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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Work! A four-letter word

One of the ideas at work — oops! — in my novel What’s Left, is work itself.

Most of us tend to think of it as menial labor, I suppose, but it doesn’t have to be. In the story, for example, Cassia’s aunt Pia has a way of making every task fun and meaningful. And Cassia and her brothers and cousins all put in hours at the family restaurant from an early age on.

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Her aunt Nita also had some insights on work. Here’s one I cut from the final version of the book — we simply had more on our plate than we could manage:

Day by day Nita worked her column like a line cook … a station chef. And she dared tell me journalism’s not like an assembly-line job?

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The poet Donald Hall once broke labor out into three kids: work, jobs, and chores. Maybe you’ll see how they differ.

Tell me about something you do for the pure joy of doing it, even though other people might think of as, uh, tedious work.

For some of you, this could be gardening or cabinetry or decorating cakes or arranging flowers or, well, you get the drift. For others it might be an art or sport or public service.

Is it something you also get paid to do? Or could you?

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Missing from his photographic evidence

As Cassia discovers in my novel What’s Left, her father’s photographic record includes some serious gaps.

One involves a side of the hippie era, especially his experiences going underground in New York City.

As Cassia comments in an earlier draft of the story:

From his photos, I have little to go on regarding the hitchhiking, much less the subways. Not that there aren’t images — they just don’t reveal anything. Maybe it was largely in his mind. Maybe mostly a pipe dream. Entertaining, all the same. And one or the other landed him here.

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Looking back on the era, I wonder how I’d react seeing photos of the people I was with or the experiences we shared. The nude group swimming at the remote lake in the summer? Not nearly as sensuous as I remember? Former lovers? Half of the places I lived have been torn down, as I see from satellite maps. You get the idea.

The time seemed so full of promise.

Tell me about the biggest disappointment you’ve ever had.

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How personal should a character get with the reader?

In the final revision of my novel What’s Left, I’d take a passage like this and have her speak directly to him, rather than about him. It makes a world of difference. Think it would work here?

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I could say it was always gentle and kind, rather than laced with frustrations and sharp clashes. I wish, well, who is any of us, in the end? Maybe I need to ask our Orthodox priest more about the Book of Life or the Book of Judgment and all that?

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Do you hear her asking her father if he was always gentle and kind? Or if she should ask the priest about the rest? Do you, too, feel that line needs to be inserted?

We can easily create a shopping list of what we desire in those dearest to us — or, if we’re more ambitious, what we can offer to others. So let’s fire.

What quality would you most want in the person who’s closest to you?

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Cassia’s roots included inspiration like this. Greek Orthodox icon at Mount Athos created by Father Vasileios Pavlatos in Kefalonia, Greece using the technique of Pyrography. (Via Wikimedia Commons.)

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One way to get inside the publishing scene

As I revised my novel What’s Left, I compressed the details regarding her mother’s book-publishing venture. Here’s how it stood in an early draft:

As her dream of establishing a small-press also takes shape, the family council decides not to include it outright among our Five-Spokes enterprises but rather to extend a ten-year microloan to allow her to retain full control of its success or failure. Her game plan anticipates a modest start, essentially continuing the annual calendar and the greeting cards featuring local photographs by Baba, as well as the release of the first volume of Nita’s collected columns. These are things Baba can shepherd along while Manoula finishes her degree. From there, a cookbook would be a no-brainer in the lineup, something Barney can begin putting together immediately. We know he’ll be fussy and irritable, miss deadlines, do the whole prima donna bit. Besides, he’s not a writer, so there will be extensive editing and revision. After that, Baba can worry about the photos. He says shooting food’s a specialty all to itself. You can bet, though, the results will be worth it. And all that’s before Manoula gets to anything like poetry or fiction. 

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This is so far from the snippy colloquial vibe the novel has since taken. Think of it more as a memo to the author in conceiving a plausible pathway to independent business success for Cassia’s mother. Or possibly just an old dream of my own, way back when, along with memories of a few difficult collaborators.

One struggle in shaping What’s Left was the matter of determining just how much of her family’s business side to include. Passages like this one ran the danger of turning the story into a case study for marketing or investment classes, rather than focusing on Cassia’s yearning for emotional healing.

Was I right in deleting the passage as too much “insider” insight for the novel? Or does it add to your understanding of Cassia, her mother, and her family? Do you ever dream of doing something the way her mother does?

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In the family, Cassia may have had food like Spanakorizo, a common Greek dish prepared with spinach and rice and flavored with herbs such as dill and/or fennel. Photo by Katerina Strak via Wikimedia Commons.

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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.”

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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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New Adult should be a much more popular genre

When I was reflecting on genres for my novels What’s Left and Nearly Canaan, I found myself perplexed that Young Adult Fiction is geared mainly for preteens and early teens. Nothing adult about the books at all. What happened to Truth in Advertising? And that’s before getting to the reality that a preponderance of the books falls into romance, fantasy, paranormal, sci fi, or some mixture of them. The master John Green seems to be the big exception.

The genre Coming of Age is too cliché, especially when a work stretches into the main character’s 30s, but I am intrigued by what happens to many young adults in their years between college and raising children. For some, it’s a pretty intense struggle of establishing a career and a solid partnership, one where values also are in conflict.

That’s what I would expect of the New Adult category. Instead, it’s typically more romance, fantasy, paranormal, and sci fi, straight or blended. Especially Romance.

So where would the big books of broader content go?

As my reviews at my Jnana Hodson at Smashwords page reveal, I’m not averse to reading good entries in the genre – some are actually quite delightful and instructive. It’s just that I keep hoping for more that stretch higher.

Got any New Adult books to recommend?

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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