Progress report

I’m currently hard at work going through my Russian novel for the umpteenth time. I gave it a bit of a break to start working on Justine Grown Up, but now I’m doing probably the first of several more run-throughs to catch any excessive wording or out of place holdovers from the original sections of the first six chapters. Currently, after having gone through the first three chapters, Part I is down to 656 pages, and the entire word count is around 345,000. I’m thinking it might not be impossible to bring it down to 340,000. That seems like a good length, considering it was around 342,000 words when I pulled all the files off of MacWriteII and ClarisWorks, and then I took out and added in a lot of new stuff.

It’s always good to take a break if you’ve spent too much time with a project. You get to a point where you’re too familiar with it, and are no longer looking at it for errors or potential improvements. You also need to get to a place where you’re comfortable letting go of things that have been in the text for a long time, need to understand why they need to go. I easily found a bunch of stupid lines and scenes I can’t believe I didn’t root out or rewrite one of the many previous times I was editing and rewriting. For example, in Chapter 8 when Ivan has his good arm broken by the horrible Misha, why does Ginny act surprised to learn Ivan’s a lefty? That’s common knowledge to him after they’ve lived together for two and a half years!

Things that reflected the original embarrassing plot, a beautiful young lady with four competing suitors who are always getting into fights to try to win her affections. Things that made Ivan seem kind of like a dick. Things that made Ginny seem kind of cartoonish in how badly-behaved he is. Sure, that’s a big part of his character in the beginning, esp. since he’s only ten at the start, and no kid that age takes easily to moving to another country, having his dad away at war and his mother leaving him behind to immigrate, and going into hiding, thus giving up the comfortable upper-middle-class lifestyle he’s used to. But he was just too over the top and unrealistically misbehaved and even psychotic originally. There weren’t even logical reasons given for this bad behavior. It was supposed to be funny, in a very dark way, but now the original Ginny just comes across as a very two-dimensional character.

There were still a number of things that made it seem like little more than a costume drama, some silly 1990s YA novel that happened to be set in Russia starting in 1917. These people in their late teens thought, sounded, and acted like 1990s American teens in the original sections of the first six chapters. I’ve made every effort to rework the earliest pieces so that they read like convincing young people of the WWI era, people who have been shaped by living in the Russian Empire. I was so embarrassed to see there’s still one section where Ivan and Ginny call one another by their stupid “English hiding names” when the Bolsheviks pay a surprise visit. How could I have let THAT slip by unnoticed for so long?!

There were also a number of scenes that severely needed to be lengthened and fleshed-out, and superfluous lines that needed to be taken out to tighten and strengthen a scene or dialogue. In the process, I also got more into the almost entirely rewritten conversations Lyuba has with her friends at the two victory balls in November 1917.

Kat and Alya’s unhappiness at being betrothed against their will contrasts with Lyuba’s unhappiness at feeling trapped in her charade relationship with Boris, and it gets across that they’re not entirely against arranged marriages or marriages at their age, but rather against not being able to choose their own partners, and wanting to do something with their lives beyond being wives and mothers. They’re feminist in the way the average woman coming of age during WWI could be feminist and forward-thinking.

And in the process, Alya and Anya got more lines back. I got to know Alya and Anya a lot better while I was writing the sequel and found a way to make them fairly important secondary characters, in spite of how they were ostracized from their circle of friends in Chapter 37 of the first book, when a secret about them came out. After getting to know them better during the second book, I was able to write these new lines and scenes for them in the first book. I know how they talk and think.

I’m seriously considering moving Kat’s introduction to Chapter 3, instead of Chapter 1, when she doesn’t get any lines. Her mention in Chapter 1 serves only as a segueway into Lyuba hoping she never has even one child, and feeling she’d almost lose her mind the same way Kat’s mother has after 15 kids. But it’s mentioned in Chapter 3 that Kat is the last of 15 daughters, that her mother has almost lost her mind, and that she goes by Kat as a way to stand out from the crowd and not just be another Katya. Since she only appears briefly now in Chapter 1, and doesn’t have any lines, it might not be fair to expect the average reader to remember her all the way to her proper introduction. And she is one of the main female characters after Lyuba, so it might be best to just save her introduction for her first real appearance.

I’m also considering retooling some of the things on the first few pages, though I feel it’s very important to succinctly convey certain things about Lyuba and Ivan that the reader really needs to know pretty much upfront in order to understand the story and where they’re coming from. If you don’t know Lyuba has been abused by her father for years and is scared to death of being with a nice guy, in spite of her overwhelming love for Ivan, chances are she might come across as some heartless bitch who dumped her boyfriend and doesn’t care about his feelings.

This is why I feel narrative setup is so important in the beginning of a book, in spite of the current trend of starting in media res. If I don’t know these people, I’m not going to care about what’s happening to them. I need to take a little time to get to know them before things can start happening. Everything that happens later in the book flows from the setup in the first chapter. Nothing would make much sense if we don’t already know about Lyuba and Ivan’s traumatic childhoods, why she pretends she prefers Boris, her mother’s meddling, and the dynamic between Lyuba, Ivan, and Boris.

Warm Fuzzies Blogfest, Week Three

This week, for the Warm Fuzzies Blogfest, we’re asked to go through the story arc for our main character and to visit other blogs to try to come up with a title for the other WIPs based on the information. The emphasis is on troubles our protagonists go through.

I’m sort of in between WIPs at the moment, having just finished my Russian novel sequel (at 406,000 glorious words) and going back through Adicia’s story to correct my embarrassing first draft error of not having any lefties. I’m writing in left-handedness for Adicia, Justine, Ernestine, Emeline, Allen, Lenore, Ricky, and the four Ryan siblings (Girl/Deirdre, Boy/David, Baby/Fiona, and Infant/Aoife). I really want to start the third book in my Russian characters’ family saga (set from 1933-48, in Minnesota, Manhattan, the Soviet Union, and some places in Europe), but I think it’s best to give those characters more of a break and just go onto the third book in Adicia’s family saga, the book focused on Justine and based on Margaret Sidney’s Phronsie Pepper. (I’m still not ready to return to the hiatused second book, the transitional book between Adicia’s story and Justine’s story.)

Even though the majority of my Russian novel sequel is set in Manhattan and Minnesota, it’s got the same spirit of the first book, the first half of which was primarily set in Russia. All the usual drama, emotion, melancholia, and intense things one associates with a Russian novel (or even just a Russian story). Lots of depressing, dramatic stuff happens before Lyuba and Ivan can finally have a happy ending, this time one that lasts.

As best as I can sum up a 406,000-word saga in a few paragraphs (without even getting into any of the subplots):

After all Lyuba and Ivan went through in the first book to finally become husband and wife and start to live happily ever after, trouble threatens again. It’s the beginning of a worsening pattern when Ivan comes home late from work on his and Lyuba’s first anniversary, which is also the first anniversary of their children’s baptism. He’s also been to visit his overbearing mother prior to coming home, which makes Lyuba even angrier. This soon turns into many late nights slaving for the Russian Uncle Tom who runs the iron factory, including some occasions when he spends several days in a row at work.

Worse yet, Ivan’s parents, whom Lyuba had been getting along very well with, are convinced Lyuba is going to attach horns to him with Boris (their former best friend and the blood father of Lyuba’s firstborn Tatyana) and think Lyuba is a horrible, mean, ungrateful wife because she dares to be upset over Ivan’s lack of attention to his family and doesn’t hesitate to call Ivan out about it.

Things get even worse when Ivan, following the lead of his best friends Aleksey and Nikolas, quits the iron factory, but unlike Aleksey and Nikolas, doesn’t immediately get a new, better-paying job. Lyuba is quickly at her wits’ end by Ivan’s voluntary unemployment, which Ivan claims is his way of making up for all that lost time when he neglected his family duties. How dare he drive their family even deeper into poverty and make them live primarily on their savings. Ivan and Lyuba can’t pull in much money when they start working from home repairing small machinery and taking in sewing and washing, and Lyuba is horrified to learn their savings has dwindled to almost nothing after Ivan spent an exorbitant sum on a first birthday present for their fourth child Katya, a carousel rocking horse better-suited to some rich uptown child.

She’s reduced to begging from their former friends Alya and Anya, who take pity on Lyuba and her children and agree to give, not loan, her money on a regular basis, provided she come by to visit them every week and genuinely rekindle their friendship. At this point, Lyuba has nothing left to lose, even knowing what her husband and friends would say if they discovered she’s restarted her friendship with their shunned lesbian friends. And when Lyuba’s four children come down with whooping cough in late 1928 and their apartment is quarantined, she can take it no more and runs away to stay with Alya and Anya for two weeks. She’s stuck in quarantine there too, as a safety precaution, but at least a nice apartment in Greenwich Village, conversation with other adults, and real food beats her depressing, bored housewife existence in the Lower East Side.

After Lyuba finally hits rock bottom upon her return, Ivan is woken up to the reality of how badly their marriage is in trouble and agrees to a temporary separation to save their marriage. He agrees to leave for Minnesota after Orthodox Christmas, joining their best friends Eliisabet and Aleksey and Kat and Nikolas in a Russian immigrant farming community. Lyuba says she’ll gradually resettle their four children and join him by the end of 1929.

But near the end of the separation, on the second day of the Stock Market Crash, Lyuba gives birth to her fifth child and has yet another difficult delivery and recovery period. Boris, who has long been waiting for the Konevs’ marriage to fall apart and has never hesitated to tell Lyuba, Ivan, and even their children what his dreams are, swoops in and takes advantage of her diminished postpartum state. By the time Lyuba realizes what Boris has been doing to her, she’s overcome with horror and disgust. Worse yet, Boris has already written Ivan letters full of lies, one from him pretending to be her.

She knows it’s going to take a lot to convince Ivan this time she didn’t voluntarily have a relationship with Boris, but she’s determined to save her marriage and put her family back together again. And once again it seems as though there’s a false start to their happy ending, since there’s one remaining complication that has to be resolved before Boris will finally leave them alone forever.

The peripheral Alya and Anya

I would actually consider cutting out peripheral characters Alya (Aleksandra) and Anya from my Russian novel if they didn’t play such an important role in Chapter 37, “Coney Island.” A long-suspected (by some, anyway) secret about them finally comes out, and it forms much of the plot of that chapter. We also finally find out just where they were and what they were doing those two years they were apart from the others in the band. And prior to that, sprinkled throughout Part II, are hints of just what their secret is. I like that minor subplot, and the historically accurate way everyone (except of course radical Katrin) reacts to it. (And yes, I know Alya isn’t one of the usual nicknames for Aleksandra, but her name was originally Al [back when I didn’t know Russian names from Adam], and I wanted to make the new name close enough. Alya is also the nickname of Aleksandr Isayevich’s widow Natalya, and Alya isn’t the usual nickname for Natalya either. I don’t see where it might be unheard of for a girl named Aleksandra to want to go by Alya in lieu of the more common Sasha or Shura.)

In the original draft of the first few chapters, Alya and Anya both had a lot more lines. Kat also had more lines in the first few chapters, before I felt it best to rewrite it to focus on the main plotline in the beginning rather than jumping around between all these different characters and filling up pages with cluttery chat. So now Alya and Anya seem rather peripheral, whereas they were originally more prominent secondary characters. Either I forgot about them or felt I already had enough main characters, since I never had them joining back up with the others after they all fled their White-controlled valley in January of 1919. People periodically wonder where they are or if they’re dead, but they’re not seen or mentioned again till near the end of Part I.

Anya does deliver a good-sized bit of dialogue about what a good guy Nikolas is, in spite of how he’s a bookish intellectual and not involved in traditional masculine pursuits. Alya’s unhappiness and eventual running away from a brainaic chauvinist her parents are forcing her to marry also help to underscore Lyuba’s plight at being trapped in a charade relationship with Boris, and Kat’s initial unhappiness with being matched with Nikolas. But other than that, they don’t contribute much in the way of plot.

Even if I were to completely write them out, remove all later mentions of them, and completely redo the Coney Island chapter, it still wouldn’t shrink the book by much, and it just wouldn’t feel right. As minor as they are now, they still serve somewhat of a purpose, perhaps a contrast to the lives their friends are leading. It’s the same way with how I have sections in the sequel dealing with the orphanage girls (some of them Georgian and Armenian instead of all native Russians) in Kiyev, former orphanage girl Inessa and her adopted sisters/friends living with Inessa’s uncle and cousins in Minsk, and Lena’s unconventional family in Toronto. It’s showing the alternate trajectories the main characters’ lives might’ve taken if things had gone a bit differently for them. And of course, as in the first book, each of these different trajectories is ultimately tied back into the main plot and set of characters. They’re not just there for no reason.