IWSG—April odds and sods

InsecureWritersSupportGroupIt’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 you a risk-taker when writing? Do you try something radically different in style/POV/etc. or add controversial topics to your work?

I’ve written at length in many prior posts about how, until my early twenties, I often gut-loaded my Atlantic City books with over the top controversial content merely for its own sake, to goad my imagined future censors. In my juvenile mind, edgy and realistic=as over the top as possible.

Part of it was an extreme overreaction to my annoyance at the unrealistic, G–rated goody-goodies in books like The Babysitters’ Club series, kids who never encountered any normal junior high issues like peer pressure, serious fights with parents and siblings, skipping school, secretly drinking beer, etc.

Another reason was because I attended such an awful school from K–10. With no counterexample, I genuinely didn’t grasp how abnormal and concerning it is for preteens to have sex, smoke, drink, do drugs, have unchaperoned wild parties, get into knife fights, wear clothes suit for a nightclub, stay out past midnight, etc.

Without being consciously aware of it, I reveled in the worst of human nature. So many times, my characters came across so unsympathetically because they were so mean-spirited and cruel, above and beyond normal youthful cattiness and rebellion.

I think many times of the talking-to my buddy Bruce got from the junior high music teacher we nicknamed Busload, on account of the parody he wrote of “My Favorite Things.” Bruce tried to defend his assignment by saying, “Yeah, I was being satirical,” and Busload shot back, “This isn’t satirical. This is filth!” I feel much the same way about a lot of the things in my earlier drafts.

While I still don’t believe in treating young people like overgrown babies and glass flowers who can’t handle anything not 100% G-rated, my stance back then was basically “Expose them to everything! It’s no big deal!” I seriously had spoof magazines called Playteen and Playkid, and one of my planned soft sci-fi books had a porn channel for teens!

I really wish more people had had the guts or sense to ask, “These kids are twelve?” Or whatever age they were in any given scene or book. My Atlantic City characters don’t start to read their supposed actual age till they’re about fifteen.

One of my main themes is that real life isn’t like a Norman Rockwell painting or Andy Hardy movie for most people, and that kids are a lot sharper and smarter than many adults give them credit for. But that shouldn’t mean going as over the top as possible in depicting edgy, realistic content.

Hence why I’m leaning so strongly towards finally officially aging them up two years. As it is, they read that way already.

Though my declared project for April Camp NaNo is my radical rewrite of the book formerly known as The Very Last, I think I may also start work on the alternative history about Dante and Beatrice I’ve been wanting to do probably since 2004. For all those years, I only had the most general idea, and I needed a compelling reason for Dante to still write his magnum opus if he never lost Beatrice.

I have so many great ideas now, transforming it from a vague, romantic idea into a saga with lots of twists and turns. Now I only need to think of a good title.

Very, very, VERY unusually for me, I also feel drawn to doing it in first-person instead of my usual third-person omniscient. Since Dante wrote all his major works in first-person, and sometimes broke the fourth wall to directly address his readers, it feels like the most natural POV. I hope I live up to the great responsibility of writing in the voice of one of my literary idols.

WeWriWa—Entering Tina’s house

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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 snippets from the book formerly known as The Very Next, now entitled Movements in the Symphony of 1939. It was released in e-book format on March second, with a paperback edition to follow within a few months. The paperback edition will have a different cover.

Best friends Cinnimin and Sparky (real name Katherine) have been forced to take new houseguest Samantha to their friend Quintina’s birthday party, despite Sam’s out of place clothes and lack of a present. During the short walk there, Sam revealed her commitment to fundamentalism and her fear of her mother.

Sam fell silent as they walked the rest of the way to the Holidays’ house. Inside, they were greeted by colored streamers, balloons, and a few cut-out flower decorations. Jazz played in the background, while the Holidays’ little Bichon Frisé ran around yapping. A large pile of gifts sat off to the side, and some guests were eating soft pretzels and playing games.

“Who’s this?” Tina asked. “Is this a new girl you invited? If you’re going to change up the popularity ranks again to include another new girl, I hope you don’t demote me more than one rank.”

“Of course I ain’t demoting you,” Cinni reassured her.

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

“I only had to demote Violet so much ’cause she was getting too big for her britches and had to be knocked down a couple of pegs. This is Samantha Smart. She and her parents just moved into my house ’cause of unexplained bad business in their old city. They’re from D.C., the Virginia side. Sam, this is my buddy Quintina Holiday.”

Tina looked Sam up and down. “You came without a present?”

“I didn’t know I’d be coming to anyone’s birthday party till now,” Sam said. “I can get you a present later, if you want to be friends.”

“We’ll see about that. Right now, you can have a seat and try to blend in.”

Types of autobiographical characters

Let’s talk about the different kinds of autobiographical characters one can create. There’s a whole spectrum between ciphers and wish-fulfillment Mary Sues/Gary Stus.

1. The thinly-fictionalised version of yourself. Seriously, why even bother presenting your real-life story as if it were a novel? Just write a memoir or publish your old journals and be done with it! Bully for you that you had an idyllic childhood with no major problems. You might write these stories beautifully, but even a deliberately episodic, slower-paced, character-driven book or series where coming of age IS the plot needs hung on some kind of trajectory and story arc.

Give us tension and stakes, not just a bunch of random episodes or silly, minor dramas that easily, quickly resolve. If you’re drawing solely from your own life, or only slightly tweaking it, odds are you won’t have the kinds of plots and characters that drive along a good yarn.

A lot of these autobiographical or thinly-fictionalised stories also are only interesting if you know the people involved. E.g., you’re charmed by stories of your grandparents playing paper dolls and eating lunch in a piano box, but could care less when anyone else does it. At least use it to further character development or elevate it beyond a random episode.

2. The wish-fulfillment Mary Sue or Gary Stu. This is the kind of character who gets all the job promotions, successful art shows, military advancements, high grades, spicy sex life, etc., which you never had but always wished for. No one wants to read about a perfect character with a charmed life.

3. The bully pulpit for your frustrated failed ambitions. It’s so obvious when a writer uses an autobiographical character, or one with a similar life trajectory, as a way to constantly whine about why s/he didn’t get those military promotions, salary raises, successful art or music career, scholarship, dream job, etc., or to blame it on everyone and everything but oneself.

Maybe it really is unfair how you lost or were never offered those opportunities, like spiteful co-workers, a boss who inexplicably hated you from the jump, or the kids from well-connected families being ushered into your school’s college prep track despite not having very good grades. You can explore that with a story based on your own life, but dwelling on it and ranting so often makes you look unhealthily stuck in the past.

4. A character based strongly on yourself, but with some significant differences. I’ve spoken many times about how Emeline Troy is my Doppelgänger. We both had hyperlexia at age three; the first book we ever read was the adult, uncensored Grimms’ Fairytales; we adore Hermann Hesse; we’re very influenced by Eastern philosophies and religions; we didn’t have our first relationship till age 28; our beaux were both walking DSMs from emotionally incestuous immigrant families, maintaining a hurtful, inappropriate friendship with a deranged ex, and with a bizarre aversion to kissing; we both had menarche a month before our twelfth birthdays; and so much more.

However, I only wish I’d gone to Vassar; I didn’t have a double major in history and German Studies; I didn’t switch to a private school for disadvantaged young women, on full scholarship, late in my sophomore year of high school; I was cheated out of the chance to study Latin my last two years of high school; I don’t have eight siblings; my walking DSM ex is Belarusian, not Hungarian; I didn’t grow up in tenements or in NYC; and I’ve never smoked pot.

5. A character based somewhat on yourself, but fully her/his own person. E.g., this character might have a different religion, ethnic background, political party, or hometown than you, but have a similar family background, personal values, and hobbies. There are also a number of incidents drawn from or based on your own life, but not to the point of a strongly autobiographical story.

6. A character who lets you vicariously explore the path not taken. Maybe you’ve always regretted a certain choice and wished you’d made a different one, or always wondered how your life might’ve turned out had another opportunity been available. E.g., taking school more seriously and qualifying for a full scholarship to a prestigious college, accepting a job offer in another country or state, marrying and having kids earlier or later, getting financial aid for a private school with an excellent music program, studying abroad, not being so provincial, studying architecture instead of business.

WeWriWa—Discussing religion

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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 snippets from the book formerly known as The Very Next, now entitled Movements in the Symphony of 1939. It was released in e-book format on March second, with a paperback edition to follow within a few months. The paperback edition will have a different cover.

Best friends Cinnimin and Sparky (real name Katherine) have been forced to take new houseguest Samantha to their friend Quintina’s birthday party, despite Sam’s out of place clothes and lack of a present. During their short walk there, Sam revealed a fear of her mother and mentioned her parents have different religions. Now Sam starts revealing her commitment to fundamentalism.

“Your parents are different religions? What is your dad, Catholic or something? I don’t think he’s Jewish, given how upset you and your mom got when you found out Sparky’s family’s Jewish.”

“We’re all Methodists, but my dad is a regular Methodist who only had one baptism. My mother and I are fundamentalist Methodists with three baptisms. We go to a regular Methodist church, but we have our own beliefs and practices to set us apart. Maybe someday my father will see the light and join us in the one true church.”

“What did you need three baptisms for? I didn’t think you needed to get rebaptized if you joined a different church. The original baptism counts for all Christian churches, so long as it’s a real church.”

The ten lines end here. A few more to complete the scene follow.

“That’s a long story. Our minister in D.C. explained how our first baptism was invalid, since it wasn’t in a fundamentalist church. He had to baptize us twice more each.”

Cinni shifted her weight to her other foot. “So you both used to be normal, and weren’t always super-religious?”

“We used to be more like other people, yes. You probably guessed my mother was really young when I was born. She wasn’t married either, but at least she eventually was able to marry my father. Their parents disapproved of their relationship. I think my mother became so overly religious to try to atone for how sinful she was before. Now it’s hard to imagine living any other way, though our salvation only happened a few years ago.”

My thoughts on writing what you know

“Write what you know” has become one of those mantras bandied about so much, like “Never use any adverbs or creative speaking verbs ever!,” many people don’t understand what it actually means. We also have a disturbing amount of woke gatekeeping from the We Need Diverse Books campaign, which truly did start out on a great foot. Now a lot of writers are told they can only write characters exactly like themselves, and how dare anyone write characters from another experience group.

How many great books, plays, and stories would never have been written if the writers had felt compelled to only draw from their own demographic and life experiences? Empathy and research go a long way, so long as the intent behind writing such characters is respectful. At the end of the day, we’re all human and created in the image of the Divine. Our common humanity unites us.

But what about writing what you can’t know, not just what you don’t know?

While I like to think I’m pretty good at writing male characters, owing in decent part to how tomboyish I’ve always been, I know I’ll never be 100% accurate on every level. I only have firsthand experience of being female, and that means I have no means of knowing what certain things specific to male biology or socialisation are like. Instead, I do the best I can, and create a range of male characters instead of cartoonish stereotypes or idealistic dream men.

I’ve also never been pregnant or given birth, as much as I always believed I’d have a husband and kids years ago. No matter how much research I’ve done on the subject, I can’t write about morning sickness, contractions, pushing, the ring of fire, or delivering the afterbirth from personal experience. Though I have had dysmenorrhea for almost twenty years, which is absolute crippling agony without medication, so I do have a semblance of comparison to contractions.

I don’t care how much erotica you’ve read, how much porn you’ve watched, or how many times you’ve pleasured yourself; if you’ve never been in a sexual situation with another person, your sex scenes are going to lack authenticity and bear the obvious mark of inexperience. Maybe don’t include sex scenes in your stories if you’re a virgin? It’s always a bad thing when a sex scene or erotic story makes people laugh when you didn’t intend it as humor.

It’s always obvious when a writer lacks passion for a subject or genre. It’s great that you want to try something new and step outside your familiarity zone, but it’s better to spend some time immersed in that genre or subject before taking on the task of writing an entire book.

The author of the beyond-dreadful I Was Anastasia admitted she wished a thousand times she’d been writing about barbed wire instead, and that she cares less about royals. She also made up nicknames for real characters and combined others because she thinks Russian names all sound alike and are “damnably confusing.” Then why waste so much time researching and writing that book?!

I could never write a Koreaphile character well, since I know next to nothing about Korean culture, history, language, or literature. If I blazed ahead anyway and forced it, my lack of familiarity and passion would show in spades. Whereas writing a Nipponophile, Russophile, or Estophile character would be second nature.

Likewise, writing a fellow Dantephile comes so easily and naturally, versus attempting to write someone who’s nuts about Charles Dickens or John Milton. I’m just not familiar with their work. Though even if you’re a real fan of the same writers, actors, artists, singers, or musicians your characters are, you never want to overdo it with constant references and showing off your knowledge.

The way I wrote about college in my teens was laughable. In my mind, it was rather like high school, only with professors and more choice of courses. I had no idea about things like lecture halls or the level of intensity. Likewise with writing about high school in junior high and writing about adults in their thirties when I was a teenager.

If you’ve not been through a life stage yet, no amount of research will replace the necessary firsthand experience for depicting it authentically.

Better to be silent and thought wise than open your mouth and remove all doubt.