IWSG—Regaining passion

InsecureWritersSupportGroup
The Insecure Writer’s Support Group virtually meets the first Wednesday of each month, and gives participants a chance to share struggles, triumphs, quandaries, and fears. This month’s question is:

If you could use a wish to help you write just ONE scene/chapter of your book, which one would it be?

That’s an easy answer in light of what happened in August 2017. I’d wish for help in recreating the lost 2,000–5,000 words of The Strongest Branches of Uprooted Trees, which weren’t in the near-complete backup I thankfully had.

This section comes near the long mostly-flashback Part II, where Eszter and her boyfriend Jakób are interrogated in SS headquarters in Zakopane, Poland. They refuse to confess their true identity or betray anyone in the Hungarian underground, and are sent to Majdanek.

I’m still 100% committed to finishing A Dream Deferred, esp. after how many times I put it on hiatus since starting it in November 2015, but now I have such a regained passion for Branches. I’ve fallen in love with the story all over again, and am so eager to get back to it.

I fully accept blame for losing that file. I went into panic mode when I kept getting the error message about the computer being unable to save the file (for just one little correction of a typo!), and assumed it’d still be there after restarting. I should’ve duplicated it and saved that new file, or put it on my flash drive.

I learnt yet another hard, painful lesson: Always have separate chapter files before C&Ping everything into a master file. Don’t make exceptions for books you’re fleshing out from novella-length stories vs. creating from scratch. C&P the pertinent sections into each chapter file and work from there.

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I suspect part of the reason I neglected to back up that file every day was because of my depression and other mental health issues in the first half of 2017. I had almost no motivation to do anything, rarely left my bed or put on day clothes, didn’t do laundry for months, had an inverted sleep cycle, and ballooned up to almost 220 pounds on a frame just under 5’2. Even my now-19-year-old spider plant Kalanit was dying.

I’m in a much better mental state now. My weight is back in the 150s for the first time in probably 5+ years, and Kalanit is the healthiest and most vibrant she’s been in years.

On another very pleasant note, recent genealogical research has revealed some amazing surprises. In a future post, I’ll introduce you to my illustrious ancestors, who ranks include knights (one of whom is now a saint); a Comptroller of the Household of Queen Elizabeth I; the judge who presided over the trial of Mary, Queen of Scots; and Oliver Cromwell’s uncle. I’m also distantly related to two U.S. presidents.

Have you learnt any painful lessons about saving your work? Are you doing Camp NaNo? Has your writing ever suffered due to depression and mental health struggles?

IWSG—February odds and sods

InsecureWritersSupportGroup
The Insecure Writer’s Support Group virtually meets the first Wednesday of each month, and gives participants a chance to share struggles, triumphs, quandaries, and fears. This month’s question is:

Besides writing, what other creative outlets do you have?

I’d never pretend to be professional-level, but I enjoy drawing with colored pencils, watercolor pencils, and pastels—Derwent’s Coloursoft, Artbars, and Inktense; Caran d’Ache Pablos and Neocolor II; Faber-Castell Polychromos; Koh-I-Noor woodless coloured pencils; Crayola’s Portfolio oil pastels; about a dozen Prismacolors; and Sennelier oil pastels. The lattermost were created for Picasso in 1949. When I have the money, I want to buy the complete set of Sennelier soft pastels, which were created for Degas.

My passion is for abstract and geometric art.

I also do cross-stitch and embroidery.

My mother started this for her parents after my uncle died in 1988, but put it away for years. (She made a few mistakes!) I finished it while recovering from my last leg surgery in 2006, and my grandparents were thrilled with it. They framed it and hung it on the wall of their condo. My grandma, now my only living grandparent, brought it with her when she moved to a retirement home.

I made a few mistakes of my own on this (Buddha should’ve been taller, and some objects should’ve been in slightly different spots), but no one would tell unless I explained my miscalculations.

Since I won a free title setup on IngramSpark for winning NaNo, I decided to make a hardcover for my first Russian historical. (I’ve long since had a block of five ISBNs for it from Canada’s IndieBookLauncher; this service is sadly no longer offered.) I went through it to make sure it’s as perfect as can be for this the fifth edition, and mostly made tiny tweaks and corrected a few typos that were created during the edits for the fourth edition.

At one point, I began to seriously wish I’d rewritten the first six chapters much more radically during my endless edits, revisions, and rewrites in 2011–14. I junked or radically rewrote 99% of the original 1993 material, but it still didn’t seem like I did enough.

Eventually, I stepped back and realized it’s better to bring my improved writing skills and lessons learnt into current and future books, not waste time frogging part of an already-published book and rewriting those chapters almost entirely from the ground up.

I’m very proud of how I wrote the first draft from ages 13–21, and how it reflects my writing voice, style, and abilities evolving through the years. The scant remainder of the original material is also a poignant reminder of my 128K Mac, on which I began it so many years ago.

Had I begun this book as an adult, I would’ve started it closer to the October Revolution, perhaps even in 1918, not soon after the February Revolution. I also probably would’ve set it in Petrograd, not Moskva. But it is what it is, and it wouldn’t be the same story if I suddenly changed things that are so integral to the overall story.

I’ve finally got Word on my newer computer, but decided to go back to Pages for my WIP. I might try again later, but I’ve grown so used to setting up Pages documents. When I C&Ped the one Word chapter back into the master Pages file, there were a bunch of formatting specs that needed fixed. I’ll use Word for new documents, but will keep Pages as my primary word processor.

My older computer uses Word 2003, so I’m quite out of step with the newest version!

Have you ever had late-coming doubts about a story? Would you be more forgiving of shortcomings in a book if you knew the author had written it at a very young age? Have you had difficulties adjusting to different word processors?

How to plausibly weave major events into hist-fic

As I’ve written about before, many historical writers are, or have been, guilty of the everything but the kitchen sink syndrome. They work from a checklist, packing in every single historical event, trend, movie, song, social movement, fashion, news story, cultural shift, etc., from that era, as though it’s so believable for everyone in one family or group of friends to take part in them or be impacted by them.

Related to this is forcing instead of naturally weaving in major events that wouldn’t have touched your characters’ lives directly, esp. if there’s no logical reason for them to be in the places where said events began or transpired.

Take Herman Wouk’s The Winds of War (which I plan to do a full review for this year) and War and Remembrance. It’s obvious he really wanted to feature a Shoah storyline, but his leading family, the Henrys, are a very WASPy Naval family. So he puts middle child Byron in Italy in 1939, assisting an older Jewish professor with his non-fiction historical books, and has him fall in love with the professor’s niece Natalie.

Natalie’s boyfriend works for the U.S. Embassy in Warsaw, and Byron accompanies her when she goes to Poland to visit said boyfriend and attend a family wedding in August 1939. Pretty obvious where this is going! Throughout both books, there are so many times Natalie could’ve easily gotten out of harm’s way (and she does safely get back to America at one point), but since Mr. Wouk wanted so badly to feature a Shoah storyline, she keeps making really stupid decisions keeping her in occupied Europe.

More than a negligible amount of American and British citizens were trapped in occupied Europe and ended up in the camps. To this day, they haven’t gotten much of any compensation or even acknowledgment. I included such a storyline in Journey Through a Dark Forest, and would love to see more fictional treatments of this shameful, little-known aspect of WWII.

But the way Mr. Wouk handles it seems so forced and contrived. It would’ve felt more natural had he featured two families whose stories eventually link up, not shoehorned a Jewish love interest and her uncle into the lives of such a WASPy family who otherwise would’ve had no reason to cross paths with them.

If your story or series doesn’t already have characters in a city, country, or area you want to feature (e.g., 1960s San Francisco, 1940s Paris), take them there for a plausible reason. E.g., X moves there for school a few years earlier, instead of conveniently moving there just as things start happening.

I’ve known since 2001 I wanted a future book in my Ballad of Lyuba and Ivan saga to feature 1960s Swinging London, but couldn’t figure out how to do that naturally. Now I know the seventh book, opening in 1966, will feature Lyuba and Ivan’s granddaughter Shura studying abroad there and falling in love with someone who turns out to have a double connection to their family.

Also in that book, I want Lyuba and Ivan to be in Israel when the Six-Day War breaks out. This was influenced by my great-grandparents’ planned tour of Israel in 1967 being rerouted to Turkey due to the outbreak of war.

No matter what the event or setting, it has to feel natural instead of gimmicky. Thoughtful readers can spot an obvious, implausible setup a mile away. There are plenty of solid reasons why your characters might, e.g., be in Paris in 1940 or have their lives intersect with a European Jewish family. Don’t insult readers’ intelligence by shoehorning it in just so you can include everything but the kitchen sink.

How to write a book in the style of Beatrice Sparks

It’s been too long since I wrote a post ripping the late fraud “Dr.” Beatrice Sparks a new one. So, let’s do that!

Ordinarily, I wouldn’t care if someone wrote books I didn’t click with. One person’s lousy writing is another’s treasure. But in the case of “Dr.” Sparks, this isn’t just about bad writing or books that aren’t my style at all. Since more than a few people, esp. in her target audience, believe these are true stories, she was dangerous and unethical in addition to a fraud.

Some of her books are marginally better than others. They’re not all pure horse dung. But with the obvious exception of the 25 real entries from Alden Barrett in Jay’s Journal, they all read like the work of an over the hill, extremely conservative and religious person pretending to be a teen.

We now know Sparks lied about her training, education, credentials, experience, etc. People who know what’s what also understand she was the true authors of all those books, and what she did to the poor Barrett family.

I have NO problem with either a real-life or fictional teen being religious, frequently praying, having a close-knit relationship with her or his mother, trying to live a G-rated life, being conservative, etc.

What I DO have an issue with is how Sparks injected this into each and every one of her books, making her characters clones of herself. The way her characters express these things is so unrealistic, ridiculous, over the top, identical.

How to write in the style of “Dr.” Sparks:

1. Always give the time of day at the start of each entry, and every time you return to an entry later in the day.

2. Everyone loves RANDOM CAPS! In fact, readers have even more love for ENTIRE SENTENCES IN ALL CAPS, or, better, yet, COMPLETE PARAGRAPHS IN ALL CAPS!

3. We all love random italics too!

4. The best of both worlds is RANDOM CAPS IN ITALICS!

5. Who doesn’t love excessive exclamation points!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

6. PUT THEM ALL TOGETHER REGULARLY FOR EVEN BETTER, MORE INTENSE WRITING!!!!!!!!!!

7. Repeat words thrice for emphasis; e.g., “We’ve heard he’s loud loud loud” and “My mom is soooo very wonderful. I love love love her.”

8. Randomly use advanced, fancy-sounding words while pretending you have no idea where you heard them. Even better if you use distinctively Mormon concepts and terminology while feigning ignorance about their meanings.

9. At the same time, talk like a preschool kid, with beyond-babyish language. Who wouldn’t believe a 15-year-old ex-gangbanger would say “Goobly-goop-poop”?!

10. Make up baby words and sprinkle in lots of connected nonsense syllables even a doo-wop song would reject, like kit-kit-kit-kat-kat-doodle.

11. Oversimplify complex issues, and solve them in record time.

12. Use the stock line, “Ooh, I’m sooo glad my dear, sweet, precious Mom is MY dear, sweet, precious Mom!”

13. Engage in hardcore, fetishistic maternal worship, where all things Mommykins and mothers are pure, holy, angelic, never negative.

14. Make sure your character comes from a broken home, and depict divorced families as the worst moral crisis ever, bound to lead to all manner of social ills and sins.

15. Trawl through psychology textbooks and after school specials for “serious” lines to sprinkle in, like a mean girl quickly admitting she only acts like an aloof snob who doesn’t want friends because she’s insecure and afraid of rejection.

16. Pack in as many problems as possible, no matter how disconnected.

17. Make your characters mentally much younger; e.g., a 14-year-old who sounds like a 3-year-old.

18. Your characters are never drawn into drug use, premarital sex, pregnancy, gangs, cults, etc., through their own actions. It’s always the fault of bad friends tricking, abusing, exploiting them.

19. Everything is always Magickally alright again after your narrator tearfully confides in Mommykins, who’s amazingly loving, forgiving, accepting, an angel on Earth.

20. Use lines no teen ever would utter, like, “Wowee! Now I know what hormones are!”

21. Immediately apologize for cursing; thinking negative, unappreciative thoughts; or saying less than worshipful things about parents. E.g., “Ew, Mom! You are such a gross bitch!” (Five minutes later.) “ZOMG! How dare I curse at my dear, sweet, precious Mommykins in the pages of my own journal! I’m worse than Hitler! I might as well kill myself now!”

22. Jump into relationships at lightning-speed, and act like you’ve already got a serious, eternal pair-bond with a total stranger.

Beatrice Sparks, I hate you. May you continue to be exposed as the vile fraud you were. Teens learn best by honest examples delivered respectfully, not by being lied to, preached at, scared, and emotionally manipulated.

Lessons learnt from post-publication polishing, Part IV

I didn’t expect to write a Part IV to this series over a year and a half later, but the topic just seemed right to continue.

I had to go through the four manuscripts I’m prepping for print editions, and it was a powerful reminder of how far I’ve come in my development as a writer, even in the last 5–10 years. We should all always endeavour to become better at our craft. If we’re still writing exactly the way we did at earlier stages, and see nothing wrong with that bygone style, something’s very wrong.

As I mentioned in the earlier installments of this series, I definitely would’ve written Little Ragdoll much differently were I only going back from scratch and memory now. It’s much more telly or omniscient, in a number of spots, than my writing has evolved into since.

But I really do feel it ultimately works with the type of story it is, esp. since one of its strongest inspirations is the 19th and early 20th century Five Little Peppers series. It also reads like a 1960s version of A Tree Grows in Brooklyn (which I hadn’t yet read when I wrote this book). Hardly books with a modern narrative style.

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At the time I turned my long short story/piece of backstory about Jakob DeJonghe and Rachel Roggenfelder into two full-length novels, I fully intended to query them. I deliberately wrote the first volume as YA, albeit mature upper YA. Hence, the fade to black in the wedding night scene (though they remain technical virgins to avoid creating a potential half-orphan).

Were I writing that book as adult lit that just happens to feature someone who ages from 14–20, I would’ve made it much longer, by at least 50K. I would’ve added a lot more chapters, or made the existing ones much longer and more detailed.

I’d also expand certain wraparound narrative segments into active scenes, just as I would’ve done with many of those kinds of passages in LR. While the estimated 125K is on the short side by my standards, it’s towards the upper limit of traditionally published YA in the modern era. That was as short and sweet as I could make it.

Likewise, the sequel also could’ve been much longer than only 104K. I could’ve easily planned for many more chapters, or made the existing chapters longer. But the focus is on a single young couple and their first true year as husband and wife, not a bunch of competing subplots with my Atlantic City characters.

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Things I never thought I’d admit: My ingrained habit of putting two spaces after a period (except for blog posts), when combined with justified text and Baskerville typeface, can create a number of unsightly, disproportionate gaps. I’ll continue typing the way I was taught, but when it comes time to format a manuscript for print, I’ll do a find/change.

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I don’t regret at all the post-publication polishing and light revising I did of LR early last year. That book truly needed it, and became stronger as a result. But there are many things about the inherent voice and style I can’t change so much time after writing it, without the entire structure collapsing.

Indie authors can do whatever they want with their own work, but there needs to come a time when one steps back and recognises a book is the strongest, most perfect it’ll ever get. What’s more important, going back again and again to revise or rewrite already-published books, or spending that time on writing new books where you no longer make those mistakes?

I learnt from my mistakes, and recognise them when I see them in older books. It doesn’t mean those previous books are inferior or poorly-written because they have, e.g., a lot of adverbs or some telly spots. It just means I wrote them at an earlier stage of my life.