No story element is ever set in stone!

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Even after I finally realised the importance of editing and rewriting, it didn’t immediately dawn on me that I wasn’t beholden to every single aspect of a story as I originally envisioned it. Sometimes things must be excised. Writing around or radically rewriting rotten material won’t suddenly make garbage into gold. Smothering dross with a thousand layers of gold won’t change what still lurks beneath.

A lot of the problems I’ve had with the earlier drafts of my Atlantic City books comes from this juvenile mindset it took me far too long to ditch. I just added new material and reworded the most egregious garbage instead of starting radical rewrites and restructurings.

It’s like only removing part of a tumour, or removing the tumour and not following up with chemo and radiation. Eventually, the cancer will come back and get even worse, since you’re letting it become so embedded within the body at what should be the most opportune time to root it out completely.

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E.g., Gayle Pembroke and her siblings are stolen from their parents by an obsessed older rich woman named Mrs. Pardon. For reasons which I never explained, Mrs. Pardon framed Mr. and Mrs. Pembroke, had them thrown in jail, and was given full custody of their five kids. The baby they have in early 1943, Lacey, is given to her as well.

Granted, the framing happens in the long-hiatused second Max’s House book, but in none of the other books after that was it ever stated what exactly Mrs. Pardon framed them for, why the jury believed this story, and why a total stranger would get custody! Was it murder? Arson? Treason? Grand larceny? Embezzlement? Fraud?

I thought up this stupid storyline when I was a preteen, and just kept running with it despite it making zero sense. Also, the littlest Pembroke sister needs a new name. At least third sister Brooke’s unusual-for-the-era name can be explained by her parents liking nature names.

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As I’ve said before, I’m so glad I was forced to recreate Little Ragdoll from scratch and memory, and that the long-buggy first file was only finally resurrected after I finished the second first draft. There was zero way I could’ve salvaged a halfway-decent story from that Grimms’ fairytale on acid. Had I been able to open the first of those two old files earlier, the resulting story would’ve been absolutely terrible.

Likewise with the Max’s House books I handwrote the first drafts of (#1, #3, #7, and #8). The others need a lot of work too, but not nearly so extensively. I transcribed everything and merely added new stuff or fleshed out and reworded other stuff. Never a serious thought to outright removing the most egregious garbage!

The main storyline of #3 absolutely disgusts me now. Elaine decides she’ll kill herself after her English teacher forces her to read a bunch of books, and hatches a bizarrely detailed timeline. E.g., she begins taking poison in larger and larger doses, moves into the cellar and sleeps in a coffin, writes goofy poetry, buys dresses for her suicide and funeral, and finally “kills” herself in the outdoor pool with Max’s assistance. She has quite a long OOBE and comes back to herself in hospital.

There are so many things wrong with that storyline, perhaps worst of all treating suicide and suicidal ideation so matter-of-factly and as dark comedy! Elaine shows no signs of any sort of real depression or other mental health issues. I retained that storyline only because it was already there.

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You are never beholden to keep every last word as you originally wrote it. Same goes for plot twists, couplings, character arcs, backstories, storylines, plots, scenes, et al. Yes, it’s very difficult to dismantle a good chunk of a book and rewrite it almost from scratch, but it’s always worth it in the end.

Who cares if that was a core part of the first draft, or you feel sentimental attachment to an idea you hatched when you were very young? That’s not a solid reason to justify keeping it if it’s bad to begin with.

When you cut away rotted flesh, healthy new flesh eventually replaces it. So too is it with radically slashing and burning to create a new and improved story.

How long should a series be?

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Obviously, a series can range anywhere between four and 100+ books. However, the most important consideration is how long should it ideally be and still be worthwhile. Even the best-written, most original series start to feel like mindless tosh and cash cows after a certain point.

I’m embarrassed when I think back on how many spin-off series I had planned or in progress for my Atlantic City characters, all branching off from the now-shelved eight-book first series I wrote. I even planned the titles and general plots of my entire Max’s House series when I was only writing the first book!

Looking through the list now (and at my synopses files), it’s obvious many can be combined, since they lead right into one another and are so short. Others can be tossed out entirely, since those events have been moved to separate books (e.g., Newark Love StoryMalchen and Pali).

A number of the titles originally referred to much different storylines, particularly re: Max and Sam’s intense, on-again, off-again relationship. Though Max is a major playboy in his younger years, the only serious relationships he ever has are with Al Scots (his future wife) and Brooke Pembroke (whom he breaks up with to reunite with Al). He goes on a couple of dates with Sam, but that’s pretty much it!

A lot of the insipid ones in the middle can be replaced with books with new titles and radically different storylines, spanning longer periods. It’s so obvious I was taking notes from after school specials, junky pulp fiction, and dreadful TV shows and movies about teens!

I’ve long known my Russian novels will span 1917–91 and include two prequels spanning 1889–1917. For Cinnimin, I know it’ll span 1941–2050 and end with Cinni’s death. Along the way, younger generations rise to the fore.

For Max’s House (a name I may very well change again), I originally planned it ending with Max and Al’s emotional reunion in autumn 1962, their marriage, and the birth of their first child. I knew all along Al is the only woman for him, no matter how much he takes her for granted, has an open relationship without her approval, breaks up with her to date other ladies, and finally has the tables turned when Al breaks their engagement and moves to Paris for five years. The entire series is driving towards this ultimate goal of happily ever after.

Now the series is slated to end in 1970, as the Sewards come together to bury patriarch Great-Grandpa Stanley and reflect on the end of an era. The world he opened his eyes to in 1860 was radically different than the one he closed his eyes on 110 years later.

For my permanently shelved WTCOAC series, I went the classic route of coming-of-age, taking my characters from fifth grade through the eve of starting college. I also planned a four-book series about their college years, plus a novel about their first year in the real world.

The prequel series is short and sweet, reflecting their young age (though there’s still some edgy content). As originally written, it takes them from the summer before second grade to their final day of fourth grade. If I age them up slightly, they’ll go from the summer before fourth or fifth grade to the last day of sixth or seventh grade.

So how many books are needed to tell a coming-of-age story or take a family and/or town through several generations?

I would say between seven on the lower end to maybe thirty on the highest end. Phyllis Reynolds Naylor’s Alice series runs 25 books, but it never feels like a wandering series. Alice ages normally, and as the series progresses, the books last longer (e.g., going from four books about one school year to only two, plus summer books). The first book and the three prequels last one school year, and the finale takes Alice from age 18–60.

At a certain point, a series starts to run out of steam and do little but serve a cash cow, esp. with floating timelines enabling characters to stay the same age for over 100 books. You need to have an idea of where you ultimately want to go, or you’ll just begin writing aimlessly, with no end in sight and characters long overstaying their welcome.

Most importantly, writing a neverending series prevents you from creating new characters and going on the journey through life with them. Goodbye isn’t forever when you can always reread the old books.

WeWriWa—Halloween party ends in mayhem

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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. This week’s snippet comes from the eighth book in my series focused on Max Seward, Jr., and his wacky family, set during autumn 1943.

Max’s cousin Elaine and their friend Quintina have organized a show-stopping school Halloween party, and Max himself has carved sixty jack-o-lanterns. All is going well till the local band starts taking off their costumes.

After these first five girls tackle their favorite bandmembers, it becomes a free-for-all as almost all the other girls rush the gym stage and pile onto the band too.

“There’s my heartthrob.” Kit yanked off the Stalin mask and raced over to Randy as he pulled off the spider head.

“And there’s mine.” Julieanna whipped off the Lenin mask and raced to Jakey as he draped the Dracula cape over the drums.

“That’s mine.” Violet tore off her Mussolini face and raced towards Bobby as he unghouled himself for the evening.

“And mine.” Cinnimin grabbed off the Hitler mask and made for Danny as he took off his football helmet.

“Oh my God, is that Pauly Richardson under the suit of shining knightly armor?” Mickey screamed, removing the disks from her eyes and tackling him to the ground.

I’d opened and converted the fourteen chapter files of this draft about two and a half years ago, but for some reason, the new master file kept crashing when I tried to open it. I had to go back onto my older computer (which has Word, unlike my newer computer), and went through the process all over again.

I’m so lucky that 10-year-old computer still works, I have an external disk drive, and those old files still open in spite of the hoops I have to jump through to convert and reformat them. This particular section seemed to need less extensive editing and rewriting than other parts of the Halloween chapter.

I was only fourteen when I handwrote the first draft, and about twenty when I transcribed it and made some changes. It’s yet another example of how my shorter books need far more extensive rewriting, editing, and restructuring than the books I deliberately wrote at saga-length!

IWSG—The perils of second-guessing

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Every first Wednesday of the month, members of the Insecure Writer’s Support Group share worries, insecurities, triumphs, hopes, and fears. I had one post written and scheduled, but decided to save those thoughts for a planned series of posts I’ll probably do in May.

I’m sorry to admit I was second-guessing certain things recently, based on some feedback I’d gotten, mostly about my dear Cinnimin Rebecca Filliard Kevorkian. I was looking at certain things and wondering if I should take that out or tone it down even further than it already was, if such and such a line or action would make my Cinni come across the wrong way.

Then I realized, everyone else who’s “met” Cinni over the years has loved her, and thought she’s a great character, very funny, full of sass, spunk, straight-shooting, attitude, go-gettingness, personality. They understood what makes her tick. Not everyone has to like all of our characters equally, or at all. It just means they’re not our target audience. I’ve never wanted to write characters like the Five Little Peppers, who are always unnaturally, unrealistically happy, good, helpful, sweet, loving, and cheerful, the kind of people who’d join hands and sing “Kumbaya.”

I can’t help thinking back to the time I wrote that shameful, short-lived third version of the opening of my first Max’s House book, based on feedback from people who really were trying to be helpful. I felt so dirty, forced, and fake while I was writing it, and reading it back over made me feel even more violated and phony. I was so much happier after I crafted the fourth version of the opening.

The problem was that that wasn’t how I write, either generally or in my Atlantic City books in particular. It was the way someone else wanted me to write, and it came across as so fake and goofy. It also made my darling Max seem like some simpering, mushy fool instead of the cocky little bastard I love so much, this guy who styles himself as catnip to women, a huge ladies’ man, a younger, blonde version of Clark Gable or Gary Cooper.

It’s like telling someone s/he should’ve put the tree on the left instead of right side of a painting, or made the elephant blue instead of pink, based on your own tastes and reactions. Great! Then you can do a painting like that if you like the idea so much!

I’m already used to my writing style not immediately clicking with some people. I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve had to explain I write third-person omniscient, and that I as the narrator am stating something the current focus character wouldn’t know.

Radically changing a well-established character is the same as suddenly radically changing our overall writing style. It won’t feel natural or believable, and you won’t be writing your own story anymore. If you can’t recognize your own characters, there’s a serious problem.

WeWriWa—Happy 110th birthday, Lou!

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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 honor of what would’ve been Lou Costello’s 110th birthday, I present an abridged version of a scene from the first book in my series focused on Max Seward’s colorful blended family. Its original title was the beyond-generic New Beginnings, and I haven’t thought of a new and improved title yet in all these years. The manuscript is probably in third place in my overflowing queue, waiting on a radical rewrite and restructuring. It’s currently in its third draft, and in dire need of editing out all the embarrassing garbage and clutter that never should’ve stuck around past the first draft!

It’s late June 1941, and yesterday Max’s father remarried to his longtime secret mistress and left for a honeymoon. Max, his three siblings, and their cousin Elaine are now home alone with three new stepsisters who’ve acted like brats from day one. The day goes from bad to worse when Max and Elaine are forced to take the girls on their double date to the neighborhood’s most expensive movie palace. Max wants to see The Big Store with the Marx Brothers, but he’s overruled in favor of Abbott and Costello’s In the Navy. The stepsisters act up so obnoxiously Max’s group flees to an unoccupied balcony, but things are about to get worse yet again.

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My boy Shemp is the one on the far left!

The peace and quiet offered by the balcony was short-lived, as barely five minutes later, some girl stood up, pointed at the screen, and yelled, “That’s not nice!  He’s being mean to his best friend!” Max froze in his seat when he realized that girl was Adeladie.

Cora Ann began crying. “He’s being mean to the fat guy!”

Max stormed down from the balcony and elbowed his way back to their original seats, ignoring the resulting angry shouts. “Don’t you know the difference between real life and make-believe?”

“Laurel and Hardy are never this mean to each other, and it’s obvious they’re always friends!” Adeladie shouted. “I don’t think that tall handsome guy has any kind of brotherly love for the short fat guy when push comes to shove!”

“It’s part of their routine,” Max explained through clenched teeth.

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The tables are uncharacteristically turned!