IWSG—April odds and sods

InsecureWritersSupportGroupIt’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 you a risk-taker when writing? Do you try something radically different in style/POV/etc. or add controversial topics to your work?

I’ve written at length in many prior posts about how, until my early twenties, I often gut-loaded my Atlantic City books with over the top controversial content merely for its own sake, to goad my imagined future censors. In my juvenile mind, edgy and realistic=as over the top as possible.

Part of it was an extreme overreaction to my annoyance at the unrealistic, G–rated goody-goodies in books like The Babysitters’ Club series, kids who never encountered any normal junior high issues like peer pressure, serious fights with parents and siblings, skipping school, secretly drinking beer, etc.

Another reason was because I attended such an awful school from K–10. With no counterexample, I genuinely didn’t grasp how abnormal and concerning it is for preteens to have sex, smoke, drink, do drugs, have unchaperoned wild parties, get into knife fights, wear clothes suit for a nightclub, stay out past midnight, etc.

Without being consciously aware of it, I reveled in the worst of human nature. So many times, my characters came across so unsympathetically because they were so mean-spirited and cruel, above and beyond normal youthful cattiness and rebellion.

I think many times of the talking-to my buddy Bruce got from the junior high music teacher we nicknamed Busload, on account of the parody he wrote of “My Favorite Things.” Bruce tried to defend his assignment by saying, “Yeah, I was being satirical,” and Busload shot back, “This isn’t satirical. This is filth!” I feel much the same way about a lot of the things in my earlier drafts.

While I still don’t believe in treating young people like overgrown babies and glass flowers who can’t handle anything not 100% G-rated, my stance back then was basically “Expose them to everything! It’s no big deal!” I seriously had spoof magazines called Playteen and Playkid, and one of my planned soft sci-fi books had a porn channel for teens!

I really wish more people had had the guts or sense to ask, “These kids are twelve?” Or whatever age they were in any given scene or book. My Atlantic City characters don’t start to read their supposed actual age till they’re about fifteen.

One of my main themes is that real life isn’t like a Norman Rockwell painting or Andy Hardy movie for most people, and that kids are a lot sharper and smarter than many adults give them credit for. But that shouldn’t mean going as over the top as possible in depicting edgy, realistic content.

Hence why I’m leaning so strongly towards finally officially aging them up two years. As it is, they read that way already.

Though my declared project for April Camp NaNo is my radical rewrite of the book formerly known as The Very Last, I think I may also start work on the alternative history about Dante and Beatrice I’ve been wanting to do probably since 2004. For all those years, I only had the most general idea, and I needed a compelling reason for Dante to still write his magnum opus if he never lost Beatrice.

I have so many great ideas now, transforming it from a vague, romantic idea into a saga with lots of twists and turns. Now I only need to think of a good title.

Very, very, VERY unusually for me, I also feel drawn to doing it in first-person instead of my usual third-person omniscient. Since Dante wrote all his major works in first-person, and sometimes broke the fourth wall to directly address his readers, it feels like the most natural POV. I hope I live up to the great responsibility of writing in the voice of one of my literary idols.

Types of autobiographical characters

Let’s talk about the different kinds of autobiographical characters one can create. There’s a whole spectrum between ciphers and wish-fulfillment Mary Sues/Gary Stus.

1. The thinly-fictionalised version of yourself. Seriously, why even bother presenting your real-life story as if it were a novel? Just write a memoir or publish your old journals and be done with it! Bully for you that you had an idyllic childhood with no major problems. You might write these stories beautifully, but even a deliberately episodic, slower-paced, character-driven book or series where coming of age IS the plot needs hung on some kind of trajectory and story arc.

Give us tension and stakes, not just a bunch of random episodes or silly, minor dramas that easily, quickly resolve. If you’re drawing solely from your own life, or only slightly tweaking it, odds are you won’t have the kinds of plots and characters that drive along a good yarn.

A lot of these autobiographical or thinly-fictionalised stories also are only interesting if you know the people involved. E.g., you’re charmed by stories of your grandparents playing paper dolls and eating lunch in a piano box, but could care less when anyone else does it. At least use it to further character development or elevate it beyond a random episode.

2. The wish-fulfillment Mary Sue or Gary Stu. This is the kind of character who gets all the job promotions, successful art shows, military advancements, high grades, spicy sex life, etc., which you never had but always wished for. No one wants to read about a perfect character with a charmed life.

3. The bully pulpit for your frustrated failed ambitions. It’s so obvious when a writer uses an autobiographical character, or one with a similar life trajectory, as a way to constantly whine about why s/he didn’t get those military promotions, salary raises, successful art or music career, scholarship, dream job, etc., or to blame it on everyone and everything but oneself.

Maybe it really is unfair how you lost or were never offered those opportunities, like spiteful co-workers, a boss who inexplicably hated you from the jump, or the kids from well-connected families being ushered into your school’s college prep track despite not having very good grades. You can explore that with a story based on your own life, but dwelling on it and ranting so often makes you look unhealthily stuck in the past.

4. A character based strongly on yourself, but with some significant differences. I’ve spoken many times about how Emeline Troy is my Doppelgänger. We both had hyperlexia at age three; the first book we ever read was the adult, uncensored Grimms’ Fairytales; we adore Hermann Hesse; we’re very influenced by Eastern philosophies and religions; we didn’t have our first relationship till age 28; our beaux were both walking DSMs from emotionally incestuous immigrant families, maintaining a hurtful, inappropriate friendship with a deranged ex, and with a bizarre aversion to kissing; we both had menarche a month before our twelfth birthdays; and so much more.

However, I only wish I’d gone to Vassar; I didn’t have a double major in history and German Studies; I didn’t switch to a private school for disadvantaged young women, on full scholarship, late in my sophomore year of high school; I was cheated out of the chance to study Latin my last two years of high school; I don’t have eight siblings; my walking DSM ex is Belarusian, not Hungarian; I didn’t grow up in tenements or in NYC; and I’ve never smoked pot.

5. A character based somewhat on yourself, but fully her/his own person. E.g., this character might have a different religion, ethnic background, political party, or hometown than you, but have a similar family background, personal values, and hobbies. There are also a number of incidents drawn from or based on your own life, but not to the point of a strongly autobiographical story.

6. A character who lets you vicariously explore the path not taken. Maybe you’ve always regretted a certain choice and wished you’d made a different one, or always wondered how your life might’ve turned out had another opportunity been available. E.g., taking school more seriously and qualifying for a full scholarship to a prestigious college, accepting a job offer in another country or state, marrying and having kids earlier or later, getting financial aid for a private school with an excellent music program, studying abroad, not being so provincial, studying architecture instead of business.

My thoughts on writing what you know

“Write what you know” has become one of those mantras bandied about so much, like “Never use any adverbs or creative speaking verbs ever!,” many people don’t understand what it actually means. We also have a disturbing amount of woke gatekeeping from the We Need Diverse Books campaign, which truly did start out on a great foot. Now a lot of writers are told they can only write characters exactly like themselves, and how dare anyone write characters from another experience group.

How many great books, plays, and stories would never have been written if the writers had felt compelled to only draw from their own demographic and life experiences? Empathy and research go a long way, so long as the intent behind writing such characters is respectful. At the end of the day, we’re all human and created in the image of the Divine. Our common humanity unites us.

But what about writing what you can’t know, not just what you don’t know?

While I like to think I’m pretty good at writing male characters, owing in decent part to how tomboyish I’ve always been, I know I’ll never be 100% accurate on every level. I only have firsthand experience of being female, and that means I have no means of knowing what certain things specific to male biology or socialisation are like. Instead, I do the best I can, and create a range of male characters instead of cartoonish stereotypes or idealistic dream men.

I’ve also never been pregnant or given birth, as much as I always believed I’d have a husband and kids years ago. No matter how much research I’ve done on the subject, I can’t write about morning sickness, contractions, pushing, the ring of fire, or delivering the afterbirth from personal experience. Though I have had dysmenorrhea for almost twenty years, which is absolute crippling agony without medication, so I do have a semblance of comparison to contractions.

I don’t care how much erotica you’ve read, how much porn you’ve watched, or how many times you’ve pleasured yourself; if you’ve never been in a sexual situation with another person, your sex scenes are going to lack authenticity and bear the obvious mark of inexperience. Maybe don’t include sex scenes in your stories if you’re a virgin? It’s always a bad thing when a sex scene or erotic story makes people laugh when you didn’t intend it as humor.

It’s always obvious when a writer lacks passion for a subject or genre. It’s great that you want to try something new and step outside your familiarity zone, but it’s better to spend some time immersed in that genre or subject before taking on the task of writing an entire book.

The author of the beyond-dreadful I Was Anastasia admitted she wished a thousand times she’d been writing about barbed wire instead, and that she cares less about royals. She also made up nicknames for real characters and combined others because she thinks Russian names all sound alike and are “damnably confusing.” Then why waste so much time researching and writing that book?!

I could never write a Koreaphile character well, since I know next to nothing about Korean culture, history, language, or literature. If I blazed ahead anyway and forced it, my lack of familiarity and passion would show in spades. Whereas writing a Nipponophile, Russophile, or Estophile character would be second nature.

Likewise, writing a fellow Dantephile comes so easily and naturally, versus attempting to write someone who’s nuts about Charles Dickens or John Milton. I’m just not familiar with their work. Though even if you’re a real fan of the same writers, actors, artists, singers, or musicians your characters are, you never want to overdo it with constant references and showing off your knowledge.

The way I wrote about college in my teens was laughable. In my mind, it was rather like high school, only with professors and more choice of courses. I had no idea about things like lecture halls or the level of intensity. Likewise with writing about high school in junior high and writing about adults in their thirties when I was a teenager.

If you’ve not been through a life stage yet, no amount of research will replace the necessary firsthand experience for depicting it authentically.

Better to be silent and thought wise than open your mouth and remove all doubt.

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.