Mind Prey — Behind the Scenes

The TV Movie

The one topic everyone wants to know about with regards to Mind Prey isn't about the book at all. It's about the 1998 TV movie [1]. Well, that's a big enough topic that I'm giving it its own page. Click here to go to it.

Early Drafts, Early Changes

This book is a one of the big fan favorites, and again it's got everything going for it – plot, characters, writing – but it might have been a very different book. Not necessarily a worse book, but a different one [2].
John Mail wasn't always a psychopathic pyromaniac playing a macabre game against Lucas (or at least, he thought he was playing a game). When the character was first sketched out, he was more of the neglected loner, the stereotype of the socially awkward nerd who is driven by fantasies of revenge and finally being the Strong Guy. He was more into Star Trek than arson, and quoted Mister Spock often [3]. Or at least, he would have eventually.
This character was loosely based on a real person, who I'll call Bill [4]. Bill was a computer programmer and mathematician who the author interviewed for the Pioneer Press in the mid-80s, for a series about computer programmers and hackers. He had a lot of qualities that show up in movies and television as stereotypical nerd traits: he wore ugly glasses [5], he was awkward around women [6], he was always right about everything (even when he wasn't) [7]. I'm a nerd myself, and I wear my nerd badge with pride, and I don't have the stereotypes he did [8].
I'm also not a killer. Bill was.
I'm not going to go into the full details of the case [9], but when the author interviewed that Bill for the computer hacker story, Bill had already killed someone. It was a nasty murder, and the police had no clue who had done it. He'd gotten away with it clean. The murder itself revolved around lust, obsession, an explosive temper, all familiar elements in thriller novels.
But, again, he had that stereotype trait of always being right about everything, even when he wasn't [10]. That overconfidence in his own reasoning and his skills was his critical problem: he was so sure that the police could never catch him, so sure that he was smarter than everyone, that he screwed up. The police set a trap, he walked right into it, and he was sent to jail for a long, long time [11].
It would have made for a good book on its own, but it would have been in more in the True Crime vein. But that character almost writes itself. You can see it now, the unassuming, meek, ineffectual guy everyone picks on. The one who knows every episode of Star Trek backwards and forwards [12]. The one who has been bullied and abused his entire life, but who is seen as so weak that nobody expects that he could actually do anything when he finally snaps.
But then he shows up at someone's house at two in the morning, whacks that someone in the head with a crowbar without anyone ever waking up, and nobody has a clue [13]. Nobody knows where to even start.
That could be John Mail. It very nearly was.
But, again, there's the action component to worry about. A character like that might like to play games, but he'd probably be too afraid to do anything like that in real life. Despite what Hollywood believes, the kids who played Dungeons and Dragons did not go to steam tunnels to act it out in real life [14]. If nothing else, it was too much work. A character like this would probably be too afraid to confront the police. And while you could make a smoke-and-mirrors sort of chase, that didn't fit the tone of what the author wanted.
But what if he wasn't the quiet nerd? What if he was actively engaged with Lucas? What if... he thought they were playing a game, the two of them?
Change the character. Get rid of a few of the stereotypes. The new version isn't unassuming and bullied, but extroverted and the bully himself. Not the loner who watches Star Trek, but the loner who tortures neighborhood animals. The one who sets fires just to watch things burn. Still smart, but a cruel and angry cunning instead of logical deduction.
And someone like that, the sociopath and psychopath, the one who has always been the bully, the one who knows — knows — that he's smarter than everyone, that's not somebody who quietly plans a crime. He's the one who taunts the police. He's the one who thinks that he and Lucas are playing a game.
And then you have John Mail, and a lot of the book falls into place.

Saving Genevieve

Genevieve — Andi Manette's nine-year-old daughter — is removed from the book about halfway through. John Mail tells Andi that he took her to a mall, told her to find a cop, and left her there. In reality, he threw her in a nearby cistern, and left a gruesome clue somewhere else for the cops to find to imply that he killed her. She's presumed dead, and her survival is almost a miracle.
In the first draft, she didn't survive. She's nine years old. The author's editor balked at this. "Don't kill the kid," he said. "You can't do that. The book's mean enough as it is."
So the author checked around, and everyone agreed with him. His agent, his friends, his family. Everyone thought he was crazy for even trying. Don't kill the kid. So he poked the situation a bit, rigged a bit of ingenuity on Genevieve's part, stirred in a bit of luck. In the end, Genevieve survived [15].
This is necessary for fiction, but it went against a lot of his experience in reporting. When it comes to real crime, there's nothing in particular that saves kids. In truth, they're usually the easiest — and most tragic — victims. Saving Genevieve is the happy ending that doesn't happen, the thing that we enjoy so we don't see that the way crime works in the real world is much, much worse [16].
It's something that I'll bring up when someone writes in to complain that the books are too violent, or that the crimes are too gory. Perhaps they honestly believe that most murders are of the Agatha Christie "cozy" type, where someone quietly passes [17] by drinking poisoned tea.
The real world, I say, isn't like that. It doesn't conform to your personal preferences or biases about what murder should be like, or how death should happen. Reality is strange that way, so much so that people would never believe it if it was put into a novel.
There's a quote attributed to Mark Twain: "Of course truth is stranger than fiction. Fiction has to make sense."
Genevieve's survival is like that. It makes sense in the structure of 20th century thriller literature. In the real world, her survival wouldn't be just strange; it would be downright unbelievable [18].
And that's kind of a downer of a message, so now I'll talk about a funny mistake and everyone can laugh again.

Another Damn Error

This is a mistake the author brings up at a lot of the signings, because it's another example of how writing works, and how it sometimes doesn't work. It's in the category that I like to call brain glitches, because... well, I don't really know what else to call it.
In chapter 30, John Mail needs to get a car, and he assaults a woman in her house to get it. Before he goes into her house, he's got a pistol and a shotgun. He leaves the shotgun on the stoop of the house, goes inside, hits her with the butt of the shotgun, leaves, and picks up the shotgun on the way out.
It's not a typo — nothing is misspelled — but it's not a mistake from moving things around while editing. It's a misspelling on a whole-word-substitution level, and there isn't a word for that in English.
This kind of thing happens all the time and they're hard to spot. It's like blanking on someone's name when you've known them for years, or getting two people's names mixed up when there's no reason to [19]. It's that moment when you want to refer to "President Reagan" and instead say "President Nixon" [20] and the conversation goes deliriously off the rails in a mess of confusion. This happens to everyone. To everyone.
But it's weirder when you've typed it and you're editing. Your brain actively doesn't want to see the error. You'll see what you think is supposed to be there, or at least you won't see the hole in the logic [21]. On the occasions where you do spot it, there's a momentary panic, and sometimes you wonder, Am I having a stroke?. You're probably not having a stroke [22]. It's just a brain glitch. Happens all the time.
The editors are good at catching this kind of thing, but sometimes it slips by. And it's not just John Sandford. Again, this happens to everyone, and of course that includes writers. Every now and then I'll see a completely inexplicable mistake in an otherwise fine novel, and I'll chalk it up to a brain glitch, and that's good enough.


1. IMDB.com lists it as Mind Prey (1999), because it first aired on March 22, 1999. I always say 1998, because it was filmed in 1998, and was supposed to air in 1998. First meant for August, they pushed it back to October, then November, then later November, then "around Christmas sometime" and eventually into 1999 . I still say it's a 1998 movie.

2. It would have been like Broken Prey, perhaps. That's a very different take on the killer, but it's still a fan favorite.

3. If there'd been a movie adaptation of this take on things, I can imagine the screenwriter coming up with "clever" malapropisms based on Mister Spock's lines. "Murder is highly logical," or perhaps "Live long... and die!." [23]

4. I won't give his full name here. He's no longer in jail, and I don't want him to find my (unflattering) description of him through a random Google search for his name.

5. To be fair, it was the 80s. All glasses were ugly, all hair was big, and all women had shoulderpads.

6. Been there, done that, eventually got better. Mostly better, anyway.

7. And this is absolutely the hardest thing for nerds to shake. It is so amazingly hard to say "I don't know" if you pride yourself in knowing stuff. It's more acceptable to speculate based on what you do know, and proclaim it with a certain air of authority, even if you end up being completely wrong. And the sad part is that while nerds of all stripes enjoy learning, they'd learn so much better if they admitted that they didn't know anywhere near as much as they liked to believe [24].

8. Eh, that's a lie. I totally did. I still have many of them.

9. Again, I don't want him randomly finding this in a Google search or whatever. The author and I will talk about it freely at signings and events and all that, but I'm not putting it down in text here. Nope.

10. One of the more shocking examples of this was that he would deny he'd said certain things in an interview — an interview the author had tape recorded for accuracy [25]. He just could not accept it.

11. But not long enough. The case got screwed up, and he ended up doing time for a lesser charge. Most people involve say it was absolutely First Degree Murder, but someone botched the legalities of it.

12. Bonus points if they say Enterprise totally doesn't count, but know all the episodes anyway [26].

13. And that's as close as I'll come to how Bill carried out the murder.

14. Mazes and Monsters was ridiculous if you were a gamer, and a shocking documentary about the horrors of Dungeons and Dragons if you knew absolutely nothing about Dungeons and Dragons [27].

15. And even then it's lampshaded [28]: the cops talk about how she wouldn't have lasted a day, how she may have nerve damage anyway, and all that. But that's acceptable.

16. The author's friend Edna Buchanan, also a Pulitzer-Prize-winning journalist, wrote a book about her experiences reporting crime in the Miami area. It's called The Corpse Had a Familiar Face and contains stories so outrageous and bizarre — all of them true — that you won't quite believe television violence ever again [29].

17. I am personally irked when someone says "passes" instead of "dies". It feels like they just don't want to confront the truth of the situation. And while I can understand that, I've encountered a few people who seem clinically incapable of saying that someone "died". I wonder about people like that.

18. Don't get me wrong — strange, unbelievable things do occur. They're just not the kind of strange and unbelievable things you see in movies or on TV.

19. I used to live with someone named Leah. After she left, I dated (and eventually married) someone named Diva. I sometimes transpose the names, because the vowel progression is identical, even though (a) I haven't seen one in a decade, and (b) I am married to the other.

20. That's an example from real life. After the space shuttle Challenger exploded, one of the TV reporters covering it said, "And in a few hours, President Nixon ... [pause] ... President Reagan will be addressing the nation."

21. This is why it's so hard to see errors that you've typed. It's why editors — or at least someone with a fresh set of eyes — are so important.

22. Unless, of course, you are. Canadian writer Howard Engel suffered a stroke that left him unable to read, but still able to write. So, yeah, that does happen sometimes.

23. And I hate myself a little bit for even thinking of those one-liners. They would totally get used. Sigh.

24. I suffered from this myself. I still have bouts of it.

25. Heh. Tape recorders. Remember those?

26. Extra super bonus points if they then go on a rant about how if the Enterprise is only famous because Kirk was the most famous captain in the Federation, it's a bit more than a coincidence that the first ever major starship Earth built happened to also be called Enterprise, despite never having been mentioned before anywhere in continuity, which leaves one with the suspicion that either Kirk was so famous that his fame went back and changed time, or, more ominously, that something else did and that time itself has been changed far earlier than anyone in the Federation imagines and okay I'll stop now. Huff. Puff.

27. Which is true of parents at the time. They'd rather believe in Satanism (remember that scare?) or something else like heavy metal music, or Dungeons and Dragons corrupting their kids, rather than it being something simple like "They're teenagers! This is what they do!" [30]

28. For those not savvy with trope terms: Lampshading is when a plot hole (or at least apparent plot hole) is directly addressed by the people in the book / movie / television as a concern. If characters are in an absurd situation, the audience might not believe it. But if a character notices, and says something like, "Isn't this all really weird?" it's instantly better, even if it doesn't solve anything.

29. Crazy guy cuts off someone's head, throws it to the cops. Cops throw it back. That sort of thing. Crazy.

30. And it's not even limited to that time period, now that I think about it. All through history, parents have been frustrated at teenage behavior, saying things like "Well we never did stuff like this when we were their age." When in fact, yeah, they totally did. All the time.