Posted in Atlantic City books, Word Count, Writing

IWSG—Lessons learnt from my ninth official NaNo

InsecureWritersSupportGroup

It’s time for the last Insecure Writer’s Support Group meeting of 2022. The IWSG convenes the first Wednesday of every month to commiserate over worries, fears, doubts, and struggles.

I feel almost like my NaNo win was cheated, since a fair amount came from creative nonfiction (journal entries, blog posts, etc.) and material that didn’t make it into my master file for Almost As an Afterthought. I also didn’t spend as much time writing each day as I should’ve.

However, I did redeem myself for my humiliating wins of the last two years, where I only crawled across the finish line on the final day. I also finally got back to writing in my journal Mary every day, after another few months of hiatus. (I’m long overdue to write an updated, improved post about my journalling history!) With the obvious exception of 29 November (George Harrison’s 21st death anniversary), 99% of my journal entries were about NaNo and my writing habits.

You can tell which days are Saturdays from the sharp drops! I don’t use my computer from Friday sundown to Saturday nightfall.

While I was writing to Mary (named after The Monkees’ song “Mary, Mary” and Pete Townshend’s solo song “Mary”), a major realisation about my writing (or lack thereof) in recent years dawned on me. Because lockdown wrecked my mental health and normal daily wordcounts, I turned my primary focus to editing books for publication and working on slightly tweaked new editions. During the two years pre-lockdown, I also spent a lot of time on that pursuit.

Hence, I somehow latched into permanent editor mode and forgot how to write the way I did for the previous 35ish years of my life. Joyfully, uninhibited, letting books write me instead of the other way around, saving the rewriting and editing for later, just focusing on getting the raw story out first.

I became all about writing slowly, carefully, cognizant of what’s worth keeping, what’s trash, what should be moved to a later book, what could be repurposed for later in this book. Hence, writing and rewriting a phrase or sentence over and over. Deciding to junk lines that don’t work. Realising as I’m writing that a scene, section, or dialogue is clutter or crap that doesn’t belong there, and moving it into a file of deleted material or only keeping it in the NaNo file.

That never happened to me before. With chutzpahdik confidence, I thought every last word was gold and would automatically remain. Only during edits would I look at the material with fresh eyes and sort out the clutter.

I ended up going the total opposite direction and approaching all first drafts with the critical eyes of an editor as I’m actively creating them.

While I stand by my decisions about what to work on and not work on during NaNo, and am glad I got a solid start on the near-total rewrite of Afterthought, I do feel in hindsight that perhaps it wasn’t the most ideal time to start. I eventually began writing out of order and leaving chapters unfinished to get back to later, since the words weren’t flowing as effortlessly as I hoped, and some parts needed slower and more careful writing due to incorporating research.

Also, I was writing without the context of a completed rewrite of The Very Last, esp. considering there are several very big changes in Cinni’s life in the second half of TVL.

During the last 20 minutes or so, I was frantically typing rambling, incoherent nonsense and clutter I knew wouldn’t make it into the master file. I just wanted to get as many words as possible before midnight and get to the next goal of 62K.

Not bad considering the last two years!

Once December started, it was like a veil lifted, and my normal writing finally resumed with my resumption of TVL. One of this year’s winner prizes is a free title upload at IngramSpark, so I’m hoping to have that book all polished and ready by the 15 March deadline. I obviously won’t rush if it’s not ready by then, but it’s a good goal to work towards.

Did you do NaNo this year? What was your experience like? Have you ever redeemed yourself after a bad patch or disappointing experience?

Posted in Historical fiction, Writing

The struggle between historical accuracy and perpetuating false information in historical fiction

Something many historical writers may not have considered is the sensitive balance between being historically accurate and avoiding the perpetuation of false information which was widely believed at that time. Should you address this in a note in the front or back matter, include a dissenting voice among your characters, or just present the view as-is?

Take the corset, a supportive undergarment which was an important, matter-of-fact part of every woman’s wardrobe for centuries in various forms, but which is now widely seen as a deforming torture device. That definitely wasn’t the view of most women who actually wore corsets!

Believe it or not, only a small minority of women tight-laced, slept in their corsets, or began wearing corsets as small children, and the women who did do that were looked upon as foolish, ridiculous, and odd. These were also wealthy and upper-middle-class women. Working-class and poor women didn’t have time for that nonsense.

It’s also medically impossible for internal organs to be displaced by the wearing of a corset.

However, women who came of age in the twilight of corset history were genuinely glad to be free of them. Late Edwardian corsets were extremely uncomfortable, since they covered the thighs, changed the position of the hips, and made it very difficult to walk. Corset production halted during WWI because the steel was needed more for the war effort, and bras and girdles replaced the corset.

Then the misinformation mill took over, and before long, popular culture had convinced everyone corsets were akin to foot-binding and that almost every single woman had a freakishly tiny waist, crushed ribs and organs, and constant fainting from tight-lacing. They were well within living memory, but corsets were seen as an embarrassing relic of a dinosaur age. In every generation, people love laughing at their “unenlightened, inferior” elders and ancestors

I’m planning a whole series on writing about corsets in historical fiction and debunking persistent myths about them.

Another myth that refuses to die is that our Neanderthal cousins were knuckle-dragging, unintelligent, grunting brutes. Until the last decade or so, this was widely believed on account of misinformation dating all the way back to the discovery of our extinct cousins. In the 19th century, scientists couldn’t conceive of the notion of our species having different branches, and so assumed Neanderthals had to be a cruder, earlier race completely unrelated to us. There were also some individual skeletons which appeared to be deformed, which was taken to mean all Neanderthals looked like that.

Now we know Neanderthals buried their dead, had an early form of religion, cared for sick and injured members of their tribe instead of leaving them to die, understood medicinal herbs, were egalitarian (women participated in face-to-face hunting of dangerous animals just like men), produced artwork on cave walls, cooked their food, made and wore jewelry, played music, wore clothes, made stone tools, used language, and even made boats and sailed to other lands.

We also know now that Neanderthals and early modern humans interbred, and that everyone in our species has a small percentage of Neanderthal DNA.

Memorial to 200 Hungarian victims of a death march, Copyright Haeferl

Then we have the Mengele trope, which very likely arose because Shoah survivors wanted to put a name and face to such evil, and Mengele was one of the few names they knew. Everyone was selected by Mengele, despite multiple other “doctors” working the ramp; he was seen at Auschwitz even before he came there; he was doing 5-6 different things in different places at the same time. This POS was repugnant enough without assigning him supernatural powers!

There are also other Shoah urban legends which even survivors themselves believed, like the claims about lampshades and soap made from people. Scientific investigation has shown 99.999999% of Nazi lampshades were made of leather. There was also never any soap made from humans.

Because of Shoah denial and the horrific rise in antisemitism, it’s extremely important to always be one million percent accurate when writing about the Shoah.

There are so many other examples of historical urban myths and misinformation, like how it was widely believed Titanic sank in one piece instead of splitting into two; Julius Caesar was born by C-section (his mother was still alive when he was an adult, and C-sections were 100% fatal in that era); people in the Middle Ages never bathed; everyone stank before deodorant was invented; people dropped dead at 35 and most girls married at all of 13 until the modern era; millions of people were burnt at the stake as witches; there was a mass panic over The War of the Worlds radio broadcast; surnames were routinely changed by incompetent clerks at Ellis Island (immigrants did that themselves, and the vast majority were Jews who wanted to escape systemic, institutionalized antisemitism); the entire film industry switched to talkies overnight after The Jazz Singer, and no silent actors survived the transition; Vietnam vets were routinely spat on and beaten up after returning home.

Ask yourself why you want to include this myth. Is it important to the storyline or character development? Does a character really need to make a sniping comment about corsets, Neanderthals, or Medieval people? Is that relevant to a scene? Could s/he be corrected by, e.g., a tour guide at a historical museum? And if it truly fits into your story, how can you make it clear this is misinformation?

Posted in Atlantic City books, Editing, Rewriting, Writing

Why I finally decided to raise the age of my Atlantic City characters

Since today, 25 November 2022, marks 31 years since I wrote the first of my Atlantic City characters into existence, I wanted to do a post walking through why I made the decision to age them up by two years after all this time. This was weighing on my mind for a really long time, and deep down I knew what the right decision was, despite my irrational emotional attachment to preserving them as-is.

A number of these points have been addressed in prior posts, but I want to bring them all together and sum them up.

1. I was thinking about this since at least 2011, if not earlier! It’s one thing to think about something superficially in passing, but if you still feel just as strongly for many years, odds are this isn’t just a short-term fancy and you won’t change your mind quickly. I wanted my nostril pierced for almost 12 years before it finally happened, and I still have it 19 years later. The thought of ever retiring it is completely out of the question!

2. Cognitive development. This was one of the biggest reasons I leaned so strongly towards aging them up. As originally written, their mental and physical ages aren’t synched until they’re about fifteen. Even the most mature, precocious, intelligent kid is still incapable of thinking, reasoning, talking, and acting like an adult, or even a teenager.

3. Child safeguarding red flags all over the place! Since I was in such an awful school system from K–10, I genuinely had no frame of reference to know how creepy, abnormal, and concerning it is for preteens to be having sex, doing drugs, smoking, drinking, having wild unchaperoned parties, getting into violent fights, wearing clothes suit for a nightclub, constantly skipping school, all manner of awful, age-inappropriate stuff.

4. Piggybacking off of the above, it’s creepy, not shocking and satirical for a purpose, when fifth graders are having sex. It’s obviously still very concerning when 12-year-olds in seventh grade are doing it, but at least that’s somewhat more plausible. It’s hardly unheard-of for kids that age to experiment with sex with one another, and it doesn’t always necessarily reflect a broken home or coercion.

5. Likewise, girls of nine and ten should not be dating and making out, particularly with older boys! I totally removed Kit’s relationship with Jerry because it looked so creepy to my adult eyes. Cinni’s relationship with Barry also needs toning down, but if she’s 12 and he’s 14 when they get together (after two years of a mutual crush), the weird factor is lessened.

6. Toddlers don’t give a damn about politics. Why would Cinni, at barely two, want to write a letter to Pres. Hoover? I don’t think I understood who Reagan was until I was four, during the 1984 election.

7. They never really feel their supposed age until they’re about fifteen. Is it really lampshading if even the author feels like something isn’t right?

8. It speaks volumes how I deliberately made their ages ambiguous in the first two books during the final rewrites. At most, it’s said they’re under twelve, and that they look much older than they really are. If an event associated with a specific age is referenced, like Laura’s First Communion, it’s vaguely “awhile ago” instead of given an exact date.

9. When their ages are finally revealed early in the third book, that doesn’t change anything. The reader might be used to seeing them as very advanced and precocious, but they’re still only nine at that point. I imagine many people would sit back in disbelief. Only a few people over the years had the guts to ask, “These kids are supposed to be twelve?”

10. People in my now-inactive local writing group assumed they were about eleven or twelve in the first book. They would’ve been shocked had I said they were seven and turning eight!

11. Precocious puberty! It’s a huge cause for concern when girls begin growing breasts at all of six or seven years old and start menstruating at seven, eight, nine, ten. Entirely more believable, and less creepy, if they start these processes a few years later.

12. The fourth book was originally just a very short (11K) collection of loosely-connected vignettes, with no real plot or consistent story arc. It also didn’t feel like a proper, fitting conclusion to a series or setting things up for the next series and a new stage in these characters’ lives. Now the main storylines are built around the characters’ approaching elementary school graduation and the struggle Cinni and Kit have to get permission to switch to the progressive track when their mothers disapprove.

13. It’s a really annoying, overused trope when a child is so advanced beyond his or her years, as well as highly unrealistic in most cases. Even a super-intelligent, mature kid is still only mature and intelligent for that age, not as mature and intelligent as adults.

14. It’s also one thing if a single character, like Lisa Simpson or Stewie Griffin, is a savant. Entirely another when everyone that age looks, talks, acts, and thinks like miniature adults.

15. I was young myself when I created them, and preteens and teens ain’t exactly known as very self-reflective. One of the blessings of youth is that we never realise just how young we are at any given age or stage. We always believe we’re so much more mature, sophisticated, experienced, intelligent, world-wise than we really are, only to discover in shock just how immature, inexperienced, cringey, and silly we were at 11, 13, 15, 17, 21, even 24 or 25. We rarely see ourselves the way we truly are.

16. There was always a gap between September 1945–April 1947. What better way to fill it than by giving them storylines and adventures fitting their new age?

17. It seems kind of grotesque and freakish to imagine a 7-year-old who looks and acts like a 13-year-old.

18. It would feel more believable and natural for Sparky and Cinni to start having their kids when they’re out of college. As originally written, Sparky has three kids and Cinni is pregnant with her fourth by the time they graduate. There’s zero depiction of any real struggle to juggle college and childrearing. I was only fifteen when I wrote about those years, after all.

19. Their high school years (what I wrote of them) were shallow, cliché, derivative junk. Regardless of age, I would’ve radically rewritten them anyway.

20. I suspect I hatched the angle of a deliberately over the top spoof and satire in part to cover up their shocking, age-inappropriate antics and pass them off as being there for a purpose. As music teacher Busload told my buddy Bruce when he submitted his vulgar parody of “My Favorite Things,” “This isn’t satirical. This is filth!” There was just too much reveling in the worst of human nature, and everyone looks so mean-spirited, gross, cruel, selfish, psychotic, shallow, vindictive, violent.

21. I may have written these characters all the way to 1998, but only two of those books have been published to date, plus two more where a few of them (most notably Sparky) appear as secondary characters. The frogging and retconning would be much more difficult if I had to memory-hole and reconstruct years of official established history. The worst obstacle is probably the advanced maternal age of some of the ladies when they have their final kids.

22. I’m toying with the supernatural storyline of Cinni and her friends having time stand still for two years (which would put them back at their original age eventually) if Cinni makes the right decision about the life path to take in the fourth book. She’ll have a lot of dreams about a mysterious ancestor, who shows her many possible trajectories for her life in alternative universes, including the one I originally crafted. Everything ultimately joins back together.

Posted in Editing, Fourth Russian novel, Rewriting, Writing

IWSG—Ready for the homestretch and second draft

In loving memory of Keith John Moon, who left the material world 44 years ago today at the tender age of 32.

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:

What genre would be the worst one for you to tackle and why?

Epic high fantasy isn’t my genre at all. The fantasy short story I wrote a few years ago for an IWSG Anthology contest was more along the lines of magical realism, with a real-world setting (737 Japan) commingled with fantasy elements. Doing an entire book with a purely fantasy setting and the complicated rules of the genre seems impossible.

I also could never do YA contemporary, sorry not sorry. Just not the types of stories I connect with, and first-person present tense makes my eyes glaze over 99% of the time.

I’ve now gone through the entirety of what I’ve completed to date of Dream Deferred (a combination of skimming and in-depth reading, depending upon the necessity). During this process, I made notes of important details I’d forgotten (e.g., Kleopatra and Yaël are left-handed; Nestor’s first gift to his future wife Yustina is a Matryoshka necklace she treasures), things to add, and things to take out or move to the fifth book.

I made the above notes quite some time prior, a handy guide to the dating of the chapters set around the start of an academic year. Because I wrongly assumed the autumn semester always started the first week of September, I now have a bunch of things to shift around. I 100% blame myself for not doing enough research and engaging in arrogant presentism. Thankfully, I’ve now tracked down all the relevant dates from archives of The New York Times, student newspapers, and the U of Minnesota’s press releases.

Miraculously, I finally found The Minnesota Daily archives over seven years after they went MIA! It’s still not an ideal storage system, and not all issues are scanned in entirety, but at least the issues for the years I need are available again. The press releases fill in the gaps. Someone needs a better digital archivist.

The highest concentration of things to be junked or moved came in Part IV and the latter half of Part III. I got so caught up in my runaway storyline to nowhere about the Konevs moving back to NYC, I kind of forgot the subtitle is Lyuba and Ivan at University. Even before that, I didn’t have enough scenes of them at university or working on assignments!

In Part IV, they appear in less than half of the 23 chapters completed to date, and almost only when they’re visiting New York or talking about their move (or, in Ivan’s case, fighting against it). Their youngest children are likewise MIA.

As this embarrassing omission dawned on me, I began rethinking the retention of one of Part IV’s major storylines, which begins near the end of Part III. Cousins Zhdana and Susanna get pregnant during their junior year at NYU, and there’s a whole lot of sprawling drama I felt helpless to rein in. Great storyline, wrong book.

Now that I’ve gone through the entire book, vs. just skimming through parts of it out of full context, I remember why I wanted to junk a lot of the storylines that arise in Part IV. They pull the attention away from the main, long-established storylines. In the fifth book, they’ll be able to shine more strongly, since they can arise earlier and have much more time to develop.

It’ll almost feel like I’m writing this book all over again, since there are so many important events I forgot about or didn’t think to include. Even in a book with a deliberately large ensemble cast and multiple storylines, you don’t want TOO much going on, nor to introduce and rush through a major storyline when everything else is heading towards happy conclusions.

Posted in Editing, Fourth Russian novel, Rewriting, Writing

IWSG—A miraculous flash of seeing everything clearly

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:

When you set out to write a story, do you try to be more original or do you try to give readers what they want?

While we should be aware of current literary conventions and trends, someone who aspires to be a writer for all time should ultimately be true to one’s own voice, style, and interests. Even if you’re writing in a popular genre, like paranormal romance, you should at least use an original angle that makes your story stand out instead of obediently fitting into a mindless cookie cutter. Why be one of a million when you can be one in a million?

I set a 15K goal for July Camp NaNo and overachieved, though the majority of my writing was creative non-fiction for blog posts, not the actual declared project, my radical rewrite of The Very Last. I suspect I didn’t write as much as I could for TVL because I wasn’t starting it as an entirely new project or writing only new chapters.

Towards the end of July, I began reconsidering what I thought was a rejected storyline for Dream Deferred, the Konevs relocating back to NYC en masse in June 1952. I last seriously worked on it in March 2020, and the most recent chapter, still unfinished, was begun on 28 July 2020 and not updated since 28 October 2020. Lockdown ruined what seemed to finally be the homestretch.

And just when I was almost decided on resurrecting the aborted storyline that bloated the already sprawling wordcount and made me lose control of my own book, the most perfect development came to me. It’s so perfect, I had to look for reasons to possibly reject it. After all, I wasn’t going to make the same mistake twice!

What if the Konevs had chosen Minneapolis instead of St. Paul when they moved to the Twin Cities? That makes more sense, since it’s the location of the university, and it’s more likely a progressive academy like Stefania Wolicka would be there. Also, Minneapolis has always had more population and been more vibrant and cosmopolitan than St. Paul.

Anton, the second husband of Lyuba and Ivan’s goddaughter Lyudmila, will alert them to an old mansion next to his on East River Road that just came on the market. In that era, Victorian houses were often abandoned or sold for very cheap prices on account of being so unfashionable.

With Tatyana’s family buying the house next to that by surprise, there’ll be more than enough land for dear horse Branimir to enjoy his autumn years. There’s also ample land for hobby farming, gardening, and keeping some non-working farm animals.

On the same block will be the girls’ new friends from school, who won’t have to be introduced at the very end of the book.

Kabardin horse (Branimir’s breed), Copyright Helgie12 at WikiCommons, Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International license.

In preparation for striking while the iron’s hot and refreshing my familiarity with the story, I began skimming through it. After almost two years away, I’d forgotten many things—little details, major plot points, seeds being planted for developments in future books.

To my great surprise, the only major issue is the aborted moving back to New York storyline. The overall story wasn’t nearly as trainwreck as I thought it was. Even the major subplots that arise in the final quarter or so are on-point and so entwined with the pre-existing storylines, it would be a mistake to move them into the fifth book. Only a few need moving or junking.

As the real-life Father Andrew Rogosh of St. Michael’s Russian Catholic Church (pictured above) says to Ivan’s much-younger sister Varya:

“….When one boils dilemmas down to their core essence instead of obsessing over a succession of minute details, the easiest solution often appears quickly.”

Have you ever found an epiphanous solution after it seemed you’d written yourself into an impossible corner? Discovered a story wasn’t nearly as trainwreck as you thought it was after some time away?