IWSG—Grueling edits

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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:

Have you ever pulled out a really old story and reworked it? Did it work out?

That’s what many of my books are! I wrote the rough drafts when I was really young. Most of these are my Atlantic City books, which I love radically rewriting and restructuring (as exhausting as that can be!).

I never understood why my mother felt I should “move on” after reaching some arbitrary age. I love these characters and their stories, and literally grew up with the original cast of characters. We’ve known one another since we were eleven years old. After now 25 years together, I kind of know them inside and out. That puts me in the perfect position to not only continue writing the stories of their lives, but also to revise their oldest stories.

I also want to resurrect my 18th and 19th century characters, whom I thought I’d permanently shelved in the early Nineties. I figure if I never forgot their names and stories in all these years, they were meant to be. I also created these characters (albeit not historical originally) when I was like five or six years old. It’s destiny.

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I just finished second edition edits for Little Ragdoll, which I’m still waiting on the revamped cover for. I first went through the book on my newer computer and made a file with all the things I needed to change on the Word and HTML files on my older computer. (My newer computer won’t open Word 2003, since it’s a Power Point PC application, and I don’t think I can do Time Machine on a computer which never had an older operating system like Mountain Lion.)

My older computer was behaving very well, though it was taking a lot longer than I anticipated. After fixing all the main issues, I began doing find/change to root out excess usage of crutch words and phrases like “even,” “yet,” “apparently,” “I know,” “now,” “I mean,” “still,” “then,” “ever,” and “just.”

I ultimately decided to go through the entire file and make the changes as part of a read-through, not finding them and deciding if the usage of that word or phrase worked in that context or could be junked. I felt it’d reduce the effort.

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I became concerned my older computer was being overused, and making that whirring sound more often than not. Its left fan is broken, and while it’s not dangerous, I don’t like risking overheating. This computer is ten years old, and doesn’t need overworked in its senior years!

I took the most recently saved Word file onto my flash drive and converted it into Pages on my newer computer, so I could work on it as one file, instead of going back and forth between three files on two computers. This still took a long time and wore me out, but it was a lot more practical.

Afterwards, I saved it as a doc file and went back onto my older computer, who really appreciated its resting period. All I had to do was re-hyperlink the table of contents in the Word file. Thankfully, the chapter and appendix titles still registered as being in a heading style, so I didn’t have to go through and redo that as well. After that, I converted it back into an HTML file.

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I took out almost 22,000 words, after thinking I’d just be doing minor tweakings. I’m so much happier the slightly shorter, much stronger second edition has replaced the first edition which released 20 June 2014. It’s a blessing in disguise it only sold maybe two copies since its release.

I made some really stupid mistakes in marketing, and then gave up trying in humiliation and embarrassment because no one was buying my books. Once I have revamped covers for both LR and Swan, I’m going to finally make paper copies of all four of the books I currently have out, and I’ll be able to do things like book-signings and library promotions.

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Lessons learnt from post-publication polishing, Part III

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There’s nothing better than good old-fashioned time in a writer’s journey. We become better writers with the passage of time, and learn what our weaknesses are and how to edit our work. Excellent, experienced critique partners and the most esteemed editor in the world telling us such-and-such is awkward phrasing, an overused word, cluttery chat, overwrought prose, or infodumpy dialogue won’t mean anything if it doesn’t click in our brains. We have to see it for ourselves, not merely be told it’s a problem. Only then can we begin to understand how to improve.

Thus, I noticed a number of shortcomings while editing the second edition of Little Ragdoll. In addition to what I’ve previously mentioned, I also found:

1. Rehashing established information. We already know, for example, everything good Allen has done for Lenore since he gave her a safe place to stay when she was a 15-year-old runaway. Why be reminded of the main points every time Lenore reflects on or talks about their history together?

We also already know all the good things Father and Mrs. Murphy up in Yorkville have done for Lucine and Emeline, and how they adopted oldest sister Gemma’s birth son Giovanni after she divorced her abusive, unwanted husband and started over. There’s no need to be reminded again and again.

2. Pointless, cluttery chat adding nothing to the scene, or coming across like me putting my own viewpoints into characters’ mouths. At one point, Allen is talking about how his parents were very upset when Giovanni was adopted and taken out of their clutches, since they’d been planning to sell him for at least $1,000 on the baby black market. There’s no need to point that out when we already know how black-hearted they are and why Allen doesn’t want them coming anywhere near his kids.

In another scene, when Ernestine, Julie, and the three oldest Ryan siblings are comforting Adicia after her black-hearted, unmotherly mother coerced her into sacrificing her virginity to save her mother from returning to prison, Ernestine and Girl/Deirdre get into a discussion about the repackaging of Beatles’ albums. Though Adicia snaps at them to have this conversation later, and they apologize, it’s still really inappropriate they began discussing that during such an emotional time.

3. If a character is meant as an intellectual or someone very political, make sure that naturally flows with the overall direction of a scene or dialogue. Emeline just wouldn’t be the same Emeline if she didn’t constantly bubble over with chatter about books, philosophy, music, Eastern religions, and vegetarianism. Likewise, Girl/Deirdre, and, to a somewhat lesser extent, Ernestine wouldn’t be the same if they weren’t so tuned into politics and social issues. They have to be discussing that for a reason, not out of the blue.

4. Some dialogues and passages don’t lose anything, and are made stronger, by cutting out the fat. This goes for removing overwrought prose, too many details, unnecessary lines, rehashing established information, and polemics which sound more like the author trying to work one’s opinions in than a character naturally expressing such thoughts.

In the scene of Ernestine and the Ryans riding up to Hudson Falls from Poughkeepsie for Thanksgiving 1972, I cut out everything Deirdre said about a certain topic. Now, Adicia begs to talk about something else after she feels Deirdre’s scathing critique of this subject is finished. I similarly cut out the dialogue Ernestine and Deirdre have when revisiting this subject during baking on Christmas Eve.

5. When a story is set during a very political time, conversations of a political nature are kind of inevitable. The first time the subject of the Vietnam War is broached, it leads into Lenore hoping Allen isn’t drafted, and then turns into the girls planning what Lenore will get Allen for his upcoming 21st birthday and trying to get Lenore to admit she has a crush on Allen.

Chapter 37, “The Year the World Went Up in Flames,” is about 1968, and so it naturally follows there will be discussions about things like the presidential election, RFK’s assassination, the feminist protests by the Miss America pageant, and the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

Were I only starting over with this story today, I’d write certain things differently, maybe change wraparound narrative passages into active scenes. Part I in particular might be drastically different. But this is how the story came together, and I can’t alter everything in the impossible quest for perfection.

Lessons learnt from post-publication polishing, Part II

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Going in, I believed I’d only be tweaking Little Ragdoll for its physical copies, doing things like catching stray typos and removing all those excess “even”s I was so fond of. Instead, I’ve cut about 13,000 words so far. That’s a drop in the bucket considering how long it is, but even a deliberate saga needs to be as tight as possible.

First things first, it’s such a beautiful blessing that my older computer still works! I got it secondhand in early 2009, but it was made in 2007. It’s now lasted longer than the 152K Mac and the ’93 Mac. My version of Pages can’t do certain things Word can, like create a hyperlinked table of contents or convert files into HTML, and my newer computer can’t open Word 2003.

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A big issue I noticed was that some passages and dialogues were really pushy, preachy, and lecturey re: attachment parenting and natural childbirth. Yes, both were coming back into vogue during the Sixties and Seventies, but a lot of times it just felt like a smug, holier than thou lesson instead of a naturally-flowing dialogue or prose.

I absolutely still am a huge advocate of natural childbirth, midwifery, and attachment parenting, but that needs to be conveyed as a natural part of a story, not expressed in a rather sanctimommy way. The penultimate chapter, “Allen Finally Accepts Adicia’s Marriage,” opens with a bunch of long paragraphs talking about how Adicia has been mothering her newborn son Robbie, how much she loves him, how she wishes she didn’t have to use cloth diapers, how she co-sleeps, how she uses baby slings a lot more than a stroller, you get the idea.

I junked pretty much all of it and just skipped right to the chase. How was that  relevant? It really slowed down the chapter’s true storyline, and seems more like a history lesson and too much POV.

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I also changed how some things were worded re: Adicia’s awakening during women’s liberation and her disagreement with certain of the things she’s been reading. Back then, I hadn’t yet realized I’ve been a lifelong radfem myself, and was seriously misinformed about just what radical feminism is and isn’t. “Radical” truly means “root,” not “extremist.” I’m planning a series on radical feminism. Too many people are just as misinformed as I used to be.

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One of the midwife characters, Veronica Zoravkov, is really lecturey while discussing the history and then-current use of twilight sleep. It reads like a lesson instead of a natural dialogue! As a former labor and delivery nurse, she’s certainly seen the horrors of twilight sleep firsthand, and oldest sister Gemma was left traumatized by her own experience, but it again comes off more like a polemic. That scene was almost totally rewritten!

There’s definitely a time and place to incorporate one’s own views into a book, but it needs to be a natural, believable part of the overall story and the characters involved. I wasn’t rushing at all during all my prior rounds of edits; I just didn’t see those as things which needed changed.

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I’ve mostly read older books my entire life. Therefore, I absorbed a style which isn’t so in fashion anymore—overwrought prose, God-mode omniscience, monologue-like speech, conveying historical background or other information through dialogue, telly passages. I know I’ll never have a fully contemporary style, but I’m open to evolving in a way which feels right.

I know I can’t change every single thing short of doing a full, time-consuming rewrite. I’m okay with that. This book will just have a somewhat more old-fashioned style than I’ve since developed into. We need to reach a stage where we accept a book is as perfect as we can get it, and not try to run around fixing every little thing.

Lessons learnt from post-publication polishing, Part I

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Since I’m having a new cover made for Little Ragdoll, and thus will soon have physical copies, I went back through the document to check for any typos I may have missed during all the previous editing rounds and sweep-throughs. I also wanted to strip out all the unnecessary uses of “even” and other words/phrases I wasn’t aware of overusing.

Thankfully, I only caught a handful of true typos and missed misspellings. Most of the rest were just a matter of weasel words/phrases, taking out cluttery, rehashing, or preachy lines, and removing a lot of passive -ing constructions. None of this is grammatically incorrect, but it’s not as strong and tight as it could’ve been.

I worked on a document converted into Pages, and made a file keeping track of lines and issues that needed corrected on the Word and HTML files on my older computer. With the broken fan on my older computer, I don’t like to spend very long on it. It’s not dangerous, but I don’t like the loud sound that often kicks in. If the price is right and someone has the parts, I’ll have it repaired at a local Mac shop.

Specific issues:

1. Overused words and phrases:

Even
I guess
I mean
I/You know
I think
At least
Just
Ever
Anyway
It seemed/seems
Actually
Now
Then
Yet
Also
Actually
Apparently
Obviously
See
Sentences starting with “And”

2. A lot of weak “feel(s)” instead of “is.”

3. Passive -ing constructions! This isn’t grammatically incorrect, but it’s very formal and old-fashioned. When you have a writing style that’s already rather old-fashioned, you need to choose which hills you’re going to die on vs. which ones you can agree to update. There are times when it’s more effective and accurate to say, e.g., “They’re drinking tea” vs. “They go down the fire escape,” but more often than not, it’s not very strong writing. Some of this I attribute not only to all the old books I’ve read, but also to the fact that many languages, like Russian, have slightly different verb forms to indicate if an action is ongoing or one-off.

4. A really weird spacing issue that may have been caused by the file conversion. Several pages seemed to be missing, with a few paragraphs spaced smaller than the rest of the document. It turned out they were there, only rendered invisible by some bizarre spacing setting I never did.

5. Some extra “that”s. I took out almost all of them back in 2011, but there remained some which don’t really need to be there.

General issues I can’t really do anything about at this stage, short of a time-consuming full rewrite:

1. It’s more omniscient than my current usual. Many scenes aren’t in only one person’s POV. It’s more like a distant camera taking turns. Given how the story was inspired by several very old books, it feels right. It’s a story about a family and some of their friends coming of age and going through life, with a special focus on one of them. It was never meant to be limited to one person’s head for the entire story.

2. It’s very telly in spots. I also think this works for the type of story I planned it as. It seems kind of like a 1960s version of A Tree Grows in Brooklyn (which I hadn’t read when I wrote the first draft), and that story succeeds brilliantly in spite of having a lot of telly scenes. After all, I intentionally structured it so the language and situations would gradually mature as Adicia gets older. It’s like the evolution through the Little House series. I could do more with her as a teen than I could at five years old. Her character is also deliberately very passive, always acted on instead of acting herself, until she finally has no choice but to act.

I wouldn’t have done many of these things had I written this book today, as opposed to 2010–11, but what’s done is done. I doubt I’d be able to write it so well had I only gone back from scratch and memory now, and would’ve left a lot of important things out. It’s the same reason I doubt I’d be able to write Swan the same way had I done it as an adult, instead of ages 13–21.

IWSG—An important lesson learnt, and excitement to resume a project

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InsecureWritersSupportGroup

Every first Wednesday of the month, members of the Insecure Writer’s Support Group share worries, insecurities, triumphs, hopes, and fears.

For some months now, I struggled to find any inspiration and momentum for any of my WIPs and editing projects, but it just wasn’t very easy in coming. Every so often, I’m blocked from moving forward on a story I really want to write and even planned in detail beforehand. While sometimes we have no choice but to write something or finish a project when our heart isn’t fully in it, I’m a big believer in not forcing words when they just don’t want to come. Taking a break often guarantees we’ll be overflowing with creativity and excitement when we return.

One of the YouTubers I follow is Maya Goode, a fellow writer and lover of classic literature. I included a video from her other channel on my October post about writing potentially controversial content. During November, she had several videos talking about how she fell out of love with her NaNo project and was more strongly pulled back towards another project. Ultimately, she decided to stop working on her NaNo book and return to editing this other project. Though she didn’t win by the official rules, she learnt a lot about herself, and was a lot happier after switching gears.

As I’ve said before, I fell out of love with my fourth Russian historical on the eve of NaNo, and was very disappointed I didn’t get as much work done on it as I’d hoped for. I haven’t touched it since December, and still don’t feel moved back towards it. Now I realize I should’ve struck while the iron was hot, and started it during the summer, when I was awash in excitement and inspiration for it. I shouldn’t have felt beholden to saving it for NaNo, just because I wanted to start something new instead of adding to a WIP.

I’ve always done my best work when I’m fully in love with a project, not when I feel pressured or obligated to work on something. My attentions have now turned to my hiatused WIP The Strongest Branches of Uprooted Trees. Just like Maya talks about in her videos, I feel so excited when I think about this book, and I’ve fallen in love with the characters and storylines all over again.

I’m going through and cleaning up the existing material, starting to flesh out the passages which originally were intended as wraparound summaries instead of real-time narratives, adding chapter and part titles, doing some research into certain topics, and copying and pasting in the flash fiction stories I wrote about some of these characters. Another C&P is Kálmán Runs Away, which won a 2012 short story contest at YA Stands (now remodeled as Publishing Hub).

I’m also excited to finish this book because it has some non-linear narratives. I’ve done flashbacks before, but never entire flashback chapters. I got the idea from Leon Uris’s Exodus, where the early chapters about the Ben Canaan brothers, Karen, and Dov aren’t just long flashbacks, but actual, real-time parts of the narrative. The majority of Part II will be flashback chapters, as well as bits of Part III. Not only is it a great way to replace unrealistically long, uninterrupted monologues, but it also provides additional character development.

And as a Magyarphile of almost 21 years, I’m on Cloud Nine learning new things about Budapest, Hungarian cuisine, and Hungarian names! During my research, I finally found a nickname for Klaudia I like, Udika. It’s not as common as Klau, Dia, or Klaudi, but I like the sound more.

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I recently signed up at the USC Shoah Foundation’s Visual History Archive Online, loaded with long, detailed video testimonies from Shoah survivors, rescuers, liberators, and survivors of the Armenian Genocide, Nanjing Massacre, and Rwandan Genocide. Not only is this an invaluable resource for my historical research, but I’ve also watched testimonies from some of the survivors whose Shoah memoirs line my shelves. Unfortunately, all the testimonies from Abony and Kecskemét survivors are only available offline. I’ll have to include that new information in the next draft, after I’m able to take a road trip to an access site.

I also discovered The Yad Vashem Encyclopedia of the Ghettos During the Holocaust, a 2-volume set which runs about $150 to buy, $67 to rent (and at my university’s library!), and the first two of eight planned volumes of Encyclopedia of Camps and Ghettos, 1933–1945 (each volume $295). I hope I can someday find these invaluable resources discounted. That’s how I scored World War II Chronicle and The Holocaust Chronicle for only about $20 each.

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Have you ever lost your writing mojo and couldn’t figure out why? What do you prefer, writing what you love or finishing what you’ve already started first? Do you have any go-to reference volumes or databases for writing research?