What follows is Part 5 of my discussion of the writing process I went through to get Cassandra’s Daughter to print. In this installment, I am coming close to feeling like I might actually have a final draft. And I should point out that when I say a final draft, by no means did that mean I thought it was nearly finished. I had just gotten it close to a point where I might be willing to let someone (other than my children) read it.
At this stage, the story was not quite told in chronological order. I was still trying to mix things up – for dramatic effect. Each chapter was devoted to the third-person perspective of a single character, and I had chapters devoted to many more characters than just Cora, Leah, and Cassandra. There were chapters for Bessie, Kevin, Dr. Pendergast, etc.
But I wanted Cassandra’s story to be told differently. I wanted Cassandra to be rendered voiceless and unable to create as a result of the generational secrets kept from her. But as she discovered the truth, she would be able to gain her voice, to create, to tell her own story. This would mean that I wanted her to tell her own story in first person by the end of the book. But how to make that transition?
My original thought was to tell her story only through documents and through other characters’ stories. So when she was born, her chapter consisted of her birth certificate. Chapters were her fourth grade report card, her university diploma, her job offer letter, and other documents that if I mentioned here would give away key plot points. I also had other characters speak for her, telling their own stories of Cassandra. Eventually, she would start writing in a journal and ultimately, she would dispense with the journal and then speak directly to us, the readers.
I loved the theory, but I was struggling with making it work. It was time to bring in the big guns. A friend who is a successful author did a structural edit of the entire book for me.
Unfortunately, he suffered some personal setbacks, and it took him much longer to provide feedback than he had expected. I didn’t want to work on the book until I heard back from him, so I took some time off. It was during this time that COVID lockdowns and restrictions took over our lives. And it was during this time that I remembered the copy of the journal that my dad had sent me some 15 years prior that was kept by his aunt Clara when she was a senior in high school in Cresbard, South Dakota from 1918-1919. These were precisely the years that the Spanish Flu was ravaging the United States and the world. And Cresbard and Clara’s friends didn’t escape the consequences of their times.
So I shifted gears for nearly a year and a half. The end result was Clara’s Journal: And the Story of Two Pandemics, published in June 2021.
Once Clara’s Journal was published, I needed to return to the novel.
I was nervous. I had not even looked at it for so long. Not read a single word.
The structural feedback I received was immensely helpful. The editor pointed out sections where I was doing way too much “telling” rather than “showing” as well as spots when I broke out of a particular character’s point of view and jumped around to reveal what other characters were thinking. But overall, he loved the book and offered tremendous encouragement. But the one thing he really hated was the use of documents to tell Cassandra’s story. Drat. Not what I wanted to hear!
And I wasn’t ready to give up on that concept just yet.
The next thing I did was put the whole thing in chronological order – I did give up on the mixing things up idea. So now, the book was divided into three sections: Part I: Cora, Part II: Leah, and Part III: Cassandra. Each section was told from a third person limited point of view for the section title character. But now this meant that all the documents were together, page after page, which honestly, seemed weird to me, so I knew I was going to have to change that. It looked like I simply wasn’t going to be able to make it work. *sigh*
Now I had to go back and convey all of that information in a different way.
Ok. I got over that frustration and fixed it..
Once I incorporated all of the feedback I had received from my editor friend, I was ready for another reader. Another author friend came to me offering to give it a read. I took her up on it. She also really enjoyed the book, and she also had some great suggestions. One of the best comments was that she found herself wanting to know more about characters thoughts on various events. It’s always good when a reader is asking for more.
The problem I had was that the way I had it structured, with each section assigned to a particular character, I would not be able to provide that further information. Cora would not be able to comment on anything that happened after her section ended without disrupting the POV. The only way I thought I could do this was to take the names off of each Part. Removing names from the chapters and the sections gave me much more freedom than I had previously allowed myself. Now I could revisit, for example, a Christmas celebration at Leah’s house when Cassandra was a little girl. This had previously taken place in Leah’s “section,” so Cora would not have been able to provide her thoughts on what she was witnessing. But now, I could add Cora’s response to seeing both her daughter’s and her granddaughter’s behavior as well as their relationship. Plus we could see how Cora had developed and how her own relationship with the other two looked from her eyes. I liked it.
So I moved throughout the book, looking for places I could add other perspectives to already written scenes. Sometimes I even added entire scenes to provide a different perspective.
I felt stronger about the book than ever at this point.
I had two other people who were clamoring to read the book, and I finally felt comfortable enough to send it to them. Neither of them are writers, but both are readers. I was anxious to get feedback from people who regularly read literary fiction and who are not related to me!
Both loved it. And both had some good suggestions. Perhaps the best was when one of them told me that as she was reading the book she got so wrapped up in the story that she kept forgetting that I was the author. Perfect.
It was finally time to design the cover. Believe it or not, in some ways, the cover is more important than the writing! After all, it is the cover that prompts the reader to pick up the book or to click on it while scrolling Amazon. Without the cover drawing in readers, it wouldn’t matter how good the writing is. No one would ever know!
So the pressure was on. Because, after all, what the hell do I know about cover design??
I found a designer whose covers I really liked and let her know that I wanted blues and greens and waves and a stained glass feel to the cover. I threw out some other ideas: a harp charm on a chain in the waves or three adult women with the youngest holding a baby. She nailed it on the third try, and I immediately approved her design.
So, at this point in the writing process, I felt good about the story and about the cover. I knew I needed to declare that the book was done. Otherwise, I would possibly never finish. Literally. It would never be perfect. There are always changes that can be made!
Next week: the final step. Preparing the manuscript for print.
Cassandra’s Daughter by Vickie Oddino
Available on Amazon