Radical relationship revamps

It was a blessing in disguise that I put my radical rewrite of the book formerly known as The Very Last on hiatus in mid-2015. At the time, I was frustrated because I couldn’t locate enough information about the Portuguese World Exposition of 1940, and I felt exhausted at the thought of researching and writing about the 1939–40 World’s Fair only a few years after doing it for Dark Forest. Now I realize I couldn’t have rewritten that book the way it needed to be had I continued on in 2015.

Though I wasn’t shy about cutting out garbage, adding new and improved material, and tweaking storylines by 2015, I still had a major blind spot regarding certain things. This included Kit’s relationship with a much-older boy who originally had a crush on her sister Conny.

A big part of Kit’s character is that she’s like a young Samantha Jones, but now I’m too disturbed by her dating a high school boy when she’s in elementary school. Even if she’s aged up two years, she’d still only be eleven.

Originally, Conny’s future husband, an 18-year-old violinist named Thomas McCartney from Andover, England, showed up on the Greens’ doorstep on 1 June 1940, and he and 15-year-old Conny were instantly taken with one another. Kit decided to tag along to their first date with a date of her own, Jerry Wasserstein, a Catholic boy from Ohio Avenue.

This date went so well, Conny and Tom had sex in the guesthouse while Mr. and Mrs. Green were away. Kit led Jerry into her parents’ bedroom, took down their “boring” paintings and replaced them with erotic art, and went to third base with him on the bed. They fell asleep partly-clothed.

In the morning, cops showed up (having been alerted by the stores where Conny bought sexy clothes and condoms) and made all four of them parade naked through the city as punishment for illicit sexual activity (Conny and Tom) and shocking, disreputable conduct (Kit and Jerry).

WHAT?!

Beyond the obvious creepiness (to say the very least!) of a 15-year-old dating and getting physical with a preteen, Conny and Tom’s meeting, and his immediate move into the guesthouse, is so unrealistic. I was starting to rewrite that chapter with the changed detail of him showing up at the Greens’ doorstep because Kit’s lifelong rival Violet gave the address as a flophouse, but even that felt silly. Don’t even ask about the evil twin storyline which results in Tom leaving town and being presumed dead until 1957!

The storylines about Kit and Conny’s dating drama were somewhat better-incorporated in the first and second drafts of 1997 and 1999, but since I cut out a lot of cluttery chapters and seriously toned down Kit and Jerry’s relationship, they feel more like a tacked-on afterthought. Their beaux also aren’t even developed very well.

Many people, regardless of religion, are familiar with I Corinthians 13:11, “When I was a child, I spoke as a child, I understood as a child, I reasoned as a child; but when I became an adult, I put away childish things.” This is a sentiment everyone can relate to, and it’s particularly relevant to how my writing changed as my cognitive development reached its final stage.

However, probably not so many people are as familiar with the line following it, “For we now see obscurely through a mirror, and then face to face; now I know in part, and then I will fully know, as I was also known.” Becoming an adult isn’t just about putting away childish things, but attaining the kind of wisdom and hindsight that only come from years of life experience.

When I edited the third draft of How Kätchen Became Sparky in 2011–12, in my early thirties, I knew enough to significantly tone down a lot of the wildly age-inappropriate content. It was toned down even further during the fourth draft of 2014–15, and more still during the fifth and final version of 2017–18. I also deliberately made the characters’ age ambiguous.

Things I thought were funny or hard-hitting satire as a teen and in my early twenties horrified me once I was in my thirties. Germane to this post, Kit and Jerry’s relationship screams child abuse and taking advantage of a minor. Even if Kit were to lie about her age or Jerry were to assume she were 13 (the age she looks and acts) and never be corrected, that still wouldn’t make it right.

At 42, I understand so much more about child safeguarding, and don’t want to give any impression I approve of such a massively inappropriate situation. I kid you not, in the first two drafts, Kit and Jerry frequently drew and photographed one another naked and in sexual situations. One of these “artworks” was inspired by a scene in a Victorian erotic novella, Kit urinating into Jerry’s mouth.

Unfortunately, this does mean losing a lot of great dialogue and scenes with the Greens, esp. Kit’s unhappily married parents (who are also third-cousins), but maybe I can recycle them in other books. I’m also planning to reuse some of them in the chapter “The Wrath of Conny,” which will take a much different track than originally written. (I just had to keep that chapter title!)

Conny and Tom will still start dating in this book, but under much different circumstances, and with the twist that she’s lying to him about her age. In place of Jerry, Kit may start dating her original first boyfriend Haakon much earlier.

The one time Kit does date an older boy, Robert Valli, they run into serious irreconcilable differences immediately, largely because they’re at such different places in life. Why would Jerry be any different?

WeWriWa—The Smalls’ Shavuot menu

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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.

This week’s snippet comes from Chapter 19, “Happy Shavuot,” of the book formerly known as The Very Next and published last spring as Movements in the Symphony of 1939. Last week I described the table itself, and now you’ll get to read about all the delicious foods on offer. I know many people really enjoy my food-themed scenes.

Cinnimin Filliard’s father helped to bring a German Jewish family to America from Amsterdam in 1938, and they’ve been living in the guesthouse ever since. Their youngest child, Sparky (real name Katherine, changed from Katharina), shares Cinni’s attic bedroom in the main house, and has become her best friend.

Cinni, who has no love lost for her family’s nominal religion of Methodism and finds Judaism much more fun and colorful, is thrilled to be invited to celebrate Shavuot with the Smalls (originally the Brandts). Her friend Kit’s father is also a guest.

Just prior to this excerpt, Cinni saw strange things that looked like bread doughnuts on a silver platter, and Mrs. Small explained they’re bagels from Philadelphia, to be served with lox, cream cheese, tomatoes, and lettuce.

Cinni hoped her eyes weren’t wider than her stomach as she began heaping her plate high with a little of everything offered. She couldn’t complain for lack of meat when she had salmon broiled in butter, bagels loaded with the promised toppings, plenty of smoked salmon by itself, scalloped potatoes cooked in cheese, mushrooms stuffed with chopped walnuts, garden salad with chunks of goat cheese, fruit salad with shredded coconut flakes, and artichoke quiche. There was so much sumptuous food from which to feast, Cinni hardly cared there were some artichokes in the mix. If only her mother cooked such wonderful food. Mrs. Filliard put in some effort for Christmas and Easter, but didn’t offer anything nearly so grand.

“Which cheesecake would you like to try first?” Sparky asked after the supper plates and silverware were cleared away.

“Which cheesecake? You mean you’ve got more’n one? Lemme have a slice of all of ’em!”

Cinni’s eyes almost fell out of her head as Mrs. Small and Gary brought out cheesecake after cheesecake—the normal plain variety, chocolate, chocolate chip, lemon, orange, strawberry, raspberry, double chocolate.

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

Her mouth watered even more when Mr. Small and Barry lugged out canisters of ice-cream and bowls of toppings, followed by even more desserts upon which to feast.

“My folks never serve nearly so much dessert. I’m gonna weigh twenty more pounds after tonight.”

“We’re having ice-cream sundaes at synagogue after services tomorrow,” Sparky said. “Plus lots more cheesecake.”

“I almost wish I could tag along!”

WeWriWa—The Smalls’ Shavuot table

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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.

Because the holiday of Shavuot is this weekend, I’m sharing something from Chapter 19, “Happy Shavuot,” of the book formerly known as The Very Next and published last spring as Movements in the Symphony of 1939. It took over a year after the e-book release, but now it’s finally available in print as well.

Cinnimin Filliard’s father helped to bring a German Jewish family to America from Amsterdam in 1938, and they’ve been living in the guesthouse ever since. Their youngest child, Sparky (real name Katherine, changed from Katharina), shares Cinni’s attic bedroom in the main house, and has become her best friend.

Cinni, who has no love lost for her family’s nominal religion of Methodism and finds Judaism much more fun and colorful, is thrilled to be invited to celebrate Shavuot with the Smalls (originally the Brandts). Her friend Kit’s father is also a guest.

The Smalls had set their table as nicely as they’d set it for the other holidays Cinni had joined them for. This time, they had a yellow tablecloth with evergreen-colored embroidery, and white china with green leaves around the perimeter. Cinni also liked their centerpieces, several vases of red and yellow tulips. They were humbler flowers than the roses and baby’s breath they’d had for Rosh Hashanah and Pesach. She didn’t like bouquets all that much, since they seemed such a waste of money when they wilted before long, but if flowers had to be used, she preferred down-to-earth ones like tulips and wildflowers.

“You ain’t using your other fancy china this time?” Cinni asked as she pulled out a chair between Barry and Sparky. “You’re lucky you had enough money for more’n one set. I don’t think my family had more’n one even when we were rich. One set is all you really need, unless you’re uppity rich snobs like the Hitchcocks or Malspurs.”

“My family has several sets of tableware!” Mr. Green protested.

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

“I hope you don’t think we’re uppity. Having more than enough money to afford things like that means more to me than you’ll ever know.”

“Oh, no, I wasn’t talking about nice rich people like you. I meant snobs like the Hitchcocks and Unicorn-Mitchells.”

Gary smirked. “I’m glad the Unicorn-Mitchells go to private school, since I’d never be able to keep a straight face if one of them were in my classes. Is the first part of their name really Unicorn, and why did no one ever think to change it in all these years?”

“Part of their family tree must be German, Austrian, or Swiss–German,” Mr. Small said. “Einhorn is a fairly common surname, and means ‘unicorn.’ Or they could be Dutch, since Eenhorn is also a fairly common surname. I assume someone changed it after immigration, though I’m not so keen to blend into the host culture I’d change my name to Unicorn.”

IWSG—Slowly returning to view the cheerful skies

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It’s time again for The Insecure Writer’s Support Group, which meets the first Wednesday of every month to commiserate over worries, fears, doubts, and struggles. This month’s question is:

It’s the best of times; it’s the worst of times. What are your writer highs (the good times)? And what are your writer lows (the crappy times)?

Unfortunately, due to several bouts of my cyclical depression, being forced to move to an area I hate and in a house not my own, lockdown, and other factors, it’s been quite awhile since I last felt a true writing high. In the old days, it was the feeling I had when finishing a mammoth book that had been writing me more than I wrote it.

This picture I took soon after finishing the 406K first draft of The Twelfth Time, holding some of my writing soundtrack, perfectly illustrates it:

My writing mojo was pulled out of the toilet by my 12-part series on The Jazz Singer at 90 in 2017, and 2018 was my best NaNo ever, at 130,730 words. In 2019, I wrote 101,262 for NaNo, and massively overachieved in both April and July Camp NaNo.

But ever since lockdown began, my usual daily writing productivity hasn’t been the same. I know what I’m easily capable of, and barely making 50K in November, or even 10K in other months, is not it.

Near the end of April Camp, I put my alternative history about Dante and Beatrice on what hopefully won’t be a very long hiatus, and went back to the radical rewrite and restructuring of the book formerly known as The Very Last. I was inspired to return to my Atlantic City books after spending a few days doing the last proof-check of Movements in the Symphony of 1939 (formerly The Very Next).

After approving that book for a print edition, I read through The Very Last until the point I left off on the rewrite last year (though I also began rewriting chapters beyond that). I wrote almost 1,000 words on the first day back, though I ended up moving that chapter, and two other chapters, into a file of discarded chapters.

It truly was hashgacha pratit (Divine Providence) that I put the radical rewrite on hiatus in 2015. At the time, I was frustrated I couldn’t find more detailed information about the 1940 Portuguese World Exposition, and couldn’t be arsed to research and write about the 1939–40 World’s Fair in Queens only two years after I did that for Journey Through a Dark Forest. Now I realise I couldn’t have rewritten that book the way it needs to be had I continued in 2015.

As I discussed in this post, I deleted a lot of pointless, cluttery chapters and subplots. However, I wasn’t yet ready to admit to myself that the ninth item in that list not only was clutter too, but also inherently creepy. Even if Kit is aged up two years, 15-year-old Jerry still has no business dating her! She might look, talk, and act more like a 13-year-old, and I might’ve seriously toned down their relationship, but that doesn’t change her real age.

I’ll be discussing this in more detail in a future post.

I’ve been in a low place with my writing for so long, often taking weeks to write a single chapter, it’s difficult to vault back up and immediately resume my former daily average of at least 3K. As Virgil wrote over 2,000 years ago:

The gates of Hell are open night and day;
Smooth the descent, and easy is the way;
But to return, and view the cheerful skies,
In this the task and mighty labor lies.

Classic novels do not need modern retellings!

Maybe I feel this way because I’m over 40 and not down with what makes the younger generation tick, but I just don’t get the appeal of the retellings craze of the last decade or so. Fairytales, folktales, and myths adapt themselves well to a wide variety of settings, since the stories are so universal and frequently found across multiple diverse cultures. Shakespeare’s plays have also been well-adapted to different eras and settings; e.g., Akira Kurosawa’s Ran (King Lear) and Throne of Blood (MacBeth), the original West Side Story (Romeo and Juliet), 10 Things I Hate About You (The Taming of the Shrew).

But now we have a whole industry of writers point-blank retelling and “rebooting” not just fairytales, folktales, and plays, but novels written by other people. I roll my eyes so hard when a 35-year-old woman who’s going on 16 squees, “ZOMG, give me all the Pride and Prejudice retellings!” or “A modern-day Anne of Green Gables in Philadelphia? YES YES YES!” I hate to stereotype my own sex, but I only see women fawning over and writing these books.

Here’s a groundbreaking idea: If you like the general concept of a book, just make your own original story with a similar premise. Don’t steal someone else’s hard work and just change a few details. E.g., you can easily craft a good story about four sisters coming of age in any era and city, and give them whatever ethnic or religious background you’d like. You don’t need to name them Meg, Jo, Beth, and Amy and do a close play-by-play of the events in Little Women! I guarantee people will love your book if you write that story well instead of lazily copying Louisa May Alcott’s classic story.

I absolutely hated Anne with an E, because it forces 21st century views onto late 19th century characters. So many of these old novels simply don’t work with modern settings because the characters and storylines are the product of the era they were created in. Values, expectations, duties, education, politics, religion, beliefs, etc., were entirely different. E.g., I hate when an old film or book ends with a happy couple being forced to break up and marry other people for the sake of duty, but most people in the past accepted that as something they just had to do and couldn’t fight against, no matter how heartbreaking it was.

One of the recent graphic novel adaptations of Little Women features a freaking pronoun circle in Jo’s eighth grade journalism club. The one time I was at an event where this creepy woke ritual was forced on us, I felt so dirty and trapped for going along with it. I felt like snapping, “Do I look like a man or someone of indeterminate sex to you?” Louisa May Alcott would whirl in her grave if she knew someone did that to her characters!

So many of these retellings shoehorn in wokeness, like they think they’re “correcting” “problematic” aspects of the original. Like it or not, most books written 100+ years ago aren’t populated by Rainbow Tribes. People lived what they knew, which meant not associating with different socioeconomic classes, religions, or ethnicities, unless they were servants. Gays and lesbians were deep in the closet. Even white people tended to live in their own ethnic enclaves; e.g., Irish, German, Norwegian, Italian, Greek, Polish, Scottish. It wasn’t until the rise of postwar suburbia that all these boxes and walls started to fade away.

Guess what, if you write a story about four sisters named Meg, Jo, Beth, and Amy in a multiracial stepfamily in Queens in 2005 with the dad serving in Iraq, make Jo a lesbian, and have the sisters look at porn on the Internet, that’s NOT Little Women. That’s a story of your own creation with the flimsiest of relations. And did I mention this woke graphic novel has a Jewish landlord depicted in a very antisemitic way?

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