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?

Why I moved the Konevs to the Twin Cities in the first place

As you can see from my initial notes from 2015 (when I naïvely assumed I could tell this story in only 50 chapters plus an epilogue!), my original vision for Dream Deferred involved Lyuba, Ivan, and their two youngest children returning to Firebird Fields and farming in June 1952. Not only that, Igor would also dutifully rush home after graduating NYU, with his bride Violetta in tow, and immediately start his own farm on the family compound.

But then the story took an extremely dark, unexpected turn which compelled the Konevs to leave the fictional town of Melville (originally real-life Hastings, but changed to avoid offending people) and resettle in the Twin Cities.

Tamara’s second grade teacher, based on my own, twists her left arm behind her back when she defends new girl Yaël. Miss Stidolph goes on a crazed rampage which culminates in giving her a stroke caused by a cerebral hemorrhage; three broken ribs; a dislocated shoulder; a broken arm, jaw, nose, and seven baby teeth; and three chipped adult teeth (which are saved). All the students except Yaël gleefully join in the attack.

This violent attack changes the entire course of the story and inserts some much-needed higher stakes. Prior, all the Melville storylines revolved around the girls being bullied by both teachers and students and feeling profoundly unchallenged at their respective schools. The only friends they make are fellow outcasts. Meanwhile, Lyuba and Ivan stun the teachers with their own defiant nonconformity and full support of their daughters.

That provided great conflict for the first school year and the start of the second, but I started to feel like it was growing stale. A drastic sea change was needed.

The Konevs stay in Minneapolis till the end of 1949, and then move into a large house in St. Paul, which they share with the also-relocated Novak-Kolarovs. Later on, I changed this to a smaller single-family home with the Novak-Kolarovs across the street. Kleopatra’s professor father tutors Tamara every day.

Irina, Sonyechka, Irina’s friend Rhonwen, Kleopatra and her brother Fridrik, and the three Kahns, Léa, Benjamin, and Yaël, are all given full scholarships to a radical progressive academy. Rhonwen becomes a boarding student. Because it’s such a believable plot development, not conveniently deus ex machina at all, for all eight of them to qualify for the same dream school AND get scholarships!

Anyway, from this point on, the Minnesota storyline shifted to Sonyechka and Tamara becoming really attached to St. Paul and not wanting to return home after their parents graduate. My new idea for a final chapter was for Lyuba and Ivan to decide to stay, much to their daughters’ delight. Not only do they have friends and a school they love in St. Paul, they’ve also grown to feel much more comfortable in a larger city than a small rural town.

Then something overtook me, and I got crazily carried away with the idea of them NEEDING to return to New York, where everything is automatically better and all their loved ones live. Cue a bunch of stupid subplots essentially necessitating this so-called return from exile and everyone but Ivan embracing it as a done deal. With no housing lined up.

And in so doing, I completely lost sight of why I moved them to the Twin Cities in the first place, and bloated my already sprawling wordcount beyond belief. All my other unplanned storylines in this book came together so perfectly, as they always do, but this time I lost control of my ship and meandered into the weeds.

Other great reasons to keep them where they are, even if they do seriously consider returning to New York: Not nearly enough books are set in the Twin Cities, and Lyuba and Ivan are long overdue to finally make friends outside their own little bubble and not be so joined at the hip with their family. It’d also be a lot of fun to develop the girls’ school exactly the way I want it, a perfect blend of progressive pedagogy and academic rigor.

The case for the Konevs remaining in the Twin Cities

After I abandoned the idea of the Konevs returning to farming in Firebird Fields at the end of Dream Deferred, I decided to keep them in St. Paul and create the conflict of the girls campaigning to stay in their new home while their parents wanted to retreat back to a small rural town as though the past four years never happened.

Then I hit upon the idea of them returning to NYC, for reasons that felt very compelling at the time. However, this storyline almost immediately devolved into a hot, unfocused mess, with whiplash-level changes right and left. Eventually I came up with a bunch of redirections to try to bail it out, but a lot of them kind of ring hollow without any prior building towards them.

But what if my second idea were right, or very close to it, all along?

Reasons for remaining in the Twin Cities:

1. If NYC were the only U.S. city worth anything, every single American would live there. Sure, it has a much larger concentration of museums, schools, and other cultural institutions than most other cities, but that doesn’t mean everywhere else is worthless.

2. Some people prefer to be a big fish in a smaller pond than a tiny guppy in a giant aquarium. There are more chances to build meaningful personal connections and network if you’re not competing with thousands upon thousands of other people in the same field.

3. The Twin Cities were hardly hick towns of no accord in this era! They had lots of great museums, art galleries, libraries, schools, and historic houses. Minneapolis also underwent a lot of long-overdue reformations when Hubert Humphrey was major, like prohibiting racial discrimination in the workforce and gradually bringing an end to the infamous housing covenants.

4. And speaking of, just because Minneapolis was named the capital of U.S. antisemitism in 1946 and was also well-known for its restrictive housing covenants doesn’t mean it was anywhere equal to the Jim Crow South or Nazi Germany. Jews, Blacks, Asians, and people with progressive politics weren’t getting lynched and run out of town! As always, people in minority groups formed vibrant communities and served as positive ambassadors of their people to the outside world.

5. It was entirely my own fault that I never developed Stefania Wolicka Academy and its brother school Johann Pestalozzi. Such a cheap cop-out to take it from a dream school to a unstructured mess akin to the modern-day Sudbury nonsense, and then “solve” the problem by taking away everyone’s scholarships and moving them 1,000 miles away so they can attend a “better” progressive school like Walden or New Lincoln. God forbid I just EDIT!

6. Likewise, it was my fault I never gave the Konevs any new friends in St. Paul. Cheap, lazy cop-out to “solve” this problem by saying no one has been welcoming and that the girls at school are exclusionary snobs, so therefore it makes total sense to move 1,000 miles away to a supposed utopian haven. I never showed any of this supposed snobbery and feeling out of place!

7. Also, way to insult the Twin Cities branch of the University of Minnesota, which has been renowned as an excellent school for 120+ years, by depicting almost every single professor and student as an ageist and/or sexist bigot. Yes, one of my main objectives was to show how difficult it was for a woman, let alone an older woman, to attend university in this era, but that doesn’t mean 100% of the people she encounters have to be cartoonish caricatures!

8. Lyuba and Ivan are in their early fifties and will have two kids left at home by the end of the book. It was one thing for them to move to attend university belatedly, and then to move again to be closer to the school, esp. in light of how their daughters were treated at school. But children need stability, and people of any age need to put down roots. It’s not like Lyuba and Ivan are childfree 24-year-olds.

9. Why didn’t they begin putting down any roots in the Twin Cities? There’s no meaningful conflict if they deliberately avoid making any new friends or growing attached to the city just so they can move back to Firebird Fields like nothing happened, or return to NYC without looking back. Another huge writing failure on my part!

10. Minneapolis has a great fine arts school where Ivan could acquire further training and experience. Sure, it’s no Art Students League, but it’s not a hole in the wall either.

11. They’re used to living in large detached houses with yards, not apartments or townhouses. It’s hard to adapt to that kind of change.

12. NYC is one of those cities that imprints a distinct cultural identity and state of mind on people. I just can’t see Lyuba and Ivan developing that. Even when they lived there before, they never saw the city as their permanent home.

13. Again, Branimir needs more than a city stable and daily walks in a park! That horse deserves dignified autumn years.

14. It easily clears out a huge amount of clutter and simplifies the story.

15. For too long, the Konevs have had no real friends beyond their immediate circle. It’s time to get them out of this cocoon.

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.

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.

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