An ahistorical slap in the face

Many people feel it’s sacrilegious to criticise any book or film about the Shoah, as though it’s an untouchable sacred cow. But as I’ve explained before, accuracy, quality research, and vetting sources in this subgenre of historical fiction are extremely crucial to prevent adding fuel to deniers’ fire.

While I can concede Roberto Benigni’s heart seems to have been in the right place when he made the highly inaccurate Life Is Beautiful, I can’t say the same thing about John Boyne’s dreadful The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas. That’s not a book or film I’d recommend to anyone who cares about historical accuracy.

I’m not some pedant who insists every single minute detail be a million percent accurate. Most people who live in the real world expect even the best-researched story to have some elements which weren’t necessarily so common or accurate. It can create greater dramatic intensity, or a protagonist who’s a bit more relatable.

However, a good story gives us a reason to go along with them, as well as making clear this wasn’t typical. E.g., a woman in 1800 who wants to become a doctor, or an entire family surviving the Shoah. The writer may also include an explanatory note.

Why this story fails most spectacularly:

1. How in the hell does a kid who was born in 1934, the son of a high-ranking Nazi no less, not know who Hitler is?! Sure, I don’t expect any 9-year-old, no matter how advanced, to understand political complexities or have mature political opinions, but it’s not possible he wouldn’t know the name and face of his country’s dictator!

Though I was born during the Carter Administration, the first president I remember is Reagan. I certainly knew his name and face very well as a child, though I don’t think I knew anything about his politics. I still remember how shocked I was to find out just how old he really was, and that he dyed his hair!

2. You can’t claim a story is “just a fable” and not meant to be taken seriously when it involves one of the most well-documented historical events of the 20th century! It’s really offensive and tasteless, like a certain 1997 movie using one of history’s worst maritime disasters as a minor backdrop for a beyond-implausible MTV-era “love story.”

3. Very, very, VERY few children were allowed to live at Auschwitz. They were overwhelmingly “Dr.” Mengele’s test subjects and in the Czech and Gypsy Family Camps. Once in a very rare while, a child was picked for something like a messenger boy or girl, admitted to the camp due to a rare gas malfunction, or arrived after gassing operations stopped. Shmuel fits in none of those categories.

4. Just like the clownish Guido in Life Is Beautiful, Bruno too is allowed to wander around the camp at ease. More than that, he’s able to regularly meet Shmuel by the same unguarded spot at the fence, with a freaking hole underneath it.

5. The fences were electrified, so powerful they vibrated and made noises. You couldn’t touch or crawl under one and live!

6. Is Bruno supposed to be mentally slow? Even after he’s been corrected numerous times and seen Auschwitz written out, he keeps calling it “Out-With.”

7. Speaking of, the “puns” don’t work in German. Bruno also calls Hitler “the Fury,” as a play on Führer, but Furie is only one of a number of German translations. The others are Zorn, Wut, Rage, Raserel, and Grimm. As for “Out-With” (gag), that would be Aus Mit.

8. Kids of 9 and 12 written like overgrown babies! If you’re going to write from a child’s POV, be familiar with how real kids talk and act!

9. How has Bruno never heard of Jews until 1942? Any child born in 1934 would’ve been drenched in state-sponsored anti-Semitism and racial theories. Maybe he didn’t meet any (which is still pretty far-fetched), but he certainly would’ve heard about them!

10. “Heil Hitler” is a fancy way of saying hello?! Are we supposed to believe this kid is either mentally slow or were locked in a closet until 1942?

11. Garbage like this only serves to bolster Shoah deniers’ claims! They point to BS like this and Irene Zisblatt’s The Fifth Diamond to claim it wasn’t that bad, or that if one person made something up, everyone’s a liar.

12. A beyond-implausible, ridiculous ending that would NEVER have happened in real life, or even fiction with realistic dramatic license!

13. Bruno doesn’t know the word “Fatherland”? What, again? Really?!

14. If Bruno were as mentally slow as he’s depicted, he would’ve been murdered years before, under Nazi eugenics policies.

15. He also doesn’t know what an air-raid is?! In the middle of a war with plenty of them?

16. It’s emotionally manipulative pathos for those without much grounding in Shoah history.

17. He doesn’t know what an Aryan is either?!

18. How is Bruno’s older sister Gretel not in the League of German Girls? The daughter of a high-ranking Nazi certainly would’ve been.

19. Why aren’t Germans using the metric system?

20. Bruno lives in the camp for a year and still doesn’t understand what’s really going on?

This story is absolute garbage. Writers of historical fiction set during the Shoah have a huge moral obligation to represent it accurately, not as a warm, fuzzy fairytale. Mr. Boyne’s lack of proper research and complete disconnect from the Shoah shows in spades. It’s best-seller bait for the masses, not deep, intelligent, honest writing for the ages.

Lessons learnt from post-publication polishing, Part III

There’s nothing better than good old-fashioned time in a writer’s journey. We become better writers with the passage of time, and learn what our weaknesses are and how to edit our work. Excellent, experienced critique partners and the most esteemed editor in the world telling us such-and-such is awkward phrasing, an overused word, cluttery chat, overwrought prose, or infodumpy dialogue won’t mean anything if it doesn’t click in our brains. We have to see it for ourselves, not merely be told it’s a problem. Only then can we begin to understand how to improve.

Thus, I noticed a number of shortcomings while editing the second edition of Little Ragdoll. In addition to what I’ve previously mentioned, I also found:

1. Rehashing established information. We already know, for example, everything good Allen has done for Lenore since he gave her a safe place to stay when she was a 15-year-old runaway. Why be reminded of the main points every time Lenore reflects on or talks about their history together?

We also already know all the good things Father and Mrs. Murphy up in Yorkville have done for Lucine and Emeline, and how they adopted oldest sister Gemma’s birth son Giovanni after she divorced her abusive, unwanted husband and started over. There’s no need to be reminded again and again.

2. Pointless, cluttery chat adding nothing to the scene, or coming across like me putting my own viewpoints into characters’ mouths. At one point, Allen is talking about how his parents were very upset when Giovanni was adopted and taken out of their clutches, since they’d been planning to sell him for at least $1,000 on the baby black market. There’s no need to point that out when we already know how black-hearted they are and why Allen doesn’t want them coming anywhere near his kids.

In another scene, when Ernestine, Julie, and the three oldest Ryan siblings are comforting Adicia after her black-hearted, unmotherly mother coerced her into sacrificing her virginity to save her mother from returning to prison, Ernestine and Girl/Deirdre get into a discussion about the repackaging of Beatles’ albums. Though Adicia snaps at them to have this conversation later, and they apologize, it’s still really inappropriate they began discussing that during such an emotional time.

3. If a character is meant as an intellectual or someone very political, make sure that naturally flows with the overall direction of a scene or dialogue. Emeline just wouldn’t be the same Emeline if she didn’t constantly bubble over with chatter about books, philosophy, music, Eastern religions, and vegetarianism. Likewise, Girl/Deirdre, and, to a somewhat lesser extent, Ernestine wouldn’t be the same if they weren’t so tuned into politics and social issues. They have to be discussing that for a reason, not out of the blue.

4. Some dialogues and passages don’t lose anything, and are made stronger, by cutting out the fat. This goes for removing overwrought prose, too many details, unnecessary lines, rehashing established information, and polemics which sound more like the author trying to work one’s opinions in than a character naturally expressing such thoughts.

In the scene of Ernestine and the Ryans riding up to Hudson Falls from Poughkeepsie for Thanksgiving 1972, I cut out everything Deirdre said about a certain topic. Now, Adicia begs to talk about something else after she feels Deirdre’s scathing critique of this subject is finished. I similarly cut out the dialogue Ernestine and Deirdre have when revisiting this subject during baking on Christmas Eve.

5. When a story is set during a very political time, conversations of a political nature are kind of inevitable. The first time the subject of the Vietnam War is broached, it leads into Lenore hoping Allen isn’t drafted, and then turns into the girls planning what Lenore will get Allen for his upcoming 21st birthday and trying to get Lenore to admit she has a crush on Allen.

Chapter 37, “The Year the World Went Up in Flames,” is about 1968, and so it naturally follows there will be discussions about things like the presidential election, RFK’s assassination, the feminist protests by the Miss America pageant, and the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

Were I only starting over with this story today, I’d write certain things differently, maybe change wraparound narrative passages into active scenes. Part I in particular might be drastically different. But this is how the story came together, and I can’t alter everything in the impossible quest for perfection.

Lessons learnt from post-publication polishing, Part II

Going in, I believed I’d only be tweaking Little Ragdoll for its physical copies, doing things like catching stray typos and removing all those excess “even”s I was so fond of. Instead, I’ve cut about 13,000 words so far. That’s a drop in the bucket considering how long it is, but even a deliberate saga needs to be as tight as possible.

First things first, it’s such a beautiful blessing that my older computer still works! I got it secondhand in early 2009, but it was made in 2007. It’s now lasted longer than the 152K Mac and the ’93 Mac. My version of Pages can’t do certain things Word can, like create a hyperlinked table of contents or convert files into HTML, and my newer computer can’t open Word 2003.

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A big issue I noticed was that some passages and dialogues were really pushy, preachy, and lecturey re: attachment parenting and natural childbirth. Yes, both were coming back into vogue during the Sixties and Seventies, but a lot of times it just felt like a smug, holier than thou lesson instead of a naturally-flowing dialogue or prose.

I absolutely still am a huge advocate of natural childbirth, midwifery, and attachment parenting, but that needs to be conveyed as a natural part of a story, not expressed in a rather sanctimommy way. The penultimate chapter, “Allen Finally Accepts Adicia’s Marriage,” opens with a bunch of long paragraphs talking about how Adicia has been mothering her newborn son Robbie, how much she loves him, how she wishes she didn’t have to use cloth diapers, how she co-sleeps, how she uses baby slings a lot more than a stroller, you get the idea.

I junked pretty much all of it and just skipped right to the chase. How was that  relevant? It really slowed down the chapter’s true storyline, and seems more like a history lesson and too much POV.

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I also changed how some things were worded re: Adicia’s awakening during women’s liberation and her disagreement with certain of the things she’s been reading. Back then, I hadn’t yet realized I’ve been a lifelong radfem myself, and was seriously misinformed about just what radical feminism is and isn’t. “Radical” truly means “root,” not “extremist.” I’m planning a series on radical feminism. Too many people are just as misinformed as I used to be.

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One of the midwife characters, Veronica Zoravkov, is really lecturey while discussing the history and then-current use of twilight sleep. It reads like a lesson instead of a natural dialogue! As a former labor and delivery nurse, she’s certainly seen the horrors of twilight sleep firsthand, and oldest sister Gemma was left traumatized by her own experience, but it again comes off more like a polemic. That scene was almost totally rewritten!

There’s definitely a time and place to incorporate one’s own views into a book, but it needs to be a natural, believable part of the overall story and the characters involved. I wasn’t rushing at all during all my prior rounds of edits; I just didn’t see those as things which needed changed.

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I’ve mostly read older books my entire life. Therefore, I absorbed a style which isn’t so in fashion anymore—overwrought prose, God-mode omniscience, monologue-like speech, conveying historical background or other information through dialogue, telly passages. I know I’ll never have a fully contemporary style, but I’m open to evolving in a way which feels right.

I know I can’t change every single thing short of doing a full, time-consuming rewrite. I’m okay with that. This book will just have a somewhat more old-fashioned style than I’ve since developed into. We need to reach a stage where we accept a book is as perfect as we can get it, and not try to run around fixing every little thing.

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.

Lessons learnt from post-publication polishing, Part I

Since I’m having a new cover made for Little Ragdoll, and thus will soon have physical copies, I went back through the document to check for any typos I may have missed during all the previous editing rounds and sweep-throughs. I also wanted to strip out all the unnecessary uses of “even” and other words/phrases I wasn’t aware of overusing.

Thankfully, I only caught a handful of true typos and missed misspellings. Most of the rest were just a matter of weasel words/phrases, taking out cluttery, rehashing, or preachy lines, and removing a lot of passive -ing constructions. None of this is grammatically incorrect, but it’s not as strong and tight as it could’ve been.

I worked on a document converted into Pages, and made a file keeping track of lines and issues that needed corrected on the Word and HTML files on my older computer. With the broken fan on my older computer, I don’t like to spend very long on it. It’s not dangerous, but I don’t like the loud sound that often kicks in. If the price is right and someone has the parts, I’ll have it repaired at a local Mac shop.

Specific issues:

1. Overused words and phrases:

Even
I guess
I mean
I/You know
I think
At least
Just
Ever
Anyway
It seemed/seems
Actually
Now
Then
Yet
Also
Actually
Apparently
Obviously
See
Sentences starting with “And”

2. A lot of weak “feel(s)” instead of “is.”

3. Passive -ing constructions! This isn’t grammatically incorrect, but it’s very formal and old-fashioned. When you have a writing style that’s already rather old-fashioned, you need to choose which hills you’re going to die on vs. which ones you can agree to update. There are times when it’s more effective and accurate to say, e.g., “They’re drinking tea” vs. “They go down the fire escape,” but more often than not, it’s not very strong writing. Some of this I attribute not only to all the old books I’ve read, but also to the fact that many languages, like Russian, have slightly different verb forms to indicate if an action is ongoing or one-off.

4. A really weird spacing issue that may have been caused by the file conversion. Several pages seemed to be missing, with a few paragraphs spaced smaller than the rest of the document. It turned out they were there, only rendered invisible by some bizarre spacing setting I never did.

5. Some extra “that”s. I took out almost all of them back in 2011, but there remained some which don’t really need to be there.

General issues I can’t really do anything about at this stage, short of a time-consuming full rewrite:

1. It’s more omniscient than my current usual. Many scenes aren’t in only one person’s POV. It’s more like a distant camera taking turns. Given how the story was inspired by several very old books, it feels right. It’s a story about a family and some of their friends coming of age and going through life, with a special focus on one of them. It was never meant to be limited to one person’s head for the entire story.

2. It’s very telly in spots. I also think this works for the type of story I planned it as. It seems kind of like a 1960s version of A Tree Grows in Brooklyn (which I hadn’t read when I wrote the first draft), and that story succeeds brilliantly in spite of having a lot of telly scenes. After all, I intentionally structured it so the language and situations would gradually mature as Adicia gets older. It’s like the evolution through the Little House series. I could do more with her as a teen than I could at five years old. Her character is also deliberately very passive, always acted on instead of acting herself, until she finally has no choice but to act.

I wouldn’t have done many of these things had I written this book today, as opposed to 2010–11, but what’s done is done. I doubt I’d be able to write it so well had I only gone back from scratch and memory now, and would’ve left a lot of important things out. It’s the same reason I doubt I’d be able to write Swan the same way had I done it as an adult, instead of ages 13–21.