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Worrying about wordcount

An editor friend once told me to let a story be as long as it needs to be. Which is good advice in theory, but not always realistic when worrying about submission guidelines.

Short story calls tend to be in the range of 2,500-5,000 words, with 7500 words as an upper limit. Totally Bound, which is the publisher behind Capturing the Moment says that novellas start at 25,000 words and novels at 50,000. Other publishers say a novel is 75,000 or 80,000 words. Other wisdom holds that a novel is around 100,000 words.

In general I find that it is easier to trim a story than to lengthen it. Taking a story and trimming off all the tangents, the many times I use “just” as a filler word, and other bits here and there streamline the story. If you look at a writer like Malin James, every single word serves a purpose–there isn’t so much as a spare syllable.

However, when I sat down to write Capturing the Moment, it was with the explicit goal of writing a novella. That felt like stretching my writing muscles, as the longest thing I’d had professionally published at that point was a 5,000 word story. Writing 25,000 words wasn’t easy, and I had to keep asking myself what I could have them do within the guidelines of a 24 hour story (at the time I was writing to a specific call, but ended up going with a different publisher for personal reasons).

It took me eight months (with a big health related break) to get from the first word to submitting to a publisher.

Plunder began life as a short story in October or November of 2015. The characters wouldn’t leave me alone, so I started a novel. Unlike when I wrote Capturing the Moment, I didn’t have a specific publisher or call I was responding to. There was no exterior framing device to use. This was all on me, with the goal of at least 50k words, even as I knew 50k is often considered a long novella or a super short novel, but that was still twice the length of Capturing the Moment.

In the roughly two and a half years since, I wrote a first draft that almost killed me to get to 50k words. I felt desperate by the end of it, watching my word count slowly trickle upwards to that goal. I had a beta read and respond to it, and I began to mess around with it again at the end of last year, taking it from 50-75k words because I was then responding to questions I hadn’t answered, making things more obvious, and stregthening the weak spots that had been called out to me. I then sent it to several more people and a good friend who is also a sometimes editor of mine (Jessica Augustsson, owner of Jayhenge Publishing).

Jess asked several key questions that, along with my conversation with Beverly Jenkins, made me realize I hadn’t done anywhere near as much research as I should have for a historical.

Now I am back at the drawing board, and my writing is both ticking upward as I fill in gaps, fix historical errors, and shifting down as I trim the fat. As you could see in the top picture, my word count as of this minute is 77,003. At the end of today it could be 78,000 or 76,000, although my final goal for the book is in the 80-85k range.

Then I’ll send it back to Jess (I asked her to let me go through and fix the historical issues to the best of my ability) and we’ll see what happens then. At that point, though, the focus won’t really be on wordcount.

So what advice do I have?

My solution was to keep messing with their happiness. I think that’s probably lame advice, but it’s one of the pieces of advice I’ve always gone back to when struggling with my work. Oh, are they happy? How can I create a situation–interior or exterior–that will fuck with that.

What do I mean?

So in Plunder, one of my two MC’s is Bree, who is a young woman who grew up on her father’s ship, but was sent away to what was in effect an early finishing school. She’s leaving school and thinks she’s going to return to living on a ship when she learns that her father has arranged a marriage for her. When her ship is attacked by pirates, she negotiates with the captain for the safety of her crew. A night turns into a week, and she falls for him. Everything seems to be going well, and that could have been the end of the story. But I have him send her back to her father’s ship–an act with repercussions for the rest of the book.

In Capturing the Moment, I kept bringing in Meg and RJ’s past, because the relationship they’d had in college and just after had repercussions on how they interacted six years after their broken engagement. Eventually, they also needed to have a massive fight to deal with their past. Each time the past came up, it affected the present. By figuring out their past, it not only helped me understand where the story had to go, it affected word count.

Ultimately I don’t think there’s a magic bullet to deal with word count goals. If there was, I’d be producing stories at a much faster pace than I do. I think it’s a muscle that gets stronger as you practice your craft. I could write a novella because I’d grown strong muscles writing short stories. I can write a novel because I wrote a novella.

 

 

Twenty things about me

I thought I’d play a game I’ve seen floating around, and tell you twenty random things about me. This is totally off the top of my head…

1–I’d love to be a cake decorator/pastry chef.

2–I can’t sleep unless my room is super cold, much to the irritation of everyone else in my family when I keep turning down the thermostat.

3–I’m a Ravenclaw. (I’m wearing a Ravenclaw tank top right now, actually.)

4–I love two truly terrible movies–Deep Blue Sea and A-Team.

5–My house is fully of my photography. I have two walls of family photos and two of travel photography (soon to be more).

6–Taking cannabis has altered my quality of life dramatically. I have fibromyalgia and without it, walking is painful. Most things are painful. Taking cannabis pills alleviates a lot of the pain that my medication doesn’t.

7–I can’t draw for shit. Stick figures are about the most I can handle.

8–I used to be a teacher. I loved teaching the kids–I hate the politics, which is why I probably won’t go back.

9–I was a huge Baby-Sitters Club fan as a kid. I identify as a Kristy.

10–Even though I’ve lived outside the US, I never flew on an airplane until I was 20.

11–Next month will mark my twelfth wedding anniversary.

12–If I could have picked my own name, I’d pick Katherine.

13–My favorite candy is Reeses Peanut Butter Cups.

14–I’ve reread the Jewels series by Anne Bishop a ton of times. I’m so upset by everything going on in the US right now that I’m rereading them for comfort.

15–I hate coffee.

16–I love Disney–the movies, the animated movies, the music, the parks, all of it.

17–I keep meaning to write some Star Trek Voyager fanfic because the series finale has some serious issues. Janeway and Chakotay forever.

18–I almost moved to New Orleans, but I’d just met my husband and wanted to see where things would go.

19–After leaving a small town as soon as I could, and living in cities for the past twenty years, I’m shocked by the fact that I like living in a suburb.

20–I play violin. I started taking lessons in Singapore, but had to stop because I hurt my shoulder. I’ve just recently started playing again, and now both my girls are starting to learn, too.

Traveling, or how to get even less writing done

A few posts ago, I talked about how summer was going to be a tightrope walk in terms of trying to accomplish some real writing. Then I went on vacation with my daughters, but without my partner and learned what really getting no work done feels like.

Don’t get me wrong, I have no regrets. We saw Wicked and Anastasia (another example of changing a story without lessening either version) on Broadway, sketched in the Egyptian section of the Met, checked out the Bronx Zoo, and they climbed some big boulders in Central Park. There were girl/doll manicures and doll salon appointments at American Girl. They’re big fans of Christina Tosi on Masterchef Junior so we went to her desserterie called Milk Bar. They sulked while I made them take a photo in Times Square (#worstmomever). It was lovely.

New York was followed by a visit home to Boston. Which means seeing friends, catching up over dinners, hanging out with family, and generally having a wonderful time. I took the girls to the Museum of Science (a favorite location of mine and my husband’s), and on a Duck Tour of the city.

While I got zero writing done (even on this blog, apart from the pre-scheduled post), I’ve been left refreshed and ready to go. Apart from the minor inconvenience of surgery on Friday.

Bear with me–once I’m done with surgery, I’m all yours until August.

Review Six Weeks with a Lord by Eve Pendle

Grace Alnott’s dowry comes with a condition: she must marry a lord. Desperate for money to rescue her little brother from his abusive but aristocratic guardian, she offers half her dowry in return for a marriage of convenience.

Everett, Lord Westbury, needs money for his brother’s debtors just as cattle plague threatens to destroy his estate. Grace’s bargain is a perfect solution, until he is committed and realizes gossip exaggerated her wealth. So he makes his own terms. She must live with him for six weeks, long enough to seduce her into staying and surrendering her half of the dowry. But their deal means he can’t claim any husbandly rights. He has to tempt her into seducing him.

Their marriage is peppered with secrets, attraction, and prejudices that will change everything.

I received an ARC of this book in exchange for an honest review.

This is a great book, friends–I finished it in just over a day. I’m a sucker for a relationship of convenience that turns to romance. In 2018 with all the sexist bullshit and #metoo, I’ve also become a huge fan of enthusiastic consent. And of course, I need an independent female protagonist.

Grace is bent but not broken by her father’s will. He wanted her to marry Lord Rayner, but after everything that happened between the Lord and her maid, she wants nothing to do with him. Moreover, as leverage for her father’s attempts to matchmake Grace with Lord Rayner, he has given the Lord custody of Grace’s five year old brother Henry. The only way to get Henry back is to satisfy the condition put on her dowry–the only money she was left by her father–is to marry a Lord. So she decides upon a marriage of convenience in exchange for half her dowry. She gets the means to pursue custody of Henry, and her husband gets cash.

Of the three suitors Grace finds, Lord Everett is the only reasonable candidate, so she marries him. He negotiates a six week period in which he plans to seduce her into giving him her half of her dowry so he can pay his brother’s debts.

I love the evolution of the relationship. Everett falls first, which is a lovely change, and his honoring of the deal that he not claim any rights–that she must make the first move–is very hot. The slow burn between the two of them is well done, and the reader gets easily caught up in it.

The dialogue reflects that evolution as well. Grace starts off more reserved around Everett. Her experiences with Rayner have deeply affected her view of the aristocracy and she doesn’t trust him. She’s counting the days until she can leave at the beginning. But over time, she opens up and begins to let her guard down, and as she does so, the dialogue reflects that shift. On Everett’s side, what start out as calculated approaches turn genuine. It also stays consistent with other historical novels I’ve read, where the dialogue is period-appropriate, but not stilted.

I do not have a degree in Victorian England, but as a reader nothing jumped out at me as an obvious anachronism. From my perspective, Pendle has a strong grasp on her time period.

The secondary characters could be a little more fleshed out and that the resolution of the story was a bit fast for me. But those are very minor complaints.

 

Six Weeks with a Lord is available for pre-order. It will be published on 6/25

 

Wicked—or it’s okay to play with (some) characters

Wicked the Musical is the child of the Oz books by Frank L Baum, the movie, the book Wicked by Gregory Maguire, and is something new altogether. It’s a great example of taking something old and making something new out of it.

There are a lot of derivative works–some of them are based on characters like Romeo and Juliet, Cinderella, and a thousand other cultural icons. When you sit down to write, if you are inspired to play with those (as long as they’re not under copyright–DON’T DO THAT) go for it. If they’re under copyright, then fanfic is a great way for you to play with those characters, but I caution you not to monetize someone else’s characters.

As someone who has been writing for over thirty years, I’ve done my share of writing fanfic and with messing around with characters not under copyright.

My most recently published story “For Love of Snow White” in Myths Monsters Mutations (edited by Jessica Augustsson) is a take on Snow White. Many years ago, I was inspired to write a story where the “evil queen” was actually not evil at all, but the victim of a smear campaign. When I sat down to polish it for Jessica, she talked to me about what was my story really about. Sure, it was Snow White, but what was really my angle? Sure, the evil queen wasn’t really evil, but then why was she there? Why would she stay? What made my Snow White story different?

I realized what my story was actually about was the idea of beauty as a curse (in the end, a literal one), and the struggle between pagan and Christian traditions. (The “new religion” in the story isn’t ever actually called out as Christianity, but it’s somewhat obvious that that’s who I’m talking about.) It grew organically from there. Yes, it’s a Snow White story, but the bones of the Snow White story are just that–the bones.

The Mists of Avalon is also about paganism and Christianity, but told through the framework of the Arthurian legends.

I collect Cinderella tales, and one of my favorites (for children) is called Cinder Edna, which contrasts the eminently practical Edna, who lives next to Ella. But rather than depend on a fairy godmother for everything, Edna does things for herself. There are also countless YA and adult versions of the Cinderella myth, not to mention all the movies.

I just finished Hate to Want You by Alisha Rai. In some ways it’s another take on the Romeo and Juliet story, but it’s also it’s own thing. Livvy and Nicholas are nothing like the very young Juliet and Romeo.

One of my favorite fanfic stories is Harry Potter and the Eagle of Truthiness, written by an author I knew on Literotica when I was more active there. It places the Stephen Colbert persona from the Colbert Report as the new Defense Against the Dark Arts professor at Hogwarts, and is hilarious.

So don’t worry about being derivative, as long as you’re original.

Which brings me back to Wicked, the musical. (From here on out Wicked is the musical, Wicked is the book). I am seeing it for the fifth or sixth time today, and my youngest daughter is seeing it for the first time. Sure Wicked is the story of Glinda and Elphaba (aka the Wicked Witch of the West) before Dorothy shows up. But it’s also a story of a power hungry government suppressing its citizens and creating scapegoats (gee, how timely it feels today). It’s the story of railing against the system from the outside versus the inside. Sure it’s also a story about a love triangle, but to boil it down to that is to rob it of its complexity.

Wicked is very different from Wicked, which is a far more overtly political book. Personally I found Wicked to be a slog, and was disappointed in how little character development there was outside of politics (IN MY OPINION, DON’T @ ME.) Those of you expecting the book at the musical and vice versa are bound to be upset. Each is its own thing. Which is okay.

I will, however, admit to being a hypocrite, because if we’re talking Ella Enchanted (my favorite intermediate fiction Cinderella story–I’m a former teacher, so I’ve read a lot of children’s literature, and I’m very involved in the books my children read), I adore the book and think every copy of the movie should be burned. Sure the movie is it’s own thing, but I HATE it. Sorry, but even Anne Hathaway can’t save it.

So when you write, don’t be afraid of putting your own spin on a myth, legend, fairy tale, or story in the public domain. But know that you’ll probably never make everyone happy (hi, Ella Enchanted the movie), and that’s okay, too.

Thoughts on writing stories set in “exotic” Southeast Asian locations

As someone who lived in Asia for seven years and has written stories set in Asia, I have some thoughts about do’s and don’ts about doing so. I think some of this is applicable about writing about any location you are unfamiliar with, but I’m focusing on my former home.

Do’s

  • I hope this is an obvious one, but DO YOUR HOMEWORK. To use an example from the TV show “The Handmaid’s Tale”–in season two June spends some time hiding out in the former headquarters of The Boston Globe. She asks where she is and is told the Back Bay. Three seconds of Googling told me that the headquarters an in the financial district and the printing presses (which are in the story) were in Dorchester (another neighborhood in Boston) but have since been moved to Taunton (another town far away). The show is set somewhere in the mid 2000’s based on the soundclip they used of the Red Sox winning the World Series. This isn’t a detail that would’ve been hard to get right. The Back Bay is a district that is famous for it’s beautiful historic brick townhouses, and would never be knocked down for a building like that. Does them getting that detail wrong affect the story? No, but it’s irritating and could have easily been done correctly. Things like weather make a difference–Singapore is so humid that it feels like a slap across the face everytime you exit a building like a mall which is over air-conditioned.
  • As a follow up to doing homework–bookmark things you will need to refer to again. If your research doesn’t involve physical books (like my research for Plunder), bookmark websites and photos that inspire you. Or create a Pinterest board, if that’s your style. I’m using a mix of physical notes with topics and stars to indicate something that my research has inspired for my revisions. When I wrote Capturing the Moment I referred to not only my guidebooks and art research books (for info about the temples and their carvings) and my memories, I had a file of photos I took that were going to show up in the book whether as actual photos Meg took or just places that she and RJ would visit.
  • Try involve a local character, if you can do so without resorting to stereotypes (more on that later in the don’ts section). Singapore, from the outside, is a rigid country full of laws like no chewing gum (it’s actually more nuanced than that) with the death penalty for drugs (but moreso if you’re poor and not white–white people get deported for the most part, not executed) and is famous for canning Michael Fay in the 90’s for graffiti-ing (again, more nuanced than that). It’s anti-lgbt. BUT I have queer friends, including a drag queen. BUT I have a good friend who is an anti-death penalty activist and independent journalist. BUT there are plenty of parents who worry about the test culture. Make them a well-rounded person. They don’t have to be a main character, but they should be there (see Darany and Saroj in Capturing the Moment).
  • Do slip in some education. Details like Foreign Domestic Workers (FDW’s, more frequently colloquially called maids or helpers) in Singapore are women who are from poorer countries (the Philippines, India, Myanmar, and Indonesia) and often who have children of their own only have the right to go home for a week every two years. If they switch jobs, the clock resets and sometimes they request the money it would cost to send them home instead of actually going so they can send it home to pay for homes or education. These women take care of other people’s children while almost never seeing their own. I mention that temple children can’t afford to go to school for the most part, so the children who are riding their bikes and wave to Meg are the lucky ones in CTM. You can do this without being didactic.
  • Accept that you’ll fuck something up. I’m sure that an expat from Cambodia could rip apart parts of Capturing the Moment, and that a sailor will be able to rip apart parts of Plunder. Doing homework doesn’t mean you’ll get it 100% right. Aim for your mistakes to be smaller ones like the location of the Boston Globe and not a racist stereotype.

 

Don’ts

  • Try to refrain from the word “exotic.” It’s a word with a lot of loaded meaning and is offensive to many people. It defines the world as white and western, often American=normal, and everything else as foreign and something to gawk at. As an example, it is often applied to my elder daughter who is too dark to pass as white and not dark enough for people to accurately pinpoint the other side of her heritage as Indian. (Which in and of itself is a stereotype. She’s darker than my father-in-law who isn’t half white, and Indian can range from white-passing to people who in the US would get classified as black). It is hurtful when I hear her called that, because it is dehumanizing. Food is exotic when it’s not what you’re used to, but it’s plain old everyday food to the people who live there. Same with the weather, the flora and fauna, and facets. You can describe how alien the environment is to your MC without using the word “exotic.” Do better.
  • Do not use stereotypes about countries. When talking about Singapore, it’s cheap to just say gum is banned. Note that having the trains run on time is key in a city that largely depends on public transit (cars are six figures plus another six figures in taxes), and that when people kept putting gum over the sensors, the doors weren’t closing properly and the trains got all fucked up. The easiest solution was to prohibit public consumption of gum–you can bring gum into the country from abroad (and abroad is a 30 minute drive into Malaysia, for example), and you can purchase smoking cessation gum with a prescription, but you can’t chew it in public. Talk instead about how complex the city state is–there are giant parks to protect the natural flora and hence fauna, there are sky scrapers, there are wet markets where you can buy live frogs/halal meat/fresh fruit/etc, there are diverse neighborhoods, and vast economic disparities. Even books like Crazy Rich Asians, which portrays life in Singapore is rife with its own problems–like ignoring non-Chinese characters–Singapore is incredibly ethnically diverse, but only Chinese people figure in CRA. DO YOUR HOMEWORK
  • Do not use racial or language cues as shorthand. Darany in Capturing the Moment does not speak perfect English. But his English isn’t broken either. This is a bit of a departure from real life as my drivers’ English was not as solid as Darany’s, but using broken English to show that someone isn’t a native speaker is cheap and disrespectful. Keep in mind that due to class or history, some people in Southeast Asia *are* native English speakers. English is the main language in Singapore. Parsis in India speak English as a first language. Wealthy families throughout SE Asia may speak English as a first language, or speak it fluently enough to pass for a native speaker. Darany is from a lower class, so his English is not perfect, and doesn’t include idioms that he wouldn’t know, but it’s not broken either.
  • Don’t forget that there is significant history in SE Asia. Colonizers like the British left their mark (especially see places like India/Pakistan, and Singapore/Malaysia) and is why English plays a bit part in the lives of SE Asians. The Japanese occupied a lot of SE Asia and the oldest generations remember what it was like to live through that occupation. When Lee Kuan Yew died, the entire country went into mourning because he was the founder of Singapore–the country is only just over 50 years old but at the same time, some institutions and history predate the independence by hundreds of years. History will play an important part of your story. I mention the civil war in Cambodia briefly because there are places like Artisans Angkor which uses the funds generated by the sale of handicrafts to train young people in the art forms that were almost lost because of the civil war. So even the existence of a store can mean some within it’s historic context.

None of this is meant to discourage you from writing about Southeast Asia. It is a wonderful part of the world in which to set a story. You don’t have to visit it to write about it. But you do need to do your homework and stay respectful.

Summer

Tomorrow my baby graduates from kindergarten and the school year ends. This is a time of year that I am quite conflicted about. On one hand summer means that we don’t have to adhere to a tight schedule, and I don’t have to police homework or bedtimes. On the other hand, it is about to become immensely more difficult to get writing done.

June is actually almost a complete disaster, writing-wise. I’m going away with the girls on my own for two weeks to the East Coast, and then when we get back I’m having surgery. Nothing serious, per se, but I’ll still be out of commission for a week.

On the up side (?) my research for Plunder is coming along.

I’m on my fourth research book. I’ve read about ships, pirate myths vs reality, the history of rum, and now another book on pirates. I’ve had to go and correct an embarrassing number of things already, and it’s only the start. An example is that pirates did not wear boots. I have multiple books on race and slavery in the Caribbean, and I’m trying to think of a way to include those important details without either creating a white savior or ignoring them altogether.

As long as I can read and take notes, which I will be able to do, then hopefully I’ll be making some forward progress.

But the balance between family and work is going to go out of balance, and I’ll need to find a way to move forward. I get cranky and antsy when I’m not writing.

With the holiday, I’m only posting Tues and Thurs this week, and I hope to go back to Mon/Wed/Fri next week.