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.