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 Fourth Russian novel, New York City, Writing

Resurrecting a rejected storyline, Part II

As I’ve been re-examining the aborted storyline of the Konevs moving back to NYC in June 1952, I’m reminded of all the many reasons it came to me in the first place, and why it felt so right, so perfect, like I’d unknowingly planted seeds for it in the previous books. The fact that it spiralled out of control so badly was the fault of poor plotting, not because it was inherently a bad idea.

I broke a kind of really important rule of writing: Always have a clear idea of where you want to go with something instead of basing a storyline around a general notion.

I got so excited about the idea of the Konevs returning to New York and being back in the same place as all their friends and relatives, I lost sight of the reason behind that storyline and essentially lost control of my own manuscript. Like one crazed, I began throwing in all these complicated subplots which created even more sprawl when I should’ve begun focusing on leading the book to its dénouement.

Of course there should’ve been conflict in that storyline. However, there only needed to be ONE major conflict, Ivan’s typical bull-headed reluctance to undertake a major life change and admit to himself that he latched onto the daydream of becoming a farmer in the Midwest to escape from his father, not because he was truly drawn to that region or lifestyle.

I’m not exaggerating when I say I introduced over a dozen new subplots, some with new characters, after the halfway point. Many of them came in the last quarter or even later! I was completely out of control. A few of them do fit in naturally with the overall story, but the vast majority are nothing but sprawling clutter. Some need to be moved to the fifth book so they can be developed and resolved in a more relaxed timeframe that gives them room to breathe and shine to their deserved full potential.

I also let the important storyline about Boris’s latest foray into criminal mischief fall by the wayside, neglected for long stretches of time. Yet another thing that needs radical retooling during the editing process! It’s a lazy cop-out to have him spotted jumping bail so the trial can be moved to the fifth book.

Anyway, I was way too much in my own head while writing most of what I’ve completed to date. It doesn’t help matters that I went in with only a vague idea of how to execute the title storyline of Lyuba and Ivan at university!

Everyone spends more time talking about their exciting move to New York, or, rather, waffling back and forth with whiplash-level intensity, than, you know, actually taking concrete steps to make this move happen. None of this dialogue feels natural, like the kinds of real things people would say while planning a move and making important decisions related to it. It’s all such an obnoxious polemic against any place that isn’t NYC, an unfocused mess of a debate for apartments vs. townhouses vs. detached houses with big yards, a romanticized paean to NYC, and finally a polemic against city life. Make up your damn mind already!

I lost control of my own ship, and let it drive me instead of me driving it. It’s almost like I went into panic mode when I couldn’t figure out exactly which direction to take this storyline, and so began stuffing in everything but the kitchen sink and devolving in my writing capabilities.

Editing is not going to be a fun or easy experience.

Posted in Fourth Russian novel, New York City, Writing

Transforming a trope, resurrecting a rejected storyline

Though A Dream Deferred remains on hiatus, I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the aborted storyline of the Konevs relocating en masse back to NYC. Yes, it’s usually a bad trope when the entire cast, or a good portion of it, up and moves together. However, looking back over the posts I wrote about this matter in 2020, I was reminded of all the compelling reasons I hit upon this storyline. It spiralled out of control and never came together properly because I didn’t plot it well, not because it was inherently a bad idea.

The redirections I came up with to replace it also sound really good on paper, but they just don’t seem authentic, and would create even more complications in a manuscript that’s already sprawled well beyond my conservative initial guesstimate. The end of a book, even in a continuing series, isn’t the time to start introducing 12+ important new characters or moving people to an entirely new location!

Many of the other storylines in Dream Deferred weren’t part of my original notes either, but they all naturally fit right into the overall story, with beginnings, complications, and resolutions, and are well-incorporated with the stories of the other characters. I thought the storyline about the Konevs and their friends returning to NYC had to be a mistake because I could never decide on the details, as though I were helpless against taking some time out to think through all the possible residences, neighborhoods, and schools BEFORE going any further.

Instead, that sprawling hot mess of a storyline is enough to give anyone major whiplash. I changed so many things over and over, often abandoning them in media res. Apartments are so superior to houses! No one wants to live in an apartment! Townhouses are awesome! Townhouses have too many stairs to constantly go up and down! Everyone wants a yard! Kids don’t need a yard when they can go to the parks! New York is the best city ever! Minnesota is so inferior! New York is too crowded! Minnesota has good schools and museums too! We’re moving back to New York! We can’t decide! We’re staying in Minnesota!

I was also guilty of applying presentism to a story set in the early 1950s. While I still feel NYC is a lazy default setting, its overuse in books and films isn’t without merit. The city has an incredible energy, and it’s gut-loaded with world-class schools and museums. In 1952, given the choice between Minnesota’s Twin Cities and NYC, of course a family would choose NYC if they wanted top-notch academic and artistic opportunities.

It makes sense for Nikolas to want to stay in NY after Katrin’s retrial and open a progressive law firm in the tradition of Clarence Darrow, and for his son Andrey to complete his Ph.D. there and join a new psychotherapy practice helping Shoah survivors. While San Francisco did have many survivors, there were a whole lot more in NY.

Plus, the Konevs have so many relatives and friends there, characters I won’t need to introduce and start developing at the end of the book. Ivan wants to be close to his aunt and uncle in their autumn years, and Lyuba wants to be near her mother, stepfather, and stepsisters again. It’s inconvenient for them to constantly travel 1,000 miles and stay with relatives for family celebrations like weddings, graduations, and baptisms.

I ended up barely using the Novak-Kolarov family in any significant way after Part I, and with the radical exception of Léa, the Kahns likewise didn’t become the major secondary characters I envisioned them as. The Novak-Kolarovs also have lots of family in St. Paul, and the Kahns aren’t eager to resettle yet again. Thus, there’s no reason for them to come along for this move.

Fedya and Novomira built a life and a circle of friends in NYC while they were in school, and only returned to Minnesota out of expectation and duty. They didn’t want to leave. Fedya also misses being near his Army buddies, just like Darya misses the three friends she survived the Shoah with.

And while there were already subtle signs of the city’s decline by 1952, it weren’t as though massive urban decay and a high crime rate erupted overnight. NYC still had a great quality of life through the 1950s, and into the early 1960s as well. Many people stayed instead of hightailing it to suburbia.

When I finally resume Dream Deferred, I’ll have a lot of things to think about. Maybe Lyuba and Ivan really will choose to remain in St. Paul, but that has to be a well-thought-out decision, not a defeatist retreat to my original idea after everything else failed due to poor plotting.

Posted in Fourth Russian novel, New York City, Writing

How a poorly-planned storyline fell apart

When a storyline never advances past a vague idea, or you can’t decide which way exactly to take it, that’s a very strong sign it’s not meant to be. That was precisely what happened with my aborted storyline of the Konevs moving back to NYC in June 1952.

How did it fall apart, and why did I realize it? Let me count the ways.

1. They spend way more time talking about their exciting upcoming move, or in Ivan’s case resisting it, than actively planning it! Who the bloody hell commits to moving 1,000 miles away and enrolling in grad school without guaranteed housing lined up?

2. I kept going back and forth re: which neighborhood they should live in, and getting lost in rabbit holes of research. The West Village? The Upper West Side? Hamilton Heights? Morningside Heights? One of the districts within Victorian Flatbush? Staten Island?

3. Likewise with housing type. A penthouse? A luxury apartment? The mother-in-law suite in Katrin’s penthouse? A townhouse? A rowhouse? Sharing a townhouse with relatives? An estate in Victorian Flatbush?

4. I also kept going back and forth re: which schools everyone should attend. For the adults, should it be Columbia, City College, Brooklyn College, Columbia Teachers College, the Pratt Institute, NYU, Hunter, or Sarah Lawrence? For Sonyechka and Tamara, is Walden or New Lincoln a better fit?

5. Even if Lyuba sometimes said, well before this storyline, she wished the family still lived in New York, that wasn’t a true, active wish. Doesn’t everyone sometimes wonder about the path not taken? Deep down, she knows her life is in Minnesota now.

6. Speaking of, why would Tatyana and Nikolay uproot their six kids to move 1,000 miles away because they miss their friends? It’s like Plinio in Hermann Hesse’s The Glass Bead Game (his only novel I found a slog instead of a joy to read), whining to his former best friend Joseph Knecht about how they grew apart. This bothered him for 20 years?! Move on, dude!

You can never really go home again. People and places change, even if everyone’s still there and the cityscape is the same on the surface. We acquire different lifestyles as we age. Raising a family and working take priority over carefree fun.

7. It played right into the overly romanticized view of New York as the best of all possible cities, the only city worth anything.

8. Though it was rather subtle, the city was entering the first stages of its tragic decline in this era. Where would the Konevs go after the city began noticeably deteriorating?

9. The severe housing crisis created during the Depression only got worse after WWII. They would not have had first priority on one of the precious units available, and a detached house in the outer boroughs would’ve resulted in a long commute.

10. It felt like a preachy polemic about the superiority of urban apartment life over farm country and traditional houses.

11. It necessitated too many convenient plot twists and cluttery storylines justifying almost the entire Minnesota cast relocating en masse!

12. Everyone began talking like they were never really happy in Firebird Fields and couldn’t wait to wash their hands of farming. Despite the difficulties, they were so happy to finally be out of the congested city and have large houses, fresh air, clear skies, open spaces, and sunlight again!

13. Katya points out Lyuba substituted one daydream for another. Yes, it sucks that her life was turned upside-down by the Revolution, but in her early fifties, she can only do so much towards returning to the path her life otherwise would’ve taken. Who’s to say her New York life would automatically be so much more awesome the second time around?

14. Their New York friends and family have missed living close by, but never expressed such severe longing to be together again before! All of a sudden it’s a huge hardship and heartache.

15. Deep down, I couldn’t picture the Konevs as apartment people, even in a sprawling penthouse with two stories, a big terrace, great amenities, and a gorgeous courtyard. They only lived in communal housing when they had no choice.

16. Ditto living in a multi-story, fairly narrow townhouse sharing walls with other homes. Just not who they’ve ever been, despite staying in relatives’ townhouses when they visit.

17. Where would they put their dear horse Branimir, another Long Island stable?

18. On the flip side of the NYC lovefest was a Minnesota hatefest. Everyone talks like it’s a cultural and intellectual desert!

19. Can’t these people think outside the familiar? There’s no reason everyone needs to either stay in Minnesota or return to NYC if there’s truly a pressing need to move.

20. Though Nikolay resents how farming gave him an automatic draft exemption in WWII, he and Tatyana truly do love that simpler lifestyle.

21. The main plotlines of the future sixth book are based around Sonyechka and Tamara NOT living in the same city as their parents!

To be continued.

Posted in Fourth Russian novel, New York City, Writing

How an aborted storyline came together

My original plan for the ending of A Dream Deferred was for Lyuba and Ivan to return to Firebird Fields and farming after graduating from the University of Minnesota. Their youngest children, Sonyechka and Tamara, would resume the small local school.

And then the Konevs went to NYC for their friends Kat and Nikolas’s 30th anniversary, and everything changed.

During that week, Sonyechka and Tamara attend Father Spiridon’s church camp and become friends with Pravdina and Zikatra Mytnik, Oksana Zyuganova’s daughters.

Pravdina and Zikatra attend the radical Walden School, and attended the even more radical Summerhill in London. Sonyechka loves how intellectual, politically aware, cultured, and sophisticated they are.

Sonyechka and Tamara beg their parents for permission to stay an extra week instead of returning to Minnesota. During that week, Sonyechka gets a bug in her ear about the family relocating to NYC so her parents can attend grad school and she can attend Walden.

From that point forward, a chain reaction is set in motion, as one by one everyone in Minnesota begins declaring how they never truly felt at home in farm country and need to return to NYC to accomplish anything with their lives.

Except….

This plot-changing extra week in New York is never depicted! We only hear about it afterwards, when Sonyechka talks about how Pravdina suggested she impersonate her parents in graduate school applications. We also hear several times about how Sonyechka found Ilya’s senior portfolio project while giving Pravdina and Zikatra a tour.

Once Sonyechka comes home, suddenly Stefania Wolicka Academy, a very progressive school which gave her a full scholarship, is the worst school ever, far too freewheeling and not academically rigourous enough. Not that long ago, she lauded it as the best school ever!

Instead of significantly toning down how radical Stefania Wolicka is, I created a storyline about Irina, Sonyechka, and their friends (including the boys at next-door Johann Heinrich Pestalozzi Academy) losing their scholarships due to financial difficulties. They’d finish the year at a new Quaker school, and then go on to Walden after the entire Minnesota cast relocated.

This whole storyline was for naught, since Ivan’s prodigal father, in the thick of his latest attempt at repentance, comes to the rescue with full tuition for everyone for the rest of the school year. He follows this up with expensive birthday and Christmas presents, and letters far more good-natured and personal than usual, leading Lyuba and Ivan to wonder just where he’s getting all this money from and why he’s suddenly acting so charitable.

Lyuba and Ivan’s respective advisors strongly recommend grad school, and of course they heavily push for New York schools instead of staying where they already are. Because apparently the University of Minnesota is a no-name school with inferior programs and professors. </extreme sarcasm> Conveniently, they also have connections at Walden who’ll greenlight Sonyechka and Tamara’s acceptance.

It doesn’t take long for Lyuba to jump on this precious opportunity to get a master’s degree from Columbia and finally do something with her intellect. Her advisor thinks she’s brilliant enough for a Ph.D.

Prof. Eduard Novak, the father of Sonyechka’s best friend Kleopatra, also gets a letter from Columbia, inviting him to join their archaeology department thanks to the influence of an old friend. Prof. Novak had a nervous breakdown after surviving the brutal Croatian camp Jasenovac, but now he’s finally ready to return to public life.

In November, there’s a meeting in Firebird Fields, which has suddenly become an unincorporated community instead of a real town. Due to an increasing hemorrhage of population, they need to vote on gaining official town status, becoming a suburb of Duluth (a stone’s throw away), being annexed to Duluth, or remaining on their own.

This is all the push needed for Fedya to decide to apply to Columbia Teachers College to become an art teacher. He only returned to Minnesota out of blind duty and to avoid disappointing his parents, and Novomira never wanted to return.

Tatyana and Nikolay also start making plans to move.

While in New York during winter break, Lyuba’s real estate agent cousin Ginny shows them a former hotel in the West Village, being refurbished into luxury apartments for less by a philanthropist who wants to entice a more moneyed population back to the neighborhood.

This would never have happened during such a severe housing crisis! People would’ve been squatting in that hotel, or it would’ve been split into many SROs since the Depression.

Sonyechka sends a telegram to Dr. Scholl, suggesting Dr. Persida Kolarov (Kleopatra’s mother) for his new progressive clinic.

On Russian Christmas, Andrey accepts an offer to do his psychology Ph.D. residency at a new Manhattan practice specializing in Shoah survivors, since there are so many in the city.

Dmitriy gets furlough from Korea for Katya’s 26th birthday in March, and of course she gets pregnant. You guessed it, she must leave beautiful, sunny Berkeley to join her family in New York!

For good measure, let’s have the Kahns join the Konevs and Novaks too.

To be continued.