Oh, I’ve been persuaded alright!

First things first: I have a great deal of respect for how Jane Austen was able to make a living from her writing in a time and place when the vast majority of women financially depended on a husband or male relatives. I also recognise her technical skills at sentence construction and ability to write very artistic prose. I additionally respect her for being known on her own merits instead of through a husband, father, or brother.

All that, however, doesn’t mean I emotionally connect with her writing. I have a very difficult time reading 19th century literature, even understanding writers in that era operated under much different literary conventions; e.g., overdescribing things irrelevant to the plot, opening with backstory.

Still, I’ve enjoyed other 19th century books which were written under much different sensibilities. What didn’t I like about this one?

1. Opening with pages upon pages of infodumpy backstory! We truly don’t need to know this family’s entire life story down to the most irrelevant details! It’s like Dostoyevskiy insisting readers need 50 pages of backstory to understand The Brothers Karamazov. Hard pass!

2. Overly formal language. I get that people in that era spoke much differently, but were they really that formal all the time?

3. Distant narration. I never felt in anyone’s head, or at least emotionally pulled into the story.

4. Hard to keep track of who’s talking. I’ve 100% been guilty of this myself in the past, but I’ve worked hard to show characters doing little things every so often in a long dialogue scene with only the two of them. Even when we know dialogue alternates, it’s easy to forget who’s on first when all we see are talking heads.

5. Archaic literary constructions. I wish an editor had updated these aspects of the language, like unnecessarily split words (every thing, any one, every one), “shewed” (i.e., “showed”), and &c. WTF was the lattermost all about! Was there something wrong with writing “and so on” or even “etc.”?

6. I didn’t really like any of these people. Beyond the distant narration, no one seemed particularly sympathetic or compelling.

7. I can’t really relate to the idle upper-class of early 19th century England. If they’d done something beyond sit around gossiping, going for walks, and talking about themselves, I could’ve been compelled to care about their lives. I understand women’s lives were extremely limited in this era, but they weren’t all this boring!

8. TELLING! It seems like at least 95% consists of “This happened. Then that happened. X and Y discussed this. Z and Q discussed that. Name felt this. Name felt that. Tell tell telly lots of telling! Infodumpy dialogue. Let’s have some more telling!” There were almost no active scenes. For all the issues I have with Hemingway’s beyond-Spartan prose of “Noun verb noun. Noun verb noun. I drank another vermouth,” at least he told active stories!

9. It would’ve been more effective had we seen Anne and Captain Wentworth’s original relationship, followed by their breakup and reunion years later. How can we give a damn about them getting back together if we never saw them during the first gasp of their relationship or how Anne was persuaded to jilt him?

10. We also never get an active sense of just why Lady Russell is so overbearing and a poor judge of situations and people, nor why Anne still likes her. Merely telling us a character is a certain way does jack to actually bring that out!

11. Too many irrelevant characters who contribute jack towards the story.

12. Total slog! Even after over 100 pages, I felt like nothing had been accomplished, with nothing happening. That’s kind of what happens when most of a story is a summary of events.

After this experience, I’m no longer so hesitant to attempt reading Jane Eyre again (a DNF at age thirteen), or to read another Hemingway novel. At least those are actual stories instead of dull summaries of dull events!

How not to write Russian hist-fic, Part II

Egads, there are so many historical inaccuracies in this book, I had to write a second post to cover everything! I felt like I were reading a book by a 13-year-old given carte blanche to spew out whatever flowed into her mind, with no editor or historical fact-checker. It’s like a kid who reads too much and understands too little, can’t research properly, and half-understands and misunderstands what she actually does read.

What else was wrong with this book?

28. No one likes infodumpy dialogue! It’s even worse when it contains the actual words “As you know.”

29. I kind of doubt a 15-year-old in 1917, let alone one from the highest reaches of society and extremely sheltered even by the standards of that era, would’ve known or used the word “penis.”

30. Speaking of, there appears to be zero truth to the oft-repeated urban legend about Rasputin’s member being cut off and preserved.

31. Even if thugs did draw an obscene cartoon of Rasputin sodomising Aleksandra on the garden wall, would any of the children have known what it represented? Given how completely sheltered they were, I wouldn’t be surprised to learn even the oldest had no idea what sex is.

32. I get the impression Ms. Lawhon just paraphrased certain passages from the websites and books she used, like writing a history paper.

33. This is the first I’ve ever heard of Anna Anderson meeting Ingrid Bergman or Hitler!

34. I might be mistaken, but 1958 seems kind of early for someone to use the word “mantra” in a non-religious sense.

35. Did Dr. Botkin really explain an orgy to his son Gleb? Since Ms. Lawhon aged him down five years, he’s only eleven in 1917. I can’t imagine any high-society parent of that era broaching such a subject with a child of that age, or using the modern term “having sex”!

36. Not nearly enough commas. Are writers allergic to them these days?

37. Overuse of “that.” That’s (no pun intended) one of the first things writers are taught about reducing wordcount!

38. Anna Anderson’s passionate advocate at Le Figaro was named Dominique Auclères, NOT Aucléres. Ms. Lawhon couldn’t even get the accent mark correct!

39. At one point, she leaves off the first accent in Champs-Élysées.

40. Was she taking her direction in Kerenskiy’s portrayal from the blatantly biased historical revisionism in Eisenstein’s October? He comes off like a cold-hearted, mean-spirited, evil criminal mastermind with nothing but contempt for the Romanovs!

41. Aleksey was not a toddler during the 1913 Tercentenary. He was eight years old. Oh, and he wasn’t walking at that celebration either, owing to still not being fully recovered from his serious injury at Spała, Poland the year before. Photos and film footage show him being carried.

42. Imperial and royal titles are capitalised when referring to an actual person and thus standing in for a proper name. E.g., the Dowager Empress, the Tsar, the Empress. For that matter, Imperial Family is also capitalised, and Russia’s ruling family was not a royal family.

43. Aleksey’s title was Tsesarevich. Tsarevich merely referred to any son of a Tsar, not the heir. And the spelling Tsarevitch? Did she take her transliteration hints from Constance Garnett? That’s how outdated that style is! I only did that when I didn’t know any better.

44. By age twelve, Aleksey was no longer an out of control spoilt brat with a huge sense of entitlement. When he found out his father had abdicated and there wouldn’t be a Tsar anymore, he showed no concern for the loss of his position as heir. He cared more about how that would affect the empire as a whole, and his family’s personal future. Oh, and the news was broken by tutor Pierre Gilliard, NOT Nicholas.

45. Tsarevna hasn’t been used as a title since the 18th century! The last women to bear it were the five daughters of Tsar Ivan V. From 1708 on, the daughters of a Tsar were called Velikaya Knyazhna (Grand Princess, mistranslated as Grand Duchess).

46. Aleksandra’s birth name was Viktoria Alix Helena Luise Beatrice, not Alix Victoria Helena Louise Beatrice.

I get the impression Ms. Lawhon just skimmed the books she references, pulling out the flashiest and most riveting bits and leaving everything else ignored or unread. Not a one of these errors would’ve been made by anyone who’s done serious, meaningful, deep research on these subjects. Her ignorance of Russian history is painfully obvious, though she claims her research inspired her to study it at university.

If you can’t get the seemingly smallest details right, why should anyone have faith you got the deeper ones correct? When a book rife with historical inaccuracies gets popular, people with no prior familiarity with the subject innocently believe this misinformation and in turn pass it along. It then becomes much harder to rebut said inaccuracies.

How not to write Russian hist-fic, Part I

Like clockwork, I’ve yet again been disappointed by a recently-published popular historical novel. This time, it’s weak writing, gimmicky structure, reams of inaccuracies, and the author’s matter-of-fact acknowledgement of her dislike of her characters.

No one forced her to write this book. If she truly wished, a thousand times over, she’d been writing about the history of barbed wire instead, she had no business writing this! Write something you’re truly passionate about, and don’t use your Author’s Note to insult people who are truly enamoured of your subject matter.

What was wrong with this one?

1. The world does not need yet another book about Anastasiya. If not for Franziska Schanzkowska’s decades-long pretending act, she probably would’ve remained the least-known of Nicholas II’s children.

2. Backwards narration is very difficult to pull off well. I get why she moved FS backwards while moving Anastasiya forwards, but this wasn’t executed well.

3. Since everyone but delusional Anastasians knows Anna Anderson was indeed FS and not Anastasiya, there’s no real mystery. We know who she’ll be revealed as, and that Anastasiya didn’t survive.

4. Lots of confused homophones! “Heals” vs. “heels,” “peeked” vs. “peaked,” “wretched” vs. “retched,” “peeling” vs. “pealing.” And “publically” and “chuggs” are straight-up misspellings. Do big publishing houses no longer employ editors, or do their editors just give books a surface once-over?

5. On the FIRST PAGE of the 1917 story, she misidentifies Aleksey’s famous spaniel Joy as a female! Every single book on the Romanovs is quite clear Joy was MALE! Yes, Joy is typically a female name, but the dog was male!

6. Tatyana’s dog was named Ortipo, NOT Ortimo!

7. Anastasiya’s dog Jemmy (here called Jimmy) was a lapdog, NOT a giant Husky! The author decided to completely change his breed so he could escape, and because she has a huge black dog herself. Guess what, Aleksey’s dog Joy really did survive! Why not incorporate that detail into your story!

8. None of the Imperial Family’s dogs were thrown out of train windows.

9. Gleb Botkin is aged down by five years.

10. Tutors Pierre Gilliard and Sydney Gibbes are combined into one person. I hate composite characters!

11. Lady-in-waiting Anna Demidova is given the nickname Dova “because another Anna would have been too confusing.” Her real nickname was Nyuta. Guess what, lots of people in this era had the same small pool of traditional names, and somehow they were able to distinguish between all the Marys, Johns, Annes, Elizabeths, Williams, and Roberts!

12. The characterisations completely contradict the established personalities shining through in their letters, journals, and other documents.

13. Grand Duchesses Kseniya (Xenia) and Olga were the Tsar’s younger sisters, not older.

14. By 1917, Aleksey was hardly weak and frail. His physical health had improved marvellously, and he was almost as tall as his 5’7 dad.

15. Aleksey never walked again after he fell getting into bed the first night in Yekaterinburg.

16. She combines three Yakovs into the vile Yakov Yurovskiy “because I had no way of differentiating between so many Yakovs, and only room for one besides.” They have different surnames, you fool!

17. She gives Yevgeniy Koblinskiy the nickname Leshy because she’s convinced his surname is too similar to Aleksandr Kerenskiy’s. “I find these Russian names sound all the same. It’s damnably confusing to me[,] so I thought to spare the reader as best I could.” WTF! Just because YOU find Russian names confusing doesn’t mean everyone shares your Anglocentric views!

18. Tomas is not a Russian name. The Russian form of Thomas is Foma.

19. Perpetuating the almost certainly untrue story about the Grand Duchesses being raped on their way to Yekaterinburg. Ms. Lawhon changes it up by having it happen on the train, not the Rus steamer. She also falsely puts Aleksey and Anastasiya in the same cabin, and has Aleksey going back to sleep after the screams start.

20. Mariya sleeps with a Yekaterinburg guard. WHAT!

21. Russian and Polish surnames differ by sex. A woman is Romanova, not Romanov. A man is Schanzkowski, not Schanzkowska.

22. Nicholas and Aleksandra’s children called them Papa and Mama, not Father and Mother!

23. The term “gulag” did not exist in 1917. It’s an acronym for Glavnoye Upravleniye Ispravitelno-Trudovykh Lagerey (Chief/State Administration of Corrective Labour Camps). This system was officially founded in 1930, though Soviet labour camps in Siberia began in 1919.

24. Where are all the other servants who accompanied the Romanovs into exile?

25. Russian Orthodox Christians celebrate Christmas Eve on 6 January, not 24 December.

26. Ms. Lawhon’s negative attitudes towards royals shows through loud and clear. She’s perfectly entitled to those attitudes, but if she feels that strongly, there’s no point in writing about them!

27. The Tsar’s wife was called Empress and Tsaritsa. Tsarina is an inaccurate English word that doesn’t exist in Russian.

To be continued.

Boredom and oversharing on the frontier

Like many people, I loved the Little House series growing up, and read the books many times. I even read a number of the ephemeral books, like The Little House Cookbook, A Little House Sampler, and On the Way Home. Thus, I expected to enjoy this book too.

Was I wrong.

What didn’t I like about this book? Let me count the ways.

1. It moved SO slowly! This is one of those books where 200 pages feel more like 800. This wasn’t an engaging, gripping page-turner.

2. Ms. Miller needs a lot more practice writing third-person. Her previous novels were first-person present tense, so the classic third-person past tense is quite a departure for her. I never felt fully in Caroline’s head, because the prose was so emotionally detached and distant.

3. Overdescribing the dullest things, with the same detached prose. How does it either move the story or character development along to know every little detail about rope burn, fording rivers, drying the wagon canvas after a storm?

4. Over half the book depicts the journey from Wisconsin to Indian Territory. Apart from a few people the Ingallses encounter along the way, the only four characters are Ma, Pa, Mary, and Laura. Books about, e.g., the Oregon Trail work best when there are many other people besides the main family.

Those books also feature gripping emotional, dramatic events, like disease, drought, exhaustion, childbirth, quarrels with other pioneers. This is just a boring, long-drawn-out travelogue.

5. I REALLY did not need to read sex scenes with Ma and Pa! I feel so uncomfortable reading sex scenes with real-life people. Unless we’re talking about someone like Casanova, how do you think they’d feel knowing a total stranger, 100+ years later, would depict the imagined details of their most private, intimate moments for the entire world to read?

6. Ditto reading about Pa tasting Ma’s breastmilk!

7. I’m not sure what the point of this retelling was. This is little more than a direct retelling of Little House on the Prairie from Ma’s POV.

8. Enough already with the excretory scenes! Reading about real-life people relieving themselves squicks me out even more than reading about them having sex! I did not need to read so many scenes of Ma and the girls using the necessary, digging holes and squatting over them, and emptying chamber pots!

9. Lots of purple prose and weird metaphors. Enough said.

10. Was the real Caroline really that dour, serious, depressing, and joyless? I get that Laura wrote the books from her POV, and didn’t have personal insight into her mother’s feelings, but Ms. Miller’s Caroline seems really off the mark. Pioneer women had difficult lives, and were the product of a much different society and culture, but there were still moments of joy!

It also feels like stereotyping of Victorian women in general, who were anything but prudish and repressed.

11. Spending way too much time describing things that don’t move the story along. Not every single day, week, month of a story needs detailed!

12. Ms. Miller doesn’t use enough commas. Where was her editor?

Overall, I’m tired of the trend of hist-fic about real-life people. So many of these books would work so much better were they about fictional people with similar circumstances. Then there’d be more leeway to stray from established history and personalities. At least in alternative history, there’s a reason for characters to do things they never did in real life!

At least Ms. Miller accurately depicts the Ingallses as voluntarily returning to Wisconsin because the man who bought their cabin reneged on his payments, instead of, as Laura depicts, being forced out by the government.

How to write a book in the style of Beatrice Sparks

It’s been too long since I wrote a post ripping the late fraud “Dr.” Beatrice Sparks a new one. So, let’s do that!

Ordinarily, I wouldn’t care if someone wrote books I didn’t click with. One person’s lousy writing is another’s treasure. But in the case of “Dr.” Sparks, this isn’t just about bad writing or books that aren’t my style at all. Since more than a few people, esp. in her target audience, believe these are true stories, she was dangerous and unethical in addition to a fraud.

Some of her books are marginally better than others. They’re not all pure horse dung. But with the obvious exception of the 25 real entries from Alden Barrett in Jay’s Journal, they all read like the work of an over the hill, extremely conservative and religious person pretending to be a teen.

We now know Sparks lied about her training, education, credentials, experience, etc. People who know what’s what also understand she was the true authors of all those books, and what she did to the poor Barrett family.

I have NO problem with either a real-life or fictional teen being religious, frequently praying, having a close-knit relationship with her or his mother, trying to live a G-rated life, being conservative, etc.

What I DO have an issue with is how Sparks injected this into each and every one of her books, making her characters clones of herself. The way her characters express these things is so unrealistic, ridiculous, over the top, identical.

How to write in the style of “Dr.” Sparks:

1. Always give the time of day at the start of each entry, and every time you return to an entry later in the day.

2. Everyone loves RANDOM CAPS! In fact, readers have even more love for ENTIRE SENTENCES IN ALL CAPS, or, better, yet, COMPLETE PARAGRAPHS IN ALL CAPS!

3. We all love random italics too!

4. The best of both worlds is RANDOM CAPS IN ITALICS!

5. Who doesn’t love excessive exclamation points!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

6. PUT THEM ALL TOGETHER REGULARLY FOR EVEN BETTER, MORE INTENSE WRITING!!!!!!!!!!

7. Repeat words thrice for emphasis; e.g., “We’ve heard he’s loud loud loud” and “My mom is soooo very wonderful. I love love love her.”

8. Randomly use advanced, fancy-sounding words while pretending you have no idea where you heard them. Even better if you use distinctively Mormon concepts and terminology while feigning ignorance about their meanings.

9. At the same time, talk like a preschool kid, with beyond-babyish language. Who wouldn’t believe a 15-year-old ex-gangbanger would say “Goobly-goop-poop”?!

10. Make up baby words and sprinkle in lots of connected nonsense syllables even a doo-wop song would reject, like kit-kit-kit-kat-kat-doodle.

11. Oversimplify complex issues, and solve them in record time.

12. Use the stock line, “Ooh, I’m sooo glad my dear, sweet, precious Mom is MY dear, sweet, precious Mom!”

13. Engage in hardcore, fetishistic maternal worship, where all things Mommykins and mothers are pure, holy, angelic, never negative.

14. Make sure your character comes from a broken home, and depict divorced families as the worst moral crisis ever, bound to lead to all manner of social ills and sins.

15. Trawl through psychology textbooks and after school specials for “serious” lines to sprinkle in, like a mean girl quickly admitting she only acts like an aloof snob who doesn’t want friends because she’s insecure and afraid of rejection.

16. Pack in as many problems as possible, no matter how disconnected.

17. Make your characters mentally much younger; e.g., a 14-year-old who sounds like a 3-year-old.

18. Your characters are never drawn into drug use, premarital sex, pregnancy, gangs, cults, etc., through their own actions. It’s always the fault of bad friends tricking, abusing, exploiting them.

19. Everything is always Magickally alright again after your narrator tearfully confides in Mommykins, who’s amazingly loving, forgiving, accepting, an angel on Earth.

20. Use lines no teen ever would utter, like, “Wowee! Now I know what hormones are!”

21. Immediately apologize for cursing; thinking negative, unappreciative thoughts; or saying less than worshipful things about parents. E.g., “Ew, Mom! You are such a gross bitch!” (Five minutes later.) “ZOMG! How dare I curse at my dear, sweet, precious Mommykins in the pages of my own journal! I’m worse than Hitler! I might as well kill myself now!”

22. Jump into relationships at lightning-speed, and act like you’ve already got a serious, eternal pair-bond with a total stranger.

Beatrice Sparks, I hate you. May you continue to be exposed as the vile fraud you were. Teens learn best by honest examples delivered respectfully, not by being lied to, preached at, scared, and emotionally manipulated.