December IWSG—Wrapping up the year

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The Insecure Writer’s Support Group convenes the first Wednesday of the month. Participants share their worries, insecurities, triumphs, hopes, and fears.

This month, the IWSG question is:

In terms of your writing career, where do you see yourself five years from now, and what’s your plan to get there?

I’d like to be making real money off of my writing in five years, with physical copies of my books available in libraries and bookstores. At present, I’m waiting for a revamped cover for one of my books, and then I’m going to finally release paper copies.

I may very well never marry (thank God I didn’t end up married to my ex!), and I might not have children while I still have some fertile years left. If I can’t have kids, my writing will be my eternal legacy, the avenue through which I’ve been fruitful and multiplied. I want to make sure I take steps to market myself much, much better than I’ve been doing.

nano-2016-final-statsI’ve been dealing with some disappointment at not having finished NaNo with as high of a wordcount as I did the last two years (65,524 vs. just shy of 75K and a bit above 71K). I won NaNo in two of the three years I unofficially participated (with the wordcounts retroactively, honestly added to my profile), though I didn’t go much above 50K then because I didn’t start on the first of the month.

I won on Day 23 the last two years, and this year got my win on Day 25 instead. I felt behind schedule, but on Tuesday I realized 25 November 2016 marked the 25th anniversary of when I wrote my first Atlantic City characters into existence. That’s a really, really special day. Years later, I suddenly remembered I’d originally created my Henry Unicorn-Mitchell around 1987, but all of my other Atlantic City characters were created in 1991.

We really did grow up together, having known one another since age eleven. In my mind’s eye, I still picture them as they were around age 12-13, in spite of how they’re in their sixties now. Today, 7 December, is also not only the 75th anniversary of the attack on Pearl Harbor, but also the 25th anniversary of my beginning the first book in my spin-off series about Max Seward and his zany blended family. I’d already fallen so in love with Max, I just had to give him his own series!

Where it all began, possibly now only living in memory. This notebook was my fifth grade social-studies notebook prior to becoming the terrible, cringeworthy Proud to Be a Smart. A number of scenes were salvaged and repurposed for use in other books.

 I really need to quit procrastinating already and begin publishing my Atlantic City books in 2017. I haven’t finished the last-minute addition of a War of the Worlds chapter in the book formerly known as The Very First, but other than that, it’s pretty good to go. These are the characters of my heart, the ones I was born to write, and keeping them mostly to myself isn’t doing any good.

Do you feel there’s a particular book or set of characters you were born to write? If you’ve written a series or family/town saga, what’s the longest you’ve been with your characters? Did you have the experience of growing up along with any of your characters?

Lessons learnt from my third official NaNo

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At the risk of sounding like a ridiculous humble-bragger, this was NOT my best effort for a month worth of writing. I know I can do so, so much better than this, and yet I had an even lower wordcount than last year’s 71K.

What went wrong, and what could I have done better?

I didn’t have any real time to do a full read-through of the pre-existing material. I was a NaNo rebel, going back to my fourth Russian novel, which I hadn’t touched since 30 December 2015. Therefore, a lot of important details, establishing information, and seeds of subplots were no longer fresh in my mind.

I didn’t even have time to do a full spellcheck! This applied to last year’s material as well, most of which had never had spellcheck run. It was really embarrassing to discover typos and bizarre autocorrects like “bothie” instead of “nothing,” “alway” instead of “always,” and a missing space between two words. I manually edited my wordcount to add that missing word!

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Perhaps I spent too much time in research, instead of coming back to fill in the blanks with more details.

I temporarily forgot some details I knew very well during my first wind of this project. It was really embarrassing to realize I’d started a conversation between Igor and Violetta as though NYU were co-ed in this era. I knew Violetta was at the women’s Washington Square campus, and yet here I was writing like she and Igor could’ve taken classes together.

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No time to go through my chapter-by-chapter notes to see if there were any details I should add, in light of new subplots which had organically unfolded. I also didn’t have much time to do subsequent revisions of my working table of contents, apart from adding a few new chapters and renumbering everything.

Forgetting to include chapters for kind of really important events, like the respective 30th birthdays of Tatyana and Yuriy. I also didn’t set aside any chapters or scenes for the mysteries behind Katya and Dmitriy’s new friends Dagmara (Marusya) and Zosim (Sima).

A certain event early in November which made a lot of us really lose our bearings for awhile. My normal daily wordcount suffered for awhile due to this, and some people on the forums even announced they were already giving up.

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Not setting aside enough time in each day to do nothing but write without interruptions. My daily wordcount was below or barely above par on a number of days, not just Fridays and Saturdays. One of those days was due to having a cold, and then I had my old friend dysmenorrhea to contend with near the end of the month. (Warning to my male readers: I’m planning blog posts on dysmenorrhea, menarche, and menstruation in historical fiction.)

After NaNo, I went back to read through what I hadn’t already gone through, and began my first round of edits. For example, I finally was able to revise an unfinished scene with Mr. Golitsyn (a former prince) and the parents of his daughter Vasilisa’s new beau Dragomir. I’d planned to junk it entirely, since there was a lot of infodumpy dialogue, and it seemed more like an excuse to write a scene at The Dakota, but something held me back from deleting it. It reads much more naturally now, and plants the seeds of two great subplots.

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Feeling too worn-out to pull another marathon final day as I did last year. I wrote over 7,000 words last year on the final day, in spite of having already won on Day 23, just to push my wordcount up as high as possible. This year I only was in the 2,000 range on the last day.

I know 65,524 words in thirty days is nothing to sneeze at, but I know I’m capable of writing a LOT more. Still, I’m now up to 149K total for this book (not counting back and front matter like the cast of characters, glossary, and table of contents), which is about a third of the way done.

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Just as last year, my daily wordcounts and creative drive seriously amped up as I got closer to 50K. I needed some time to get fully back into the swing of things, in spite of having known many of these characters for over twenty years.

I also discovered some unplanned characters, like the Novak-Kolarov family from Yugoslavia and a former Marine captain who lost much of his right leg at Iwo Jima.

WeWriWa—Candles and food

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Welcome back to Weekend Writing Warriors and Snippet Sunday, weekly Sunday hops where writers share 8 sentences from a book or WIP. This week’s snippet comes a few lines after last week’s, when a most exquisite Italian Chanukah feast was being prepared. Enough food was made to last the entire holiday.

A few of my characters were able to recover possessions after the war, and so have chanukiyot to light.

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Chanukah during the Yom Kippur War, 1973, Copyright Matanya (Flickr), Source

Once the table was set with chicken, stuffed mushrooms, kugel, fried eggplant, deep-fried artichokes, eggplant salad, and both kinds of latkes, Caterina filled the little bowls of her chanukiyah with olive oil, Eszter set red candles in hers, Jákob set green candles in Rebeka’s chanukiyah, Klaudia set white candles in Lea’s chanukiyah, and Aranka set purple candles in her chanukiyah.

There was melted, hardened wax on Lea and Rebeka’s chanukiyot, a wordless reminder of how their owners had been alive last Chanukah.  So much had changed in that one year.  Last year at this time, many more of their friends had still been alive too, no matter under which kind of bestial circumstances.  A life of suffering was still a life.

Imre disappeared into his room and came back with the orange gift bag. “Would you like to light too, Csicsi?” He smiled at her, his puppy dog eyes soft and warm.

“With what chanukiyah, something you bought me as a present?” Csilla took the bag and pulled out the object that felt like a chanukiyah.

Deep-fried artichoke, Copyright Signor DeFazio, Source Flickr

To George on his 15th Jahrzeit (and why he’s now my favorite Beatle)

“Everything else can wait, but the search for God cannot wait, and love one another.” (George’s last words, which I often think of.)

Fifteen years ago, 29 November 2001, George Harrison dropped his physical body and left the material world. The news didn’t get out until 30 November (my first anniversary with The Who’s Odds and Sods), which was a Friday. One of the ladies in my estrogen Who lists had had a dream about George dying on the 30th, and, sure enough, that was the day the news broke.

Everyone knew he was dying. It was only a matter of time. For that reason, I didn’t immediately cry. This wasn’t some out of the blue death, like John Entwistle’s seven months later. George had been very sick for awhile, and was only getting sicker.

It was raining as I walked to my 10 AM Russian class. I think I might’ve come a bit late. Late that afternoon, I bought my ticket for the Hillel Semi-Formal. My friend “Ella” had convinced me to go, saying we’d all have a really great time and that it would be nothing like the high school dances I’d always avoided. No one needed a date to go.

That night at services, I said Kaddish for George. I’ve always said Kaddish for people I love and admire, no matter what their religion was. This prayer is all about praising God, and never once mentions Death or anything explicitly theological. Most rabbis do draw the line at saying the memorial prayer El Malei Rachamim for a Gentile who wasn’t related to the mourner, but we can say Kaddish and Yizkor for whomever we want.

I wasn’t yet Shomeret Shabbat, so that night I watched some VH1 on the communal TV in the upstairs lounge. They were doing a tribute to George, and airing some interview he’d done fairly recently. He’d also played some songs during the interview, including at least one new song. VH1 was still about music in those days.

It took a really long time for my mind to admit what my heart already knew, but now I proudly own George as my favorite overall Beatle, not just my favorite solo Beatle. I was too emotionally attached to having John as my favorite, coupled with how he’d been my favorite through some of the darkest nights of my soul. He’d been far more than just my favorite Beatle, and I didn’t want to betray that.

It was kind of like when I realized, in late 2000, that The Who had replaced The Beatles as my favorite band. That was honestly one of the saddest days of my life. To the end of my days, I’ll believe beyond a shadow of a doubt that I might have taken my own life in eighth grade if not for The Beatles. They’re still the musical love of my life.

I was just gravitating more and more towards George’s songs, both as a Beatle and in his solo career, as well as everything about him. I truly consider him one of my spiritual mentors. He had such a beautiful relationship with the Divine. I’ve never understood the accusation that certain of his songs are “preachy.” They seem pretty non-sectarian and non-judgmental to me.

Now I realize each of the three I’ve held as my favorite over the last 23 years needed to be my favorite at each of those respective times in my life. They just fit who I was. At the very start, I liked Paul most because I thought he was the cutest (such mature reasoning!). Then John was my favorite from age fourteen onwards, though only when I was seventeen did I admit he was my only favorite and that I hadn’t really had two favorites. As Jerry Springer often says in his Final Thought, “When you claim to love both, you truly love neither.”

It’s hard to put into words everything George means to me, what a truly special, beautiful, incredible person he was. But at the heart of it, he just most deeply speaks to the type of person I’ve developed into. He would never have felt right as my favorite Beatle in my teens or twenties.

And maybe I really am slowly turning into my mother as I get older, since George was her favorite too!

My sweet George, may your beautiful light shine forever. It was such an honor to share the Earth with you for 21 years and 11 months.

Reviewing old books and films with content which unsettles you

I’ve doubtless read more old books and seen more old films than I have from the modern era. As such, there are times when I run across things which can make me uncomfortable as a modern reader/viewer, even offend me. It’s not that I don’t know certain attitudes were prevalent, but rather that it’s kind of hard to just dispassionately take it in without reacting, thinking, “That’s just how things were then.”

We’re all going to experience books and films differently depending upon our socialization, background, personal experiences, values, and beliefs. I, as a Jewish, working-class woman, am bothered by things that wouldn’t bother an upper-middle-class Methodist man. Things that might merely make me uncomfortable in passing might outright anger an African–American, a Catholic, or a Cherokee.

Things to keep in mind while watching/reading and writing your review:

How much of a focus is the material in question? If there’s, e.g., a three-minute scene of racially-motivated violence in a 20-minute short, or a brief scene with a stereotyped Jewish pawnbroker in a 73-minute movie, there’s no reason to obsess over it and make that the entire point of your review. Say it made you uncomfortable, and then move on.

Were these attitudes overtly racist, anti-Semitic, sexist, anti-Catholic, etc., or were they such an ingrained part of the culture as to seem matter-of-fact to the average person in the original audience? A lot of old cartoons accused of being horribly racist have struck me as more a product of their time, not going out of their way to offend people. It’s like the difference between celebrating a lynching vs. a blackface scene.

Was this something that couldn’t really be helped given the era? For example, as much as I wish non-white actors had been able to play major roles outside of so-called “race movies,” that just didn’t happen. White actors played characters of other races, or minorities played servants or minor roles. That didn’t mean a white actor in makeup couldn’t play a character of another race with integrity and sensitivity, or that a servant character was automatically pathetic.

If it’s more than a minor aspect of the story, take some time to explain your discomfort, but don’t go on some long-winded rant. The treatment and so-called slut-shaming of unmarried mothers in films like Faust and Way Down East really does upset me, but there are so many other things in these stories to talk about.

If you point-blank admit you don’t care about the historical, social, and cultural context, you’re not the right person to be reviewing old books or films! You have every right to feel genuinely uncomfortable with certain things, but you need to subdue your 21st century values and viewpoints when you’re dealing with bygone eras.

The normally awesome Rap Critic and his annoying SJW girlfriend Lady Jess totally dropped the ball when they reviewed The Jazz Singer last year, and they likewise missed a golden opportunity in their recent four-part series on Warner Brothers’ Censored Eleven. Instead of placing these cartoons in their appropriate setting, they did almost nothing but rant about how racist they are by modern standards.

If stereotypes are present, are they the only thing about a character, or just one of many traits? For example, the easily-spooked Trohelius Snapp in Midnight Faces seemed to have been included primarily for cheap, racially-motivated laughs. He wasn’t some deep, complex character who just happened to be easily-spooked.

If there’s truly enough material to do a full critique through, e.g, a feminist, class-based, race-based, or Jewish lens, why not do that in a second post? That way, your review proper stays on topic and addresses the actual story within its historical setting.

Was this based on popular beliefs of the time and not intentionally meant to be offensive? As much as I love Dante, he was still very much a product of Medieval Catholic Europe. So, yes, he was under the false impression Prophet Mohammed was a schismatic even though he was never Christian to begin with. Dante also subscribed very much to other Catholic doctrine. At least give him some credit for being evolved enough to question certain things he considers unjust or puzzling. He tends to accept Church doctrine in the end, but he doesn’t blindly accept it.

Words that seem dated now were the de facto words then. Words like Negro, Oriental, sinistral (left-handed), Mosaic (Jewish), Sapphist (lesbian).

Above all, consider the context and intent! Going on a huge rant against, e.g., blackface or the Mrs. Husband’s Full Name convention just makes you look immature and historically ignorant. These people weren’t including this material just to offend your 21st century special snowflake SJW self.