Posted in Editing, Fourth Russian novel, Rewriting, Writing

Redirecting an aborted storyline

Though I had to abandon the storyline about the Konevs moving back to NYC in June 1952, creating it wasn’t a complete waste. It helped me to discover the real reasons they settled in rural Minnesota and were so adamant about their kids always living on their isolated, compound-like property. After their traumatic childhoods and the additional trauma of the Civil War, could they really be blamed?

It also brought my attention to a lot of compelling themes, like making peace with letting go of a daydream, establishing independent adult lives in a place of one’s own choosing instead of feeling duty-bound to stay close to family, life being customized instead of standard-issue, letting life take us where it’s meant to instead of adhering to set in stone items on an arbitrary checklist, never being too late to take another fork in the road.

From the ruins of this storyline arose much stronger replacements which truly work with who these characters are:

1. Stefania Wolicka Academy’s radical pedagogy will be significantly toned down. It’ll still use a lot of hands-on, non-traditional learning methods, and students will still be able to choose many of their own classes and assignments, but it won’t be 99% self-teaching and doing whatever they want.

2. Towards that end, Lyuba will be offered a position teaching Russian history and literature to the high school girls.

3. Lyuba will also use her history degree to start an interview archive (both written and recorded) with everyday people.

4. Ivan will take more art classes at the Minneapolis School of Art (now the Minneapolis College of Art and Design). He unfortunately began the University of Minnesota right when its art program switched focus to the business side of art instead of the fine arts aspect, so his formal art education is a bit lacking.

5. The Konevs will move into an abandoned Victorian estate on St. Paul’s Summit Ave., near the intersection with Mississippi River Blvd. They get the big house of their dreams, with a yard large enough for their horse Branimir, and a gorgeous view of the river.

6. On the same block will be several families of fellow black sheep artists and intellectuals from Greece, Czechoslovakia, and Hungary. They also have daughters Sonyechka and Tamara’s ages. It’s high time the Konevs became friends with people outside their immediate family and longtime best friends.

7. The Konevs will meet the Hungarian family on the train back to Minnesota after Igor and Ilya’s New York weddings, and they’ll help Sonyechka to understand not all artists and intellectuals want to live in NYC.

8. Andrey’s psychology Ph.D. residency will be in San Francisco, which absorbed a large population of Shoah survivors. That solves the problem of Katya and her son Rodik being all alone while Dmitriy’s deployed. Who better for her to live with than her favorite sister Darya?

9. Since Fedya is likewise very close to Darya, he and Novomira will also start their new lives in San Francisco. Fedya will study at the San Francisco Art Institute.

10. Tatyana and Nikolay will scale back their farm and join forces with other farmers to start a grocery store like Amherst’s Atkins or Albany’s Honest Weight Food Co-op.

11. On the initiative of their firstborn Kira, they’ll also become a farm sanctuary by any other name.

12. A suburb will be created near the then-largely rural, undeveloped neighborhood of Duluth Heights, providing a much-needed source of new friends for Tatyana and Nikolay’s family and a financial lifeline for Firebird Fields. The new neighbors will be mostly fellow Russian–Americans, with some Serbians, Ukrainians, and Finns.

13. Aleksey will go full-time with his woodworking business and sell his creations in the arts and crafts section of the new grocery store.

14. Eliisabet will attend Duluth’s College of St. Scholastica for her much-belated bachelor’s degree.

15. Igor and Violetta will fall in love with Denver and eventually move there. It’s such a beautiful city, with so many wonderful things to paint, and a thriving arts scene. Equally-lovely Boulder and Colorado Springs are also nearby.

16. Firebird Fields will transition away from an agricultural focus.

17. I’ll also develop the town in much greater detail. Apart from a scene at the skating rink in Dark Forest, a few graduation scenes at the school, and mentions of local businesses, it never really came alive as a living, breathing, thriving small town.

18. Nikolas will stay in NYC to open a law practice with Andrey Zyuganov and Anahita Sadeghi.

19. His wife Kat will attend Brooklyn College for her much-belated bachelor’s degree.

20. Prof. Novak will join the University of Minnesota’s anthropology department, which was fairly small in this era.

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.

Posted in Fourth Russian novel, New York City, Writing

Why I wanted the Konevs to move back to NYC

During the writing of Part III of my WIP, A Dream Deferred: Lyuba and Ivan at University, I latched onto what I thought was an awesome plot development, the Konevs deciding to leave Minnesota and return to NYC near the end of the book. While it did inject a needed boost of conflict for the last half of the story, it quickly became unfocused and never came together well.

Why did I come up with this idea and hold onto it for so long?

1. Their entire extended family lives in NYC. All these years, they’ve been by themselves in Minnesota.

2. They miss the convenience of living in the same city as so many loved ones. Celebrations either have to be missed or scheduled in chunks.

3. Lyuba’s mother and stepfather, and Ivan’s aunt and uncle whom he feels much closer to than his parents, are now elderly. It would give them comfort to be nearby in these twilight years.

4. Ivan latched onto the daydream of starting a farm in the Midwest not out of genuine passion for that lifestyle and area, but to escape into a remote place where he believed his abusive father would never find him and hurt him again. His true passion has always been art, a love his father beat out of him as a boy and which he only reclaimed at pushing fifty.

5. Lyuba and Ivan also moved to rural Minnesota in 1929 to save their marriage and give their kids a real house to grow up in, with wide-open spaces to play in, sunlight, and fresh air. But had their personal circumstances been less desperate and strained, they would’ve found a more rural location nearby instead of 1,000 miles away.

6. They were raised in cities, and finally belatedly realize rural life isn’t who they are deep down at all. They miss everything cities offer so copiously.

7. Lyuba has often said she misses living in New York. Even before moving, she felt twinges of regret at leaving so many wonderful things behind.

8. Their friends Eliisabet, Aleksey, and Kat, who moved to Minnesota with them, are inspired to go to university in their fifties too, and since they long ago promised to always stay together, they must return to New York too.

9. Nikolas, Kat’s husband, has decided to stay in the city after Katrin’s retrial to start a law firm in the tradition of Clarence Darrow.

10. Tatyana and Nikolay return home to start their own farm after graduating Barnard and Columbia not only because they feel they have to, but as an unrealized overreaction to the drama with Boris. Like their parents, they see Firebird Fields as a safe haven from the ugly real world. Now they’ve keenly grown to miss their friends, and are afraid their kids aren’t being exposed to enough of the outside world.

11. Fedya likewise returns to Minnesota out of blind duty and not wanting to disappoint his parents, and Novomira is severely guilted and pressured into it by her parents. Now they want to take charge of their own lives.

12. Darya’s husband Andrey wants to specialize in psychotherapy for Shoah survivors, veterans, and other people with traumatic wartime experiences. Per capita, there are far more of them in NYC than all of Minnesota.

13. What better city for Lyuba and Ivan to get master’s degrees in and realize their full academic potential?

14. Mr. Konev will be leaving his townhouse in Greenwich Village’s Gold Coast, and everything inside, to Igor, so why shouldn’t Igor and Violetta stay there longterm instead of only while they’re in graduate school?

15. People from upper-middle-class families who went to gymnasium never grow up to live in farm country! They long for the company of other intellectuals besides their three families.

16. Why wouldn’t Ivan and his sons want to live in New York? It’s the country’s largest Mecca of artists.

17. They all feel like they’re wasting their potential in rural Minnesota. Next-youngest child Sonyechka, the most brilliant by far, particularly feels she could do so much more with her brain in New York.

18. Sonyechka also wants to live near her new friends Pravdina and Zikatra, who encourage her to convince her parents to move. They’re so much more sophisticated, intellectual, political, and exciting than her friend Kleopatra.

19. Nonconformists were safer in big cities in this era.

20. Why would anyone want to live in the Midwest?!

21. An apartment suits them much better than a big ole farmhouse. To sweeten the deal, let’s make it a penthouse Ivan buys with the ample money his father leaves him.

22. Lyuba and Ivan must redo their New York experience “properly.”

23. Katya shouldn’t be alone in California while Dmitriy’s deployed.

24. Youngest child Tamara will have ample opportunities for baking classes.

25. Who wouldn’t want to live in New York?!

And then all my reasons fell apart like a flimsy house of cards. To be continued.

Posted in New York City, Writing

NYC should not be a default setting

As much as I love reading and writing about NYC as it was before hipsters and millionaires took over, when normal people could afford to live there and apartments were spacious enough to comfortably raise families, and watching films depicting the same golden age, I’ve really cooled to it as a setting in general. It feels like a lazy default instead of consciously chosen as the best possible setting.

1. Writers who set their movies, TV shows, and books there because they live(d) there need to find a new profession or learn how to write better. Can you truly not think outside the familiar?

2. It implies lack of imagination and research. How about San Antonio, Savannah, Miami, Des Moines, Denver, Milwaukee, Barnstable, or Pittsburgh?

3. If you’re writing about immigrants, have you ever considered researching the many other cities with large immigrant communities? Pittsburgh, St. Louis, New Orleans, Charleston, Philadelphia, Boston, Minneapolis, St. Paul, Chicago, Kansas City, and Seattle are but a few of many. If you’re bound and determined to set it in NYC anyway, think outside the Lower East Side!

4. It insultingly implies no other city has a good art or music scene, worthwhile schools, quality museums, or quirky people free to be themselves.

5. Your characters might not be apartment people. It’s one thing to live in an apartment or boardinghouse temporarily, when there’s no choice, but longterm is a whole other story. If your characters, e.g., enjoy gardening, have multiple large dogs, or thrive on being close to nature (beyond overlooking a park), they need another city.

6. Your characters might prefer being big fish in a small pond instead of little fish in a huge pond, constantly competing to rise to the top.

7. Unless your contemporary characters are rich enough to live in a luxury apartment, townhouse, or old estate in a neighborhood like Victorian Flatbush, they’ll either have to squeeze a large family into a small apartment or severely limit family size.

8. It perpetuates the ridiculously romanticised image of New York as the best of all possible cities, a magical place where all dreams come true, a nonstop parade of fun and excitement, a concentration of creative energy and intellectual power like none other.

9. Can your characters handle a long commute to work and school? Think about when they’ll have to wake up, what time they arrive home, and how many subways or buses they’ll need to take.

10. Are there no other cities with job prospects in their fields, good schools with their programs, neighborhoods with their ethnic group?

11. If your characters are rich enough to afford a townhouse, or lucked into inheriting one, can they handle the reality of living there longterm? On average, they’re 18–20 feet wide, 100 feet deep. Anything 25 feet or over is classified as a mansion, and very uncommon. Others are narrower than 18 feet, and most tend not to have very big yards. Most older townhouses don’t have lifts, so your characters will have to trawl up and down as many as six flights of stairs multiple times every day.

12. Keep in mind townhouses, rowhouses, and many apartments share walls out of spacial necessity. Your characters won’t like that very much if they’re used to privacy and breathing space.

13. Unless they live on Staten Island or in certain parts of the outer boroughs, your characters will have to say goodbye to their cars or pay through the roof to keep them in a garage. Very few homes have garages or parking spots.

14. Are your characters really the type to not mind conducting much of their lives on sidewalks and in public parks? When one has a small apartment, that’s the default setting.

15. Does this story absolutely need to be set in NYC? Manhattan is the majority setting of Little Ragdoll because the real-life girl who inspired it lived there. Some of my Atlantic City characters move to NYC for school and end up staying because of the large Jewish community. Many of my Russian and Estonian characters establish lives there after immigrating, and the succeeding generations stay because that’s all they know.

But odds are, you could just as easily tell the same story, albeit with some modifications, in Montréal, Baltimore, Cape Cod, Seattle, Austin, Atlanta, Charlotte, Cleveland, Milwaukee, Ann Arbor, or Louisville. Intelligent readers will appreciate the chance to learn about a new city instead of reading yet another book thoughtlessly set in NYC.