IWSG—Slowly returning to view the cheerful skies

InsecureWritersSupportGroup

It’s time again for The Insecure Writer’s Support Group, which meets the first Wednesday of every month to commiserate over worries, fears, doubts, and struggles. This month’s question is:

It’s the best of times; it’s the worst of times. What are your writer highs (the good times)? And what are your writer lows (the crappy times)?

Unfortunately, due to several bouts of my cyclical depression, being forced to move to an area I hate and in a house not my own, lockdown, and other factors, it’s been quite awhile since I last felt a true writing high. In the old days, it was the feeling I had when finishing a mammoth book that had been writing me more than I wrote it.

This picture I took soon after finishing the 406K first draft of The Twelfth Time, holding some of my writing soundtrack, perfectly illustrates it:

My writing mojo was pulled out of the toilet by my 12-part series on The Jazz Singer at 90 in 2017, and 2018 was my best NaNo ever, at 130,730 words. In 2019, I wrote 101,262 for NaNo, and massively overachieved in both April and July Camp NaNo.

But ever since lockdown began, my usual daily writing productivity hasn’t been the same. I know what I’m easily capable of, and barely making 50K in November, or even 10K in other months, is not it.

Near the end of April Camp, I put my alternative history about Dante and Beatrice on what hopefully won’t be a very long hiatus, and went back to the radical rewrite and restructuring of the book formerly known as The Very Last. I was inspired to return to my Atlantic City books after spending a few days doing the last proof-check of Movements in the Symphony of 1939 (formerly The Very Next).

After approving that book for a print edition, I read through The Very Last until the point I left off on the rewrite last year (though I also began rewriting chapters beyond that). I wrote almost 1,000 words on the first day back, though I ended up moving that chapter, and two other chapters, into a file of discarded chapters.

It truly was hashgacha pratit (Divine Providence) that I put the radical rewrite on hiatus in 2015. At the time, I was frustrated I couldn’t find more detailed information about the 1940 Portuguese World Exposition, and couldn’t be arsed to research and write about the 1939–40 World’s Fair in Queens only two years after I did that for Journey Through a Dark Forest. Now I realise I couldn’t have rewritten that book the way it needs to be had I continued in 2015.

As I discussed in this post, I deleted a lot of pointless, cluttery chapters and subplots. However, I wasn’t yet ready to admit to myself that the ninth item in that list not only was clutter too, but also inherently creepy. Even if Kit is aged up two years, 15-year-old Jerry still has no business dating her! She might look, talk, and act more like a 13-year-old, and I might’ve seriously toned down their relationship, but that doesn’t change her real age.

I’ll be discussing this in more detail in a future post.

I’ve been in a low place with my writing for so long, often taking weeks to write a single chapter, it’s difficult to vault back up and immediately resume my former daily average of at least 3K. As Virgil wrote over 2,000 years ago:

The gates of Hell are open night and day;
Smooth the descent, and easy is the way;
But to return, and view the cheerful skies,
In this the task and mighty labor lies.

IWSG—June odds and sods

InsecureWritersSupportGroupIt’s time for another meeting of the Insecure Writer’s Support Group. The first Wednesday of each month, we share struggles, triumphs, quandaries, and fears. This month’s question is:

For how long do you shelve your first draft, before reading it and re-drafting? Is this dependent on your writing experience and the number of stories/books under your belt?

The books I wrote on MacWriteII, ClarisWorks, and AppleWorks were inaccessible to me for up to a decade, due to being either stuck on obsolete file formats on disks or on an older desktop I didn’t bring over all the files from. Obviously, I finally learnt how to convert and open all those file types.

The ones created or saved in MacWriteII have/had a lot of bizarre formatting issues caused by data migration; e.g., floating chunks of text that belong elsewhere in the document and need to be C&Ped back together in their proper order (often breaking off in the middle of words or sentences!), gibberish at the beginning, words I taught the ’93 Mac’s spellcheck, text from files on other disks, symbols in the middle of words, repeated letters, huge indents. That needed addressed before I could even begin editing and assigning them places in my long queue.


As I’ve said many times, it was a blessing in disguise that the original files of Little Ragdoll were held hostage for so many years. There was no way I could’ve salvaged even a halfway decent story by writing around this Grimms’ fairytale on acid. I needed a complete rewrite from scratch and memory, though I kept the same general outline.

Being away from a story for 5–10 years provides one with a whole new set of eyes. Now, I like to wait at least a few months before diving back in. When we begin editing and revising too soon, we’re often blind to mistakes both big and small.

I learnt a big lesson from my mad dash to the finish with And Aleksey Lived in 2018. Since there was almost no time between the day I wrote the last word in the final appendix and the release date, I had to fly through with proofreading. A lot of little errors also turned up in the first printed edition, which I thankfully was able to correct for free.

I’m doing JuNoWriMo for I believe the sixth year, though I’m not hopeful of reaching 50K. All part of the joy of being stuck in a home not my own, with the local libraries still not open to more than brief browsing, and in an open concept house that makes privacy all but impossible. </extreme sarcasm>

I’ll be using June to work on my radical rewrite of the book formerly known as The Very Last, start my new alternative history, and do my final proof-check of the third edition of Little Ragdoll. I also count blog posts as creative non-fiction.

After daydreaming about this for at least 20 years, I’ve finally begun the process of applying to make aliyah (move to Israel). I came up with a lot of stupid excuses and reasons to postpone it, and even let my now-ex talk me out of it. Unfortunately, I’ve aged out of a lot of great opportunities, like work-study programs and volunteering on most kibbutzim.

I’ll be discussing this much more in future posts. If all goes well and I’m approved, I should be there by next summer. Though I used to want to live in Haifa, my dream city now is Tiberias in the Lower Galilee.

In response to the awful events of May, I’ve changed my Twitter display name to my Hebrew name, Chana Esther Dafna.

What are your summer writing plans?

IWSG—February odds and sods

InsecureWritersSupportGroup
It’s time for another meeting of the Insecure Writer’s Support Group. The first Wednesday of each month, we share struggles, triumphs, quandaries, and fears.

My current foci are preparing And Jakob Flew the Fiend Away for its hardcover version and resuming the long-hiatused radical rewrite of the book formerly known as The Very Last. Within the next two weeks, I’ll start hopefully the final proof check of the hardcover version of Little Ragdoll.

Since I caught a couple of little errors and added a few new bits here and there, I’ll also be going through both manuscripts’ paperback proofs again. Why update the one but not the other, as much extra work as that creates?

I unfortunately lost an entire day of work due to my most crippling attack of dysmenorrhea in what feels like a good twenty years, but health always comes first. I’d almost forgotten what it felt like to be so completely incapacitated and in such agonizing pain.

I recently got this cute little notebook from Peter Pauper Press for outlining my rewrites of TVL and Almost As an Afterthought. Unlike the radical rewrites of the books formerly known as The Very First and The Very Next, I knew I’d be adding a LOT of new material, not mostly reworking existing chapters and filling in the blanks as necessary.

In the case of AAAA, I have to rebuild it almost from scratch. Not only are the first two drafts rather unfocused, they’re also very underwritten. I have every intention of converting that 11,000-word novelette into a full-sized novel with an actual story arc.

TVL came to 36,500 words after I transcribed it and slightly reworked it into a second draft. Of all four prequels, it’s the one I had the most fun writing, and its first draft also had a much stronger, more consistent story arc than any of the others. Because of that, and based on the extensive outline I’ve made, I predict it’ll be the longest of the four. It’s always been the one I’m proudest of.

I’ve since junked what was Chapter 3, so some of the chapter numbering is no longer in synch. I solved that problem by deciding to split the Coney Island section of the Long Island chapter into its own chapter. There are still 25 chapters in each Part, with 50 total.

I abandoned the rewrite in 2015, despite how well it was going, because I was frustrated at not finding much detailed information about the 1940 Portuguese World Exposition. The thought of researching and writing about the 1939–40 World’s Fair in Queens all over again, not that long after Dark Forest, also exhausted me. I didn’t want to do too much repeating or burn out my enthusiasm for the subject.

And yes, there is a chapter called “The Wrath of Conny,” and it is a deliberate play on The Wrath of Khan.

If lockdown ever ends, I could easily have the third draft done by the end of the year and start work on the final version. I now realize it was ultimately for the best that I put the rewrite on the back burner, since I was still too emotionally attached to the original material. Despite having no problem junking a bunch of chapters, I nevertheless held on to a few others which served no purpose.

Do you have any special notebooks, pens, or pencils for outlining stories? Would you like them? Have you ever resumed a rewrite after a long hiatus?

Walking through my final changes to The Very First

Proving yet again that my books under 100K tend to need much more editing, revising, and rewriting than my deliberate doorstoppers, I had to read through proofs of the book formerly known as The Very First about five or six times until finally emerging with a mistake-free copy.

Most of what I caught were the usual embarrassing little typos or missing words here and there, while others were somewhat more significant.

1. In all the books of the prequel series, it was never exactly established just where in the Filliards’ house the Smalls live, and where this smaller second kitchen is. At first I wrote it as another wing, then changed it to the unused second floor, which has a small family sitting room, private dining room, and kitchen. Mr. Filliard converts the old playroom and billiard room into bedrooms. Many older upper-class houses did have that kind of original layout.

But that didn’t feel right. The Filliards do have a much larger than normal house, which they were able to keep after the Stock Market crash because they sold so many possessions, but it’s never been written as a mansion. Certainly, it would be very unusual for a normal detached house of that vintage to have three stories plus an attic.

Now it’s established that the Smalls have a cottage-like guesthouse attached to the main house, which the cook and maid used to live in, while Sparky shares Cinni’s attic bedroom. Even when the Filliards were rich, it was considered upper-middle-class, and the old barn on the property was for the gentleman farmer who lived there originally.

2. Gary and Barry’s respective original middle names, in the Cast of Characters section, were changed from Elijah to Elias and Isaac to Issak. Why would boys born in Germany have English birth names?

3. I changed Cinni’s mother’s birth name from Katarzyna to Karolina and her legal name from Cairn to Caroline. Her nickname is now Carin. One of her defining personality traits, her whole life long, is that she’s not particularly bright, and that her youngest child’s name is Cinnimin instead of Cinnamon because she’s a terrible speller.

But why would a former model, someone so eager to reinvent herself as a proper, refined, glamourous all-American (despite privately being fiercely proud of her Polish roots), give herself a name like Cairn? How do you get that as a phonetic spelling? It makes more sense for her to modify her Polish nickname, Karina, which her family still calls her.

The names Corinne, Corrine, Cara, and Carine likewise felt all wrong on her. Her name is Carin, even if that’s unfortunately become a widespread sexist pejorative in recent years.

4. I seriously considered changing Gayle’s closest sister’s name from T.J. (Tina Jasmine) to just Jasmine, to fit with the siblings’ predominant nature theme. But I just couldn’t picture her as a Jasmine after so many years. She’s T.J., for better or worse.

5. I described formerly unmentioned costumes in the Halloween chapter. How did that one slip by a passionate Halloween-lover!?

6. For the life of me, I couldn’t find the name of the girls’ division of Budapest’s famous, venerable Fasori Gymnasium again, so now Mrs. Kovacs just tells Mrs. Small she learnt German at gymnasium. No name specified.

7. I further toned down the fight Mr. and Mrs. Seward have in front of all the children. That remains one of the edgier parts of the book, but now it’s only mildly PG-13 instead of jaw-droppingly X-rated. It’s enough to know she’s openly, regularly committing adultery.

8. I took out a few lines point-blank giving away a future revelation about one of the principal families. There are already enough strong clues without directly spelling it out so early!

9. Kit’s animosity towards her mother is toned down even more. It’s still very much there, but Kit no longer uses epithets like “stupid” and “crazy.”

10. The Smalls’ Amsterdam neighborhood, named in Barry’s bar mitzvah speech in the Epilogue, was corrected from De Pijp to Rivierenbuurt. I realized the mistake while looking through the book formerly known as The Very Last.

11. There are now four tracks at the school—general, honors, college prep, progressive. Cinni and most of her friends will enter the progressive track in junior high.

12. I made almost everyone’s ages ambiguous, not just Cinni and her friends. If I age them up, it’ll have to be by two years. While I’d probably make them 10–11 in the first book were I just writing it now, that would demand far too much frogging and reconstruction.

No story element is ever set in stone!

Even after I finally realised the importance of editing and rewriting, it didn’t immediately dawn on me that I wasn’t beholden to every single aspect of a story as I originally envisioned it. Sometimes things must be excised. Writing around or radically rewriting rotten material won’t suddenly make garbage into gold. Smothering dross with a thousand layers of gold won’t change what still lurks beneath.

A lot of the problems I’ve had with the earlier drafts of my Atlantic City books comes from this juvenile mindset it took me far too long to ditch. I just added new material and reworded the most egregious garbage instead of starting radical rewrites and restructurings.

It’s like only removing part of a tumour, or removing the tumour and not following up with chemo and radiation. Eventually, the cancer will come back and get even worse, since you’re letting it become so embedded within the body at what should be the most opportune time to root it out completely.

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E.g., Gayle Pembroke and her siblings are stolen from their parents by an obsessed older rich woman named Mrs. Pardon. For reasons which I never explained, Mrs. Pardon framed Mr. and Mrs. Pembroke, had them thrown in jail, and was given full custody of their five kids. The baby they have in early 1943, Lacey, is given to her as well.

Granted, the framing happens in the long-hiatused second Max’s House book, but in none of the other books after that was it ever stated what exactly Mrs. Pardon framed them for, why the jury believed this story, and why a total stranger would get custody! Was it murder? Arson? Treason? Grand larceny? Embezzlement? Fraud?

I thought up this stupid storyline when I was a preteen, and just kept running with it despite it making zero sense. Also, the littlest Pembroke sister needs a new name. At least third sister Brooke’s unusual-for-the-era name can be explained by her parents liking nature names.

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As I’ve said before, I’m so glad I was forced to recreate Little Ragdoll from scratch and memory, and that the long-buggy first file was only finally resurrected after I finished the second first draft. There was zero way I could’ve salvaged a halfway-decent story from that Grimms’ fairytale on acid. Had I been able to open the first of those two old files earlier, the resulting story would’ve been absolutely terrible.

Likewise with the Max’s House books I handwrote the first drafts of (#1, #3, #7, and #8). The others need a lot of work too, but not nearly so extensively. I transcribed everything and merely added new stuff or fleshed out and reworded other stuff. Never a serious thought to outright removing the most egregious garbage!

The main storyline of #3 absolutely disgusts me now. Elaine decides she’ll kill herself after her English teacher forces her to read a bunch of books, and hatches a bizarrely detailed timeline. E.g., she begins taking poison in larger and larger doses, moves into the cellar and sleeps in a coffin, writes goofy poetry, buys dresses for her suicide and funeral, and finally “kills” herself in the outdoor pool with Max’s assistance. She has quite a long OOBE and comes back to herself in hospital.

There are so many things wrong with that storyline, perhaps worst of all treating suicide and suicidal ideation so matter-of-factly and as dark comedy! Elaine shows no signs of any sort of real depression or other mental health issues. I retained that storyline only because it was already there.

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You are never beholden to keep every last word as you originally wrote it. Same goes for plot twists, couplings, character arcs, backstories, storylines, plots, scenes, et al. Yes, it’s very difficult to dismantle a good chunk of a book and rewrite it almost from scratch, but it’s always worth it in the end.

Who cares if that was a core part of the first draft, or you feel sentimental attachment to an idea you hatched when you were very young? That’s not a solid reason to justify keeping it if it’s bad to begin with.

When you cut away rotted flesh, healthy new flesh eventually replaces it. So too is it with radically slashing and burning to create a new and improved story.

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