Posted in Atlantic City books, Editing, Rewriting, Writing

Why I finally decided to raise the age of my Atlantic City characters

Since today, 25 November 2022, marks 31 years since I wrote the first of my Atlantic City characters into existence, I wanted to do a post walking through why I made the decision to age them up by two years after all this time. This was weighing on my mind for a really long time, and deep down I knew what the right decision was, despite my irrational emotional attachment to preserving them as-is.

A number of these points have been addressed in prior posts, but I want to bring them all together and sum them up.

1. I was thinking about this since at least 2011, if not earlier! It’s one thing to think about something superficially in passing, but if you still feel just as strongly for many years, odds are this isn’t just a short-term fancy and you won’t change your mind quickly. I wanted my nostril pierced for almost 12 years before it finally happened, and I still have it 19 years later. The thought of ever retiring it is completely out of the question!

2. Cognitive development. This was one of the biggest reasons I leaned so strongly towards aging them up. As originally written, their mental and physical ages aren’t synched until they’re about fifteen. Even the most mature, precocious, intelligent kid is still incapable of thinking, reasoning, talking, and acting like an adult, or even a teenager.

3. Child safeguarding red flags all over the place! Since I was in such an awful school system from K–10, I genuinely had no frame of reference to know how creepy, abnormal, and concerning it is for preteens to be having sex, doing drugs, smoking, drinking, having wild unchaperoned parties, getting into violent fights, wearing clothes suit for a nightclub, constantly skipping school, all manner of awful, age-inappropriate stuff.

4. Piggybacking off of the above, it’s creepy, not shocking and satirical for a purpose, when fifth graders are having sex. It’s obviously still very concerning when 12-year-olds in seventh grade are doing it, but at least that’s somewhat more plausible. It’s hardly unheard-of for kids that age to experiment with sex with one another, and it doesn’t always necessarily reflect a broken home or coercion.

5. Likewise, girls of nine and ten should not be dating and making out, particularly with older boys! I totally removed Kit’s relationship with Jerry because it looked so creepy to my adult eyes. Cinni’s relationship with Barry also needs toning down, but if she’s 12 and he’s 14 when they get together (after two years of a mutual crush), the weird factor is lessened.

6. Toddlers don’t give a damn about politics. Why would Cinni, at barely two, want to write a letter to Pres. Hoover? I don’t think I understood who Reagan was until I was four, during the 1984 election.

7. They never really feel their supposed age until they’re about fifteen. Is it really lampshading if even the author feels like something isn’t right?

8. It speaks volumes how I deliberately made their ages ambiguous in the first two books during the final rewrites. At most, it’s said they’re under twelve, and that they look much older than they really are. If an event associated with a specific age is referenced, like Laura’s First Communion, it’s vaguely “awhile ago” instead of given an exact date.

9. When their ages are finally revealed early in the third book, that doesn’t change anything. The reader might be used to seeing them as very advanced and precocious, but they’re still only nine at that point. I imagine many people would sit back in disbelief. Only a few people over the years had the guts to ask, “These kids are supposed to be twelve?”

10. People in my now-inactive local writing group assumed they were about eleven or twelve in the first book. They would’ve been shocked had I said they were seven and turning eight!

11. Precocious puberty! It’s a huge cause for concern when girls begin growing breasts at all of six or seven years old and start menstruating at seven, eight, nine, ten. Entirely more believable, and less creepy, if they start these processes a few years later.

12. The fourth book was originally just a very short (11K) collection of loosely-connected vignettes, with no real plot or consistent story arc. It also didn’t feel like a proper, fitting conclusion to a series or setting things up for the next series and a new stage in these characters’ lives. Now the main storylines are built around the characters’ approaching elementary school graduation and the struggle Cinni and Kit have to get permission to switch to the progressive track when their mothers disapprove.

13. It’s a really annoying, overused trope when a child is so advanced beyond his or her years, as well as highly unrealistic in most cases. Even a super-intelligent, mature kid is still only mature and intelligent for that age, not as mature and intelligent as adults.

14. It’s also one thing if a single character, like Lisa Simpson or Stewie Griffin, is a savant. Entirely another when everyone that age looks, talks, acts, and thinks like miniature adults.

15. I was young myself when I created them, and preteens and teens ain’t exactly known as very self-reflective. One of the blessings of youth is that we never realise just how young we are at any given age or stage. We always believe we’re so much more mature, sophisticated, experienced, intelligent, world-wise than we really are, only to discover in shock just how immature, inexperienced, cringey, and silly we were at 11, 13, 15, 17, 21, even 24 or 25. We rarely see ourselves the way we truly are.

16. There was always a gap between September 1945–April 1947. What better way to fill it than by giving them storylines and adventures fitting their new age?

17. It seems kind of grotesque and freakish to imagine a 7-year-old who looks and acts like a 13-year-old.

18. It would feel more believable and natural for Sparky and Cinni to start having their kids when they’re out of college. As originally written, Sparky has three kids and Cinni is pregnant with her fourth by the time they graduate. There’s zero depiction of any real struggle to juggle college and childrearing. I was only fifteen when I wrote about those years, after all.

19. Their high school years (what I wrote of them) were shallow, cliché, derivative junk. Regardless of age, I would’ve radically rewritten them anyway.

20. I suspect I hatched the angle of a deliberately over the top spoof and satire in part to cover up their shocking, age-inappropriate antics and pass them off as being there for a purpose. As music teacher Busload told my buddy Bruce when he submitted his vulgar parody of “My Favorite Things,” “This isn’t satirical. This is filth!” There was just too much reveling in the worst of human nature, and everyone looks so mean-spirited, gross, cruel, selfish, psychotic, shallow, vindictive, violent.

21. I may have written these characters all the way to 1998, but only two of those books have been published to date, plus two more where a few of them (most notably Sparky) appear as secondary characters. The frogging and retconning would be much more difficult if I had to memory-hole and reconstruct years of official established history. The worst obstacle is probably the advanced maternal age of some of the ladies when they have their final kids.

22. I’m toying with the supernatural storyline of Cinni and her friends having time stand still for two years (which would put them back at their original age eventually) if Cinni makes the right decision about the life path to take in the fourth book. She’ll have a lot of dreams about a mysterious ancestor, who shows her many possible trajectories for her life in alternative universes, including the one I originally crafted. Everything ultimately joins back together.

Posted in Writing

IWSG—October odds and sods


If you’re observing Yom Kippur, may you have an easy and meaningful fast!

InsecureWritersSupportGroup

It’s time again for The Insecure Writer’s Support Group, which meets the first Wednesday of every month to commiserate over worries, fears, doubts, and struggles.

This month’s question is:

What do you consider the best characteristics of your favorite genre?

I love the rich worldbuilding of historical fiction, and all the little details helping to bring a time and place alive (clothing, food, architecture, interior design, social mores, language, transportation, car models, schools, medicine, technology, music, you name it). Good historical writers spend a lot of time researching, and often enjoy the process at least as much as the actual  writing.

The trend towards hist-fic lite, or Gossip Girl in period clothes, annoys me so much. You need to give your head a shake if you truly believe insisting on historical accuracy is gatekeeping and censorship. More like a basic key feature of the genre!

As always, much of my October writing will consist of my blog posts about classic horror films with landmark anniversaries this year. Much to my great disappointment and annoyance, the Monster template I used every year since I believe 2012 was quietly retired in late 2021, and there’s no more way for WordPress users to access our own previously-used retired themes. Since I’m only a WordPress.com user, not a dot org user, I also can’t install a premium Halloween theme.

At least I still have my old October header, and perhaps WordPress will introduce a new Halloween template in future.

My original plans for NaNo were to finally finish Dream Deferred and write the new chapters and scenes. However, I came to feel the writing would be a lot slower because it’s out of order and combined with moving things around.

I believe my disappointing (but never failing) performance on some prior NaNos and Camp months was partly a result of working on a rewrite instead of starting fresh or adding to a first draft already in progress. That constrains my speed.

I thought about resuming my alternative history about Dante and Beatrice, which I’m very eager to get back to, but vetoed that as well. NaNo proved to be an inopportune time to work on such a research-heavy book. There’s nothing wrong with writing slower and more carefully, but that’s just not conducive to NaNo success.

Instead, I’ll be starting my radical rewrite of Almost As an Afterthought: The First Six Months of 1941 (which doesn’t have a new title yet). It’ll be almost a complete gut renovation, with very little original material retained from the 11,000-word first draft which I wrote in fifteen days in August 1997. With any luck, I’ll finally regain my normal daily wordcounts of several thousand.

It dawned on me a few months ago that I never shared the print cover for the book formerly known as The Very Next, now called Movements in the Symphony of 1939. Since I took such a long break from proofing the final version, it kind of slipped my mind. And now I’m leaning very strongly towards new editions of How Kätchen Became Sparky and Movements in the Symphony of 1939.

To my great embarrassment, I discovered the Dante quote featured several times in each is a 20th century fake. The short paragraph I included in the front matter for Movements no longer seems like enough. Why would Cinni’s father, who’s such a passionate Dantephile, be fooled by a fake quote that rather contradicts Dante’s own vision? It’s sticking in my craw more and more.

But before I do some tweaks for these new editions, I need to find a real quote with a comparable message.

Do you plan to do NaNo? Ever discovered there was an error in a book you had to correct in a new edition?

Posted in Editing, Fourth Russian novel, Rewriting, Writing

IWSG—Ready for the homestretch and second draft

In loving memory of Keith John Moon, who left the material world 44 years ago today at the tender age of 32.

InsecureWritersSupportGroup

It’s time again for The Insecure Writer’s Support Group, which meets the first Wednesday of every month to commiserate over worries, fears, doubts, and struggles.

This month’s question is:

What genre would be the worst one for you to tackle and why?

Epic high fantasy isn’t my genre at all. The fantasy short story I wrote a few years ago for an IWSG Anthology contest was more along the lines of magical realism, with a real-world setting (737 Japan) commingled with fantasy elements. Doing an entire book with a purely fantasy setting and the complicated rules of the genre seems impossible.

I also could never do YA contemporary, sorry not sorry. Just not the types of stories I connect with, and first-person present tense makes my eyes glaze over 99% of the time.

I’ve now gone through the entirety of what I’ve completed to date of Dream Deferred (a combination of skimming and in-depth reading, depending upon the necessity). During this process, I made notes of important details I’d forgotten (e.g., Kleopatra and Yaël are left-handed; Nestor’s first gift to his future wife Yustina is a Matryoshka necklace she treasures), things to add, and things to take out or move to the fifth book.

I made the above notes quite some time prior, a handy guide to the dating of the chapters set around the start of an academic year. Because I wrongly assumed the autumn semester always started the first week of September, I now have a bunch of things to shift around. I 100% blame myself for not doing enough research and engaging in arrogant presentism. Thankfully, I’ve now tracked down all the relevant dates from archives of The New York Times, student newspapers, and the U of Minnesota’s press releases.

Miraculously, I finally found The Minnesota Daily archives over seven years after they went MIA! It’s still not an ideal storage system, and not all issues are scanned in entirety, but at least the issues for the years I need are available again. The press releases fill in the gaps. Someone needs a better digital archivist.

The highest concentration of things to be junked or moved came in Part IV and the latter half of Part III. I got so caught up in my runaway storyline to nowhere about the Konevs moving back to NYC, I kind of forgot the subtitle is Lyuba and Ivan at University. Even before that, I didn’t have enough scenes of them at university or working on assignments!

In Part IV, they appear in less than half of the 23 chapters completed to date, and almost only when they’re visiting New York or talking about their move (or, in Ivan’s case, fighting against it). Their youngest children are likewise MIA.

As this embarrassing omission dawned on me, I began rethinking the retention of one of Part IV’s major storylines, which begins near the end of Part III. Cousins Zhdana and Susanna get pregnant during their junior year at NYU, and there’s a whole lot of sprawling drama I felt helpless to rein in. Great storyline, wrong book.

Now that I’ve gone through the entire book, vs. just skimming through parts of it out of full context, I remember why I wanted to junk a lot of the storylines that arise in Part IV. They pull the attention away from the main, long-established storylines. In the fifth book, they’ll be able to shine more strongly, since they can arise earlier and have much more time to develop.

It’ll almost feel like I’m writing this book all over again, since there are so many important events I forgot about or didn’t think to include. Even in a book with a deliberately large ensemble cast and multiple storylines, you don’t want TOO much going on, nor to introduce and rush through a major storyline when everything else is heading towards happy conclusions.

Posted in Editing, Fourth Russian novel, Rewriting, Writing

IWSG—A miraculous flash of seeing everything clearly

InsecureWritersSupportGroup

It’s time again for The Insecure Writer’s Support Group, which meets the first Wednesday of every month to commiserate over worries, fears, doubts, and struggles.

This month’s question is:

When you set out to write a story, do you try to be more original or do you try to give readers what they want?

While we should be aware of current literary conventions and trends, someone who aspires to be a writer for all time should ultimately be true to one’s own voice, style, and interests. Even if you’re writing in a popular genre, like paranormal romance, you should at least use an original angle that makes your story stand out instead of obediently fitting into a mindless cookie cutter. Why be one of a million when you can be one in a million?

I set a 15K goal for July Camp NaNo and overachieved, though the majority of my writing was creative non-fiction for blog posts, not the actual declared project, my radical rewrite of The Very Last. I suspect I didn’t write as much as I could for TVL because I wasn’t starting it as an entirely new project or writing only new chapters.

Towards the end of July, I began reconsidering what I thought was a rejected storyline for Dream Deferred, the Konevs relocating back to NYC en masse in June 1952. I last seriously worked on it in March 2020, and the most recent chapter, still unfinished, was begun on 28 July 2020 and not updated since 28 October 2020. Lockdown ruined what seemed to finally be the homestretch.

And just when I was almost decided on resurrecting the aborted storyline that bloated the already sprawling wordcount and made me lose control of my own book, the most perfect development came to me. It’s so perfect, I had to look for reasons to possibly reject it. After all, I wasn’t going to make the same mistake twice!

What if the Konevs had chosen Minneapolis instead of St. Paul when they moved to the Twin Cities? That makes more sense, since it’s the location of the university, and it’s more likely a progressive academy like Stefania Wolicka would be there. Also, Minneapolis has always had more population and been more vibrant and cosmopolitan than St. Paul.

Anton, the second husband of Lyuba and Ivan’s goddaughter Lyudmila, will alert them to an old mansion next to his on East River Road that just came on the market. In that era, Victorian houses were often abandoned or sold for very cheap prices on account of being so unfashionable.

With Tatyana’s family buying the house next to that by surprise, there’ll be more than enough land for dear horse Branimir to enjoy his autumn years. There’s also ample land for hobby farming, gardening, and keeping some non-working farm animals.

On the same block will be the girls’ new friends from school, who won’t have to be introduced at the very end of the book.

Kabardin horse (Branimir’s breed), Copyright Helgie12 at WikiCommons, Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International license.

In preparation for striking while the iron’s hot and refreshing my familiarity with the story, I began skimming through it. After almost two years away, I’d forgotten many things—little details, major plot points, seeds being planted for developments in future books.

To my great surprise, the only major issue is the aborted moving back to New York storyline. The overall story wasn’t nearly as trainwreck as I thought it was. Even the major subplots that arise in the final quarter or so are on-point and so entwined with the pre-existing storylines, it would be a mistake to move them into the fifth book. Only a few need moving or junking.

As the real-life Father Andrew Rogosh of St. Michael’s Russian Catholic Church (pictured above) says to Ivan’s much-younger sister Varya:

“….When one boils dilemmas down to their core essence instead of obsessing over a succession of minute details, the easiest solution often appears quickly.”

Have you ever found an epiphanous solution after it seemed you’d written yourself into an impossible corner? Discovered a story wasn’t nearly as trainwreck as you thought it was after some time away?

Posted in Fourth Russian novel, Writing

The case for the Konevs remaining in the Twin Cities

After I abandoned the idea of the Konevs returning to farming in Firebird Fields at the end of Dream Deferred, I decided to keep them in St. Paul and create the conflict of the girls campaigning to stay in their new home while their parents wanted to retreat back to a small rural town as though the past four years never happened.

Then I hit upon the idea of them returning to NYC, for reasons that felt very compelling at the time. However, this storyline almost immediately devolved into a hot, unfocused mess, with whiplash-level changes right and left. Eventually I came up with a bunch of redirections to try to bail it out, but a lot of them kind of ring hollow without any prior building towards them.

But what if my second idea were right, or very close to it, all along?

Reasons for remaining in the Twin Cities:

1. If NYC were the only U.S. city worth anything, every single American would live there. Sure, it has a much larger concentration of museums, schools, and other cultural institutions than most other cities, but that doesn’t mean everywhere else is worthless.

2. Some people prefer to be a big fish in a smaller pond than a tiny guppy in a giant aquarium. There are more chances to build meaningful personal connections and network if you’re not competing with thousands upon thousands of other people in the same field.

3. The Twin Cities were hardly hick towns of no accord in this era! They had lots of great museums, art galleries, libraries, schools, and historic houses. Minneapolis also underwent a lot of long-overdue reformations when Hubert Humphrey was major, like prohibiting racial discrimination in the workforce and gradually bringing an end to the infamous housing covenants.

4. And speaking of, just because Minneapolis was named the capital of U.S. antisemitism in 1946 and was also well-known for its restrictive housing covenants doesn’t mean it was anywhere equal to the Jim Crow South or Nazi Germany. Jews, Blacks, Asians, and people with progressive politics weren’t getting lynched and run out of town! As always, people in minority groups formed vibrant communities and served as positive ambassadors of their people to the outside world.

5. It was entirely my own fault that I never developed Stefania Wolicka Academy and its brother school Johann Pestalozzi. Such a cheap cop-out to take it from a dream school to a unstructured mess akin to the modern-day Sudbury nonsense, and then “solve” the problem by taking away everyone’s scholarships and moving them 1,000 miles away so they can attend a “better” progressive school like Walden or New Lincoln. God forbid I just EDIT!

6. Likewise, it was my fault I never gave the Konevs any new friends in St. Paul. Cheap, lazy cop-out to “solve” this problem by saying no one has been welcoming and that the girls at school are exclusionary snobs, so therefore it makes total sense to move 1,000 miles away to a supposed utopian haven. I never showed any of this supposed snobbery and feeling out of place!

7. Also, way to insult the Twin Cities branch of the University of Minnesota, which has been renowned as an excellent school for 120+ years, by depicting almost every single professor and student as an ageist and/or sexist bigot. Yes, one of my main objectives was to show how difficult it was for a woman, let alone an older woman, to attend university in this era, but that doesn’t mean 100% of the people she encounters have to be cartoonish caricatures!

8. Lyuba and Ivan are in their early fifties and will have two kids left at home by the end of the book. It was one thing for them to move to attend university belatedly, and then to move again to be closer to the school, esp. in light of how their daughters were treated at school. But children need stability, and people of any age need to put down roots. It’s not like Lyuba and Ivan are childfree 24-year-olds.

9. Why didn’t they begin putting down any roots in the Twin Cities? There’s no meaningful conflict if they deliberately avoid making any new friends or growing attached to the city just so they can move back to Firebird Fields like nothing happened, or return to NYC without looking back. Another huge writing failure on my part!

10. Minneapolis has a great fine arts school where Ivan could acquire further training and experience. Sure, it’s no Art Students League, but it’s not a hole in the wall either.

11. They’re used to living in large detached houses with yards, not apartments or townhouses. It’s hard to adapt to that kind of change.

12. NYC is one of those cities that imprints a distinct cultural identity and state of mind on people. I just can’t see Lyuba and Ivan developing that. Even when they lived there before, they never saw the city as their permanent home.

13. Again, Branimir needs more than a city stable and daily walks in a park! That horse deserves dignified autumn years.

14. It easily clears out a huge amount of clutter and simplifies the story.

15. For too long, the Konevs have had no real friends beyond their immediate circle. It’s time to get them out of this cocoon.