When the revision’s finished for me

Some artists begin with an outline of the work they’re doing and stick with it, starting in one corner and continuing to the opposite end. And, for many of them, once it’s filled in, that’s it, the piece is finished. Voila!

Others, like me, set forth in a particular direction with an expectation of what’s ahead but find ourselves often changing course as we go. And once the first draft is finished, we know it’s only a start, far from finished.

There’s a saying in writing that talent goes into that first draft, but genius comes in the revisions — if at all. That first draft can be exciting, even intoxicating, as the piece takes shape — in the case of writing, sometimes out of thin air.

Or, in the visual arts, there’s a description of someone who’s painterly — that is, scraping away earlier layers and painting over and over until something comes into focus. Oh, yes!

The truth is that first draft can be satisfying for its creator. You know where the story wants to go, who the characters are, how the pieces fit together. Your spelling can be irregular; the sentences, unfinished; the events as arbitrary as you wish. You could leave it there and turn elsewhere, should you decide. You don’t have to defend or explain anything.

On the other hand, if you wish to share your work with others, you’ll need to clean it up. Those who think otherwise are at least worthy of suspicion.

Which leads to the next step, one I think demands far more labor than the drafting stage and far more dedication. Revision.

For one thing, it means questioning everything that’s gone into that beloved first draft. Every word, every sentence, every paragraph, every chapter. Ouch! For another, it means asking yourself just what you meant in that brilliant phrase before you. And for me, at least, there’s a stage where I start trying to liberate whatever it is that’s lurking beneath the prose on the page. (Well, these days, the computer screen.) It means tearing apart what you’ve done, discarding large chunks of material, and inserting fresh insights. And it’s much messier than what you’ve done previously. Is there a special maid service for writers?

One item on my mental checklist regarding the revision process has to do with identifying certain words that keeping repeating through a long work like a novel. I then go back through the story, looking for synonyms that will give me another angle on the concept or thought being repeated. In What’s Left, for instance, I had family, restaurant, hippie, and Buddhism high on that list. What could I do to lessen the deadening recurrence of those terms? Slang, I might confess, can work wonders.

From my poetry, I’d long ago learned that this is where the work itself opens into something totally new. What do I really mean here? What is the text trying to say to me? How can I liberate it? Or make it burst into flames?

OK, this sound pretty haughty, but it’s all part of the obsession.

As a parallel, let me suggest cooking, since it’s an element in the background of my new novel. Just look at how the ingredients cook down into something quite different. There’s much more than just throwing a steak on the grill or opening a bag of shredded lettuce. (Especially if you’re going to join me at Carmichael’s in the novel.)

To return to the question of just when is it finished for me, I’d like to say once the work’s been published. But that may be rushing reality.

A thorough revision can leave me exhausted, feeling I have nothing more of value to add. (At least for now.) Or maybe I’m finally released from the subject — it can move into the public arena now.

Thinking of What’s Left, I might mention a parallel in the visual arts where I originally saw the earlier chapters as pop art masters Roy Lichtenstein and then Robert Rauschenberg but narrowing into the black-and-white lithographs of Peter Milton. But then my perspective reversed!

~*~

Do you ever look at events around you like an ongoing movie? (Sometimes even as a cartoon, as I do?)

What would you use as the title for your life?

~*~

Finishing the meal doesn’t mean the job’s done, as Pia would have learned growing up in Lowell, Massachusetts, and working in a diner like this.

Her own colorful swirl

At one point in my novel What’s Left, Cassia’s aunt Pia returns to tradition by adapting a head scarf, just like the women in her Greek ancestry.

She’s always had her own distinctive style, no matter how radical or conservative she turns.

And she’s gone from being the wild child into becoming the family matriarch.

Who in your life has done a 180-degree turn and remained essentially the same?

 

When an author listens to the characters

The ending of my novel What’s Left, is not the one I anticipated. Rather, it’s the one Cassia dictated to me as I was drafting. Believe me, it came as a surprise, but I trust her. It really feels fitting, from my perspective.

Up to that point I’d been thinking of swapping the placement of the last two chapters, ending with Rinpoche, the Tibetan teacher, telling Cassia of her father’s last moments and maybe setting her on a new lifetime pathway. Instead, her story concludes on a rainy Saturday morning as she converses with her best friend forever, her cousin Sandra.

Not that this should be a spoiler for you.

If you’ve ever lived in Indiana, you know how commonplace the rain is, especially on Saturdays, or so I remember. But this one is truly special.

~*~

It’s one thing to be writing and other to be reading or watching.

In reading a novel or watching a movie, have you ever felt a character wanted to go in an independent direction from the one the plot follows? Can you say why or which way you’d go?

~*~

My novel is available at the Apple Store, Barnes & Noble’s Nook, Scribd, Smashwords, Sony’s Kobo, and other fine ebook distributors and at Amazon in both Kindle and paperback.

The paperback cover …

She’s so unlike the author

Maybe it’s a fair question, asking where an author stands in the story. Sometimes it’s pretty autobiographical. With my novel What’s Left, I can safely say I’m nothing like the narrator, Cassia. We don’t even like the same music.

And let’s say her father’s been a much better parent than me. Add to that the fact he’s traveled widely, has mountaineering skills, can translate Tibetan, finds true love not long after college, is able to call one place home the rest of his life. Well, let me add he shares a lot good traits with one very talented photojournalist I worked alongside all too many years ago now.

I will admit a flash of envy seeing the warm guidance he receives in the development of his talent and the freedom he has in pursuing it.

So there’s my disclaimer.

As for Cassia? I’m beginning to think of her as a daughter. She might even fit in with one of my own, though I think there’d be friction with at least one of the others.

~*~

Well, thinking of where we stand in a story, how about this?

What do you see in your baby pictures?

~*~

Who on earth can eat just one “stick” of souvlaki? Besides, where’s the salad or Greek potatoes? Besides, kabobs remind me of winter camp outs as a Boy Scout, cooking in the snow and using green twigs for skewers, long before I’d ever tasted lamb. Oh, my!

 

Their names are a way of remembering, too

One challenge in a large multi-generational story like What’s Left comes in managing first names. Many families customarily name babies in honor of grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins, even the parents, but even with nicknames, that’s bound to create additional confusion for readers.

I skirt the issue by introducing names independent of any mention of family connection, perhaps justified with the break from the old country at the outset of their arrival in America and perhaps as a reflection of adapting new customs as well.

Pressed on the point I might respond that Stavros’ three sisters, who remain unnamed in the text, repeated earlier names. And then I wondered about Nicky, a generation later.

Does your family have naming traditions? What’s the pattern? Which names are most popular?

 

How a novel takes shape and grows

While she thinks she’s learning about her father in my novel What’s Left, we’re really learning about her.

Let me confess, that’s not how the story started out, back in 2013. Cassia really grew up in the meantime!

All of the changes are what really matter.

~*~

If it were only pink, like Cassia’s family headquarters in my novel!

Photography just ain’t what it used to be

In my Freakin’ Free Spirits novels, Cassia’s father is a professional photographer who views the world in a unique spirit.

Now that digital technology has made taking pictures so easy and ubiquitous, everybody always seems to be holding their cell phones up for another shot.

Does anyone else miss the sound of the clicking shutter?

How do you find capturing photographic images affects the way you see events around you?