All under Cassia’s spell

I keep thinking of What’s Left as “my latest novel” or “my newest,” even though other works are appearing after its publication.

I don’t mean to be creating confusion, but here’s my take.

One way or another, my earlier novels addressed the hippie era, which I still believe remains misunderstood and misrepresented. It’s too important for that. And, yes, it’s still hard to define.

What’s Left started out to put those stories in a broader perspective but, revision by revision, the book moved in a much different direction. Quite simply, Cassia and her generation took over.

It became the most difficult writing project I’ve ever undertaken and forced me to completely rethink my approach to fiction. Remember, my career was in “just the facts, ma’am,” journalism topped by Beat-era literature.

Unlike the earlier works, in drafting this one, I had a structural model I wanted to pursue – one that remained intact.

What I hadn’t anticipated was how much the focus would shift.

Many of my favorite parts were created in the final revisions, especially as other members of her generation became fully fleshed out characters, as did the Goth side of her mourning through her adolescent years.

That also meant ripping out a lot of other material, which either became background for my own understanding or was vastly condensed by the final version. The Red Barn’s been quoting heavily from those discards, just to add to your own understanding of the project’s scope.

Whew!

Unanticipated? The paranormal fourteenth chapter is one of my favorites, even though I’d never done a ghost story before. By they way, they wrote it, not me. I simply recorded the dialogue.

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I still don’t feel ‘retired’

Yes, it sounds whiny, even insensitive, but it’s true. Since taking the buyout nearly eight years ago and leaving the newsroom altogether a year later, I still have no idea of what kicking back full-time means. You know, like playing golf or sunbathing or heading for the mountains.

What it has allowed is more time to tackle projects I’ve felt are important – and more sustained focus. The fiction, especially, has gained depth in the process. Remember, in the past two years, I’ve thoroughly revised nearly all of my novels and pulled related volumes from public view.

Curiously, poetry has taken a backseat. I’m not attending readings or society meetings – the latter conflict with other obligations. Meanwhile, submissions to small-press journals and presses have ceased altogether, replaced by my blogging presentations, which I feel are far more effective in relation to the time involved. What I sometimes refer to as collecting rejection slips.

I hate to admit that despite early warnings, blogging takes up more time than I expected – and even then, I’m not reading as widely as I hoped. The WordPress Reader has tons of fine postings to always check out.

Related to blogging is the photography. I’ve always had a strong visual awareness, abetted by four years of strict art training in high school. When I launched the Red Barn at the end of 2011, I expected it to be fully text-driven, but you can see how far we’ve moved away from that. I’m still at a point-and-shoot rather than technically precise attitude – last thing I need is another obsession – but I am proud of much of what I’ve collected and shared.

Quaker picked up with service on the New England Yearly Meeting’s Ministry and Counsel committee and its deliberations throughout the year, but my anticipated daily early morning meditation and yoga haven’t materialized. Frankly, Quaker could become a full-time but unpaid job all its own.

Instead, the daily swimming at the indoor pool has been giving me a cardio workout and a half-hour for clearing my head, and my early-morning Spanish drills just may come in useful if I ever travel to fellow members of the Iglesia de los Amigos in Cuba. The language itself is harder than I remember it being in high school.

Well, I wasn’t planning on being a member of a solid choir, either, or of finally self-publishing as I have at Smashwords. In today’s literary scene, getting a book out is only the beginning of the labor – promotion and marketing, for all but the best-selling authors, is a task left to the creator. It’s a common lament.

Should I mention falling way behind in household chores, gardening tasks, and general maintenance?

On reflection, I still don’t know how I managed all I did while I was still duly employed.

So here we are, beginning year No. 8 at the Red Barn. Let’s see what really happens ahead.

And now, for a peek ahead

Hard to believe I’m starting my eighth year of blogging here already. A lot has happened in my own life in that time, of course – much of it reflected in the postings and in the evolution of the blog itself.

Each year, there’s a slightly new tack at the Red Barn and its related blogs. The merry-go-round has lost some of its categories, for one thing. Gone are fresh entries reflecting Newspaper Traditions – I’ve been out of the trade too long and am viewing the current, sorry business woes from the outside these days. Likewise, my Poetry and Poetry Footnotes have moved over to free weekly releases at my Thistle Finch imprint. The Quaker Practice postings have their own blog at As Light Is Sown and, to a lesser extent, at Chicken Farmer I Still Love You, which is presenting personal finance exercises and insights. Even the Home & Garden and American Affairs entries have slowed down.

In their place has come an increased reliance on the topics stirred up by my eight novels, which are available as ebooks from Smashwords and its allied digital retailers. That will continue this year.

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Here at the Red Barn, you’ll be seeing two new features.

Each Monday, the Trail Markers category will hit the road to present a vanity license plate found in our corner of the world. Some of them are quite amusing or imaginative.

And Home & Garden will let our two rabbits, Salty and Pepper, stick their noses in on alternate Wednesdays. What is it about pets, anyway?

The weekly Tendrils will be looking mostly at topics related to the novels, a trend that picked up speed last year. Building these fact sheets has been fun for me, and I hope you, too.

Cassia’s World will continue to draw on passages discarded from the final revisions of What’s Left. I’m sure glad the tone and pace of the published book veered away from these clippings, but they do help shape the evolving thinking about the characters and plot. In addition, I’ll also add some insights from the two upcoming novels about Jaya after she leaves the ashram.

The Postcards, meanwhile, will have more entries from people other than me – and a few will actually include me as the subject rather than the shooter. We’ll be looking closely at the new construction in downtown Dover as well as our explorations of Downeast Maine.

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Take a peek, too, at the four related blogs.

As Light Is Sown is launching a weekly recap of my experience of reading the Bible straight-through. As you might imagine, I take an unconventional stance in tackling this collection of seminal and often puzzling writings.

Chicken Farmer I Still Love You continues its Talking Money exercises and insights. It’s well worth the reading.

The Orphan George Chronicles will turn to a miniseries drawn from the memories of a Hodgson line in the Pacific Northwest, one far rowdier than many of its Quaker relations back east. It’s a remarkable document.

And Thistle Finch will continue with 24 free poetry chapbooks plus photo albums, broadsides, and four Quaker posters ahead.

As always, there’s room for the unexpected.

Here’s hoping you’ll be a frequent visitor and commentator!

What would you most want to see?

What’s behind the new cover for ‘What’s Left’

Book cover design, as we’ve previously discussed, is a tricky endeavor. The presentation has to be visually catchy but  also reflect the contents of the book itself.

Ebooks, where my works are appearing, have their own additional challenges. Since these volumes are sold exclusively in online book retailers, their cover images are essentially thumbnails, unlike their print counterparts, which are meant to be displayed in stores or library shelves. Nor do these digital publications have spines, which are a unique design concern in itself – until recently, I hadn’t thought how crucial that narrow impression is in attracting my attention when I’m scanning a row of books for something to read. And ebooks don’t have back covers, where the words of praise appear and author’s portrait faces you. That’s a lot for an editor and artist to work with.

Creating a suitable cover for my novel What’s Left became maddening. The work weaves together a lot of themes and subjects, and hinting at them in a single visual image isn’t easy. Family, food and the restaurant they run, their Greek identity, the protagonist’s broken childhood all come into play. Every time I thought we had something functional, one of the in-house critics would raise a valid objection. I finally went with the egg yoke suspended in space as an attempt to convey a sense of being broken open emotionally as well as her own family’s long hours over the grill in their restaurant.

I still think it’s a striking cover, and I’m quite fond of it. But I’ve also been sensing it misses the mark. The focus in the story is on Cassia and the ways her grief as a child impacts her life’s direction. It’s the emotion, after all, that matters most.

I hope this new cover conveys that message.

What’s Left — Within a daughter’s own living Greek drama

For comparison, here’s the original cover:

This is the cover that’s just been replaced.

What do you think?

Not every first draft is going to require tons of revisions

I recently discussed the travails of revising my centerpiece novel What’s Left over a 3½-year period. I should mention that most of my other novels required more years to compose start to finish, but they faced far more interruptions than What’s Left did.

This fall, I’ve had an experience of writing a novel that was quite the opposite. It’s the fourth and concluding book in an independent series, one that won’t appear under my name, and its 52,000 words came together in just about three weeks. The manuscript required only a few minor revisions and tweaks afterward.

Essentially, I started at the beginning and wrote it step by step over a simple chronological plot line to the end. The previous novel in the series presented the traumatic event that prompted this book and its theme, so I wasn’t starting from scratch. On the other hand, that approach always includes some limitations, too.

No spoilers, I’m not giving details. But there were earlier specifics and, in addition to the protagonist, four characters to weave into the advancing tale. If you’re a NaNoWriMo aspirant and looking at reaching that minimal word count, having boilerplate like this to work from helps.

I did have a separate Word file where I could develop specific morsels to insert into the manuscript itself as the story emerged, but doing so proved fairly seamless. Cut and paste from one file into another. So, technically, you could argue it wasn’t quite a straight-through writing, though for me, this is as close as it gets.

Crucially, a rhythm was set. My, that really does help the drafting!

One thing that helped immensely was the creation of tight character profiles (in that second file) for the nine new individuals who populate the book, including notes of how they connect with one another. Those summaries were then backed up by photos I collected online for people they might resemble and for residences and neighborhoods that would fit them. Much of the color in my narrative arises in these specifics built on their social milieau. Often, the images took me well beyond what I would have envisioned in my own smaller world. Look close!

If you’re doing NaNoWriMo and getting stuck, try this. Trust me.

While I had an overarching idea of the plot line, I was uncertain about the ending. That crucial bit came to me while sitting in Quaker worship. When I got home, I entered a note at the end of the manuscript and returned to the spot much earlier in the timeline where I was keyboarding.

A week or so later, as I dug down to that note, I was startled. I had been building the crisis to a different character, not the one I had noted. Which do I choose? I elected to stick with the note, in part because of its surprise in the plot line. It still makes sense from the earlier developments. And I definitely now think that was the right decision.

So you NaNoWriMo aspirants, take heart.

You really can make that deadline on your first draft. Go, team, go! You can make it in the next two weeks.

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.

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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.”

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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.

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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:

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  • 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?