Reading a dear friend’s memoir

A while back, she asked if I’d read the draft of her memoir. I felt honored. Besides, this is someone who had given a close critique of one of my novels-in-progress decades ago, and I had done the same for a collection of her essays that came a hairline away from book publication.

She had pointed me to a few published volumes I still find myself quoting frequently.

That was back before we could easily exchange things like manuscripts in emails. Had to make printouts and haul off to the post office or drive five hours, things like that.

This time, the copy came as a PDF. I put it aside until I could give it full attention. It was worth it.

As a fact of life, we had largely lost touch. We had never been neighbors. The closest they had lived to me was still an hour away, and then for 19 years they lived five hours off in rural Maine. When her career picked up and I became more enmeshed in my new family and other responsibilities, we had less time to visit, even before she and her husband relocated across the continent a few years ago. We wound up keeping in touch mostly through their daughter, who’s also my goddaughter.

So the memoir was a welcome opportunity to reconnect.

Let me say it’s a remarkable document, wonderfully written, and candid to the point of painfulness. This version is not for public circulation. Parts of it should be, but others are there as evidence of personal work ahead. Well, she has filled the role of a spiritual elder for me through some difficult stretches, and I’ll always be grateful.

I knew bits of the history, but the details deepened my understanding, reconstructed the chronology, and corrected some impressions I had wrong.

I certainly know her – and her husband – much better now.

Over the years, I’ve found that with some friends, when we get together after long stretches apart, we don’t need much time before we’re feeling no gap in our rapport.

This is certainly one of them.

A case of real life intersecting fiction

One of the many things I like about using the DuckDuckGo search engine as an alternative to Google is that its home page includes Pocket, an informative selection of intelligent, substantive articles, many drawn from magazine archives, rather than fluff about celebrities and sports.

This morning’s Pocket, for example, included a 2015 Narratively article by Lilly Dancyger, “Planning My Father-Daughter Dance Without My Dad.”

What especially caught my attention was the ways Lilly’s experience intersected with my novel, What’s Left.

Like Cassia in the book, Lilly lost her father to death when she was 11, and like Cassia, she dressed largely in black for years afterward. (Whew! Confirmation I had that part right.)

Unlike my novel’s character, though, Lilly dropped out of high school, sought relief in alcohol, tobacco, and other drugs, and embraced a dim future. The homeless were some of her favorite companions.

In contrast, Cassia had a large extended family that stayed with her, even when she kept pushing them away. Yes, she had struggles with her mother much like Lilly’s, and she skirted some of the self-destructive behavior, but each of the three aunts on her mother’s side of the family found ways during her difficult teen years to break through to her, as did several of her first-cousins. In today’s world, few are so fortunate, not with our fractured nuclear households.

Moreover, through her aunt Nita, Cassia also had her father’s trove of his professional photography to sift through, each shot reflecting his thoughts and feelings.

What Lilly presents – and I didn’t – is the workings of guilt within a survivor. As she declares, it merely “isn’t just about feeling unjustly lucky to have lived while someone else died; it’s guilt for going on without them, guilt for changing and growing and becoming a person they never knew. Any milestone is tinged with their absence, any joy feels like a betrayal, like you’ve forgotten them, if only for long enough to laugh at a good joke or enjoy a good meal. But as long as you’re in mourning, your life is still about them, and in that way, they’re still there.”

Lilly’s experience came to a head in planning for her wedding and trying to decide who would walk her down the aisle, if anyone, and who would share that first dance with her at the reception.

That wasn’t the case with Cassia, who instead chose to remain single. But Lilly’s words burn, all the same, as they point to another dimension my novel might have developed.

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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