2020 in review (Writing and life)

Unfortunately, thanks to the apparently permanent lockdown which went into effect in March, and the accompanying loss of privacy, my normal writing output took a giant nosedive. Without the ability to go to the library six days a week and write uninterrupted for 3–4 hours, I’ve gotten almost no writing done.

Every day I grow more enraged at the people excitedly cheering on the idea of never resuming normal life and instituting even more draconian measures. It must be nice to have such class privilege you never worry about finances or being stuck in a two-room flat with no yard! The “Just fifty more years to flatten the curve until no one ever dies again for any reason!” cult also must have no problems with mental health, depression, or domestic violence. What perfect lives they have if they assume everyone else in the world is just as privileged!

I was finally heading into the homestretch of A Dream Deferred when lockdown started, and progress on that ground to a near-standstill. I also lost my bearings even more on that book and began adding more and more storylines that did nothing but bloat the already-sprawling wordcount even further.

I’ve always been a planster, and have never had a problem mentally plotting unplanned storylines which organically arise while writing a book. Several other Dream Deferred storylines weren’t part of my original outline, like the love stories of Yustina and Nestor, Bogdana and Achilles, and Milena and Vahur, and Lyudmila and Raisa’s mistake marriages and new loves with much better guys. Everything naturally came together and was wrapped up perfectly.

But with all these other storylines, either nothing ever came together (some were dropped partway through), or they were rushed along instead of allowed to naturally develop over a longer timeframe. The ones worth salvaging can easily be moved to the future fifth book, where they’ll be given the full attention they deserve.

To try to hold my cyclical depression at bay as long as possible, I spent most of lockdown checking proofs. It gave me something writing-related to do that I didn’t need such a high level of privacy for, and prevented my depression from being triggered by my terrible wordcounts. If I had my own home, this wouldn’t be an issue!

I published The Twelfth Time in hardcover, and paperback editions of Dark Forest. I also began work on the hardcover editions of Little Ragdoll and And Jakob Flew the Fiend Away. Their hardcover ISBNs hadn’t been used since I bought those blocks of five in 2014, and they were the only books I had ready in time to use a code for free title setup from IngramSpark.


Published for the very first time was the book formerly known as The Very First, which I will always think of by that title. I wrote the story which became its genesis in October 1992; I’m kind of really emotionally attached to it after all this time!

I also somehow managed to finish the final draft of the book formerly known as The Very Next. I thought it only needed some minor tweaking after the radical rewrite of 2015, but I decided to add four new chapters and flesh out a few more. At only 75K, it also suddenly felt too short and simplistic next to the 90K length of TVF.

It now stands at about 106K, not counting front and back matter, and I’m working on “The Story Behind the Story.” If everything goes well, it’ll be ready for publication by the end of February.

I continue to feel more and more politically homeless thanks to the rise of woke lunacy infesting my side of the political aisle. My personal views haven’t changed a bit, but I can’t support individuals who think freaking pronouns, cancelling Uncle Ben, and wrapping the world in trigger warnings and safe spaces have replaced things like a living wage, universal healthcare, and affordable education as key social justice issues.

My own little brother disowned me because I refused to drink his Woke Stasi Kool-Aid. That struggle session didn’t end how he thought it would! He even centered himself and rebuked me again for my “views” (i.e., that biological sex exists and is important) when he texted me a birthday greeting last month!

The sooner this toxic woke ideology goes the way of the dodo, the better!

IWSG—My seventh official NaNo was awful

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:

Are there months or times of the year that you are more productive with your writing than other months, and why?

In the past, I’d probably say autumn and winter, simply because I had more free time then, and had more opportunities to use one of the family computers when I didn’t have my own. Though it’s hard to say definitively after so many years.

This is humiliating, given what I’m capable of under normal circumstances. I was as far as 7K behind at one point, only caught up on Day 25, and took till the final day to hit the bare minimum of 50K. To make it even worse, probably about half of my wordcount came from creative non-fiction (blog posts, journal entries, and Instagram posts), not my declared project.

Last year I hit 50K on Day 14, and did 101K total. My all-time best was 130K in 2018. Thanks to all in-person write-ins being cancelled, not being in my own home and thus having complete privacy and relaxation at all times, and being unable to go to the library six days a weeks to write for a few uninterrupted hours, I severely underperformed.

My usual daily wordcounts have been in the toilet since this apparently permanent lockdown began in March. Every day I grow angrier and angrier at the people excitedly cheering on the idea of at least another full year of these beyond draconian measures precluding any semblance of normal life!

I initially declared my project as The Very Next/The Very Last, but I didn’t even finish the new chapters of TVN. A lot of what I wrote was garbage, which I knew was garbage as I was writing it. Cluttery chat, false starts, repeatedly reworked lines, unnecessary fluff, dead on arrival scene openings, clunky wording, things that felt all wrong, even a huge portion of a chapter I ultimately realized, over 8,000 words in, would work a lot better in Almost As an Afterthought (the only book in the prequel series I’ve not yet renamed).

I was so excited to finally resume the radical rewrite of TVL, esp. since I left off with chapters about the 1940 Portuguese World Exposition and the 1939–40 World’s Fair. There’s a lot of all-new material to be written before I get back to rewriting and fleshing out pre-existing chapters.

By now it’s obvious TVN will finish up probably around 105K. The radical rewrite of 2015 brought it from a hot mess of 25K to 75K, but earlier this year I realised it wasn’t quite long enough. The Very First ended up around 90K, and the sequel felt a bit too short and simplistic in comparison. My original intent in 1996–97 was to have deliberately short, vignette-length, episodic chapters. While that style still works for some of them, others greatly benefitted from lengthening. The four all-new chapters are of more substantial length.

It’s also natural for books in a coming-of-age series, or the succeeding parts of a Bildungsroman book, to gradually increase in length, depth, maturity, and sophistication. I’ve come to see that I underwrote a lot of my Atlantic City books. They’re generally much shorter than my adult books by design, but I made them too short.

If lockdown ever ends and I’m able to finally be back in a home of my own, I intend to overachieve like normal in NaNo 2021, and get back to my former daily wordcount range of 2-5K.

If you did NaNo, was it a wash or a success?

IWSG—November odds and sods

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:

Albert Camus once said, “The purpose of a writer is to keep civilization from destroying itself.” Flannery O’Conner said, “I write to discover what I know.” Authors across time and distance have had many reasons to write. Why do you write what you write?

Writing has been my calling for 36 years, as long as I’ve known how to write. It’s just something I’ve always done, the way others have a lifelong calling to medicine, art, music, or the clergy.

I’ve been writing historical since I was about eight. History was always my favoritest subject in school, and I never understood why so many of my peers found it boring and stupid. I love learning about how people lived in other eras.

I discovered my secondary genre, soft sci-fi, in fifth grade. We read a book of short sci-fi stories in English class, and I was so fascinated by these imagined future worlds, I planned a bunch of my own books set in various future years. The first story in that book was by Asimov. As much as I love Asimov, I wish I had a more original gateway story!

I strongly suspect this year’s NaNo will be a bust, or that I’ll barely squeak out 50K, instead of overachieving as I always do. Without in-person write-ins and the ability to get out of this annoying open concept house I’m still stuck in, a home which isn’t my own, my normal daily wordcounts are gone. This apparently permanent lockdown is ruining so many people’s mental health!

At least my vision has improved most marvellously with my new scleral contacts.

In happier news, all four volumes of Dark Forest and the book formerly known as The Very First are finally now available in paperback. There will be upcoming posts about TVF, which I’ll never think of by its published title. I know all four books in the prequel series desperately needed better titles, but after 20+ years, I’m emotionally attached to their original names.


E-book cover is on the left; print cover is on the right


Is it possible to live in two worlds at once?

When German-born Katharina Brandt immigrates from Amsterdam in 1938, her dearest wish is to become a real American girl. From now on, her name is Katherine Small, and she adopts the nickname Sparky to try to seem even more American. But before she can realize her dream, she’ll have to learn the ins and outs of her unusual new neighborhood and group of friends in Atlantic City.

Sparky is taken under the wing of Cinnimin Filliard, the youngest child of the man who helped her family immigrate. Cinni teaches her a thing or two about American life and their strange neighborhood. Sparky wants to believe Cinni is steering her right, but Cinni has some conflicting attitudes. Though nice and intelligent, Cinni often cops a superior attitude just because she was voted Most Popular Girl. Particularly to neighbor Violet, whom Cinni is convinced is after her title.

Sparky will do almost anything to fit in, except compromise her Judaism. She longs to be Sparky to her friends while remaining Kätchen to her family and staying true to her values. But along the way, Cinni, who tries to tempt her into wearing shorter skirts and eating non-kosher food, slowly begins realizing there’s more than one acceptable way to be a real American.

Will she ever be able to pull off being Sparky to her friends while remaining Kätchen to her family and staying true to her values? And just why was she nicknamed Sparky?

My feral friend White Shoes says hello!

Are you doing NaNo this year? Is lockdown negatively impacting your writing life?

IWSG—July odds and sods

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:

There have been many industry changes in the last decade, so what are some changes you would like to see happen in the next decade?

First and foremost, I’d love to see ISBNs becoming free or very low-cost in all countries, possibly being discontinued altogether. They may have made sense at one point, but they seem really obsolete now, and it should be illegal for Bowker to have a monopoly and charge through the roof.

Only someone who was paid by Bowker would say it’s “not bad” to charge $1,500 for a thousand ISBNs, particularly when many writers may never need nearly that many!

I’d also love to see more agents and small publishers open to self-published books. It’s the best of both worlds to have complete creative control for e-books and the first edition, yet the advantage of getting noticed by more people through traditional publishing.

Given how most of my adult books are deliberately written at saga length, I’d also like to see more agents open to taking on long books instead of dismissing and mocking them out of hand. Some genres and stories can’t be done justice in all of 350 pages!

I’d also love for writers to be able to directly submit to editors as they used to, as recently as the Nineties. Having to secure an agent to get your foot in the door makes it so much harder and longer a process.

I knew going into JuNoWriMo I wouldn’t come anywhere close to 50K, thanks to this unending lockdown and the resulting inability to go to the library to write. Seeing as I’m still not in my own home, with unlimited privacy, I’m simply unable to write at nearly the prolific level I’m used to. There’s a psychological block. Almost my entire June wordcount came from blog posts!

My main summer goal is to finish checking the proofs of Dark Forest for the paperback editions, so I’ve been succeeding at that. I only find minor typos or errors here and there, but it’s important to go over the proofs and then check all over again after submitting corrections. On that front, I’ve proofed several hundred thousand words.

Still, I started spring thinking I was finally heading into the homestretch of my WIP, and now my progress has slowed to a snail’s pace. It’ll be a miracle if I’m done by NaNo!

The theme of July, apart from my Sunday Weekend Writing Warriors posts, will be architecture and housing. It kicks off next week with rants about open concepts and tiny houses, and will also include topics like common architectural styles, how to use real estate ads for research, the post-WWII housing crisis and the resulting exodus to suburbia, and my thoughts on The Death and Life of Great American Cities.

August will be pet month, and September will be education-themed (writing about higher education in hist-fic, my own educational history, the ridiculousness that is Sudbury, my thoughts on radical acceleration and grade-skipping, and more).

If lockdown ever ends and I’m still not out of this place, I don’t know if I’ll feel comfortable going back to my local writing group. One of the members said “I never pegged you for a [misogynistic slur]” after I very vocally came out in strong support of J.K. Rowling in the face of so much disgusting abuse.

She left a laugh-react when I told her that word has been recognized as a misogynistic slur, often accompanied by threats of violence, by several courts and U.K. Parliament, along with a website documenting such abuse.

May she choke on her poisonous Woke cookies!

IWSG—Poised upon a precipice

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.

I’m so embarrassed to have such pitiful wordcounts from April Camp NaNo. This isn’t anywhere close to an accurate representation of what I’m capable of! I routinely do 100K or more in a month, and I barely made 20K. All thanks to having almost zero privacy due to lockdown and being unable to go to the library anymore.

There’s a psychological block against writing in the living situation I’ve been indefinitely stuck in since June 2017, and am now trapped in for even longer. I’m desperate to get out of this stupid suburban housing development and annoying open concept house!

I want to live in a real city again, in an older property with these old-fashioned things called walls and doors, with enough room to stretch out, have privacy, and relax in peace and quiet, without super-magnified noises constantly floating in from a so-called room ten feet away.

I’m afraid these poor wordcounts and indefinite lockdown will trigger my cyclical depression and send me back to how I was three years ago, when I had no motivation to do much of anything, practically lived in my bed, and had an inverted sleep cycle. How can anyone write to the full extent of one’s ability and desire if one’s mental health is in the toilet?

The people cheering on the idea of a full YEAR of lockdown must live in spacious houses, in cities they want to live in, and have lots of money in the bank and be free of depression and mental health issues. They’re not considering what this is doing to people with far less privilege.

I bet they also think it’s appropriate to strap 12-year-olds into booster seats, but I digress.

This is similar to how I felt during NaNo 2017, which I had to do as a rebel for any hope of achieving 50K. Writing my 12-part series “The Jazz Singer at 90″ that month gave me back my long-lost writing mojo and restored my confidence and passion. I desperately need something, anything, like that again.

On top of all that, it finally dawned on me that one of the driving storylines of Parts III and IV of my WIP failed to come together well because it was never right to begin with. I was so excited about the Konevs moving back to NYC, but I kept going back and forth re: which schools everyone should attend and where they should live.

I wasted almost a year on a storyline that only created unnecessary sprawl. And this is coming from someone who deliberately writes at saga length and will be publishing this book in four volumes!

It’s just like when I hit upon the idea, in the first book, of Lyuba (then called Amy) not just falling in love with Ivan, but loving him all along, and having a short-lived clandestine romance with him which ended just before the book began. It felt so right, whereas my original plans led nowhere compelling.

The Konevs belong in Minnesota. They may have discovered they moved to farm country for all the wrong reasons, and made their adult children feel compelled to make their lives there too, but that doesn’t mean abandoning their adoptive home state altogether.

I’ll be walking through my reasons for overhauling this storyline in more detail in a future post.

I’m killing this storyline at its roots. Penultimate child Sonyechka will now get a bug in her ear about staying in St. Paul and her parents attending grad school at the state university. This brings with it a new circle of artistic and intellectual friends who immigrated from Europe after WWII, equal to anyone they may have met in NYC.

A number of chapters will need reshuffled when editing finally begins. I’m now writing out of order and not looking forward to the headache of rearranging them!

How’s your mental health holding up in lockdown? Have you ever belatedly realized a storyline wasn’t working, no matter how much you revised it?