IWSG—Resisting the cookie-cutter culture

InsecureWritersSupportGroup

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:

How has being a writer changed your experience as a reader?

I definitely want to break out the red pen so many times! I understand even the best-edited books sometimes have embarrassing typos or errors that somehow fell through the cracks, but some books have a LOT of grammar, punctuation, and language that needs cleaning up.

I also want to bang my head against the wall when I catch things like “As you know, Bob” dialogue, too many unnecessary adverbs (esp. coupled with non-standard speaking verbs), infodumps, rushed-along action, huge time gaps between chapters, lack of front and back matter that would really enhance an understanding of the story (e.g., list of characters, family tree, pronunciation guide), and making a big deal out of introducing a bunch of characters who never appear again after the first 20 pages.

One of my favorite YouTuber writers, Maya Goode, recently discussed this in a vlog. I highly recommend her channel!

I had a very surprising encounter with an older friend recently. We were discussing how I’m having a book cover revamped and will be having physical copies soon, and she was very interested in buying the book. But as soon as she asked how long it is and I gave her the guesstimated page length (700ish), her tune changed drastically.

Instantly, she began insisting she wouldn’t and couldn’t read it, and was almost hostile and yelling while telling me books “shouldn’t” be that long. She’s only read a handful of long books (Anna Karenina and Roots, and maybe some of the Harry Potter franchise). I kept trying to explain:

That’s the length I naturally write at.

There are lots of people who enjoy long books more than short ones.

All the great long books there are.

My short books (under 100K) are actually the ones that need the most editing, since I didn’t plot, plan, and write them as carefully as the ones I deliberately planned at saga-length.

I do have some shorter books, but that’s the length that works and naturally unfolds for them.

I’m not cutting out hundreds of pages for no other reason than making a book shorter to please other people’s tastes.

I don’t write for people with short attention spans! Why should I contribute to the perpetuation of a culture that refuses to write anything by hand or think outside of 140-character Tweets?

Long, saga-length books are kind of the traditional standard for historicals, particularly considering they often take place over many years and have large ensemble casts. Look at Leon Uris, Herman Wouk, James Michener.

I don’t force myself to write at a certain length.

Many people have said they’d love to see more longer books, and can’t understand why so many modern-day agents refuse to look at anything above a certain length, sight unseen. If these agents don’t read any of it, how will they know if the length is merited or a result of genuine overwriting?

People who love reading make the time to read long books. No one says you have to spend your entire day reading!

One of the reasons I went indie was because of these modern-day wordcount policies in traditional publishing.

I’m not going to rush along a story just to keep it short. That length actually IS the core story, carefully planned and plotted at that length. With many short books, there’s no room for detailed character development and worldbuilding.

Long books weren’t considered automatically overwritten and “too long” as recently as 20–30 years ago. That was more the norm in certain genres.

Many of us prefer to climb into a long book we can live in for a few weeks, as opposed to something so short we can breeze through it in a few hours.

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I understand genre fiction tends to be shorter (e.g., police procedural, YA contemporary, romance, thriller, horror). I’d wonder about a genre book that’s over 400 pages. However, I write historical sagas, which come from a very long tradition of being at least 400 pages, if not 700 or more. My Atlantic City books are only so short because they typically take place over much shorter timespans. Were I to combine the ones that lead right into one another, they’d be much longer!

I also know many people nowadays have much shorter attention spans than they did 50+ years ago. But I don’t consider that a good thing. Times change, but good stories remain the same.

2016 in review

Writing and editing:

I didn’t complete any books this year, though I got a lot of work done on The Strongest Branches of Uprooted Trees and A Dream Deferred: Lyuba and Ivan at UniversityBranches was 61K when I took it out of hiatus and began expanding it into an actual narrative story, and it’s now up to 333K. This book really wanted to be one of my sprawling sagas!

Dream Deferred was 80K when I went back to work on it shortly before NaNo, and it’s now up to 170K. My conservative guesstimate is 300–400K, since it only covers four years, and has relatively quieter storylines than the massive Journey Through a Dark Forest.

I did one full round of edits on Dark Forest, and have done little tweaks as I’ve looked through the four combined files. The first draft was 891K, and it’s currently down to:

149K in Part I
272K in Part II
219K in Part III
237K in Part IV and the Epilogue
877K total

I expect a bit more to be shorn off during subsequent full rounds of edits.

I also did some work on my alternative history in January and February. It’s now up to 185K. I also did a bit of work on the book formerly known as The Very Last.

Films:

After finally reaching my long-awaited goal of 1,000 silents on New Year’s Eve 2015 (The Phantom Carriage), I turned my focus to early sound films that aren’t comedies. I knew that was a most dire gap which needed filling.

Most of the silents I saw this year were avant-garde and experimental films, including many made after the silent era officially added. I count them as silents because they were deliberately made without dialogue (or extremely sparse dialogue in otherwise silent scenarios).

I saw 125 new silents this year, my favorite features being L’Inferno (1911), The Bat (1926), and Labyrinth of Horror (Labyrinth des Grauens) (1921).

Favorite new-to-me sound films I saw this year were, in no special order, Frankenstein (1931), The Petrified Forest (1936), Little Caesar (1930), The Roaring Twenties (1938), Scarlet Street (1945), Meet John Doe (1942), Charade (1963), The Manchurian Candidate (1962), and White Heat (1949).

Books:

pornland-cover

The most important book I read this year had to have been Gail Dines’s excellent Pornland, which was highly recommended on one of my favorite radfem blogs. Over this year, I came to the stronger and stronger, more and more obvious realization I’ve been a lifelong radfem (though I don’t 100% agree on every single issue). Unpacking my feelings towards porn was my final step.

All these revelations about the true nature of the porn industry were so nauseating, heartbreaking, and shocking. Even if it’s possible there are some small indie companies doing things radically differently, that doesn’t change the nature of the vast majority of porn. A few powerful women like Nina Hartley in the industry also don’t cancel out the sickeningly overwhelming numbers of women trafficked into this exploitative business and not given any free agency.

This book also helped me to realize how very, very pornsick my ex is, and how porn deeply affected our relationship in many ways I wasn’t aware of.

Life:

As abovementioned, this year I realized I’ve always been a radfem. I may have a future post explaining exactly what radical feminism is and isn’t, and how it’s not at all what many folks falsely assume it to be. I know I definitely had the completely wrong ideas about it until finally getting to know actual radfems and reading so many wonderful radfem blogs and news stories.

I’d considered myself a Marxist–Socialist feminist since age 15, never a libfem (a.k.a. a funfem). There are huge differences between radical, Second Wave feminism and liberal, Third Wave feminism. Even as a teen who read too much and understood too little, I knew liberal feminism was milquetoast and didn’t go nearly far enough.

not-right

I’m still grieving and in shock over what happened on 8 November. That was not an outcome I nor any of my friends were expecting or wanting. It was the first time I and many of my friends ever cried at the results of a presidential election, instead of just feeling upset and disappointed. I actually thought i was going to throw up that night.

We’re all extremely scared about what’s going to happen to us after 21 January, particularly those of us who are women, Jewish, African–American, Hispanic, Muslim, gay or lesbian, and disabled.

afraid

On 11 August, I sadly had to retire my beautiful navel piercing. It had been red for awhile, and not only wasn’t getting better, but had reached an obvious, advanced state of rejection. I was able to screw off the top opal and remove it myself. My wonderful piercer, who’s no longer local, only uses internally threaded jewelry, which prevents microdermabrasions and the subsequent risk of infections.

This is what it looked like the day it was done, 24 November 2015:

navel-closeup

I will be having it redone eventually. For now, I’m glad it’s out, since it just didn’t want to heal, and I don’t have to worry about it catching on my clothes or getting knocked. I’m also really superstitious about auspicious vs. inauspicious dates and numbers, which wasn’t helped when I discovered I’d had it pierced on Freddie Mercury’s Jahrzeit.

For now, I’m down to 10 piercings, my nostril plus nine in my ears (four right, five left). If only the nearest APP studios weren’t 64 miles away in either direction!

My thoughts on NaNo overachieving

I naturally write very prolifically, very quickly, particularly when I’m inspired. Some books have written me more than I’ve written them, judging by first draft wordcounts like 397K in three months and 406K in five months. When I’ve had that particular story memorized backwards and forwards in my head for years, the words flow even faster, as they’re finally given an outlet.

Every year I’ve officially participated in NaNo, I’ve gone over 50K. Two of the three years I unofficially did NaNo, I also went over 50K. The only reason I didn’t go over 50K the first year, 2010, was because I didn’t start till 18 November. I certainly did write at least 100K each month I was writing that book. As of the end of Tuesday, my NaNo wordcount for this month stood at 42K, so I’m well on track to overachieve yet again.

nano-2016-day-22

However, there’s a big difference between naturally coming by a high wordcount in a short span of time and forcing yourself to crank out hundreds of thousands of words within a mere month. At absolute most, I might be able to do about 250K in a month if I were really well-prepared, motivated, and inspired, and had the luxury of enough time each day. That said, that’s still not something I’d ever deliberately shoot for.

Some people try to write the first 50K on the first day. This year, I even saw someone humble-bragging about finishing within the first twelve HOURS. It’s called National Novel-Writing Month, not National Novel-Writing Day. What do you honestly get out of forcing yourself to sit at the keyboard for almost an entire day at a stretch, pounding out so many words? This isn’t a contest.

nano-2016-day-fourteen

While I do feel disappointed in myself for not keeping to my normal daily averages more days this month, my typical output is still only several thousand words, NOT at least 35K each day. I’m truly curious as to what kinds of projects these extreme overachievers are working on. My conservative guesstimate for my book is 300–400K, but it’s a historical/family saga. I doubt all these people trying for 250K, 300K, 500K, 700K, a million words, are also writing deliberate sagas with huge ensemble casts, spanning many years.

Are these collections of stories? Several different projects counted together? Really long fanfictions? Just unfocused rambling that could easily be cut down to 100K or less without losing anything? Even I’m not crazy and prolific enough to think every book needs to be a doorstopper, nor that a length of several million words for one book is normal. I was stunned enough when the first draft of Journey Through a Dark Forest ended up 891K, though at least each of the four Parts reads like its own story, with a focus on different characters and storylines.

nano-2016-day-six

Someone who’s, e.g., struggling to meet the daily minimum every single day, or who’s fallen sharply behind due to unforeseen circumstances, doesn’t need to see someone humble-bragging, “Ooh, I was so lazy yesterday and only wrote 30K!” or “I totally failed NaNo because I only wrote 750K instead of a million like usual.”

I’m going to call the majority of this as crap writing. How can there be any quality when you’re forcing out that many words so swiftly? Quality matters more than quantity. I like getting to know my characters and going on the journey through life with them, not plowing through their stories within one day. It’s also ridiculous to plan any story at a million words. What are you writing that absolutely needs to be a million damn words?!

Crafting a quality story, no matter its length or brevity, takes time. Quality can never come when you’re pounding away at the keyboard for almost every waking hour, forcing out at least 25,000 words each day. Some of these people even give tips on how to pad out wordcount, like lots of dream sequences, explaining basic things over and over again, infodumps, complete song lyrics, many quotes, not using contractions, writing out common abbreviations like DVD and ATM, and characters constantly recapping scenes that just happened.

I’d rather stick to my realistic, natural type of overachieving than vomit forth a profusion of words just for wordiness’s sake.

The ethics of splitting up a long book

Perhaps due in part to my non-neurotypical brain wiring, I’ve never understood the modern, U.S. line of thinking that claims books must be a certain size, particularly from people who haven’t been published before. Not only am I used to being different from the others and not going along with the crowd, but I’m used to historicals and classic literature that are routinely well over 400 pages.

Books can be overwritten at any size. My most overwritten books, in need of the most serious edits, revisions, and rewrites, are all under 100,000 words, whereas I deliberately planned my doorstoppers as long, complex sagas and thus wrote and plotted them much more carefully. But once you get past a certain length, it’s generally safe to say the length is deliberate. A simple YA contemporary or cozy mystery couldn’t be 350,000 words, because those genres lend themselves to brevity. Historicals, fantasy, sci-fi, and literary fiction, however, often do lend themselves to length.

It’s easier said than done to “just” split up a deliberately long book. If you’ve never written a saga, you can’t really understand what goes into writing it, and why it wouldn’t be nearly the same story anymore if you hacked out hundreds of pages or passed it off as a pretended trilogy or series. The dramatic momentum is lost if the plot is divided up piecemeal over several books.

With my first Russian historical, the title has significance for the entire book. The last line, spoken by Serafima Lebedeva in Siberia, even includes the title. When Part I ends, most of the main characters are sailing to America, and Lyuba and Ivan are finally engaged, but so much else is still up in the air. Part II leads to Lyuba and Ivan’s marriage and their day-long courtroom showdown with Boris to strip him of his paternal rights to Tatyana. From the time I went back to working on it in the fall of ’96, at age sixteen, I carefully plotted how it would unfold. It’s not long by accident.

It also wouldn’t make sense to split it into two, since there’s a sequel (even longer) with its own plot trajectory and storylines. That too was very carefully planned, plotted, and written. I’ve actually seriously been considering publishing the third book in four volumes, but not only because of the mammoth length (probably going to end up around 700,000 words). Each Part reads like a self-sustaining story, with a focus on different characters and storylines. There are natural breaks, no real loss of momentum or chopping up the plot piecemeal. Also, I’d make it clear they’re four volumes of the same book, not four different books.

At one point, while querying Adicia’s story, I kowtowed and pretended Parts I and II were the first book of a trilogy. It just doesn’t work split up. While Part IV and the Epilogue could work as a separate book, they only make sense and flow well as the dramatic, relatively fast-paced conclusion to everything that came before. Better to have one long book than several short books that feel incomplete.

I created Jakob’s story from a long short story/piece of backstory about a longtime secondary character. My original intention was to follow the timeline of 10 October 1940-14 April 1947, from the forced suicide of Jaap’s father to the naming ceremony of his firstborn child Vera in America. But length was a big consideration, since I thought it was YA. A natural breaking point opened up at the most fitting, beautiful point, when Jaap and his mother are sailing to America in May 1946. I even found a way to tie in the significance of the title to the ending.

The rest of the material was used for a second volume, about Jakob’s first year in America, his first proper year of marriage to Rachel. This turned out to be an excellent call. The first volume concerns the War and that difficult first postwar year. The second volume is concerned with acclimating to marriage and life in America, including many culture clashes and Rachel’s search for a midwife in the era of twilight sleep. It makes sense to separate them.

The decision to split up a long book should be done on a case-to-case basis, not because someone was made to feel like books over a certain length are automatically way too long. Finding a natural break in a deliberately long book is a lot different from artificially splitting it up for no other reason than to be short and please someone else’s taste.

IWSG and What’s Up Wednesday

My Horny Hump Day post is here.

InsecureWritersSupportGroup

It’s time for the first meeting of The Insecure Writer’s Support Group this year.

I’ve finally stopped waffling and come to the conclusion that I’m not a YA writer in the modern, U.S. sense of the word. I’ve always most enjoyed writing about young people, but it’s become more and more obvious, based on contests, following trends, and such, that my stories are more adult in nature, and just happen to be about young people.

I’ve gotten a lot of good comments and feedback when I’ve entered Jakob’s story in contests and query critiques, but one thing that prevented a number of people from selecting it as a finalist was the length, and the narrative voice. 120K is actually a drop in the bucket by my adult standards, and this particular book is a lot closer to third-person limited than I usually do. Jakob remains the pivotal character throughout, and there’s never a scene where he’s not present. For example, when his mother Luisa is being abused at the police station before they go to Westerbork, he can only hear what’s going on in the other room, and then sees the evidence when Luisa is let go.

Traditionally, historical has been a lengthy genre. I usually look askance at historicals that aren’t at least 400 pages, though there are wonderful exceptions. I get the feeling that a lot of agents who list historical in a big laundry list of interests aren’t really passionate about it. If you were, you’d understand that it normally requires a fair bit of length for worldbuilding, not to mention how most historical novels are set over a number of years, not just a few months.

Jakob’s story ended up a bit over 120K, because that was the length that naturally unfolded for it. Cutting out at least 30,000 words just to make it shorter would make it not the same story anymore. It’s the same way that my Atlantic City books tend to be under 70K, because that length works best for the types of stories they are. Within each genre, there’s a continuum of normal, like 60K for a police procedural or YA contemporary, and over 300K for a lot of classic historicals and fantasies.

Also, I’m just really disappointed in a lot of YA historicals from the last 10 years or so. The best ones I’ve encountered tend to come from outside the U.S., where the focus is on a young person fully experiencing history, not a teen who just happens to be living through history. Don’t even get me started on the Gossip Girl in period clothes trend.

WUW Winter

What I’m Writing

Past the 555,000-word mark in my WIP, and up to Chapter 72, “Shelter in Shanghai.” In the last chapter, Lyuba, Ivan, Eliisabet, and Aleksey became grandparents to little Kira Tvardovskaya-Koneva, and the chapter before was the polio chapter. It was pretty emotionally challenging to end the chapter in the iron lung ward, as I had to research what an iron lung sounds like and then put myself in 12-year-old Violetta’s semi-conscious mind as she’s being taken into this place and put in that grotesque breathing machine.

Two of the girls, Beatrisa and Platosha, got non-paralytic polio and were able to walk again within a week, but the other two, Violetta and her sister Flora, were paralysed. In later chapters, little Flora will take a ballet class taught by Lyuba’s stepsister Lyolya, who knows what it’s like to have a mobility injury and gradually relearn how to walk and dance. Lyolya is about due to retire as a ballerina anyway, so teaching little polio survivors how to dance as part of their rehabilitation is a really nice touch.

Violetta is going to date and marry Lyuba and Ivan’s son Igor in the future fourth book (1948-52), so her being a polio survivor creates some good storylines. Being the sinistral chauvinist I am, I also made her left hand and arm untouched by paralysis. Though her paralysis isn’t permanent, her right side will be too damaged to remain her dominant side.

What I’m Reading

I saw The Age of Innocence in a classics display at the nearest library, and decided to revisit it 20 years later. In 8th grade, I basically just read the dialogue and short narrative passages, and still got an A+ on my social-studies book report. As an adult, I can appreciate the writing style and storyline much better, though I still think there are way too many descriptive passages and backstories bogging down the action, as well as far too much telling.

What Inspires Me

I’ve got an upcoming blog series called “Diseases and Historical Fiction.” Part I, to go live on the 13th, is a general debunking of the vaccine-denialist cult and their complete ignorance of history and hatred/abuse of children with ASDs. In the final paragraph, I’m officially outing myself, and that prospect no longer frightens me. God chose to wire my brain a little differently, and that’s just part of who I am. The fact that these people would see me as damaged, defective, cursed, nonexistent as an adult, or soulless enrages me, and I don’t think it’s right to continue hiding in the crowd just because I learnt how to more or less pass as “normal.”

What Else I’ve Been Up To

I was playing around a bit with my title page for Little Ragdoll, and changed the typeface a few more times. The original Edwardian Script seemed too fancy for the type of story it was, and Monotype Corsiva, Lucida Handwriting, Lucida Calligraphy, and Snell Roundhand felt a bit dull, not too creative or inspired. I initially loved Handwriting Dakota, since it matches the typeface in the Wordle I made, but I had to look it up to make sure Dakota isn’t considered amateurish or overused by serious typographers. I’d hate to unintentionally use something as disreputable as Comic Sans or Papyrus!

I ultimately found a typeface called Journal, which is recommended as one of several substitutes for Dakota. It conveys the same feel of casual handwriting, is still very similar to the Wordle typeface, looks better-designed (no slanting, and the characters are closer together and more proportionate), and really does match the story of a young girl, her sisters, and their friends growing up poor in Manhattan during the Sixties and early Seventies. I made the title dark blue, Adicia’s favourite colour.

LR Title Page