My novel What’s Left, was in no rush for completion, contrary to my own desires. Still, I wasn’t going to artificially pressure this one.
As for my personal surprises this time? Some of my favorite lines popped up while swimming my daily laps in the city’s indoor pool.
Here’s one of Cassia’s outbursts that almost prompted me to change the name of the novel itself:
Oh, my, am I torn! I’ll tell you this, though. Buddhism comes in very handy when other kids are giving you so much grief you threaten to cast a spell on them and break out chanting Su To Ka Yo Me Bha Wa repeatedly and then just watch them back away. Oh, I tell you, it’s so satisfying!
What’s that do?
You’ll find out. You better be good to toads.
You get lots of respect for doing that.
Which title Do you think’s better — “What’s Left” or “You Better Be Good to Toads”? Or have I overlooked something even better?
Think of it as a cool Christmas present for somebody really special. Available at the Apple Store, Barnes & Noble’s Nook, Scribd, Smashwords, Sony’s Kobo, and other fine ebook distributors and at Amazon in both Kindle and paperback.
Much of my literary writing has attempted to capture the unique sense of particular landscapes, sometimes to the extent that the locale becomes a character of its own. Serious wine drinkers might see this as a matter of terroir, meaning distinctive local flavor.
In my novel What’s Left, I tried to avoid this touchstone but wound up developing the neighborhood around the family restaurant anyway.
In placing it in a college town in southern Indiana, I created an inside joke all the same. If you’re familiar with the region, you’ll know the Ohio River is much more than an hour from Indianapolis. The college town where she lives is defined by both, and thus in a site uniquely its own. If only it actually existed!
Still, I think the flavor is right.
I know I’m not alone here.
Tell me of a favorite book or movie where you think the location becomes a character in its own right. Let’s make this a long list!
As a reader, you probably don’t pay much attention to the bones of a book — the number of chapters it has or how many sections they fall into. For a writer, of course, these can be central considerations. Ideally, there’s a beginning, middle, and end for each chapter and each section as well as the entire book itself.
In my psyche, one ideal structure is the symphony — typically, but not always, four movements, each one different, having an underlying unity that ends in an exciting climax. (Oh, there are some gems that do end quietly — so much for expectations!) A typical novel, on the other hand, may be twenty to thirty chapters of roughly 20 pages apiece running in chronological order, not that I’ve ever stuck with that convention.
In What’s Left, my novel I set out hoping you could start or end in any chapter, yet in some way they’d join to build the tension and resolution of the whole. The model that inspired me appeared to use chapters as mosaics or panels that could be moved around independently, if the reader desired.
I can’t quite see doing that in the final version my work, though a reader might leap over a chapter or two, if needed, and still pick up on some action — if, that is, the chapters are complete enough in their own right. Think of a string of short stories.
If you’ve had a chance to read What’s Left, give me your feedback.
Does this structure work for you? Would you rather I’d broken the novel out into two, three, or four shorter books as a series? Did you skip over any parts? Would rearranging any parts work better?
Let me repeat, What’s Left is my final novel, even though it’s appeared before several earlier ones — or their later revisions. That doesn’t mean I might not rework some more of my earlier books, but I have no intention (at this point, ahem) of undertaking such an ambitious project.
Still, if it’s ever successful, there can be a demand for a sequel. There are many possibilities that point to further development.
One plot twist I considered was this:
A handful of the Erinyes’ grandchildren rebel by returning to attend college across the street from Carmichael’s. Perhaps it’s inevitable that they apply for jobs in the restaurant.
Can they work? We’ll let them decide about becoming cousins.
This could have opened considerations about rebalancing the ownership, for one thing. Or more dimensions to our understanding of what it means to be a family. Or even their own reasons that parallel those of Cassia’s father in moving way back in the early ’70s.
It’s a big book, admittedly. But it could be a lot bigger.
Where would you take the story of What’s Left from what’s already there? What would you like to have answered?
It’s is not my debut novel. Rather, I have the feeling it’s the opposite — the final one. I could never do this again. What’s Left is a big novel chock full of surprising turns, deep thoughts, and lively details. Unless Cassia starts speaking to me again, there will be no sequels. For me, at least, the story condenses so much into its pages I’m feeling completed.
Unlike my earlier novels, this one was not written on the fly while working full-time as a journalist. Like them, though, it’s undergone extensive revision.
Woven through the book are themes I’d explored in my earlier stories, now seen in a new light, while investigating others I’m tackling for the first time. Family and family enterprise, adolescence and childhood, death and divorce, and Greek-American culture, especially, are new while counterculture, romance, spirituality, community, nature and specific place, livelihood, journalism itself all run through my previous work.
Think of this bit as going into the compost rather than being served on the plate:
All I’m doing is asking you to apply your new comprehension to the rest of your life.
Of course, you’ve heard somebody blurt out, “I’m never going to forget this as long as I live!” Or some such. And sometimes it’s true.
Me? I have trouble remembering nearly everything. Could it be one reason I read so widely is to help me remember? Of course, writing gets it down on paper, once again so I don’t forget.
So while I read to help me remember and to gain insight on the world around me, it’s not the only reason by any stretch.
These days some of my favorite daily encounters come at our city’s indoor pool, where I swim laps. In addition to the familiar faces of fellow swimmers, there are the interactions with the lifeguards, many of them still in high school. When they’re not actively watching us in the water, they have rounds manning the front desk, where they might also be doing their physics homework or working on a paper. In other words, they were the right age to help me with my novel What’s Left, not that I’m ever that direct. No, just a wild question or subtle ear’s enough to keep me grounded in their direction.
In revising a manuscript, I sometimes chance upon a “zipper” that seems to run along the entire piece and releases something trapped within it. Tugging along page after page is an amazing experience, when it happens, which is not nearly as often as I’d hope. Mercifully, that’s what’s happened in the ninth revision of What’s Left, my novel thanks to comments from some of the early readers. The key this round came in having her talking to her father throughout, at least in her head and often in the midst of other people, rather than simply about him. It gives the work a whole new dimension and makes the story far more intimate, especially when she makes irrational leaps that match her emotions.
This, in turn, allowed her to relate much of her investigation as it happened as a young teen, rather than looking back on it from her early twenties, and had her aunt Nita and her best friend, cousin Sandra, present as co-conspirators.
Note that none of these revisions changed the way I saw the novel as an author — I knew how it begins, develops, and ends — but they change it entirely for the reader.
Yes, the changes were extensive. When one of the lifeguards remarked, “What? You’re not done yet?” I came back the next week with two pages from the hardcopy I was working from — half of the sentences containing crossed-out words and phrases, several moved to new locations, and a taped-on flap of new notes to add in, all needing to be keyboarded. It’s typical professional work, as you’ll discover reading the Paris Review or any number of writer-oriented magazines.
Still, they were astonished. I doubt they’ll look at a 500-word assignment quite the same again.
The point is that all of these changes are for the reader. Curiously, the very shift of having Cassia speak directly to her father throughout soon has the reader stepping into his shoes, hearing through his ears in a new intimacy.
And now I trust the story’s ready for you, as its reader.
It’s not always simply a coincidence, is it?
Have you ever started out on your way to one place and wound up somewhere quite different? Somewhere that turned out to be right? Tell us about what happened.
In my novel What’s Left, there’s one big subject Cassia couldn’t ignore — not if she truly wanted to understand her father. It’s the whole hippie thing.
As he noted, in a sentence no longer in the text:
Will any of our inner music — our desires and activity — ever come into a reliably ongoing harmony?
As was this tidbit:
This is all new to him. The language, unfamiliar, even after the sporadic trips of his youth. The music, profoundly moving.
Take his hitchhiking. As her aunt Nita explained in yet another deleted text:
As for your body, well, you could go about anywhere on your thumb. Maybe not the Deep South or some of the big cities. But adventure called. Out in the countryside. And in the heart of the metropolis. There were moments when everything turned utterly surreal. It was a wild time, wasn’t it? You’re forgetting Nixon got reelected to the White House? If you were a freak — a hippie — you were part of a stream of kindred souls. You saw the world askew. You wanted to explore and discover new vistas, many of them psychedelic. You knew there was more — much more — than what your parents had ever imagined. The entire world was spiraling, about to go out of control, or so it seemed. And what difference does any veracity of hitchhiking in the subways make? Aren’t those some wild stories? Where does the line fall between what’s real and what’s imaginary? Didn’t your Baba land here after all? Return to build on earlier connections? Who cares how he got here as long as he did? You believe this is where he was destined, don’t you?
Admittedly, it’s a lot to take in. More than we needed, in fact. Even this flash:
Angels as hitchhikers! As subway riders! As candy store clerks!
These days, I’m left with mixed feelings.
Where do you think the hippie movement missed the boat? And what do you think it got right?
Some artists begin with an outline of the work they’re doing and stick with it, starting in one corner and continuing to the opposite end. And, for many of them, once it’s filled in, that’s it, the piece is finished. Voila!
Others, like me, set forth in a particular direction with an expectation of what’s ahead but find ourselves often changing course as we go. And once the first draft is finished, we know it’s only a start, far from finished.
There’s a saying in writing that talent goes into that first draft, but genius comes in the revisions — if at all. That first draft can be exciting, even intoxicating, as the piece takes shape — in the case of writing, sometimes out of thin air.
Or, in the visual arts, there’s a description of someone who’s painterly — that is, scraping away earlier layers and painting over and over until something comes into focus. Oh, yes!
The truth is that first draft can be satisfying for its creator. You know where the story wants to go, who the characters are, how the pieces fit together. Your spelling can be irregular; the sentences, unfinished; the events as arbitrary as you wish. You could leave it there and turn elsewhere, should you decide. You don’t have to defend or explain anything.
On the other hand, if you wish to share your work with others, you’ll need to clean it up. Those who think otherwise are at least worthy of suspicion.
Which leads to the next step, one I think demands far more labor than the drafting stage and far more dedication. Revision.
For one thing, it means questioning everything that’s gone into that beloved first draft. Every word, every sentence, every paragraph, every chapter. Ouch! For another, it means asking yourself just what you meant in that brilliant phrase before you. And for me, at least, there’s a stage where I start trying to liberate whatever it is that’s lurking beneath the prose on the page. (Well, these days, the computer screen.) It means tearing apart what you’ve done, discarding large chunks of material, and inserting fresh insights. And it’s much messier than what you’ve done previously. Is there a special maid service for writers?
One item on my mental checklist regarding the revision process has to do with identifying certain words that keeping repeating through a long work like a novel. I then go back through the story, looking for synonyms that will give me another angle on the concept or thought being repeated. In What’s Left, for instance, I had family, restaurant, hippie, and Buddhism high on that list. What could I do to lessen the deadening recurrence of those terms? Slang, I might confess, can work wonders.
From my poetry, I’d long ago learned that this is where the work itself opens into something totally new. What do I really mean here? What is the text trying to say to me? How can I liberate it? Or make it burst into flames?
OK, this sound pretty haughty, but it’s all part of the obsession.
As a parallel, let me suggest cooking, since it’s an element in the background of my new novel. Just look at how the ingredients cook down into something quite different. There’s much more than just throwing a steak on the grill or opening a bag of shredded lettuce. (Especially if you’re going to join me at Carmichael’s in the novel.)
To return to the question of just when is it finished for me, I’d like to say once the work’s been published. But that may be rushing reality.
A thorough revision can leave me exhausted, feeling I have nothing more of value to add. (At least for now.) Or maybe I’m finally released from the subject — it can move into the public arena now.
Thinking of What’s Left, I might mention a parallel in the visual arts where I originally saw the earlier chapters as pop art masters Roy Lichtenstein and then Robert Rauschenberg but narrowing into the black-and-white lithographs of Peter Milton. But then my perspective reversed!
Do you ever look at events around you like an ongoing movie? (Sometimes even as a cartoon, as I do?)