Nat Cassidy: Five Things I Learned Writing Mary, An Awakening Of Terror


Mary is a quiet, middle-aged woman doing her best to blend into the background. Unremarkable. Invisible. Unknown even to herself.

But lately, things have been changing inside Mary. Along with the hot flashes and body aches, she can’t look in a mirror without passing out, and the voices in her head have been urging her to do unspeakable things.

Fired from her job in New York, she moves back to her hometown, hoping to reconnect with her past and inner self. Instead, visions of terrifying, mutilated specters overwhelm her with increasing regularity and she begins auto-writing strange thoughts and phrases. Mary discovers that these experiences are echoes of an infamous serial killer.

Then the killings begin again.

Mary’s definitely going to find herself.

***

Anyone who’s picked up a copy and flipped through even the introductory pages (say, at a brick-n-morty bookstore or on Ma & Pa Bezos’ Electric Book Emporium) will know that my new horror novel, Mary: An Awakening of Terror, has been a long time coming. I first wrote a version of this book when I was around 13 years old and carried the story with me for a full quarter of a century before finally tearing it off of my brainflesh like an engorged tick and hurling it into the marketplace.

Suffice it to say, then, I’ve learned a whole lot over the course of writing this book. I mean, I literally graduated middle school, high school, AND college. I moved to New York City. I became a professional playwright and actor. I learned how to cook with an Instant Pot. SO MANY LESSONS I COULD SHARE.

But I have a feeling there are others out there who, similarly, have a story they’ve been carrying with them for a while and, for whatever reason, haven’t gotten around to writing it yet. So I wanted to share five things I learned while writing Mary that are specifically about the process of finally writing a personal book that’s been a long time in the works—who knows, maybe this’ll help you remove and hurl that engorged braintick of your own? (And biggest thanks to Chuck, he of the Terriblest Mind and the Biggest Heart, for this space!)

1. YOU CAN FILL A SWIMMING POOL WITH A TEASPOON

When I was an active playwright (the clinical diagnosis), I had something of a reputation as being rather prolific, usually churning out 2 full-length scripts and an odd (very odd) assortment of short plays every year. Plus, my first published book was a novelization, and I managed to turn three full drafts of that 115K-word manuscript around in like 3-4 months total.

So imagine my surprise and horror when I got the contract to finally write Mary, and, for the first time in my professional life, the work … came out … excruciatingly … slow.

There were a number of factors. First off, it was a challenging story and a challenging character. It took a lot of work to figure out. That kind of work is hard and often very slow going.

But most of all, this was like RIGHT AS the pandemic was hitting, so the bulk of the book had to be written over that disorienting, distracting period of existential terror that was 2020. Then, as we seemed to be finally getting used to Pandemic Stasis, life decided to start kicking proverbial footballs to my proverbial groin. I was taking care of two elderly sick animals and running on, literally, 4 hours of sleep a night for almost two full years. My wife was all but bedridden due to excruciating, mysterious chronic pain. And, within a single calendar year, my mom, dad, mother-in-law, dog, AND cat, all died.

All of which is to say I wasn’t in the best mindset to write ANYTHING, let alone a debut original novel with a lot of personal baggage and pressure attached to it.  

From contract to final draft, writing three drafts of Mary wound up taking something close to three years. My pub date had to be pushed back. I had to write agonizing updates to my editor and agent (both of whom were completely understanding—turns out this is far from uncommon). Compared to how I was used to working, this was a catastrophe.

But also, look: it got done! The book exists! You can go out and buy a copy of it right now! Seriously. Try it. You’re a rebel; they can’t stop you.

So I offer this first Thingilearned to anyone who is intimidated by the amount of writing needed to, well, write a book. Incrementalism works. On Twitter, sometimes it seems like every other writer churns out 5,000 words a day and then complains, ugh, I can’t believe I was soooo unproductive today! Smile politely at those writers and then IGNORE THEM.

You don’t have to write 5,000 words a day. You can write 5 words a day. It literally doesn’t matter as long as you keep at it. I mainly wrote Mary around 4:30 or 5am, in between walks for our sick dog. Most days I was so physically exhausted, so mentally drained, that I barely got a sentence or two on the page. But the cool thing about linear time is eventually those sentences will form an entire book. And that book will stand as a neon middle-finger to all those anxiety-filled days where you wondered if this thing was ever actually going to get finished.

2. PAPER CUTS

One funny(ish) thing about incrementalism, though, is you can start to lose track of the beast as a whole—refer to that super true story about the blind monks and an elephant (no, really, it happened to a cousin of a buddy of mine).

In Mary’s case, because the work was initially going so slowly, and I was so overwhelmed and intimidated by how much there was to do, I wound up making each chapter its own separate Word document, so I could feel like I was only working on a bite-sized project at a time. Hallelujah, it worked. I found it was so much easier to think about just this one story beat than everything else that lay beyond it.

Until it came time to paste all the separate documents together.

That’s when I realized I had a 180,000-word Frankenstein’s monster on my hands. For those who don’t know, these days the sweet spot for a horror/thriller is like 80-90,000—and Mary was always envisioned as an homage to Carrie, which is, like, 60,000 words! So, yeah, I’d, uh, gone a little overboard. I was going to have to cut. A. Lot.

I felt like the guy in Force Majeure, staring at an avalanche headed my way—how the hell was I going to do this? Well, as the adage about eating the elephant goes (coined, presumably, by hangry monks who were duped into that experiment referenced above): one bite at a time.

By this point in the pandemic, I was going back in to my dayjob office a few days a week and I was able to print a copy of the whole massive manuscript. Initially, I was worried that staring at that perilous pile of pages would be a deterrent, but I wound up discovering something amazing: almost all of the edits were fairly obvious now that I wasn’t forced to stare at a loathsome screen.

I wound up cutting over FIFTY THOUSAND WORDS outta the manuscript. To put it in Stephen King metrics, the final book is definitely not a Carrie. But I got it down from like Bag of Bones-length to Firestarter-length, which is no small accomplishment. (It’s actually one of the reasons I chuckle a little whenever someone says Mary is a long book. It’s not a short book, for sure, but boy what it COULDA been …)

So that’s my next Thingilearned: it is SO much easier to cut text on the page than it is on a screen. Your mileage may vary and all that, but from what I’ve gathered anecdotally from other writers, this is more often true than not.

I think it’s because reading your manuscript off a page starts to mimic the actual experience of what reading your final book will be like. We’re all critical readers—I have no doubt we all have a part of our brain that loves to chime in, “Here’s what I would do if I were writing this”—and seeing your EMBARRASSING early draft in this light helps you be more merciless and … well, critical. Being objective about your work is a challenge for any writer, but especially so when it’s a story you’ve carried with you for a long time, so anything you can do to create some distance is key.

Plus, my god, does crossing out entire pages feel goooooood. Even if you write really tight, fat-free fiction, do yourself a favor and add just a few extra pages of nonsense that you can cut. It’s a real high.

3. YOU KNOW YOUR STORY

Another side-effect of carrying a story with you for so long is it can become kinda like one of those katamari balls, rolling around in your subconscious, picking up all sorts of detritus: side characters, things you want to say, alternate plot branches that lead to alternate scenes that would be sooo cooool but might not fit with the overall story.

The raging war between the Plotters and the Pantsers is a conversation for another day (RIP to all our casualties on both sides), but for a project like this I would DEFINITELY recommend writing some sort of outline. Doesn’t matter how detailed, but try to give yourself a little structure. It’s almost like hiring a neutral arbiter: a third party that can help you determine what stuff stays and what stuff goes. And since an outline is basically a skeleton, that makes this a skeleton neutral arbiter, which is a legal procedural I would literally kill to see on network TV.

“But how will I know what stuff ultimately belongs in the story and what doesn’t?”

You won’t! But believe me when I say, the stuff that’s meant to stay in the story will find a way.

Case in point: as I said earlier, I first attempted writing this book when I was 13. And, before anyone gets too impressed, the version I wrote back then was … not good. There was barely any plot to it, just a mopey character moping around, watching dead bodies pile up around her. (Even then, I knew this was going to be a story about menopause and misogyny, and don’t look too surprised when I tell you that a 13 year-old boy had very little insight to offer as far as that conversation was concerned.) But I knew there was promise to the premise, so I never let it go and, over the years, I wound up breaking Mary for a bunch of different media: novels, screenplays, audiodrama.

It was the audiodrama version of this story that was the most recent version prior to the book you can (and should [nay must]) purchase at your local bookstore. I’m a member of an audiodrama production company—Gideon Media, maker of such brilliant podcasts as Give Me Away, Steal the Stars, and many more—and back when we were first getting started as a company, we were deciding which show we wanted to produce first. Our model was a story told over 14 half-hour episodes. I decided to offer up this weird serial killer/reincarnation idea I’d had kicking around for two decades—but the only thing was, gosh, 14 episodes? That’s a lot of story. I’ll need more twists and cliff-hangers to accommodate that very specific structure.

It’ll be hard to describe this without spoilers, so let me just say that it was at that point that I thought of a Brand-New Plot-Twist I could add to Mary, that would be a great way to necessitate the, again, very specific audiodrama structure we were working with.

Ultimately, we decided to go with a different show as our first production—a little show called Steal the Stars, which was phenomenal and a big hit and, weirdly, led to me getting my first contract with Tor and then eventually the contract to write the book we’re here to discuss—and I shelved Mary-the-audiodrama for the time being.

A couple years later, when it came time to finally write Mary as a novel, I decided to work off a revised version of the outline I’d written for the podcast, which included that Brand-New Plot-Twist. I thought the twist was really fun and suited the story in lots of interesting, thematic ways. At the same time, for inspiration, I decided to check back in with the books I’d been reading as a 13 year-old, when I first came up with the premise.

I was a huge paperback horror reader back then (still am), and one of my biggest inspirations was a book by Ramsey Campbell titled The Parasite. I still have my copy of The Parasite that I read as a teenager, and inside is the bookmark I used at the time (a folded up Far Side Daily Calendar entry). As was my wont, I always scribbled ideas for stories on those bookmarks, and, lo and behold, on this particular bookmark were a TON of ideas for a story called “Mary.”

Ideas which, I shit you not, included almost word for word, the Brand-New Plot-Twist which I would have sworn on a stack of holy books, I’d invented 100% in order to fit that very specific audiodrama format some twenty years later. I legitimately had no memory of ever even considering a Plot-Twist like that, and it CERTAINLY wasn’t in that first attempt of writing the book.

But here was hard evidence: turns out that idea has ALWAYS been a part of the fabric of this story. And, sure enough, it found its way into the final product, where it was meant to be.

It’s good to be reminded: trust yourself. Even if sometimes you feel at sea. You know your story.

4. YOU DON’T KNOW SHIT

Except when you don’t.

Sometimes, you’re way, way off. Part of the fun of drafting (yes, drafting can be fun!) is that you get to constantly test your concepts against the final result. No plan survives first contact with the enemy and no Thing-You-Have-in-Your-Brain survives first (or second or even third) contact with words on a page.

In this case, I always imagined one of my lead characters, a girl named Eleanor whom the titular Mary befriends once she’s back in the strange small town where she (Mary) grew up, in one very particular way. She was this sassy, sarcastic, horror-obsessed goth kid who was everything Mary wasn’t: confident, hip, knowledgeable. The sort of character who, every time we saw her, was wearing a different horror-themed shirt (can you tell I grew up in the 90s?). Over the many drafts and iterations of Mary, Eleanor’s character remained consistent.

But now that I was actually writing the story for real, something about Eleanor wasn’t working. She didn’t fit, and the vibes she gave to the reader affected the supervibes of the book in ways I knew weren’t helpful.

It wasn’t until the THIRD DRAFT of the novel—essentially the last chance to make big changes—when my editor (the brilliant Jen Gunnels) and I were talking about the Eleanor Situation and we both realized that Mary didn’t need to see a character who was everything she wasn’t. Mary’s weird as hell; basically every character is a reflection of everything Mary isn’t. What Mary needs is a character who is everything Mary thinks she should be. Maybe even a character who reflects what Mary would have been had she stayed in this weird little town instead of moving to NYC.

With that, EVERYTHING about Eleanor changed diametrically. She became the complete opposite of what she was, and suddenly her place in the story made complete sense.

For me, the character of Eleanor became an object lesson in how sometimes you only learn what a thing *is* by spending a copious amount of time writing what it *isn’t.* 

You may be carrying your story around with you for a long, long time. You may have all sorts of things figured out about it. But you’ve also got to stay open to last minute changes, because the work of creation affects the creation itself, and all that work you’ve done might actually be the writing equivalent of an artist sketching the negative space around a subject.

5. YOUR RELATIONSHIP IS DOOMED FROM THE START

Okay. So, you have this story that means something special to you. You’ve carried it around and worked on it for literal decades. You’re finally making it A Thing. That’s a huge accomplishment and I salute you.

Here’s the big question: how do you know when it’s done? How do you stop tinkering with it? How do you end a relationship that has been so open-ended for so long?

In my case it was pretty simple: I had a contract. I had a due date. And more than that, it was a two-book deal.

Now, I know that’s an annoyingly privileged thing to say, but there’s something here that I think applies no matter where you might find yourself as far as contracts go. It’s a principle I applied to my playwriting, too, and that was always on spec.

The axiom goes: no work of art is ever finished, it’s only abandoned. To that I would add another axiom which I find to be equally true in an artistic context (despite it being potentialy problematic in its original context as dating advice): the best way to get over someone is to get under someone else.

Even with my deadline, I bet I could’ve futzed with Mary until it was forcibly removed from my hands, because I was just so damn used to always having it around as something to work on.

What prevented that unpleasant situation from going down was, after that third draft of Mary, once I finally figured out how to make it work as a novel, I immediately moved onto outlining the second book under contract. I still had work to do on Mary—there was another round of revisions and then copyedits and layout edits and all that—so I could’ve waited, but this decision was very much on purpose. Starting the initial stages of the next novel meant now I was excited about Something Else.

I don’t want to say working on Mary became a chore at that point, but I did find I was able to look at those final passes with even more of a critical eye. The urge to tinker went away because I wasn’t feeling precious about it anymore. Every time I had to go back to Mary a part of me wanted to just be done so I could get back to that shiny new toy I’d just opened up.

So that’s my final Thingilearned I want to share: once you decide you’re finally ready to write that story of yours that has been with you for so long, go into it understanding that there’s eventually a terminus. If you REALLY want it to be a finished product, try to have a new story ready for you to fall in love with—preferably while you’re in the final stages of revisions. It’ll make it easier for you to revise … and say goodbye.

And how appropriate, I’m realizing as I type these words, that my next book, currently titled NESTLINGS and due out from Nightfire in October of 2023, is a book about, among other things, parenting and preparing to say goodbye to a thing you’ve been taking care of for a long time.

Maybe I’ll learn some things about writing it and come back to tell you about ‘em. OR MAYBE I’LL SELL MY PILOT FOR “SKELETON NEUTRAL ARBITER” ABOUT A SKELETON WHO HELPS LITIGATE LEGAL DISPUTES BETWEEN ELEPHANTS AND MONKS AND RETIRE ON A ROCKETSHIP MADE OF MONEY WHO KNOWS ONLY TIME WILL TELL NO FATE BUT WHAT WE MAKE BYEEE

***

NAT CASSIDY writes horror for the page, stage, and screen. His critically-acclaimed, award-winning horror plays have been produced across the United States, as well as Off- and Off-Off-Broadway. He won the New York Innovative Theatre Award for Outstanding Solo Performance for his one-man show about H. P. Lovecraft and was commissioned by the Kennedy Center to write the libretto for a short opera (about the end of the world, of course). An established actor on stage and television (usually playing monsters and villains on shows such as Blue Bloods, Bull, Quantico, FBI, and Law & Order: SVU), Nat also authored the novelization of the hit podcast Steal the Stars, which was published by Tor Books and named one of the best books of 2017 by NPR. Mary: An Awakening of Terror is Nat’s Nightfire debut. He lives in New York with his wife.

Nat Cassidy: Website

Mary: Bookshop | Indiebound | Amazon | B&N


One response to “Nat Cassidy: Five Things I Learned Writing Mary, An Awakening Of Terror”

  1. This post is everything to me. Like, EVERYTHING! I want to copy it into my writing journal like it’s an illuminated manuscript with dropped caps, flourishes, and drawings of unicorns in the margins. But I don’t have time for that now, because I have to go write the novel that’s been knocking around in my head for 22 years.

    Thank you, Nate Cassidy. I am terrified of your book (as I am middle-aged and menopausal) but I will buy it as a tribute to this post. Gamechanger. Seriously. Thank you.

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