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?

Posted in Editing, Fourth Russian novel, New York City, Rewriting, Writing

Pros and cons of the Konevs relocating back to NYC

I can’t say enough about the importance of putting a project on hiatus if you’re just not feeling it or you can’t decide which direction to take it in. Forcing words that don’t want to come is a recipe for disaster, and if you’ve lost control of your ship, continuing to steer it through the eye of a storm will only make things even worse.

The tentative chapter-by-chapter notes I made for Dream Deferred in 2015 have very little detail about the Minnesota storylines. Thus, it’s no wonder I almost immediately lost control when I took them in a completely unexpected direction. Nothing had been planned in advance.

I thought only of pros for the Konevs moving back to NYC and cons for remaining in Minnesota when I hatched that unplanned subplot. As I lost more and more control, I could only think of cons for going to NYC. However, I still had no strong feelings about where exactly they should go.

Pros of NYC:

1. All their relatives and many close family friends live there.

2. Ivan’s aunt and uncle, and Lyuba’s mother and stepfather, are now in their autumn years. It’s hardly unusual for people to move closer to elderly family.

3. NYC in 1952 was the centre of the art world. Where else could Ivan get a proper fine arts education and have a successful art career?

4. Likewise with Lyuba getting a master’s degree in history from a top-notch university and finding a career in that field.

5. In the conformist 1950s, big cities were safer for against the grain people.

6. Sonyechka and Tamara are really excited about living near their new friends in the Zyuganov family and attending the famous progressive Walden School with them.

7. With only two kids left at home, Lyuba and Ivan don’t really need a house anymore.

8. There are more opportunities for everything in NYC!

9. Who wouldn’t want to live in such an exciting city?

10. So many museums and libraries!

11. Lyuba and Ivan deserve a do-over of their NYC experience. This time, they’d do everything properly, in much happier circumstances.

12. It’s very convenient for future plots if everyone is in the same location instead of only together for family celebrations.

13. They regularly left their farm to visit NYC anyway. Someone truly committed to that lifestyle would always be on the farm.

14. Ivan has admitted he only latched onto the dream of farming in the Midwest as an escape from his abusive father, not out of genuine passion for that profession or area.

15. Their oldest children never felt deprived because they lived in an apartment and had to go to parks instead of playing in a backyard.

16. Those oldest children also admit they only came home to Minnesota after graduation because of familial duty. They were quite happy in the city, and didn’t want to leave.

17. It’s the perfect time to start over, and for their oldest children to establish new lives.

18. They never set down real Minnesota roots.

19. The Green Revolution forced many small farmers out of business.

20. There are fewer opportunities for art, education, and culture in Minnesota.


Copyright Simon Fraser at si@simonfraser.net

 Cons of NYC:

1. It’s a really bad trope and gimmick when the entire cast moves somewhere, unless it’s a situation like immigration.

2. It feeds into the romanticised view of NYC as the best of all possible cities.

3. NYC, like many other cities in the postwar era, had a very serious housing crisis. Very unlikely there’d be an easily-available, relatively spacious apartment waiting for them.

4. The odds of finding a single-family townhouse were even slimmer. Almost all of them were split into apartments, duplexes, and SROs years ago.

5. Speaking of, I was thinking of NYC the way it was a generation earlier, not the reality of the 1950s. This wasn’t an era of luxury prewar apartments and townhouses. Most people lived in smaller quarters.

6. The city was beginning its decline by 1952, even if the situation didn’t begin getting noticeably dire until the next decade. In a family saga or series, we should always think ahead instead of entirely in the present.

7. Sonyechka and Tamara don’t need to be uprooted yet again! Children need stability.

8. It reads like a juvenile, deus ex machina wish fulfillment. Lyuba and Ivan get accepted to Columbia! Ivan’s father croaks and leaves them $20 million to buy a luxury penthouse and spend summers travelling to places like France and Italy! The entire extended family, all their friends, and the entire Zyuganov family move into a luxury for less apartment that functions like an urban kibbutz! The magic of living in Manhattan!

9. Lyuba and Ivan are in their early fifties and still have two kids left at home. They’re not unattached people in their twenties who won’t mind living in a 200-square foot apartment in a less desirable part of town.

10. They’re kind of used to having a yard and their own front and back doors.

11. Their family has been too joined at the hip for too long.

12. During all their years apart, they’ve developed separate lives from their extended family and old friends.

13. I failed to settle on one direction for this storyline.

14. Sonyechka, who emerges as the most brilliant of their children during the fourth book, comes across like a spoilt child living in a fantasy land when she latches onto this idea of moving to NYC and essentially dictating major life decisions to her own parents.

15. It’s perfectly normal to wish we’d done things differently and long for a return to how things used to be, but that doesn’t mean packing up one’s entire life to pursue a daydream. Friends’ lives often take different paths even if they live nearby, and you can never really go home again.

16. It felt like a preachy polemic.

17. It involves way too many cluttery storylines and silly plot twists justifying a huge chunk of the cast relocating.

18. How many New Yorkers spend all their free time going to museums, libraries, ballets, operas, art galleries, film festivals, and lectures, or having deep conversations and debates with other intellectuals and artists? They have ordinary lives to live, bills to pay, families to raise.

19. We take our personalities and interests with us wherever we go. A  serious, introverted homebody won’t suddenly become super outgoing and eager to hobnob with strangers just because of the magic of the big city.

20. Believe it or not, other cities have awesome schools and museums too!

21. Where would their dear horse Branimir live? He deserves more than a city stable and daily walks in a park.

22. Deep down, I still can’t truly see Lyuba and Ivan as true-blue New Yorkers. They’re just not big-city or apartment people.

Posted in Editing, Fourth Russian novel, Rewriting, Writing

Lessons learnt from a rejected and resurrected storyline

While I wish I’d been able to finish the first draft of Dream Deferred in 2020 instead of having what promised to finally be the homestretch destroyed by lockdown, I’m glad that long break gave me so much time to clear my head and think objectively again about where I went wrong and the direction I want to take the story in. The lessons I learnt from this experience can be applied to anyone in a similar predicament.

1. You don’t need to have every detail of a storyline nailed down before you start writing, but you should at least know where you want to take it. You’ll quickly lose control of your story if you have nothing but a vague idea and keep changing your mind.

2. It’s fine to do research during the writing process, but you shouldn’t constantly interrupt yourself to go down yet another distracting rabbit hole. I couldn’t stop researching NYC schools, neighbourhoods, types of housing, commuting times, and nearby cities.

3. It’s okay to admit certain characters don’t fit into the entire story, even if your original intentions were to make them important secondary characters. Fictional people, just like real people, often naturally grow apart from friends, or develop a different kind of friendship over time.

4. It’s also okay to admit your characters outgrew a certain area, and admit to yourself that you chose the setting for the wrong reasons. This is obviously trickier to fix if it happens several books into a series, but it’s hardly unusual for people to move when life takes them in a new direction. Luckily, I planted subtle seeds, both deliberate and unknowing, in the first three books. It was just a matter of the characters themselves coming to this conclusion.

5. Go back to the beginning of the book, or at least the point where everything started falling apart, to see what went wrong and how you should fix it. Then you can plot out those chapters all over again, properly this time, along with the remaining chapters.

6. The last quarter of a book isn’t the time to start introducing over a dozen new subplots and characters! If this is strong, important material, you can move it to the next book in the series so it can shine the way it deserves. Otherwise, these storylines will be too rushed, or cause the wordcount to sprawl even further.

7. Remind yourself why you came up with this storyline in the first place. If it truly belongs there, you don’t need to drive it into the ground with chapter after chapter, dialogue after dialogue, arguing in support of it. Who are you trying to convince, yourself or your characters? Likewise, if you start second-guessing yourself, don’t go the opposite direction and bloat the manuscript with chapters and dialogues arguing against the idea.

8. If a storyline involves a major move, and this is historical, think about what that city was like in that era. Not the way it is now or the way it became 15-20 years later. In 1952, NYC was still very much a world-class city with top-flight free schools, apartments one could comfortably raise a family in, a vibrant art and intellectual scene, and a nice standard of living. It was an exciting time to live in the city, not an era of devastating urban decay.

9. There’s a lot of great dramatic and emotional potential if you discover you chose the existing setting for the wrong reasons. Maybe your characters thought a small rural town would be perfect for starting over and healing after bad experiences in a large city, or they moved to a big city because of negative experiences in a small town.

10. There’s more opportunity for big-picture storylines if most of your major characters are in the same location instead of only together for important family celebrations. A lot of my smalltown Minnesota storylines are centered around family and personal drama, whereas when the Konevs are in New York, they’re drawn into much bigger, more complicated dramas.

11. If everyone your characters know and love live in a certain city, AND there’s more opportunity there for things which are important to them (art, higher education, museums, living near other intellectuals), going home seems a foregone conclusion.

12. As the writer, you’re always the one in control. If you don’t like the way you wrote something, the onus is on YOU to change it. You’re not helplessly tethered to your original ideas no matter what. This also includes writing new scenes or chapters to fill in gaps and strengthen the overall story. Meekly writing around and on top of a hot mess will only compound the problems.

13. If you’re overwhelmed and can’t decide which direction to take things in, step away from the story to do more research, plot out a lot of different potential directions, and write lists of pros and cons.

14. If the story has moved on from certain secondary characters, the best thing to do is to let them remain in the background. You’ll make things worse if you force them back into the story. Those scenes won’t read naturally, and will feel like an awkward reminder that these people still exist.

15. If important planned storylines for future books in a series are predicated upon characters being in different cities, just move the locations.

16. Think long and hard about where your characters would truly feel most at home, and if it feels like a natural new chapter of their lives to move to another city and/or type of housing. E.g., many people move home to be near aging parents or downsize from a large house to an apartment when they become empty nesters or only have two kids left at home.

Posted in Atlantic City books, Editing, Rewriting, Writing

IWSG—Slowly getting back in the swing

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.

I didn’t get even to the halfway point in JuNoWriMo, and there were a few days I wrote zero words (since Shabbos ends so late this time of year, and I never use the computer then), but I’m fairly satisfied with this wordcount. Writing often feels more rewarding when we’re working very hard on it instead of effortlessly pouring out words.

Besides creative non-fiction, my primary focus was my radical rewrite of the book formerly known as The Very Last. I began JuNoWriMo deep in a longer than expected new chapter. About 6,000 words in, I began doubting its necessity, and moved it into a file of discards. But after I thought awhile and remembered why that weekend in Wilmington was important to Cinni’s development and character arc, I brought it back.

To tighten it up, I kept Max and Harry behind in Rehoboth Beach with their original host family during the unusually early polio scare, and axed a sprawling subplot that would’ve kept the girls in Wilmington through Tuesday.

I also wrote a new chapter, starting with a few pages I wrote last year but moved into the discards file, and finished up another new chapter I began during April Camp NaNo. Much of the material in these chapters, as in the Wilmington chapter, was discarded and only kept in the JuNoWriMo master wordcount file.

I’m glad I had to edit the working table of contents and realign the chapter order yet again, since I discovered a few were misnumbered during previous edits. Worse yet, there was an extra chapter that would’ve thrown off my even number of fifty. Serendipitously, I uncovered these embarrassing mistakes because I needed to delete a chapter heading and, as originally planned, include the celebration of Russian Orthodox Pentecost in a chapter about June’s various religious and secular celebrations. 

Now I’m back to working on a chapter I began last year, also a new addition.

Russian ikon depicting the first Pentecost, ca. 1850–1900; Copyright Хомелка (Khomelka)

This is such a beautiful example of hashgacha pratit (Divine Providence), since had I continued my rewrite in 2015, I never would’ve realized I needed to add a lot of new chapters and junk even more than I’d originally cut. Not only that, it would’ve remained a primarily episodic story, and Cinni would’ve stayed a rather static character instead of someone slowly undergoing more and more maturation and shifted priorities.

Plus, I hadn’t written the final drafts of The Very First and The Very Next in 2015 either. E.g., in TVN, Cinni goes to a marvellous bazaar in the neighborhood’s Bohemian Quarter, and this plants a bug in her ear about switching to her school’s progressive track and pursuing a different kind of life for herself. Also in TVN, Cinni attends Tisha B’Av evening services with Sparky’s family, and is so personally affected by the depressing images in Lamentations, she’s inspired to observe a semi-fast herself (being too young to fast for 24 hours) and follow all the other mourning customs. This nudges along her nascent pull towards Judaism.

I’m proud of all the wisdom and experience I’ve accrued over my lifetime, much of which naturally extends into my writing. Being over the age of 40 really isn’t as bad as I used to fear (esp. since no one ever guesses my age as anywhere close to that).