Over and Over and Over


Over and Over and Over

Failure is probably the most important factor in all of my work. Writing is failure. Over and over and over again.
-Ta-Nehisi Coates

Coates received a MacArthur genius award and wrote the bestseller Between the World and Me. Eight years prior to saying this he'd been unemployed and desperately searching for freelance work. I chose this quote since he's an example of perseverance and following a deliberate practice. 

Here are the rules to establish a deliberate practice:

  • A clearly defined stretch goal
  • Full concentration and effort
  • Immediate and informative feedback
  • Repetition with reflection and refinement

In her book, Grit. The Power of Passion and Perseverance, psychologist Angela Duckworth shows how high performers -- athletes, artists, executives, entrepreneurs -- achieve amazing results. She dissects how achieving one's potential is more about showing up and persevering over the long term versus simple talent. (I read this book for my friend Asma's investment book club meeting this week --I'm always relieved when the chosen book is non-investment oriented!)

According to Duckworth, it's popular to believe that people are achievers because they have a special talent, a grand slam gift from God. Yet, what her research revealed is that talent alone will not generate high achievement nor is it a requisite. "Grit," or perseverance, is the hidden ingredient. In simple terms, talent + effort = skill and then skill + effort = achievement. 

For example, Duckworth writes about the kids practicing to compete in the National Spelling Bee. There are basically three activities recommended for practicing spelling: reading for pleasure and playing word games like Scrabble; getting quizzed by a person or computer program; and memorizing words and Latin, Greek and other word origins, then reviewing words in a spelling notebook. Duckworth found that it was only the last activity -- deliberate practice -- that truly made the difference and predicted the winning spellers. 

It's the same with athletics - sure, you can learn about basketball by watching a lot of games on TV, but to achieve skill you need to do drills on the court. Lots and lots of them. Even better, with a coach that gives you feedback on how you're doing and what to correct.

So, how do these ideas apply to writing a book?

I'm using Duckworth's ideas to establish a deliberate practice.  Here goes:

  • A clearly defined stretch goal = Complete a manuscript in six months
  • Full concentration and effort = Commit to 12 pages or 3,600 words/week
  • Immediate and informative feedback = Get a book coach
  • Repetition with reflection and refinement = Create a ritual so that writing is a habit

 Right now I am really worried about whether I can do this. 

I just know that in January I wrote about 15,000 words on my own and then attended a writer workshop. It gave lots of great instruction and helped reshape my ideas on plot, but essentially scrapped a lot of the previous writing. Needing to start over the writing -- plus the knowledge that I need to do more research and I'm shaky on writing craft -- put me into a tailspin last week.

I don't think I can do this alone.

So I decided a coach will tell me what to do when I'm confused and also call me out when I'm making excuses. 

Book coaches have emerged as traditional publishing has changed and self-publishing has grown popular. It used to be that a publisher's editor not only edited manuscripts but was much closer to authors, nurturing, cajoling and cracking the whip when needed. (You may have seen actor Colin Firth's portrayal of this type of editor in the 2016 movie Genius. Firth plays famed Scribner editor Max Perkins who worked with Thomas Wolfe, Ernest Hemingway and F. Scott Fitzgerald.)  Today a typical editor is working on 30 books/month, so unless you are a blockbuster author, you won't get this attention. 

So a book coach fills this demand.  

My book coach is Sheila. Like me, she’s recently retired, an experienced editor and happily avoiding our arctic cold by living in Jacksonville, Florida. Every week I'll submit pages to her and within three days she'll send back revision notes and comments. We have a bi-weekly call and as much emailing as needed in between. (Sheila gave me feedback on my "sprint" writing in October so I’ve already experienced a bit of her insight.) 

It's a six-month commitment.  25 weeks.

Every writer is unique and sets his or her own goal with what they want to accomplish in that time frame. My goal is to complete a first draft of the manuscript. So, I've learned that a typical fiction manuscript is about 90,000 words or 300 pages, so I will need to write about 3,600 words, or about 12 pages, each week. 

How many hours will this take me? I'm not sure. I'm pretty slow so it may be one page/hour. (It usually takes me at least three hours to write this blog -  often times, much more if I change the theme.)

There is more framework I'll need to put around this 6-month commitment -- like a daily ritual to get going, and how to plan for happy interruptions (like Eric and Angie's wedding!). 

I have to tell you: It feels GOOD to WRITE DOWN the goal. It puts a little more umph to my intention. 

Do you have any passions that could be umphed by deliberate practice?

How I'm Writing the Book 
Scrivener Software (Still): This past week I attended a free 90-minute webinar on the latest software version - Scrivener 3 (along with my friend Crystal) to see how it’s been improved. However, I've decided to set the software aside for now. I'll be submitting pages via Word to Sheila so it will waste time to be simply transferring the pages back and forth. 

Books I'm Reading:  In addition to reading Grit, I've just started News of the World by Paulette Jiles. A National Book Award finalist, the book is historical fiction taking place during the Civil War. I'm paying attention to how historical fiction writers subtly layer in the context of their periods into the narrative. 

On the wedding front (plural: fronts!) Juan and I booked an Airbnb for the June Flagstaff wedding plus made hotel reservations for my mom and Aunt Cynthia who will be hitting the town HOT for Wedding Week. Meanwhile, back in KC, Cristina and Jay decided to warm up their household by adopting two English bulldogs (Pods and Pebs). C & J were foster-caring the little rascals and fell in love with them (Uh-oh, foster-failed). Pods and Pebs hit the jackpot. Come to think of it, Eric and Angie’s greyhound mix, Kota, is doing just fine too - he gets a bunch of run-walks in every day on trails around Flagstaff. Hey, I just realized Juan and I are grandparents of pets before kids. 

In closing, let me return to Ta-Nehisi Coates. If you have three minutes, here's a short video where he shares just a little of his experience. Toward the end of the video he gives a wonderful description of what it's like to be a gritty writer:

The challenge of writing is to see your horribleness on the page. To see your terribleness and then to go to bed. And wake up the next day, and take that horribleness and that terribleness and refine it. And make it not so terrible and not so horrible, and then to go to bed again,. And come the next day, and refine it a little bit more, and make it not so bad. And then to go to bed the next day. And do it again, and make it maybe average. And then one more time. If you're lucky maybe you get to good. And if you've done that; that's a success. 

I want to be this gritty.






How have you been?

You may delay but time will not.
-Benjamin Franklin

Decades of routine die hard.

This week will be my seventh week of retirement. 

But you wouldn’t know it, if you were a fly on our wall each morning. 

Still up around 5:30. Still a quiet period of study, prayer and journaling with the cat curled up beside me. Then my get-ready routine kicks in so that about 7:15 there’s usually a mascara wand in one hand while I check for iPhone emails with the other. Not much different from my work routine except that I’m not rushing out the door and I’ve pulled on comfortable jeans instead of a suit.  

It just feels better to get going. 

I remember another time when this worked well for me. 

Years ago I had a similar situation when I abruptly stopped working. I was laid off from a job as an advertising manager for a patio furniture company in Passaic, New Jersey. Glad to end the traffic-crushed commute through the Lincoln Tunnel each day I started looking for a job in NYC. My only time collecting unemployment benefits. I lived on 30th Street in the Murray Hill area of Manhattan (between Second and Third Avenues) in a 2-room fifth-floor walk-up. That first night, climbing up 10 sets of cracked linoleum stairs, rounding each corner of its scratched dingy walls, felt like a climb of defeat.

Even though I was jobless, each morning I’d still rise at 5:30, pull on shorts and running shoes, then skip down that stairwell to run three miles of city blocks. The same routine I’d had when working. I loved morning runs. The sidewalks seemed broader without the day’s crush of people; the air cleaner because of the cool dawn air. 

As I ran along, the city felt friendlier than during the day. Fewer cars cruised the streets. Gradually, shop owners would arrive to pull up the garage-door covers of their storefronts, the metal jangling as the doors rose.  It felt good to feel part of a new day starting.

I remember thinking that if I could keep the same routine when working, I’d be ready, in a more open state of mind to find a job. At the end of the run, I’d charge up those stairs, gasping, to the top. A quick shower, dress into decent clothes, hair & make-up…and then I’d sit on the edge of my futon paging through want-ads over coffee and toast, planning that day’s strategy. 

For a long time I felt stuck. No job leads that fit or some that started out as promising but petered out into nothing. Morning after morning, though, I still followed the same routine.

Until one day, I picked up a phone message about a job lead. I paced in front of the futon to call the hiring manager. This HR person agreed to interview me. That interview led to a second interview, then another with Dan, the person hiring. Then Dan offered me a job as a writer on his communications team at Met Life, the large insurance company headquartered then on 23rd Street. 

This job enabled me to stay in New York where I ran road races and talked about racing with a guy I met who invited me to a group run up Fifth Avenue every weekend who became the guy I married. 

Would I have found a job and met Juan eventually anyway? I don’t know. But I think the be-ready morning routine helped.

So now I’ve been following a similar approach. 

After the writers’ workshop a few weeks ago, I hit my mornings with new momentum, using former office hours to work on the crappy first draft. I have been doggedly going at it. But as I write new questions form: 

  • Should I stop writing in order to dig into more research (Questions are piling up - were carriages more common than cars in London? Did Paris have cafes then)?
  • Should I stop writing in order to go deeper into developing my protagonist (First I had her mom be a meanie, then I changed my mind and killed her off, but which scenario would impact Johanna "best")? 
  • Should I stop writing in order to take some time to work on my writing as craft (This first draft is so basic)? 

I need feedback. So I am thinking of joining a program in which I start working with an editor right now, even before a first manuscript is done. I have a feeling the questions will only increase and an editor will have the experience and perspective to answer them. 

I’m making the decision this morning. Right after coffee.

How I'm Writing the Book
Scrivener Writer Software: The software is downloaded; my writing uploaded into it but then I promptly got tangled in it. "Uncle!" - after burning a bunch of time trying to figure it out, I bought Jeff Michael's training material, which is chunked up by short 3-minute videos. I'm learning faster than trying to DIY-it. 
Squarespace:  My web designer, Jamie, walked through some Squarespace basics so I can publish this blog straight to my website myself. Learning and taking notes is the first step; next step will be to actually do it.
88 Cups of Tea: I just recently started to listen to this podcast of inspiring interviews with creative people. Good for listening to while on the elliptical machine!

Before I end this, Juan and I just got back from Kansas City this weekend. We met with a wedding planner (Miranda — she used to do wedding planning at Disney! — we like her) and then Cristina and I went bridal gown looking with strict instructions not to buy yet. Except we had to. We found the perfect gown! Cristina claims it will be her last act of rebellion….

In closing, recently, I read a surprising note about Benjamin Franklin. So many of his witty observations have become a part of our daily language I was surprised to find out he was not a “natural” writer, but worked diligently to develop his writing ability by collecting essays, reading and rereading them, then putting them away so that he could attempt to rewrite them in his own words. He’d then compare his version to the original, identifying flaws and trying again. 

This type of diligent practice of writing helped him to develop his own style and aphorisms, such as: “An investment in knowledge pays the best interest;” “A penny saved is a penny earned;” and “Never leave till tomorrow what you can do today.” While there are many more I’ll leave you with this:

There are no gains without pains. 

May you have a gainful week!






You are not a beggar at the gate. You are the gate.
-Donald Maass

It’s 8:30 pm and I’m on a plane flying through a star-studded clear night back to St. Louis. I’m in row 12, seat A, and my seat back is stuck at an awkward 90-degree angle. My elbows squeeze my ribcage thanks to the large snoring seat mate spilling over the armrest on my right. My Macbook is unsteady on the tray table, rocking a little as I type, but I am happy. 

I am really happy. 

I want to send you a note about the writer conference in Irvine, California, I’ve just been attending. 

It was awesome to take a class from someone who is generous and down-to-earth and just loves stories and thoroughly knows his craft. Based on his recent book, The Emotional Craft of Fiction, Donald Maass (New York literary agent) taught the three-day session with a simple idea: Write emotion. 

Write so that you, as a reader, have your own emotional experience while reading my novel. 

Not by simply being a witness to the actions of my main character, Jo (I’ve given my protagonist Johanna a nickname) but by writing so that you are inside Jo’s head, seeing more than just what she is doing, but why… and then you can react: agree, disagree, anticipate what’s next, be happy or worried or touched or mad or moved or any other wild emotion you wish to feel through your own emotional experience when reading the story. 

So, in contrast to writing the external events of the story, I practiced and struggled with going deeper, inside and behind what’s happening on the surface. 

What’s funny is that even at this early stage of writing I’ve been worried that my writing about Jo has been too shallow. I don’t want to short-shrift you or her or her story. So now I’m more determined than ever. I have 100,000 words to write and  20+ techniques to turn to so that I can create a place and people and story you’ll want to spend time with. 

The book still feels a little distant and out of reach, only now I believe I have a map.

So in the spirit of sharing both what’s happening on the outside, as well as what’s going on under the surface, here’s a snapshot of the 72 hours in Irvine. 

21 women + 3 men. Multi-published to first-draft writers. Don’s two adopted young teenagers. 15-meter diving platform panic. White-chocolate chunk cookies. A row of slim silver-backed rectangles with softly glowing apple icons. Loud A/C air blower. Gesturing hands. Pacing feet. Soft patter of fingers on laptop keyboards. Infusion of rich coffee aroma. Purple-ribboned name badges. Barely legible black-marker scrawl. Cancer and chemo. Orange-brushed sunsets. Confidence. Resistence. Nervous reading aloud. 15-minute writing sprints. A dying queen. An Oklahoman leisurely drawl. Psychic teenager misdiagnosed as schizophrenic. Assassins taking ethics training. Tragedy in a remote Canadian oil town. Mermaid trilogy. Crimean War nurses in love. Twin brothers who-done-it. 19th century hack. Group dinner of Irvine baby back ribs. Business card exchanges. Facebook friend requests. Offers to be beta readers, to email encouragement, to see you at another workshop, to be well. Travel safe. You can do it! Get to the end! Get to the end.

Get to the end!

How I'm Writing the Book
Daily Writing: To maintain the awesome workshop momentum, my new specific goal is five good pages/day - we’ll see how it goes. 

Scrivener Writer Software: I’m buying the download. At the workshop a fellow writer, Sheri, demo-ed it for me and shared its pros and cons. Time to bite the bullet.

Books I'm Reading:  I downloaded Dying to be Me by Anita Moorjani onto my iPad to read on the plane (thanks for the suggestion, Ruth!) Wow - a thought-provoking, inspiring Near Death Experience and spiritual journey of a young woman who completely recovered from cancer following this experience. 

In the meantime, as I was in Irvine, Juan and Eric met up in Phoenix to watch the Phoenix Suns and New York Knicks battle on the basketball court (the Knicks won) and then drive up to Flagstaff. I asked them to do a little wedding recon on Airbnbs for guests coming to Eric and Angie’s June wedding. When I called to check in, I didn’t get much info. I think the guys did recon on bars instead. Critical research!

Back to the parting message Don gave our mighty workshop group:

Write fearlessly!

Here’s to a fearless week!



Nothing good gets away


Nothing good gets away

Don't worry about losing. If it is right, it happens - The main thing is not to hurry. Nothing good gets away. -John Steinbeck

I’ve been in a hurry, and this past week I was called a loser.

(By me.)

A week ago was the first stretch when I kicked into actual writing.  Ever since I became officially retired I’ve had a nagging sense that I wasn’t doing real writing yet. A little internal voice wondered if all the planning could be a form of procrastination. 

For example, among the plans is a multi-page plot outline, both the external events and the emotional/inner events. I’ve mentioned a poster board where post-its march across it to show a story arc, but there’s also a second one that shows critical dates in Johanna and Vincent van Gogh's lives so I can figure out when their paths should cross. And I have a start on research notes about the 19th century, artists during that period, life in Paris, my protagonist Johanna, and on Vincent van Gogh.

Plus I’ve been reading books on the craft of writing (like The Emotional Craft of Fiction by Donald Maass) and making notes on when I could apply his ideas in the story.  

But this is not writing. This is not pulling up my office chair, turning off the phone, powering up the Macbook and committing myself to writing THE BOOK nonstop. 

So, this past week, I tried.

This is when loser thoughts crept in, all on the writing decisions I've made:

  • Third-person point-of-view (I've been writing in third-person ("Johanna thought..."), instead of first-person ("I thought...") then I wondered, wait! The books I've read lately are in first-person (The Orphan Train, The Paris Wife, and The Handmaid's Tale) - perhaps third-person is wrong?
  • Voice - investigating first- or third-person point-of-view led me to reading up on “voice,” or a writer's style. I wondered, oh no! My text sounds really boring or as though I'm imitating someone else, not authentic or genuine, fake. Do I even have my own "voice"?
  • Including emotion -  Then as I read over the words written so far, I saw that I'd moved too fast from scene to scene. It's too shallow. There’s not enough about thoughts and feelings, letting the reader in on why characters are acting as they are. I'm not used to writing about feelings! Good business writing, the skill I've honed for 20 years, is the practice of brief bullet points and next action steps, not creative writing. Maybe my business writing is too deeply ingrained for me to change?

The loser thoughts lined up and took their shots: Writing is hard! You're not good enough! You don't know what you're doing!

Has my dream of writing a book all been a mistake?

Among all of this second-guessing and mental spin, I’d been texting a writer-artist friend Deborah. Like a lovely shaft of light piercing a thick cloud bank, she sent me this message:

"The reason NaNoWriMo [National Novel Writing Month] is so successful is because it encourages writers to just get words down on a page or in a computer file. They respect “first draft energy.” My recommendation is to not worry about voice or POV. Pick a POV and go with it…it can always be changed later. If you have a rough outline, you are ready. Sure, read in between writing sessions to inspire you, but just let your characters — Johanna tell her story through your fingers. Get your head out of the way. Like a friend told me back in the 1980’s when I was considering quitting my job to go full time to college to finish my degree — JUST DO IT. As they say, writing is all in the editing process. But you first need words to work with. Lots of them.”

“Get your head out of the way.” Sharply, I realized that I’d had a hidden sense of ego. I think I’d been secretly imagining that I would do such a great first draft that I’d skip a few rounds of editing. So, instead of feeling like good discoveries, the questions derailed me. I’m glad to realize this early and even to have experienced such severe self-doubt so I can recognize and dismiss it in the future.

Just do it.  And do my best to enjoy it. 

Nothing good gets away. 

How I'm Writing the Book
Daily Writing: This week I am writing (not planning or researching) each morning (except Friday/Saturday when I'll be in a writer's workshop.) I have a feeling the writing will be crappy, but, hopefully, I'll have lots of crappy words. 

Scrivener Writer Software: So far, my first draft is in Microsoft Word, but I've been reading that there’s a software program called Scrivener especially for writers that will make life much easier when it comes to editing, incorporating research, etc. It has a sharp learning curve but I'm thinking of making the investment sooner rather than later.

Books I'm Reading:  Author of the Kite Runner, Khaled Hosseini, also wrote, A Thousand Splendid Suns. (Choice of  my W4 Book Club.) Intense and gripping, the story is about two women in Afghanistan, from the 1970's to early 2000's, and how their lives are impacted by terrible regimes and war. Hosseini is masterful at bringing the Afghan culture to vivid life through showing, rather than telling, details of daily living. Plus I'm still reading Peter Wohlleben's fascinating book, The Inner Life of Animals. (Each chapter is a standalone so I can dip in and out of it.)   

Meanwhile, there are two weddings to think about now (Eric and Angie's in June and Cristina and Jay's in the fall) so I have been quietly creating a spreadsheet of out-of-town guests for the first one, and doing phone interviews with KC wedding planners for the second one. It is super, super fun and I am in heaven being the mom of a groom and a bride. Juan is concerned that I have my own ideas -- well, of course, I do! 

Back to John Steinbeck and his parting counsel:

And now that you don't have to be perfect, you can be good.