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.

One of the worst hist-fic tropes

I recently started working on the final draft of the book formerly known as The Very Next. Now that the book formerly known as The Very First has been published at 90K, the sequel’s 75K length seems a bit imbalanced. I’d like all four books in the prequel series to be of fairly equal size.

Those extra words will come mostly from four new chapters. There were 37 chapters in the radical rewrite of 2015, and that odd number bugged me. I admit I’m superstitious about auspicious and inauspicious numbers and dates.

Now there are thirty chapters in Part I, and ten in Part II. I also deleted a three-page chapter from Part II, “The von Hinderburgs’ Mistake.” And why might that be?

It uses one of the worst tropes of hist-fic, particularly WWII hist-fic! It was also poorly-written even after the rewrite, and badly-incorporated with the entire rest of the remainder of the story.

You’ve probably seen this trope in at least one book and/or film. Someone travels to Poland for a really convenient, paper-thin reason right on the eve of WWII, and of course finds him or herself trapped there, either short-term or long-term. Herman Wouk (may he rest in peace) did this in The Winds of War. It was also done in Masterpiece Theatre’s World on Fire recently.

It doesn’t necessarily have to be Poland in 1939. The trope could also be coming to San Francisco right as the hippie movement starts, being stuck in England during the Blitz, travelling to Russia on the eve of the Revolution, being in France on the eve of their Revolution, going to Iran in 1979, going to visit a friend in East Berlin and overnight finding oneself stuck behind the newly-erected Berlin Wall, conveniently-timed situations like that.

Yes, many great storylines and entire books are built around a character finding oneself in a strange situation one doesn’t really understand, but that can easily be accomplished without getting into whatever setting just as trouble’s about to erupt!

Near the very end of Volume II of Journey Through a Dark Forest, Darya and Oliivia set sail for France for an envisioned year of studying abroad at a Parisian lycée. In Volume III, they find themselves trapped after the invasion and occupation, and eventually become Nazi slaves. More than a few American citizens ended up in the camps, and to this day haven’t been nearly properly acknowledged and compensated.

But in other words, they were already there, for a realistic reason. The von Hinderburgs go to visit their old friend Zalman Radulski in Warsaw and end up stuck there until April 1940. By that time, Herr and Frau von Hinderburg have died of starvation, and their kids and Zalman are smuggled back in potato sacks in a truck with help from a young anti-Nazi Wehrmacht soldier. Their escape was strongly based on one of the border crossings in Maia Wojciechowska’s memoir Till the Break of Day.

There’s zero reason for them to be there now, since the Brandts and von Hinderburgs went straight from Germany to The Netherlands in 1933. I got rid of that pointless year in Poland long ago. Thus, they’d have no Polish friends to visit.

My hot mess of this storyline’s original incarnation also had Herr and Frau von Hinderburg dying in the nascent Warsaw Ghetto, despite the fact that it didn’t exist till autumn 1940. Even in Hungary, where the Shoah was implemented with lightning-quick alacrity, ghettoes weren’t created almost as soon as the Nazis invaded!

In my radical rewrite of the book formerly known as The Very Last, the von Hinderburg kids come home to multiple letters from Mr. Filliard in Atlantic City, desperately pleading them to respond so he can get them visas. Thus, it’s an important plot point that they’re away from home and unable to be reached for a very long time.

It seems much more plausible, if still incredibly foolish, for the von Hinderburgs to return to Hamburg to try to bring the rest of their relatives, and the Brandts’ family, into The Netherlands. Maybe Herr and Frau von Hinderburg could be taken prisoner and never heard from again, while their kids and old family friend Zalman escape back to Amsterdam.

Ask yourself, honestly, why your character would accompany a friend to a wedding in Poland or happen to be on a diplomatic mission there in August 1939. If you already have an ensemble cast, why not just use native Polish characters and have them eventually link up with the other people?

In The Winds of War, it particularly makes no sense for the über-WASPy Henrys to be connected to the Jewish Jastrows, beyond trope and convenience. I don’t understand why Mr. Wouk couldn’t have the two families presented separately. It’s hardly unheard-of in historical sagas to feature families and characters who don’t interact immediately.

Original stories are never built around tropes, and if any tropes are involved, they’re used in a very unique way that rises above cliché, to the point it no longer feels like a trope.