A different paradigm of family

My novel What’s Left was precipitated by the structure of a book I’d just read – four sections of four chapters each. Somehow, I just knew this was what I needed for the material already floating around in my head, even though at this point I hadn’t been thinking of writing another novel. But this triggered it.

I’d been reflecting on the ending of my newly recast Freakin’ Free Spirits narrative, where the protagonist lands in a circle of bohemian siblings who have inherited a restaurant. At the time, with only a general acquaintance of a few individuals in the tradition, I intuitively identified them as Greek-American, in part, I recall, as an attempt to suggest a bridging of two ancient wisdoms – the Buddhism from the East and ancient Greek teaching in the West – and in part as a vague awareness of the prevalence of this ethnic group’s ownership of restaurants across the country, possibly including the one that provided a foundation for the one in my story.

In revisiting that ending, though, I felt a need for an understanding of how the siblings turned to Tibetan Buddhism in the first place and why they were now actively hippie, which in turn needed a clearer presentation. Viz, as I’ve been arguing, hippies came (and still come) in many varieties, and no one probably ever fit in the mass-media stereotype.

What became clear to me as I considered the issues was that I needed a backstory, one that winds up going back two generations rather than one. This, in turn, presents another challenge: how many named characters can a reader follow? Since my new novel is told by the daughter of the earlier protagonist, this could get very messy. Remember, the restaurant was inherited by a circle of siblings.

I do employ several turns in the plot to keep maintain a focus, but in doing so, I’m reminded of an insight I had my genealogy research when I noted four Hodgin brothers marrying four Ozbun sisters (or some such, it’s the concept that counts here). What I saw here somehow goes beyond our modern isolated, small nuclear family household in which a husband is expected to fulfill all of a set of expectations and the wife, another. Instead, I’ve wondered how much of those expectations could be spread across the siblings. Not that I go quite that far in my newest novel or at least that blatantly. But the daughter is quite aware of how different her extended family is from those of her classmates.

Not every first draft is going to require tons of revisions

I recently discussed the travails of revising my centerpiece novel What’s Left over a 3½-year period. I should mention that most of my other novels required more years to compose start to finish, but they faced far more interruptions than What’s Left did.

This fall, I’ve had an experience of writing a novel that was quite the opposite. It’s the fourth and concluding book in an independent series, one that won’t appear under my name, and its 52,000 words came together in just about three weeks. The manuscript required only a few minor revisions and tweaks afterward.

Essentially, I started at the beginning and wrote it step by step over a simple chronological plot line to the end. The previous novel in the series presented the traumatic event that prompted this book and its theme, so I wasn’t starting from scratch. On the other hand, that approach always includes some limitations, too.

No spoilers, I’m not giving details. But there were earlier specifics and, in addition to the protagonist, four characters to weave into the advancing tale. If you’re a NaNoWriMo aspirant and looking at reaching that minimal word count, having boilerplate like this to work from helps.

I did have a separate Word file where I could develop specific morsels to insert into the manuscript itself as the story emerged, but doing so proved fairly seamless. Cut and paste from one file into another. So, technically, you could argue it wasn’t quite a straight-through writing, though for me, this is as close as it gets.

Crucially, a rhythm was set. My, that really does help the drafting!

One thing that helped immensely was the creation of tight character profiles (in that second file) for the nine new individuals who populate the book, including notes of how they connect with one another. Those summaries were then backed up by photos I collected online for people they might resemble and for residences and neighborhoods that would fit them. Much of the color in my narrative arises in these specifics built on their social milieau. Often, the images took me well beyond what I would have envisioned in my own smaller world. Look close!

If you’re doing NaNoWriMo and getting stuck, try this. Trust me.

While I had an overarching idea of the plot line, I was uncertain about the ending. That crucial bit came to me while sitting in Quaker worship. When I got home, I entered a note at the end of the manuscript and returned to the spot much earlier in the timeline where I was keyboarding.

A week or so later, as I dug down to that note, I was startled. I had been building the crisis to a different character, not the one I had noted. Which do I choose? I elected to stick with the note, in part because of its surprise in the plot line. It still makes sense from the earlier developments. And I definitely now think that was the right decision.

So you NaNoWriMo aspirants, take heart.

You really can make that deadline on your first draft. Go, team, go! You can make it in the next two weeks.

Adding an Apple to the mix

Finishing the manuscript is one step.

Doing the revisions leads to more.

And then, with luck or daring, there’s publication.

But you’re hardly done.

Maybe the hardest part’s still ahead.

The part they call marketing. It’s a major topic of conversation when authors get together.

~*~

One of the small but important changes I’ve made in my presentation in the past month is expanding the available links to my ebooks. I’d previously said “at Smashwords and other fine ebook retailers.” But then one of the retailers, the Apple Store, pointed out I wasn’t mentioning them as one of the options, and that got me looking at the others as well.

What it’s led to is something like this for me in general:

Check out my author page at the Apple Store, Barnes & Noble’s Nook, Scribd, Smashwords, Sony’s Kobo, and other fine ebook retailers.

And something similar for each of the particular books, with the added sentence: “Or ask your public library to obtain them.”

~*~

After informing one of my Web-savvy younger associates, I was surprised that she really didn’t know anything about Smashwords.com. No, I was really surprised.

That got me thinking. My sense is that adding Apple, Barnes & Noble, and Sony as details boosts my credibility.

What do you think?

Why don’t novels have subtitles?

“What’s it about?” is one of the more difficult questions for an author. A novelist wants to reply with a summary of the plot, while a non-fiction writer is tempted to launch into a lecture.

Coming up with the right flash reply is a blessing.

My elder daughter, for example, pointed me to the “recovering from deep personal loss” theme of What’s Left. Yes, that’s what it is ultimately about.

Finding an appropriate – and hopefully catchy – title is hard enough. One or two words, if you can.

And then there’s the cover design – another long consideration regarding a quick impression.

For books on paper, there’s the back cover and the spine for added impact.

Ebooks have the blurb on the screen beside the cover.

A related challenge comes in giving a potential reader a good welcome to the volume at hand – a sense of what to expect. Is it playful or tragic, insightful or superficial, emotional or witty?

I’ve often flipped a book open and sampled a sentence inside, which has often been all that I’ve needed. Not an option with an ebook. You first have to download a sample of the book itself.

~*~

Over the past month, something that should have been obvious all along has finally come to my attention.

Novels don’t have subtitles. Non-fiction usually does, as you know all too well if you’re doing scholarly citations.

So why doesn’t fiction?

I’m sure there are exceptions, and maybe mention of being part of a series could be considered one of them. But none of what I’m pulling off the bookshelf parts from tradition.

Still, I started playing and realized a subtitle would be a big boost.

Rather than redoing the covers or the blurbs, I decided to put the subtitle on the title page inside as an extra touch in easing the reader into the text.

Here’s what I’ve come up with:

~*~

  • WHAT’S LEFT … Within a daughter’s own living Greek drama
  • DAFFODIL UPRISING … The making of a hippie
  • PIT-A-PAT HIGH JINKS … Of housemates, lovers, and friends
  • SUBWAY VISIONS … Along the tubes to Nirvana
  • YOGA BOOTCAMP … Welcome to Big Pumpkin’s ashram
  • NEARLY CANAAN … With an enduring promise of snowy mountains
  • THE SECRET SIDE OF JAYA … A vagabond’s surreal and fantastic encounters
  • HOMETOWN NEWS … Reports from Trump country

~*~

What do you think? Do the subtitles help?

And by the way, how do you settle on a title? As a reader or as a writer?

I’ve been playing with their magical Meatgrinder

One of the blessings of publishing ebooks, rather than books on paper, is that they can be updated easily – at least at the publishing outfit I use. If you format the manuscript properly, the Smashwords converter – playfully named the Meatgrinder – can turn your text into six different kinds of digital versions in a couple of minutes. It’s amazing.

If you don’t format properly, though, it can output your precious work as garbage or insert characters that will confuse your reader. You want to follow the guidelines carefully.

Ebooks aren’t formatted like traditional print books, especially if you’re planning to issue them simultaneously on multiple platforms like Kindle, Nook, and Kobo. You don’t want to add too many blank lines, they can turn into a series of blank screens. What you get aren’t standard pages anyway – each of the formats is sized differently, as are the reading devices. (You don’t number your pages. Think of those who will be reading on their Smartphones or tablets, while others will be at their laptops or desktop terminals.) I think of the appearance more as a scroll.

By the way, I still can’t design my books to get a new chapter to come up at the top of the next page, though some of the ebooks I read manage to do so. I’ll keep trying.

~*~

About a month ago, I experimented with changing the appearance of the text itself in one novel and was so pleased with the results that I then applied the new look to all of my other ebooks.

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Beware, that finished novel is only the beginning of the job

Here’s to all of you who are setting out on drafting a novel this month. I salute the NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month) program for encouraging aspiring writers to compose 50,000 words during the period. Good luck to you, stick with it, and learn tons – about yourself and your world – as you do so. Keep your eyes and thoughts on that goal.

I want to add a caveat, though.

That finished first draft is where the labor really starts.

As one observer noted: Talent goes into the first draft; genius, in the revisions.

~*~

I’ve come to be a bigger believer in those revisions. They move the text from being what’s important to you privately and on to what’s important to engage with the reader.

The revisions are where you dig under the surface to liberate the unexpected ore and lore of universal value. The process requires clearing away a lot of the vegetation and dirt, as it were, and it gets messy.

The core of my own published fiction arises in three large drafts I composed in a year I took off as a sabbatical back in the mid-’80s. While those stories were ambitious and original, they also rambled in search for a focus. One now spans four novels. Another, three.

During the next quarter-century, in addition to working full-time in a newspaper office, I kept returning to these at home in my free time, along with a slew of poetry. One book – Subway Hitchhikers – was published in 2001 but got swallowed by the first Iraq war, a terrible book-selling year overall.

~*~

Starting in 2013, the revised novels began appearing in Smashwords editions. I’ve been touting the works here at the Red Barn.

While most of them dealt with aspects of the hippie era, something still felt unfinished, at least in my mind. What happened to the movement? What are its lingering accomplishments?

The thoughts were gathering but not coalescing. I knew where I wanted to start, had a new character to run with, even came up with the trigger, but the next steps pointed nowhere.

Then, in 2014, I came across an unusual structure for a novel that ignited my imagination. Rather than the usual 20 to 24 chapters typically arrayed in chronological order, this one had 16, and each one was a kind of panel or module that could be moved about somewhat randomly or even as elements of a mosaic. Yes, some of these would have to appear later than others, but there was an overall freed of ordering. It was like wandering about in a room of paintings.

Bingo!

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OH, THE LIFE LOOKED SO BEAUTIFUL

“Sister Act,” a profile of the German twins Gisela Getty and Jutta Winkelmann in the May 2018 issue of Vanity Fair, reminds me of another disturbing side of the hippie era. The two celebrity “cosmic flower children” are portrayed as the antithesis of the poor underage runaways-turned-beggars who populated Haight-Ashbury a few years earlier, desperate for a better life than they’d had growing up.

No, these two had access to anything – and anyone – they wanted. They were already the Jet Set, slumming for fun during the day and partying with the rich-and-famous at night. Or the other way around, depending.

The photos made their stylish life look so beautiful. Much more so than the rundown places where most of us were living or the clothing we wore.

Their biggest leap into the spotlight came when Gisela, then 24, became engaged to marry oil-fortune heir J. Paul Getty III, age 17, shortly before he was kidnapped and held for ransom – and had his right ear severed and mailed away as proof during a five-month ordeal. His abduction itself may have been prompted by his own wayward wanderings and musings. They did marry after his release, though it had its problems leading to divorce.

So just what upsets me so in the article by Mark Rozzo?

I think of social activist Saul Alinsky’s revulsion at the yippies and the like, perceiving that their actions actually harmed efforts for political and economic justice.

Over the years since, too few dreamers have stepped up to do the nitty-gritty daily labor toward these ends – a protest march is superficial in contrast to serving on a board or writing to officials or work on campaigns for office.

The article also has me recalling an op-ed piece in the New York Times in the early ’70s that noted six types of hippies – and a huge gap in the middle of the range. In the upper categories were altruistic social reformers, artists and poets, spiritual practitioners – the ones I celebrate. In the lower categories, though, were misfits who had little ambition and few abilities. Ultimately, the two extremes had little in common.

Rozzo’s depicted counterculture is self-indulgent, narcissistic, rife with drugs and promiscuity, and celebrity connections like actor Dennis Hopper and his machine guns. This is the Revolution of Peace & Love? Or its spoiled countercurrent?

What a waste, I mutter. What a waste.

What did they contribute to the common good? What was their vision for a better world? They had so much to begin with, they could have supported so much.

The very tempting beauty they embodied winds up feeling hollow, even venomous.

Pipe dreams, then. There’s so much we lost that still haunts me.