Working on my novel What’s Left, had me exploring unfamiliar terrain when it comes to writing itself. Here I was, after a lifetime in newspaper journalism and a shelf of experimental novels and volumes of poetry, now drafting and revising a new work that was unlike anything I’d done before.
The details, for the most part, felt right, as did the structure. I’d eased into a voice in which Cassia could relate her progress, with the verb tenses of past events repeatedly changing back to the present, the way people do in speaking. The opening pages and final chapters actually excited me. But something bogged down along the way in-between. Not that it wasn’t good; it just wasn’t … well, something.
Much of my awareness as a writer has regarded the matter of style. How crisp, sharp, polished, muscular or sensual, even musical are the pages? In literary circles, that would ask just what in particular gives a specific writer a unique signature or sound, but my background originated in my high school years when I discovered the dictates of newspaper style — the strict rules given journalists for uniform spelling, story structure, word choices, and so on, matters that essentially create a uniformity or even anonymity in voices. Anyone want to mention Hemingway at this point?
With What’s Left, though, the word that kept popping up for me was tone. It was somehow just a little off.
Thinking of it in musical terms, I’m always surprised at what happens when our choir changes the tone of a piece by moving it up or down a half-step or so. It becomes brighter or more melancholy, for instance, as well as easier or harder for us to sing, depending on how it presses our vocal ranges. Well, this is also looked at as a matter of pitch. And it can make a world of difference.
With my novel, I slowly realized I didn’t want it to sound too much like a novel — I wanted it to be more an overheard conversation. As I also found, that can be tricky when we’re looking at a stack of old photos or family history.
Now that the novel’s finished, I’m reflecting once more on the basic of tone. One definition calls it the attitude of a writer toward a subject or audience, and I’m seeing how it’s been both in my case. Over the course of the revisions, the subject mutated from her father to his photographs and, finally, to the experiences of Cassia herself. In addition, her position shifted from her telling of looking back on her discoveries to having her tell of them as they occurred — in effect moving the center of gravity of the story well into her early teens. That, in turn, changed my attitude toward the audience.
Tone, as the definition continues, can be formal, informal, serious, comic, sarcastic, sad, and cheerful, among many other outlooks. Well, where her voice got younger, I did find her bursting into outrageous, delightfully irrational lines that have become some of my favorites.
My thinking about tone was also stimulated by things my ex-wife, a painter, had repeated about the necessity of tone in visual art — something many artists seem to lose sight of (sorry about the pun) as they work. Here it’s the contrast of lightness and darkness, in color as well as black and white — highlights and shadows. Squint your eyes and see if everything blurs into one. It’s still an important parallel to the written word.
So in my novel the tone would need to be colloquial. In the draft and early revisions, Cassia’s mostly the reader. But in the final draft, it’s largely her father. My attitude toward the subject has definitely changed, as has hers.
There’s also the attitude toward details. In fiction, to establish the contrast of lightness and darkness, it helps to keep many of these suggestive, open to the reader’s imagination — unlike the specifics demanded in journalism. Think of having shadowy areas where things can move about in the background without interrupting the action at hand.
In another shift, as she began voicing questions in place of flat-out statements, the reader just might start arguing with Cassia (not me!) — or even to say to herself, “I remember something similar” or “I’m glad that’s not how it happened with us.”
Since her family’s involved in the restaurant business, we can change our perspective slightly. Finding the right tone is something like deciding what kind of meal you’ll sit down to. A picnic, for example, is quite different from one with white linen on the table or from a quick lunch of burgers and fries.
As for something at home? It helps to know who’s coming.
What would you serve Cassia for a meal?