Walking through my final changes to The Very First

Proving yet again that my books under 100K tend to need much more editing, revising, and rewriting than my deliberate doorstoppers, I had to read through proofs of the book formerly known as The Very First about five or six times until finally emerging with a mistake-free copy.

Most of what I caught were the usual embarrassing little typos or missing words here and there, while others were somewhat more significant.

1. In all the books of the prequel series, it was never exactly established just where in the Filliards’ house the Smalls live, and where this smaller second kitchen is. At first I wrote it as another wing, then changed it to the unused second floor, which has a small family sitting room, private dining room, and kitchen. Mr. Filliard converts the old playroom and billiard room into bedrooms. Many older upper-class houses did have that kind of original layout.

But that didn’t feel right. The Filliards do have a much larger than normal house, which they were able to keep after the Stock Market crash because they sold so many possessions, but it’s never been written as a mansion. Certainly, it would be very unusual for a normal detached house of that vintage to have three stories plus an attic.

Now it’s established that the Smalls have a cottage-like guesthouse attached to the main house, which the cook and maid used to live in, while Sparky shares Cinni’s attic bedroom. Even when the Filliards were rich, it was considered upper-middle-class, and the old barn on the property was for the gentleman farmer who lived there originally.

2. Gary and Barry’s respective original middle names, in the Cast of Characters section, were changed from Elijah to Elias and Isaac to Issak. Why would boys born in Germany have English birth names?

3. I changed Cinni’s mother’s birth name from Katarzyna to Karolina and her legal name from Cairn to Caroline. Her nickname is now Carin. One of her defining personality traits, her whole life long, is that she’s not particularly bright, and that her youngest child’s name is Cinnimin instead of Cinnamon because she’s a terrible speller.

But why would a former model, someone so eager to reinvent herself as a proper, refined, glamourous all-American (despite privately being fiercely proud of her Polish roots), give herself a name like Cairn? How do you get that as a phonetic spelling? It makes more sense for her to modify her Polish nickname, Karina, which her family still calls her.

The names Corinne, Corrine, Cara, and Carine likewise felt all wrong on her. Her name is Carin, even if that’s unfortunately become a widespread sexist pejorative in recent years.

4. I seriously considered changing Gayle’s closest sister’s name from T.J. (Tina Jasmine) to just Jasmine, to fit with the siblings’ predominant nature theme. But I just couldn’t picture her as a Jasmine after so many years. She’s T.J., for better or worse.

5. I described formerly unmentioned costumes in the Halloween chapter. How did that one slip by a passionate Halloween-lover!?

6. For the life of me, I couldn’t find the name of the girls’ division of Budapest’s famous, venerable Fasori Gymnasium again, so now Mrs. Kovacs just tells Mrs. Small she learnt German at gymnasium. No name specified.

7. I further toned down the fight Mr. and Mrs. Seward have in front of all the children. That remains one of the edgier parts of the book, but now it’s only mildly PG-13 instead of jaw-droppingly X-rated. It’s enough to know she’s openly, regularly committing adultery.

8. I took out a few lines point-blank giving away a future revelation about one of the principal families. There are already enough strong clues without directly spelling it out so early!

9. Kit’s animosity towards her mother is toned down even more. It’s still very much there, but Kit no longer uses epithets like “stupid” and “crazy.”

10. The Smalls’ Amsterdam neighborhood, named in Barry’s bar mitzvah speech in the Epilogue, was corrected from De Pijp to Rivierenbuurt. I realized the mistake while looking through the book formerly known as The Very Last.

11. There are now four tracks at the school—general, honors, college prep, progressive. Cinni and most of her friends will enter the progressive track in junior high.

12. I made almost everyone’s ages ambiguous, not just Cinni and her friends. If I age them up, it’ll have to be by two years. While I’d probably make them 10–11 in the first book were I just writing it now, that would demand far too much frogging and reconstruction.

IWSG—November odds and sods

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. This month’s question is:

Albert Camus once said, “The purpose of a writer is to keep civilization from destroying itself.” Flannery O’Conner said, “I write to discover what I know.” Authors across time and distance have had many reasons to write. Why do you write what you write?

Writing has been my calling for 36 years, as long as I’ve known how to write. It’s just something I’ve always done, the way others have a lifelong calling to medicine, art, music, or the clergy.

I’ve been writing historical since I was about eight. History was always my favoritest subject in school, and I never understood why so many of my peers found it boring and stupid. I love learning about how people lived in other eras.

I discovered my secondary genre, soft sci-fi, in fifth grade. We read a book of short sci-fi stories in English class, and I was so fascinated by these imagined future worlds, I planned a bunch of my own books set in various future years. The first story in that book was by Asimov. As much as I love Asimov, I wish I had a more original gateway story!

I strongly suspect this year’s NaNo will be a bust, or that I’ll barely squeak out 50K, instead of overachieving as I always do. Without in-person write-ins and the ability to get out of this annoying open concept house I’m still stuck in, a home which isn’t my own, my normal daily wordcounts are gone. This apparently permanent lockdown is ruining so many people’s mental health!

At least my vision has improved most marvellously with my new scleral contacts.

In happier news, all four volumes of Dark Forest and the book formerly known as The Very First are finally now available in paperback. There will be upcoming posts about TVF, which I’ll never think of by its published title. I know all four books in the prequel series desperately needed better titles, but after 20+ years, I’m emotionally attached to their original names.


E-book cover is on the left; print cover is on the right


Is it possible to live in two worlds at once?

When German-born Katharina Brandt immigrates from Amsterdam in 1938, her dearest wish is to become a real American girl. From now on, her name is Katherine Small, and she adopts the nickname Sparky to try to seem even more American. But before she can realize her dream, she’ll have to learn the ins and outs of her unusual new neighborhood and group of friends in Atlantic City.

Sparky is taken under the wing of Cinnimin Filliard, the youngest child of the man who helped her family immigrate. Cinni teaches her a thing or two about American life and their strange neighborhood. Sparky wants to believe Cinni is steering her right, but Cinni has some conflicting attitudes. Though nice and intelligent, Cinni often cops a superior attitude just because she was voted Most Popular Girl. Particularly to neighbor Violet, whom Cinni is convinced is after her title.

Sparky will do almost anything to fit in, except compromise her Judaism. She longs to be Sparky to her friends while remaining Kätchen to her family and staying true to her values. But along the way, Cinni, who tries to tempt her into wearing shorter skirts and eating non-kosher food, slowly begins realizing there’s more than one acceptable way to be a real American.

Will she ever be able to pull off being Sparky to her friends while remaining Kätchen to her family and staying true to her values? And just why was she nicknamed Sparky?

My feral friend White Shoes says hello!

Are you doing NaNo this year? Is lockdown negatively impacting your writing life?

IWSG—October odds and sods

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. This month I’m much more content, writing-wise, than I’ve been since this apparently permanent lockdown began.

Even if normal life hadn’t been shut down, I probably would’ve run into writer’s block and a near-complete standstill on Dream Deferred when it finally seemed like I was heading into the homestretch. I realised I’d been with those characters too long at a stretch, and put the book on hiatus for the fifth time since its inception in November 2015.

I took a two-week break from preparing the book formerly known as The Very First for its paperback version, a process which has taken a bit longer than I expected. During that time, I began my final draft of the book formerly known as The Very Next, and the difference with Dream Deferred was like night and day.

Words finally came quickly and effortlessly as I reworked and expanded chapters. It’s like when I regained my writing mojo from researching and writing my 12-part series “The Jazz Singer at 90″ in November 2017.

Unfinished cover of The Very Next, 2012, drawn with Roseart colored pencils. My art supplies are a lot more professional now, and I’m much better at drawing human figures!

My NaNo project will be finishing this draft (which at this point mostly consists of adding a few new chapters to make it an even forty) and resuming the radical rewrite of the book formerly known as The Very Last.

I’ll also make Cinnimin and her friends two years older in the latter, just to see how it feels. If it never feels right, I’ll change it back, but there’s no harm in trying out something I’ve been seriously thinking about for at least 7-8 years.

I may have found the perfect solution to the age dilemma. On Cinni’s twelfth birthday in 1942, her wish was that everything stay exactly the same as it was. During the 1950s, she starts realising she’s mentally living in the past and unable to move forward, and that her long-ago wish came true. Near the end of Saga II, this spell is finally broken.

What if she made the same wish a bit later, and everyone who was there stopped aging altogether for two years? My Atlantic City books aren’t intended as straight hist-fic, and there have been mystical and supernatural elements before.

Regardless of what I ultimately do about their age, though, it belatedly dawned on me that their graduation years might have to change anyway. Cinni’s birthday is in late August, which means she either started first grade at age seven, or her friends started at five and thus will finish each grade a year younger than normal.

Speaking of NaNo…

I’m very angry there won’t be any official in-person write-ins this year! The few people who spoke up to object for very sound reasons (worried about mental health from too much isolation, writers benefitting from being less solitary during this month) were called spoilt and selfish. Even worse, snitching on members planning small in-person write-ins is encouraged.

NaNo also issued a statement heartily supporting the toxic new woke theology. Coupled with how their “updated” website is still awful (automatically muting most boards and making us unmute them every time, infinite scroll in message boards, STILL not showing our stats from 2019 Camp), I’m at my wits’ end.

But in happier news, Volume I of Dark Forest is now available in paperback, and Volume II will be out by the end of the week. I’m also occupied with this year’s series on classic horror films with landmark anniversaries. Upcoming films include The Bride of Frankenstein, both versions of The Unholy Three (because it’s not October without Lon Chaney, Sr.!), The Invisible Man Returns, House of Dracula, and Abbott and Costello Meet the Mummy.

No story element is ever set in stone!

Even after I finally realised the importance of editing and rewriting, it didn’t immediately dawn on me that I wasn’t beholden to every single aspect of a story as I originally envisioned it. Sometimes things must be excised. Writing around or radically rewriting rotten material won’t suddenly make garbage into gold. Smothering dross with a thousand layers of gold won’t change what still lurks beneath.

A lot of the problems I’ve had with the earlier drafts of my Atlantic City books comes from this juvenile mindset it took me far too long to ditch. I just added new material and reworded the most egregious garbage instead of starting radical rewrites and restructurings.

It’s like only removing part of a tumour, or removing the tumour and not following up with chemo and radiation. Eventually, the cancer will come back and get even worse, since you’re letting it become so embedded within the body at what should be the most opportune time to root it out completely.


E.g., Gayle Pembroke and her siblings are stolen from their parents by an obsessed older rich woman named Mrs. Pardon. For reasons which I never explained, Mrs. Pardon framed Mr. and Mrs. Pembroke, had them thrown in jail, and was given full custody of their five kids. The baby they have in early 1943, Lacey, is given to her as well.

Granted, the framing happens in the long-hiatused second Max’s House book, but in none of the other books after that was it ever stated what exactly Mrs. Pardon framed them for, why the jury believed this story, and why a total stranger would get custody! Was it murder? Arson? Treason? Grand larceny? Embezzlement? Fraud?

I thought up this stupid storyline when I was a preteen, and just kept running with it despite it making zero sense. Also, the littlest Pembroke sister needs a new name. At least third sister Brooke’s unusual-for-the-era name can be explained by her parents liking nature names.


As I’ve said before, I’m so glad I was forced to recreate Little Ragdoll from scratch and memory, and that the long-buggy first file was only finally resurrected after I finished the second first draft. There was zero way I could’ve salvaged a halfway-decent story from that Grimms’ fairytale on acid. Had I been able to open the first of those two old files earlier, the resulting story would’ve been absolutely terrible.

Likewise with the Max’s House books I handwrote the first drafts of (#1, #3, #7, and #8). The others need a lot of work too, but not nearly so extensively. I transcribed everything and merely added new stuff or fleshed out and reworded other stuff. Never a serious thought to outright removing the most egregious garbage!

The main storyline of #3 absolutely disgusts me now. Elaine decides she’ll kill herself after her English teacher forces her to read a bunch of books, and hatches a bizarrely detailed timeline. E.g., she begins taking poison in larger and larger doses, moves into the cellar and sleeps in a coffin, writes goofy poetry, buys dresses for her suicide and funeral, and finally “kills” herself in the outdoor pool with Max’s assistance. She has quite a long OOBE and comes back to herself in hospital.

There are so many things wrong with that storyline, perhaps worst of all treating suicide and suicidal ideation so matter-of-factly and as dark comedy! Elaine shows no signs of any sort of real depression or other mental health issues. I retained that storyline only because it was already there.


You are never beholden to keep every last word as you originally wrote it. Same goes for plot twists, couplings, character arcs, backstories, storylines, plots, scenes, et al. Yes, it’s very difficult to dismantle a good chunk of a book and rewrite it almost from scratch, but it’s always worth it in the end.

Who cares if that was a core part of the first draft, or you feel sentimental attachment to an idea you hatched when you were very young? That’s not a solid reason to justify keeping it if it’s bad to begin with.

When you cut away rotted flesh, healthy new flesh eventually replaces it. So too is it with radically slashing and burning to create a new and improved story.

Character name changes should never be forced

If you’re observing Yom Kippur in lockdown, may you have an easy and meaningful fast despite being deprived of going to synagogue and being with other people!

I recently took a short break in prepping the paperback production of the book formerly known as The Very First (always the title I’ll think of it as) to start work on the final draft of the book formerly known as The Very Next (also always the title I’ll think of that book as). Despite this delay, I have confidence TVF will be ready for its print run soon.

While going through TVN, I began thinking about how many of the Polish characters’ names are kind of boring. Not that that makes them bad names at all, just that they were chosen by a teenager in the pre-Internet age. While naming tended to be more conservative in the old days (i.e., the same small pool of names vs. a wider variety), it wasn’t super-unusual to encounter a name outside the Top 100.

Knowing now that it was extremely uncommon for Polish Jews to have Polish names, I added the detail that the Polańskis and Robleńskis got those surnames from ancestors who converted to Judaism.

A crit partner several years ago thought the explanation/defense of Polish first names is a bit overdone. I took her advice and reworked that aspect so it doesn’t sound so heavy-handed and run into the ground.

All that really matters is that the Polańskis are a modern family who feels it’s important to prove they’re just as authentically Polish as the Gentiles. That includes mostly having Polish names and not speaking Yiddish. They don’t want extra ammunition for persecution.

I changed the names of Krzyś’s older sisters Bogda and Filipa to Salomea and Faustyna, and while those are lovely names, they felt wrong immediately. While Bogda was never particularly developed, Filipa later becomes an important character as Samuel Roblenski’s second wife, the late-life love match he was denied in his first marriage. I can’t think of her by any name but Filipa!

Bogda, however, is also the name of Cinni’s great-grandma, and I’d prefer to avoid confusion by having two secondary characters with the same name. Bronia sounds close enough, and I’ve always liked that nickname for Bronisława.

I also changed the name of Kryzś’s uncle by marriage from Lech Gold to Bruno Lerner. Lech is already the name of Cinni’s grandfather, and Gold was a lazy, thoughtlessly-chosen surname. This guy’s the biggest intellectual in the family, the only one with a Ph.D., working with rare books at the National Library. I also intend to develop him into a more important secondary character, so he deserves more than a placeholder name.

Likewise, I’m changing the surname of Bruno’s adult stepdaughters from Szymborska to Saperstein. Too many names of Gentile origin in the same family feel implausible. It’s pretty obvious I wasn’t socialized in the Jewish community, since I genuinely didn’t know how unusual it was for most people to have surnames native to the host culture!

Bruno’s kids deserve more original names than Zalman and Luiza too. They were originally Solomon and Liza, and later changed to the closest Polish equivalents. Again, nothing wrong with either name, but not chosen carefully, and hardly the kinds of names an intellectual would give his kids.

I played with changing Cinni’s mother’s name to Carine, but that felt instantly wrong. Instead, I changed her birth name from Katarzyna to Karolina, her legal name became Caroline, and her nickname went from Cairn to Carin. One of her great-granddaughters is later named Karyn in her honour, so I couldn’t stray too far.

I’ll admit I was hesitant about keeping her name because it’s now a sexist pejorative. I immediately stop reading when someone calls a woman a “Karen”! If she’s done something legitimately bad, call out the specific action instead of using a slur that terminates thought, shuts down dialogue, and encourages more insulting of and presumptions about a stranger you know nothing about!

The best time to change a character’s name is early on, before you’ve had a chance to become emotionally attached to it. It’s also much easier to change if you’ve had a story shelved for a long time, or this is a secondary character you never got to know very well.

If it feels wrong, you’ll immediately sense it. And if it feels right, that new name might as well represent an entirely different character, nothing in common with the one bearing the original name.