All under Cassia’s spell

I keep thinking of What’s Left as “my latest novel” or “my newest,” even though other works are appearing after its publication.

I don’t mean to be creating confusion, but here’s my take.

One way or another, my earlier novels addressed the hippie era, which I still believe remains misunderstood and misrepresented. It’s too important for that. And, yes, it’s still hard to define.

What’s Left started out to put those stories in a broader perspective but, revision by revision, the book moved in a much different direction. Quite simply, Cassia and her generation took over.

It became the most difficult writing project I’ve ever undertaken and forced me to completely rethink my approach to fiction. Remember, my career was in “just the facts, ma’am,” journalism topped by Beat-era literature.

Unlike the earlier works, in drafting this one, I had a structural model I wanted to pursue – one that remained intact.

What I hadn’t anticipated was how much the focus would shift.

Many of my favorite parts were created in the final revisions, especially as other members of her generation became fully fleshed out characters, as did the Goth side of her mourning through her adolescent years.

That also meant ripping out a lot of other material, which either became background for my own understanding or was vastly condensed by the final version. The Red Barn’s been quoting heavily from those discards, just to add to your own understanding of the project’s scope.

Whew!

Unanticipated? The paranormal fourteenth chapter is one of my favorites, even though I’d never done a ghost story before. By they way, they wrote it, not me. I simply recorded the dialogue.

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Joyously, then

From a wonderful book by Czeslaw Milosz, poet: “To find my home in one sentence, concise, as if hammered in metal. Not to enchant anybody. Not to earn a lasting name in posterity. An unnamed need for order, for rhythm, for form, which three words are opposed to chaos and nothingness.” And, he quotes from Renee le Senne: “For me the principal proof of the existence of God is the joy I experience any time I think that God is.” Quoting from Milosz: “To wait for faith in order to pray is to put the cart before the horse. Our way leads from the physical to the spiritual.” And himself: “My friend Father J.S. did not believe in God. But he believed God, the revelation of God, and he always stressed the difference.”

What’s behind the new cover for ‘What’s Left’

Book cover design, as we’ve previously discussed, is a tricky endeavor. The presentation has to be visually catchy but  also reflect the contents of the book itself.

Ebooks, where my works are appearing, have their own additional challenges. Since these volumes are sold exclusively in online book retailers, their cover images are essentially thumbnails, unlike their print counterparts, which are meant to be displayed in stores or library shelves. Nor do these digital publications have spines, which are a unique design concern in itself – until recently, I hadn’t thought how crucial that narrow impression is in attracting my attention when I’m scanning a row of books for something to read. And ebooks don’t have back covers, where the words of praise appear and author’s portrait faces you. That’s a lot for an editor and artist to work with.

Creating a suitable cover for my novel What’s Left became maddening. The work weaves together a lot of themes and subjects, and hinting at them in a single visual image isn’t easy. Family, food and the restaurant they run, their Greek identity, the protagonist’s broken childhood all come into play. Every time I thought we had something functional, one of the in-house critics would raise a valid objection. I finally went with the egg yoke suspended in space as an attempt to convey a sense of being broken open emotionally as well as her own family’s long hours over the grill in their restaurant.

I still think it’s a striking cover, and I’m quite fond of it. But I’ve also been sensing it misses the mark. The focus in the story is on Cassia and the ways her grief as a child impacts her life’s direction. It’s the emotion, after all, that matters most.

I hope this new cover conveys that message.

What’s Left — Within a daughter’s own living Greek drama

For comparison, here’s the original cover:

This is the cover that’s just been replaced.

What do you think?

A lingering insight on marital splits

The Divorce Culture, by Barbara Dafoe Whitehead (New York, Alfred A. Knopf, 1997, 224 pages, $24) – reviewed by Jean E. Milofsky, The Colorado Review, fall 1997:

“Whatever else divorce is, it is fundamentally a loss. As a writer friend of mine once said, ‘It’s like death except no one says nice things about you.’ In divorce one loses not only the relationship with one’s spouse, but also one’s location in the social fabric. Friends fade away, and families are thrown into turmoil. Then there are the inevitable economic losses, which Barbara Dafoe Whitehead rightly claims fall disproportionately on women. Nowhere in her polemic against divorce, however, does Whitehead conceptualize divorce as a loss. Rather, with increasing insistence as the book goes on, she views it as an expression of individual freedom in a highly libertarian age.” …

“Whitehead’s concept of divorce as an expression of unfettered liberty ignores what every divorcing individual realizes – no choice is without consequence, no decision is without obligation or work, and adult freedom never really comes from throwing off chains.”

~*~

Counter with James Dobson’s insistence that “love at first sight” is really just infatuation and therefore selfish, while love is other-focused.

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?