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.

One of the worst hist-fic tropes

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I recently started working on the final draft of the book formerly known as The Very Next. Now that the book formerly known as The Very First has been published at 90K, the sequel’s 75K length seems a bit imbalanced. I’d like all four books in the prequel series to be of fairly equal size.

Those extra words will come mostly from four new chapters. There were 37 chapters in the radical rewrite of 2015, and that odd number bugged me. I admit I’m superstitious about auspicious and inauspicious numbers and dates.

Now there are thirty chapters in Part I, and ten in Part II. I also deleted a three-page chapter from Part II, “The von Hinderburgs’ Mistake.” And why might that be?

It uses one of the worst tropes of hist-fic, particularly WWII hist-fic! It was also poorly-written even after the rewrite, and badly-incorporated with the entire rest of the remainder of the story.

You’ve probably seen this trope in at least one book and/or film. Someone travels to Poland for a really convenient, paper-thin reason right on the eve of WWII, and of course finds him or herself trapped there, either short-term or long-term. Herman Wouk (may he rest in peace) did this in The Winds of War. It was also done in Masterpiece Theatre’s World on Fire recently.

It doesn’t necessarily have to be Poland in 1939. The trope could also be coming to San Francisco right as the hippie movement starts, being stuck in England during the Blitz, travelling to Russia on the eve of the Revolution, being in France on the eve of their Revolution, going to Iran in 1979, going to visit a friend in East Berlin and overnight finding oneself stuck behind the newly-erected Berlin Wall, conveniently-timed situations like that.

Yes, many great storylines and entire books are built around a character finding oneself in a strange situation one doesn’t really understand, but that can easily be accomplished without getting into whatever setting just as trouble’s about to erupt!

Near the very end of Volume II of Journey Through a Dark Forest, Darya and Oliivia set sail for France for an envisioned year of studying abroad at a Parisian lycée. In Volume III, they find themselves trapped after the invasion and occupation, and eventually become Nazi slaves. More than a few American citizens ended up in the camps, and to this day haven’t been nearly properly acknowledged and compensated.

But in other words, they were already there, for a realistic reason. The von Hinderburgs go to visit their old friend Zalman Radulski in Warsaw and end up stuck there until April 1940. By that time, Herr and Frau von Hinderburg have died of starvation, and their kids and Zalman are smuggled back in potato sacks in a truck with help from a young anti-Nazi Wehrmacht soldier. Their escape was strongly based on one of the border crossings in Maia Wojciechowska’s memoir Till the Break of Day.

There’s zero reason for them to be there now, since the Brandts and von Hinderburgs went straight from Germany to The Netherlands in 1933. I got rid of that pointless year in Poland long ago. Thus, they’d have no Polish friends to visit.

My hot mess of this storyline’s original incarnation also had Herr and Frau von Hinderburg dying in the nascent Warsaw Ghetto, despite the fact that it didn’t exist till autumn 1940. Even in Hungary, where the Shoah was implemented with lightning-quick alacrity, ghettoes weren’t created almost as soon as the Nazis invaded!

In my radical rewrite of the book formerly known as The Very Last, the von Hinderburg kids come home to multiple letters from Mr. Filliard in Atlantic City, desperately pleading them to respond so he can get them visas. Thus, it’s an important plot point that they’re away from home and unable to be reached for a very long time.

It seems much more plausible, if still incredibly foolish, for the von Hinderburgs to return to Hamburg to try to bring the rest of their relatives, and the Brandts’ family, into The Netherlands. Maybe Herr and Frau von Hinderburg could be taken prisoner and never heard from again, while their kids and old family friend Zalman escape back to Amsterdam.

Ask yourself, honestly, why your character would accompany a friend to a wedding in Poland or happen to be on a diplomatic mission there in August 1939. If you already have an ensemble cast, why not just use native Polish characters and have them eventually link up with the other people?

In The Winds of War, it particularly makes no sense for the über-WASPy Henrys to be connected to the Jewish Jastrows, beyond trope and convenience. I don’t understand why Mr. Wouk couldn’t have the two families presented separately. It’s hardly unheard-of in historical sagas to feature families and characters who don’t interact immediately.

Original stories are never built around tropes, and if any tropes are involved, they’re used in a very unique way that rises above cliché, to the point it no longer feels like a trope.

The perils of extremes in critiquing

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So many people in creative writing clubs, critique groups, etc., make the mistake of either tearing down everything and demanding radical rewrites, or mindlessly praising and validating everything. That’s not how anyone learns how to improve one’s craft, esp. if one is a younger and/or newer writer.

Writers, artists, fashion designers, bakers, cooks, musicians, singers, etc., are being set up for a HARD fall when they hear nothing but praise for a very long time. It can feel like the rug is being yanked from under them when they finally hear criticism, even respectful criticism that still mentions strong points. Whereas if they’d received constructive critique from the jump, they’d have developed stronger skills sooner, known how to learn from mistakes and self-edit, and not had such big egos.

Likewise, those who hear nothing but cruel words or insistent demands to change almost everything no matter what can be made to feel nothing they ever do will be good enough, and stop pursuing their passion for a long time, maybe forever. Or, out of hurt pride at being constantly attacked, they’ll become very stubborn and spitefully feel they don’t need to change anything.

When I still entered critique contests, someone tore into the first 250 words of The Strongest Branches of Uprooted Trees. When I mentioned her objections to my crit group a few years later, they thought she was full of crap and didn’t have an issue or confusion with anything she bashed. Seems obvious she’s from the modern school that believes everything MUST be ripped apart no matter what.

E.g., she claimed she broke her Google looking for the meaning of the first word, Fünffürreihe (a row of five used for marching and roll calls during the Shoah). My friends understood the beyond-obvious, that it was defined in the very next line! How the bloody hell are you so dense you can’t grasp that!

She also had no idea what was going on and where these people were, why it was important to say how fast someone ran. My friends understood from the date given at the start, 30 March 1945, and other really obvious context clues, that my characters are escaping a death march. Again, are some people that dense or historically ignorant?

A failed crit partner who was a lot younger than I am bashed everything in the then-current first 5 pages of The Very First, even my lack of a title page with my name, the title, and the wordcount, how my first line was in large, bold italics, and my usage of Palatino instead of that arse-ugly Times New Roman.

It’s one thing if multiple people take issue with the same things, but when only one person, or a handful of people out of countless others, take(s) issue, it’s safe to say you’re not the one with the problem.

It did hurt when a few people point-blank said they didn’t like my Cinnimin, but I have to keep in mind everyone else who’s ever met her over the years has loved her and thought she’s an awesome, fun character full of personality. Not all characters and stories will click with everyone. While Cinni has been significantly toned down over the years, she’ll never be an annoying goody-goody who sings “Kumbaya.”

The best, least judgmental way to broach an issue in critique is asking what the writer’s intention was in, e.g., choosing a certain age for the characters, depicting violent fights as a normal solution to petty disagreements, alternating POV chapters between three characters instead of using third-person omni, a scene that feels rather over the top, starting in 1863 but then having a long, detailed flashback in the next few chapters.

That way, the onus is on the writer to explain and deeply think about decisions, not to defend the story from harsh criticism, feel compelled to make every single change suggested, or develop an ego and think no editing is required.

It’s also good to specify the kind of critique one wants. E.g., only big picture instead of surface stuff like grammar, a scene or section that doesn’t feel right, what works and what doesn’t. Writers who ask for everything to be brutally ripped apart need more confidence in their own vision and talent.

Crit groups and creative writing clubs aren’t supposed to be support groups. They’re places to learn how to grow as a writer and self-editor. Hearing nothing but fawning praise, nit-picking, or nasty comments has very negative consequences in the long run.

IWSG—September odds and sods

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InsecureWritersSupportGroup
It’s time for another meeting of the Insecure Writer’s Support Group. The first Wednesday of each month, we share struggles, triumphs, quandaries, and fears.

This month’s question is:

If you could choose one author, living or dead, to be your beta partner, who would it be and why?

I would love to work with Mark Twain! He’s long been one of my fave writers, since he was such an astute observer of humans and society, and very funny. We also have a lot of political and social views in common, and both love science and technology. It would be really fun to be his beta partner.

The book formerly known as The Very First released in e-book format on 23 August. I’d hoped to have a simultaneous print and e-book release, but the print edition (which has a different cover) should be ready to go within two weeks.

I’m saving my big release day post until then. It’ll discuss the reason for different covers, last-minute changes to the text, things I considered changing, and more. There’s no point in rushing, particularly since making changes to the text of a print book after the fact isn’t free or easy like it is with e-books.

For that reason, I haven’t yet put buy links on my “Where to find my books and author pages” page.

The hardcover edition of The Twelfth Time is now finally in production. Once I’m done checking the proof of the book formerly known as The Very First one final time, I’ll begin my final checks of the four volumes of Dark Forest.

I’m coming to feel that one of the reasons my progress on Dream Deferred, which seemed to be heading into the homestretch before permanent lockdown began, has ground to a near-complete standstill is that I’ve just been with these characters for too long at one stretch. I need a break from them to regain my passion and momentum.

Suffice it to say, I won’t be starting the fifth book in this saga, From a Nightmare to a Dream: Out of Stalin’s Shadow, anytime soon!

As I briefly mentioned in my DDAD post, my 34-year-old little brother disowned me in a fit of rage in early August because of this, my Facebook profile picture. He was quite abusive, hateful, insulting, and misogynistic in DMs, and kept cycling back to emotional language and ideology instead of addressing any of the specific issues I cited or recognising that many people outside his little Woke Stasi bubble share my views.

It really is painful to be treated so cruelly and disrespectfully by my own brother, but at least he mailed me my notebooks from my storage locker before this happened. Now that he’s convinced I’m a horrible bigot with terrible morals, he’ll only consider finish sending me the rest of my stuff for the sake of our parents.

I truly hope his creepy ménage falls apart and that he profusely apologises to our entire family for the awful way he’s treated all of us for a long time. He refers to his emotionally unstable girlfriend and her creepy husband as his “loving family,” while having almost nothing to do with his real family. I’m so angry at them for brainwashing him and turning him against us!

I’m still going back and forth on whether to slightly age up my Atlantic City characters or keep their long-established age, through 60 years’ worth of storylines, as-is. My heart wants to keep them as they’ve always been, since it’ll all even out once they’re in their mid-teens, but my head keeps nagging me about unrealistic cognitive development and things that feel super-sketchy even in over the top satire, like a 9-year-old girl dating a 15-year-old boy or a 6-year-old boy having a room full of pornographic filth of all types.

I think my NaNo project this year might be a resumption of my radical rewrite of the book formerly known as The Very Last, and starting my gut renovation of Almost As an Afterthought: The First Six Months of 1941. I’ll have to figure out my final decision by then!

The need for radical gut renovation

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While I continue to struggle back and forth with the idea of keeping the age of the first generation of my Atlantic City characters as-is or changing it by 2-3 years, and have long been hard at work significantly toning down the age-inappropriate content (if not outright excising it), there’s a much bigger reason radical gut renovations are/were needed for much of the material till about 1963.

It’s absolute garbage!

Garbage with great bones, but garbage nonetheless. A house with rotting floors, walls, doors, and stairs, irreparably broken machinery like washers and stoves, burst pipes, fraying and broken wires, and smashed windows can still be saved with a very strong foundation and beautiful exterior.

Since I decided to shelve the original eight-book series running from late 1941–September 1950, and with it much of the contained material, there’s an obvious huge gap to be filled with entirely new storylines and radical revisions of the ones with enough potential to be saved. Even within that series, there was a gap between September 1945–April 1947.

I deliberately underwrote a lot of Cinnimin, esp. Sagas I–IV, knowing I’d have all the space in the world to significantly flesh it out and add new material once I transcribed it into a computer. Saga I also ends with a few pages rushing through what happened after V-J Day till the eve of Cinni and her friends starting college in 1950. I long knew I’d have to transform that into an actual narrative of normal length.

The Max’s House books I handwrote the first drafts of, #1, #3, #7, and #8, plus the long-unfinished computer-generated #2 (which caught some kind of bug and became unable to open, though I did print a number of pages), are by far most in need of radical rewriting. Though I gave #1 two much-needed reworkings, they still didn’t go nearly far enough.

And why are they so terrible?

They were written by someone aged 11–15!

lot of the school-related storylines, even the fourth through sixth and ninth through twelfth Max’s House books I wrote from ages 19–about 24, were based around the gang hating school, doing horribly in most classes, frequently skipping school, sassing off teachers, caring more about social life at school than studying and getting ready for college. Despite being the cardinal opposite of that, I was too wedded to ideas from fluffy teen shows, and then felt afraid to radically change course.

Implausible storylines and events. E.g., Cinni, her sitting charges, and her friends are hanging out in some submarine-like boat at the pool and get stuck there after closing time. It’s sucked down the apparently giant drain, pulled into the Atlantic, and winds up in a Rhode Island pool. Now-axed ex-smoker Rachel Simmins gets several surgeries to suck all the tar out of her lungs.

Too much mean-spiritedness. It’s one thing to show characters as typical young people who’ve got a lot of growing up to do and aren’t always 100% respectful to everyone (esp. people they dislike). Entirely another for them to constantly say nasty stuff, mistreat people, arrange for them to be publicly humiliated, beat them up, steal from them, etc.

Ridiculous storylines and events. Like, why would Max’s stepmother Bambi have a summer home in freaking Paterson, NJ instead of a resort town?! Why does Mrs. Hitchcock move full-time to her French summer home and leave baby Scarlett in Violet’s full-time care, esp. when she tried so many years for a third child and much of France was in shambles after the war?

Cinni and Sparky have babies during college without missing a beat!

No unique storylines, as aforementioned. I cared more about making a teen and preteen soap than crafting original stories and characters.

So many cluttery scenes accomplishing nothing. Until Levon shows up in Saga I of Cinnimin, the story consists of little more than Cinni and Violet’s babysitting misadventures, constantly skipping school, and just acting like ill-mannered, mean-spirited brats who think they’re such bad-asses.

Even with the caveat that Eopolis isn’t supposed to be a normal neighborhood, and that these kids aren’t supposed to be like normal kids their age, there are limits. E.g., why would fifth grade Violet enter a contest to win a purported naked photo of Frank Sinatra and proudly carry it everywhere she goes?! Why would anyone of any age watch their own parents having sex, film it, and show that to their friends regularly?!

Poor historical grounding. It’s particularly bad during WWII. There are a couple of scrap metal drives, mentions of war bonds, and ration coupons, but the gang acts like the war is a huge annoyance and inconvenience. None of their older brothers serve in the war either.

The most important things I’m left with are my characters and their general storylines. I wanted to tell a coming-of-age story about a large group of friends in Atlantic City, having a lot of funny adventures along the way, and I mostly succeeded. Many of the details and circumstances might change, but the core elements remain the same.