I dwell in possibility...
-Emily Dickinson

I counted up the vacation days and holidays I'll take between now and year end to find out how many days I have left to go into the office.

Fifteen. 

Fifteen more days! 

I'm feeling a bit unleashed.

I'm finding that I swing wildly between slow, big-picture goal-setting (identifying my top five priorities) and short, repetitive giphy-like thoughts -- such as what lunch food I'll want to have in the refrigerator once I'm retired.

Like a snake that rubs off old skin I'm starting to feel the sensation of shedding an old familiar identity (22-year marketing professional) in order to replace it with a fresh, bright pattern of being a writer.*

Plugging away at the foundational framework of the book I'm writing is a big part of why my sense of identity is changing. While this past week had the fantastic interruption of family in town for Thanksgiving, when I did work for a few hours on the book I've been concentrating on two things: 1) Identifying not just the what, but the why; and 2) working backwards.

Identify not just the what, but the why
I've learned "pantsing" and "plotting" are two popular writing methods for authors. Pantsing is to write by the seat of your pants, allowing the story to unfold by inspiration. I've experienced this fun development when a character takes over my pen and dialogue emerges that I didn't foresee.

The second method, plotting, is to write a complete outline of the plot before starting to write. By totally developing the plot in advance an author can then tell a plot from different points of view, or jump from present to past to future, and still maintain a clean story line. 

A third way, the one I've adopted, is similar to plotting, but it has two parts: the action of the plot AND the emotional point of the scene, or what happens to the character mentally that's causing the action. In this way, each scene purposefully moves the action forward. This is the method I learned from Jennie Nash, the book coach I took a terrific writing "sprint" course from at the end of October.

Each scene must link with the one that precedes it. Each point of the scene must capture what the characters are feeling. Let me share a rough-draft example. The following scene is preceded by Theo's death (Johanna's husband) and her parents arrival to take her (and her baby) back to Amsterdam with them. They are insistent and protective, wary of Paris, a city they believe is too wild and dangerous for a young widow.

  • Scene: Because of this, Johanna refuses to move home to be helped by her parents after husband Theo's death. 400 of Vincent's paintings arrive at her home from Theo's art dealership. She discovers packets of letters from Vincent saved by Theo.
  • Point:  She grieves and misses Theo but also feels a longing to move forward, not backwards. She leans on the memory of Theo's faith in her and fears she'll lose the person she became with him if she moves back to Amsterdam. 

Imagine five pages of these coupled phrases, starting with the first scene and ending with the last. (I feel like I'm pantsing in the plotting!) The final document can only be three pages, which is forcing me to get tighter and clearer on identifying not just what happens, but why. I've been working intermittently on this for a month;  my goal is to finish the scenes before Christmas. 

Work backwards
When people find out I'm writing a book, they naturally ask me what it's about. When I launch into my explanation, I've noticed their eyes can glaze over -- too much information! I need a shorter description. A killer sentence that captures the story's plot, what my protagonist will physically go through and her inner struggle. This, too, was a portion of the Jennie Nash "sprint." 

Thinking this through is the process of working backwards, starting with the book's conclusion. 

Here's a sequence of killer sentences I brainstormed:

Original: Vincent van Gogh was not known in his lifetime. My book is the behind-the-scenes story of how Johanna van Gogh brought her brother-in-law Vincent van Gogh's art to public recognition. Many assume that it was her art dealer husband, Theo, but he died within a year of Vincent. If not for Johanna, Vincent's work would have been lost to the world.

Killer sentence drafts:

  1. It's the story of how a young woman discovered an artistic genius and the price of following your passion.
  2. It's the story of how Vincent van Gogh's work was lost to obscurity if not for the efforts of a passionate young woman.
  3. It's the untold story of the loss of Van Gogh's work and a young woman's journey to resurrect it.
  4. Its the story of the loss of Van Gogh's art and a woman's drive to resurrect it. 
  5. It's the story of how Van Gogh's art was forgotten and how a young woman's journey restored it. 
  6. It's about the loss of Van Gogh's art and the passion that resurrected it.

Do any of these work? Do you have an alternative?

How I'm Writing the Book
Books I'm Reading:  I finished The Boys in the Boat by Daniel James Brown. It's the true story of the 1936 U.S. men's Olympic rowing team and their journey to winning a Gold Medal in Nazi Germany. Book coach Jennie Nash wrote a blog about seven writing lessons to be learned from this book, such as an evocative title and choosing a protagonist to carry the story. Here's the full email. For a change of pace I'm now reading the page-turner Originsfor my W4 book club. (The author is also named Dan Brown, best-known for The Da Vinci Code.)

Writing Community: I went to the opening of a new creative incubator, Catalyst Innovation Lab, for the arts. One of the tenants is Flow ('where writing happens"), a centralized home and network for community literary arts. Every other major metro area has a literary center but not St. Louis. The founder is Amanda Wells and I am blown away by her energy and creative ideas.

I just read that Annie Proulx (among her books are The Shipping News and Brokeback Mountain) was honored at the 2017 National Book Award ceremony and she began writing at age 58 after another career. I'm not the only late starter! 

In that spirit here is a lovely closing quote from Emily Dickinson: 

We turn not older with years, but newer every day.

*Apologies to my son, Eric, who no doubt shivered at the snake analogy.

Where are you dwelling?

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