Radical relationship revamps

It was a blessing in disguise that I put my radical rewrite of the book formerly known as The Very Last on hiatus in mid-2015. At the time, I was frustrated because I couldn’t locate enough information about the Portuguese World Exposition of 1940, and I felt exhausted at the thought of researching and writing about the 1939–40 World’s Fair only a few years after doing it for Dark Forest. Now I realize I couldn’t have rewritten that book the way it needed to be had I continued on in 2015.

Though I wasn’t shy about cutting out garbage, adding new and improved material, and tweaking storylines by 2015, I still had a major blind spot regarding certain things. This included Kit’s relationship with a much-older boy who originally had a crush on her sister Conny.

A big part of Kit’s character is that she’s like a young Samantha Jones, but now I’m too disturbed by her dating a high school boy when she’s in elementary school. Even if she’s aged up two years, she’d still only be eleven.

Originally, Conny’s future husband, an 18-year-old violinist named Thomas McCartney from Andover, England, showed up on the Greens’ doorstep on 1 June 1940, and he and 15-year-old Conny were instantly taken with one another. Kit decided to tag along to their first date with a date of her own, Jerry Wasserstein, a Catholic boy from Ohio Avenue.

This date went so well, Conny and Tom had sex in the guesthouse while Mr. and Mrs. Green were away. Kit led Jerry into her parents’ bedroom, took down their “boring” paintings and replaced them with erotic art, and went to third base with him on the bed. They fell asleep partly-clothed.

In the morning, cops showed up (having been alerted by the stores where Conny bought sexy clothes and condoms) and made all four of them parade naked through the city as punishment for illicit sexual activity (Conny and Tom) and shocking, disreputable conduct (Kit and Jerry).

WHAT?!

Beyond the obvious creepiness (to say the very least!) of a 15-year-old dating and getting physical with a preteen, Conny and Tom’s meeting, and his immediate move into the guesthouse, is so unrealistic. I was starting to rewrite that chapter with the changed detail of him showing up at the Greens’ doorstep because Kit’s lifelong rival Violet gave the address as a flophouse, but even that felt silly. Don’t even ask about the evil twin storyline which results in Tom leaving town and being presumed dead until 1957!

The storylines about Kit and Conny’s dating drama were somewhat better-incorporated in the first and second drafts of 1997 and 1999, but since I cut out a lot of cluttery chapters and seriously toned down Kit and Jerry’s relationship, they feel more like a tacked-on afterthought. Their beaux also aren’t even developed very well.

Many people, regardless of religion, are familiar with I Corinthians 13:11, “When I was a child, I spoke as a child, I understood as a child, I reasoned as a child; but when I became an adult, I put away childish things.” This is a sentiment everyone can relate to, and it’s particularly relevant to how my writing changed as my cognitive development reached its final stage.

However, probably not so many people are as familiar with the line following it, “For we now see obscurely through a mirror, and then face to face; now I know in part, and then I will fully know, as I was also known.” Becoming an adult isn’t just about putting away childish things, but attaining the kind of wisdom and hindsight that only come from years of life experience.

When I edited the third draft of How Kätchen Became Sparky in 2011–12, in my early thirties, I knew enough to significantly tone down a lot of the wildly age-inappropriate content. It was toned down even further during the fourth draft of 2014–15, and more still during the fifth and final version of 2017–18. I also deliberately made the characters’ age ambiguous.

Things I thought were funny or hard-hitting satire as a teen and in my early twenties horrified me once I was in my thirties. Germane to this post, Kit and Jerry’s relationship screams child abuse and taking advantage of a minor. Even if Kit were to lie about her age or Jerry were to assume she were 13 (the age she looks and acts) and never be corrected, that still wouldn’t make it right.

At 42, I understand so much more about child safeguarding, and don’t want to give any impression I approve of such a massively inappropriate situation. I kid you not, in the first two drafts, Kit and Jerry frequently drew and photographed one another naked and in sexual situations. One of these “artworks” was inspired by a scene in a Victorian erotic novella, Kit urinating into Jerry’s mouth.

Unfortunately, this does mean losing a lot of great dialogue and scenes with the Greens, esp. Kit’s unhappily married parents (who are also third-cousins), but maybe I can recycle them in other books. I’m also planning to reuse some of them in the chapter “The Wrath of Conny,” which will take a much different track than originally written. (I just had to keep that chapter title!)

Conny and Tom will still start dating in this book, but under much different circumstances, and with the twist that she’s lying to him about her age. In place of Jerry, Kit may start dating her original first boyfriend Haakon much earlier.

The one time Kit does date an older boy, Robert Valli, they run into serious irreconcilable differences immediately, largely because they’re at such different places in life. Why would Jerry be any different?

IWSG—Hopes for improved productivity

InsecureWritersSupportGroup

It’s time again for The Insecure Writer’s Support Group, which meets the first Wednesday of every month to commiserate over worries, fears, doubts, and struggles.

Though my average daily wordcounts have been very below what I know I’m capable of for quite a long time, I’m nevertheless hopeful about this year’s JuNoWriMo. It’s all honors system, where you put your daily totals into a spreadsheet, and managed entirely by you. There’s no word tracker on a website like NaNoWriMo, where everyone can see how well or poorly you’re doing, with constantly updated graphs reflecting your progress. If you don’t make 50K, it’s not public record unless you tell people.

I need to be brutally honest with myself and admit my wordcounts have tanked so much over the last few years not just because of lockdown, cyclical depression, and almost no motivation from group write-ins, but also because I too easily feed my monkey mind and give in to distractions. After becoming so used to doing things other than writing on the computer, and having a large enough screen to simultaneously type and use the Internet (as opposed to the computers I used until 2008), it’s easier for me to continue those unhealthy habits instead of breaking them.

This is a big reason I’ve long daydreamt about buying a working model of one of the computers I used in the old days—the 128K Mac, the 156K, the 1993 Mac, the 1996 Mac, the 1999 Mac, the 2004 eMac. Back then, I could only use a word-processing program or the Internet at one time, and I easily typed and typed and typed for hours uninterrupted.

It’s long past time to resume my former habits and stop indulging my monkey mind!

I also lost a lot of valuable writing time during the first two weeks of May for health reasons. At the end of the third week of April, I had three days in a row of dental surgeries, and I was put on Amoxicillin to prevent any potential infections. The day after my final pill, I broke out in an ugly, extensive, itchy rash that lasted about six days, and after the rash began fading, my hands became very stiff and painful. I couldn’t even close my hands all the way. It’s kind of really hard to type or write longhand when you can’t comfortably move your fingers!

Lesson learnt: I have a penicillin allergy and need to ask for alternative antibiotics. It really wasn’t fun being unable to write much, just when I finally began getting my mojo back slowly.

If I do well on JuNoWriMo, I hope I can use that momentum and fully regained mojo to parlay into success for the second half of the year.

IWSG—Slowly returning to view the cheerful skies

InsecureWritersSupportGroup

It’s time again for The Insecure Writer’s Support Group, which meets the first Wednesday of every month to commiserate over worries, fears, doubts, and struggles. This month’s question is:

It’s the best of times; it’s the worst of times. What are your writer highs (the good times)? And what are your writer lows (the crappy times)?

Unfortunately, due to several bouts of my cyclical depression, being forced to move to an area I hate and in a house not my own, lockdown, and other factors, it’s been quite awhile since I last felt a true writing high. In the old days, it was the feeling I had when finishing a mammoth book that had been writing me more than I wrote it.

This picture I took soon after finishing the 406K first draft of The Twelfth Time, holding some of my writing soundtrack, perfectly illustrates it:

My writing mojo was pulled out of the toilet by my 12-part series on The Jazz Singer at 90 in 2017, and 2018 was my best NaNo ever, at 130,730 words. In 2019, I wrote 101,262 for NaNo, and massively overachieved in both April and July Camp NaNo.

But ever since lockdown began, my usual daily writing productivity hasn’t been the same. I know what I’m easily capable of, and barely making 50K in November, or even 10K in other months, is not it.

Near the end of April Camp, I put my alternative history about Dante and Beatrice on what hopefully won’t be a very long hiatus, and went back to the radical rewrite and restructuring of the book formerly known as The Very Last. I was inspired to return to my Atlantic City books after spending a few days doing the last proof-check of Movements in the Symphony of 1939 (formerly The Very Next).

After approving that book for a print edition, I read through The Very Last until the point I left off on the rewrite last year (though I also began rewriting chapters beyond that). I wrote almost 1,000 words on the first day back, though I ended up moving that chapter, and two other chapters, into a file of discarded chapters.

It truly was hashgacha pratit (Divine Providence) that I put the radical rewrite on hiatus in 2015. At the time, I was frustrated I couldn’t find more detailed information about the 1940 Portuguese World Exposition, and couldn’t be arsed to research and write about the 1939–40 World’s Fair in Queens only two years after I did that for Journey Through a Dark Forest. Now I realise I couldn’t have rewritten that book the way it needs to be had I continued in 2015.

As I discussed in this post, I deleted a lot of pointless, cluttery chapters and subplots. However, I wasn’t yet ready to admit to myself that the ninth item in that list not only was clutter too, but also inherently creepy. Even if Kit is aged up two years, 15-year-old Jerry still has no business dating her! She might look, talk, and act more like a 13-year-old, and I might’ve seriously toned down their relationship, but that doesn’t change her real age.

I’ll be discussing this in more detail in a future post.

I’ve been in a low place with my writing for so long, often taking weeks to write a single chapter, it’s difficult to vault back up and immediately resume my former daily average of at least 3K. As Virgil wrote over 2,000 years ago:

The gates of Hell are open night and day;
Smooth the descent, and easy is the way;
But to return, and view the cheerful skies,
In this the task and mighty labor lies.

IWSG—A necessary regrouping

InsecureWritersSupportGroup

It’s time again for The Insecure Writer’s Support Group, which meets the first Wednesday of every month to commiserate over worries, fears, doubts, and struggles. This month’s question is:

Have you ever been conflicted about writing a story or adding a scene to a story? How did you decide to write it or not?

I previously discussed my own “I am not Aeneas, I am not Paul” moment while writing my current WIP, my alternative history about Dante and Beatrice. Who am I to deign to be so chutzpahdik as to not only write about one of the greatest writers in history and one of my literary idols, but also in his own first-person voice?

It’s beyond rare for me to write an entire book in first-person. My natural POV is the classic default of third-person omniscient, though I’ve always enjoyed short first-person interludes like letters, op-eds, love notes, and journal entries. Yet this was the only POV that felt right for this story, since Dante wrote all of his works, particularly the big two, in first-person. Third-person would feel too distant.

I got the idea for this project in 2004, and finally came up with actual storylines and an overall plot trajectory in 2021 (as opposed to my original vague concept). This wasn’t something I could easily abandon. And when your characters tell you to do something, esp. when they were real people, it kind of behooves you to listen to them!

I recently had to take another step back from my WIP and regroup while I figured out how best to correct an omission and proceed from there. It’s like when a figure skater has to go to the referee because something went awry, and then can start the program all over again, continue from the point of the interruption, or leave the ice entirely. I’d also compare it to a skater who realizes s/he’s off-kilter in the air but nevertheless fights for even a shaky, two-footed landing with a hand on the ice instead of just giving up and splaying across the ice in an ugly fall.

As I came to discover from my research, Dante had two sisters, not just his much-younger halfsister Gaetana (Tana), to whom he was very close. What confused me was the conflicting information. Some scholars say she was also a halfsister, though most have reason to believe she was Dante’s full sister.

Sadly, we don’t know her name, but we do know her husband’s name, Leone de Poggi, and the name of at least one of her children, a son named Andrea who was said to very much resemble Dante. Basic deductive reasoning says she was probably his older sister.

I couldn’t decide if I should keep him an only child till his father’s remarriage, have his sister already married and living in another part of town, make her a victim of childhood mortality who already died before the story began, or suck it up and create this new character. And if I did make a new character, should she be older or younger?

I’m now going back through my WIP and adding her in where necessary. Thankfully, I didn’t get too far into the story, and she doesn’t need to be in most of the scenes. I named her Antonia and decided to make her best friends with Beatrice’s older sister Ravignana. I’m also going to give both her and Ravignana entirely fictional husbands of their own choosing.

You obviously have some leeway when writing alternative history, but you still need to stay true to as many basic facts as possible. The story won’t feel believable if you alter everything and leave out important real people.

Have you ever made a mistake or changed your mind about something while writing? How did you fix it?

Combining and splitting decisions

As someone who naturally and deliberately writes my adult books at saga length, I’ve developed a very keen sense of when a book’s length is justified by the story vs. when it’s just an overwritten sprawl (coughtheinvisiblebridgecough). I’ve also developed a strong sense of when a long story needs split up into multiple books or volumes.

On the flip side, when it comes to my Atlantic City books, I’ve found several places where these short books need combined, since they lead right into one another instead of feeling like true self-contained stories within a series.

                          

As I’ve discussed many times, I still feel I made the right decision in putting out And Jakob Flew the Fiend Away and And the Lark Arose from Sullen Earth as two distinct books. The most perfect ending opened up, and I was able to turn the rest of the source material into a second book about Jakob and Rachel’s first proper year of marriage and Jakob’s first year in America. Each book truly has its own focus, and wouldn’t feel the same if it were just one long book with an uninterrupted story.

Granted, I was trying for traditional publishing at the time and was aware the first book had reached the uppermost limits for both YA and historical, at a bit over 120K. The second book also has a much more New Adult feel and a number of sex scenes, in comparison to the fade to black on the wedding night scene in the first book. But Fate obviously compelled me to make the right decision about how to present this story.

                        

I was also originally trying for traditional publication with Little Ragdoll, and was shocked to discover how frowned-upon sagas are nowadays, esp. from first-time authors and in YA. At the time, I hadn’t yet realised this is truly an adult book that just happens to feature young people in the leading roles. In other words, a Bildungsroman, a coming-of-age story like Great Expectations and Little Women.

Thus, I began querying it and submitting pages as a pretended trilogy, and came up with query letters and synopses for all three books (Parts I and II, Part III, Part IV and the Epilogue). However, I soon came to feel dirty and like a huge fraud for diluting my vision and intention. I always meant it as one long, continuous story, not split up three ways. And while Part IV does read the most like its own standalone book, it also only makes sense and feels right as the conclusion of everything that came before. Adicia finally has no choice but to act instead of passively being acted upon, and emerges from that ordeal a much stronger person than anyone, least of all she herself, ever saw her as.

When it came to Swan, I was always very firm about this story being one entire book. It would make no sense to put out Parts I and II as two different books when so much is still up in the air at the conclusion of Part I. The only thing resolved (for the moment) is that Lyuba and Ivan are finally engaged. I also wrote The Twelfth Time as its sequel, not the third book in the family saga.

Plus, the title has significance for the entire book, and appears in the final line.

People at Absolute Write really got on my hide about the length (330K) and tried to convince me to make it into a series or two books. They also thought it was a historical romance instead of a novel that just happens to prominently feature a love story. One person got really offended when he read a blog post I wrote explaining and defending my wordcount and genre, accusing me of being oppositional and not taking anyone’s advice.

Yeah, it’s almost like writers know their own stories far better than random Internet strangers obsessed with “the rules”! Hist-fic is also traditionally very long, with 120K being the bare minimum for a story spanning many years and with a large ensemble cast.

                         

                         

Dark Forest ended up so long, way past my initial guesstimate of 500K, I had to put it out as one book in four volumes. It perfectly worked out so each part read like its own story, with a focus on different characters and storylines. Of course they all lead into one another, but there’s no sense of ending in media res.

I’ll do the same for Dream Deferred, which also ballooned up way past my conservative guesstimate of 300K. Even after cutting aborted storylines that don’t belong there, it’ll still be extremely long. Thankfully, this book too will feel natural in four volumes instead of forcibly chopped up.

Ultimately, it comes down to gut feelings and your own creative vision. Would this work as a single very long book, one book published in several volumes, or two or more separate books? And would a few novella-length books feel stronger if they were combined into one longer volume?

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