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Writing => Fiction Writing => Topic started by: Atg336 on April 30, 2021, 09:02:12 AM

Title: If I do this, does it change this?
Post by: Atg336 on April 30, 2021, 09:02:12 AM
My MS is out for beta read. I had one comment from a trusted reader that's been agonizing me.

The MS is historical fiction, first person, not sure if YA or Adult, during WWII on the Russian front. The version that the trusted reader read is based around a Red Army veteran, now a grandmother, recounting her days of the war. The chapters, in the beginning, switch from "Now" chapters, to back then (1942, Saturday, May 3, etc.) chapters. (This switching becomes less frequent as the story unfolds, but doesn't stop completely.) The reader suggested that the "Now" chapters, where the veteran is recounting her tale and explaining some things to her family, breaks up the flow of the main story of her war years. So, like any paranoid insecure writer, I decided to create a version of the MS where the "Now" chapters are removed, and the entire story takes place in the past. Here is where my problems began.


If I leave the "Now" chapters in, the story is about a veteran coming to terms, in her old age, with what she went through in the war and the things she saw and did. The reader knows the MC survived, so the tension is more about how she managed to survive, the wounds (mental and physical) she suffered, and loved ones she lost.

If I take out the "Now" chapters, the story changes to a war story, where you are in the MC's world with her during the Nazi occupation and her fleeing and joining the Red Army, therefore the main tension/question is will the MC survive.

It seems that I now have two fairly different books, and I have no idea which one is better, hence which one to pitch to an agent.
Title: Re: If I do this, does it change this?
Post by: Odd John on April 30, 2021, 09:30:09 AM
Assuming that the quality of each version compares, are you in love with one version? Pitch that.

Or pitch both, one to this agent, the other to that agent. Let them "decide" which is better!
Title: Re: If I do this, does it change this?
Post by: Munley on April 30, 2021, 10:02:20 AM
Hard to tell which of the two techniques you described to use without knowing the story.

Not to complicate your decision, but doing a flash-forward is another possibility.

Dostoevsky does that in a number of places in Crime and Punishment (my favorite novel). The FF doesn't go into long scenes in a future time, but captures some insight Raskolnikov came to see at some later point.

If you haven't read it, Radion Raskalikov, a university dropout, is considering killing ALYONA, an old, contemptuous pawnbroker, with an axe. The "rehearsal" referred to here is a trip he took to her apartment to scope out the possibility of pulling it off. He has already pawned a pledge with her, which she still has, and he tells her he'll be bringing her a cigarette case, which is a ruse to get his foot back in the door --- that is, if he's going to do it at all. He has a nightmare that dissuades him from killing her. But then he overhears a conversation about LIZAVETA in the marketplace.  LIZAVETA is the much younger half-sister who lives with ALYONA. [The Flash Forward to his future understanding of this event is in blue.]


 He waked up, gasping for breath, his hair soaked with perspiration, and stood up in terror.

“Thank God, that was only a dream,” he said, sitting down under a tree and drawing deep breaths. “But what is it? Is it some fever coming on? Such a hideous dream!”

He felt utterly broken: darkness and confusion were in his soul. He rested his elbows on his knees and leaned his head on his hands.

“Good God!” he cried, “can it be, can it be, that I shall really take an axe, that I shall strike her on the head, split her skull open... that I shall tread in the sticky warm blood, break the lock, steal and tremble; hide, all spattered in the blood... with the axe.... Good God, can it be?”

He was shaking like a leaf as he said this.

“But why am I going on like this?” he continued, sitting up again, as it were in profound amazement. “I knew that I could never bring myself to it, so what have I been torturing myself for till now? Yesterday, yesterday, when I went to make that... experiment, yesterday I realised completely that I could never bear to do it.... Why am I going over it again, then? Why am I hesitating? As I came down the stairs yesterday, I said myself that it was base, loathsome, vile, vile... the very thought of it made me feel sick and filled me with horror.

“No, I couldn’t do it, I couldn’t do it! Granted, granted that there is no flaw in all that reasoning, that all that I have concluded this last month is clear as day, true as arithmetic.... My God! Anyway I couldn’t bring myself to it! I couldn’t do it, I couldn’t do it! Why, why then am I still...?”

He rose to his feet, looked round in wonder as though surprised at finding himself in this place, and went towards the bridge. He was pale, his eyes glowed, he was exhausted in every limb, but he seemed suddenly to breathe more easily. He felt he had cast off that fearful burden that had so long been weighing upon him, and all at once there was a sense of relief and peace in his soul. “Lord,” he prayed, “show me my path—I renounce that accursed... dream of mine.”

Crossing the bridge, he gazed quietly and calmly at the Neva, at the glowing red sun setting in the glowing sky. In spite of his weakness he was not conscious of fatigue. It was as though an abscess that had been forming for a month past in his heart had suddenly broken. Freedom, freedom! He was free from that spell, that sorcery, that obsession!

Later on, when he recalled that time and all that happened to him during those days, minute by minute, point by point, he was superstitiously impressed by one circumstance, which, though in itself not very exceptional, always seemed to him afterwards the predestined turning-point of his fate. He could never understand and explain to himself why, when he was tired and worn out, when it would have been more convenient for him to go home by the shortest and most direct way, he had returned by the Hay Market where he had no need to go. It was obviously and quite unnecessarily out of his way, though not much so. It is true that it happened to him dozens of times to return home without noticing what streets he passed through. But why, he was always asking himself, why had such an important, such a decisive and at the same time such an absolutely chance meeting happened in the Hay Market (where he had moreover no reason to go) at the very hour, the very minute of his life when he was just in the very mood and in the very circumstances in which that meeting was able to exert the gravest and most decisive influence on his whole destiny? As though it had been lying in wait for him on purpose!

It was about nine o’clock when he crossed the Hay Market. At the tables and the barrows, at the booths and the shops, all the market people were closing their establishments or clearing away and packing up their wares and, like their customers, were going home. Rag pickers and costermongers of all kinds were crowding round the taverns in the dirty and stinking courtyards of the Hay Market. Raskolnikov particularly liked this place and the neighbouring alleys, when he wandered aimlessly in the streets. Here his rags did not attract contemptuous attention, and one could walk about in any attire without scandalising people. At the corner of an alley a huckster and his wife had two tables set out with tapes, thread, cotton handkerchiefs, etc. They, too, had got up to go home, but were lingering in conversation with a friend, who had just come up to them. This friend was Lizaveta Ivanovna, or, as everyone called her, Lizaveta, the younger sister of the old pawnbroker, Alyona Ivanovna, whom Raskolnikov had visited the previous day to pawn his watch and make his experiment.... He already knew all about Lizaveta and she knew him a little too. She was a single woman of about thirty-five, tall, clumsy, timid, submissive and almost idiotic. She was a complete slave and went in fear and trembling of her sister, who made her work day and night, and even beat her. She was standing with a bundle before the huckster and his wife, listening earnestly and doubtfully. They were talking of something with special warmth. The moment Raskolnikov caught sight of her, he was overcome by a strange sensation as it were of intense astonishment, though there was nothing astonishing about this meeting.

“You could make up your mind for yourself, Lizaveta Ivanovna,” the huckster was saying aloud. “Come round to-morrow about seven. They will be here too.”

“To-morrow?” said Lizaveta slowly and thoughtfully, as though unable to make up her mind.

“Upon my word, what a fright you are in of Alyona Ivanovna,” gabbled the huckster’s wife, a lively little woman. “I look at you, you are like some little babe. And she is not your own sister either—nothing but a step-sister and what a hand she keeps over you!”

“But this time don’t say a word to Alyona Ivanovna,” her husband interrupted; “that’s my advice, but come round to us without asking. It will be worth your while. Later on your sister herself may have a notion.”

“Am I to come?”

“About seven o’clock to-morrow. And they will be here. You will be able to decide for yourself.”

“And we’ll have a cup of tea,” added his wife.

“All right, I’ll come,” said Lizaveta, still pondering, and she began slowly moving away.

Raskolnikov had just passed and heard no more. He passed softly, unnoticed, trying not to miss a word. His first amazement was followed by a thrill of horror, like a shiver running down his spine. He had learnt, he had suddenly quite unexpectedly learnt, that the next day at seven o’clock Lizaveta, the old woman’s sister and only companion, would be away from home and that therefore at seven o’clock precisely the old woman would be left alone.

He was only a few steps from his lodging. He went in like a man condemned to death. He thought of nothing and was incapable of thinking; but he felt suddenly in his whole being that he had no more freedom of thought, no will, and that everything was suddenly and irrevocably decided.

Certainly, if he had to wait whole years for a suitable opportunity, he could not reckon on a more certain step towards the success of the plan than that which had just presented itself. In any case, it would have been difficult to find out beforehand and with certainty, with greater exactness and less risk, and without dangerous inquiries and investigations, that next day at a certain time an old woman, on whose life an attempt was contemplated, would be at home and entirely alone.

[Excerpt with the FF ends. Added more if you want more context or some sense how the previous scene fits in with his growing superstitious nature.]


Later on Raskolnikov happened to find out why the huckster and his wife had invited Lizaveta. It was a very ordinary matter and there was nothing exceptional about it. A family who had come to the town and been reduced to poverty were selling their household goods and clothes, all women’s things. As the things would have fetched little in the market, they were looking for a dealer. This was Lizaveta’s business. She undertook such jobs and was frequently employed, as she was very honest and always fixed a fair price and stuck to it. She spoke as a rule little and, as we have said already, she was very submissive and timid.

But Raskolnikov had become superstitious of late. The traces of superstition remained in him long after, and were almost ineradicable. And in all this he was always afterwards disposed to see something strange and mysterious, as it were, the presence of some peculiar influences and coincidences. In the previous winter a student he knew called Pokorev, who had left for Harkov, had chanced in conversation to give him the address of Alyona Ivanovna, the old pawnbroker, in case he might want to pawn anything. For a long while he did not go to her, for he had lessons and managed to get along somehow. Six weeks ago he had remembered the address; he had two articles that could be pawned: his father’s old silver watch and a little gold ring with three red stones, a present from his sister at parting. He decided to take the ring. When he found the old woman he had felt an insurmountable repulsion for her at the first glance, though he knew nothing special about her. He got two roubles from her and went into a miserable little tavern on his way home. He asked for tea, sat down and sank into deep thought. A strange idea was pecking at his brain like a chicken in the egg, and very, very much absorbed him.

Almost beside him at the next table there was sitting a student, whom he did not know and had never seen, and with him a young officer. They had played a game of billiards and began drinking tea. All at once he heard the student mention to the officer the pawnbroker Alyona Ivanovna and give him her address. This of itself seemed strange to Raskolnikov; he had just come from her and here at once he heard her name. Of course it was a chance, but he could not shake off a very extraordinary impression, and here someone seemed to be speaking expressly for him; the student began telling his friend various details about Alyona Ivanovna.

“She is first-rate,” he said. “You can always get money from her. She is as rich as a Jew, she can give you five thousand roubles at a time and she is not above taking a pledge for a rouble. Lots of our fellows have had dealings with her. But she is an awful old harpy....”

And he began describing how spiteful and uncertain she was, how if you were only a day late with your interest the pledge was lost; how she gave a quarter of the value of an article and took five and even seven percent a month on it and so on. The student chattered on, saying that she had a sister Lizaveta, whom the wretched little creature was continually beating, and kept in complete bondage like a small child, though Lizaveta was at least six feet high.

“There’s a phenomenon for you,” cried the student and he laughed.

They began talking about Lizaveta. The student spoke about her with a peculiar relish and was continually laughing and the officer listened with great interest and asked him to send Lizaveta to do some mending for him. Raskolnikov did not miss a word and learned everything about her. Lizaveta was younger than the old woman and was her half-sister, being the child of a different mother. She was thirty-five. She worked day and night for her sister, and besides doing the cooking and the washing, she did sewing and worked as a charwoman and gave her sister all she earned. She did not dare to accept an order or job of any kind without her sister’s permission. The old woman had already made her will, and Lizaveta knew of it, and by this will she would not get a farthing; nothing but the movables, chairs and so on; all the money was left to a monastery in the province of N——, that prayers might be said for her in perpetuity. Lizaveta was of lower rank than her sister, unmarried and awfully uncouth in appearance, remarkably tall with long feet that looked as if they were bent outwards. She always wore battered goatskin shoes, and was clean in her person. What the student expressed most surprise and amusement about was the fact that Lizaveta was continually with child.

“But you say she is hideous?” observed the officer.

“Yes, she is so dark-skinned and looks like a soldier dressed up, but you know she is not at all hideous. She has such a good-natured face and eyes. Strikingly so. And the proof of it is that lots of people are attracted by her. She is such a soft, gentle creature, ready to put up with anything, always willing, willing to do anything. And her smile is really very sweet.”

“You seem to find her attractive yourself,” laughed the officer.

“From her queerness. No, I’ll tell you what. I could kill that damned old woman and make off with her money, I assure you, without the faintest conscience-prick,” the student added with warmth. The officer laughed again while Raskolnikov shuddered. How strange it was!

“Listen, I want to ask you a serious question,” the student said hotly. “I was joking of course, but look here; on one side we have a stupid, senseless, worthless, spiteful, ailing, horrid old woman, not simply useless but doing actual mischief, who has not an idea what she is living for herself, and who will die in a day or two in any case. You understand? You understand?”

“Yes, yes, I understand,” answered the officer, watching his excited companion attentively.

“Well, listen then. On the other side, fresh young lives thrown away for want of help and by thousands, on every side! A hundred thousand good deeds could be done and helped, on that old woman’s money which will be buried in a monastery! Hundreds, thousands perhaps, might be set on the right path; dozens of families saved from destitution, from ruin, from vice, from the Lock hospitals—and all with her money. Kill her, take her money and with the help of it devote oneself to the service of humanity and the good of all. What do you think, would not one tiny crime be wiped out by thousands of good deeds? For one life thousands would be saved from corruption and decay. One death, and a hundred lives in exchange—it’s simple arithmetic! Besides, what value has the life of that sickly, stupid, ill-natured old woman in the balance of existence! No more than the life of a louse, of a black-beetle, less in fact because the old woman is doing harm. She is wearing out the lives of others; the other day she bit Lizaveta’s finger out of spite; it almost had to be amputated.”

“Of course she does not deserve to live,” remarked the officer, “but there it is, it’s nature.”

“Oh, well, brother, but we have to correct and direct nature, and, but for that, we should drown in an ocean of prejudice. But for that, there would never have been a single great man. They talk of duty, conscience—I don’t want to say anything against duty and conscience;—but the point is, what do we mean by them? Stay, I have another question to ask you. Listen!”

“No, you stay, I’ll ask you a question. Listen!”


“You are talking and speechifying away, but tell me, would you kill the old woman yourself?”

“Of course not! I was only arguing the justice of it.... It’s nothing to do with me....”

“But I think, if you would not do it yourself, there’s no justice about it.... Let us have another game.”

Raskolnikov was violently agitated. Of course, it was all ordinary youthful talk and thought, such as he had often heard before in different forms and on different themes. But why had he happened to hear such a discussion and such ideas at the very moment when his own brain was just conceiving... the very same ideas? And why, just at the moment when he had brought away the embryo of his idea from the old woman had he dropped at once upon a conversation about her? This coincidence always seemed strange to him. This trivial talk in a tavern had an immense influence on him in his later action; as though there had really been in it something preordained, some guiding hint....
Title: Re: If I do this, does it change this?
Post by: Atg336 on April 30, 2021, 01:29:00 PM
@Odd John - They both compare well. I could try sending each to an agent and seeing responses. I guess it's a roll of the dice, either way. Grumble.

@Munley - I see your point. I'm thinking structurally, if the narrative is broken up chronologically, it has to flow well and not greatly interrupt the reader. Maybe I need to really plunk down and re-read each version and decide which tells the story better. For example, do I want greater tension (v.2, minus the "Now" chapters) or do I want more drama, and explanation by the MC of what she was going through (I've found that 99% of western readers, nevermind non-history fans, haven't got a clue about the Eastern Front; Soviet military terms, Nazi military terms, geography, important battles, etc. ).
Title: Re: If I do this, does it change this?
Post by: jcwrites on April 30, 2021, 05:52:54 PM
To the idea of submitting competing versions to different agents, given the vagaries in agent responses (if they respond at all beyond a "not for me"), I'm not convinced you'd learn anything valuable. Further, what's your plan if both versions garner requests?
Title: Re: If I do this, does it change this?
Post by: Odd John on April 30, 2021, 06:30:38 PM
I most humbly submit that if more than one, or just one agency requests either a partial or a full of one version, but no requests are coming for the other version, this would be valuable information. I would then query only with the stronger version.

Were I pursuing this course and I was lucky enough to get requests for both versions, and then offers of representation from both, I would go with whatever agency I believed was stronger in representing the title. (Unless I was hopelessly in love with one of the versions, then I would be forced to go with the agent who agreed with me thus.)
Title: Re: If I do this, does it change this?
Post by: MKWrites_318 on April 30, 2021, 06:43:35 PM
I gotta go with jcwrites. I don't see much value in querying competing versions. You'd need to keep really careful notes and make sure you don't get which agent got which submission package mixed up. That's two different synopses, two different queries, two different partials, two different fulls. Also, you could end up wasting a bunch of queries testing the waters to see which one is the successful one. It could very well turn out (Heaven forbid) that both don't work, and then you'll be right back where you started.

If you're looking for opinions on which is working better, I'd honestly get ahold of some more beta readers or post your first chapter on here (assuming the "now" information is early on). You could even exchange partials/fulls with another writer on here. My point is that I would advise against using literary agents as a focus group.

For me, I would think about the story I was trying to tell. Are these two versions essentially the same story, in heart and in message, or is this new version not the story that you intended to share with the world at all? That would be a deciding factor for me.

And for the record, if you decide that the "now" version is the story you want to tell but you want it to be stronger, there is very likely a way to revise it to flow better without removing the "now" portions of the story entirely.
Title: Re: If I do this, does it change this?
Post by: Odd John on April 30, 2021, 07:17:22 PM
I most humbly change my mind. Somewhat.

It seemed to me that Atg336 was close to the end game in preparing an MS, and at loggerheads. But as others have said, maybe there is just more needed input before querying. That is always useful unless it goes on indefinitely. But if still unable to choose "the worthy prospect", I believe it is better to pick one randomly, or even send both versions out. Instead of sitting on one's hands. That can become very painful over too long a stretch. At a certain point, the bird(s) must be pushed out of the nest!
Title: Re: If I do this, does it change this?
Post by: Viddiest on April 30, 2021, 10:37:20 PM
Hi Atg, I am going to agree with MK. I am in a similar position to you and making big decisions based on reader and agent feedback. So my question to you is which story do you want to tell? Depending on the version you choose, it will alter your story. Are you telling the story of a veteran whose memories and life itself has been steeped by her war experiences or are you telling the story of someone caught in the immediacy of war? I think the story wouldn't be the same depending on your perspective. I was thinking about Ian Mcewan's Atonement. In the novel, the protagonist recounts from her present day, her experiences of her past and it makes all the difference to the book. The same story could have been set entirely in the past and it would have made for an interesting book too, but it would be a different book. I am going to quote Barbara Kingsolver here as this quote really made me think about my own work in a different way-

"Don’t try to figure out what other people want to hear from you; figure out what you have to say. It’s the one and only thing you have to offer."

I would suggest you figure out which story is true to your vision of the book and stand 100 percent behind that. I would not recommend going with two versions. Reader feedback is really useful but only, in my opinion, if it helps you stay true to your story. So which version is it?

All the best, and I hope I've been helpful rather than confusing :)
(Modified to credit previous posters.. on my phone so didn’t read the thread fully)
Title: Re: If I do this, does it change this?
Post by: Munley on May 01, 2021, 09:12:37 AM
I agree with Viddiest.

I think authors create their best work when their heart is in it, which is sustained by being true to your own vision of the story you really want to tell.

Suggestions from others can be useful when they augment your own vision.
It's disheartening to be urged to go into a direction you yourself have no natural enthusiasm for, and it will show in the writing.

Title: Re: If I do this, does it change this?
Post by: Atg336 on May 05, 2021, 09:11:05 AM
Thank you all for the feedback.

Now that I put distance between the two versions, I can see that one is, as Viddiest said, the story of a veteran coming to terms late in age with the war she was caught up in. The other version is more of an immediate action oriented story (to a point).

I think I have more to say in the version with the "Now" chapters, as it contextualizes the MC's struggle with dealing with her past, and reconciling it with her life now. It also plugs in the data holes I have to leave in the other version. As I had said, most beta readers don't have enough knowledge about the Eastern Front and the "Now" chapters have worked well to catch them up to speed (stealthy infodumps  >:D).

The MS takes place during the Holocaust in the East, which again most people don't know much about. Most will associate the concentration camps in Germany and Poland with the Holocaust, but a vast majority of those killed were in occupied Byelorussia, Ukraine, and Russia, and they were shot and buried in mass graves outside of almost all towns and cities in these territories. While the version without the "Now" chapters touches on this, I feel that the topic is better served in the version with the "Now" chapters, as the MC can relay the magnitude of suffering realistically to her family.