Progress report

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After putting Justine Grown Up on hiatus for over a month so I could focus on editing and polishing Little Ragdoll (as well as writing in left-handedness for 13 of the characters, something I’m still embarrassed and shocked I left out) and doing some more extensive edits, revisions, and rewrites of my Russian novel, I got back to work on it. After losing momentum, it took awhile to get back to speed, but I got over the bump and started back in earnest.

I wrote several thousand new words in Chapter 13, “Crossing the Point of No Return.” David has finally found out that Justine is a virgin and that he’s the first guy who’s gone past first base with her. He’s also told her he loves her, the first time he’s said that to any of his girlfriends, though Justine hasn’t said it back yet. Justine’s 21st birthday is going to be 2 March 1980, only a few weeks away, and Justine (who’s currently having her first weekend at David’s apartment, on the sofa bed) is going to make her sexual debut then. (I freaking HATE the term “losing your virginity,” and how the very idea of “virginity” has survived into the 21st century, but that’s a topic for another post.)

This chapter, and the next chapter, “One-Track Minds,” will be full of lots of sexy, erotic making out and various types of sex. Even though I’m not a romance or erotica writer, I’ve really grown to lose my former hangups and inhibitions about writing sex and makeout scenes that go beyond PG-13 or vague, tasteful descriptions and suggestions. When it fits into the plot, and since I do write a lot of love stories, why not go for it and be tastefully sexy? Once you’ve crossed your own point of no return and have started writing them without reservations, it becomes easier and easier to do.

Who knows, perhaps I was just hung up for so long because I was an antique virgin and didn’t have firsthand experience for longer than most people. At least I started writing sexier, more R-rated sex and makeout scenes before I made my own belated sexual debut.

Anyway, I put Justine’s story back on hiatus, but only for a little while, so I could finally get back to my significant rewrite of The Very First so I can enter it for March Madness Agent Pitch Match, which is only open to completed young adult and preteen manuscripts. I was surprised when I converted it out of MacWriteII last year and discovered my old-fashioned word counting estimation was a fair bit off. It wasn’t 43,000 words, it was only 38,000, and as I came to realize, it needed a very significant rewrite and restructuring.

Baruch Hashem, I only need to finish up Chapter 14, “Happy Halloween,” and write the bulk of Chapter 15, “Happy Birthday, Max,” and it’ll be done. (Chapter 16, “Happy Birthday, Sparky,” was already written, and is meant to be the shortest chapter.) I got it up to 51,000 words, and I’d assumed even my rewrites would still land it at novella-length. Perhaps by the time I finish it in the next two days, it’ll be around 55,000, the length of one of my shorter Max’s House books! Now I can’t wait to see what I can do with revising and fleshing out The Very Next, which currently stands at around 35,000 words!

And in other great news, I went back to Cinnimin and am slowly but surely getting back to speed on it. A lot of great stuff is going to happen in Part LVI, also called “Crossing the Point of No Return,” for much the same reasons as I named the chapter in Justine’s story. I hate that my people have been stuck in the fall of 1998 for over a year now, while I was working on other things. And there’s going to be lots of intense action and drama in the penultimate Part of Saga VI, “Requiem for a School.” It’s a good thing I’ve had all these stories memorized in my head for so many years and that remembering all these details has always been like second nature to me.

Perhaps one of the reasons I had it on hiatus for so long was that I’m not looking forward to writing the final Part of Saga VI, “And Lauren Lived.” Shortly after the new millennium dawns, my beloved Lauren Irene Laurel is going to die of AIDS. She got HIV in the Spring of 1985 and now has full-blown AIDS and is slowly getting sicker, so it’s not like her death is going to be a surprise, but it’s still not something I’m going to enjoy doing. I got misty-eyed when I was writing the old-age death scenes for Butler Reagan and Cinni’s stepsister-in-law Eleanor; it’s going to be even harder to write a death scene for a character I’ve been with since I was 17 years old, a woman who’s not even going to be 50 years old at her death. And her only child Brenna (born a month before she got HIV, and herself completely disease-free) is only going to be a month away from her 15th birthday. At least my dear, sweet Brenna has a nice love story to look forward to when she’s in college, a happy ever after story with Reuven Brandt, one of Barry’s grandsons who lives in Boston.

Platform-Building Campaign

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I’m temporarily interrupting my current series on silent film to make a post announcing my participation in Rachael Harrie’s Fourth Writers’ Platform-Building Campaign. I took part in the third campaign in the fall. Even though I was, as usual, in a small minority for writing historical fiction, it was fun to participate. This campaign is only going to be a mini-campaign, so it’ll wrap up mid-March and only include two challenges.

It’s also a great way to network, increase followers, learn new things, challenge oneself in what type of writing one usually does (the challenges called for flash fiction, something that’s always eluded me since I’m so verbose!), and expose oneself to different types of writing. I found out about a lot of contests and bloghops through the last campaign, and read some interesting blogs.

In a way I’m kind of glad my old Angelfire site is no more (no matter how righteously angry I have a right to be at that pathological wingnut and her sycophantic friends for having it deleted), since it didn’t have a venue for people to leave comments other than in the guestbook, and the whole look of the typical Angelfire website is rather old-fashioned by now. Now I can build a viable platform for myself instead of making myself look like someone stuck in 2002 in terms of web design and presence! (Yes, this from the person who HATES Word with a fiery passion and would just about give her left arm to be able to write in MacWriteII or ClarisWorks again!)

And that’s probably the shortest posting by far I’ve ever made. My average length here seems to be about 800-1500 words, and on my Angelfire site, my essays typically ran much longer.

Can You Hit a Perfect Pitch? Blogfest Contest

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Brenda Drake is hosting the Can You Hit a Perfect Pitch? Blogfest Contest January 15-17. The judging agent will be Ammi-Joan Paquette of the Erin Murphy Literary Agency, who is currently closed to submissions. Participants post a one- or two-sentence pitch (of about 35 words) and the first 150 words of a finished YA or JA/MG manuscript, and then critique others’ entries. (My old-fashionedness is showing yet again, because the designation Middle Grade, MG, didn’t exist when I was a preteen and started seriously writing. I continue to think of and refer to it as JA, Juvenile Adult.)

Since I still have to write a few new chapters for The Very First and have to transcribe Saga I of Cinnimin, along with probably copious editing, revising, rewriting, and polishing, I’m going with the first Max’s House book. (Until earlier this year this series was named Maxwell House, but I finally admitted that was a stupid title unless I wanted to get sued.) It still needs a bit of tweaking in spots, but I think it’s in pretty good shape now that it’s in the third draft. (The first draft was written from 7 December 1991-7 April 1993, the second draft came into shape when I was transcribing it in my belovèd MacWriteII in 1999, and the third draft has come together over this just-past year.) The title is New Beginnings, which I now realize is extremely boring, generic, and cliché, but I don’t have a new title in mind yet.

I still have four more completed MH books to convert out of MacWriteII and reformat, and still have a lot of work to do with editing and reformatting #6 and #7. In my dreams, the evil Word would be able to open and automatically convert obsolete file formats, or at least I’d be able to install MacWriteII or even ClarisWorks on my modern machine. (I also miss rotary phones, prefer vinyl to CDs and MP3s, dream of buying a purple Remington Portable typewriter, miss my family’s first computer, the ’84 Mac, and would love to buy a couple of antique cars if I had that kind of money. Isn’t it obvious why my genre of choice has always been historical fiction?)

***

Pitch: During the summer of 1941, Max Seward struggles to come to terms with his new stepfamily while his cousin Elaine struggles to gain acceptance in her new town, and they both navigate their first relationships.

First 150 words (fifth version of the opening):

There she was.  Alexandria Kate Scots, the girl of Maxwell Stanley Seward, Jr.’s dreams, whom he’d had a crush on for years.  As he walked down Jennifer Street on the last day of school, he could see her making a beeline for him and actually smiling at him for a change.  He returned the smile and ran his hands through his hair, assured he looked the picture of coolness and confidence.

“Hey, Max, I was wondering if I could come over to your house.”

Max nodded, his tongue stuck in his throat.  Al had been over to the Seward mansion quite a few times with their friends over the years, but never before had she gone there alone.  This was the best start to summer vacation he ever could’ve hoped for, and as they walked on, he felt positive the summer of 1941 would be a summer to remember.

Progress report

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I’m currently hard at work going through my Russian novel for the umpteenth time. I gave it a bit of a break to start working on Justine Grown Up, but now I’m doing probably the first of several more run-throughs to catch any excessive wording or out of place holdovers from the original sections of the first six chapters. Currently, after having gone through the first three chapters, Part I is down to 656 pages, and the entire word count is around 345,000. I’m thinking it might not be impossible to bring it down to 340,000. That seems like a good length, considering it was around 342,000 words when I pulled all the files off of MacWriteII and ClarisWorks, and then I took out and added in a lot of new stuff.

It’s always good to take a break if you’ve spent too much time with a project. You get to a point where you’re too familiar with it, and are no longer looking at it for errors or potential improvements. You also need to get to a place where you’re comfortable letting go of things that have been in the text for a long time, need to understand why they need to go. I easily found a bunch of stupid lines and scenes I can’t believe I didn’t root out or rewrite one of the many previous times I was editing and rewriting. For example, in Chapter 8 when Ivan has his good arm broken by the horrible Misha, why does Ginny act surprised to learn Ivan’s a lefty? That’s common knowledge to him after they’ve lived together for two and a half years!

Things that reflected the original embarrassing plot, a beautiful young lady with four competing suitors who are always getting into fights to try to win her affections. Things that made Ivan seem kind of like a dick. Things that made Ginny seem kind of cartoonish in how badly-behaved he is. Sure, that’s a big part of his character in the beginning, esp. since he’s only ten at the start, and no kid that age takes easily to moving to another country, having his dad away at war and his mother leaving him behind to immigrate, and going into hiding, thus giving up the comfortable upper-middle-class lifestyle he’s used to. But he was just too over the top and unrealistically misbehaved and even psychotic originally. There weren’t even logical reasons given for this bad behavior. It was supposed to be funny, in a very dark way, but now the original Ginny just comes across as a very two-dimensional character.

There were still a number of things that made it seem like little more than a costume drama, some silly 1990s YA novel that happened to be set in Russia starting in 1917. These people in their late teens thought, sounded, and acted like 1990s American teens in the original sections of the first six chapters. I’ve made every effort to rework the earliest pieces so that they read like convincing young people of the WWI era, people who have been shaped by living in the Russian Empire. I was so embarrassed to see there’s still one section where Ivan and Ginny call one another by their stupid “English hiding names” when the Bolsheviks pay a surprise visit. How could I have let THAT slip by unnoticed for so long?!

There were also a number of scenes that severely needed to be lengthened and fleshed-out, and superfluous lines that needed to be taken out to tighten and strengthen a scene or dialogue. In the process, I also got more into the almost entirely rewritten conversations Lyuba has with her friends at the two victory balls in November 1917.

Kat and Alya’s unhappiness at being betrothed against their will contrasts with Lyuba’s unhappiness at feeling trapped in her charade relationship with Boris, and it gets across that they’re not entirely against arranged marriages or marriages at their age, but rather against not being able to choose their own partners, and wanting to do something with their lives beyond being wives and mothers. They’re feminist in the way the average woman coming of age during WWI could be feminist and forward-thinking.

And in the process, Alya and Anya got more lines back. I got to know Alya and Anya a lot better while I was writing the sequel and found a way to make them fairly important secondary characters, in spite of how they were ostracized from their circle of friends in Chapter 37 of the first book, when a secret about them came out. After getting to know them better during the second book, I was able to write these new lines and scenes for them in the first book. I know how they talk and think.

I’m seriously considering moving Kat’s introduction to Chapter 3, instead of Chapter 1, when she doesn’t get any lines. Her mention in Chapter 1 serves only as a segueway into Lyuba hoping she never has even one child, and feeling she’d almost lose her mind the same way Kat’s mother has after 15 kids. But it’s mentioned in Chapter 3 that Kat is the last of 15 daughters, that her mother has almost lost her mind, and that she goes by Kat as a way to stand out from the crowd and not just be another Katya. Since she only appears briefly now in Chapter 1, and doesn’t have any lines, it might not be fair to expect the average reader to remember her all the way to her proper introduction. And she is one of the main female characters after Lyuba, so it might be best to just save her introduction for her first real appearance.

I’m also considering retooling some of the things on the first few pages, though I feel it’s very important to succinctly convey certain things about Lyuba and Ivan that the reader really needs to know pretty much upfront in order to understand the story and where they’re coming from. If you don’t know Lyuba has been abused by her father for years and is scared to death of being with a nice guy, in spite of her overwhelming love for Ivan, chances are she might come across as some heartless bitch who dumped her boyfriend and doesn’t care about his feelings.

This is why I feel narrative setup is so important in the beginning of a book, in spite of the current trend of starting in media res. If I don’t know these people, I’m not going to care about what’s happening to them. I need to take a little time to get to know them before things can start happening. Everything that happens later in the book flows from the setup in the first chapter. Nothing would make much sense if we don’t already know about Lyuba and Ivan’s traumatic childhoods, why she pretends she prefers Boris, her mother’s meddling, and the dynamic between Lyuba, Ivan, and Boris.

2011 in writing

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A lot of things happened in 2011, many of them writing-related, but not all. Some of the highlights:

I finished Little Ragdoll (Adicia’s story) after biting the bullet and starting from scratch in November, reconstructing it as best I could from memory. Then this spring, the file with the original Part I was miraculously resurrected, and I’ve been grateful ever since that file was still presumed lost forever when I began the second first draft. It’s like a huge laundry list of everything NOT to do in writing a book!

I learnt through trial and error how to write a query, and that a query really isn’t supposed to be a mini-synopsis. When you’ve written a deliberately very long book, though, it’s hard to summarize it in just a few paragraphs. The advice to just summarize the first 50 pages is for people whose books are all of 300 pages long. Fifty pages is a tiny drop in the bucket for me. I also learnt that 397,000 words is considered astronomically high by many people nowadays, and that my Russian novel, at 347,000 words currently, is also considered “way too high” by many people, without even looking at the actual content to see just why it has to be so long. I’ll never apologize for deliberately planning, plotting, and writing sagas with large story arcs and many characters and storylines. It’s just what I know. Many modern books just seem so tiny and insubstantial, and all about racing from Point A to Point B at breakneck speed, no time to just enjoy the journey and spend a few weeks with these people.

After I put querying on hold for awhile, I realized I forget to have any lefties in the book. I went back and wrote in left-handedness for 13 people, with three more young lefties whose handedness hasn’t had a chance to manifest by the end since they’re so young. I also shrunk the word count a fair bit, by making contractions, taking out unnecessary dialogue tags, and removing excessive wording. It’s now around 387,000 words, which I’m very proud of. If I hadn’t needed to write in left-handedness, it would’ve been several thousand words shorter, probably.

I started the sequel, Green Sunrise, then realized I just wasn’t feeling enough of a spark and put it on hiatus. I’m now working on the third book, Justine Grown Up, and am very eager to get back to it after the short break I took to do that editing and revising of the first book.

While I didn’t do any work on Cinnimin, after having been on a very good streak in 2010, I did write a new opening. I was just so focused on Adicia and my Russian novels this year, my magnum opus had to go on the back burner. It’s always taken out of hiatus and worked on with a vengeance. There’s no worry I’ll avoid it for years.

I realized The Very First needed a very significant overhaul and near-total rewrite, because the long-standing Part I wasn’t even a story. It’s just a bunch of chapters describing characters, the town, their houses, what America was like in 1938, historical events of the year, and the characters’ relationships with one another. Even though it’s meant as a getting-acquainted book that forms the backbone of all the other books to come after it, that’s still not a very compelling story, pages upon pages of descriptions.

I’ve done a ton of work on revising it and making some new chapters, putting a lot more focus on the real story, Sparky’s desire to be a real American girl without selling out her faith, and the subplot of Cinni’s suspicions that Violet is trying to steal her title as Most Popular Girl. Violet’s unintended coup doesn’t happen till February 1942, but the seed is still planted. Now the acrimony is really strong, and it’s a much more prominent part of the story.

I pulled the majority of the Max’s House books completed to date off of MacWriteII and started reformatting, editing, and revising them. Converting obsolete file formats and reformatting them isn’t fun or easy, but the more times you do it, the easier it gets. I’ll always prefer MacWriteII for word processing, with ClarisWorks a close second and AppleWorks in third place. I’ve gotten used to Word, but that doesn’t mean I’ll ever like it.

I used the older programs for years. They were familiar, and everything was so simple to figure out. You didn’t need tons of menus and formatting bars to write a document. If I could install MacWriteII or ClarisWorks on my modern Mac, I’d do it in a heartbeat. I’d even spend a little money for a vintage computer just so I could have peace of mind and go back to typing in a format I know, love, and understand. At least the files are still able to be opened, however arduous the process is. It’s always worth it to get to breathe life back into files that haven’t been opened or worked on for almost a decade.

I got all 43 files of my Russian novel out of MacWriteII and ClarisWorks, and went through the arduous process of reformatting them all, and then a long series of edits, rewrites, revisions. and polishings. I’m going through it again now, to do just what I did with Adicia’s story, root out any excess wording, unnecessary dialogue tags, and any missed holdovers from the original sections of the first six chapters. This is the book I’m most proudest of having written, and I believe in it at its length.

Perhaps it starts a bit more slowly than many modern agents might like, but it’s not a short book. You need some time to set things up and get to know everyone. I’m not sorry I use the writing style I’m familiar with reading, of directly telling the reader things instead of making him or her guess or removing any chance to create a scene in one’s head by “showing.” To be honest, I really think this current obsessive focus on “showing” is rather pretentious, forced, and affected. It just doesn’t feel natural, and goes against a long-established method of writing.

Just spit it out and say someone’s scared or that it’s cold. Then let the reader imagine in his or her head the tone of voice, body language, etc., and don’t be afraid to use adverbs. “Showing” also seems to lend itself to excessive verbiage, something I’ve always hated. I always skipped over excessively long descriptive passages and just read the dialogue or relevant narrative passages when reading 19th century literature.

I went back to my Russian novel sequel, giving up the idea of transferring and reformatting the two or so files on the hard drive of my old ’93 Mac. I had the entire story memorized in my head for years anyway, along with the decade-old chapter-by-chapter notes to jog my memory. It came in at 406,000 words, exactly the right length for the type of story it is. I’m going to take a little rest before getting to work on the third book, which is also memorized in my head and set down in an outline and notes.

This year also made it 11 years since I became a serious Who freak and 15 years since I became a Laurel and Hardy fan. It’s hard to believe it’s now been so long since I started seriously getting into the band. It was one of the saddest days of my life when I finally admitted to myself that The Beatles were no longer my favorite band and that I’d fallen irreversibly in love with another, but I worked past that. The Beatles will always be the musical love of my life, even if they’re not my favorite band anymore. In this case, the fourth time was the charm. My fourth musical love remains my favoritest band to this day.

It’s also hard to believe it’s been 15 years as of July since I’ve been a Laurel and Hardy fan. My love for them was forged in fire, since they helped me through one of the most difficult years of my life, my junior year of high school. Watching them at 11:30 on Saturday mornings on AMC, and sometimes other times during the week, made me so happy in the midst of a very painful year.

All week I looked forward to seeing them on Saturdays, even though no one but my grandpap understood why I loved them so much and laughed so hard. Although I know it’s often hard for people to understand how someone could genuinely gravitate towards movies, music, and books of an earlier generation and prefer them over anything modern. These clown prince angels put their loving arms around my weeping heart that year, and for that I’m eternally grateful. And even long after that horrible time, I still love them just as much. I still remember how sad I was when i found out just how old they were and that they’d been passed on for quite some time. At least they’ll live on forever through laughter and timeless comedy.

Speaking of anniversaries, this year marked 20 years since I created my Atlantic City characters and began the first books in both the WTCOAC and Max’s House series. They’re kind of rough around the edges in their earliest incarnations, but the essential elements are all there. They just needed some time to grow into themselves and become well-rounded, complex, and well-drawn.

I did a reworked opening for my hiatused soft sci-fi Bildungsroman What’s to Become of Us All? and renamed the protagonist. She went from Casey to Arcadia. I’m looking forward to finally getting back to this book and reworking what’s been written so far. And speaking of renaming, I renamed a few of my Russian and Estonian characters as well. Catherine became Katariina, Katrin (sometimes Kati or Katya) for short, Elizabeth became Eliisabet (Liza), Amy became Lyubov, Lyuba for short, her aunt Margaret became Margarita, and Peter became Pyotr.

Realistic explanations were also found for why her cousin Mikhail’s nickname is Ginny and why Nikolas goes by the Greek form of his name. Cognitive dissonance can be very strong, which must account for how I’ve long been such a purist (perhaps even a pedant) about proper transliteration and cringing at old books that “translate” proper names, yet having no problems with having very un-Russian names in my own book. Now I can’t imagine my female lead as anything but Lyuba, though I must admit that once in awhile, I slip and think of her as Amy.

This year I also came out of the closet about the true extent of my sinistrality. I was confused and discouraged for a long time, since I grew up writing right-handed and had to teach myself how to write left-handed. But I did almost everything else left-handed, and knew how to do certain things with both hands. It set me back a lot and pushed me further into the closet to be told I was just being oppositional, was lying, or was trying to pretend to be left-handed or ambidextrous because I thought it was cool or something. Brain wiring doesn’t lie, even if you refuse to believe in its setup in certain people. I feel extremely confident since I’ve switched my writing hand, and am very proud of how hard I’ve worked since the age of seven to get my lefty writing looking so good, more than just merely legible. I almost never revert to using my right hand.

Most surprising of all this year, I somehow ended up becoming a Duranie. (Anyone who wants my classic rock cred can pull it out of my cold dead hands.) But it was what led me to discovering the perfect finish for Justine Grown Up, which I’m very much looking forward to getting to. Everything is always arranged by Hashem for a reason, even if we can’t understand it at the time.