Lessons learnt from post-publication polishing, Part V

It’s been two and a half years since my unplanned Part IV of this series I thought would remain a three-parter. But why not add new posts as I learn new lessons?

I’ve been preparing And Jakob Flew the Fiend Away for its hardcover edition since December. As I’ve mentioned many times, I wish I’d done so many things differently with this book. When I decided to go indie in 2014, I led with Jakob’s story because I felt it was my strongest completed and polished material to date. It was also relatively short, at only 125K (not including front and back matter).

While I can honestly say I’m still proud of this book, and still feel it was the right decision to put out Jakob’s story in two separate books, I’m kind of disappointed in myself for not being truer to my natural voice and style. I let myself get too much inside my own head while I was writing it.

I wrote the originating long short story/piece of backstory in 2006, and turned it into the two books from 9 March–19 August 2012. The first book was written from 9 March–30 April, and the second was 30 April–19 August. Neither had any major edits or rewriting. Apart from a few bits I added here and there, and purging of overused words and phrases like “even” and “you know,” they’re largely just as I wrote them in the first drafts.

I believed so much in Jakob’s story, and entered it in a lot of contests, pitchfests, and virtual conferences. The other participants really liked it too, and helped me to craft a very strong query letter. I knew it was time to quit shopping around already when an associate agent ripped the query apart in a critique I won, taking issue with things everyone else had praised and helped me to change to its final form. Too many cooks spoil the broth.

Since I was in the thick of trying for trad-pub and doing all these contests and related events, I was hyper-conscious of dos and don’ts, and trying my very best to model them in my own writing. That included a lot more descriptions of body language and emotional reactions than I usually do.

As an Aspie, I’ve worked really hard to become better at this, since it doesn’t come naturally to me. Many of my older drafts had really unrealistic, flat, almost matter-of-fact reactions to very emotional events, like when Lyuba is separated from her baby Tatyana several times. Either that, or they felt really forced and corny. So that was a literary skill I genuinely needed to work on.

However, we should always strive to find our natural voice and style, not mindlessly copy someone else’s or go by a checklist of things we think we’re supposed to do no matter what. I now acknowledge I’m just not the type of writer who naturally fills my stories with things like widened eyes, rapidly beating hearts, and punching the air.

You know what does still feel natural in Jakob’s story? Every single description of his fear, terror, anguish, pain, and helplessness related to his broken foot and ankle, the long period of immobility during recovery, bearing weight through that leg again, relearning to walk, realising he’s been left with a limp, going up and down stairs creatively, navigating stairs at all, sharply feeling cold weather in those bones even after healing. All drawn from my own personal experience from my shattered tibia and fibula and being unable to walk for eleven months.

I wish I’d gotten out of my own head and written the entire book in that vein, doing what came naturally instead of going by expectations. E.g., there was no pressing reason I needed to rein in its length just because I intended it as YA. I always described it as upper, mature YA, and plenty of YA hist-fic is well above 125K.

While I still don’t regret making it a more original Shoah story instead of paint by numbers, that shouldn’t have precluded expanding Parts I–III. Maybe not rehash familiar territory, but add, e.g., chapters or sections of Jakob visiting his friends Sander and Elma, working on his scrapbook documenting the occupation, looking out the window at the local streetfighting, his work in the Westerbork restaurant’s kitchen.

I briefly thought about making it first-person, since that’s so trendy in current YA. At least I didn’t go that route, since my natural POV will always be third-person. It’s enough that Jakob’s story is a lot closer to third-person limited than I normally do. There are also a number of first-person interludes with Jakob and Rachel’s letters.

I believe all books take the form they’re meant to, even if that’s not how we originally envisioned them. This book just took a much shorter form than I wish it had. If I did a full rewrite or created an adult version, it might not feel like the same story anymore.

How to handle wraparound narrative segments

A wraparound narrative segment is often necessary to convey important information in a story. The key is in knowing when and how to use it properly.

Deliberately long books in particular depend upon such passages to keep the story rolling along without losing much forward momentum and not sprawling to twice its already doorstopping length. Though this type of narration is all about telling instead of showing, it’s a good, necessary kind of telling. If every single second in a story were shown in detail, the wordcount could easily balloon way past your intentions.

A prime example of when a wraparound narrative segment might be necessary is in regards to a storyline about a character having a long illness or injury, plus an equally-long recovery period. It’s important to know s/he’s sick or injured, but unless the entire focus of the book is that health crisis, readers probably don’t want to know about every day during this time. Just the most vital incidents will do.

Another example is a long journey. Say your characters are returning home or moving to a new place after a war, graduating from university, or leaving a longtime job. Do we really need to know what happens every single minute of this cross-country road trip or two-week train trek? Again, lots of details are fine if that’s the book’s focus, but there’s no point in spending 35,000 extra words illustrating the journey if the meat of the plot only begins afterwards.

You also might need to quickly catch the reader up on what happened between chapters or sections. E.g., your characters were last seen starting summer vacation at one beach, and now they’re at a private cottage some distance away. Or they were about to set out trick-or-treating, and now they’re coming home with lots of candy. Just a few lines to explain the interim will suffice.

What you don’t want to do is stop the story’s forward momentum to tell the reader exactly what’s happened to every character since we last saw them a few years ago at the end of Part II, Part III, etc. Even worse if you do this long infodump after starting a normal scene and don’t resume it till after the infodump concludes.

Instead, convey the most pertinent tidbits naturally, as part of the overall story. E.g., a matter-of-fact mention that Name is married now and lives somewhere else, or that Name now has a higher military rank. But don’t vomit forth page after page of pointless backstory. If it were that important, you wouldn’t have left a long gap between those parts of the book.

Consider what the point of the overall story is, what’s most vitally important for readers to see depicted actively and in detail vs. merely read a short summary of between major events and scenes. Part of me wishes I could do a complete rewrite of And Jakob Flew the Fiend Away, since it covers a bit over 5.5 years in just 128K words and condenses a lot of chunks of time. Had I written it as an adult novel, it would’ve easily been twice as long, with many more chapters, or longer chapters.

But I have to remember I deliberately wrote it as mature upper YA, and that the focus is on Jakob’s frustration at being kept away from resistance activity, finally making an escape, severely breaking his foot and ankle when he does escape and spending months recovering, joining the partisans, revenging his father’s murder, becoming an official soldier near the end of the war, his unexpected feelings for a mysterious girl, and his struggle to adapt to a world he no longer remembers how to live in.

I never intended it as a paint by numbers Shoah story. If I had, Jaap would’ve remained on that train. So many other memoirs and novels detail the Shoah in The Netherlands, but I was going for a lesser-portrayed angle. Spending 100 more pages on Westerbork or the first year of occupation would’ve dragged the focus away from the theme of resistance, and it’s really not important to detail the entirety of Jakob’s 20 months as a partisan. I carefully chose the episodes I did depict.

In my alternative history, I likewise skimmed over a lot of Aleksey’s time in Paris and the apprenticeship to the throne he gets after returning home. Had I chosen to make each of the four Parts into its own book, I would’ve detailed many more things, but I intended each to be successively longer, all building towards the dramatic climax of Part IV. How would it have advanced the forward momentum if there were 15–20 chapters showing Aleksey researching Russian history and government, doing humanitarian work for the Jewish community, and learning the ins and outs of ruling? I would’ve quickly bored of writing that!

If a book is set over years instead of months, weeks, or days, it would be madness to depict every single event. Always think about which episodes are most important to your main plotlines and advancing character development.

WeWriWa—New Year’s Eve 1944

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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.

For my New Year’s snippet, I’m sharing from Chapter 17, “Hongerwinter,” of And Jakob Flew the Fiend Away, which will soon be out in hardcover. Now eighteen, Jakob is an active member of a Dutch partisan unit with the four young men who saved him after he jumped out of a death train two years before.

Vrouw (Mrs.) Visser has been a surrogate mother to Jakob ever since his escape, when his new friends carried him to her nearby house. She hid him in a secret back room in her cellar for seven months, while he healed from a severely broken foot and ankle. During his time in the partisans, he’s visited her again every so often.

The winter of 1944–45 was Europe’s most bitterly cold in decades, and in The Netherlands, it was accompanied by national starvation. The Nazis cut off fuel shipments along with food, to punish the Dutch people for staging a railway strike to try to help the Allies’ efforts.

The NSB was the Dutch Nazi Party.

With the remaining fuel in the company’s Citroën Traction Avant, Jakob went to visit Vrouw Visser on the final weekend of the year, which coincided with New Year’s Eve. While Govert and several other partisans scouted the area and collected firewood and food, Jakob enjoyed his mini-furlough.

“It’s just like old days.” Vrouw Visser tried to smile as they ate sugar beet pancakes and watery cabbage soup in the basement. “Even when I was a child, it was common to have a wood-burning stove and not derive heat from gas. I’d prefer coal, but we can’t be picky when we only have one type of fuel.”

“Bentje doesn’t seem to mind much.” Jakob scratched Ben behind the ears.

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

“He’s such a trooper. All he cares about is getting enough to eat, staying warm, and being played with. He was adopted by us so young, he probably doesn’t know to miss the better material life he had when that foul NSBer owned him and his name was Adolf.”

“You’ll both have that kind of life again within the new year. I’m positive. The Nazis’ end must be near, despite this final retribution they unleashed. Things always get worse before they can get better.”

WeWriWa—Jakob’s jackfruit chanukiyah

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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.

My second Chanukah snippet this year comes from And the Lark Arose from Sullen Earth, the sequel to And Jakob Flew the Fiend Away. It’s now December 1946, and 20-year-old Jakob DeJonghe and Rachel Roggenfelder are enjoying winter vacation at the Cape Cod cottage they honeymooned at in summer.

Jakob and Rachel civilly married in The Netherlands in May 1945, but almost immediately had to separate due to Jakob’s continuing military commitment and Rachel’s expedited immigration to America. They were finally reunited in June 1946 and had their long-awaited religious wedding that month. Rachel is now 24 weeks pregnant.

All this time later, I can’t remember if I deliberately gave them the names of a famous couple, or if it were a romantic coincidence.

Chanukah 1943 in the Westerbork detention camp

Rachel watched her husband going into their bedroom and coming back with a strange-looking chanukiyah. She couldn’t figure out what in the world it was made out of, and why he’d bought such a thing. It looked like a child’s school art project.

“I made it in the Indies last year. It’s made of hollowed-out jackfruit. It meant more to me than an expensive thing from a fancy store. Would you like to use it for our first Chanukah together?”

She reached out for it and turned it over in her hands. “I can’t believe you kept this makeshift thing. It must’ve meant a lot to you if you kept it all this time.”

The ten lines end here. A few more follow.

“Isn’t it beautiful? I made it all by myself, and took care so all the fruit was gone. I didn’t want it to rot or mold and get me a reprimand from my commanding officer.”

“Very creative and original. The two Chanukahs I spent at Westerbork, the inmates made them from hollowed-out potatoes and turnips. I don’t think anyone came there with a real one, at least not one they were willing to display openly. I’ll never understand that camp, so many contradictions and hypocrisies.”

“The only thing I understand about that place was that I found my dream girl there after I thought I’d never see you again.” He slipped his hand under her blouse and traced his fingertips along her ever-increasing breasts.

WeWriWa—Chanukah in Amsterdam

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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.

My first winter holiday snippet this year comes from And Jakob Flew the Fiend Away, which is set from 1940–46 in The Netherlands and the Dutch East Indies. Chapter 4, “Heroes and Cowards of History,” is set during the first Chanukah of the war.

Fourteen-year-old Jakob DeJonghe and his mother Luisa moved into the apartment of their friends Kees (Cornelius) and Gusta at the start of the book, after Jakob’s father was coerced into suicide by three Nazis and his little sister Emilia mysteriously disappeared. Jakob is quite angry about everything going on.

Chanukah party in Salonika, Greece, 1945

This year, Chanukah came “late,” compared to the Gregorian calendar. The first night was on Christmas Eve. While most of the people of Amsterdam had fancy Christmas trees in their windows and bright lights and decorations, Jakob’s new home had chanukiyot in the window. When he was a boy, Jakob had asked his father why the Christians had their big Christmas celebration on December fifth when the actual holiday was twenty days away, and Ruud had told him perhaps they were trying to make up for how their religion didn’t have so many holidays. Now Jakob wondered if Emilia had gotten presents from Sinterklaas earlier in the month, and if Heer Krusen and Vrouw Peerenboom, if they still had her, were raising her as a Christian.

“I never thought I’d live to see a day when we’d be in the same position as our ancestors during the first Chanukah,” Kees commented as he put a heaping spoonful of applesauce on his plate. “Then again, I also believed the last war was truly the war to end all wars.”

“We’ll emerge victorious soon enough,” Gusta said as she cut up a latke. “Only this time we have large, professional armies to save us, and don’t need to depend on a group like the Maccabees.”