When it comes to her cohort of close cousins in my novel What’s Left, I don’t want to give away too much. Let’s just say there are a lot of them, and they come to prominence in the last half of the story. You just might have reason to be envious.
As an author, this presents a challenge. How can I narrow the focus for the reader yet maintain an awareness of the scope involved by the time we get to a fourth generation of this family in the New World?
In this case, I chose to concentrate on a handful of Cassia’s cousins, at most, and deal with the rest of them in quick glances, often as part of the pack, sometimes simply a cluster of names in a single brushstroke. I hope it’s sufficient.
Perhaps it also helps that apart from Cassia’s best friend forever, Sandra, the cousins don’t step into the spotlight until we’re well into the story and some of the other earlier characters have already stepped offstage.
As a passage I deleted from the final version suggests, her upbringing was quite different from her father’s.
He must have been very lonely, always on best behavior, without any of the competitive mischief that runs through my family.
One of the things that amazed me about my college girlfriend’s family was the number of cousins she had and how often they visited each other — second- and third-cousins included. They seemed to know where everyone lived and what they were up to. Mine was nothing like that.
Do you have any close cousins? Do you find any of them to be special? Annoying?
Or if you’re from a big family, how close are you to your brothers and sisters? Which ones more than others?
Unless you’re a hermit or a successful recluse, you’re bound to come across a host of humanity in your daily life. Just think of the spaces you inhabit — home, neighborhood, buses or subway cars, classroom, workplace and markets, church, a gym or swimming pool, dances, sports teams or choirs, coffee stop, and on and on — all filled with other people who cross your path.
Just mapping all the places you touch in a week can be a big challenge.
So faithfully following a character in a story presents an impossible task: how many of these intersecting individuals can an author include? Think, too, of the level of importance — whether you’re presenting a central figure whose influence runs through many of the pages; a major character who may be important at some point, even a single chapter; someone who provides peripheral color; an episodic figure, who flits in and out. And how many of these require names versus those who can be quickly sketched by a simple title or description?
I’d still love to do a tale having only two characters. Even holding it to six would be fun. But obviously, that wouldn’t do when the story touches up to five generations, as my novel What’s Left, does. Now you can share my perspective.
Consider, too, that we typically know others in one circle of activity or another. Sometimes they fit in several, but encountering a person out of context can be confusing. There are people I know at the indoor swimming pool, for instance, but we’re always startled when we run into each other on the street or at the supermarket, where our joke usually goes, “I didn’t recognize you with your clothes on!” (Yes, we do wear swimsuits — and often swim caps.)
How many people do you know by name? What’s your most important social space when it comes to being with your cohorts?
If you’re a writer, you no doubt know the dictum, “Write about what you know.” It remains sound advice. Another side, though, is equally valid — write about what you don’t know. It’s a means of exploration and discovery.
What’s Left takes that approach more than any of my earlier works. As an 11-year old, Cassia’s living in a financially secure extended family quite unlike any I’ve known intimately. She suffers a tragedy that prompts the action of the novel, again quite different from my own experience. Cassia tells most of the story in her teen years as she investigates the central questions in her life.
For me, this also required constructing a back story beginning with her great-grandparents and moving to the present. What do I know about running a restaurant, managing a family business, being Greek-American or Greek Orthodox, for that matter?
Well, as she advised me (and you readers) at one point, “You better be good to toads.”
I simply recorded what she dictated to me.
Read the book and you’ll see why.
I thought about “correcting” that to “You better be kind to toads,” but my sense is that it’s closer to what an 11- or 12-year-old may say under the circumstances.
To be honest, I don’t remember much from when I was that age. There may be good reasons I keep blotting it out.
Working on my novel What’s Left, had me exploring unfamiliar terrain when it comes to writing itself. Here I was, after a lifetime in newspaper journalism and a shelf of experimental novels and volumes of poetry, now drafting and revising a new work that was unlike anything I’d done before.
The details, for the most part, felt right, as did the structure. I’d eased into a voice in which Cassia could relate her progress, with the verb tenses of past events repeatedly changing back to the present, the way people do in speaking. The opening pages and final chapters actually excited me. But something bogged down along the way in-between. Not that it wasn’t good; it just wasn’t … well, something.
Much of my awareness as a writer has regarded the matter of style. How crisp, sharp, polished, muscular or sensual, even musical are the pages? In literary circles, that would ask just what in particular gives a specific writer a unique signature or sound, but my background originated in my high school years when I discovered the dictates of newspaper style — the strict rules given journalists for uniform spelling, story structure, word choices, and so on, matters that essentially create a uniformity or even anonymity in voices. Anyone want to mention Hemingway at this point?
With What’s Left, though, the word that kept popping up for me was tone. It was somehow just a little off.
Thinking of it in musical terms, I’m always surprised at what happens when our choir changes the tone of a piece by moving it up or down a half-step or so. It becomes brighter or more melancholy, for instance, as well as easier or harder for us to sing, depending on how it presses our vocal ranges. Well, this is also looked at as a matter of pitch. And it can make a world of difference.
With my novel, I slowly realized I didn’t want it to sound too much like a novel — I wanted it to be more an overheard conversation. As I also found, that can be tricky when we’re looking at a stack of old photos or family history.
Now that the novel’s finished, I’m reflecting once more on the basic of tone. One definition calls it the attitude of a writer toward a subject or audience, and I’m seeing how it’s been both in my case. Over the course of the revisions, the subject mutated from her father to his photographs and, finally, to the experiences of Cassia herself. In addition, her position shifted from her telling of looking back on her discoveries to having her tell of them as they occurred — in effect moving the center of gravity of the story well into her early teens. That, in turn, changed my attitude toward the audience.
Tone, as the definition continues, can be formal, informal, serious, comic, sarcastic, sad, and cheerful, among many other outlooks. Well, where her voice got younger, I did find her bursting into outrageous, delightfully irrational lines that have become some of my favorites.
My thinking about tone was also stimulated by things my ex-wife, a painter, had repeated about the necessity of tone in visual art — something many artists seem to lose sight of (sorry about the pun) as they work. Here it’s the contrast of lightness and darkness, in color as well as black and white — highlights and shadows. Squint your eyes and see if everything blurs into one. It’s still an important parallel to the written word.
So in my novel the tone would need to be colloquial. In the draft and early revisions, Cassia’s mostly the reader. But in the final draft, it’s largely her father. My attitude toward the subject has definitely changed, as has hers.
There’s also the attitude toward details. In fiction, to establish the contrast of lightness and darkness, it helps to keep many of these suggestive, open to the reader’s imagination — unlike the specifics demanded in journalism. Think of having shadowy areas where things can move about in the background without interrupting the action at hand.
In another shift, as she began voicing questions in place of flat-out statements, the reader just might start arguing with Cassia (not me!) — or even to say to herself, “I remember something similar” or “I’m glad that’s not how it happened with us.”
Since her family’s involved in the restaurant business, we can change our perspective slightly. Finding the right tone is something like deciding what kind of meal you’ll sit down to. A picnic, for example, is quite different from one with white linen on the table or from a quick lunch of burgers and fries.
As for something at home? It helps to know who’s coming.
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.
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!)
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?
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.
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.
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!
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.
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?
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.
Somehow by the final version this line was no longer needed:
As you’ve seen, Manoula’s family is a whole other story.
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?