IWSG—A necessary regrouping

InsecureWritersSupportGroup

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:

Have you ever been conflicted about writing a story or adding a scene to a story? How did you decide to write it or not?

I previously discussed my own “I am not Aeneas, I am not Paul” moment while writing my current WIP, my alternative history about Dante and Beatrice. Who am I to deign to be so chutzpahdik as to not only write about one of the greatest writers in history and one of my literary idols, but also in his own first-person voice?

It’s beyond rare for me to write an entire book in first-person. My natural POV is the classic default of third-person omniscient, though I’ve always enjoyed short first-person interludes like letters, op-eds, love notes, and journal entries. Yet this was the only POV that felt right for this story, since Dante wrote all of his works, particularly the big two, in first-person. Third-person would feel too distant.

I got the idea for this project in 2004, and finally came up with actual storylines and an overall plot trajectory in 2021 (as opposed to my original vague concept). This wasn’t something I could easily abandon. And when your characters tell you to do something, esp. when they were real people, it kind of behooves you to listen to them!

I recently had to take another step back from my WIP and regroup while I figured out how best to correct an omission and proceed from there. It’s like when a figure skater has to go to the referee because something went awry, and then can start the program all over again, continue from the point of the interruption, or leave the ice entirely. I’d also compare it to a skater who realizes s/he’s off-kilter in the air but nevertheless fights for even a shaky, two-footed landing with a hand on the ice instead of just giving up and splaying across the ice in an ugly fall.

As I came to discover from my research, Dante had two sisters, not just his much-younger halfsister Gaetana (Tana), to whom he was very close. What confused me was the conflicting information. Some scholars say she was also a halfsister, though most have reason to believe she was Dante’s full sister.

Sadly, we don’t know her name, but we do know her husband’s name, Leone de Poggi, and the name of at least one of her children, a son named Andrea who was said to very much resemble Dante. Basic deductive reasoning says she was probably his older sister.

I couldn’t decide if I should keep him an only child till his father’s remarriage, have his sister already married and living in another part of town, make her a victim of childhood mortality who already died before the story began, or suck it up and create this new character. And if I did make a new character, should she be older or younger?

I’m now going back through my WIP and adding her in where necessary. Thankfully, I didn’t get too far into the story, and she doesn’t need to be in most of the scenes. I named her Antonia and decided to make her best friends with Beatrice’s older sister Ravignana. I’m also going to give both her and Ravignana entirely fictional husbands of their own choosing.

You obviously have some leeway when writing alternative history, but you still need to stay true to as many basic facts as possible. The story won’t feel believable if you alter everything and leave out important real people.

Have you ever made a mistake or changed your mind about something while writing? How did you fix it?

WeWriWa—Why Emeline prefers George

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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.

Since today is George Harrison’s 19th Jahrzeit (death anniversary), I’m sharing something from Chapter 17 of Little Ragdoll, “Letters to and from Lucine and Emeline.” In autumn 1964, youngest Troy sisters Ernestine, Adicia, and Justine write to their closest older sisters, who left home young to escape their toxic parents. Eighteen-year-old Lucine is now at Hunter College, and 16-year-old Emeline is attending an uptown boarding school on full scholarship.

Near the end of her letter, Emeline explains why George is her favorite Beatle.

To answer Ernestine’s question, yes, I do like The Beatles (and I can’t believe she’s old enough to have celebrity crushes!). Maybe I’m a little too old for them, but it’s not like I’m one of those screaming young girls who’s only thinking about how cute they are and can’t hear them singing or playing their instruments. Liking somebody’s music has nothing to do with how cute they are, though it does help if someone is good-looking in addition to talented.

My favorite is George. I guess it’s because he’s the baby of the group, and it makes me think of my own dear little sisters and how the baby of a family needs special mothering, love, and protection. Is it a good or a bad thing I feel such a strong mothering instinct at only sixteen? Besides, I know how it feels to be pegged ‘the quiet one.’ That label sticks, and people sometimes don’t expect much of you since they think you’re not talkative. But boy, will I prove to anyone who thinks I’m just another quiet, bookish girl that still waters can run deep when I go into the world and make something of myself!

IWSG—A new lease on my writing life

InsecureWritersSupportGroup

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)

WeWriWa—In memory of George

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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. In loving memory of George Harrison on his 14th Jahrzeit (death anniversary), this week’s snippet comes from my contemporary historical Bildungsroman, Little Ragdoll, Chapter 27, “Letters to and from Lucine and Emeline.”

It’s the fall of 1964, and 12-year-old Ernestine, 10-year-old Adicia, and 5-year-old Justine have written letters to two of their older sisters, 18-year-old Lucine and 16-year-old Emeline, who both ran away from home to avoid their black-hearted mother’s schemes to forcibly marry them off underage. Lucine is now a first-year student at Hunter College, and Emeline is a high school junior at the same Yorkville boarding school Lucine attended, a school for disadvantaged young women. The Episcopal priest and his wife running the school are now the adoptive parents of oldest sister Gemma’s birth son Giovanni, the unwanted product of her own forced marriage.

Super big brother Allen knows their address, and has let his little sisters write from his address so their evil mother won’t discover what really happened to her vanished daughters. Though Ernestine left home underage and now lives with some friends, Adicia and Justine are still at home. Emeline, near the end of her letter back, explains why George is her favorite Beatle.

George Harrison through the years.

Photo courtesy of Getty Images. My little brother has a kind of creepy resemblance to a young George Harrison.

To answer Ernestine’s question, yes, I do like The Beatles (and I can’t believe she’s old enough now to have celebrity crushes!).  Maybe I’m a little too old for them, but it’s not like I’m one of those screaming young girls who’s only thinking about how cute they are and can’t even hear them singing or playing their instruments.  Liking somebody’s music has nothing to do with how cute they are, though it does help if someone is good-looking in addition to talented.  My favorite is George.  I guess it’s because he’s the baby of the group, and it makes me think of my own dear little sisters and how the baby of a family needs special mothering, love, and protection.  Is it a good or a bad thing I feel such a strong mothering instinct at only sixteen?  Besides, I know how it feels to be pegged ‘the quiet one.’  That label sticks, and people sometimes don’t expect much of you since they think you’re not talkative.  But boy, will I prove to anyone who thinks I’m just another quiet, bookish girl that still waters can run deep when I go into the world and make something of myself!

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Not only does George’s music mean more to me than I can put into words, but he’s also one of my spiritual mentors. He was such a good person, with such a sincere, beautiful heart and soul, doing so much for the world, with such a strong belief in the power of humanity to change the world and improve ourselves. I often think of his profound last words, “Everything else can wait, but the search for God cannot wait, and love one another.”

POV and Tense Choices

It seems like I’ve fallen into a small minority of writers still using third-person omniscient. That used to be the default and norm, along with the past tense. Now it seems like every other book, esp. in YA, is in first-person, and about 90% of YA books in the last 5-10 years or so have also been in the present tense. I really have no idea where this came from.

One should always choose one’s mode of narration and tense for a reason, and a story should feel natural in both of those areas. For example, I love the little-known 1920s Russian dystopia We, by Yevgeniy Ivanovich Zamyatin, which is in first-person. I also love Mark Twain’s memorable narrators, and a few months ago enjoyed the classic YA Annie on My Mind (which does have short wraparound segments in third-person). All those books felt absolutely perfect in first-person, and I couldn’t think of them with another POV.

I first discovered present tense could be used for fiction when I read the late Ida Vos’s Hide and Seek for the first time in late ’92. It was such a revelation to me, made the action seem so much more compelling, gripping, and immediate, that I chose to write my Russian novel in the present tense. When I began my discontinued original first draft of Adicia’s story in July of ’93, it also felt natural to use the present tense.

I never saw, to my recollection, first-person present tense (at least for book-length narratives) till I read Pearl Abraham’s The Romance Reader in the fall of ’97. The book came out in ’95. At the time, it was a pretty uncommon narrative device, and I immediately got into it. It fit with the story and felt natural. I’ve also, as I’ve mentioned, read some Shoah memoirs in first-person present tense, and that choice also feels right for that type of story.

Now fastforward to today, when that’s no longer such a novelty or seeming conscious decision, but something that’s extremely common. I have such a hard time getting into it for longer pieces of fiction, it’s like my brain freezes up and I can’t get lost in the story, or I try to convert it to past tense in my head as I’m reading.

It’s nothing personal against anyone who uses first-person, or who uses first-person present tense in particular, but since it’s so oversaturated these days, it takes a really compelling story for me to get into it and not feel so distracted. It has nothing to do with the quality of the writing or the strength of the concept, but just burnout from seeing it so often. A good story should always feel like it’s in the right tense and POV for the type of story it is. It shouldn’t leave the reader wondering why it’s not in third-person, or why a different tense wasn’t chosen.

It’s also harder for me to distinguish first-person narrators these days, since it’s so common, the voices start running together after awhile. I feel closer to characters in third-person, because there’s more of a narrative distance. I don’t think I ever felt like first-person were more personal and intimate.

Looking back, I now remember I wrote a lot more first-person when I was younger, maybe since I was more familiar with it from the JA/lower YA books I read. But from junior high on, everything switched to third-person. And outside of my Russian novels and my contemporary historical family saga about the Troys, the Ryans, and their friends, past tense is my default. It just feels most natural and familiar for everything else, though sometimes when I’m doing past tense after a present tense project, I’ll inadvertently slip back into present tense.

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