IWSG—Lagging productivity

InsecureWritersSupportGroup

The Insecure Writer’s Support Group convenes the first Wednesday of the month. Participants share their worries, insecurities, triumphs, hopes, and fears. I forgot to post last month, due to A to Z taking precedence, and travelling to NYC for my rabbi’s oldest daughter’s wedding.

This month, the IWSG question is:

What is the weirdest/coolest thing you ever had to research for your story?

I absolutely love research! Special favourites include vintage clothes, advertisements, childbirth, food, and slang. I also love looking at street maps to see where everything is in my settings. Other topics include what it’s like to be an amputee, Orthodox Christianity, and 1940s prosthetics.

After realising all my Russian male characters would’ve been uncircumcised, I did secondhand research on what it feels like to have intercourse with a guy like that. I wanted that level of authenticity in my sex scenes.

I technically won Camp NaNo, but this is NOT my best work. My productivity levels are normally so much higher. I had to lower my goal from 50K to 35K to 20K, and only broke even on Day 23. There were a few days early on when I didn’t write at all, though I still took screenshots of each day’s final progress when I did write. I like having that record.

Mitigating factors included the eight days of Pesach, my flagging mental health, my wrecked sleep cycles, and starting to make plans to move home to Pittsburgh against my parents’ insistence I join them in South Carolina for a few months. I’ve been stuck in this unhealthy holding pattern for far too long, and even my 17-year-old spider plant Kalanit is suffering.

I’m really unhappy with an unplanned subplot regarding Katya and Dmitriy’s new friends Dagmara (Marusya) and her husband Sima (Zosim). It started out so well, but developed far too quickly, and feels detached, like it’s just dumped in there instead of naturally-connected. It also feels very deus ex machina, in spite of its great potential.

When I read back over my first Russian historical in 2011, nine years after I’d last had access to it, I was so impressed at how expertly I’d woven all these storylines together and then finally linked them all up. The stories of the orphanage girls (esp. the Lebedeva sisters and Inessa) and Lena Yeltsina’s family are an integral part of the overall story, not just thrown in there every few chapters without any lead-in or foreshadowing.

However, I’m a lot happier with one of my other unplanned secondary characters, former Marine Captain Nestor Sevastyanovich Ugolnikov. I originally planned to give him to Bogdana Sheltsova, but then I realised he’s a much better match with Yustina Yeltsina-Baronova. But first, he has to overcome his belief that no woman would want a guy who’s missing a leg.

(FYI: You NEVER call someone “an ex-Marine”! It’s always “former Marine.” Semper fi means something!)

I also finally have a new cover for Little Ragdoll. My artist kept it based on the original reference photo. There was an odd technical issue, where Amazon wouldn’t accept the cover’s size, and the enlarged files she sent me kept being read as too small and the same size as before. I finally had to go onto my older computer to resize it myself in Gimp.

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!

Wordcount pruning tips!

As much as I adore super-long books, meaty blog posts, and long vlogs, that doesn’t mean absolutely everything needs to be long. A good writer, blogger, or vlogger develops into one’s own style. For me, I’ve found the sweet spot for a blog post is 600-750 words, with my average 400-850. When I do go over that, I try my hardest to keep it below 1,000.

Too many English teachers have drummed overly formal rules into us. Depending upon what kinds of books we’ve read, we can also absorb and start parroting things which aren’t so in style anymore. I see this a lot in my own older writing, things like:

1. Overuse of “that”! You really don’t need to use this word nearly as much as English teachers would have you believe. Once in awhile, you do need it to avoid sounding grammatically incorrect or awkward, but more often than not, you can axe it.

2. Absence of contractions. This just makes me want to tear my hair out! It’s one thing if you’re doing it on purpose to establish a character as extremely formal or just learning English, but most people use a lot of contractions.

3. Using more words than necessary to say something. E.g., “the phone situated on top of the table” vs. “the phone on the table.”

4. Stating something we can all infer anyway. E.g., “I shrugged my shoulders.” What else can a person shrug, the knees or ears? Or “On her feet she wore aubergine leather boots.” Where else would someone wear boots?

5. Too many adverbs! I completely disagree with people who insist no adverbs are ever necessary, but there’s a limit. Too many older books are replete with totally unnecessary adverbs which do absolutely nothing to improve the scene, and in fact sound really goofy and out of place.

6. Too much rambling on the way to getting to the damn point. I’m 100% guilty of discovering this while editing my own blog posts, and opening a lot of my oldest books with several paragraphs of infodump setting the scene and establishing characters and setting. I’ve also watched many vlogs that take 10 minutes or longer to finally get to the point.

7. Getting down into the weeds with side tangents and eddies. I did this so much on my old Angelfire page, and thankfully catch myself doing it much less now. It’s not that these passages are poorly-written or uninteresting, just that they’re not germane to the main topic. For example, while mentioning I lived at the Hillel House my senior year of university, I don’t need to tell the story of how it used to be a frat that got busted for 89 kegs of alcohol at a party, and before that was a sorority that got busted for prostitution.

8. Cluttery chat which adds nothing to either plot or character development. I don’t think absolutely everything needs to advance the plot, but that doesn’t mean I’m down with several pages of chit-chat just filling up space.

9. Overdescribing things. As much as I love writing about vintage fashions, I don’t describe them exactly head to toe. I’m sure most women of my generation well remember the detailed descriptions of Claudia’s outlandish outfits in The Babysitters’ Club. There’s also Anna Godbersen’s unnecessarily long-winded descriptions of things like pastries, staircases, tableware, and furniture.

10. Overwrought language. Victorian prose went out of fashion for a reason. Related to #9, by the time Ms. Godbersen is done describing whatever, the reader has forgotten the more important thing going on. No one likes purple prose.

11. Too many adverb+adjective pairs. If you constantly use language like “marvellously superb,” “endlessly amazing,” “endearingly timeless,” and “astonishingly pretty,” it won’t properly stand out when such a pairing really is called for.

12. Too many creative metaphors and similes. English teachers have it all wrong. You don’t need to say things like “The day went by as fast as Fluffy runs when chasing after her favorite toy mouse” or “The stars were twinkling as bright and shiny as my great-grandmother’s antique silverware when it’s on a candlelit table after a good polishing.” This is very weak writing.

 13. We’re all entitled to a few linguistic quirks in moderation! Sometimes our writing just wouldn’t feel genuine to who we are if we scrubbed it of everything other people wanted us to change. E.g., I have the somewhat British habit of using the modifier “most,” such as “most enjoyable,” “most disturbing,” “most agreeable,” and “most superb.”

14. Once you’ve expressed everything important, don’t keep rambling on! In a blog or vlog, you might want to close with, e.g., a quick mention of what next week’s is about, or a brief update on something your followers have been asking about. Just make a separate blog or vlog if there’s enough material. Rap Critic was very confused when Young Money’s “Every Girl” had another verse after the song had seemed finished. He couldn’t tell if it were an outro or another verse, since it seemed so disjointed and like an afterthought.

Lessons learnt from my third official NaNo

nano-2016-final-stats

At the risk of sounding like a ridiculous humble-bragger, this was NOT my best effort for a month worth of writing. I know I can do so, so much better than this, and yet I had an even lower wordcount than last year’s 71K.

What went wrong, and what could I have done better?

I didn’t have any real time to do a full read-through of the pre-existing material. I was a NaNo rebel, going back to my fourth Russian novel, which I hadn’t touched since 30 December 2015. Therefore, a lot of important details, establishing information, and seeds of subplots were no longer fresh in my mind.

I didn’t even have time to do a full spellcheck! This applied to last year’s material as well, most of which had never had spellcheck run. It was really embarrassing to discover typos and bizarre autocorrects like “bothie” instead of “nothing,” “alway” instead of “always,” and a missing space between two words. I manually edited my wordcount to add that missing word!

nano-2016-day-one

Perhaps I spent too much time in research, instead of coming back to fill in the blanks with more details.

I temporarily forgot some details I knew very well during my first wind of this project. It was really embarrassing to realize I’d started a conversation between Igor and Violetta as though NYU were co-ed in this era. I knew Violetta was at the women’s Washington Square campus, and yet here I was writing like she and Igor could’ve taken classes together.

nano-2016-day-25

No time to go through my chapter-by-chapter notes to see if there were any details I should add, in light of new subplots which had organically unfolded. I also didn’t have much time to do subsequent revisions of my working table of contents, apart from adding a few new chapters and renumbering everything.

Forgetting to include chapters for kind of really important events, like the respective 30th birthdays of Tatyana and Yuriy. I also didn’t set aside any chapters or scenes for the mysteries behind Katya and Dmitriy’s new friends Dagmara (Marusya) and Zosim (Sima).

A certain event early in November which made a lot of us really lose our bearings for awhile. My normal daily wordcount suffered for awhile due to this, and some people on the forums even announced they were already giving up.

nano-2016-day-eight

Not setting aside enough time in each day to do nothing but write without interruptions. My daily wordcount was below or barely above par on a number of days, not just Fridays and Saturdays. One of those days was due to having a cold, and then I had my old friend dysmenorrhea to contend with near the end of the month. (Warning to my male readers: I’m planning blog posts on dysmenorrhea, menarche, and menstruation in historical fiction.)

After NaNo, I went back to read through what I hadn’t already gone through, and began my first round of edits. For example, I finally was able to revise an unfinished scene with Mr. Golitsyn (a former prince) and the parents of his daughter Vasilisa’s new beau Dragomir. I’d planned to junk it entirely, since there was a lot of infodumpy dialogue, and it seemed more like an excuse to write a scene at The Dakota, but something held me back from deleting it. It reads much more naturally now, and plants the seeds of two great subplots.

nano-2016-day-21

Feeling too worn-out to pull another marathon final day as I did last year. I wrote over 7,000 words last year on the final day, in spite of having already won on Day 23, just to push my wordcount up as high as possible. This year I only was in the 2,000 range on the last day.

I know 65,524 words in thirty days is nothing to sneeze at, but I know I’m capable of writing a LOT more. Still, I’m now up to 149K total for this book (not counting back and front matter like the cast of characters, glossary, and table of contents), which is about a third of the way done.

nano-2016-day-24

Just as last year, my daily wordcounts and creative drive seriously amped up as I got closer to 50K. I needed some time to get fully back into the swing of things, in spite of having known many of these characters for over twenty years.

I also discovered some unplanned characters, like the Novak-Kolarov family from Yugoslavia and a former Marine captain who lost much of his right leg at Iwo Jima.