Lessons learnt from post-publication polishing, Part V

It’s been two and a half years since my unplanned Part IV of this series I thought would remain a three-parter. But why not add new posts as I learn new lessons?

I’ve been preparing And Jakob Flew the Fiend Away for its hardcover edition since December. As I’ve mentioned many times, I wish I’d done so many things differently with this book. When I decided to go indie in 2014, I led with Jakob’s story because I felt it was my strongest completed and polished material to date. It was also relatively short, at only 125K (not including front and back matter).

While I can honestly say I’m still proud of this book, and still feel it was the right decision to put out Jakob’s story in two separate books, I’m kind of disappointed in myself for not being truer to my natural voice and style. I let myself get too much inside my own head while I was writing it.

I wrote the originating long short story/piece of backstory in 2006, and turned it into the two books from 9 March–19 August 2012. The first book was written from 9 March–30 April, and the second was 30 April–19 August. Neither had any major edits or rewriting. Apart from a few bits I added here and there, and purging of overused words and phrases like “even” and “you know,” they’re largely just as I wrote them in the first drafts.

I believed so much in Jakob’s story, and entered it in a lot of contests, pitchfests, and virtual conferences. The other participants really liked it too, and helped me to craft a very strong query letter. I knew it was time to quit shopping around already when an associate agent ripped the query apart in a critique I won, taking issue with things everyone else had praised and helped me to change to its final form. Too many cooks spoil the broth.

Since I was in the thick of trying for trad-pub and doing all these contests and related events, I was hyper-conscious of dos and don’ts, and trying my very best to model them in my own writing. That included a lot more descriptions of body language and emotional reactions than I usually do.

As an Aspie, I’ve worked really hard to become better at this, since it doesn’t come naturally to me. Many of my older drafts had really unrealistic, flat, almost matter-of-fact reactions to very emotional events, like when Lyuba is separated from her baby Tatyana several times. Either that, or they felt really forced and corny. So that was a literary skill I genuinely needed to work on.

However, we should always strive to find our natural voice and style, not mindlessly copy someone else’s or go by a checklist of things we think we’re supposed to do no matter what. I now acknowledge I’m just not the type of writer who naturally fills my stories with things like widened eyes, rapidly beating hearts, and punching the air.

You know what does still feel natural in Jakob’s story? Every single description of his fear, terror, anguish, pain, and helplessness related to his broken foot and ankle, the long period of immobility during recovery, bearing weight through that leg again, relearning to walk, realising he’s been left with a limp, going up and down stairs creatively, navigating stairs at all, sharply feeling cold weather in those bones even after healing. All drawn from my own personal experience from my shattered tibia and fibula and being unable to walk for eleven months.

I wish I’d gotten out of my own head and written the entire book in that vein, doing what came naturally instead of going by expectations. E.g., there was no pressing reason I needed to rein in its length just because I intended it as YA. I always described it as upper, mature YA, and plenty of YA hist-fic is well above 125K.

While I still don’t regret making it a more original Shoah story instead of paint by numbers, that shouldn’t have precluded expanding Parts I–III. Maybe not rehash familiar territory, but add, e.g., chapters or sections of Jakob visiting his friends Sander and Elma, working on his scrapbook documenting the occupation, looking out the window at the local streetfighting, his work in the Westerbork restaurant’s kitchen.

I briefly thought about making it first-person, since that’s so trendy in current YA. At least I didn’t go that route, since my natural POV will always be third-person. It’s enough that Jakob’s story is a lot closer to third-person limited than I normally do. There are also a number of first-person interludes with Jakob and Rachel’s letters.

I believe all books take the form they’re meant to, even if that’s not how we originally envisioned them. This book just took a much shorter form than I wish it had. If I did a full rewrite or created an adult version, it might not feel like the same story anymore.

Dos and don’ts of incorporating real life into your stories

In loving memory of Curly Howard (Jerome Lester Horwitz), who left the material world 69 years ago today.

Part of my development as a writer was the realisation I couldn’t keep dumping in incidents from my own life, sometimes almost play-by-play. Just as a good character shouldn’t be a cipher of yourself, a good overall story also shouldn’t be a thinly fictionalised version of your own life.

I’ve previously mentioned the dreadful novel in verse Purple Daze, which I disliked even more after a friend of the author responded to my Amazon review to explain it was the real story of their buddies in the Sixties. No wonder I didn’t connect with the characters or their stories! Why didn’t the author just write a memoir then? She was way too close to the subject to make any attempt to go in original directions.

I was really embarrassed to reread the third grade graduation scene from the first two drafts of the book formerly known as The Very Last, since it was my junior high graduation with a few details changed. Nothing about it felt right with my characters or the overall story. I later based Adicia’s elementary school graduation in Little Ragdoll on this as well, but the key word is based. Not a blow-by-blow recreation.

Still, I don’t regret immortalising that awful judge who gave our graduation speech. He thought it was relevant and appropriate to bring up the recent O.J. Simpson Bronco chase, and point-blank said “The person you’re sitting next to might not be there in four years” because they were lazy, ignorant, didn’t care about education, used drugs, joined a gang. I’m proud to report most of my classmates did indeed graduate high school!

Many of the happenings at school in the first draft of Saga I of Cinnimin and many of the Max’s House books (which I’ve renamed The Saga of the Sewards) are also quite strongly based on things that happened to me in my ninth grade Studio Art class; my junior high tech ed, music, and health classes; my ninth grade Spanish class; goings-on in the hallways and stairwells between classes at junior high; the junior high bus; and a couple of things from upper elementary school.

It’s not that those incidents aren’t funny, well-written, or well-incorporated with the rest of their respective books. It’s about them not feeling right with these characters and the ultimate direction I decided to take these books in. The stuff from Spanish class (transmogrified into French class) was also just a petty, rather disturbing way to get revenge on a teacher I was increasingly annoyed by.

There was also the real story of my seventh grade social-studies teacher finding a little baggy of pot in her locker room, and burning it with matches from her desk to see if it were real. Right there in class. Many of the other people who were there also still vividly remember this. But why did that have a place in any story of mine? Just because it was wild and funny?

Instead, what you want to do is use real people and events as a jumping-off point. Maybe have a fifth grade teacher similar to your own, but change it up with a few differences, and let storylines and personality naturally develop from there. Making an exact carbon copy is just you forcing your own life, down to the last detail, into your story and pretending it’s fiction.

You never want to use a real name for such a character either, unless you have full permission from the person and s/he’s seen the entire book. Even if this is a sympathetic character, someone could still take offence.

I based many of my original Atlantic City characters on people I knew in elementary school. Some were only loosely based, with similar appearances and general personalities. Others were much more strongly based, but eventually developed into their own unique characters.

Think about who your characters are, really are, and what your intentions with the story are. Those real-life people and events might read really well in a memoir or published journals, but odds are, when you just blindly plunk them down into a purportedly fictional story and have your characters doing and saying these things in place of you and your friends, it’ll feel flat, unnatural, out of place.

Your characters will tell you who they are and what they ought to be doing if you grow to know them well enough. That doesn’t include acting out your own life.

Hist-fic doesn’t require real characters!

It seems many younger hist-fic writers are under the presumption they need to write about real people. While there’s a long, rich tradition of historicals about or prominently featuring real people, as well as the entire subgenre of alternative history, there’s never been a requirement to draw your characters from real life.

Ask yourself why you want to write about this person, and why it needs to be fiction. If you’re so passionately interested in her/him, why not write a biography or a non-fiction book about a certain aspect or period of his/her life? As it is, many of these novels read like bios already.

One of my major problems with these books is that the authors often go off in a completely ahistorical direction. E.g., people who lived 100+ years ago are given very modern values, 100% fictional characters are given major roles in the MC’s life, storylines and events are invented without even the thinnest shred of proof.

Mary: Mrs. A. Lincoln immediately comes to mind as such a story. There is so much detailed documentation on the Lincolns, and none of it supports the fantastical depictions of Robert as a cold-hearted villain from birth, Mary having an affair, Mary being sex-crazed, or Mary seducing her husband to force him to marry her!

Julie Orringer, the author of the dreadful snoozefest The Invisible Bridge, recently published her long-promised novel about journalist Varian Fry, one of only five Americans to date to be honored by Yad Vashem as Righteous Among the Nations. Given the subject matter, you’d expect a gripping epic about a hero helping many artists, writers, musicians, and other intellectuals to escape Vichy France, right?

WRONG!

It’s all about his insipid gay romance with a made-up character! If you’re going to make a real historical figure gay, you’d better be prepared to prove it with irrefutable evidence instead of speculation. And to check more boxes, Ms. Orringer also made this fake lover biracial.

Just like her massively overrated first novel, this one too is wildly overwritten, with overlong, pointless descriptions of everything. Ms. Orringer also continues her pretentious habit of regularly having entire lines in untranslated French, German, Italian, and Latin, as well as liberally using million-dollar thesaurus words.

Other times a book is little more than a direct retelling of a memoir or autobiographical novel, only with another person in the main role. Nothing new is brought to the story. Caroline: Little House Revisited is a prime example of this. The author also plays into the inaccurate stereotype of Victorian women as dour, depressing, and prudish.

We also have a trend of books like Michelle Moran’s Nefertiti, with a first-person narrator who’s not the MC. This isn’t necessarily a badly-done gimmick, but there needs to be a compelling reason the story isn’t being told by the MC, and the narrator always needs to be in the same place as the MC or know all these details about the MC. Do young writers these days truly not understand the concept of third-person?

I’ve zero problems with sex scenes involving fictional characters, but sex scenes with real people cross a major line for me. Unless this is a person like Casanova, who made no secret of his sexual exploits, it seems a huge invasion of privacy. Do you really think they’d want total strangers 100+ years later to speculate about their most private, intimate moments for the entire world to read?

Even worse are scenes of people relieving themselves! Why did this ever become a thing in fiction?

I get the distinct feeling many of these writers aren’t motivated by respect, and have made little to no effort to understand these people in their full historical context. They just grabbed a familiar name and decided to spice his/her life up for modern readers.

Here’s a novel idea: If you like this historical figure so much but can’t bear to stick to just the facts, create your own character with similar circumstances! Then you can do whatever you want with her/him instead of being bound to following documented history.

Why historical accuracy matters

This weekend, I had the unfortunate experience of dealing with a commenter who came out with guns blazing because I dared to not squee all over the ahistorical, offensive garbage that is The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas. He completely proved my point about it being bestseller bait for the masses and Holocaust-lite for people who care less about historical accuracy.

Unfortunately, some of us at WordPress have found our blacklists wiped out, which means he was able to get more comments through, and then creepily used another e-mail and name to evade my blacklist even further. Some people are that obsessed.

You’re not sharing your thoughts respectfully, as my comment form requests, if you personally insult me. I’m fine with agreeing to disagree respectfully, but when you personally insult me and then try to gaslight and DARVO me as though I’m the bully, guess what, you’re not welcome here anymore.

The director of the Auschwitz Museum always calls out ahistorical Holocaust-lite like Striped Pyjamas and The Tattooist of Auschwitz as offensive, misleading, inaccurate, and harmful. While I find it ridiculous how he also always jumps on journalists who refer to Poland during WWII as simply Poland instead of “Nazi German-occupied Poland,” he’s 100% right about those farces of books.

It’s one thing if a book was written before new research came to light. E.g., our Neanderthal cousins’ story has been completely rewritten over the last decade. We know now they were anything but dull-witted, knuckle-dragging buffoons. Writers before we had access to this information weren’t deliberately ignorant, just as standards of pet care have drastically changed over the last few decades. We go with what we believe to be accurate information at the time.

But when something is well-known, there’s zero excuse for making up your own version of history!

I was that kid who read too much and understood too little. Thus, I innocently incorporated historical inaccuracies from other books into my own books, or ran with my misinterpretations of things which were never properly explained. Some of these mistakes were fairly minor; e.g., not knowing Manci and Etu are Hungarian nicknames instead of full names. However, little things often add up.

As I’ve stated many times, I’m not a pedantic nitpicker who rages over the tiniest little inaccuracy no one normal would notice or care about that much. But if I see a writer got a small detail wrong, like using the English-only word Tsarina instead of Empress or Tsaritsa, it makes me wonder what larger details might be incorrect too, and how thorough the research really was.

It’s called historical fiction, and thus predicated upon being historically accurate, just as sci-fi is predicated upon being scientifically accurate. There’s a huge problem when the very premise of a book is completely unbelievable, like a 9-year-old son of a high-ranking Nazi who’s never heard of Hitler and acts like an overgrown toddler with brain damage, or a settlement on Mercury.

If there is a character or major plot point which would’ve been quite unusual but not totally implausible, give the reader a reason to go along with it, and make clear how uncommon this is. E.g., a woman in 1750 who wants to be a doctor, a 12-year-old surviving several concentration-camps. Don’t just blaze ahead with it as though it’s the most believable, matter-of-fact thing in the world.

People who love hist-fic expect it to be historically accurate, not feel-good fables using one of history’s most well-documented events as a meaningless backdrop for an implausible story, or Gossip Girl in period clothes. I’m so tired of recently-published so-called historicals that read like contemporaries with occasional shallow window-dressing.

It becomes much harder to debunk falsehoods and urban myths when know-nothings keep passing them along as fact. I threw my head back in exasperation on Saturday when I saw an already badly-written historical fantasy perpetuating the lie about immigrants’ names being changed on Ellis Island.

Lampshading won’t work if the root is fundamentally false. There’s no plausible way to get anyone with a lick of sense to believe a glaring historical inaccuracy. I hang my head in shame for people who shout, “It’s fiction, not history! Who cares if it’s accurate!”

The shameful existence of Shoah denial makes honesty and accuracy in such hist-fic even more paramount. Striped Pyjamas is also badly written on all other levels. Completely laughable to seriously call it genius, amazing, moving, and brilliant.

IWSG—My seventh official NaNo was awful

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:

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?