accurately describes the book as it is, not as you intended to write it.

 

  • Query paragraph

 

Very similar to the Back Cover Copy, this is the paragraph you put in your query letter to introduce the book to an agent/publisher/editor. Besides the hooky pitch, this paragraph should also include: word count, genre, age-range, whether it’s a stand-alone or has series potential.

 

  • Elevator pitch

 

Now that you have your hooky pitch paragraph, condense it down into a single sentence. I know, brutal, but so dang useful. This is called an elevator pitch because it’s what you would use if you had the length of exactly one elevator ride with a high-level executive to get their buy-in. An example of this would be: “Bridget Jones’ Diary meets The Avengers in a graphic novel about a blogger who goes on dates and imagines her beaus as various superheroes based on their quirks and failings. But when her dating blog becomes viral-popular, our heroine must face the consequences of fame at the expense of others.”

  • Character breakdown (with pronunciation guide if they’re not contemporary names)

This is a list of the major characters in the book, and a small paragraph about each of them including their name, age-range, and possibly their gender and/or sexual orientation if it’s important to the story. You can choose to include an image like an illustration you make or commission, or an actor / stock image model, but keep it small, and consider that readers often prefer to imagine what a character looks like for themselves, including agents/publishers/editors. Talk about their role in the store, their driving desires, and why this story has to happen to them, specifically, and not another character. This would be something like:


“Kalp: An alien from a broken world, he as elected to identify as male on Earth. A refugee grateful what meagre aide the people of this world can offer, Kalp takes on a job as a translator for The Institute, working with humans Gwen and Basil to reverse engineer technologies from his homeworld to help solve climate and social crises on this new one. Close proximity breeds affection, though, and Kalp can’t help his growing attraction and tender feelings toward his colleagues. He worries that that his feelings are only born of pathetic gratitude, and struggles with whether he should declare himself and risk his position at the Institute, and the friendship he so desperately treasures.” 

  • Comparable titles

Not every agent / publisher asks for this, but it’s always very good to make up a list like this, if only for yourself. This is a list of books like yours, who wrote them, when they were published, and if that title is good to use in marketing because it was a hit, or if it’s too obscure, dated, or flopped. Separate the list out into age range, genre, and non-book comparisons. (For example, “Middle grade” is the age range, “episodic adventure” is the genre, and non-book comparisons for a Middle grade adventure (such as Adrienne Kress’ The Explorers series) would be The Goonies, Kim Possible, and Spy Kids. Feel free to cite books outside of your age range or genre if they replicate the tone, mood, or themes, but make it clear in the list that this is the reason you’re citing them. Keep this to about one page.

 

  • Marketing ideas

 

Do not send this with your initial pitch / query. Firstly, only ever send what the agent / publisher / editor asks for, and send all of what they ask for. Secondly, this isn’t something that you should really send to anyone until someone on the marketing team says “Do you have any marketing ideas?”. Why? Because you job is to write the book. It’s everyone else’s job to sell it, and swerving into their lane may come off as arrogant or unprofessional. Having said that, it’s always a great idea to have a “Swipe File” – that is, a folder of cool ideas you’ve seen other authors or artists use – and a list of “Things it may be neat to do”, so that when it does come time to discuss marketing (after the manuscript is signed, revised, and locked), you are prepared and have some awesome ideas to bring to the table. Also, put things on this list of varying price points, and be aware that pretty much everything costs money or time. (Book displayed face-out in a major bookstore chain = $$$; setting up an ebook review blog tour = ⏰; creating and printing bookmarks = $ & ⏰)

 

  • Personal reach

 

It sounds a bit crass, but this section is basically a list of who you know and which relationships you can exploit to market your book. Know some TV producers, or someone who does a podcast that would let you come on to talk about your work, or still in touch with your MFA prof and have the ability to go in and do a guest lecture? Also list your social media follower count and explain how you engage with them, and what the main topics of conversation are, your newsletter reach (if you have one), and if you’ve self-published anything, how many units you’ve sold and what kind of reader engagement it’s produced. Include reads and votes for previous novels and stories on fiction sharing sites such as Wattpad, Tapas, Tappy Toon, Raddish, etc., as this counts as an audience you could market your novel to. 

  • Biography

Write a 100 word, a 150 word, a 300 word, and a 500 word version of this. Cite any previous awards or achievements that relate to writing (Publisher’s Weekly Best Book of the Year, or Watty Award for Best Romance, or High Honours at the Pop Culture Confrence, or even Over Five Thousand Reads on AO3, or Best Angst Story in the Good Omens Fanfiction Awards), and any other completed works (“has self-published three novels, and completed a PhD thesis in astroradiology”, or “writer of a weekly advice column in the local newspaper”, etc.).  Including why you are the only person who can tell this story this way – for example, if this is a story about a doctor, and you are a doctor, say so. I wrote my MA Thesis on Mary Sue Fan-Fiction, so when I talk about my meta portal-fantasy series The Accidental Turn, I always talk about that thesis – I’m uniquely qualified to write the book I did because I wrote that thesis on Mary Sues.

  • Additional materials

Again, don’t send this unless you are explicitly asked for it, or you’ve developed enough of a relationship with your editor / agent that you know it will be welcome, but do absolutely keep a folder of “stuff” that doesn’t fall into any of the categories above, such as:

-maps you may have hand-drawn or computer-generated
-some cover art ideas, or a collection of covers for other books that you think are a good example of what you were thinking
-character sketches or commissioned art
-stock images, moodboards, or aesthetics posts
-deleted scenes or alternate endings/moments
-playlists

BONUS

 

  • Screenplay Treatment
    I’m gonna put a big fat caveat on this one, and say that as a novelist this isn’t actually your job. If your novel gets picked up for a dramatic adaptation, you may be asked to write a treatment then, but honestly it’s the screenwriter who should be writing the treatment, as it’s the map to the screenplay itself. Having said that, I did once have an agent ask me to write a screenplay treatment for my novel to make it easier for his entertainment agent to pitch. As I have experience as a screenwriter, I did it, but it didn’t quite feel like something that ought to have been on my plate. So if you want to take a crack at writing the treatment, you can find out all about the process here. (I mean, basically, a Treatment is pretty much the exact same thing as a book Synopsis, with specific formatting requirements and more focus on the fact that film is a visual medium.)

 

So there you have it. 

Remember, while you’ve put together all these materials, only send agents / editors / publishers what they ask for. To do otherwise looks like you couldn’t be bothered to read or follow their directions, which does not make them want to take you on. 

You may create a document that you never, ever use, and that’s okay. It’s a good reference for you, and a good artistic exercise; no work you do on your novel is ever wasted. I’ve found that even if I thought I would never use it, there are times that I dive into my Pitch Package folder years after the book is out to fetch one of my assets for something or other.

Have fun putting together your Pitch Package, and best of luck out there querying!

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Still have questions? Read more WORDS FOR WRITERS posts here or ASK ME HERE.

JM FreyWORDS FOR WRITERS: How to Create a Pitch Package
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Words for Writers: Your Voice Is Valid

On February 10th, 2017 I had the fantastic opportunity to speak to a group of students and faculty from Grant MacEwan University in Edmonton, Alberta, about Fan Fiction, Mary Sues, and #DiversityMatters.

Here is the audio (slightly cleaned up) and transcript of that talk.

Audio:

Transcript:

Mike Perschon:

So, our keynote speaker is J.M. Frey. And she is from the Toronto area. I can say the “Toronto-area,” that’s a quick way of saying–

J.M. Frey

It’s a good way of saying it.

Mike Perschon:

–it and everything.

Uh, she is a science fiction and fantasy author. She’s a pop culture scholar.  She’s going to be talking to us about some of that stuff tonight. She often appears as a guest on podcasts, television, and radio programs. Okay, she’s got a book coming out later this year, the third in the series – the fantasy series – she’s has been writing for the past few years and, uh, she’s got a whole bunch of other creative projects on the go.

Tonight she’s going to be talking to us about how “Your Voice is Valid” and the idea of the “Mary Sue”.

So if you’ve seen that term in pop culture, and was confused what it was or, perhaps, gotten misinformation, you’ll find out exactly what that is.

[Applause truncated]

J.M. Frey:

Thank you very much for inviting me, everybody.

Thank you to the student organizers. Thank you to the faculty organizers. I really appreciate it.

I—ah-ah! First off, I’m gonna say: I’m going to have my notes with me, and I apologize, ‘cause talking for forty-five minutes is—a half hour! I promise, it’s a half hour!—without notes is a little much.

Um, so I just wanted to say thank you to Grant MacEwan for inviting me. Um, this is the first time in Edmonton, and I’m looking forward to exploring it. I think I was maybe promised roller coasters? I don’t know…

I do want to, in particular, thank you Mike for inviting me and for being my designated buddy while I’m here in Edmonton.  It is an honor to sleep in the same guest bed that Gail Carriger once slept in.

And secondly, I do want to say thank you to everyone else for being here. I do in my brain still think of myself in my brain think of myself as your age, even though I have been out of academia for… oh… a little bit over a decade. But I loved being you guys, I loved this moment of my life. Ah, this weekend is going to be so awesome, you have no idea.

But of course before the awesome happens, you’ve have to listen to a keynote and you’re probably wondering who this hobbit in the front of the room is, getting between you and these amazing burgers that I’ve heard about?

We don’t have “Red Robin”s in Ontario? So apparently I’m in for a treat. I’m very excited about it.

So, my name is J.M. Frey. I’m a science-fiction and fantasy author, a screenwriter, and a fanthropologist. And I have a declaration to make. A promise. A vow, if you will.

And it is this:

If I hear one more basement-dwelling troll call the lead female protagonist of a genre film a “Mary Sue” one more time, I’m going to scream.

I’m sure you’ve all seen this all before. A major science fiction, fantasy, video game, novel, or comic franchise or publisher announces a new title. Said new title features a lead protagonist who is female, or a person of color, or is not able-bodied, or is non-neurotypical, or is LGBTQA+.

It might be the new Iron Man or Spider-man, who are both young black teenagers now. The new Ms. Marvel, a Muslim girl. It could be Jyn Erso, the female lead of the latest Star Wars film, the deaf Daphne Vasquez from Switched at Birth, or Alex in Supergirl, who was just recently revealed to be a lesbian still coming to terms with her sexuality in her mid-thirties, or Dorian in Dragon Age, who is both a person of color and flamboyantly queer.

And generally, the audience cheers. Yay for diversity! Yay for representation! Yay for working to make the worlds we consume look more like the world we live in! Yaaaaay!

But there’s a certain segment of the fan population that does not celebrate.

I’m sure you all know what I’m talking about.

This certain brand of fan-person gets all up in arms on social media. They whine. They complain. They say that it’s not appropriate to change the gender, race, orientation, or physical abilities of a fictional creation, or just protest their inclusion to begin with. They decry the erosion of creativity in service of neo-liberalism, overreaching political-correctness, and femi-nazis. (Sorry, sorry – the femi-“alt-right”).

It’s not realistic – women can’t survive in space, they say, it’s just a fact. That is a direct quote, by the way. Superheroes can’t be black, they say. Video game characters shouldn’t have a sexual orientation, (unless that sexual orientation is straight and the game serves to support a male gaze ogling at half-dressed pixilated prostitutes).

And strong female characters have to wear boob armor. It’s just natural, they say.

They predict the end of civilization because things are no longer being done the way they’ve always been done. There’s nothing wrong with the system, they say. So don’t you dare change it.

And to enforce this opinion, to ensure that it’s really, really clear just how much contempt this certain segment of the fan population holds for any lead protagonist that isn’t a white, heterosexual, able-bodied, neurotypical, cismale, they do everything they can to tear down them down.

They do this by calling that a “Mary Sue.”

When fan fiction author Paula Smith first used the term “Mary Sue” in her 1973 story A Trekkie’s Tale, she was making a commentary on the frequent appearance of original characters in Star Trek fan fiction. Now, most of these characters existed as a masturbatory avatar – wanna bone Spock? (And, um, you know, let’s face it who didn’t?) They you write a story where a character representing you gets to bone Spock.

And if they weren’t a sexual fantasy, then they were an adventure fantasy – wanna be an officer on the Enterprise? Well, it’s the flagship of the Starfleet, so you better be good enough to get there. Chekov was the youngest navigator in Starfleet history, Uhura is the most tonally sensitive officer in linguistics, and Jim Kirk’s genius burned like a magnesium flare – you would have to keep up to earn your place on that bridge.

So this led to a slew of hyper sexualized, physically idealized, and unrealistically competent author-based characters populating the fan fiction of the time.

But inserting a trumped-up version of yourself into a narrative wasn’t invented in the 1970s. I mean, Aeneas was totally Virgil’s Mary Sue in his Iliad knock off, Dante was such a fanboy of the The Bible that he wrote himself into an adventure exploring it. Uh, Robin Hood’s merry men and King Arthur’s Knights of the Round Table kept growing in number, and characteristics with each retelling; and even painters have inserted themselves into commissioned pictures for centuries.

This isn’t new. This is not a recent human impulse.

But what Paula Smith and the Mary Sue-writing fan ficcers didn’t know at the time, was that they were crystallizing what it means to be an engaged consumer of media texts, instead of just a passive one. What it means to be so affected by a story, to love it so much that this same love bubbles up out of you and you have to do something about it.

Either in play, or in art. So for example, in pretending to be a ninja turtle on the play ground, or in trying to recreate the perfect version of a star fleet uniform to wear, or in creating art and making comics depicting your favorite moments or further adventures of the characters you love, or writing stories that encompass missing moments from the narratives.

“Mary Sues” are, at their center, a celebration of putting oneself and one’s own heart, and one’s own enjoyment of a media text, first.

So, heh, before I talk about why this certain segment of the population deploys the term “Mary Sue” the way it does, let’s take a closer look at this impulse for participatory play.

Here’s the sixty four thousand dollar question: where do “Mary Sues” come from?

I’d like you all to close your eyes, please.

Think back. Picture yourself outside, playing with your siblings, or the neighbour’s kids or you cousins…. and You’re probably around seven, or eight, or nine years old… and…

Think about the kind of games you’re playing. Ball games, chase games, and probably something with a narrative? Are you Power Rangers? Are you flying to Neverland with Peter Pan? Are you fighting Dementors and Death Eaters at Hogwarts? Are you the newest members of One Direction, are you Jem and the Holograms or the Misfits? Are you running around collecting Pokémon back before running around and collecting Pokémon was a thing?

Open your eyes.

That, guys, gals and non-binary pals, is where Mary Sues come from. That’s it. It’s as easy as that.

As a child you didn’t know that modern literary tradition pooh-poohs self-analogous characters, or that realism was required for depth of character. All you knew was that you wanted to be a part of that story, right.  If you wanted to be a train with Thomas and Friends, then you were a train. If you wanted to be a  magic pony from Equestria, you were a pony.  Or, you know, if you had brothers like me, then you were a pony-train.

Self-insert in childhood games teach kids the concept of elastic play, and this essential ability to imagine oneself in skins that are not one’s own, and to stretch and reshape narratives, is what breeds creativity and storytelling.

Now, think of your early stories.

You can keep your eyes open for this one.

As a child we all told and wrote stories about doing what, to us, were mundane everyday things like getting ice cream with the fictional characters we know and love.

So for example, my friend’s three year old tells his father bed time stories about going on walks through Home Hardware with his friends, the anthropomorphized versions of the local taco food truck and the commuter train his dad takes to work every morning. He doesn’t recognize the difference between real and fictional people (or for him, in this case, the stand ins that are the figures that loom large in his life right now as a three year old obsessed with massive machines). When you ask him to tell you a story, he talks about these fictions as if they’re real.

As we grow up, we do learn to differentiate between fantasy and reality. But, I posit that we never truly loose that “me too!” mentality. We see something amazing happening on the screen, or on the page, or on a playing field, and we want to be there, a part of it.

We sort ourselves into Hogwarts Houses. We choose hockey teams to love, and we wear their jerseys.    We buy ball caps from our favorite breweries, line up for hours to be the first to watch a new release or to buy a certain smartphone. We collect stamps and baseball cards and first editions of Jane Austen and Dan Brown. We want to be a part of it. And our capitalist, consumer society tells us to prove our love with our dollars, and do it. 

And for fan creators, we want to be a part of it so badly that we’re willing to make it. Not for profit, but for sheer love.

And for the early writers, the newbies, the blossoming beginners, Mary Sues are where they generally start. Because those are the sorts of stories they’ve been telling yourselves for years already, right?

Yet as we get older, we begin to notice a dearth of representation – you’re not pony trains in our minds any more, and we have a better idea of what we look like. And we don’t see it. The glorious fantasy diversity of our childhoods is stripped away, narratives are codified by the mainstream media texts we consume, and people stop looking like us.

I’m reminded of a story I read on Tumblr, of a young black author living in Africa – who, I’m going to admit, whose name, I’m afraid, I wasn’t able to find when I went back to look for it, so my apologies to her –  and the story is about the first time she tried to write a fairytale in elementary school. She made her protagonist a little white girl, and when she was asked why she hadn’t chosen to make the protagonist back, this author realized that it hadn’t even occurred to her that she was allowed make her lead black. Even though she was surrounded by black faces, the adventures, and romance, and magic in everything she consumed only happened to the white.

This is not natural. This is nurture, not nature. This is learned behavior. And this is hegemony.

No child grows up believing they don’t have place in the story. This is something were are taught. And this is something that we are taught by the media texts weconsume.

Now, okay. I do want to pause and make a point here.

There isn’t anything fundamentally wrong with writing a narrative from the heterosexual, able bodied, neurotypical, white cismale POV in and of itself. I think we all have stories that we know and love and like to tell that are like that.

And people from community deserve to tell their stories as much as folks from other communities.

The problem comes when it’s the only narrative. The default narrative. The factory setting. When people who don’t see themselves reflected in the narrative nonetheless feel obligated to write such stories, instead of their own. When they are told and taught that it is the only story worth telling. ‎

There’s this really great essay by Ika Willis, and it’s called “Keeping Promises to Queer Children: Making Room for Mary Sue At Hogwarts“. And I think it’s the one – one of the most important pieces of writing not only on Mary Sues, but on the dire need for representation in general.

In the essay, Willis talks about Mary Sues – beyond being masturbatory adventure avatars for young people just coming into their own sexuality, or, um, avatars to go on adventures with – but as voice avatars. Mary Sues, when wielded with self-awareness, deliberateness, and precision, can force a wedge into the narrative, crack it open, and provide a space for marginalized identities and voices in a narrative that otherwise silences and ignores them.

This is done one of two ways. First: by jamming in a diverse Mary Sue. And making the characters and the world acknowledge and work with that diversity.

Or, second: by co-opting a pre-existing character and overlaying a new identity on them while retaining their essential characterization. Like making Bilbo Baggins non-binary, but still thinking that adventures are messy, dirty things. Or making Sherlock Holmes deaf, but still perfectly capable of solving all the crimes. Um… making James Potter Indian, so that the Dursleys prejudiced against Harry not only for his magic, but also for his skin color. Making Ariel the mermaid deal with severe body dysphoria, or giving Jane Foster PTSD after the events of Thor.

I like to call this voice avatar Mary Sue a Meta-Sue, because when authors have evolved enough in their storytelling abilities to consciously deploy Mary Sues as a deliberate trope, they’re doing so on a self-aware, meta-textual level.

So that is where Mary Sues comes from. But what is a Mary Sue? How can you point at a character and say, “Yes, that is – definitively – a Mary Sue”.

Well, Mary Sues can generally be characterized as:

-Too perfect, or unrealistically skilled. They shouldn’t be able to do all the things they do, or know all the things they know, as easily as they do or know them. For reasons of the plot expedience, they learn too fast, and are able to perform feats that other characters in their world who have studied or trained longer and harder find difficult. So like, for example, Neo in The Matrix.

-They are the black hole of every plot – every major quest or goal of the pre-existing characters warps to include or be about them; every character wants to befriend them, or romance them, or sleep with them, and every villain wants to possess them, or kill them, or sleep with them. Makes sense, as why write a character into the world if you’re not going to have something very important happen to them. So like, for example, Neo in The Matrix.

-A Mary Sue, because it’s usually written by a neophyte author who’s been taught that characters need flaws, has some sort of melodramatic, angsty tragic back-story that, while on the surface seems to motivate them into action, because of lack of experience in creating a follow-through of emotional motivation, doesn’t actually affect their mental health or ability to trust or be happy or in love. So, Like the emotional arc of, I dunno… Neo in The Matrix.

– A Mary Sue saves the day. This goes back to that impulse to be the center of the story. Like, Neo in The Matrix.

-And lastly, Mary Sues come from outside the group. They’re from the ‘real world’, like you and I, or have somehow discovered the hero’s secret identity and must be folded into the team, or are a new recruit, or are a sort of previously undiscovered stand-alone Chosen One. Like, for example, Neo in The Matrix.

Now, as I’ve said, there’s actually nothing inherently wrong with writing a Mary Sue. Neo is a Mary Sue, but The Matrix is still really good. So there’s nothing really wrong with it.

 

The first impulse of storytelling is to talk about oneself. All authors do it. We write about ourselves, only the more we write, the more skilled we become at disguising the sliver of us-ness in a character, folding it into something different and unique.

We, as storytellers, as humans, empathize with protagonists and fictional characters constantly – we love putting our feet into other people’s shoes. It’s how we understand and engage with the world.

And we as writers tap into our own emotions in order to describe them on the page. We take slices of our lives – our experiences, our memories, our friend’s verbal tics or hand gestures, aunt Brenda’s way of making tea, Uncle Rudy’s way having a pipe after dinner, that time Grannie got lost at the zoo (mouths: wasn’t my fault!) – and we weave them together into a golem that we call a character, which comes to life with a bit of literary magic.

I mean, allow me to be sparklingly reductionist for a second, but in the most basic sense, every character is a Mary Sue.

It’s just a matter of whether the writer has evolved to the point  in their craft that they’ve learned to animate that golem with the sliver of self-ness hidden deep enough that it is unrecognizable as self-ness, but still recognizable as human-ness.

That certain segment of the fan population has been telling us for years that if we don’t like what we see on TV or in video games, or in books, or comics, or on the stage, that we should just go make our own stuff. And now we are. And they are losing their goddamn minds! “Make your own stuff,” they say, and then follow it up with “What’s with all this political correctness gone wild? Uhg. This stuff is all just Mary Sue garbage.”

Well, yes. Of course it is. That’s the point. But why are they saying it like that?

Because they mean it in a derogatory sense.

They don’t mean it in the way that Paula Smith meant it – a little bit belittling but mostly fun; a bemused celebration of why we love putting ourselves into the stories and worlds we enjoy. They don’t mean it the way that Willis means it – a deliberate and knowing way to shove the previously marginalized into the center. They don’t even mean it the way that I mean it. And for those of you unfortunate enough to be in Dr. Perschon’s class, and have read The Untold Tale you’ll know: as a tool for carefully deconstructing and discussing character and narrative with a character and from within a narrative.

When a certain segment of the fan population talks about “Mary Sue”, they mean to weaponize it. To make it a stand-in for the worse thing that a character can be: bland, predictable, and too-perfect. Which, granted, many Mary Sues are. But not all of them. And a character doesn’t have to be a Mary Sue to be done badly, either.

When this certain segment of the fan population says “Mary Sue”, they’re trying to shame the creators for deviating from the norm - the white, the heterosexual, the able bodied, the neurotypical, the straight cismale.

When this certain segment of the population says “Mary Sue,” what they’re really saying is: “I don’t believe people like this are interesting enough to be the lead character in a story.”

When this certain segment of the population says “Mary Sue,” what they’re really saying is: “I don’t think there’s any need to listen to that voice. They’re not interesting enough.”

When this certain segment of the population says “Mary Sue,” what they’re really saying is: “This character is not what I am used to a.k.a. not like me, and I’m gonna whine about it.”

When this certain segment of the population says “Mary Sue,” what they’re really saying is: “Even though kids from all over the world, from many different cultural, religious and ethnic backgrounds have had to grow up learning to identify with characters who don’t look or think like them, identifying with characters who don’t look or think like me is hard and I don’t wanna.”

When this certain segment of the population says “Mary Sue,” what they’re really saying is: ”Even though I’ve grown up in a position of privilege and power, and even though publishing and producing diverse stories with diverse casts doesn’t actually cut into the proportionate representation that I receive, and never will, I am nonetheless scared that I’ll never see people like me in media texts ever again.”

When this certain segment of the population says “Mary Sue,” what they’re really saying is: “Considering my fellow human beings as fellow human beings worthy of having stories about them and their own experiences, in their own voices, is hard and I don’t wanna do it.”

When this certain segment of the population says “Mary Sue,” what they’re really saying is: “I only want stories about me.”

 

They call leads “Mary Sues” so people will stop writing them and instead write… well, their version of a “Mary Sue.” The character that is representative of their lived experiences, their power and masturbatory fantasies, their physical appearance, their sexual awakenings, their cultural identity, their voice, their kind of narratives.

Missing, of course, that the point of revisionist and inclusive narratives aren’t to shove out previous incarnations, but to coexist alongside them. It’s not taking away one entrée and offering only another – it’s building a buffet.

Okay, so who actually cares if these trolls call these diverse characters Mary Sues?

Well, unfortunately, because this certain segment of the population have traditionally been the group most listened-to by the mainstream media creators and the big money, their opinions have power. (Never mind that they’re not actually the biggest group of consumers anymore, nor no longer the most vocal.)

So, this is where you come in.

You have the power to take the Mary Sue from the edge of the narrative and into the centre. And you do can do this by normalizing it. Think back to that author who didn’t think little black girls were allowed to be the heroes of fairy tales. Now imagine how much different her inner world, her imagination might have been at the stage when she was first learning to understand her own self-worth, if she had seen faces like hers on the television, in comics, in games, and on the written page every day of her life.

And not just one or two heroes, but a broad spectrum of characters that run the gamut from hero to villain, from fragile to powerful, from straight to gay, and every other kind of intersectional identity.

You have the power to give children the ability to see themselves.

Multi-faceted representation normalizes the marginalized.

And if you have the privilege to be part of the passing member of the mainstream, then weaponize your privilege. Refuse to work with publishers, or websites, or conventions that don’t also support diverse creators. Put diverse characters in your work, and do so thoughtfully and with the input of the people from the community you are portraying. And if you’re given the opportunity to submit or speak at an event, offer to share the microphone.

–Sorry, I always get emotional at this part. Ah-heh!

The first thing I did when actor Burn Gorman got a Twitter account was to Tweet him  my thanks for saving the world in Pacific Rim while on a cane. As someone who isn’t as mobile as the heroes I see in action films - who knows for a fact that when the zombie apocalypse comes I will not be a-able to outrun the monsters – it meant so much to me that his character was not only an integral and vital member of the team who cancelled the apocalypse, but also that not once did someone call him a cripple, or tell him he couldn’t participate because of his disability, or leave him behind.

Diversity matters.

Not because it’s a trendy hashtag, or a way to sell media texts to a locked-down niche market, but because every single human being deserves to be told that they have a voice worth listening to; a life worth celebrating and showcasing in a narrative; a reality worth acknowledging and accepting and protecting; emotions that are worth exploring and validating; intelligence that is worth investing in and listening to; and a capacity to love that is worth adoring.

White, heterosexual, neurotypical, able-bodied cismales are not the only people on the planet who are human.

And you have a right to tell your story your way.

Okay, so I’ve basically spent thirty minutes basically cribbing my own MA thesis, and for what? Why? Well, you’re here for a conference focused on Narrative and Identity, right?

Calling something a “Mary Sue” in order to dismiss it out of hand, as an excuse to hate something before even seeing it, is how the trolls bury your Narrative and your Identity.  We are storytellers, all of us. Every person in this room.

Whether your wheel house is in fiction, or academia, or narrative non-fiction, we impart knowledge and offer experience through the written word, through the telling of tales, through leading a reader from one thought to another.

The root of the word “Essay” is the French “Essayer”. A verb meaning, “to try”. To try to convince the reader of a truth in an academic paper is no different than trying to convince a reader of an emotional truth in a fictional piece. Tout le monde doit essayer.

And we none of deserve to be shouted down, talked over, or dismissed. No one can tell you that your story isn’t worth telling. Of course it is. It’s yours.

And don’t let anyone call your characters, or your work, or you a ”Mary Sue” in the derogatory sense. Ever again.  Ever.

Or I am going to scream.

Thank you.

*

For more posts on the business and craft of writing, search my Words for Writers tag.

 

JM FreyWords for Writers: Your Voice Is Valid
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Unboxing – The Black Tears of the Serpent

Back when I was a baby writer, I was researching how to protect your work. One of the methods that was suggested to me was mailing your manuscript to yourself in a sealed box via registered mail, and then not opening the box. That way, if someone accused you of fraud or plagiarism, all you had to do was open the box in court, and prove that you had written the manuscript before the date on the registered mail label.

Of course, this is one way to do it, but I’ve since learned that keeping digital drafts with the proper time stamps on them is just as good and takes up less shelf space.

In cleaning out a closet today, I found the one and only manuscript I ever printed out and mailed to myself for safe-keeping. It was mailed December 4th 2006 from Hakata city, Fukuoka-ken, Kyushu, Japan, where I was stationed as an English teacher for a time. I mailed it back to Canada, where my parents put it in the closet with my stuff, and was forgotten about.

  

Today, I unboxed it, because I was curious, and because there is no real reason to keep the book sealed any more. After all, I’ve already self-published a version of it on Wattpad under the new (and way less emo) title DSRT as Peggy Barnett, and I still have all of my digital drafts (and a double-sided spiral-bound version with editing marks all over it).

As a baby writer, I imagined a whole closet filled with these brown cardboard packages (instead all my working manuscripts are in a filing cabinet, spiral-bound and double sided, and covered with red pen correction marks). It’s a good thing I didn’t do more, because it looks like I paid an arm and a leg to send it to myself from overseas!

This monster is 588 pages, and if I remember correctly, around 300,000 words long. It’s just under 2 1/4 inches thick, single spaced, single sided, and written in Times New Roman 12pt font and tied together with a shoelace. I wrote it between 2002-2007 (the unboxed version didn’t end up being the final draft), and it was the first novel-length work that I had completed that was not fanfiction.

 

I never shopped this book. At first, it was because I realized it was too long, and that no agent/publisher would take it. I thought I could save it for a second or third book, and offer it to publishers/agents after I had established myself with a debut. After actually writing/editing a second novel in 2007-2009 and publishing said debut book in 2011, however, I realised that my book was too long, too derivative, and a little too… “first book” to shop. Even though I did actually build a pitch package for it.  I never seriously offered it to my first agent, and I’ve never actually mentioned it to my current agent, I believe.

However, for the fun of it I posted it to Wattpad in it’s entirety last year.  Wattpad is the perfect platform for serialization. For meandering but engaging stories. For strange tales, and a young woman’s fantasies made realized, and for the pure imagination of an author’s first fumbling attempt at a book. For something that doesn’t quite fit traditional publishing’s frame of what a good horror-fantasy-historical book ought to be. For something that wasn’t perhaps polished enough for my primary pen name, but something that I had loved intensely for a very long time, and still wanted to share.

Unboxing this book today has been very emotional, and filled me with fond, golden memories of the places and times I wrote this book – in my dorm the first time I had moved away from home; in my room in a shared house with three other girls, where my friends had to sometimes bodily lift me away from my computer so I would go out and have fun with them; in the “fishbowl” computer lab at Brock University; in my shared apartment with my good friend (who later became the famous Eyeless Max); on the plane on my way to Japan; at my desk in the staff office of Kasuga High School; sitting on the tatami floor in my apartment in Tofuro-minami; and with my Writer’s Circle in Fukuoka.

It reminded me of the dreams I had about publishing a historical gothic romance series, about being the next Anne Rice and J.R.R. Tolkien and Diana Gabaldon. It reminded me about how hard I worked on this, writing and rewriting, tweaking. About all the friends I spoke to about it, all the friends I made over it (*coughRuthanneReidcough*), all the doodles and illustrations I made and commissioned for it.

It reminded me of where this all began, my first keen inkling to be a real writer, to be published and read all over the world. And it helped me be grateful and thoughtful about where I am now, showed me how far I’ve come and how much blood, sweat, and tears I’ve poured onto pages.

What a lovely thing to do on the close of 2016. Nearly ten years ago to this day, I mailed this emotional time-capsule to myself.

And I’m so glad that I did.

JM FreyUnboxing – The Black Tears of the Serpent
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