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.

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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!

How to avoid or minimize duplicate names with an ensemble cast

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I’ve often seen the suggestion to avoid using the same letter or starting sound for characters, like Amelia and Amber or Jonas and James. This is sound advice, if you’re working with a fairly small cast. When you’re dealing with a large ensemble cast, particularly when it continues growing with the addition of new generations, that advice is no longer practical. However, there are some ways to minimize the risk.

Realistically speaking, you can’t always give a different name to each and every single character. You always want to avoid the extremes of gut-loading your book with current Top 100 names and only using outliers. A book quickly dates if every single character has a name like McMadysynne, Aidanjadenbradencadenmaiden, Ellabella, and CowboyHunter, just as it stands out for the wrong reasons if everyone is named Polyxena, Wolfgang, Ghisolabella, and Demetrius. In real life, social circles are more likely to have a mix of trendy, classic, unusual, foreign, and invented names.

Particularly when we’re dealing with historical characters or characters from traditionally more conservative cultures, it’s not really plausible for everyone to have different names. Let’s be honest, it’s not unusual to find numerous Johns, Marys, Williams, and Sarahs in the same generation of one family tree. During its last century or so of existence, the Russian Imperial Family pretty much used the same dozen or so names over and over again (with some notable exceptions). Even the name Pyotr was only used once after Peter III, on a grand duke born in 1864.

In my Russian historicals, duplicate names include Andrey, Natalya, Aleksandr, and Sofya. The trick is using these names on characters who don’t really appear together because they’re not so closely connected, or using different nicknames. My older Sofya goes by Sonya, and Lyuba and Ivan’s next-youngest child goes by Sonyechka. For now, she’s still young enough to use that nickname. You can also use a name on a major character and on a minor character s/he’ll never share a scene with.

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There’s also the trick of distinguishing characters by titles vs. first names or nicknames. I don’t care how old-fashioned this supposedly has become; I’ll always call my adult or older characters Mr., Ms., Mrs., or Miss. This way, there’s no confusion between, e.g., a grandfather and grandson who share the same name.

In my Atlantic City books, the wealthy Sewards have an unbroken custom of alternating the names Maxwell Stanley and Stanley Maxwell among firstborn sons. Father and son share their name, and the grandson starts over. So far, I’ve had Great-Great-Grandpa Max, Great-Grandpa Stanley, Grandpa Stan, Mr. Seward, Max, Fudzie, and Stan. The name Fudzie came to Max in a dream when he was eleven, and he was so attached to it, he used it as his son’s nickname. Mr. Seward threatened to cut him out of the will if Max didn’t kowtow to family tradition by naming his son Stanley Maxwell.

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I have a number of Kat- names in my Russian historicals, and I similarly use different nicknames and titles. Lyuba’s mother is Mrs. Lebedeva (formerly Mrs. Zhukova), Katya, Machekha (Stepmother) Katya, Tyotya (Aunt) Katya, or Babushka (Grandma) Katya, depending upon who’s addressing her, but she’s always a Mrs. in the narrative.

Radical Katariina Kalvik-Nikonova is called Katrin in the narrative and by most people, though her husband and sister often call her Kati, and her friends’ children call her Tädi (Aunt) Kati.

Little Katerina Vishinskaya goes by Kittey, a non-Russian nickname I found justification for keeping because of its usage in Anna Karenina. The nicknames Kitty, Dolly, Betsy, and Annie are spelt phonetically, as English, like French, was a fashionable language among the upper-class at that time. I just think the spelling Kittey looks a little more believably Russified than Kitti, Kiti, or Kitty.

Kittey’s sister-in-law Katriyana goes by Kat, which I kept by justifying as her way of standing out from the crowd of 15 sisters and not wanting to be just another Katya. I found out later Katriyana isn’t such a traditional Russian name, but I innocently copied it from Felice Holman’s The Wild Children, trusting those were all real Russian names. I think it works because a number of Kat’s sisters have less-traditional/common names, like Yelikonida, Alisa, and Rozaliya, and by the time you get to your 15th child, you kind of have to think creatively.

Lyuba and Ivan’s fourth-born child (Ivan’s special pet), Yekaterina Koneva, goes by Katya. Her family also calls her ptichka, “little bird.”

When Katya Chernomyrdina appears with Katya Koneva, they’re Older Katya and Younger Katya.

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Some Russian names are lucky enough to have several base nickname forms, like Anastasiya (Asya, Stasya, Nastya), Nadezhda (Dusya, Nadya), Aleksandr/a (Sasha, Shura, Sanya), Yelena (Lena, Lyolya), Lyubov (Lyuba, Busya), Dmitriy (Dima, Mitya), Georgiy (Zhora, Gosha), Pavel (Pasha, Pavlik), and Vladimir (Vova, Volodya). In English, names with multiple nicknames include William, Elizabeth, Katherine, the Jul- names, John, and the Al- names. Using child vs. adult forms of a nickname is a perfect way to distinguish characters, like Joe and Joey or Lizzie vs. Beth.

You should always try as much as possible to use different names for every character, but sometimes it’s just not feasible.

How not to write third-person omniscient

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It seems as though many people who mock and dismiss third-person omniscient either don’t understand how it’s supposed to work, or genuinely have no experience with reading or writing it, and thus assume amateurishness or mistakes where there are none. And to demonstrate specific examples of how not to write third-person omniscient, I’m going to use lines from my own work, written at a much earlier stage of my writing development.

1. God-mode. “As Tiffany opened the door for the three Kevorkian children, whom she’d taken in to house temporarily till they found something better, and behind her own father’s back too, she had no idea that the middle Kevorkian child, Levon, would soon see a very beautiful girl and fall in love with her on the spot, the third Mrs. Kevorkian, and his life would never be the same again” (Max’s House #4: The Start of AS, 1999). This is typical classic, outdated God-mode, which no one wants to see in modern literature.

2. Inappropriate political, religious, social, cultural, etc. commentary. “Cinnimin quickly found a record of Just Us 6, the absolute crappiest group in the city. Their singing was so sucky you had to be insane to actually listen to it!” (Saga I of Cinnimin, September 1993) It doesn’t matter if the commentary is valid or the reader agrees with it. Pontificating on things well outside the immediate story is really inappropriate and obnoxious, and can really alienate readers who hold differently.

3. Exclamation points outside of dialogue or something like a letter or journal entry. “[Violet] kept her eyes on Robert’s greeny-brown ones as she opened her pencil case, so that explains why she handed him a tampon instead of the planned pencil! Everyone but her began laughing hysterically!” (Saga I of Cinnimin, October 1993) Yeah, this is kind of funny, but there’s no need to emphasize the humor with exclamation points.

4. Awkwardly, unnecessarily drawing attention to the fact that a story takes place in a certain year or place. “In 1941 in late December, $50 was a lot to be paying for a sailboat” (Saga I of Cinnimin, September 1993). First, I’m not sure that’s actually true, and second, we already know it’s Christmas Day 1941.

5. Making obnoxious value judgments about characters. “Tiffany and Marc stared at Max, but most of all at the fat blob who had just wandered into their midst” (Max’s House #1: New Beginnings, mix of first draft [spring of 1993] and second draft [1999]). Mrs. Seward’s morbid obesity is often used for comedic purposes, but sometimes it really goes too far.

6. Too much jumping around among characters and scenes. “By now Spencer and Camille were on birthday cake number eight. Kit and Frankie were searching for treasure and were in the actual grounded latrine, and Sheri had dropped twelve more cookies into the deep water. Ed had lost himself again” (Saga I of Cinnimin, May or June 1995). Pick one character or group of characters to focus on, don’t just hop around in the same paragraph!

7. Too distant from any one character. “Elaine, on the advice of a number of articles she’d read in women’s magazines, kept calling him silly pet names and giggling.  He had no way of knowing she was only acting so flighty to try to impress him and hold onto his interest during the uncertain early days of a relationship” (Max’s House #1: New Beginnings, mix of first draft [spring of 1993] and third draft [2011]). Deep POV isn’t necessary, but at least stick to one character’s thoughts or actions at a time!

8. Outside knowledge way outside of any character’s purview. “A rosary from Italy was on the [rock], followed by a dead man from Romania” (Saga I of Cinnimin, May or June 1995). Seriously, how would any of them know the national origins of either? Why does it even matter? It’s one thing to state something as the narrator, like when I specified Lucine’s footsteps as saddleshoe footsteps on Page 1 of Little Ragdoll, but entirely another to state such a bizarre, unnecessary detail that adds absolutely nothing to a scene. And as the all-knowing narrator, I should’ve said this refugee was merely unconscious, NOT dead!

9. Beating the reader over the head with all the subtlety of a D.W. Griffith film and essentially telling him or her how to think, feel, and react. “She feels like a Ragdoll too, kept on a shelf because the prettier dolls are more popular, unloved and alone, with the sad wistful eyes of a Ragdoll that look right through you and tear a knife through your heart, if you have one to be torn” (discontinued original first draft of Little Ragdoll, possibly early 1994). Enough said!

10. Specifically drawing attention to symbolism instead of making it more subtle and letting the reader figure it out on his or her own. “Childhood innocence was having a multiple funeral all over the world that night” (Saga I of Cinnimin, May or June 1995). That’s the least offensive or obnoxious example I could find. Seriously, just don’t do it, and don’t use symbolism just to try to make your story seem all deep. Forced, awkward, unnecessary symbolism is a writing DON’T!

11. Overstating established information. “Shampoo dripped into Donna’s eyes. She began howling with intense pain” (Saga I of Cinnimin, November 1993). When it’s already clear from the context or previously-stated or -inferred information, there’s no need to tell us all over again.

How to salvage an old idea or manuscript

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While some writers laugh or cringe in embarrassment at their oldest stories, we can really learn from everything we write. There’s no rule saying you must abandon a project just because you started it when you were really young or at a very early stage of your growth as a writer. Growing up with the original generation of my Atlantic City characters was a beautiful blessing, since I know them inside and out and developed right along with them. If I’d abandoned them midway through my teens, I never would’ve been able to take these characters and their storylines to the creative heights they deserved.

Suggestions on how to transform an old project from juvenile and cringeworthy to mature and professional:

1. Have you stayed with the characters over time? I can see where and how I need to fix my oldest drafts with my Atlantic City characters, since I’ve been with them for over 20 years. When you know a character well, you can understand better why an earlier incarnation isn’t working, and how to improve it. You know, for example, that this person would never do that, but would’ve done this instead.

2. Perhaps just the basic idea is worth salvaging, and you just weren’t ready to write this story the way it needed to be written before. I honestly thought I’d never work with my 18th and 19th century characters again, but now I’m really excited about resurrecting them and their stories over 20 years after I shelved them. I figure they were meant to be if I never forgot about them during all these years. Now that I’m an adult, I can write their stories so much better than I was as a preteen and child.

3. What are the strongest points of this story? My first draft of the first book in my Max’s House series was all over the place in terms of storylines, and ended up focusing on the wrong things. During the creation of the second and third drafts, I came to focus more on the core storylines—the forced overnight adjustment to a new stepmother and three stepsisters; Max’s cousin Elaine desperately trying and failing to make friends after she moves to town; and the adventures Max, his older sister Tiffany, and Elaine have on summer vacation, after they’re sent home as punishment for mouthing off to the new stepmother. The future fourth draft will focus even more on these three key interconnected storylines, and cut out all the cluttery, pointless scenes of Max and his friends just hanging out doing nothing.

4. Are there glimmers of a previously unrecognized conflict, storyline, backstory, characterization? There were so many great odds and sods scattered about in my first Russian historical, which I later honed in on and transformed into integral parts of the plot, backstory, motivations, character development. For example, Lyuba’s original preference for Boris became a pretended preference, motivated by how her mother drilled into her the importance of marrying for money and social station. In my Atlantic City books, Cinnimin takes her title of Most Popular Girl way too seriously, and thinks next door neighbor Violet is trying to steal her crown, because she’s really insecure and vulnerable deep down. With her family’s reduced financial station, that’s the one thing she can be proud of.

5. If there isn’t any apparent reason for something, work it into the book from the start. While my Atlantic City character Kit’s dysfunctional relationship with her mother has long been written as so deliberately over the top as to be intended as dark comedy, there originally wasn’t any reason why Kit hated her mother, and had some quite scary, abnormal rage towards her. She just seemed like some angry girl with a huge chip on her shoulder, and it came across as rather disturbing and psychotic, not darkly comedic. Now there’s a substantial, understandable reason why Kit, her sister Lovella, and her brother Saul hate their mother so much. They’re also encouraged by their father, who only married his distant cousin to keep a family secret from leaking out and eventually becomes completely estranged from this increasingly mentally unbalanced woman.

Kit really isn’t a bad, unsympathetic person. Keep in mind, this is the same person who later has two kids with hemophilia and one kid with autism. If she were truly heartless and soulless, she’d never be able to be such a loving, understanding mother towards them, or any of her other kids. She just has a strong Achilles heel in the form of her mother.

6. Don’t be afraid to junk garbage or radically rewrite and restructure something! It’s like scalpeling off rotting, diseased flesh to let new flesh grow in its place, or reworking a tattoo that no longer reflects your former belief system or artistic vision.