IWSG—A new lease on my writing life

InsecureWritersSupportGroup

The Insecure Writer’s Support Group convenes the first Wednesday of every month, and lets participants share their worries, insecurities, triumphs, hopes, and fears. This month’s question is:

As you look back on 2017, with all its successes/failures, if you could backtrack, what would you do differently?

I can’t change the fact that my depression and other mental health issues created much lower than usual wordcounts for much of the year. I do wish I’d backed up the most current version of The Strongest Branches of Uprooted Trees before the shocking disaster of August. At least I “only” lost maybe 2,000–5,000 words and a week or so of research, not the entire document.

I didn’t think I’d get anywhere close to 50K this NaNo, given how dismal my wordcounts have been for much of the past year. I felt the only way I might get there was by being a rebel working on several different projects.

This represents blog posts, my last day of work on my IWSG anthology story, my 29 November journal entry on George Harrison’s 16th Jahrzeit (death anniversary), the list of 2018 blog post topics I put together, and a WIP.

Because I gave myself permission to fail, and decided to have fun doing whatever I wanted, I won with my quickest speed ever. My final wordcount of just under 81K still isn’t the best I know I’m capable of, but given my wordcounts during most of the past year, I’ll happily take it.

Writing and researching my blog series on The Jazz Singer at 90 gave me back my writing mojo. The infectious charisma and personality of Al Jolson, which was responsible for making the film such a wild success, worked that same magic on me. So thank you, Jolie!

I only started my IWSG anthology story on 29 October, and almost gave up on the second day. I’m glad I found the willpower to push through, even if I don’t win. I really enjoyed researching projected far-future developments, and finding sci-fi-sounding names.

I titled it “Birkat HaChamah,” after the Jewish blessing of the Sun which takes place every 28 years. It’s happened twice in my lifetime so far, 1981 and 2009. I’ll have a future post re: how to write about this rare ritual.

47K came from Anne Terrick: A Bildungsroman, which starts in September 1840 and is told in diary format. I thought I’d shelved Anne forever in 1992, but she was meant to be if I never forgot her all these years. She was created (as Ann-Ann) when I was all of 5-6 years old.

Going back to the 19th century after so many years is like learning how to write historical all over again. It’s also strange to write in first-person again, but the diary format of yore just seemed right. This story wouldn’t work in third-person.

I came up with so many great ideas for characters and storylines from the previous final form of Anne’s story (which is in storage 900 miles away). I also moved her from Plymouth to Boston. Now, only her double-cousins and grandparents live in Plymouth.

I’m delighted with unplanned secondary character Pastor Winterbottom, her minister and catechism teacher at her hated boarding school. He’s not a sympathetic character, but he’s such great dark comedy, and keeps getting better.

The local writing group was neither as active nor interactive as my writing group back home (which I’m still officially registered with). I’m used to much more chatter at write-ins, several write-ins a week at fixed locations, and weekly write-ins the entire year, not just in November.

For my 29 November journal entry, I counted my handwritten words (499) and entered them into a lorum ipsem generator. Also in honor of George’s Jahrzeit, I made a desktop picture with his last words (right) and one of my favorite lyrics (left).

392279 01: (FILE PHOTO) Beatles guitarist and singer George Harrison performs December 3, 1963 during a concert. It was reported November 8, 2001 that Harrison is undergoing cancer treatment in a Staten Island, N.Y., hospital. The 58-year-old ex-Beatle was diagnosed with lung cancer and a brain tumor earlier this year. (Photo by Getty Images)

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IWSG—Hopeful for improved wordcounts

In memory of my old friend Fiona, who would’ve turned 37 today. In her memory, I gave the name Fiona to my character Baby Ryan when she and her siblings take legal names, and also used her surname for another family in my contemporary historical family saga about the Troys and Ryans.

InsecureWritersSupportGroup

The Insecure Writer’s Support Group convenes the first Wednesday of every month, and lets participants share their worries, insecurities, triumphs, hopes, and fears. This month, I finally remembered to include the monthly question!

What are your pet peeves when reading/writing/editing?

I’ve been annoyed by so many things while revisiting books I loved when I was younger! I know standards were different in the past, and that I’m not the best one to talk given my rather old-fashioned style, but even I cringe at things like:

A lack of contractions
Infodumpy, “As you know, Bob” dialogue, esp. when it’s used to convey important backstory and/or historical details
Purple prose
Way too many adverbs (like, 5-10 per page), esp. when paired with non-standard speaking verbs (screamed explosively, snapped quizzically, nodded methodically, whispered knowingly)
Lack of front or back matter with stuff like a family tree, list of characters, pronunciation guide (for foreign names and words), and glossary
Overuse of “that”
Introducing way too many characters way too quickly, esp. if they’re not important
First-person where third-person would’ve made the story much stronger

My July wordcount was embarrassingly low by my standards yet again. Due to all the extenuating circumstances I’ve discussed, I had to set my July Camp NaNo goal at only 10K. It took almost the entire month to finally break even. I’m not proud of how low my final total was, but I did have a very strong finish.

Unlike JuNoWriMo, this only counted words from my WIP, not together with blog posts. I also included words from my glossary (mostly various types of foreign cuisine), table of contents, and cast of characters.

That, my final wordcount for the last day, is what I’m typically capable of. I normally write several thousand words a day, sometimes 5,000 or more. While I respect that some writers have a slower pace, or might only want to work on a paragraph a day, that’s not my style at all. I naturally write very prolifically, and when my wordcounts are only a few hundred words a day (if that), it’s a sign something’s very, very wrong.

I came up with some great ideas for more subplots, chapter sections, and secondary characters for this book. These subplots include Sonyechka’s experience in fifth grade, and Tamara’s in second, based on my own. I’m planning a future blog post on how closely you should base characters and storylines on real life.

I’m really excited about the final quarter (or so) of Part I. Since I write so long, I like to let things build for a really long time before things start coming to a dramatic head. I’m also really pleased with all the unplanned secondary characters and subplots I came up with, though I’m still dissatisfied with how I’ve been executing one of those subplots.

Have you ever worked on a book where you weren’t consistently strong with motivation, creativity, and/or wordcount? Does it sometimes take until a certain amount of time into a period of working on a book (if you’re doing it in separated stages) for the writing to take off?

P.S.: To mark next week’s special holiday, I’ll be fêting Rio on its 35th anniversary. I’ve really been looking forward to writing those posts, and hope my readers enjoy them just as much!

IWSG—Poor wordcounts continue

InsecureWritersSupportGroup

The Insecure Writer’s Support Group convenes the first Wednesday of every month, and lets participants share their worries, insecurities, triumphs, hopes, and fears.

I decided to take part in JuNoWriMo again after all, knowing I’d mostly be doing creative non-fiction in the form of blog posts. For most of the month, I doubted I’d crack 10K, and then I decided I’d consider it a win if I got 15K.

My total was embarrassingly low by my standards, though I didn’t have a desk for almost the entire month, coupled with stress, moving (NOT to my desired location!), and having very little privacy.

I set my July Camp NaNo goal even lower, a mere 10K. Not only are those other factors continuing, but some me-me-me jerk ruined my car on July first when I was on my way to synagogue. (Unfortunately, I’m trapped in a housing development in suburbia, and thus no longer have the option of walking to shul.)

This jerk zoomed right into my lane and tore the entire front bumper clear off. It’s a miracle no one ran into it after it flew into the road. He claimed he thought there was plenty of space to get in front of me, though he was right next to my car and squeezing me out of my lane!

I can’t believe my ten-and-a-half-year-old car survived a journey of over 900 miles from NY to SC, only for some negligent driver to get me into an accident a month later.

I went to a used bookstore recently, and finally found a much more updated translation of The Divine Comedy and La Vita Nuova. The hardcover in the back (which was cheaper) is an older version, but I loved that it has the classic Gustave Doré woodcuts.

My first and foremost literary idol and inspiration will always be my favorite writer, Aleksandr Isayevich Solzhenitsyn, but Dante is a very close second place. His intense otherworldly journey, a reflection of how he’d lost the way in his own life, is a constant reminder to me that no matter how far we fall, how badly we’re lost, there’s always hope of finding our way out of that dark forest and towards “the Love that moves the Sun and the other stars.”

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I’m trying to work on my fourth Russian historical, A Dream Deferred: Lyuba and Ivan at University, for my July Camp project. I wish I’d begun it right when the passion struck and I wrote out my rough draft of chapter-by-chapter notes in the summer of 2015, instead of saving it for that year’s NaNo, but it is what it is.

Hopefully, the first draft will finally be finished within two more years. I did spend eight and a half years on my first Russian historical, over three major working periods, and then took about three and a half more editing, revising, and polishing it a decade later. I’ll be doing some more light revisions on it in the near future, to go along with an updated cover.

How has your summer been treating you in regards to writing or life?

IWSG—Lagging productivity

InsecureWritersSupportGroup

The Insecure Writer’s Support Group convenes the first Wednesday of the month. Participants share their worries, insecurities, triumphs, hopes, and fears. I forgot to post last month, due to A to Z taking precedence, and travelling to NYC for my rabbi’s oldest daughter’s wedding.

This month, the IWSG question is:

What is the weirdest/coolest thing you ever had to research for your story?

I absolutely love research! Special favourites include vintage clothes, advertisements, childbirth, food, and slang. I also love looking at street maps to see where everything is in my settings. Other topics include what it’s like to be an amputee, Orthodox Christianity, and 1940s prosthetics.

After realising all my Russian male characters would’ve been uncircumcised, I did secondhand research on what it feels like to have intercourse with a guy like that. I wanted that level of authenticity in my sex scenes.

I technically won Camp NaNo, but this is NOT my best work. My productivity levels are normally so much higher. I had to lower my goal from 50K to 35K to 20K, and only broke even on Day 23. There were a few days early on when I didn’t write at all, though I still took screenshots of each day’s final progress when I did write. I like having that record.

Mitigating factors included the eight days of Pesach, my flagging mental health, my wrecked sleep cycles, and starting to make plans to move home to Pittsburgh against my parents’ insistence I join them in South Carolina for a few months. I’ve been stuck in this unhealthy holding pattern for far too long, and even my 17-year-old spider plant Kalanit is suffering.

I’m really unhappy with an unplanned subplot regarding Katya and Dmitriy’s new friends Dagmara (Marusya) and her husband Sima (Zosim). It started out so well, but developed far too quickly, and feels detached, like it’s just dumped in there instead of naturally-connected. It also feels very deus ex machina, in spite of its great potential.

When I read back over my first Russian historical in 2011, nine years after I’d last had access to it, I was so impressed at how expertly I’d woven all these storylines together and then finally linked them all up. The stories of the orphanage girls (esp. the Lebedeva sisters and Inessa) and Lena Yeltsina’s family are an integral part of the overall story, not just thrown in there every few chapters without any lead-in or foreshadowing.

However, I’m a lot happier with one of my other unplanned secondary characters, former Marine Captain Nestor Sevastyanovich Ugolnikov. I originally planned to give him to Bogdana Sheltsova, but then I realised he’s a much better match with Yustina Yeltsina-Baronova. But first, he has to overcome his belief that no woman would want a guy who’s missing a leg.

(FYI: You NEVER call someone “an ex-Marine”! It’s always “former Marine.” Semper fi means something!)

I also finally have a new cover for Little Ragdoll. My artist kept it based on the original reference photo. There was an odd technical issue, where Amazon wouldn’t accept the cover’s size, and the enlarged files she sent me kept being read as too small and the same size as before. I finally had to go onto my older computer to resize it myself in Gimp.

IWSG—Resisting the cookie-cutter culture

InsecureWritersSupportGroup

The Insecure Writer’s Support Group convenes the first Wednesday of the month. Participants share their worries, insecurities, triumphs, hopes, and fears.

This month, the IWSG question is:

How has being a writer changed your experience as a reader?

I definitely want to break out the red pen so many times! I understand even the best-edited books sometimes have embarrassing typos or errors that somehow fell through the cracks, but some books have a LOT of grammar, punctuation, and language that needs cleaning up.

I also want to bang my head against the wall when I catch things like “As you know, Bob” dialogue, too many unnecessary adverbs (esp. coupled with non-standard speaking verbs), infodumps, rushed-along action, huge time gaps between chapters, lack of front and back matter that would really enhance an understanding of the story (e.g., list of characters, family tree, pronunciation guide), and making a big deal out of introducing a bunch of characters who never appear again after the first 20 pages.

One of my favorite YouTuber writers, Maya Goode, recently discussed this in a vlog. I highly recommend her channel!

I had a very surprising encounter with an older friend recently. We were discussing how I’m having a book cover revamped and will be having physical copies soon, and she was very interested in buying the book. But as soon as she asked how long it is and I gave her the guesstimated page length (700ish), her tune changed drastically.

Instantly, she began insisting she wouldn’t and couldn’t read it, and was almost hostile and yelling while telling me books “shouldn’t” be that long. She’s only read a handful of long books (Anna Karenina and Roots, and maybe some of the Harry Potter franchise). I kept trying to explain:

That’s the length I naturally write at.

There are lots of people who enjoy long books more than short ones.

All the great long books there are.

My short books (under 100K) are actually the ones that need the most editing, since I didn’t plot, plan, and write them as carefully as the ones I deliberately planned at saga-length.

I do have some shorter books, but that’s the length that works and naturally unfolds for them.

I’m not cutting out hundreds of pages for no other reason than making a book shorter to please other people’s tastes.

I don’t write for people with short attention spans! Why should I contribute to the perpetuation of a culture that refuses to write anything by hand or think outside of 140-character Tweets?

Long, saga-length books are kind of the traditional standard for historicals, particularly considering they often take place over many years and have large ensemble casts. Look at Leon Uris, Herman Wouk, James Michener.

I don’t force myself to write at a certain length.

Many people have said they’d love to see more longer books, and can’t understand why so many modern-day agents refuse to look at anything above a certain length, sight unseen. If these agents don’t read any of it, how will they know if the length is merited or a result of genuine overwriting?

People who love reading make the time to read long books. No one says you have to spend your entire day reading!

One of the reasons I went indie was because of these modern-day wordcount policies in traditional publishing.

I’m not going to rush along a story just to keep it short. That length actually IS the core story, carefully planned and plotted at that length. With many short books, there’s no room for detailed character development and worldbuilding.

Long books weren’t considered automatically overwritten and “too long” as recently as 20–30 years ago. That was more the norm in certain genres.

Many of us prefer to climb into a long book we can live in for a few weeks, as opposed to something so short we can breeze through it in a few hours.

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I understand genre fiction tends to be shorter (e.g., police procedural, YA contemporary, romance, thriller, horror). I’d wonder about a genre book that’s over 400 pages. However, I write historical sagas, which come from a very long tradition of being at least 400 pages, if not 700 or more. My Atlantic City books are only so short because they typically take place over much shorter timespans. Were I to combine the ones that lead right into one another, they’d be much longer!

I also know many people nowadays have much shorter attention spans than they did 50+ years ago. But I don’t consider that a good thing. Times change, but good stories remain the same.