How Cassia herself evolved in the revisions

No matter how much my novel What’s Left is framed by the ending of my first published novel, most of its characters and action are entirely new.

Well, if you can call going a few more generations “new,” they’re fresh characters in my fiction, filled with color all their own.

Cassia herself and her brothers and cousins and aunts Pia and Yin are certainly original to this story. And yes, a lot has happened in the 50 years since her father joined in with the family.

As one now-deleted line admitted:

Your very presence alters the vibe. There’s the whole nonconformist groove.

This was a description of what her parents’ generation was doing to the restaurant immediately after the fatal car crash, but it could fit much more widely.

In each revision of the novel, Cassia took another step forward. She’s always started her quest at age 11, but most of it was told as a young adult recalling her string of discoveries. Now, however, much of it emerges when she’s 13 and moving up through her teens. For contrast, the final section comes a decade later, after she’s ranged the wider world.

Crucially, in the final revision, she’s speaking directly to her father throughout, rather speaking about him. And, as noted, much of the action has moved forward into her early teen years.

Somewhere along the way, her quest took a flip. It became more about her discovering just who she is and her role in the action. And that’s when she started dictating passages to me, the author.

When I selected her name, Acacia, I didn’t realize how prominent it is in the Bible. In the King James translation, it’s rendered as shittim — what an ugly word! — but Moses was very fond of the extremely hardy wood, and it’s mentioned more than 30 times, often as a required material for holy construction. Americans are most likely to encounter it as the fragrant black locust tree, thorns and all. (OK, officially that’s considered false acacia, but still … close enough for me.) Its flowers are quite fragrant.

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Well, an author can’t include all the details.

What do you think Cassia’s favorite food would be? (Don’t you dare say the Streetcar!)

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Kirkwood Avenue in Bloomington, Indiana, a town that inspired much of the novel. Cassia’s family compound and restaurant would have been off to the left.

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Maybe this is backwards, but the cover can change the story

This self-publishing field means an author is typically deeply involved in all parts of the project rather than just the writing itself.

In my Smashwords releases, I initially hired a book designer to do the covers, but my current releases have all been created by me. (Someday, I really would like to have an artist design the front, but for now, I’m sticking to photos or existing stock artwork. We’re on a strict budget.)

Still, finding an appropriate image can be a challenge.

Has anyone else had this experience? You come across a picture that clicks and select it – and then you go back into your manuscript to make the visual fit better with the text?

For me, that happened with the portrait I settled on for Promise – the model gave me a clearer vision of my character Jaya. (That novel’s now part of Nearly Canaan.)

More recently, with Yoga Bootcamp, the handstand dog reminded me to keep the story lighthearted and humorous in my final revision. Did my decision to nickname the swami Big Pumpkin and Elvis come after the pooch was on board? I don’t recall now, but it certainly wouldn’t surprise me.

Do tell me about your favorite book cover. Does it influence how you see the story? If you’re a writer, has the art on your book led to revisions?

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By the way, I do hate it when the character on the cover is shown, say, as a blonde but is described in the story as a brunette. That sort of thing.

And don’t forget: You better be good to toads!

One more throwaway line

I still like the line, even though I cut it from my novel What’s Left:

Manoula, in the end, would become Penelope awaiting Baba’s return.

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Do you think a teenager would have uttered a sentence like that? Do you catch its classical reference? Or would you need to have it explained?

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Cassia’s roots included inspiration like this. Stairs in Patras, Greece, with view of Varasova mountain across the Gulf of Corinth. Photo by Jerome via Wikimedia Commons.

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Roads not taken on the way to earning a living

In my novel What’s Left, Cassia ponders her father’s career. In an earlier draft, she noted:

At the least, he might take a position on a magazine or major metropolitan daily, based on the portfolio he’s amassed.

Even so, about the time he moves in with her family:

He replies honestly. He’s living hand-to-mouth as it is, thanks to his full-time professional calling.

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I’ve known more than a few people with great talent and great potential. Somewhere, though, they failed to leap the gap. I could point to big changes in society that increased the distance, but even so, I mourn that we’ve lost much.

Step back and look at your situation now. In the movie version, where would you find glamour? And what would come across as funky? Give it a title, if you will, as part of your pitch. Let’s live fully, where we are!

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Don’t forget: You better be good to toads!

How divinely appropriate

In my novel What’s Left, her mother inherits a name whose attributes suit her well. The chaste Roman goddess Diana (or Artemis in Greek) rules the hunt, the moon, childbirth, and nature. In the story, she’s calm and faithful, with a spark of fire that infuses her music-making and likely much more. I even have her evolving into much more of a night-person than her early-rising husband, though I hadn’t thought about that connection till now.

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As I wrote earlier:

The real hunt had begun. With practice, within this lifetime, however long or brief, a remarkable enlightenment might yet blossom into wisdom. From flowers and bees, the harvest comes.

“Come, Dhyana, let us sit together. Let us ride in unison. That is all.” He accepted fully, “The female energy is my Shakti power.”

~*~

Given the urgency of her father’s Buddhist practice, it’s entirely fitting that his wife — Cassia’s mother — would share in the experience. Here he also recognizes an Eastern perception of a uniquely feminine spiritual energy that would complement his own nature — in a way also honoring the goddess essence of Diana’s own name.

By the way, if you’re interested in the origin, meaning, and pronunciation of my name Jnana, visit the Bio page here at the Red Barn. Think it fits me?

Do you know anyone whose first name perfectly suits their personality? Or how about someone who’s the exact opposite of what you’d expect?

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Roman goddess Diana

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Learning to see your own world through another’s eyes

After the death of her father in my novel What’s Left, Cassia and her mother grow emotionally distant. Perhaps a rivalry for his attention had already been festering or perhaps it’s a natural development for many girls at the onset of adolescence, but Cassia, at least, senses something is missing in their relationship.

She even blames her mother for not preventing her father from departing on the trip that ends in his accidental death. In the aftermath, Cassia wonders if she can fully trust anyone to stick around or if she must guard herself on all sides.

Her mother, Diana, is outwardly reserved, unlike her innately effusive sister-in-law Pia. Much of her time is also focused on her successful career as a small-press publisher and performing in a respected string quartet.

Cassia’s aunt Nita subtly begins channeling the girl’s desire for her father’s presence into a long-term project of examining and organizing his vast photographic collection, including thousands of negatives that were never made into glossy prints. In effect, this is one place Cassia has him largely to herself. Here, as she surveys the world through his eyes and mind, she moves from grief to discovery and insight, especially as his unseen guidance leads her more and more into her own extended close family, which he had so vibrantly joined.

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Somehow by the final version this line was no longer needed:

As you’ve seen, Manoula’s family is a whole other story.

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Well, for one thing, he arrived as an outsider, so he did have a fresh perspective from which to view his new relations. They introduced him to a much different set of experiences and, ultimately, accomplishments.

Like him, I moved away from my native corner of the world and encountered much my parents never did. Just joining living in a yoga ashram or later joining the Society of Friends (or Quakers) altered my perceptions.

How do you see the world differently than your parents? Or, for that matter, other people who’ve been around you?

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In the family, Cassia may have had food like this. Mouse-shaped sweets from Katerini, Pieria, Greece. Photo by Lemur 12 via Wikimedia Commons.

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Finding another dimension of personal growth

In my novel What’s Left, one of Cassia’s big discoveries is how much her father had changed in the span from high school to his return to the college town a few years after his graduation.

Among the passages I cut from the final version is this:

No, I guess Baba takes it all in stride because of all the healing and growth that had happened within him since Nita introduced him to Tibetan practice.

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Not everyone, of course, looks deeply into the people and the world around them. Some seem oblivious to the cosmic harmony or greater good that could be shared.

Too many, in fact, remain blatantly superficial, considering the threats now before human existence.

But I’m preaching. I’ll apologize.

There are other options, as I discovered when I took up yoga.

Who or what have you seen helping people you know change for the better? Is there any practice or teaching you’d recommend?

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Cassia’s hometown may have looked something like this. Front of the store at 109-113 South College Avenue in downtown Bloomington, Indiana. Built in 1895, it is part of the Courthouse Square Historic District listed in the National Register of Historic Places. (Photo by Nyttend via Wikimedia Commons.)

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And then there are Cassia’s two older brothers

In the early versions of my novel What’s Left, her brothers stayed off in the background. But Gyatso and Billy moved far forward in the eighth and ninth revisions, especially when I discovered they didn’t require a lot of narrative development to be present. Sometimes a single short detail now pops their activity into fullness.

One thing about Cassia’s extended close-knit family is that her cousins are practically her siblings, too. Cassia’s cousin Sandra, for instance, could well be her sister, and both Gyatso and Billy line up well with some of their boy cousins.

It’s a fine line to walk, keeping the story moving without bogging down in too much detail, but it’s a rich matrix all the same.

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I once had a coworker who grew up in a family where the way they showed affection for one another was by exchanging truly negative words and phrases. As far as I could tell, physical harm wasn’t part of it. Even so, maybe they understood what it meant and felt affirmed and included, but when he did the same thing with those of us in the office, many of my colleagues felt deeply insulted, even wounded. Maybe you know of writers capable of re-creating the domestic scene, but I’m not one of them. I’m still largely baffled.

The dynamics of siblings can make for endless intrigue. I’d love to know more — much more — of how they work in our lives.

Are you from a large family? Do you have brothers or sisters? Do you ever “borrow” their clothes? (Or anything else?) Does your household make you different from your friends or classmates? How would you describe your siblings — and your feelings for them — in a few words? Go ahead, vent, if you must.

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In my novel, the family restaurant could have been like this. Cornelius Pass Roadhouse, Hillsboro, Oregon, by M.O. Stevens via Wikimedia Commons.

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Are you sure you’d want your parents to see this?

In What’s Left, Cassia spends hour after hour organizing the chaotic mess of her father’s photo studio after he vanishes in an avalanche halfway around the globe.

He was something of a hippie, too, as she sees in some of his excesses from the period. Here’s something that popped up for her in a conversation with her aunt Nita. You won’t find it in the final version of the novel, though — some things just got toned down.

And? You ever see the movie he made about the courthouse?

The one with the dome turning into his girlfriend’s breast? Diz’s?

You remember he made that while he was still an undergraduate? Before all the really freaky stuff that followed?

Yes, and that reminds me. We need to have to get that reel converted to digital from Super 16. Before it starts disintegrating or fading. 

You know what a hit that was in some circles? How he was on the verge of notoriety or celebrity?

So why didn’t he continue in that vein?

How would he have paid the bills? The big bills? Where were his introductions? Producers, distributors, even actors? Or his confidence,

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I’ve been trying to think if there’s anything in my past quite that outrageous, but it all seems to be included in my Freakin’ Free Spirits series. My kids would likely be disappointed, but I’m glad my parents never knew the details. I hate to think, though, of some of the things my two girls are hiding from me. My, the times have changed!

What’s something you or your friends are hiding from your parents? What’s most shocked or surprised you about them? What other directions might their lives have taken? What might you hope your own kids never ask you about?

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The vibe lives on, one way or another.

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Lasting impressions from deep in the recesses of childhood

Some of my novel What’s Left, has her revisiting her memories of early childhood.

Later revisions made this passage redundant, and so it’s been scratched out:

By then even Papou Ilias and Yiayia Maria are long gone. Only the wisp of Yiayia Athina remained. But we still had our own little gang — Barney and Pia’s kids, and Tito and Yin’s, plus my brothers. By then we even have Rinpoche and his presence.

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The final version of the novel has many sharp details, including some prompted by the photos she turns up. It is surprising, though, how powerful some of these memories can be, sometimes triggered unexpectedly from deep recesses. When I was 12, I ran into two brothers from my old neighborhood, my pals up to my fifth birthday. I hadn’t seen them in over seven years, and people do change a lot in that time. Still, I recognized them immediately at the Boy Scout event where we were.

Tell me one of your earliest memories from childhood, good or bad.

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Cassia’s roots included inspiration like this. Church of St. Pantaleon in the village of Siána on the Greek island of Rhodes. Photo by Karelj via Wikimedia Commons.

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