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Friday, 17 April 2009

The Story of the Story: How did I Am Not a Serial Killer come to exist?

This is not the story of how I started writing, because I’ve always been a writer—telling stories and manipulating words has been a passion of mine for as long as I can remember. This story starts much later; I think I’m going to start it just after I graduated from college, with two finished but atrocious books under my belt. They were high fantasy, with sprawling plots filled with elves and dwarves and blah blah blah. I was ready to move on and try something new, and starting from a free-write project I ended up with a dark, funny, screwball book about historical vampires and literary figures. It was pretty good—good enough to sell, assuming I could actually find an audience for something so non-standard and weird. I started shopping it around, fielding rejection after rejection, all while plunging back into the world of high fantasy in the next several books I started.

I only finished one of the those fantasy projects—they were fun, but they weren’t satisfying. There was something off, and I couldn’t put my finger on it; I liked my funny horror book, and kind of wanted to write something like that, but I was having so much trouble selling it that I didn’t dare. Eventually I submitted my book to Stacy Whitman, then working at Wizards of the Coast, and she gave me some excellent advice: “This book is a great historical horror, but too wacky for us right now. Take out all the wacky, focus on the scary, and write me a proposal for a historical horror YA series.” Somehow, in all my soul-searching, it had never occurred to me to just try a straight-out horror. I threw some ideas together, wrote several proposals, and eventually got rejected in favor of another author who did the history much better than I did. This is when I got another piece of excellent advice from my friend Brandon Sanderson.

You may have heard of Brandon; he writes the Mistborn series, the Alcatraz series, and he’s finishing the Wheel of Time. He’s also been in my writing group for years, ever since those original fantasies that sucked so bad, and one night when we were out driving I mentioned my recent rejection for the historical horror series. “You already took out the wacky stuff,” he said, “now take out the historical stuff and just focus on horror—a pure modern horror.” We debated what kind of modern horror story I could tell, and somehow the conversation drifted toward my part-time hobby of serial killer research. I mentioned some of the behavioral predictors that show up in a serial killer’s pre-killing years, and Brandon nearly jumped out of his seat. “That’s what you write,” he said. “A character who has all the predictors of becoming a serial killer, but doesn’t want to be.”

The idea caught fire in my mind almost immediately, and I ran through a hundred different scenarios: how old should he be? Should the book be adult or YA? Serious or funny? Supernatural or completely real? I toyed with it for a full year, find pieces here and snippets there that slowly started to form the character of John Wayne Cleaver. One of the first pieces to fall into place was his family: I knew I wanted a mom, since most serial killers have horrible relationships with their mothers, but I also knew I wanted a sympathetic mom—if she was too much of a harridan (the way many real serial killers’ mothers are) the book would feel like an apology, as if John were not as responsible for his own choices. I also knew I wanted an absent father, both for the sense of mystery and the sense of loss; John needed to have plenty of holes in his life.

The next big piece of the puzzle was the other killer—I wanted to throw John into a big conflict situation, where his psychology could really come to a boil, and that meant he needed another serial killer to follow and learn about and compare himself to. If I was going to have a serial killer investigation I needed a plausible way to involve a teenager in it, so I searched around and eventually came up with the idea of the mortuary—a part time job in a small-town police station would have served the same purpose, but the mortuary added so much to John’s character, with a spooky background and an obsession with death. The peripheral characters followed soon after: John needed someone to talk to, so I gave him a sidekick and a therapist. The final piece was Brooke, who I didn’t plan at all—she inserted herself into the story and worked perfectly, and when I eventually found out I needed to turn it into a trilogy I discovered just how valuable Brooke really was. The series, and John’s character, would not be the same without her.

Now that I had all the pieces, all I had to do was put them together—but that turned out to be the hardest part of all. I had such a cool idea for the bad guy that I didn’t want to leave him a mystery for too long; a typical “investigation” plot structure would need to end with his reveal, and I really felt like that would lessen the impact he was supposed to have on John. Without giving too much away for those who haven’t read it yet, I’ll simply say that I came up with a very different structure which not only used the villain better but strengthened John immeasurably: we get to see him being both better and worse of a person than the original plot would have allowed for.

I’m very pleased with how this book came together, and even more pleased with the exciting new directions it opened up for books 2 and 3. But that is another story, and will be told another time.

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