Having Cassia cast a Buddhist chant as a spell in my novel What’s Left, is a bit of an inside joke. She may be trying to intimidate her middle school classmates, but what she utters, Su To Ka Yo Me Bha Wa, translates as “Grant me complete satisfaction” or “Grant me complete satisfaction within me.” Not that they have a clue.
Besides, I feel a shade of Harry Potter here, without an ominous wand. These words can simply feel magical.
By the way, Cassia’s chant is one letter off from Su Po Ka Yo Me Wa, “Grow within me” or “Increase the positive within me,” which also fits.
Just in case you’re wondering.
Think of some word or phrases you repeat often.
Do you have your own “mantra,” a word or phrase to raise your spirits?
(My favorite 9-year-old introduced me to “Yay!” So yours doesn’t have to be the least bit exotic.)
In my novel What’s Left the family-owned restaurant is a local institution, one set at the edge of campus even before her grandparents and their siblings took over and made it distinctly their own. Everybody in town seems to know them.
Have you ever been recognized because of something your parents or grandparents did?
Her aunt Nita in my novel What’s Left, has an interesting insight on showing up for work before all the others. It doesn’t fit every job, but it did hers. And then I cut this from the final version of the book:
If you’re the first one in and the last one out, you can disappear in the middle of the day and your coworkers and bosses are none the wiser. They just assume you’re out on assignment.
Not all jobs require you to punch-in or punch-out on some kind of clock. I’ve never had to work one of those, fortunately, although I’ve often had to fill out weekly time cards before being paid.
What I did find, though, was that even when I was putting in a lot of unpaid overtime (the joys of being low-tier management!), I could still feel the judgmental eyes behind my back.
Are you ever considered a slacker on your job? How does it feel? How do you respond?
Just what was I thinking? Was this supposed to be a philosophy class moment? A reflection on time versus space? Or fate versus free will? No wonder the paragraph failed to take root in my novel What’s Left.
History is filled with unique moments when something flashes up and takes hold. Or a singular intersection of trajectories appears in the universe of motion.
The novel, by the way, has many of these situations, just as life itself does. We just didn’t need to get preachy.
I suppose this just might fit a story about baseball. Or think of football. The great play no fan will ever forget.
There are also those accidents, seemingly chance encounters, like the late-night crash that kills Cassia’s grandparents or the avalanche that claims her father. A few moments one way or the other, and her story would be much, much different.
I was more likely reflecting on those seconds where you have to make a decision one way or another. Say something. Do something. Yes or no. The beginning of a romance, for instance, once you’ve introduced yourself. Uttered the joke that could have as easily fallen flat.
Can you recall a significant moment in your life when something had to happen right then — or never at all? One with no second chances? Please share it! Be bold!
In early drafts of my novel What’s Left, I considered going into detail on her uncle Dimitri’s practice of micro-lending and startup investing. Here at home we discussed including a whole list of failures and successes — or reasons applications were approved or rejected. Just think of all the once bright options that soon failed, as well as the ones that have since gone mainstream.
One proposal that didn’t survive my second-thoughts was this:
Thus, when friends decide to launch a local winery, we support them.
At the time I first noted this, 45 or so years ago, a local winery would have been cutting edge. Now there seem to be wineries everywhere, and their output can be widely uneven and often overpriced.
My experience as a home brewer, making more than 2,500 bottles of beer, was fascinating. We relied on kits from a local aficionado and never had a bum batch. But we still haven’t tried making our own wine.
Gardening, of course, is another matter. As is composting.
Do you raise any of your own food? Make your own bread or yogurt? How about jams or jellies or artisanal vinegars? Any other hands-on touches?
Think of the names of bands and singers having a food tag. (Will Red Hot Chili Peppers or Smashing Pumpkins get your thoughts bubbling?)
Throughout my novel What’s Left, her uncle Barney has rock playing prominently in the restaurant kitchen. Does this provide a good counterpoint to his thoughts and actions? Do you find it amusing? Annoying? Confusing?
Who would you like to add to the food-themed playlist?
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?
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.