When should you change a character’s age?

Changing a character’s age might seem a little detail akin to changing a name or city, but it can be quite complicated. The longer you’ve been with a character, the harder it becomes to change, not just emotionally, but in terms of story infrastructure.

My long-shelved character Anne Terrick’s age was all over the place in the picture books, short stories, and finally novella-length diary format book she featured in. Sometimes she’d be a small child; other times a preteen; still others a teenager. Her location also shifted a lot. At one point she lived in Alaska, and then finally ended up in 19th century Boston and Oregon Country.

When I resurrected her in November 2017, I decided to age her up two years from the hot mess of the book I was radically rewriting. Instead of starting at ten in September 1840 and turning eleven in January 1841, she starts at twelve and turns thirteen four months later.

I was able to do this so easily because her age had never been set in stone, and she’d been shelved for 25 years. Thus, I wasn’t emotionally attached to her being a certain age and doing certain age-related things (e.g., finishing school, menarche, marriage, sweet sixteen) in specific years.

The way I wrote Anne as a preteen myself felt wildly inconsistent with her supposed age. The way she thinks, speaks, and acts feels more realistic to a junior high girl. I wanted her to start young, but not that young. If she’d stayed 10–11, her thought processes, adventures, and misadventures would’ve felt really off the mark.

Plus, I can just do more with her sooner because she’s a little older!

I made the starting age of my Atlantic City characters 11 because that was my age too. It felt right to write about peers instead of little kids or teenagers. But unfortunately, almost nothing about them reads like fifth graders. (I was in sixth grade at the time and turned 12 shortly after I created them.)

I’m far from alone in this. Many other writers have been guilty of not depicting young characters in a manner realistic to their true age. E.g., 9-year-olds who come across like overgrown babies, 12-year-olds with mature understanding of complex political issues, 16-year-olds who feel more like world-wise 30-year-olds or childish preteens.

One of the blessings of youth is that we never realise just how young we are at any given age. Just about everyone is convinced s/he’s so much more mature and smarter than peers. Only when we’re much older and have greater hindsight does it dawn on us in shock how immature, inexperienced, childish, young, etc., we were at 8, 10, 12, 13, 15, 16, 18, 21.

Thus, young writers tend not to depict people their own age as they truly are. Even many adult writers do this when they write up (e.g., MG books with 11-year-old characters written at a lower level for younger readers).

Looking back, there was a perfect window of opportunity to slightly age my Atlantic City characters up in 1997, during the final leg of writing the prequel series. While all four rough drafts were hot messes in dire need of radical rewrites, they nevertheless were a turning point in my development as a writer and getting to know who these characters truly are. They were transformed into real, complex people, no longer interchangeable names doing and saying uninspired, unoriginal things.

At that time, I was early in Saga III (the Sixties) of Cinnimin. The characters were only in their thirties. Most of them were still building their families, and others had yet to marry or have kids. I was 17, old enough to have some perspective and rethink juvenile decisions.

Had I aged them up then and there, there wouldn’t have been nearly so many complications as if I did it now. E.g., the late-life children many of the ladies have could’ve been born a few years earlier, with their storylines starting from there and proceeding accordingly.

If you decide to age a character up (or down), it’s most ideal to do it as early into the story or series as possible. That way, you won’t be particularly emotionally attached to it, and it won’t be deeply embedded into every single fiber of this world, to the point where changing it requires massive frogging and reconstruction.

You shouldn’t make a change because of pressure or suggestions from anyone else. Stand by your creative vision, even if a crit partner thinks it’d be better as MG or YA. However, I wish more people years ago had planted seeds by asking, “These kids are supposed to be eleven?” Or 12, 10, 13, etc.

If a story truly would work better were the characters a little older or younger, that should be a decision you arrive at on your own, because it just feels right. If you’re thinking about it but not 100% sure, change the age in a new draft or the rest of that book to see how it feels.

Only if it feels right down to the very core of your soul should you commit to making a permanent change. You can always change the age back if it feels wrong, but if you commit to the change in a published book, it can’t be undone nearly that easily.

WeWriWa—1841 begins

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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. This year’s New Year-themed snippet comes from probably the only book I’ll ever write in first-person, Anne Terrick: A Bildungsroman. I created Anne’s original incarnation when I was 5-6 years old, eventually made her into a 19th century diarist, and then shelved her in 1992. In 2017, I finally resurrected her.

For different reasons, Anne and her sister Abigail really stand out in 1840s Congregationalist Boston, and in a home ruled over by their petty tyrant of a father. After a series of extremely dramatic events, the sisters find their freedom in Oregon Country, along with a bunch of other black sheep in their family and circle of friends.

Dave is an orphan whom Mr. Terrick took on as an apprentice to his general store when Dave was twelve years old. Anne has had a crush on him for a long time, but since she’s six years younger than Dave, he doesn’t notice her in that way yet.

This has been slightly tweaked to fit ten lines.

January 1, 1841, Friday,

Last night’s Watch Night service left everyone quite tired, but we weren’t allowed to sleep past 8:00. Except Father, that is. His store isn’t open on New Year’s Day, but he briefly woke up to bang on everyone’s door before going back to sleep himself. He’d know if anyone else went back to sleep too, so we had no choice but to dress and go down to breakfast.

Alice and the other servants had a festive meal waiting for us—apple pie; spiced apple cider; balls of sweetened dough stuffed with currants and fried in hog’s fat; toasted bread covered with melted butter, cinnamon, and sugar; applesauce; fried eggs in tomato sauce; and Herb’s very favorite, mincemeat pie. Much of our food comes from our modest garden and farm, and is stored in our smokehouse, larder, and pie safe during the months when the land is dead; other food is acquired through store customers trading in exchange for goods.

After breakfast, Dave’s current young lady came to the house. I was afraid Father might awake and punish him for daring to admit one of his lovers in broad daylight instead of keeping her in the barn for the usual few hours under cover of darkness, but Father remained asleep.

“I really wanted to walk to the pond together,” the young lady announced. “Meeting there isn’t as romantic.”

2017 in Review (Writing and life)

My wordcounts were in the toilet for much of this year. I’m shocked I got just under 81K for NaNo, even as a rebel working on several different things. 47K of that came from my WIP about my long-shelved character Anne Terrick. After about 25 years, it’s very surreal to write an entire book in first-person again, but diary form just feels right for this story.

I managed to get some decent work done on Part II of The Strongest Branches of Uprooted Trees, even if I lost the roughly 2,000–5,000 words closing the penultimate chapter and in the rewrite of the final chapter. Baruch Hashem, I didn’t lost as much as I’d feared, and a number of things came back to me in the ensuing days.

I also have excerpts from those lost words in my Twitter feed, from all the themed weekly writing hops I do. It won’t be the first time I’ve had no choice but to go back from scratch and memory to rewrite and reconstruct something.

Though I waited till four days before the deadline, and almost gave up on the second day, I’m glad I went for it and wrote a story for this year’s IWSG anthology contest. Sci-fi is my next-fave genre, though I don’t give it nearly as much attention as I give historical. It ended up a bit over 5K.

I also got some good work done on my fourth Russian historical, A Dream Deferred: Lyuba and Ivan at University. A lot of great secondary characters and subplots introduced themselves this year. I’ve just had to accept that this volume isn’t one of the ones which has been writing me more than I’ve been writing it, and that it won’t be finished as quickly as normal.

I’m surprised to see I wrote a bit over 90K on Dream Deferred this year. It felt like much less, giving my depression and lagging wordcounts.

I’m now back to working on the book formerly known as The Very First, which I’ll write more about in my January IWSG post. I’d thought I only had to finish up the chapter I’d belatedly added about the 1938 War of the Worlds radio broadcast, but I saw a great opening to add two new chapters concluding the year, and an Epilogue in January 1939, at Barry’s bar mitzvah.

I’ve lost about 30 pounds since June. The weight I’d ballooned up to made my UMass weight look healthy. I still can’t believe I was that heavy and lived, even with my bone structure!

I’m not happy at how I was shanghaied and blocked from moving home to Pittsburgh like I’d been excitedly planning to, but I remain hopeful I’ll be there by the end of 2018 and resuming my master’s program. I know I’ve been out of school for a few years, but I was far from the only student who was very unhappy with UAlbany’s library science program.

My 17-year-old leafy baby, Kalanit, started the year just as depressed as I was. Her leaves were dull and drooping over the sides of her pot, and she hadn’t had any new growths for a few years. After she survived her longest car ride ever, 900 miles, and was put into a new pot for the first time ever, she came back with a vengeance.

Kalanit’s roots had started to become impacted, but a larger pot and fresh soil worked miracles. She grew and grew like crazy, with a new baby almost every time I turned around. I’ll have to have a future post with pictures of Kalanit to show just how amazing her recovery has been.

A lot of people have expressed astonishment when they find out I’ve kept a spider plant alive for 17 years. She’s been on a number of car rides and in a number of residences, including the four different rooms I lived in during my two years at UMass.

Kalanit may soon need a larger pot, and possibly to be split up for the first time in years!

IWSG—A new lease on my writing life

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The Insecure Writer’s Support Group convenes the first Wednesday of every month, and lets participants share their worries, insecurities, triumphs, hopes, and fears. This month’s question is:

As you look back on 2017, with all its successes/failures, if you could backtrack, what would you do differently?

I can’t change the fact that my depression and other mental health issues created much lower than usual wordcounts for much of the year. I do wish I’d backed up the most current version of The Strongest Branches of Uprooted Trees before the shocking disaster of August. At least I “only” lost maybe 2,000–5,000 words and a week or so of research, not the entire document.

I didn’t think I’d get anywhere close to 50K this NaNo, given how dismal my wordcounts have been for much of the past year. I felt the only way I might get there was by being a rebel working on several different projects.

This represents blog posts, my last day of work on my IWSG anthology story, my 29 November journal entry on George Harrison’s 16th Jahrzeit (death anniversary), the list of 2018 blog post topics I put together, and a WIP.

Because I gave myself permission to fail, and decided to have fun doing whatever I wanted, I won with my quickest speed ever. My final wordcount of just under 81K still isn’t the best I know I’m capable of, but given my wordcounts during most of the past year, I’ll happily take it.

Writing and researching my blog series on The Jazz Singer at 90 gave me back my writing mojo. The infectious charisma and personality of Al Jolson, which was responsible for making the film such a wild success, worked that same magic on me. So thank you, Jolie!

I only started my IWSG anthology story on 29 October, and almost gave up on the second day. I’m glad I found the willpower to push through, even if I don’t win. I really enjoyed researching projected far-future developments, and finding sci-fi-sounding names.

I titled it “Birkat HaChamah,” after the Jewish blessing of the Sun which takes place every 28 years. It’s happened twice in my lifetime so far, 1981 and 2009. I’ll have a future post re: how to write about this rare ritual.

47K came from Anne Terrick: A Bildungsroman, which starts in September 1840 and is told in diary format. I thought I’d shelved Anne forever in 1992, but she was meant to be if I never forgot her all these years. She was created (as Ann-Ann) when I was all of 5-6 years old.

Going back to the 19th century after so many years is like learning how to write historical all over again. It’s also strange to write in first-person again, but the diary format of yore just seemed right. This story wouldn’t work in third-person.

I came up with so many great ideas for characters and storylines from the previous final form of Anne’s story (which is in storage 900 miles away). I also moved her from Plymouth to Boston. Now, only her double-cousins and grandparents live in Plymouth.

I’m delighted with unplanned secondary character Pastor Winterbottom, her minister and catechism teacher at her hated boarding school. He’s not a sympathetic character, but he’s such great dark comedy, and keeps getting better.

The local writing group was neither as active nor interactive as my writing group back home (which I’m still officially registered with). I’m used to much more chatter at write-ins, several write-ins a week at fixed locations, and weekly write-ins the entire year, not just in November.

For my 29 November journal entry, I counted my handwritten words (499) and entered them into a lorum ipsem generator. Also in honor of George’s Jahrzeit, I made a desktop picture with his last words (right) and one of my favorite lyrics (left).

392279 01: (FILE PHOTO) Beatles guitarist and singer George Harrison performs December 3, 1963 during a concert. It was reported November 8, 2001 that Harrison is undergoing cancer treatment in a Staten Island, N.Y., hospital. The 58-year-old ex-Beatle was diagnosed with lung cancer and a brain tumor earlier this year. (Photo by Getty Images)

IWSG—A NaNo rebellion dictated by circumstance

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The Insecure Writer’s Support Group convenes the first Wednesday of every month, and lets participants share their worries, insecurities, triumphs, hopes, and fears. This month’s question is:

Win or not, do you usually finish your NaNo project? Have any of them gone on to be published?

I finished the first and third years I unofficially participated, with Little Ragdoll and Journey Through a Dark Forest. LR released 20 June 2014. The second year I unofficially participated was Justine Grown Up, which is still on hiatus.

My first year officially participating was my alternate history And Aleksey Lived, which is also on hiatus. I do intend to get back to it soon, since I’d like to have it finished for a 17 July 2018 release, the 100th Jahrzeit (death anniversary) of my protagonist.

In 2015 and 2016, I worked on A Dream Deferred, which still isn’t finished. I’m really embarrassed it’s taking so long to finish, given my normal writing speed.

By the way, I’m still looking for people to interview for the climactic “Sing Blue Silver Snowstorm” chapter of JGU! The details are on my sidebar, if you or someone you know were at the concert.

I’d planned to add 50K more to Dream Deferred, but given the snail’s pace my wordcount has plummeted to, I’m taking a break to recharge my passion and motivation. It’s not that I lost interest, just that my current circumstances are a giant obstacle.

I’m resurrecting Anne Terrick, whom I created as Ann-Ann at five or six. She went through quite an evolution before ending up in the 19th century, and has been shelved since 1992.

Since this old draft is in storage 900 miles away, along with most of the rest of my stuff, I’ll be going by memory. I’m using the basis of her story and little things here and there, not attempting to recreate everything.

I’ll be aging Anne up a little, and setting it over a longer period. She’s still a tomboy with dreams of running away to the wilderness to start a new, freer life.

I’m adding a stint in Boston boarding school; a forced marriage to a nasty retired sea captain forty years her senior; and a birth which almost kills her, ending in the extraction of the baby with a craniotomy hook.

Her love interest, David Myles Hoe, will have his surname changed to Howe, and I’m making him six years older and her father’s assistant in the family store. In spite of my own personal feelings, it’s historically accurate for the man to be a little older, and a girl to desire an older partner.

Because I don’t trust myself to write 50K under my circumstances, I’m being a NaNo rebel by also working on creative non-fiction. I’ve been planning a series on The Jazz Singer‘s 90th anniversary for two years, and have at least twelve topics.

I’m committed to researching and writing this series, and don’t want to push it off till December or give it less than my full attention. I’ll also be working on my other blog posts for the rest of this year.

I can’t get out of this area, and my parents’ house, soon enough!