Cat Scully: Five Things I Learned Writing Jennifer Strange
Fifteen-year-old Jennifer Strange is the Sparrow, cursed with the ability to give ghosts and demonic spirits a body-a flesh and blood anchor in the mortal world-with the touch of her hand. When a ghost attacks her high school and awakens her powers, her father dumps her unceremoniously in the care of her estranged older sister Liz, leaving only his journal as an explanation.
Drawn to the power of the Sparrow, the supernatural creatures preying on Savannah, Georgia will do anything to receive Jennifer’s powerful gift. The sisters must learn to trust each other again and uncover the truth about their family history by deciphering their father’s journal…because if they can’t, Jennifer’s uncontrolled power will rip apart the veil that separates the living from the dead.
A fast-paced and splattery romp, fans of Supernatural, Buffy, and Evil Dead will enjoy JENNIFER STRANGE – the first illustrated novel in a trilogy of stylish queer young adult horror books with big scares for readers not quite ready for adult horror.
Cat Scully’s illustrations bring the ghosts and demons of her fictional world to eerie and beautiful life, harkening back to the style of SCARY STORIES TO TELL IN THE DARK and Ransom Riggs’ MISS PEREGRINE’S HOME FOR PECULIAR CHILDREN.
It’s okay to be gross
The nature of Jennifer’s power called for it. I mean, if you have the ability to give ghosts and demons a body, and that demon has to rip right out of the possessed host to be born into a physical form, things get…messy. As a female writing a young adult horror book, I got pushed in a lot of directions, most of them re-concepting Jennifer’s gift into the gothic and romantic arenas. I saw nothing wrong with being gothic or romantic. Both genres I tend to read voraciously, especially in dark fiction. But I had to face that wasn’t the story I wanted to tell. I wanted to write about Buffy before she became the Buffy of season one, the prequel early years as she transitioned from clueless teenage cheerleader into the Slayer. I watched Ash Williams fight Deadites, wise cracking the whole way, and found myself secretly fantasizing how cool it would be to see a girl in his shoes. I wanted girls to be allowed to make jokes and deal with gross horror situations. I’ve loved horror almost all of my life, but there was nothing between Strong Female Protagonist or the Final Girls of horror films to reference. I found myself holding a seed of an idea that wouldn’t leave me alone. I wanted to write something gross, something funny, a story where readers follow two sisters as they wrestle with a dark power in a family drama saga not unlike the Supernatural brothers Sam and Dean. Going down this route would mean ignoring a lot of advice, to gather the courage to write gore despite what everyone told me. Thanks to my agent and a slew of friends in the horror community, I discovered it was not only okay to be a female writer and write gross, but I wasn’t alone.
Get over your fear of meeting people, but don’t assume you own their time
It took me a lot of years to get this book published, about eleven all told. During those years, I gathered my courage and decided to meet as many writers as possible and give back as much as possible to learn the publishing business. I joined Pitch Wars as a mentor for five years, helped authors using my graphic design skills to create pre-order campaigns, I illustrated world maps for books, I was the Young Adult Editor for the Horror Writers Association, and ran conferences as a track director. Again and again, despite how afraid I was to go up and talk to writers who were further along in their careers, I did it. I tried to be bold, but never assume anything of their time. I genuinely wanted to get to know them and never assumed any of them would read my work, critique my book, or break me in. I had spent years in the south alone, not knowing any other writers who were into weird and dark speculative fiction like me. It wasn’t until I started being brave and genuine that I started to find my core tribe. I’m sure glad I did, because years later when it was my turn for my book to come out, my publishing house went through a seriously hard spring. I was left to handle most of the book publication process alone. I had to gather my tribe and ask for help to get the word out about my book, create swag, edit the book, get it on Netgalley, find trade reviews, and plan events during the coronavirus pandemic. I’ve had a campaign that went about the same as it would have (minus the in-person events) because of the people I’m lucky enough to call my friends. I really doubt anyone would know about my indie young adult horror series without them.
There is such a thing as taking too much advice
I’ve always been eager to follow new writer advice. When I was a baby writer querying Jennifer Strange back in 2012, I eagerly lapped up every article I could find. Every critique partner session, I took almost every piece of advice. They were just trying to help me, right? I needed to put the best novel out there that I could. From what every article told me, I was too close to my work to see what was wrong. After years of this, I ended up with a Frankenstein’s monster of a novel. I didn’t know what the story was or where it was going anymore. I had completely fallen out of love with the idea and had tossed it in a trunk. After chucking Jennifer Strange, I rage-wrote an entire novel about a seafood chef fighting fish monsters. I did whatever the heck I wanted with no input from anyone for the first time in years and finally started to hear my own voice again. That novel landed my current agent. Trust your gut. Not to the point you don’t take any advice or critique at all! I’m not saying swing completely in that direction, but not everyone is going to get your book or your work. After retrieving Jennifer Strange out of a dirty garbage shoot, dusting it off, and getting it published, I had to learn to find what I loved about my work and my voice again. It wasn’t for everyone, and that was okay. I’d rather my book not be for everyone than try to please everyone by writing a patchwork quilt of broken story ever again.
Researching “real-life” ghost encounters are way scarier than movie ones
For Jennifer Strange, I went down a rabbit hole of watching every ghost movie I could find. Being born in the late eighties, I didn’t grow up with the Warrens or the media frenzy surrounding them, but I found the entire narrative fascinating. Were they telling the truth and trying to protect people, or were they just after the money and publicity? I went down another research hole, but the stories of their encounters terrified me. So much of the details seemed like they could swing in either direction, but the idea of capitalizing on fear of the unknown interested me. This idea became a large part of the puzzle piece that fell into place while writing the overall series arc. I wanted to show rival ghost hunting families on either side of that argument–people in it for profit and people in it to protect the living. Researching the book became more terrifying when I turned around on a walking tour in Roswell, Georgia and found myself face-to-face with a ghost when I wasn’t looking for one. I think to this day that’s why I’m never afraid of book monsters and always of movie ones—I’ve seen something I can’t explain. I guess it really is like they say…real life is sometimes stranger than fiction.
It’s okay to find a writing method and then totally change it
I didn’t know I had heart failure until I was in the hospital facing an impossible diagnosis. It was genetic mutation, a rare misfire of the heart that causes it to balloon and then fail under stress. Before my heart failed down to ten percent in 2018, I had a method as a writer that worked for me. Without fail, I’d put on my playlist and write no matter the noise or interruption at two thousand words an hour speed. I would plot everything out in advance, and I was lightning across the keyboard, sure and steady. After 2018, everything changed. With my heart failure came the loss of being able to read, and subsequently, to write. I left the hospital to find my first book Jennifer Strange had finally sold. First came the joy and then came the panic. I couldn’t read a sticky note to myself much less my own manuscript. Coming from clocking the pace I used to pull, going back to the drawing board in my methods was the most painful thing I’ve ever gone through. I had to teach myself how to write and read when the words swam and every noise would send my brain reeling into fog. I pushed the book’s publication date back from 2019 to 2020 and was patient with myself. I found audio books and subsequently Microsoft Word’s “Read Aloud” feature helped me read again. Slowly but surely being only able to read auditorily turned to being able to read sentences, and then paragraphs, and then pages. Writing became a muscle I had to train all over again from square one, with new methods and workarounds and tricks to get me writing, like exercise to get the blood flowing to my brain. And you know what? All of it was okay. All of it was worth it. I learned to start over and rethink my method when my health called for it. Writing as a practice has always been built by inches, not by miles. In some ways, I’m glad my health took a wrecking ball to my previous writing habits. I’m more thoughtful now, more careful in my word choice, because I have to slowly digest every word then read it aloud to hear if it translated to the page. And for that lesson, I’m grateful.
Cat Scully is the author and illustrator of the young adult illustrated horror series JENNIFER STRANGE, out July 21, 2020 from Haverhill House Publishing. Cat is best known for her world maps featured in Brooklyn Brujas trilogy by Zoraida Cordova, Winterspell by Claire Legrand, and Give the Dark My Love by Beth Revis. She works in video game development for the Deep End Games, working hard on their next title. She lives off Earl Grey tea, plays a lot of Bioshock, is a huge Evil Dead fan, and plays the drums with her musician husband. She lives outside of Boston and is represented by Miriam Kriss of the Irene Goodman Literary Agency. Follow her on Instagram or Twitter at @CatMScully or visit her at