Lessons learnt from post-publication polishing, Part III

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.

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WeWriWa—Allen Comforts Adicia

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Welcome back to Weekend Writing Warriors and Snippet Sunday, weekly Sunday hops where writers share 8 sentences from a book or WIP. Since I’ll be starting my Halloween-themed snippets in just two weeks, I decided to move an older post out of my drafts folder instead of starting the next scene in the WIP I’ve been sharing from. That way, I won’t have to break off the forward momentum for an entire month-plus.

This snippet comes from Little Ragdoll, Chapter 38, “The Sacrifice of Adicia,” set in August 1969. Adicia’s mother, who served a few months in prison for embezzlement in 1962, was recently threatened with more jail time if she failed to pay back the remaining money by the end of August.

Mrs. Troy, true to her black-hearted, anti-maternal nature, coerced Adicia into giving up her virginity for the remaining $3,000. In exchange, Adicia was promised a handsome husband with a good job and the ability to graduate high school instead of being forced to drop out at sixteen. By remaining at home till 18, Adicia will also be able to keep protecting her baby sister Justine.

Big brother Allen has just found out what their evil mother did, and is furious. When he goes to see Adicia at their sister Ernestine’s place, he winds up hugging her for the first time.

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Adicia sits up and puts her arms around her brother, sobbing against his chest.  Allen hugs her back, the first time he’s ever hugged any of his sisters.  He still can’t entirely shake his social conditioning about manly versus unmanly behavior, but he’s hardly acting like a pansy by comforting someone he loves.  He hugs her as tightly as he knows how, to make up for all the years he never did it.  Seeing how she only comes up to the middle of his chest makes him painfully aware of how small she is for her age, how much she still resembles a little ragdoll even at fifteen.  She’s not even five feet tall yet.

“I’m not really sure I believe God exists, but onea the things that makes me think he might exist is that I got the best big brother in the world.  Out of all the families in the world, we were chosen for each other.”

Little Ragdoll Cover

I will be having my cover redesigned, though keeping it based on the same reference picture I worked from, and still using lots of dark blue. I don’t regret the experience of having designed two of my own covers, but I quickly came to understand something more professional will sell more copies.

WeWriWa—Super Big Brother

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Welcome back to Weekend Writing Warriors, a weekly Sunday hop where writers share 8 sentences from a book or WIP. I’ve been sharing from the new opening pages of Little Ragdoll, a contemporary historical Bildungsroman (growing-up story) I’m releasing on 20 June. It’s my imagined telling of the growing up and well-deserved happy ending of the girl who inspired The Four Seasons’ famous song “Rag Doll.”

Adicia, her four best sisters, and their surrogate mother (an exploited live-in servant and nanny) are on their way to Woolworth’s in early September 1959 when they run across the two oldest brothers. Fifteen-year-old Allen is concerned because Adicia is limping, but even if it’s “just” caused by socks with holes, he’s not about to let his next-youngest sister go on such a big walk in that condition.

***

Allen reaches into his pockets and hands Adicia four dull quarters. “Here you go.  Enough for round-trip subway fare.  You, Ernestine, and Justine ride for free, since you’re so short.  The nearest station’s on the corner of Delancey and Essex.  Since you don’t hafta worry about walking no more, why don’t you go to onea the stores uptown?  They’ve mostly got the same goods for the same prices, but it’s nice to get outta the neighborhood when you can.”

Adicia slips the coins into her pocket and waves at her favorite brother as she continues down Essex Street.

***

When writing the beyond-awful, original, discontinued first draft of 1993-94, I pretty much stumbled into the storyline of Allen eventually quitting his delinquent lifestyle and trying to save his sisters from their awful mother. When I finally went back to the story from scratch and memory 16.5 years later, Allen became a nice guy from the start, not that heavy of a drug user or drinker, and determined to get above his raising by graduating high school, leaving the old neighborhood, and becoming respectably working-class.

Even though they’re only ten years apart, Allen is essentially the only real man in Adicia’s life until she meets her future husband Ricky in 1972. He’s quite possibly my favorite big brother character I’ve ever written. He proves himself as one of the best big brothers ever in June 1962, when he kicks down a door to save Adicia and Justine from a fire, and then runs back into the burning tenement to save their one-year-old nephew Giovanni.

WeWriWa—Meet Adicia

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Welcome back to Weekend Writing Warriors, a weekly Sunday hop where writers share 8 sentences from a book or WIP. I’ve been sharing from the new opening pages of Little Ragdoll, which is set from 1959-74 and inspired by the story which inspired The Four Seasons’ famous song “Rag Doll.” It’s my imagined telling of the growing-up story and happy ending of someone who could’ve been that real-life young girl.

It’s early September 1959, and Adicia, her four closest sisters, and their surrogate mother Sarah are getting ready to walk to Woolworth’s for some back to school supplies. On their way there, they run across the two oldest Troy brothers. When rewriting the first chapter recently, I decided to introduce them a bit earlier, and gave Allen speaking lines this time to establish the fact that he’s the good brother.

Though the Troys live on Avenue A, that was still part of the Lower East Side in 1959. The so-called East Village didn’t secede till the mid-Sixties, but the northern part of the LES was already gentrifying by the Fifties and trying to distance itself from the remaining historic poor and working-class population. The major intersecting street, Houston, is pronounced HOUSE-ton in New York City, not like the city in Texas.

***

“You do what you must when you have no choice,” Sarah tries to soothe her, in the distinctive German accent she still has after twelve years in America. “I had to walk so many miles in tight wooden clogs and no socks, every day for weeks, before the soldiers rescued me.”

Adicia sighs and pulls on her socks and shoes, then takes Emeline’s hand as they begin the perilous flight down the crooked, broken, rotted staircase, which is missing a number of steps.  Despite this tenement having been built in 1920, it’s still not as safe or modern as some of the residences up by Tompkins Square Park.  The landlord’s family abandoned the building years ago, leaving their comparatively large living quarters just in time for the Troys to move in.

Sarah puts Justine in her old, worn-out, hand-me-down stroller, and they proceed down Avenue A.  After they cross Houston Street about a block later, Avenue A turns into Essex Street, where Adicia’s two older brothers are leaning against a dilapidated old storefront and smoking marijuana.  Sixteen-year-old Carlos, who’s also taking swigs from a bottle of vodka, pays them no regard, but fifteen-year-old Allen smiles at them.

Sweet Saturday Samples—A Quasi-Date

Welcome back to Sweet Saturday Samples! This week’s excerpt is from my contemporary historical Bildungsroman Little Ragdoll, Chapter 43, “‘Don’t Get Above Your Raising.'” It’s January 1972, and 17-year-old Adicia has agreed to go out socially with 19-year-old Ricky, her rich new neighbor from up the street who’s smitten with her. Though they live only a street apart, they’re in separate neighborhoods due to how the northern, gentrified section of the Lower East Side broke away to form the so-called East Village in the mid-Sixties. Adicia’s big brother Allen isn’t too happy when he discovers them together.

This scene contains one of the pieces I wrote during my biggest editing and revising phase. I’m a sinistral chauvinist who always includes at least several lefties in every cast of characters, but this time I’d totally forgotten. The book now boasts 13, plus a few babies whose left-handedness hasn’t had time to manifest yet.

***

That Sunday, while Justine is visiting Lenore and the girls, Adicia and Ricky are having lunch at an outdoor café in the West Village.  Adicia is confident in her decision to only make friends with Ricky, nothing more, and figures having an ally on the block can’t hurt.  After all, he might come in handy if she needs to run away to avoid being traded off like a piece of meat by her parents once she’s eighteen.

After their sandwich plates are cleared, a waiter brings dessert menus.  Adicia looks over it long and hard before finally deciding on a blueberry turnover with powdered sugar and whipped cream on top.

“You must not have dessert too often,” he says after the waiter takes their orders.

“We have a lot of it when we visit our brother, but not at home.  And I’ve only rarely gone to a real restaurant.”

He smiles at her. “In that case, I’d be happy to take you out every weekend.  It’s not right for anyone to grow up not knowing what it’s like to eat out or have fancy desserts.”

Adicia looks around and then at the ground. “I’m used to it.  I just like having a chance to do it when I can.  Don’t feel obligated to keep taking me out.  And remember, this isn’t even a date.”

Ten minutes later, the waiter returns with their desserts.  Adicia sees Ricky moving his fork to the left side of his plate just like she’s doing.  Across the table, Ricky smiles at her when he sees what she’s doing.

Adicia laughs. “Don’t tell me the universe put yet another lefty in my circle.  That makes thirteen of us.”

“My kindergarten teacher tied weights to my hand, but that only lasted one day.  My parents threatened to sue the school and get a private tutor for me if they didn’t leave me alone.  I’ve never known a female lefty before.  So you apparently know a lot of others?”

“Me, my sisters Emeline, Ernestine, and Justine, my brother Allen, my sister-in-law Lenore, my nieces Irene and Amelia, our four friends the Ryans, and now you.  My dad was born one, but he gave into teachers tryna switch him.”

“Now I like you even more, knowing you’re one of my own.”

Out of the corner of her eye, Adicia thinks she sees her brother.  Her suspicions are confirmed when he approaches their table.

“What a surprise to see you, Da—” Allen stops mid-word when he realizes she’s sitting with a stranger. “That’s not David!”

“Why would I be out with David?  He lives in Poughkeepsie now.”

“Who’s David, a former boyfriend?” Ricky asks.

“He’s a really good friend of mine.  We grew up together and knew each other since we were seven.  He’s the brother of my sister Ernestine’s best friend.”

Allen looks at his sister and her companion in shock. “Adicia, are you out on a date?”

“No!  This is just Ricky, who moved up the street from us recently.  I’m just getting to know him as friends.”

“Well, in my experience, if a girl wants to get to know a guy as only friends, they don’t go out to eat.  What are your intentions towards my sister?”

“To be honest, I really would like to go on a date with her, but she insists she only wants to be friends and that a poor girl and a rich boy shouldn’t get mixed up.”

***

Allen proceeds to deliver a long rant about how Ricky couldn’t really like Adicia, who comes from a starkly different social class, and forces his sister to come home with him before the date is over.