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.

Combining and splitting decisions

As someone who naturally and deliberately writes my adult books at saga length, I’ve developed a very keen sense of when a book’s length is justified by the story vs. when it’s just an overwritten sprawl (coughtheinvisiblebridgecough). I’ve also developed a strong sense of when a long story needs split up into multiple books or volumes.

On the flip side, when it comes to my Atlantic City books, I’ve found several places where these short books need combined, since they lead right into one another instead of feeling like true self-contained stories within a series.

                          

As I’ve discussed many times, I still feel I made the right decision in putting out And Jakob Flew the Fiend Away and And the Lark Arose from Sullen Earth as two distinct books. The most perfect ending opened up, and I was able to turn the rest of the source material into a second book about Jakob and Rachel’s first proper year of marriage and Jakob’s first year in America. Each book truly has its own focus, and wouldn’t feel the same if it were just one long book with an uninterrupted story.

Granted, I was trying for traditional publishing at the time and was aware the first book had reached the uppermost limits for both YA and historical, at a bit over 120K. The second book also has a much more New Adult feel and a number of sex scenes, in comparison to the fade to black on the wedding night scene in the first book. But Fate obviously compelled me to make the right decision about how to present this story.

                        

I was also originally trying for traditional publication with Little Ragdoll, and was shocked to discover how frowned-upon sagas are nowadays, esp. from first-time authors and in YA. At the time, I hadn’t yet realised this is truly an adult book that just happens to feature young people in the leading roles. In other words, a Bildungsroman, a coming-of-age story like Great Expectations and Little Women.

Thus, I began querying it and submitting pages as a pretended trilogy, and came up with query letters and synopses for all three books (Parts I and II, Part III, Part IV and the Epilogue). However, I soon came to feel dirty and like a huge fraud for diluting my vision and intention. I always meant it as one long, continuous story, not split up three ways. And while Part IV does read the most like its own standalone book, it also only makes sense and feels right as the conclusion of everything that came before. Adicia finally has no choice but to act instead of passively being acted upon, and emerges from that ordeal a much stronger person than anyone, least of all she herself, ever saw her as.

When it came to Swan, I was always very firm about this story being one entire book. It would make no sense to put out Parts I and II as two different books when so much is still up in the air at the conclusion of Part I. The only thing resolved (for the moment) is that Lyuba and Ivan are finally engaged. I also wrote The Twelfth Time as its sequel, not the third book in the family saga.

Plus, the title has significance for the entire book, and appears in the final line.

People at Absolute Write really got on my hide about the length (330K) and tried to convince me to make it into a series or two books. They also thought it was a historical romance instead of a novel that just happens to prominently feature a love story. One person got really offended when he read a blog post I wrote explaining and defending my wordcount and genre, accusing me of being oppositional and not taking anyone’s advice.

Yeah, it’s almost like writers know their own stories far better than random Internet strangers obsessed with “the rules”! Hist-fic is also traditionally very long, with 120K being the bare minimum for a story spanning many years and with a large ensemble cast.

                         

                         

Dark Forest ended up so long, way past my initial guesstimate of 500K, I had to put it out as one book in four volumes. It perfectly worked out so each part read like its own story, with a focus on different characters and storylines. Of course they all lead into one another, but there’s no sense of ending in media res.

I’ll do the same for Dream Deferred, which also ballooned up way past my conservative guesstimate of 300K. Even after cutting aborted storylines that don’t belong there, it’ll still be extremely long. Thankfully, this book too will feel natural in four volumes instead of forcibly chopped up.

Ultimately, it comes down to gut feelings and your own creative vision. Would this work as a single very long book, one book published in several volumes, or two or more separate books? And would a few novella-length books feel stronger if they were combined into one longer volume?

NaNoWriMo and its deleterious impact on my writing

As I mentioned recently, I’m strongly considering not participating in NaNoWriMo again, or at least not until their woke leadership in Berkeley is replaced by sensible people, or they hit peak woke and walk back their support of the lunacy they advocate now. But whatever my decision, I wouldn’t delete my profile. I’ve written over a million words since I began participating, and I want my records to remain.

Though my stats page shows my first project from 2010 (when I only started on Day 18 and thus didn’t make 50K), I only officially began participating in 2014. Thus, the earlier projects were honestly, retroactively added, without individual wordcounts for each day, just the final total of words I wrote in those Novembers.

I was so proud of my win in 2014, when I came within spitting distance of 75K. The next year, I set out to beat that total, and was really disappointed I only made 71K, particularly since I pulled an exhausting marathon session of 7K on the final day. I didn’t feel that were my best work. Then in 2016, I only got 65K, and felt even worse about myself for falling so far of what I know I’m capable of.

In 2017, I pulled 80K, though part of that was creative nonfiction, primarily my 12-part series on The Jazz Singer at 90. Ever since, I’ve counted blog posts in my totals (while striving to have the fiction side as the majority of my words).

2018 was my best year ever, at almost 131K and a marathon final day of 8K. But even then, I felt like I could’ve done better. It was very disappointing to only do 101K in 2019, and then came lockdown and only 53K in 2020 and barely 50K in 2021.

Even if their leadership hadn’t cancelled all in-person events, I’ve still felt for some time that NaNo has had a deleterious effect on my daily wordcounts. After that glorious first official year, it’s felt more like a crazed contest to beat my former total, and I end up feeling disappointed and like I failed if I can’t do that. It now feels more like pressure to produce instead of a fun, carefree month. Indeed, in many non-NaNo months, I’ve easily written over 100K.

For the last few years, a lot of the material in my master wordcount file has been garbage, which I knew was garbage as I was writing it. E.g., I’ll write and rewrite a sentence multiple times instead of deleting the mistakes or rough draft and only keeping the final product. Or I’ll discontinue a paragraph or scene in progress, or realize the thousands of words I just spent days working on belong in another book instead.

It’s like my fingers and brain freeze the moment the clock strikes midnight on April, July, and November, and I suddenly have terrible writer’s block, or I struggle to produce decent words that naturally flow in the thick of so much garbage.

Who knows, maybe this is partly because I’m continuing WIPs instead of starting fresh with new projects, and that hampers my sense of freedom and creativity.

The banning of all in-person events for the last two years has also played a huge role in my struggles to keep my former usual daily wordcount output. I hate the “Permanent lockdown for the win!” cult. God forbid normal life resume ever!

Since joining the NaNo group in Albany, NY in 2014 (which I’m still happily a member of, despite no longer living there), I became used to doing much of my writing at our weekly write-ins at Denny’s, and the additional weekly write-ins at a local coffeehouse in Camp months. Then there were all the other write-ins at libraries during November, and virtual sprints to cover the rest.

Thus, I gradually lost my habit of doing all my writing independently, and began struggling more and more with finding motivation when I wasn’t with the group or doing virtual write-ins. Moving away from NY made the situation even worse.

I had finally gotten back into a good habit of writing for several hours six times a week at the library, and then lockdown hit. My cyclical depression was triggered, and my writing output became almost nonexistent.

Whereas I once felt excitement, challenge, and joy upon seeing my wordcount steadily rising hour by hour, day by day, week by week, now it feels more like unrelenting pressure to produce, and if I don’t top my records, I feel like I’m not living up to my full writing potential.

The “updated” website they rolled out a few years ago is also awful.

NaNo has no business espousing political positions, regardless of what side of the aisle they are or what the POV is. This isn’t like knowing the owners of a business like Hobby Lobby hold certain views in their private life. They’re publicly, inappropriately declaring their support for extremist groupthink and polarizing views like “Biological sex is a bigoted, colonialist invention!” and “It’s totally cool for Hamas to fire thousands of rockets on unarmed civilians!”

IWSG—My eighth official NaNo

InsecureWritersSupportGroup

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

This year marked the eighth time I officially participated in NaNoWriMo, the eleventh overall, and the tenth time I won. The only year I failed to make 50K was the first year I unofficially participated, 2010, and I didn’t begin that project until 18 November. Had I started on the first of the month, I most definitely would’ve overachieved.

But I don’t feel good about this win, since I barely eked out 50K, and then only about ten minutes to midnight on the final day. My best years ever were 2018, when I got to almost 131K, and 2019, when I got 101K. Now I’ve been reduced to the bare minimum, which is so unrepresentative of what I know I’m capable of. Once upon a time, I easily wrote several thousand words every day, and 5K days were hardly rare.

By the end, I was just writing garbage I knew was garbage, just to have enough words in my NaNo 2021 file. For the past few years, I’ve been well aware more than a few of my NaNo words are garbage and filler. E.g., I’ll write and rewrite the same sentence, stop in the middle of a sentence, write lines and even entire paragraphs or short scenes I realize are bad or don’t belong in the book. So I’ll keep them in the master wordcount file but immediately delete them when I C&P them into a chapter file. It’s like NaNo has in some ways had a deleterious effect on my writing, since I can write stuff I know is garbage but that it’ll still count towards the minimum goal.

And had I not counted my creative nonfiction (mostly blog posts) in this wordcount, I wouldn’t have made it to 50K.

Although to be fair to myself, writing a research-heavy book during NaNo is difficult. When I did 20th century hist-fic, particularly with characters I’ve known for years, the words just flowed effortlessly. Even my 19th century story came really quickly and easily, after some necessary refamiliarizing with the era.

The alternative history I’m currently working on also needs much more careful, thoughtful writing, since it involves real people and an era I’ve never written about before. While Medieval Italy is nowhere near as out of my wheelhouse as, say, fifth century China or 1890s Brazil, it’s still not as intimately, back of my hand familiar as the 19th and 20th centuries.

I was so stalled, I stopped in the middle of Chapter VI, which is set during the Christmas season of 1274, and jumped ahead to Part III, which opens in late 1287. That did help me with starting to pull up significantly, but I still ultimately found this book needs overall careful writing, even with parts that come faster than others.

Maybe I needed that wakeup call and humbling of my pride, this very humiliating demonstration of how far I’ve fallen, so I could finally start fighting to regain my former writing habits and prolific daily wordcounts. The impact of lockdown on my mental health can’t be underestimated, but I also had free will. I chose to passively accept almost two years of poor writing output. This NaNo, I also chose to prioritize other things, like watching the Grand Prix circuit of figure skating, instead of spending those few hours writing on all those nights.

And speaking of skating, I was like a skater who realizes she’s off-kilter in the air and just gives up, resulting in an ugly fall. Even if you know you messed up, you can still fight for a sloppy landing or popped jump, or even fall properly instead of splaying all over the ice like a limp ragdoll.

Some years just aren’t our years, and NaNo 2021 wasn’t one of mine. I’ll now turn my full attentions to researching and writing my WIP with the thought and care it deserves. This isn’t the kind of book that can be fast-drafted and come out well.

Did you do NaNo this year? If you ever had a year where you barely won or didn’t win, was that a learning experience for you? What did you do differently next time?

IWSG—My seventh official NaNo was awful

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. This month’s question is:

Are there months or times of the year that you are more productive with your writing than other months, and why?

In the past, I’d probably say autumn and winter, simply because I had more free time then, and had more opportunities to use one of the family computers when I didn’t have my own. Though it’s hard to say definitively after so many years.

This is humiliating, given what I’m capable of under normal circumstances. I was as far as 7K behind at one point, only caught up on Day 25, and took till the final day to hit the bare minimum of 50K. To make it even worse, probably about half of my wordcount came from creative non-fiction (blog posts, journal entries, and Instagram posts), not my declared project.

Last year I hit 50K on Day 14, and did 101K total. My all-time best was 130K in 2018. Thanks to all in-person write-ins being cancelled, not being in my own home and thus having complete privacy and relaxation at all times, and being unable to go to the library six days a weeks to write for a few uninterrupted hours, I severely underperformed.

My usual daily wordcounts have been in the toilet since this apparently permanent lockdown began in March. Every day I grow angrier and angrier at the people excitedly cheering on the idea of at least another full year of these beyond draconian measures precluding any semblance of normal life!

I initially declared my project as The Very Next/The Very Last, but I didn’t even finish the new chapters of TVN. A lot of what I wrote was garbage, which I knew was garbage as I was writing it. Cluttery chat, false starts, repeatedly reworked lines, unnecessary fluff, dead on arrival scene openings, clunky wording, things that felt all wrong, even a huge portion of a chapter I ultimately realized, over 8,000 words in, would work a lot better in Almost As an Afterthought (the only book in the prequel series I’ve not yet renamed).

I was so excited to finally resume the radical rewrite of TVL, esp. since I left off with chapters about the 1940 Portuguese World Exposition and the 1939–40 World’s Fair. There’s a lot of all-new material to be written before I get back to rewriting and fleshing out pre-existing chapters.

By now it’s obvious TVN will finish up probably around 105K. The radical rewrite of 2015 brought it from a hot mess of 25K to 75K, but earlier this year I realised it wasn’t quite long enough. The Very First ended up around 90K, and the sequel felt a bit too short and simplistic in comparison. My original intent in 1996–97 was to have deliberately short, vignette-length, episodic chapters. While that style still works for some of them, others greatly benefitted from lengthening. The four all-new chapters are of more substantial length.

It’s also natural for books in a coming-of-age series, or the succeeding parts of a Bildungsroman book, to gradually increase in length, depth, maturity, and sophistication. I’ve come to see that I underwrote a lot of my Atlantic City books. They’re generally much shorter than my adult books by design, but I made them too short.

If lockdown ever ends and I’m able to finally be back in a home of my own, I intend to overachieve like normal in NaNo 2021, and get back to my former daily wordcount range of 2-5K.

If you did NaNo, was it a wash or a success?

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