Posted in Atlantic City books, Names, Secondary characters, Writing

Character name changes should never be forced

If you’re observing Yom Kippur in lockdown, may you have an easy and meaningful fast despite being deprived of going to synagogue and being with other people!

I recently took a short break in prepping the paperback production of the book formerly known as The Very First (always the title I’ll think of it as) to start work on the final draft of the book formerly known as The Very Next (also always the title I’ll think of that book as). Despite this delay, I have confidence TVF will be ready for its print run soon.

While going through TVN, I began thinking about how many of the Polish characters’ names are kind of boring. Not that that makes them bad names at all, just that they were chosen by a teenager in the pre-Internet age. While naming tended to be more conservative in the old days (i.e., the same small pool of names vs. a wider variety), it wasn’t super-unusual to encounter a name outside the Top 100.

Knowing now that it was extremely uncommon for Polish Jews to have Polish names, I added the detail that the Polańskis and Robleńskis got those surnames from ancestors who converted to Judaism.

A crit partner several years ago thought the explanation/defense of Polish first names is a bit overdone. I took her advice and reworked that aspect so it doesn’t sound so heavy-handed and run into the ground.

All that really matters is that the Polańskis are a modern family who feels it’s important to prove they’re just as authentically Polish as the Gentiles. That includes mostly having Polish names and not speaking Yiddish. They don’t want extra ammunition for persecution.

I changed the names of Krzyś’s older sisters Bogda and Filipa to Salomea and Faustyna, and while those are lovely names, they felt wrong immediately. While Bogda was never particularly developed, Filipa later becomes an important character as Samuel Roblenski’s second wife, the late-life love match he was denied in his first marriage. I can’t think of her by any name but Filipa!

Bogda, however, is also the name of Cinni’s great-grandma, and I’d prefer to avoid confusion by having two secondary characters with the same name. Bronia sounds close enough, and I’ve always liked that nickname for Bronisława.

I also changed the name of Kryzś’s uncle by marriage from Lech Gold to Bruno Lerner. Lech is already the name of Cinni’s grandfather, and Gold was a lazy, thoughtlessly-chosen surname. This guy’s the biggest intellectual in the family, the only one with a Ph.D., working with rare books at the National Library. I also intend to develop him into a more important secondary character, so he deserves more than a placeholder name.

Likewise, I’m changing the surname of Bruno’s adult stepdaughters from Szymborska to Saperstein. Too many names of Gentile origin in the same family feel implausible. It’s pretty obvious I wasn’t socialized in the Jewish community, since I genuinely didn’t know how unusual it was for most people to have surnames native to the host culture!

Bruno’s kids deserve more original names than Zalman and Luiza too. They were originally Solomon and Liza, and later changed to the closest Polish equivalents. Again, nothing wrong with either name, but not chosen carefully, and hardly the kinds of names an intellectual would give his kids.

I played with changing Cinni’s mother’s name to Carine, but that felt instantly wrong. Instead, I changed her birth name from Katarzyna to Karolina, her legal name became Caroline, and her nickname went from Cairn to Carin. One of her great-granddaughters is later named Karyn in her honour, so I couldn’t stray too far.

I’ll admit I was hesitant about keeping her name because it’s now a sexist pejorative. I immediately stop reading when someone calls a woman a “Karen”! If she’s done something legitimately bad, call out the specific action instead of using a slur that terminates thought, shuts down dialogue, and encourages more insulting of and presumptions about a stranger you know nothing about!

The best time to change a character’s name is early on, before you’ve had a chance to become emotionally attached to it. It’s also much easier to change if you’ve had a story shelved for a long time, or this is a secondary character you never got to know very well.

If it feels wrong, you’ll immediately sense it. And if it feels right, that new name might as well represent an entirely different character, nothing in common with the one bearing the original name.

Posted in 1930s, Atlantic City books, Historical fiction, Writing

WeWriWa—The awkward first impression concludes


Welcome back to Weekend Writing Warriors and Snippet Sunday, weekly Sunday hops where writers share 8–10 sentences from a book or WIP. The rules have now been relaxed to allow a few more sentences if merited, so long as they’re clearly indicated, to avoid the creative punctuation many of us have used to stay within the limit.

I’m currently sharing from my recently-released How Kätchen Became Sparky, a book which I’ll always think of as The Very First, its title for many years. It’s set from August 1938–January 1939, as new immigrant Katharina Brandt, now called Katherine Small and nicknamed Sparky, seeks to become a real American girl without compromising her Judaism or German and Dutch customs. Meanwhile, her new best friend, Cinnimin Filliard, learns there’s more than one way to be a real American.

Sparky and her family are attending services at Beth Kehillah with her family on their first Sabbath in Atlantic City. Unfortunately, they don’t mesh well with these second-generation Americans. When several congregants try to make conversation after services, their differences become increasingly magnified. Mrs. Small and Sparky were just advised to stop dressing so modestly, and Mrs. Small was told not to cover her hair with a tichel (scarf).

“Thank you for that unsolicited advice.” Mrs. Small forced a smile. “My family will be going home for lunch now. I don’t suppose there’s a hospitality committee arranging for Sabbath meal invitations for newcomers.”

“What would be the point of that?” the second husband asked. “If there is one, we’ve never cared enough to inquire. Your family is too religious for this congregation. You’d be better-off attending an Orthodox synagogue.”

Sparky was awash in humiliation as her family made their way out.

The nine lines end here. A few more follow to finish this section.

“It’s only the first visit,” Mrs. Small said. “We shouldn’t rule it out so swiftly. Perhaps this wasn’t the most ideal day, or we encountered the wrong people. If it still doesn’t feel like an ideal fit in a few months, we can go elsewhere. First impressions are wrong sometimes.”


I’d hoped to have the paperback version ready to go within a week or two of the e-book release, but it turned out to be a slightly longer process than I expected. I also took a break of about two weeks to start work on the final draft of the book formerly known as The Very Next. The print version will definitely finally be ready before Halloween!

Posted in Atlantic City books, Editing, Historical fiction, Rewriting, Writing

One of the worst hist-fic tropes

I recently started working on the final draft of the book formerly known as The Very Next. Now that the book formerly known as The Very First has been published at 90K, the sequel’s 75K length seems a bit imbalanced. I’d like all four books in the prequel series to be of fairly equal size.

Those extra words will come mostly from four new chapters. There were 37 chapters in the radical rewrite of 2015, and that odd number bugged me. I admit I’m superstitious about auspicious and inauspicious numbers and dates.

Now there are thirty chapters in Part I, and ten in Part II. I also deleted a three-page chapter from Part II, “The von Hinderburgs’ Mistake.” And why might that be?

It uses one of the worst tropes of hist-fic, particularly WWII hist-fic! It was also poorly-written even after the rewrite, and badly-incorporated with the entire rest of the remainder of the story.

You’ve probably seen this trope in at least one book and/or film. Someone travels to Poland for a really convenient, paper-thin reason right on the eve of WWII, and of course finds him or herself trapped there, either short-term or long-term. Herman Wouk (may he rest in peace) did this in The Winds of War. It was also done in Masterpiece Theatre’s World on Fire recently.

It doesn’t necessarily have to be Poland in 1939. The trope could also be coming to San Francisco right as the hippie movement starts, being stuck in England during the Blitz, travelling to Russia on the eve of the Revolution, being in France on the eve of their Revolution, going to Iran in 1979, going to visit a friend in East Berlin and overnight finding oneself stuck behind the newly-erected Berlin Wall, conveniently-timed situations like that.

Yes, many great storylines and entire books are built around a character finding oneself in a strange situation one doesn’t really understand, but that can easily be accomplished without getting into whatever setting just as trouble’s about to erupt!

Near the very end of Volume II of Journey Through a Dark Forest, Darya and Oliivia set sail for France for an envisioned year of studying abroad at a Parisian lycée. In Volume III, they find themselves trapped after the invasion and occupation, and eventually become Nazi slaves. More than a few American citizens ended up in the camps, and to this day haven’t been nearly properly acknowledged and compensated.

But in other words, they were already there, for a realistic reason. The von Hinderburgs go to visit their old friend Zalman Radulski in Warsaw and end up stuck there until April 1940. By that time, Herr and Frau von Hinderburg have died of starvation, and their kids and Zalman are smuggled back in potato sacks in a truck with help from a young anti-Nazi Wehrmacht soldier. Their escape was strongly based on one of the border crossings in Maia Wojciechowska’s memoir Till the Break of Day.

There’s zero reason for them to be there now, since the Brandts and von Hinderburgs went straight from Germany to The Netherlands in 1933. I got rid of that pointless year in Poland long ago. Thus, they’d have no Polish friends to visit.

My hot mess of this storyline’s original incarnation also had Herr and Frau von Hinderburg dying in the nascent Warsaw Ghetto, despite the fact that it didn’t exist till autumn 1940. Even in Hungary, where the Shoah was implemented with lightning-quick alacrity, ghettoes weren’t created almost as soon as the Nazis invaded!

In my radical rewrite of the book formerly known as The Very Last, the von Hinderburg kids come home to multiple letters from Mr. Filliard in Atlantic City, desperately pleading them to respond so he can get them visas. Thus, it’s an important plot point that they’re away from home and unable to be reached for a very long time.

It seems much more plausible, if still incredibly foolish, for the von Hinderburgs to return to Hamburg to try to bring the rest of their relatives, and the Brandts’ family, into The Netherlands. Maybe Herr and Frau von Hinderburg could be taken prisoner and never heard from again, while their kids and old family friend Zalman escape back to Amsterdam.

Ask yourself, honestly, why your character would accompany a friend to a wedding in Poland or happen to be on a diplomatic mission there in August 1939. If you already have an ensemble cast, why not just use native Polish characters and have them eventually link up with the other people?

In The Winds of War, it particularly makes no sense for the über-WASPy Henrys to be connected to the Jewish Jastrows, beyond trope and convenience. I don’t understand why Mr. Wouk couldn’t have the two families presented separately. It’s hardly unheard-of in historical sagas to feature families and characters who don’t interact immediately.

Original stories are never built around tropes, and if any tropes are involved, they’re used in a very unique way that rises above cliché, to the point it no longer feels like a trope.

Posted in Editing, Rewriting, Writing

The perils of extremes in critiquing

So many people in creative writing clubs, critique groups, etc., make the mistake of either tearing down everything and demanding radical rewrites, or mindlessly praising and validating everything. That’s not how anyone learns how to improve one’s craft, esp. if one is a younger and/or newer writer.

Writers, artists, fashion designers, bakers, cooks, musicians, singers, etc., are being set up for a HARD fall when they hear nothing but praise for a very long time. It can feel like the rug is being yanked from under them when they finally hear criticism, even respectful criticism that still mentions strong points. Whereas if they’d received constructive critique from the jump, they’d have developed stronger skills sooner, known how to learn from mistakes and self-edit, and not had such big egos.

Likewise, those who hear nothing but cruel words or insistent demands to change almost everything no matter what can be made to feel nothing they ever do will be good enough, and stop pursuing their passion for a long time, maybe forever. Or, out of hurt pride at being constantly attacked, they’ll become very stubborn and spitefully feel they don’t need to change anything.

When I still entered critique contests, someone tore into the first 250 words of The Strongest Branches of Uprooted Trees. When I mentioned her objections to my crit group a few years later, they thought she was full of crap and didn’t have an issue or confusion with anything she bashed. Seems obvious she’s from the modern school that believes everything MUST be ripped apart no matter what.

E.g., she claimed she broke her Google looking for the meaning of the first word, Fünffürreihe (a row of five used for marching and roll calls during the Shoah). My friends understood the beyond-obvious, that it was defined in the very next line! How the bloody hell are you so dense you can’t grasp that!

She also had no idea what was going on and where these people were, why it was important to say how fast someone ran. My friends understood from the date given at the start, 30 March 1945, and other really obvious context clues, that my characters are escaping a death march. Again, are some people that dense or historically ignorant?

A failed crit partner who was a lot younger than I am bashed everything in the then-current first 5 pages of The Very First, even my lack of a title page with my name, the title, and the wordcount, how my first line was in large, bold italics, and my usage of Palatino instead of that arse-ugly Times New Roman.

It’s one thing if multiple people take issue with the same things, but when only one person, or a handful of people out of countless others, take(s) issue, it’s safe to say you’re not the one with the problem.

It did hurt when a few people point-blank said they didn’t like my Cinnimin, but I have to keep in mind everyone else who’s ever met her over the years has loved her and thought she’s an awesome, fun character full of personality. Not all characters and stories will click with everyone. While Cinni has been significantly toned down over the years, she’ll never be an annoying goody-goody who sings “Kumbaya.”

The best, least judgmental way to broach an issue in critique is asking what the writer’s intention was in, e.g., choosing a certain age for the characters, depicting violent fights as a normal solution to petty disagreements, alternating POV chapters between three characters instead of using third-person omni, a scene that feels rather over the top, starting in 1863 but then having a long, detailed flashback in the next few chapters.

That way, the onus is on the writer to explain and deeply think about decisions, not to defend the story from harsh criticism, feel compelled to make every single change suggested, or develop an ego and think no editing is required.

It’s also good to specify the kind of critique one wants. E.g., only big picture instead of surface stuff like grammar, a scene or section that doesn’t feel right, what works and what doesn’t. Writers who ask for everything to be brutally ripped apart need more confidence in their own vision and talent.

Crit groups and creative writing clubs aren’t supposed to be support groups. They’re places to learn how to grow as a writer and self-editor. Hearing nothing but fawning praise, nit-picking, or nasty comments has very negative consequences in the long run.

Posted in Writing

When should you change a character’s age?

Changing a character’s age might seem a little detail akin to changing a name or city, but it can be quite complicated. The longer you’ve been with a character, the harder it becomes to change, not just emotionally, but in terms of story infrastructure.

My long-shelved character Anne Terrick’s age was all over the place in the picture books, short stories, and finally novella-length diary format book she featured in. Sometimes she’d be a small child; other times a preteen; still others a teenager. Her location also shifted a lot. At one point she lived in Alaska, and then finally ended up in 19th century Boston and Oregon Country.

When I resurrected her in November 2017, I decided to age her up two years from the hot mess of the book I was radically rewriting. Instead of starting at ten in September 1840 and turning eleven in January 1841, she starts at twelve and turns thirteen four months later.

I was able to do this so easily because her age had never been set in stone, and she’d been shelved for 25 years. Thus, I wasn’t emotionally attached to her being a certain age and doing certain age-related things (e.g., finishing school, menarche, marriage, sweet sixteen) in specific years.

The way I wrote Anne as a preteen myself felt wildly inconsistent with her supposed age. The way she thinks, speaks, and acts feels more realistic to a junior high girl. I wanted her to start young, but not that young. If she’d stayed 10–11, her thought processes, adventures, and misadventures would’ve felt really off the mark.

Plus, I can just do more with her sooner because she’s a little older!

I made the starting age of my Atlantic City characters 11 because that was my age too. It felt right to write about peers instead of little kids or teenagers. But unfortunately, almost nothing about them reads like fifth graders. (I was in sixth grade at the time and turned 12 shortly after I created them.)

I’m far from alone in this. Many other writers have been guilty of not depicting young characters in a manner realistic to their true age. E.g., 9-year-olds who come across like overgrown babies, 12-year-olds with mature understanding of complex political issues, 16-year-olds who feel more like world-wise 30-year-olds or childish preteens.

One of the blessings of youth is that we never realise just how young we are at any given age. Just about everyone is convinced s/he’s so much more mature and smarter than peers. Only when we’re much older and have greater hindsight does it dawn on us in shock how immature, inexperienced, childish, young, etc., we were at 8, 10, 12, 13, 15, 16, 18, 21.

Thus, young writers tend not to depict people their own age as they truly are. Even many adult writers do this when they write up (e.g., MG books with 11-year-old characters written at a lower level for younger readers).

Looking back, there was a perfect window of opportunity to slightly age my Atlantic City characters up in 1997, during the final leg of writing the prequel series. While all four rough drafts were hot messes in dire need of radical rewrites, they nevertheless were a turning point in my development as a writer and getting to know who these characters truly are. They were transformed into real, complex people, no longer interchangeable names doing and saying uninspired, unoriginal things.

At that time, I was early in Saga III (the Sixties) of Cinnimin. The characters were only in their thirties. Most of them were still building their families, and others had yet to marry or have kids. I was 17, old enough to have some perspective and rethink juvenile decisions.

Had I aged them up then and there, there wouldn’t have been nearly so many complications as if I did it now. E.g., the late-life children many of the ladies have could’ve been born a few years earlier, with their storylines starting from there and proceeding accordingly.

If you decide to age a character up (or down), it’s most ideal to do it as early into the story or series as possible. That way, you won’t be particularly emotionally attached to it, and it won’t be deeply embedded into every single fiber of this world, to the point where changing it requires massive frogging and reconstruction.

You shouldn’t make a change because of pressure or suggestions from anyone else. Stand by your creative vision, even if a crit partner thinks it’d be better as MG or YA. However, I wish more people years ago had planted seeds by asking, “These kids are supposed to be eleven?” Or 12, 10, 13, etc.

If a story truly would work better were the characters a little older or younger, that should be a decision you arrive at on your own, because it just feels right. If you’re thinking about it but not 100% sure, change the age in a new draft or the rest of that book to see how it feels.

Only if it feels right down to the very core of your soul should you commit to making a permanent change. You can always change the age back if it feels wrong, but if you commit to the change in a published book, it can’t be undone nearly that easily.