Writing has been a means for me to investigate the question, “Who am I,” and of recollecting fragments, especially those that might eventually coalesce into a larger perspective. Unlike many adults, I have few vivid childhood memories, but what I am piecing together is often troubling. I grew up in Ohio in a mainstream Protestant tradition, became an Eagle scout, loved chemistry, hiked and camped, that sort of thing. I can blame becoming a hippie on my first lover, and thank her, too, for pointing my life in an unanticipated direction even after she flew ever so far away.
In the years since, I’ve followed a zigzag journey that’s been rich in many ways excepting money. Let’s just say it’s been off-beat.
Now retired from a career in daily newspaper journalism, I’ve married for the second time, live in a historic mill town in the seacoast region of New Hampshire, and am an active Quaker. It’s a full plate. What I didn’t expect was how much of my own “contemporary” fiction is now history – so much has changed so quickly in my own lifetime.
It’s hardly the end of the story, though. Not if we can help it.
When I recently applied subtitles to my novels, I gave Reports From Trump Country to Hometown News, even though the events in the story take place, by implication perhaps, during the Reagan years in a small industrial city out in the Rust Belt.
Now the August issue of Harper’s magazine has come out with “The Challenge of the Rust Belt: Can Biden pry it from Trump’s grip?” touted on the cover, and I’m feeling some vindication in the Trump connection in my subtitle.
Vindication? I hate to admit that the Vindicator was a big rival for me in a town that looked very much like Rehoboth, and it had entrenched strength against a small upstart like ours. We were responding quite well, until the larger economy turned against us.
The Vindicator’s home base already resembled a bombed-out German city, left with only several miles of steel mill shells, so we were well within the Rust Belt.
Many communities, especially in the Midwest, simply haven’t recovered from the sharp decline of American manufacturing in the ’70s and ’80s or from the blow to the myth that you’ll be rewarded if you just work hard enough. So much for the work ethic itself.
No wonder this is my dystopian novel.
Now, 40 or so years later, those things really haven’t improved. Let’s be honest. There really is a Groundhog Day surrealism in many locales. We really need a better end for the story – mine and Harper’s – than what I’m seeing.
Not that Cassandra had an easy time of it. either.
I’ve mentioned the deep revisions What’s Left underwent on its way to its current incarnation. Most of the work was done entirely on the computer, but a few rounds on paper helped, too. Here’s a sample from maybe Round Nine.
One of the joys of publishing ebooks is that they can be updated easily and quickly.
So I had a flash, maybe while I was in the shower, and wondered what would happen in What’s Left if Cassia’s father died of a coronavirus complication instead of an avalanche.
It was tempting until I started realizing that it would have to be an entirely different story. She couldn’t grow up, for one thing, not unless I wanted to project that into the future, up to 30 years from now. Right now, everything just a year from now’s looking fuzzy.
And it couldn’t work with the premise of her having to go back through photo negatives – we’ve been digital too long now. As for the hippie, Buddhist, or AIDS epidemic dimensions?
The very thought, though, has me looking at some of the daily news reports through fiction-oriented lenses. Who are the villains and who are the heroes? Where do you want to set this – the White House, an intensive-care unit, a multi-generational household? What focus would you take? Would it be romance, young adult, sci-fi, fantasy, children’s?
I don’t see myself getting to this anytime soon, but good luck to any of you who feel free to tackle a Covid-19 big tale. There are certainly plenty of angles to consider.
Back in April, Smashwords co-founder Jim Azevedo presented a six-hour writers conference via Zoom for ebook authors newbie and long-standing. I found it a rich experience and must applaud his stamina in sitting in front of his computer screen camera that long.
His candid advice about rival Amazon prompted me to bite the bullet and look into reformatting my novels for Kindle Direct Publishing as one more digital retailing site for my work. I am, after all, fiercely loyal to Smashwords. Still, with Amazon, the most exciting thing is that I can now offer my work in print-on-demand paperback editions as well. I’ve come to love ebooks, but paper is, well, a special world to me.
Amazon has cleaned up many of its earlier formatting issues, and I can say my maiden foray went surprisingly smoothly. The one hiccup came with the paperback cover – my existing one was too small to run full-size. I compromised by reducing it within the glossy black background field.
I recently posted about tweaking that cover, which I did back before the online conference. Fortunately, it holds up to the new twist that’s been added to my thinking.
Azevedo spent some time covering the importance of covers, something I’ve previously blogged on. Frankly, from a design point of view, I find most book fronts to be cluttered and unfocused, combined with artwork that often strikes me as soft.
Maybe it’s all my years in journalism, but I’ve long leaned toward photographs as having more impact than paintings or drawings, and I want a strong graphic element other than type. Ebooks have an additional challenge of appearing, as Azevedo said, like postage stamps at the digital retail sites. That means any cover graphics have to pop if they’re going to catch your attention at all. You can’t be the least bit subtle.
What really struck me in Azevedo’s pitch was his insistence that a good book cover makes a promise.
What? The cover doesn’t mirror the story?
No, a promise.
As I started pondering potential new fronts for my paperback releases, his point kept kicking in. The result is a slew of new ebook covers already. Here I thought I’d be keeping what I had, but instead felt a need for improvement.
There was no escaping the necessity for a cover to have an emotional appeal, a gut-level reaction from a potential reader. Just who am I trying to entice? I’m not a famous writer, like Tolstoy or Stephen King or even Kurt Vonnegut, whose name alone could sell copies.
Still, thanks to an earlier project, I have a clearer concept of my ideal reader than I had in the past. So I’m not simply trying to stop a shopper for a moment’s reflection, as I might with a “literary” appeal. No, I’m trying to connect with her soul and spirit. Whew! So much for that calm bookish repose.
Let’s jut say I’m aiming for real readers rather than schoolteachers or librarians. You know, the kind of readers who just might turn into not just fans but superfans, as Azevedo touts, the ones who tell everybody they know about the hot unknown book they’re devouring.
Flash forward and look what’s happened to my Subway Visions cover. The previous one set the underground urban tone, but just what’s the promise? It looks pretty static. Waiting for a train to somewhere, but what then?
The new cover, though, gives a totally different impression. Its brightly tagged subway car goes careening into the depths. We’re not just standing around, waiting, but off into the action. The typeface and solid color provide a retro take on old-fashioned paperbacks. Whoopie! As a reader, I expect to be entertained. We’re in for a wild trip. Well, there’s the promise. Come along with me.
Finding the right image, of course, is a challenge. I lucked out on this one, even though it required a long search and then winnowing down the other options. One where the photos all ultimately lost out.
I do hope that big piece of graffiti doesn’t say something truly embarrassing.
Daffodil Uprising was a bit more wrenching.
I’m quite fond of the clean appearance of that single bloom, but as I came back to the question of promise, I didn’t see the cover suggesting anything. It just stands there, like a monument.
The new cover, though, suggests a row of daffodils blazing into full bloom. It’s colorful and happy, reflecting much of the hippie expectation, without getting caught in the time warp. Yes, the story includes Flower Power but it’s more about youth and shared discoveries rather than Sixties. I’m surprised how fresh this new cover feels.
That’s appropriate, since my extensive revisions of these works sought to move them into being more about NOW than exclusively back THEN, even when the tale is full of what has become ancient history to most of the populace.
As I hunted for the new image, I wound up sorting through thousands of MsMaya’s mesmerizing abstract flower creations before finding one that captured something resembling daffodils. But then it blooms into something much more. Once again, the photos failed to make the final cut.
I was long overdue for a reading orgy — you know, an indulgence in books — and a little while ago, before the quarantine, in fact, I immersed myself in ebooks by other authors at Smashwords. Some of the volumes are even free.
If you’re curious about what I was reading, zip over to the books reviewed by me at the bottom of my Jnana Hodson page at Smashwords.com. Yes, I thought about posting the reviews here, too, but there was already a lot on the agenda.
Most of the ebooks touch in one way or another on topics in my own novels. It’s lovely finding kindred spirits. Well, it’s a lot like the ways we here at WordPress connect, too.
At a recent online writers’ conference, I was convinced to bite the bullet and release my novels at goliath Amazon in addition to the alternative ebook retailers where they’re already available. As I began pondering the new hurdles and strategies, I looked at Hometown News as a first offering.
A few years ago I had replaced the original cover, which sought to convey a sense of an idyllic small town where children could grow up safely, at least at the onset, with another of more urgency, reflecting the broader sense of the ultimately dystopian novel.
The new photographic image, though, was problematic.
The flames coming out of the residential window had the emotional message I wanted to convey, but they kept eating up the title and author credit, no matter which color I tried.
So I came up with this, trying to employ a trendy design element:
Returning to it now, though, I still felt an unease. The solution, in the end, was to make the artwork a bit smaller to give it more impact. Got that? It doesn’t make sense, but here’s how I’ve gone:
By the way, it’s now also available in paperback and Kindle at Amazon, as well as at Smashwords and affiliated ebook retailers.
I was in the midst of revising what’s now Nearly Canaan and found myself surprised to find myself living vicariously in the minds and hearts of the villains. Well, three of them. (I won’t name them, since they all start out as darlings. Don’t want to spoil your reading.)
In drafting my novel, What’s Left, some of my favorite passages came about while sketching the family’s business possibilities. What would be involved in transforming their restaurant? In expanding their real estate holdings? In undertaking alternative financial models?
Well, this is a novel, and in the revisions, they story’s become much more about Cassia than her parents’ generation or their roots. Or even my passion for architecture.
As she asks her aunt Nita for details about the hippie era, she gets an earful. Here’s a passage that was condensed before the final version of my novel, What’s Left:
You know, peace and social activism. Environmental and ecological awareness. Racial and sexual equality. Sustainable economics. The whole spiritual revolution, including yoga and meditation. Education reform. Well, I miss the music – the fact it got lost in time. Don’t forget the health and nutrition angles, either – not just natural food and vegan. Farmers markets? We’ve certainly been participants on that front.
Weren’t there some communes around our Mount Olympus?
They’re hanging on, actually. The survivors turned into cooperative housing, where the members own their own homes but share the land. An interesting concept. Land trusts, too.
Thea Nita, you know how Theos Tito rants from time to time about the Establishment’s interference with the counterculture?
You mean, beginning with the CIA’s role in moving hard drugs into the country to undermine the peace movement? And Big Money’s work to undermine radical economics? Sure.
What do you make of it?
It’s another big book waiting to be written.
So we come back to politics?
Yes, Cassia. The nation’s divided by the fact we won’t look openly and honestly at the experience. Why should we be embarrassed by our hippie identity? Our antiwar righteousness? Our desire for liberty? There’s no real public dialogue, and that’s a disgrace.
OK, open up: Do you think the hippie generation should be embarrassed?