IWSG—Resisting the cookie-cutter culture

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InsecureWritersSupportGroup

The Insecure Writer’s Support Group convenes the first Wednesday of the month. Participants share their worries, insecurities, triumphs, hopes, and fears.

This month, the IWSG question is:

How has being a writer changed your experience as a reader?

I definitely want to break out the red pen so many times! I understand even the best-edited books sometimes have embarrassing typos or errors that somehow fell through the cracks, but some books have a LOT of grammar, punctuation, and language that needs cleaning up.

I also want to bang my head against the wall when I catch things like “As you know, Bob” dialogue, too many unnecessary adverbs (esp. coupled with non-standard speaking verbs), infodumps, rushed-along action, huge time gaps between chapters, lack of front and back matter that would really enhance an understanding of the story (e.g., list of characters, family tree, pronunciation guide), and making a big deal out of introducing a bunch of characters who never appear again after the first 20 pages.

One of my favorite YouTuber writers, Maya Goode, recently discussed this in a vlog. I highly recommend her channel!

I had a very surprising encounter with an older friend recently. We were discussing how I’m having a book cover revamped and will be having physical copies soon, and she was very interested in buying the book. But as soon as she asked how long it is and I gave her the guesstimated page length (700ish), her tune changed drastically.

Instantly, she began insisting she wouldn’t and couldn’t read it, and was almost hostile and yelling while telling me books “shouldn’t” be that long. She’s only read a handful of long books (Anna Karenina and Roots, and maybe some of the Harry Potter franchise). I kept trying to explain:

That’s the length I naturally write at.

There are lots of people who enjoy long books more than short ones.

All the great long books there are.

My short books (under 100K) are actually the ones that need the most editing, since I didn’t plot, plan, and write them as carefully as the ones I deliberately planned at saga-length.

I do have some shorter books, but that’s the length that works and naturally unfolds for them.

I’m not cutting out hundreds of pages for no other reason than making a book shorter to please other people’s tastes.

I don’t write for people with short attention spans! Why should I contribute to the perpetuation of a culture that refuses to write anything by hand or think outside of 140-character Tweets?

Long, saga-length books are kind of the traditional standard for historicals, particularly considering they often take place over many years and have large ensemble casts. Look at Leon Uris, Herman Wouk, James Michener.

I don’t force myself to write at a certain length.

Many people have said they’d love to see more longer books, and can’t understand why so many modern-day agents refuse to look at anything above a certain length, sight unseen. If these agents don’t read any of it, how will they know if the length is merited or a result of genuine overwriting?

People who love reading make the time to read long books. No one says you have to spend your entire day reading!

One of the reasons I went indie was because of these modern-day wordcount policies in traditional publishing.

I’m not going to rush along a story just to keep it short. That length actually IS the core story, carefully planned and plotted at that length. With many short books, there’s no room for detailed character development and worldbuilding.

Long books weren’t considered automatically overwritten and “too long” as recently as 20–30 years ago. That was more the norm in certain genres.

Many of us prefer to climb into a long book we can live in for a few weeks, as opposed to something so short we can breeze through it in a few hours.

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I understand genre fiction tends to be shorter (e.g., police procedural, YA contemporary, romance, thriller, horror). I’d wonder about a genre book that’s over 400 pages. However, I write historical sagas, which come from a very long tradition of being at least 400 pages, if not 700 or more. My Atlantic City books are only so short because they typically take place over much shorter timespans. Were I to combine the ones that lead right into one another, they’d be much longer!

I also know many people nowadays have much shorter attention spans than they did 50+ years ago. But I don’t consider that a good thing. Times change, but good stories remain the same.

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2016 in review

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Writing and editing:

I didn’t complete any books this year, though I got a lot of work done on The Strongest Branches of Uprooted Trees and A Dream Deferred: Lyuba and Ivan at UniversityBranches was 61K when I took it out of hiatus and began expanding it into an actual narrative story, and it’s now up to 333K. This book really wanted to be one of my sprawling sagas!

Dream Deferred was 80K when I went back to work on it shortly before NaNo, and it’s now up to 170K. My conservative guesstimate is 300–400K, since it only covers four years, and has relatively quieter storylines than the massive Journey Through a Dark Forest.

I did one full round of edits on Dark Forest, and have done little tweaks as I’ve looked through the four combined files. The first draft was 891K, and it’s currently down to:

149K in Part I
272K in Part II
219K in Part III
237K in Part IV and the Epilogue
877K total

I expect a bit more to be shorn off during subsequent full rounds of edits.

I also did some work on my alternative history in January and February. It’s now up to 185K. I also did a bit of work on the book formerly known as The Very Last.

Films:

After finally reaching my long-awaited goal of 1,000 silents on New Year’s Eve 2015 (The Phantom Carriage), I turned my focus to early sound films that aren’t comedies. I knew that was a most dire gap which needed filling.

Most of the silents I saw this year were avant-garde and experimental films, including many made after the silent era officially added. I count them as silents because they were deliberately made without dialogue (or extremely sparse dialogue in otherwise silent scenarios).

I saw 125 new silents this year, my favorite features being L’Inferno (1911), The Bat (1926), and Labyrinth of Horror (Labyrinth des Grauens) (1921).

Favorite new-to-me sound films I saw this year were, in no special order, Frankenstein (1931), The Petrified Forest (1936), Little Caesar (1930), The Roaring Twenties (1938), Scarlet Street (1945), Meet John Doe (1942), Charade (1963), The Manchurian Candidate (1962), and White Heat (1949).

Books:

pornland-cover

The most important book I read this year had to have been Gail Dines’s excellent Pornland, which was highly recommended on one of my favorite radfem blogs. Over this year, I came to the stronger and stronger, more and more obvious realization I’ve been a lifelong radfem (though I don’t 100% agree on every single issue). Unpacking my feelings towards porn was my final step.

All these revelations about the true nature of the porn industry were so nauseating, heartbreaking, and shocking. Even if it’s possible there are some small indie companies doing things radically differently, that doesn’t change the nature of the vast majority of porn. A few powerful women like Nina Hartley in the industry also don’t cancel out the sickeningly overwhelming numbers of women trafficked into this exploitative business and not given any free agency.

This book also helped me to realize how very, very pornsick my ex is, and how porn deeply affected our relationship in many ways I wasn’t aware of.

Life:

As abovementioned, this year I realized I’ve always been a radfem. I may have a future post explaining exactly what radical feminism is and isn’t, and how it’s not at all what many folks falsely assume it to be. I know I definitely had the completely wrong ideas about it until finally getting to know actual radfems and reading so many wonderful radfem blogs and news stories.

I’d considered myself a Marxist–Socialist feminist since age 15, never a libfem (a.k.a. a funfem). There are huge differences between radical, Second Wave feminism and liberal, Third Wave feminism. Even as a teen who read too much and understood too little, I knew liberal feminism was milquetoast and didn’t go nearly far enough.

not-right

I’m still grieving and in shock over what happened on 8 November. That was not an outcome I nor any of my friends were expecting or wanting. It was the first time I and many of my friends ever cried at the results of a presidential election, instead of just feeling upset and disappointed. I actually thought i was going to throw up that night.

We’re all extremely scared about what’s going to happen to us after 21 January, particularly those of us who are women, Jewish, African–American, Hispanic, Muslim, gay or lesbian, and disabled.

afraid

On 11 August, I sadly had to retire my beautiful navel piercing. It had been red for awhile, and not only wasn’t getting better, but had reached an obvious, advanced state of rejection. I was able to screw off the top opal and remove it myself. My wonderful piercer, who’s no longer local, only uses internally threaded jewelry, which prevents microdermabrasions and the subsequent risk of infections.

This is what it looked like the day it was done, 24 November 2015:

navel-closeup

I will be having it redone eventually. For now, I’m glad it’s out, since it just didn’t want to heal, and I don’t have to worry about it catching on my clothes or getting knocked. I’m also really superstitious about auspicious vs. inauspicious dates and numbers, which wasn’t helped when I discovered I’d had it pierced on Freddie Mercury’s Jahrzeit.

For now, I’m down to 10 piercings, my nostril plus nine in my ears (four right, five left). If only the nearest APP studios weren’t 64 miles away in either direction!

My thoughts on NaNo overachieving

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I naturally write very prolifically, very quickly, particularly when I’m inspired. Some books have written me more than I’ve written them, judging by first draft wordcounts like 397K in three months and 406K in five months. When I’ve had that particular story memorized backwards and forwards in my head for years, the words flow even faster, as they’re finally given an outlet.

Every year I’ve officially participated in NaNo, I’ve gone over 50K. Two of the three years I unofficially did NaNo, I also went over 50K. The only reason I didn’t go over 50K the first year, 2010, was because I didn’t start till 18 November. I certainly did write at least 100K each month I was writing that book. As of the end of Tuesday, my NaNo wordcount for this month stood at 42K, so I’m well on track to overachieve yet again.

nano-2016-day-22

However, there’s a big difference between naturally coming by a high wordcount in a short span of time and forcing yourself to crank out hundreds of thousands of words within a mere month. At absolute most, I might be able to do about 250K in a month if I were really well-prepared, motivated, and inspired, and had the luxury of enough time each day. That said, that’s still not something I’d ever deliberately shoot for.

Some people try to write the first 50K on the first day. This year, I even saw someone humble-bragging about finishing within the first twelve HOURS. It’s called National Novel-Writing Month, not National Novel-Writing Day. What do you honestly get out of forcing yourself to sit at the keyboard for almost an entire day at a stretch, pounding out so many words? This isn’t a contest.

nano-2016-day-fourteen

While I do feel disappointed in myself for not keeping to my normal daily averages more days this month, my typical output is still only several thousand words, NOT at least 35K each day. I’m truly curious as to what kinds of projects these extreme overachievers are working on. My conservative guesstimate for my book is 300–400K, but it’s a historical/family saga. I doubt all these people trying for 250K, 300K, 500K, 700K, a million words, are also writing deliberate sagas with huge ensemble casts, spanning many years.

Are these collections of stories? Several different projects counted together? Really long fanfictions? Just unfocused rambling that could easily be cut down to 100K or less without losing anything? Even I’m not crazy and prolific enough to think every book needs to be a doorstopper, nor that a length of several million words for one book is normal. I was stunned enough when the first draft of Journey Through a Dark Forest ended up 891K, though at least each of the four Parts reads like its own story, with a focus on different characters and storylines.

nano-2016-day-six

Someone who’s, e.g., struggling to meet the daily minimum every single day, or who’s fallen sharply behind due to unforeseen circumstances, doesn’t need to see someone humble-bragging, “Ooh, I was so lazy yesterday and only wrote 30K!” or “I totally failed NaNo because I only wrote 750K instead of a million like usual.”

I’m going to call the majority of this as crap writing. How can there be any quality when you’re forcing out that many words so swiftly? Quality matters more than quantity. I like getting to know my characters and going on the journey through life with them, not plowing through their stories within one day. It’s also ridiculous to plan any story at a million words. What are you writing that absolutely needs to be a million damn words?!

Crafting a quality story, no matter its length or brevity, takes time. Quality can never come when you’re pounding away at the keyboard for almost every waking hour, forcing out at least 25,000 words each day. Some of these people even give tips on how to pad out wordcount, like lots of dream sequences, explaining basic things over and over again, infodumps, complete song lyrics, many quotes, not using contractions, writing out common abbreviations like DVD and ATM, and characters constantly recapping scenes that just happened.

I’d rather stick to my realistic, natural type of overachieving than vomit forth a profusion of words just for wordiness’s sake.

What’s Up Wednesday

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Snowman Button (final)

What’s Up Wednesday is a weekly hop/meme with four simple headings. Anyone can write a post and add the link to Jaime’s blog or Erin’s blog.

What I’m Reading

Still spending lots of quality time with the book I can’t name till my A to Z theme reveal for my names blog. This is one of my desert island books, and having a proper, modern translation has made all the difference in the world in loving it even more.

What I’m Writing

I’ve completed Chapter 114 of Journey Through a Dark Forest, and updated the table of contents yet again. Now there are 118 planned chapters plus the Epilogue. I think Chapter 115 will be another short chapter (by my standards). I’ve reached the 850K mark, and really, really hopeful my new 875K guesstimate will be my final prediction. Perhaps I can publish it in four “knots,” the way Aleksandr Isayevich, of blessèd memory, did with his massive Red Wheel saga.

Anastasiya really surprised me at the end of Chapter 114. After all the awful things she’s done and said over the last thirty years, she finally has a moment of humanity and thinks of someone other than herself when she’s forced to hold her grandson for some photographs after his baptism. She notices Rodimir (Rodik) strongly resembles her, and this in turn reminds her of her mother and grandmother. Finally, she’s crying for someone other than herself, and thinking of how this child is the eternity of her ancestors. She leaves to buy some gifts, and begs for family peace and a relationship with her grandson when she returns to the party.

My goal for this week is to finish Chapter 115. It’ll be set on Orthodox Christmas 1948, sort of a transition into the last few chapters.

What Works for Me

Learning how to write third-person omniscient which works well in the modern era is a delicate dance. I’ve got a post coming up in March about how NOT to write this POV, using eleven specific examples (e.g., God-mode; political, religious, social, or cultural commentary; making value judgments on characters; telling the reader how to think, feel, and react). They’re illustrated with examples from my own early drafts, with the date I wrote each in parentheses. This POV is much more flexible than first-person or third-person limited, but you still can’t jump all over the place with it or misuse your all-knowingness.

What Else I’ve Been Up To

I went back onto my old computer to get both version of my résumé (though the job market in my area is pretty dismal), and while I was there, I used Word 2004 to open, convert, and reformat the 14 files of my eighth Max’s House book. Once again, there was bizarre data migration in the converted files. This has happened to a number of other files I created in MacWriteII, lines from other files which aren’t even on that disk, and even strings of words I taught the spellcheck on the ’93 Mac. I’d love to know if there’s a logical reason for this!

It’s always a headache to reformat these converted files, since there are so many floating and misplaced text blocks I have to copy and paste back into their proper place, as well as unnecessarily duplicated lines and words, and then all the gibberish characters. Meanwhile I barely had a problem with the ClarisWorks files I converted and reformatted.

I’d seriously love to move back to Pittsburgh (particularly since Pitt’s library school is so much better than Albany’s), but with this brutal winter, I’m once again tempted to move to Florida, where my aunt and surviving grandparents live. Pittsburgh is in my blood and bones, but I’d love nothing more than never having to deal with snow and ice ever again.

What’s Up Wednesday

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WUWWreath2

What’s Up Wednesday is a weekly hop/meme with four simple headings. Anyone can write a post and add the link to Jaime’s blog or Erin’s blog.

What I’m Reading

A Lifelong Passion: Nicholas and Alexandra: Their Own Story, edited by Andrei Maylunas and Sergei Mironenko. With all due respect to the dead, particularly considering the horrific, nauseating, cold-blooded way they were taken from this world, it’s so much easier for me as an adult to understand why the Russian Revolution happened. The Imperial Family were so out of touch with how the vast majority of normal Russians lived.

Nicky was writing about how much fun he was having with royal relatives in England, Germany, and Denmark, complete with palaces, balls, parties, teas, and hunting, while normal Russians were just struggling to survive. He also barely had any Russian blood, due to centuries of back-and-forth royal intermarriage. Too many people still romanticise the last Tsar’s family, without looking beyond the beautiful love story and close-knit family to see what weak, disastrous rulers Nicky and Alix were, the wrong people for the wrong job at the wrong time, and how their daughters in particular were emotionally immature and severely sheltered, with no outside friends or lives due to all that emotional incest and parent-child enmeshment. It was NOT normal in the 1910s for royal women of that age to still be unmarried!

What I’m Writing

Just finished Chapter 95 of my WIP and up to about 721,000 words. I’m staying positive I can cap this in at 800K, particularly considering I’m in Part IV and finally heading towards the homestretch. It’s such a beautiful miracle and blessing that it naturally worked out so each Part reads like its own self-contained story, with a focus on different characters and storylines. This book can easily be put out in four volumes without a loss of continuity or dramatic momentum.

Chapter 95, “Andrey Opens the Door,” ended up the longest Part IV chapter so far, and also one of the longest overall chapters. Darya and Andrey are such a cute, sweet couple, each what the other needs and wants most. I saved their first kiss and declaration of love for the end of the chapter, though they’ve been falling for one another more and more over most of the chapter. Delayed gratification and slow build is much superior to the annoying instalove. They’re both 21, yet have no reason to feel embarrassed these are all first-time experiences. The best things in life are worth waiting for.

Chapter 96, “Fedya’s Homecoming,” is one I’ve had memorised in my head for a long time. No one has any idea Fedya has been demobbed and come home, so it’s a huge surprise for everyone. He’s coming home on his mother’s birthday, and gives her quite a shock!

What Works for Me

If you’re writing a family/town saga, you absolutely need to start making family trees and lists of characters by family. I’ve been doing this for years with my Atlantic City characters, and also have a family tree and relation lists I started in 2001 for my Russian characters. When you have lots of characters to keep track of, over many generations, and more than a few couples also have numerous children, you have to have a place to keep track of birthdates, marriages, relationships, etc. If you don’t start compiling this data while you’re ahead, it’ll be a nightmare to sift back through so many pages and start from the beginning.

It’s also good to get as much as you can down in advance, so you don’t forget, along the way to getting there, who’s going to marry whom, and the names you have planned for these couples’ children. Then again, I’m an Aspie, so my brain works overtime and retains obscene amounts of detailed information like it’s no big deal.

What Else I’ve Been Up To

My first Russian historical, You Cannot Kill a Swan: The Love Story of Lyuba and Ivan, is now available for pre-order. I initially had second thoughts about my cover, but I returned to liking the image I’d worked so hard on creating. The two covers I illustrated myself were intended as a two-off, not a regular habit. I know I’m not the world’s most experienced, professional artist, but I love hand-drawn covers, and sometimes a whimsical, simple picture is better than a high-tech, trendy, digital image. That’s not to say I’ll never upgrade those two covers to something digital, but for now, they are what they are.

After the release date of 7 November, the price is going up to $7.99, based on the length and all the years I slaved away on this book. I’m only putting it at $3.99 now to see if it’ll help with pre-order sales.

And if you’re wondering, I mostly created the cover with Caran d’Ache Pablo coloured pencils (oil-based) and Portfolio Series oil pastels, with a few touches of Caran d’Ache Neocolor II wax pastels, Derwent Inktense watercolour pencils, and Koh-I-Noor wax-based coloured pencils.