ALWAYS ROOM FOR IMPROVEMENT

Earlier this year, I updated the cover and tweaked the contents of my novel Hometown News.

I liked the new image, of a house on fire rather than one of a girl in autumn leaves. The story is, after all, about a community in crisis rather than the delights of living in idyllic repose.

The new image, however, challenged the use of placing the book title and author. The colors jump all over the place, and I just couldn’t figure out a way to drop the words in effectively. Well, you can see what I did. Still, I felt ambivalent about the results.

And then, a few weeks ago, I was looking at my revised lineup at Smashwords and sensed this one just didn’t quite match the style or tone of the others. Time for a few tweaks.

So here’s what we have now:

Hometown News

After this:

Hometown News

Which replaced this one:

Hometown News

The covers of my Smashwords editions originally paid homage to Richard Brautigan’s classic books of the ’60s, each of which had a portrait of a pretty young woman.

Any reactions?

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SOMETHING MORE COMPELLING

Looking at my new lineup at Smashwords, I felt one cover just didn’t match.

The first round of my editions there had covers that were an homage to Richard Brautigan’s classic books of the ’60s, each of which had a portrait of a pretty young woman.

As I looked at the cover image, though, it felt dated. Looking closer, I realized it also didn’t reflect the edginess of the contents. I wanted something more compelling than a woman in quiet reflection.

So here’s what we have now:

Blue Rock

Rather than this:

Blue Rock

Whaddya think? For more, go to Blue Rock.

GIVE THE DAUGHTER HER DUE

My latest round of revising my fiction has felt somehow different from my previous encounters.

Well, I would include the round with What’s Left last fall, so maybe I can blame Cassia for my new experience. That novel, however, was always envisioned as a much less experimental work than my previous efforts.

The latest efforts have included deep cuts, including major sections I was quite fond of, and changing the tone. But these also meant creating page after page of new material, especially details to develop side characters more fully. Not just what they’re thinking, either, but rather what they’re feeling.

Much of my personal writing has functioned as an exercise to counter the dumbing-down editing required in the newspaper work that provided my income. You know, tone it down to what used to be seen as sixth-grade reading level.

Not just newspapers, either. I see too much pedestrian prose posing as literature and know language can have much more vitality and depth than that, thank you. Harry Potter, at least, has proven that many sixth-graders can read at much more advanced levels than they’re given credit for.

One thing, though. Five years after leaving the newsroom, I no longer feel that dumbing-down struggle as I write and revise, nor do I have to work my own writing into small blocks of time between everything else.

What I am surprised to see, though, is how much of the journalism influence was at work in the just-the-facts approach to my stories. I’ve seen much of my work – both poetry and fiction – as a kind of on-the-run graffiti, jazzlike, with an improvisatory tone and jagged edge. Daily journalism, for that matter, is typically done under deadline. Essentially, I saw the flow of clashing events as the core of the tale.

The biggest change in the recent revision has been the focus on the characters – and especially their feelings. Remember, in journalism, the only feelings would be through direct quotes. Anything else would be editorializing, not that you’d know in what passes for broadcast journalism on most American television stations these days.

Again, I’m going to credit my character Cassia for much of my shift. She’s having me examine that earlier work through her eyes as well as her voice.

In recasting her father’s backstory, for example, I’ve been continuing the present-tense emphasis as much as possible, with a more conversational tone than the conventional literary past-tense would carry. How would she feel about this or that development?

Oh, yes, one more thing. With her, it shouldn’t sound literary. She’s talking, remember?

The emotional element, though, has engulfed me. Engaging the characters on this level has consumed much of my time and thought, including my nights abed or my time on the treadmill or stationary bike during cardio therapy. It’s made for much slower going on my part as far as the revisions progressed. But it’s also led to a much more complete comprehension of the evolving story.

In the end, I’m hoping these move readers in ways the earlier ones didn’t.

WHEN THE DAUGHTER TAKES OVER

When I wrote the four novels that formed my Hippie Trails series, Cassia was nowhere in sight.

But now that she’s taken center stage in What’s Left, she’s changed my perspective on those earlier novels. Quite simply, I’ve revised them to bring them more into line with her story. Drastically revised them, in fact – deep cuts, offset by new material.

Quite simply, they’re now her discovery of her father and his era rather than mine. Having a character take over a book is rather eerie, actually, especially when she’s livelier and more interesting and more critical than I’d be. Moreover, she wasn’t even present in those earlier works – they’re all before her birth. Before she was even conceived, as it were.

That hasn’t stopped her from pushing for more extensive revisions than I had anticipated. Not only are the novels all retitled – and two are even compressed into one – but many of the characters are renamed, a few new figures are introduced, and hefty cuts are offset by rich new detail and restructured storylines.

So what we have now is Daffodil Uprising, Pit-a-Pat High Jinks, and Subway Visions. And the series they form with What’s Left is no longer Hippie Trails but Freakin’ Free Spirits.

Well, quite simply, my wife hates the word “hippie,” says too often these days it translates as “loser” or “lame,” and I wanted something that might fit bohemians over time … in this case from Cassia’s Greek great-grandparents right down to today.

By the way, I’m still blaming Cassia for my putting so much else aside in the past five months. She just wouldn’t shut up, and she can be quite bossy. Admittedly, though, I’m much happier with the novels as they’ve evolved and finally emerged. Let’s hope she is, too.

As for you and other readers? That’s the real question.

 

TWO TWEAKS IN THE DESIGN

As I moved from the Advance Reading Copy to the First Edition of my new novel, I decided to make two tweaks in the cover design.

The photo itself remains unchanged. It’s the typeface that altered.

When I lined the original cover up beside the covers for the related books in the cycle of Cassia’s discoveries, I realized it’s serif typeface was out of step with the sans serif on the other three volumes. As much as I love serifs (they have more character, for one thing), I also saw that a sans would have more punch on the thumbnail size used to display most ebooks. OK, so that changed.

Again, as I considered the four books together, I saw something else happening. The next book in line, Daffodil Uprising, features a prominent daffodil bloom in a bright yellow antique-style drawing. The contrast between its artwork and the photo on What’s Left works, I think, but the white title somehow felt out of step.

That’s when the thought flashed, “You idiot! It has to be yellow! Like the yolk! Like the daffodil, too!”

Here’s the progression. First, the ARC:

What’s Left

Then the sans serif:

And finally color:

What’s Left

So here you have it. Any reactions?

 

 

 

AND NOW FOR THE FIRST EDITION

The cardio incident in January threw off my planned marketing campaign to support the Advanced Reading Copy availability of my new novel, What’s Left, but maybe that’s a good thing.

Instead, “laying low” meant I had time to read all of the frothy Richard Avedon bio I’d been given at Christmas, and that had me rethinking the particulars of the life of a photographer. Remember, in the novel, Cassia’s father is a famed photographer, though nothing like Dick. The negatives and glossy prints her Baba leaves behind establish the foundation for much of her own recovery and growth.

At the time, I was already planning to revise the four novels that form the backstory to What’s Left – my Hippie Trails series – but had no intention of becoming as immersed in that project as I did. Well, it’s one of the big reasons I’ve been AWOL or missing in action the past five months. I’ll leave that for an upcoming post.

One critical reaction to the new novel, however, sent me back through the story to make some crucial changes.

The Advance Reading Copy used no quotation marks. Not one. Since the story is being told by Cassia, who’s to say she’s quoting others exactly or is instead paraphrasing what she remembers hearing them say? That is, filtering them into her own voice? The quotation-mark-free approach, I hoped, would present the tale as her own rich interior experience, but it was unconventional and apparently a challenge for some readers to follow. Since engaging everyone in this story is far more important to me than my personal pursuit of a literary technique, I yielded in preparing the first edition. Yes, I have to admit, judiciously adding quotation marks here and there does clarify the flow.

The revision also had me simplifying much of the grammar and syntax. As much as I love long, complex sentences, not everyone is comfortable reading, say 17th century literature. Besides, this novel is being told by Cassia, not me.

Well, this official version, the first edition, is now available. I think the tweaks make a huge difference, and I’m grateful for those who’ve given me feedback.

Hope you enjoy it.

CHARACTER OR ACTION DRIVEN?

A large Queen Anne-style house with a distinctive witch’s hat tower something like this is the headquarters for Cassia’s extended family in my new novel, What’s Left. If only this one were pink, like hers.

A common question for novelists asks whether their book is driven primarily by the development of its characters or by the actions of its plot. It’s not one that had been front-and-center for me until my newest work began taking shape. For one thing, my previous fiction all falls under the category of Experimental, and, for another, I’ve usually been of a contrarian nature. Maybe the earlier stories were more event or episode driven than action propelled, and characters added whatever they had. As I’ll say, up till now. Or, as I might add, a journalist is more concerned about what’s happened than the motivations of the individuals involved.

My new novel, What’s Left, was initially envisioned as a kind of post-hippie history – an update flowing from the ending of my first published novel, in fact. But then it began turning into a different kind of history, going back further to her immigrant great-grandparents. Well, at that point the story could develop either way, based on the characters or their encounters. What clarified the direction for me was my decision to have her father vanish in an avalanche halfway around the globe, which precipitates her obsession to know just who he really was. And that made it character-driven.

As she discovered more about her father – and her colorful, extended family – I realized I wanted to know more about Cassia herself, starting with her reactions to the clues she was uncovering.  In the end, What’s Left is about her, told in her voice from age 11 into her early 30s. As for the history? It’s bound to be in her blood.

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