Posted in Judaism, Religion, Third Russian novel, Word Count, Writing

ROW80 Final Update

My Horny Hump Day post is here.


Round 1 of A Round of Words in 80 Days ends on 28 March, and I’m up to a bit over 257,000 words on my WIP. Though I’ve had to rather scale back my writing time to focus on school, I did pass the halfway mark in my guesstimated final length. I’m still projecting around 450,000 words for the finished first draft, maybe up to 500,000.

I’m kind of glad I’ve only had a general, basic outline and notes to work with for crafting the book so far, along with everything I’d had stored in my head since 2001, when I began pulling together plans for this third volume. So many storylines, characters, and angles have organically, spontaneously come together and appeared.

It’s not about memorization, but about internalizing information so you just know all the characters and storylines naturally. It probably helps a lot that I’ve studied about 15 languages so far, including 5 alphabets besides my native Roman alphabet. I’m used to taking in and remembering huge chunks of information.

I’m continuing to do very well with my Estonian study. While I’m picking up on some aspects of grammar, like the most common noun cases, plurals, certain letters changing with declension or pluralization (like K to G, T to D, and P to B), and basic verb conjugation, I’m still focusing on absorbing vocabulary. I’ve learnt things like adjectives, colors, parts of the body, food, tableware, occupations, and lots of other stuff in many other areas. Gradually, it’s all coming together so I can read and form simple phrases and sentences.

One of my favorite mitzvot, commandments, is the counting of the Omer, which began the night of the second Seder. For 7 weeks leading up to Shavuot, you say a b’racha, blessing, each night, and then count the Omer, formerly a measure of barley. You’re not supposed to announce the day before you count it, so you have to tell someone, say, “Last night was the fifth night.”

It’s special to me because I gave up in depression and apathy partway through in 2005. I’d loved counting the Omer since I’d first done it in 2002, but I was so frustrated and depressed at feeling in a community of one. What was I doing all this for if I didn’t have my own religious community or own family? I felt like Dante, waking up in the Wood of Error, no idea how he got there or how he lost the way so badly. Eventually I came back to it, and it’s been extra-special to me ever since, never to be abandoned again.

My now-primary shul, the university student center, has a tradition of going around the room and counting in different languages. Last year I did it in German, and over the years, we’ve also had people doing it in Spanish, French, Chinese, Armenian, Japanese, Portuguese, Farsi (Persian), Italian, Yiddish, Russian, and some other languages. This year I’m going to offer to do it in both German and Estonian.

Say, for example, it’s the 20th day. I’d say:

Täna on kakskümmend päevad. See on kaks nädalad ja kuus päevad Omeris. (Today is twenty days. That is two weeks and six days of the Omer.)

I don’t know why, but counting in Estonian has come as easily as counting in German. Usually I’ve had a much trickier time with learning the numbers in other languages.

Posted in Third Russian novel, Word Count, Writing

Lucky Charms and Quick ROW80 Update

My Horny Hump Day post is here.

Express Yourself

This week’s subject for the Express Yourself meme is lucky charms. My primary lucky charm is a green scarab I got from a week-long Ancient Egypt camp at one of the Pittsburgh museums as a preteen (probably the Carnegie Museum of Science). I used to tell people it came out of a mummy’s tomb, though it’s probably a lot younger than that! I used to always have it in my pocket for luck with tests, esp. finals. I don’t remember if I had it with me when I was run over by a car in August 2003, though it wasn’t my time to go yet, lucky charm or not.

I can’t write without a good soundtrack, which is also a lucky charm of sorts. My primary soundtrack for Little Ragdoll consisted of The Hollies and The Four Seasons, which helped to put me in a Sixties and early Seventies mood. For whatever reason, while writing my Russian novel sequel, I ended up mostly listening to the band so nice they named themselves twice, and it just stuck. I’ve got the same soundtrack for my third Russian novel in progress. Once you find the winning formula that motivates you to write, you don’t want to jinx it!


The current ROW80 ends very soon, and I’m up to Chapter 32 and around 246,400 words in my WIP. This is the university’s break week, so I’m hoping to get caught back up with writing. As I was writing Chapter 31, “Boris’s Dream Comes True,” I hit upon the great idea to develop an immediate conflict between Boris and Nikolay, now Tatyana’s boyfriend and unofficial fiancé.

Boris and Nikolay make no bones about not liking one another, and Boris quickly regrets inviting Nikolay to live in the third bedroom of his new Harlem brownstone. However, Nikolay is under orders from Lyuba, his godmother, to stay there to keep an eye on Boris and protect Tatyana if Boris ever steps out of line or does anything that would put her in danger. Now there’s some more meat to this particular storyline, beyond Tatyana merrily living with her blood father till she discovers the truth about his past in the spring of ’39.

I’m still doing well and keeping up with my three classes, and also doing wonderfully in my German and Estonian lessons. I love absorbing all these new Estonian words and naturally figuring out what case endings mean, how to form plurals, and how verbs are conjugated. It’s the big difference between studying and learning a language. It’s certainly challenging, as a non-Indo-European language, but once you figure out the basics and vocab sticks, it becomes very logical.

Effective language learning isn’t about rote memorization or learning everything cold the first go-round. It’s about internalization, to the point where you don’t have to translate in your head. And as I’ve said, it really helps if you have a base in Russian and German. Many cognates. And if I ever study Finnish, I’ll have a huge leg up!

Posted in Languages

Thoughts from an aspiring hyperpolyglot, Part II

A lot of well-meaning American teachers and professors don’t teach foreign languages effectively, so that students feel passionate about the language, learn at a normal pace, and have good retention of everything they’re learning. I knew a lot of students who hated foreign languages and felt like they were boring and stupid. Learning a language shouldn’t be based on rote memorization.

Currently I’m refreshing my Russian and improving my Estonian, Dutch, and German with some of the (free!) courses offered by Memrise. I highly recommend them, though some of their translations and reasons for marking you wrong are a bit suspect. They teach slowly and methodically, with the analogy of planting a garden. First you plant your seeds, then you come back and water them, and finally you harvest them. Even after you’ve harvested them, you continue to water them so you retain the long-term memory of the words and phrases.

My small, pre-existing Estonian vocabulary has increased so much since I’ve started my courses, because of this style of learning. It’s sort of like Rosetta Stone, only they actually tell you what the words and phrases mean. Gradually, I figure out the patterns of things like verb conjugation, plurals, and root words used to form longer words and phrases. And they’re frequently reinforcing your prior knowledge, instead of assuming you’ve got all those words and phrases down cold after that unit. Plus, if you get an answer wrong, they come back to that word or phrase more often than the ones you passed, until you’ve internalized it and it finally clicks.

If you’re really passionate about learning a language, you’re going to be more committed and interested than if you’re being forced to take it for a grade or graduation requirement. The languages I’ve formally studied which I felt most passionate about have been Russian and Italian. I took Spanish and French because I had to. Only later on did I really come back to them with a real desire to improve my skills. So much great literature was written in Spanish and French. They’re also among the world’s most-spoken languages.

The exclusively self-study language I’m most passionate about is German. It’s such a rich, historied language, with so much great literature to its name. And since I’m planning to one day get a Ph.D. in Russian history, it’s a useful additional language to know for research purposes. Many schools require not just your primary Slavic language for the program, but also at least one other European language so you can read journals and other source materials.

I’ve been studying German on and off since late ’94, and have retained enough to be able to read at a basic level, and understand some films without always looking at the subtitles. Early in my study of German, I also acquired the habit of counting and thinking my numbers in German. There have seriously been times I’ve totally blanked on the English word for a number, or unthinkingly said a number in German.

During one of my driving lessons at age 25, I had a habit of going under the speed limit out of fear. (The first time I went on the highway, I was scared out of my mind at having to go so fast and being among so many fast cars!) One time, my dad pointed at a speed limit sign and asked how fast I was supposed to go. Without even thinking, I said, “Fünf und vierzig.” My father and brother had no idea what the hell I’d just said, of course. I just saw the number 45 and said the number the way I thought it! I couldn’t even recall the English word.

I’ve also learnt some Japanese through one of the programs on Channel 45, back in ’94. Though I’ve forgotten some of what I used to know, I do remember some words and phrases to this day. I think that was because the program was very lively, with fun examples and interesting characters, and because I was genuinely interested in the language. Plus Japanese is a cool language, with a lot of history and culture.

Over the years, I’ve also studied Hebrew, Armenian, Estonian, Hungarian, Swedish, Georgian, Polish, and Dutch. My interest in Dutch was spawned because of my interest in German, and at one point I was also interested in Afrikaans, which evolved from Dutch. Armenian was because of my Armenophilia, Hungarian and Swedish because of some of the Shoah memoirs I discovered in 1995, Estonian and Georgian because of the characters in my Russian novels, Hebrew for religious reasons, and Polish just because. I also became interested in the Scandinavian languages because I just think they look cool.

You definitely can learn two or three languages at the same time, though I tend to agree with people who caution against starting two similar languages together. You might get mixed up if you’re starting, say, Spanish and Portuguese, German and Dutch, or Russian and Polish together. I’ve had my share of using words from the wrong language in class, like saying a German word in Spanish or Russian!

If you’re going to learn two or three languages together, I’d advise making sure they’re not close together. It’s one thing to do as I did, taking Italian during my sixth year of Spanish or French during my fifth year of Spanish, but another to start two Romance languages together. You should have a base in one before studying another from the same branch. It’s better to study, say, German, French, and Swedish together. You won’t get so mixed up.

It’s also been recommended that you take one easy language and another hard. For me, currently, I’m refreshing my Russian, my easy language, along with brushing up/improving Dutch and German, also easy languages, and starting a serious study of Estonian, a hard language. Estonian isn’t even Indo-European. It’s Finno-Ugric, and closer to Finnish and Hungarian than other European languages. Persian and Hindi are closer to English than Estonian!

Learning other languages is like solving a puzzle, finding the right key for a lock. You don’t get it perfect right away, but you have to train your brain to respond in a certain way first. Once everything clicks, you start conjugating verbs and declining nouns automatically. It’s exercise for your brain, and awakens your creative and memory zones. For me, it’s no different from learning new words in English, or knowing synonyms.

Being originally from Southwestern Pennsylvania, I tend to use the words cellar and dugout more than basement, but I know all three words mean the same thing, and I try to refrain from saying “dugout” when I’m with a non-Pennsylvanian who’d have no idea what I’m referring to. I also try not to pronounce creek as “crick” if I want to be taken seriously. It’s the same way with turning different languages’ vocabulary on and off.

However, there are other Pittsburghese phrases and words I can’t shake. If you’re ever critiquing or betaing my writing, know in advance that it’s my native vernacular, not shoddy grammar, if I write something like “the place they were at” or “the plants need watered”! That’s just how my brain sees language and makes sentences.

Posted in Third Russian novel, Word Count, Writing

Favorite colors, ROW80 update, and IWSG

My Horny Hump Day post is here.

Express Yourself

This week’s theme for the Express Yourself meme is favorite colors. Anyone who knows me well knows that my favoritest color is purple.  I have so many things in purple—clothes, notebooks, purses, accessories, yoga mat and its carrying case, yoga brick, pens, shawls, water bottle, future hair-coverings if I ever marry, even the glasses I normally only wear at home and sometimes out in public.

I also love dark blue, green, orange, and red. Vibrant, dark, bright colors. And of course, I love the color black and have tons of black clothes. Some of my favorite wedding dresses from local designer Katrina Marie are in black. No one would ever forget a bride who wears black! (I was that unusual, against the grain girl who never wanted to wear white on the grounds that it’s unoriginal.)


As of now, I’m up to about the 230,000-word mark in my WIP, which means I’m roughly half-done. I’d like to stick to my ingoing guesstimate of 450,000 words, but it’s entirely possible I could go up to around 500,000. After all, I did initially think my second Russian novel would only be 300,000, and the rough draft ended up 406,000. It just naturally unfolded at that length.

I’m now on Chapter 30, finally back to the characters in America and the storyline of Tatyana rejecting Ivan, the man who’s raised her since birth, for her blood father Boris. As awful as Boris is, I just love writing him. He always gets what’s coming to him. Of course, I couldn’t do it without my wonderful soundtrack. When I’m finished, I’m going to take another victory picture like I took after finishing the sequel, only posing with different records this time.

I got a 95 on my second paper in my Information Science 601 class, and am doing very well with my Estonian lessons. Learning any new language is hard work. Contrary to what a certain infamous language/travel blogger asserts, you CANNOT become fluent in only three months or redefine fluency as basic conversational skills. But I’m doing pretty well with acquiring new vocabulary and some basic grammar. It’s so true that each new language you study makes it easier to learn succeeding languages. Having a base in German and Russian helps with this language, since there are so many cognates due to the cultures’ intrusion into Estonia.


The first Wednesday of every month, the Insecure Writer’s Support Group, hosted by Ninja Captain Alex, meets. The over 300 participants commiserate about various writerly insecurities they’ve been having.

Sometimes I feel a bit insecure because I’ve been writing exclusively third-person omniscient for about 20 years now, and there’s a definite first-person trend right now. There have been so many books I’ve read, or tried to read, in recent memory, which I felt would’ve worked so much better in third-person. I’ve definitely read many books that were awesome in first-person. Mark Twain, Hermann Hesse, and Chaim Potok wrote some wonderful first-person novels I couldn’t imagine in third-person. But when suddenly every other book is first-person, it loses the impact it used to have.

Part of me wonders if I haven’t done well in certain contests or with querying because I write third-person, and that naturally stands out when at least 90% of the other entries are first-person. I’ve even seen some people writing about how they think third-person, esp. omniscient, is too old-fashioned, impersonal, stodgy, and should even be banned. I feel the exact opposite, that third-person omniscient lets me paint on a much larger canvas and get to know all my characters well. Being in the head of just one person for an entire story would be too confining for the types of stories I like to tell.

Maybe it’s just that it’s been so long since sagas were in vogue that many people genuinely don’t understand how to read a story with an ensemble cast and a slower-developing plot trajectory composed of numerous interlinked storylines that all ultimately come together. As a reader, I prefer to be directly told things through narrative instead of trying to infer everything through “showing.” That’s just the style I’m used to, and it’s influenced my own writing.

At least I’ve realized that my books with younger characters probably aren’t really YA by the modern classifications. I heard too many times that my writing style, narrative voice, themes, and length were better-suited to adult historicals that just happen to have younger characters. Twenty-plus years ago they might’ve been considered YA, and probably still would be today in a place like England, Germany, or Australia, but not in the United States.

Posted in Languages

Thoughts from an aspiring hyperpolyglot, Part I

Since I was 14, I’ve been an aspiring hyperpolyglot. I’d been somewhat interested in languages for awhile, but I didn’t actively start getting interested in a lot at once, or foreign languages in general, till around 1994. Ever since, I’ve been fascinated by world languages and have had a dream of knowing like 15-20 fluently and a few more conversationally or well enough to read on a basic level.

Americans are embarrassingly monolingual. In most of the rest of the world, it’s normal to know three or four languages, and to study like two or three at a time in school. There’s no assumption that the entire rest of the world speaks one’s native language and that everyone will understand you when you visit a foreign country and babble away in your native language. I felt really embarrassed a few times during some of my visits to Israel when I encountered people who only spoke Hebrew. Here I was, coming across like the stereotypical ugly American who couldn’t bother to learn the host country’s language.

I felt so bad when I was in a Shabbos elevator with a little boy who began having a meltdown because the lift wasn’t stopping at his floor. All I could understand of his tantrum was that he wanted floor 18. When I finally got out of the lift at my floor, I had to motion to him to come with me and pointed to the non-Shabbos elevator on the right. I’d even temporarily forgotten the command “Yella,” “Come on.” If he’d spoken Spanish, German, Russian, or French, I might’ve been able to talk to him a little! He wasn’t frum, so speaking German (which is very close to Yiddish) probably wouldn’t have helped.

Anyway, I’ve formally studied five languages, and taught myself bits and pieces of many others. The first foreign language I was exposed to was French, which my parents had studied. We still have the old First 100 Words in French book I looked at over and over again as a kid. In 5th grade, we had a French class, but it wasn’t really grammar-centric, more about learning some vocab words and watching videos.

I assumed I’d take French again when I started junior high, but my parents insisted on Spanish. They said French was outdated, and Spanish was more modern and relevant. I was never really passionate about Spanish, but I did pretty well in it, except for some grammar units. It was a language I kept taking because I had to, and because I was doing well in it. Eventually, I got good enough to be able to read, speak, and write fairly well. It’s been a long time since I actively used the language, but after 7 years of study, I’m still able to read it decently. The memory comes back, and I begin thinking in Spanish as I’m reading. My knowledge of Spanish also enables me to stumble along fairly well in Portuguese, Catalán, and Ladino.

I studied French again my junior year of high school, and I did pretty well, but I hated having to take a language I’d since grown to think, as my parents had, was outdated, boring, and pretentious. I was also leery because of Vichy France’s collaboration with the Nazis. Had I remained in New York, I would’ve started Latin my junior year. I’ve never gotten over being cheated out of learning Latin. And we moved at a snail’s pace in the Spanish class I took that year. I was one of only two juniors in Spanish IV, my fifth year of Spanish. They were learning things in their final year of Spanish that I’d known since my third year, like the preterite tense!

My senior year, in Massachusetts, I did not take French II but instead chose to take Italian, a language I’d long been passionate about. In ’94, I’d also learnt some Italian from one of the foreign language instructional programs on Channel 45. My passion showed, and I got straight As in that class. My parents even commented on how my Italian accent was a lot better than my Spanish accent!

Of course, in early ’93, I began teaching myself Russian, and immediately learnt the Cyrillic alphabet. I didn’t formally get to study the language till 2000, when I transferred to the big university. It was a little hard to adjust to learning Cyrillic cursive and only being allowed to use that, but I quickly mastered the cursive system. (Side note: I’m rather saddened at how unpopular cursive has become, and how many schools no longer even teach it. Since learning it in second grade, I’ve always used cursive unless it’s an official form requiring printing.)

During the spring semester of my junior year (2001), I took a half-semester course in Czech history and language. The language part was optional, but of course I bought a Czech book and stayed with a few other students for lessons. I wanted to learn to be able to talk to my grandpap in his native Slovakian, which is very close to Czech. It’s also vaguely similar to Russian.

And that’s the story of the five languages I’ve studied formally. In Part II, I’ll discuss the languages I’ve studied on my own, and how I’ve brushed up on the other five.