Wednesday, September 21, 2011

September Secret Agent #49

TITLE: You Cannot Kill a Swan
GENRE: Historical fiction

This was not the response Iván Ivánovich Konev was expecting when he proposed to his sweetheart Lyubóv Leontiyevna Zhukova.

Lyuba has told Iván to pretend their month-long clandestine romance never happened. She expects him to carry on as though they’re just best friends of the opposite sex, after everything they shared. And to add insult to injury, she said she still loves him. Iván has never heard of such a confusing, heartbreaking response to a marriage proposal, particularly not when the boy and girl have secretly been in love for nine years, since they were children. At least his good friend Alekséy Vladímirovich Trótskiy didn’t make fun of him for being unmanly when he caught him crying in a closet.

“Not too long ago we skipped gymnasium and spent the day at the pond,” Iván says wistfully. “We were watching the swans and talking about how they mate for life. When a swan finds its soulmate, the two swans swim together and their beaks form a heart shape. Well, you can’t kill a swan’s pair bond, and my beautiful swan will be back where she belongs no matter how long it takes.”

“You’d have to be willfully blind to miss how she’s always looked at you,” Alekséy says. “I never bought her charade of preferring Borís over you. If I were a girl, I’d pick a tall, handsome, well-mannered guy over that short chubby Malenkov. I know you're best friends, but anyone who knows what’s what can see Lyuba only has romantic feelings for you.”


  1. The early introduction of long names is a little distracting. The first sentence might be better expressed as dialogue, since it drags a little. I'm also not sure what the time/setting is. You repeat the fact that he's proposed marriage. I'm not sure the dialogue is entirely believable; that they would actually talk this way.

    I'd prefer to be shown, rather than told that the protagonist is heartbroken.

    I'm already intrigued by Aleksey. Is he really a friend or an enemy? Maybe you could open with that conversation.

  2. I never remember these long Russian names; I'd much rather see just one name, especially at first.

    There's a lot of telling here, not much showing. The last paragraph is interesting. Why not start with that one?

  3. I'm slightly confused about the tense here (seems to jump around here and there).

    The image of the proposer crying in a closet is hysterically funny!

  4. It opens in April of 1917, and they're at their gymnasium (high school) at the end of the day. The actual marriage proposal is later seen in a flashback later on, when they're telling the story of their secret romance to some of their friends during the winter of 1919.

    This is the third opening I've written; the first, which I wrote in 1993, was really amateurish and just described what the characters looked like as they came out of school. The second version, which I think I wrote around 2001 or 2000, gave a miniature history lesson in the first paragraph. This one is just recent, and emphasizes the plot from the beginning. (My files were held hostage on obsolete file formats for almost a decade, so I was unable to have access to this book for any revising until this June.)

    I put the first paragraph in the past tense because it describes something that happened in the past relative to the action, and then it picks up in present tense, which the rest of the book is told in.

    I guess I'm old-fashioned and prefer to be eased into a book instead of dropped right into action, with no idea who the characters are or what the background to the story is.

  5. P.S. The swans mating for life is, I think, too much of a cliche at this point.

  6. Sorry, first post got eaten. The tense shifts really aren't working here--they are ungrammatical and don't achieve what you say you are trying to achieve.

    Then I think there is too much telling and not enough showing.

    But I do like the last paragraph a lot. Sets up a nice dynamic.

  7. I understand that your trying to go for the formality of the time and culture but it's really holding the reader at arms length. and when you begin with "This was not..." I felt like I'd missed the a paragraph or something.

    How about starting right in Ivan's head?

    Ivan I K was expecting a very different response when he proposed to his sweetheart,....

  8. The full names overwhelmed me. I'd use first names because I caught myself rereading the the sentences trying to figure out who's who.

  9. I know it's the Russian system of naming, but the long names put me off as well. Maybe for a Western audience it would be better to start with first names?

    Also, the switch between past and present tense is confusing. I see your comment where you say you're trying to ease us in and let us know what's going on, but after the first line I'm expecting to see Ivan proposing, and instead I'm getting a description about the past, and then Ivan is talking to his friend. I think you need to pick one point in time and build a scene around it. Aleksey catching Ivan crying in the closet would be a great beginning in my opinion. Then you can introduce the characters and why Ivan is crying as the scene progresses.