Posted in Atlantic City books, Writing

IWSG—The toughest literary choice ever

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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.

I set a super-lowball goal for July Camp, only 10K, and overachieved by quite a bit, but it feels like cheating since it almost entirely came from creative non-fiction blog posts, not the fictional project claimed. This apparently permanent lockdown and still being stuck in a place I hate has destroyed my normal daily averages and opportunity to write anytime I want.

At this point, I’ve almost lost hope I’ll ever be back in a home of my own, in a city of my choosing, with walls and doors for privacy and sound reduction instead of an annoying open concept.

I also finished proofing the four volumes of Dark Forest for their print editions, and am now back to one final proof of The Twelfth Time before it finally goes into hardcover. Even if you only make a few minor corrections or changes here and there, you still need to look over the document just to be sure. So many times, new errors have slipped in during what I thought was the final edit!

Next up will be the final proofings of Dark Forest, and then all my books will be available in print.

The book formerly known as The Very First is scheduled for release on 23 August, and I cannot stop going back and forth as to whether to age my characters up by a few years or keep their long-established birth years of 1929–31 as-is. Each choice has very compelling pros and off-putting cons.

I’ll be pushing off my pet-themed month to focus on promoting TVF, and will go into much greater detail about this issue in later posts.

Just look at all this hard work I’ve put into making family trees over the years! If I changed the starting generation’s age after coming up on 29 years this November, it feels like at least 90% of their stories would unravel.

I could’ve aged them up without too much inconvenience before a certain point. Now, being up to 1998, it’s too late. So many things are built around characters being born and doing things in certain years.

That age is also established in my already-published books about Jakob and Rachel, which automatically makes changing it a retcon.

It’s like the time travel paradox. You think you’re only making a tiny change, but it has huge, wide-ranging repercussions for so many other things. It’s also like skipping a few grades—it might work brilliantly at first, but eventually that jump creates big problems.

A number of the ladies have late-life babies (change of life surprises or results of early fertility treatments). Some of them might be aged out of plausibly having those babies!

Although granted, a couple of those kids serve no real purpose other than to give their parents a child together in a second marriage.

This would also necessitate different age gaps with many siblings and friends, which would radically alter their relationship dynamics.

Logically, I know it makes the most sense to age them up about three years. Keeping them at a 1930 birth year is convenient and assures everything stays mostly the same, but makes them a really awkward age for categorization and marketing purposes prior to their high school years.

Even within the context of satire and deliberately over the top humor, it strains credulity re: normal cognitive and physical development. Even a very precocious child is still a child where it really counts.

It’s one thing to have a single character like Stewie Griffin or Lisa Simpson. When near the entire cast are mentally SORASed, people are less likely to go along with it as totally normal per the rules of that world.

During the last major edit of TVF, I made their age deliberately ambiguous. At most, it’s stated they’re under twelve.

Events could be backdated or restructured, and I’ve long known most of my drafts set from about 1945–63 need a major gut renovation.

But these aren’t characters I just created or shelved for 25 years! We’ve been together for almost 29 years, and everything was structured around their being born with the Depression!

Have you ever re-aged a character after many years? Do you feel it were the right decision? What’s the most radical continuity change you’ve ever made? Would you be willing to help with promoting TVF with a guest post or cover reveal?

Posted in Writing

Choosing the starting age of characters in a series or Bildungsroman

While writers are discouraged from creating a series before they’ve even sold the first book, not everyone naturally gravitates towards standalones, duologies, and trilogies. I was also strongly influenced by the popularity of juvenile series in my formative years. Why wouldn’t I copy the example I saw modelled so often?

Many series or Bildungsromans spanning many years run until high school or college graduation, but when exactly should they begin?

It’s generally not a wise idea to start too young, unless this is an adult novel which just happens to have very young characters, or each book becomes successively more mature and detailed. E.g., the Little House series starts when Laura is four and ends when she’s twenty-two (though her real-life age doesn’t match her fictional age till The Long Winter, set from 1880–81).

At a certain point, a series will shift from MG to YA. Thus, the themes, language, subject matter, and writing style used in the later books will necessarily differ from those of the earlier books. It feels very off when a book with YA-aged characters is written in a very MG fashion, and vice versa.

Your audience will naturally grow up along with the characters. There’s no need to make the entire series MG just because that’s how old the characters were when it started. (That was one of many issues I had with Sydney Taylor’s Ella of All-of-a-Kind Family, which I’ll review in a future post.)

If it’s popular and written well, readers will look forward to being old enough for the mature final books. Graduating to more grownup books is a literary rite of passage. How many 18-year-olds want to read books with a writing style suit for sixth graders, even if the protagonists are their age?

Likewise, it’s a bad idea to make the entire series YA-level. It’s one thing to straddle the fence between upper MG and lower YA, but most high schoolers have no interest in the adventures of preteens. You need to choose one age-based audience at a time and consistently stick with it.

If it’s a single book spanning at least a few years, or if the first book in a series spans several years, make sure there’s an obvious progression in maturity, themes, language, writing style, etc., as the characters age.

Anne C. Voorhoeve’s My Family for the War ages her protagonist from ten to seventeen, with a short Epilogue when Frances (née Franziska) is in her early twenties. Had this book been published in the U.S. first, I highly doubt it would’ve been YA! It’s almost unheard-of these days to feature a character that young, even if she eventually becomes a teen.

Unfortunately, as much as I loved the book, it falls victim to a rushed second half. So many novels and memoirs do this, spending so much time developing and detailing the earlier years and then hurrying through the rest. As a result, 17-year-old Frances doesn’t seem markedly more mature than 10-year-old Ziska, even when she’s starting a romance with 21-year-old Walter.

Original cover and title. The U.S. cover sucks, thanks to the stupid headless character trend.

Anne of Green Gables ages Anne from 11–16, though it’s often classified as MG nowadays. A lot of older books with protagonists in this age range are like that. In general, preteens had much larger vocabularies in the old days, and weren’t deemed incapable of reading longer books with more mature writing styles.

There’s also the option of writing it for all ages, à la A Tree Grows in Brooklyn. An adult can enjoy it as much as a teen or mature preteen, for different reasons. It’s one of the most memorable books I’ve ever read, though, like My Family for the War, kind of speeds through the final years.

I can’t think of any series which started as chapter books or lower MG before segueing into upper MG and YA. Ten or eleven seems a good minimum starting age, since it lets your characters go through upper elementary school, junior high, high school, and university (or their first few years in the working world, if they don’t go to uni).

Only you can decide how long each book should last. Some books in a series are best when they only span a few months, while others beg to last a full year. It’s all down to the type of storyline.

I also strongly caution against a floating timeline, unless your characters are cartoons. That leads to quantity over quality and creates continuity confusion. SORASing characters is also a no-no. As I’ve come to painfully realize, that includes mental SORASing to justify quite young characters acting like they’re a fair bit older!

Posted in Historical fiction, Writing

WeWriWa—Identity revealed

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Welcome back to Weekend Writing Warriors and Snippet Sunday, weekly Sunday hops where writers share 8–10 sentences from a book or WIP. The rules have now been relaxed to allow a few more sentences if merited, so long as they’re clearly indicated, to avoid the creative punctuation many of us have used to stay within the limit.

I’m now sharing excerpts from a middle grade historical fantasy short story called “The Search for Shoki,” which I wrote for a contest last year. It’s set in 737 Japan, during the last year of a smallpox epidemic which started in 735 and killed one-third of the population.

Umiko Hamasaki and Mizuki, daughter of her household’s senior lady-in-waiting, are on a mission to find friendly yokai who’ll lead them to Shoki, a great slayer of disease demons. They’re now in a temple occupied only by one elderly woman, who invited them to dine along with their horse Ayumu. Though they forgot to bring their bag with chopsticks into the room, they’re game enough to eat with their hands.

Haradashi, one of the few friendly yokai

Umiko looked at her food for a few very long moments before reaching into the bowl of stewed daikon leaves and bringing a handful up to her mouth. She then ate a handful of rice and salmon, followed by drinking the miso soup straight from the bowl. As she set the soup bowl down, the elder pulled her robe away from her midsection to expose a silly face on her enormous stomach and began an equally silly dance.

“You’re Haradashi!” Umiko exclaimed.

“Indeed I am.” Haradashi continued dancing with random, silly steps, none of them related to one another or with any sort of pattern.

“How much gold do you want for your hospitality, Haradashi-sama?” Mizuki asked. “We should have enough to cover a night’s lodging plus food.”

The eight lines end here. A few more completing the scene follow.

Haradashi brushed a long lock of hair out of her eyes. “There’s no need to pay me. It’s my duty to help people and cheer them up. Where are you going after you leave?”

“Mount Amagi,” Umiko said. “We’re supposed to find a great Chinese doctor who can defeat Hososhin.”

“Good luck with that. That demon has been terrorizing our land for too long.” Haradashi lit another stick of incense. “I know of no magic strong enough to vanquish Hososhin forever, but keeping him away for a long time and minimizing the number of his victims will be victory enough. Perhaps someday your descendants shall discover magic we can only dream about, and Hososhin will become as much a part of foggy, ancient history as Emperor Jimmu and Amaterasu’s creation of Japan.”

Posted in Food, Historical fiction, Writing

WeWriWa—Sitting down to dine

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Welcome back to Weekend Writing Warriors and Snippet Sunday, weekly Sunday hops where writers share 8–10 sentences from a book or WIP. The rules have now been relaxed to allow a few more sentences if merited, so long as they’re clearly indicated, to avoid the creative punctuation many of us have used to stay within the limit.

I’m now sharing excerpts from a middle grade historical fantasy short story called “The Search for Shoki,” which I wrote for a contest last year. It’s set in 737 Japan, during the last year of a smallpox epidemic which started in 735 and killed one-third of the population.

Umiko Hamasaki and Mizuki, daughter of her household’s senior lady-in-waiting, are on a mission to find friendly yokai who’ll lead them to Shoki, a great slayer of disease demons. They’re now in a temple occupied only by one elderly woman, who invited them to dine along with their horse Ayumu.

“What is your name, esteemed lady?” Mizuki asked as she sank onto a blue cushion.

“You’ll soon figure out my name.” Their hostess lifted the teakettle and filled three cups. “This is persimmon tea.”

Umiko and Mizuki drank while their hostess stirred the pots again and presently filled six bowls with the culinary delights. As a final touch, she grated fresh ginger on top of each and stirred it in. No sooner had the food been set before them than Umiko remembered something.

“May we retrieve more of our luggage, honored elder? We forgot the bag with our chopsticks.”

The first nine lines end here. A few more to finish this scene follow.

“Chopsticks?  You girls use chopsticks?  You must be wealthy!”

“I’m from an aristocratic family, though not the richest family in Japan.  My companion is of lower rank, but not so low she has to eat with her hands.”

“We don’t always use chopsticks,” Mizuki said. “I’m more used to using them than my hands, but I don’t feel insulted at having to eat the old-fashioned way.”

Posted in 1940s, 1950s, 1960s, Historical fiction, Writing

Writing about the dark side of suburban history

Suburbia, esp. in the post-WWII era, has a reputation as white and bourgeois. There’s also a persistent idea that many people moving from cities to suburbs after the war were motivated by racist fears.

The first point is, demographically and historically, overwhelmingly true, but the result of many complicated factors all coming together in the worst way.

The second point has a kernel of truth, but is a lot more complicated to unpack.

People desperately needed more living space after WWII, and since the U.S. was largely rural outside of major urban centers and resort towns, there was lots of room to create suburbs. Initially, they were within short driving distance of the anchoring city, but gradually got farther and farther away.

Many also developed into their own true cities and towns. Though residents didn’t stop driving into the nearest big city for work, the suburb itself had everything else they needed—stores, parks, schools, post offices, fire and police departments, movie theatres, bakeries, you name it.

During the Second Great Migration of 1940–70, five million African–Americans left the Jim Crow South for better job, educational, and living opportunities. During the first Great Migration of 1910–30, they mostly only moved to the North and Midwest, but now they resettled in every region.

And here’s where the plot thickens.

Yes, there’s no denying society as a whole was much more casually, openly racist in that era. Yes, a not insignificant number of white people moved to suburbia in part or entirely because of racist fears.

However, the original wave of people moving to suburbia truly were motivated by wanting more living space. They just happened to be leaving urban centers at the same time as many African–Americans were moving in, just as many big names of the silent era just happened to reach the end of their shelf life or independently decided to retire in the early years of the sound era, when a whole new crop of stars were coming in.

Correlation doesn’t necessarily prove causation.

Many African–American vets were excited about the spacious houses in new communities like Levittown, but the GI Bill’s famous benefits were by and large denied thanks to racist legal loopholes and exclusionary housing covenants.

Other times, there was no attempt at legal pretense. Racist mobs used intimidation and physical violence. Shamefully, some of these vets were lynched.

When the original GI Bill ended in July 1956, the wealth gap between the races was even more pronounced. That famous postwar prosperity was denied to the majority of African–American vets, as was the chance to get a free college education.

When you haven’t much money and are denied a mortgage, your housing options are limited. But there were thriving African–American neighborhoods waiting for these migrants (probably the best-known being Harlem), and respectably proletarian homes being left behind by people moving to suburbia.

Since the powers that be saw the world through a bourgeois lens, they often viewed such neighborhoods as automatic slums, even when the residents were anything but poor and had worked hard to rehabilitate their homes.

“Slum clearance” destroyed entire neighborhoods, social networks, schools, thousands of businesses, beautiful old buildings, and historic districts with deep roots. In their place arose monotonous high-rise apartments, roads, and low-income housing projects.

These public housing projects drove many deeper into poverty, while others went from proletarian to poor. There was no chance for upward mobility, since residents had to fall below a certain income. If their fortune improved, they had to move.

The vibrant sidewalk culture of the old neighborhood was gone, and most successful small businesses never came back. There was no place to set up shop, and many customers were displaced far afield.

The powers that be never once considered the human impact of their “reform” projects. They thought only in the abstract about solving alleged “problems,” approached it through a bourgeois worldview, and were incredulous when people with a proletarian mindset didn’t react how they were “supposed” to.

Many vibrant proletarian African–American neighborhoods were also destroyed to build highways for suburban commuters. These highways had a deleterious effect on the Jewish community as well.

Though many restrictive covenants prohibited Jewish home ownership or living in certain areas, it wasn’t nearly as bad as it was for African–Americans. Thus, synagogues were no longer in walking distance for most people. It was either violate Shabbos by driving or stay at home and lose perhaps one’s only meaningful Jewish connection.

The Conservative Movement allowed driving on Shabbos for the sole purpose of attending shul, which sadly opened a door to more and more violations of Shabbos and a more secular, assimilated lifestyle.

And meanwhile, people with money continued leaving for suburbia in droves, thus draining cities of valuable tax revenue. Schools, public transport, and other infrastructure began deteriorating. All the money went to suburbs, causing quality of life in cities to take a huge nosedive.

Poverty often begets crime and drug use, and then it becomes a vicious cycle. In the old days, communities informally policed themselves, but that quickly became a laughable relic of the past. Many real cops didn’t bother with such run-down areas, thus creating even more unchecked crime.

The only people left in cities by the 1970s were trapped by poverty, just passing through while attending college, or the rare few who genuinely enjoyed urban life enough to hold down the fort while no one else would.

The situation was further aggravated by redlining and blockbusting. Redlining denies money and public services to neighborhoods deemed “too risky an investment” on account of lower income, older homes (often rented instead of owned), and, more often than not, skin color.

Blockbusting preys on racist “there goes the neighborhood” fears to convince white residents to move out, often with elaborate staging, and quickly sell their homes at a loss. As soon as they’re gone, realtors then sell the properties at much higher prices to African–Americans.

And thus the vicious cycle of poverty and despair begins.

Suburban sprawl has also destroyed a lot of nature, ripping down longstanding forests and lush fields, and draining ponds and creeks, to build more cookie-cutter houses.