What you must not ever do

You must not ever stop being whimsical. And you must not, ever, give anyone else the responsibility of your life.
— Mary Oliver

Oh, easy to write, Mary Oliver.

Tough to do!

I am a sucker for quotes about "living your best life." Even if they are on bumper stickers. 

These last few months I feel like I've been struggling with this be-lighthearted/be-accountable framework. Two months ago I finished the first draft of my book (Woot! Woot!) Then once the euphoria settled down, I got busy planning the next phase of work: 1) plug up some research gaps in my book, and 2) focus on how to market myself as an author. I'm taking a virtual 3-month marketing course to guide me.

But the book's not done!  Why would I be marketing now?

Because in today's age of jillions of books being published (tons of self-published as well as those through traditional publishers) -- if I hope to be read -- it would help to figure out who my potential reader is now, and find out what's important to her/him, and to begin to show up where they are.

So, I've been experimenting with things like:

  • Reading books in my historical fiction genre and posting reviews of them in Goodreads and Amazon and Library Thing websites.

  • Following, liking and sharing/retweeting other women's fiction authors on social media

  • Tweeting and hash-tagging topics that align with my book's message like #progress and #inspiringwomen 

  • Teaching a how-to tactical workshop on "jump-starting your art" at my former employer

To be honest, this last idea, sharing steps on how to follow the creative yen that pulls at you, felt pretty far afield of marketing my book. I mentioned it briefly in my last newsletter. The workshop was all about the process of getting started. My book was just a frame of reference. And, frankly, I wondered whether I was credible. I mean, the book's not done yet. Does that make my title of "author" a sham?

Still, I just liked the idea: Sharing a story with others of how to pursue the art that tugs at them. 

Taking a step to being true to yourself.

So, when I drove down the highway to teach the workshop, I'd stamped down the "you're an impostor" demons enough to be cheerful. Traffic was light, the sky a bright clear blue. Thank goodness that day was "business casual" -- I'd recently gleefully donated away my suits and heels. And after a late dash to a Fed-Ex print shop the night before (my printer quit working), I had colorful handouts in my bag. I'd practiced a little; I'd controlled as much as I could.

Now what was left was completely unknown: Would my story connect with the 10 people that signed up? Would the journey I've followed to be a writer be relevant to them?  Would one hour be the right amount of time? 

(Would I be boring?)

I find the conference room, and women and men begin arriving. There's been a last-minute flurry of sign-ups: 14 hurry into the room, plus four more call in to a conference line. Gulp. I have just enough handouts! There's a little bustling of introductions, then we settle in. "Let's get started," I say, "Would each of you share the creative thing that pulls at you? Why are you here? What art are you trying to jump-start?"

A beat or two of silence.

Then the magic begins.

Imagine sharing an idea you've barely given yourself permission to think, let alone, say aloud. At first, the voices are self-conscious: "I have a knack for scrap-booking. Making cards" and "I paint with oil, like to draw with charcoal." Whispers. "I love design -- gardening and interior design." A throat clears, "I've had this screenplay in my head." Words spill out jumbled together, "Theater and dance and photography." A glance up, just enough for eye contact, "I love woodworking." 

A few people use words of identity --  "I am a singer" and "I am a writer" -- they've crossed the threshold of doing their craft and now look to keep going.  A few are at the very beginning, "I've always liked photography."

Ah, and so right away I learn the hour is not about me. The content takes on a unique life to each person because the steps I share are like water to the unique seeds of each individual's deeply rooted creative expression. I needn't have worried about being authentic. The authenticity lies within each workshop participant and the steps they choose that make sense to them.

We laugh. Lightheartedness lifts the room. It's so joyful. It's as though fragile ideas are forming into skeletons and with each step in the process, a little more sinew and muscle and blood forms. It is really fun.

And it is really hard. Each individual in that room and on the conference line has demanding careers and an absorbing family life and lots of life obligations. My hope was that just seeing a path forward to do their art -- opening up the possibility, whether they choose to walk it now, or later -- is a step forward in itself.

Wow, the hour flew by. 

Here are a few of the comments I received later:

"I thought that the workshop was inspiring...The biggest goal that I have for my family is to find more time for joy. It's funny how things like that tend to slip when you're busy with the daily grind."  

"It really lit a fire under me as well has motivated me even more to perfect my craft. I went home and told my husband about how much I enjoyed your work shop and had a whole discussion surrounding your statement, 'I wish I'd had the courage to live true to myself, not the life others expected of me.' "


I'm grateful for these thoughts, but in getting back to how this whole experience got started... was the workshop a worthwhile marketing strategy for my book? Well, I...

  • Made 1:1 personal connections with others who now know about my book - Win!

  • Feel grateful for the progress I've made so far on the book - Win!

  • Have three more invitations to do similar workshops in the future - Win!

  • Recognize I am not a "sham" 

Big win.

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Never mind the baby will be in Flagstaff -- he'll be a Cardinals fan! Meanwhile I try on my first "Fabulous Grandma" t-shirt...you bet I am.

How I'm Writing the Book
Filling in Research Details - Found a cool new book on our trip to Washington DC's National Gallery, The Vincent Van Gogh Atlas. It's full of info bits. For instance, since the time period is the late 1800's I'd wondered whether it was OK for my protagonist, Jo, to send a letter and receive a response in just a few days. Turns out because of the telegraph and rapidly growing train network in some cities (like Paris where she lives) the postman made as many as four deliveries a day! 
Trave
Books on Strong Women by Female Authors - Please, please pick up Teri Case's, In the Doghouse. Perfect summer reading. A dog is the main character and he is trying his dogged-hardest to patch up a human romance. Behind this silly premise and funny story is a gifted storyteller's warm wisdom about loss, family and love. (The dog is a dude; his human is a woman who ultimately finds her own strength.)

Would you share your summer reading recommendation with me?

Personal Stuff
Last week my husband and I took off to visit our Son and Daughter and their Significant Spouses (I first wrote, "Significant Others," but that phrase --  "Others" -- makes them sound like aliens, right?!)  Our visit to our Son was a flight to Flagstaff to attend a baby shower for soon-to-appear First Grandson. The other was a 24-hour Daughter birthday-blur drive to Kansas City and back. We DO NOT SEE THEM ENOUGH, so each visit is super fun.

Also...since the drive to KC is 3-1/2 hours each way, I brought along the hard-copy of my manuscript to thumb through and make sure I'm capturing all my research questions. Thirteen chapters to KC; 13 chapters back. At the end of reading and making the last of my margin notes, I closed the 4-inch binder and said to my Husband, "You know. I think this is a pretty good story!" It's been awhile since I actually read it page-to-page. 

By the way, if your interest is piqued on taking the marketing course, Dan Blank's Mastermind, registration is now open for the July - September time-frame. 

Let me say goodbye for now with another lovely quote from poet Mary Oliver. 

Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?

Wildly,

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Fight your way through...(the first draft is finished!)

It takes a while, it’s gonna take you a while. It’s normal to take a while. You just have to fight your way through that.”
-Ira Glass

It’s done.

Those are the last words Jo says in the novel.

Coincidentally, the same words I’d hoped to utter weeks and months earlier when I kept charging forward to punch through the finish-line tape of completing my first draft...but the tape kept getting moved. Every time I lunged for that final sprint, a new hurdle would appear out of nowhere. ARRRRGGGHH.

  • I had to write more when Jo (my main character) still had stuff to say — I’d been too stingy letting her speak her mind but withholding what was in her heart.

  • I had to write more when I (satisfyingly) made the bad guy, Georges, GET HIS DUE — yet I hadn’t explained why he was such a mean old bully to begin with.

  • I had to write more when I cockily thought all I had left was a cakewalk-of-an-epilogue to write — then my book coach enthusiastically commented that she couldn’t wait to see how the loose ends come together like how Jo reconciles with her family and why she will end up marrying that guy and how she paid for her son’s tuition….

“Shoot,” I  thought, “No cake walk. Another real chapter to write!”

So when the final words revealed themselves —  “It’s done” — (I kid you not) tears came to my eyes. It felt right that Jo and I should say them together. We have been through this journey side-by-side for 15 months and I have to say I admire her. I slung a lot of mud at her. Somehow she always found a way to wipe her face and keep going.

Twenty six chapters. One hundred eleven thousand four hundred eighty words. 

Writing is an intense, messed up, horrible thing. I would write until my mojo bled out. I know that is a disgusting image but hey writing is a nasty business. It got down to power-writing. I would sit down and write, write, write just getting the words down on the page even when I knew they weren't good, until I was disgusted and had to stop. Then I'd make a bunch of notes on where I had to insert feeling or detail or something-missing-but-I-can’t-put-my-finger-on-it, and power off. The next day I'd open up the Word doc with fresh thoughts and nimble fingers to fill in and pat down those gaps, then power on. These last few weeks I've felt the end coming and I couldn't help it, I was getting a little bit happy, feeling a tail-wind begin to whip up at my back.  The head-rush came when my book coach wrote back, "Woot!" then I got giddy, Juan popped champagne and the cat danced a jig.

(Oops. Got carried away. Natasha, the cat, is way too dignified for jigging. Only does River Dancing.)

You and I would go to lunch with Jo. She’s cool. She got over all the BS about doubting herself and the bad guy gets it in the end plus she finds a new honey who loves her. She had to stand up in front of all these people and prove she wasn’t crazy. (Now could you do that? Or me? Spoiler alert: She pulls it off.)

When I started the book I felt a little desperate. In my heart I knew it was time for me to say goodbye to my Corporate America career, but…Still. It was a big step to walk away from identity and salary and certainty. I am most certainly not “done” yet, but I know that retirement can carry a stigma of stepping back and taking it easy. I don’t want to be identified that way. 

Whoa. I had NO IDEA I was entering this world of Survival-of the-Fittest, Take-No-Prisoners, Naked-Til-You-Make-It tough world of WRITERS. They can spot hogwash a mile away and aren't afraid to call it out.

So, what's next?

This next week I'm headed to Madison for a writers’ conference put on by the Univ. of WI’s Writer Institute. Dear heavens, I opened up my email on Friday and saw that I have HOMEWORK from one of the master classes I signed up for. Three hours, just six of us. With a heavy heart I realize I will not be able to hide. We have to submit our first 5 pages to be critiqued… which means I need to REWRITE those pages since it was months and months ago when I was a wee young tyke and wrote them. I'm also taking classes on revision and publishing. The conference is Thurs – Sun and it comes at the perfect time since (drumroll….can't say it enough!) my first draft is FINISHED.

My final thought:  We are not meant to do stuff alone. Our lives are about connection. The law of reciprocation means that sometimes our role is to accept, and other times to give. I was not alone. My wonderful book coach each week gave me tough love and encouragement. I have found some awesome writer communities online (WFWA and Author Accelerator's Mighty Network and Reader Connection on Facebook and more). And there's YOU. When friends and family asked, “How’s the book going?” it felt like a vote of confidence, like they believed I could actually do it. And I can’t even get started on my husband’s support. I’m not sure if he popped champagne for me or him.

There’s more to write about this, but I will stop here.  It just feels so good to hit a milestone and I wanted to tell you about it.

By the way, 111,480 words is too many… so I’ll be revising and cutting soon, but, for now: Every.Word.Is.Golden.

There's only so much comma correction a cat can do in 15 months before needing a nap.

There's only so much comma correction a cat can do in 15 months before needing a nap.

I can’t sign off without sharing this fuller quote from Ira Glass, host and producer of the radio/internet show This American Life.

Nobody tells this to people who are beginners...is that all of us who do creative work, we get into it because we have good taste. But there is this gap.     For the first couple of years you make stuff, it’s just not that good. It’s trying to be good, it has potential but it’s not... but your taste is why your work disappoints you. A lot of people never get past this phase, they quit. Most people I know who do interesting creative work went through years of this. We know our work doesn’t have this special thing that we want it to have. We all go through this. And if you are just starting out or are still in this phase, you gotta know its normal and the most important thing you can do is do a lot of work...    It is only by going through a volume of work that you will close the gap, and your work will be as good as your ambitions. 

It’s done? No, it's begun!

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The short game vs. the long game

Twelve years from now, your future self is going to thank you for something you did today, for an asset you began to build, a habit you formed, a seed you planted... -Seth Godin

There’s a kicker to this quote at the end of the blog, but first...The weeks are flying by. I thought it was high time to check in. Even with a short post to say hello. 

Last week I said to my book coach Sheila, “I’m in it for the long game.” We were discussing whether my contract with her had another week in it (if it does, good, but I will be renewing it, regardless). Working with her is rewarding. I hear immediate (within a few days) feedback on my latest chapter submission, which acts like an encouraging nudge to keep going. The 17th chapter of the book is underway right now, which puts me at about 70,000 words. I anticipate maybe another six or seven chapters to complete the first draft.

Sometimes I feel really daunted by this project. The feeling is part-horror (what have I gotten myself into?), part-aching (I long to write this book and I hope I do it), part-intimidation (still so much research to do about the times and people). Oftentimes when writing I think, “This is terrible, terrible." For example I can get stuck in a rut on describing the physical reaction to anger or embarrassment. Right now, my protagonist Jo has felt heat rising from her chest and reddening her cheeks about a jillion times. I just write on. Being less repetitive will be the job of the second draft.

In the last post I mentioned the emergence of a bad guy, Georges. It’s been super fun to have an antagonist because I can make him really bad and actively act in opposition to what Jo wants. (He’s really handsome too.) At every turn Jo is treading on new territory and I’ve found that the key to narrative drive is to make sure she has agency. As I keep this in mind, quirky twists occur to me to add to the story. This girl’s got gumption. 

Actually, in every chapter, there are other people who each have desires and intentions. Jo doesn’t necessarily know what is motivating others. So I focus on making sure the other characters act and speak true to themselves, and on Jo acting and speaking true to herself, then see how all of these moving parts come together and drive the story. I wrote “see” how this happens because so often dialogue and action come to life as I write. It’s multi-layered and moving and I’m trying to keep it true to the human condition. 

This entire effort to write a book is probably the longest “long game” I’ve ever done. 

If writing was a short game, it would provide visible and immediate benefits. If writing was a short game, it would be easy and quick.

Playing the long game with writing is pretty boring. Basically I open up the Mac book or sit at my desktop and hammer away at the keys. I write nearly every day. I have a book related to the craft of writing going all the time (with a highlighter clipped to it). Most afternoons I work out and listen to podcasts on publishing or books. And I try to have a novel or other book always underway on my nightstand too. I’ve mostly resigned from my outside volunteer work; I’m inconsistent on social media. I’m trying to winnow out the distractions.

The long game is delayed gratification. It is small, daily steps with no visible giant outcome. It is mostly alone.

Not everything can be a long game — how could you focus?  I’m finding it’s a very different way to lead my days. 

Only time will tell if it works out. 

How I’m Writing the Book

Year-end Goal: On chapter 17 now, my goal is to get a draft done by the end of the year. It can take me 1-2 weeks to write a chapter, so I’m cutting it close.

Ah-ha Scene Done: I decided to leap forward in the plot and write the ah-ha, or climax, scene when all the crazy stuff hits the fan and Jo faces her final challenge. This took me three weeks. The benefit is now I have a north star to keep my sites on as the action moves forward. 

Books on Strong Women by Female Authors: Recently I read a beautiful memoir, A Three Dog Life, by Abigail Thomas. It's written with heart-rending clarity about how her life changed after her husband Rich is permanently injured from an accident. The book begins with a definition: "Australian Aborigines slept with their dogs for warmth on cold nights, the coldest being a 'three dog night.'" She writes with such surrender and peace the sad story transcends into room for comedy and grace. 

In late September I traveled to Albuquerque to a 4-day workshop by the Women Fiction Writer’s Association. Guest speaker Jennie Nash, founder of   Author Accelerator,   led the fantastic sessions.

In late September I traveled to Albuquerque to a 4-day workshop by the Women Fiction Writer’s Association. Guest speaker Jennie Nash, founder of Author Accelerator, led the fantastic sessions.

A quick note about the next WEDDING. We just got treated to our long-awaited "tasting" for Cristina and Jay's wedding dinner last week in Kansas City. We sampled about 12 Cuban tapas - delicioso! -- leaving the difficult choice of what to leave out to the kids. Meanwhile we are headed out to southern California next week for niece Sabrina's wedding. 'Tis the season!

Back to marketing guru Seth Godin to complete his quote:

...Even if you’re not sure of where it will lead, today’s the day to begin.

Today!

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Be Less Likely to Accept Things the Way They Are

I felt elevated. I felt like I had more value.  I had more agency than I felt like I had before,
and with that feeling you are less likely to accept things the way they are. 
-Barbara Downey Landau

The Vanity Fair article, ""It Was Us Against Those Guys': The Women Who Transformed Rolling Stone in the Mid-70's" grabbed my attention. I jotted down the quote from it. The article is a conversation with five women behind the scenes at Rolling Stone that ultimately made their way to its masthead while shaping it into the pop-culture magnet we know today.  

I've been looking for stories like this one to help put into words how my protagonist, Johanna, might feel in trying to enter the 19th century man's world of art trading so she can promote her brother-in-law Vincent van Gogh's artwork. She isn't welcome; she isn't liked. She is learning as she goes. 

Kinda like I feel writing a novel right now.. learning as I go!

In addition to the reading, I am keeping my head down writing. I'm 15 weeks or so into the Manuscript Accelerator program, in which I've been submitting pages every week to my book coach. Although the learning curve has been steep, I have a few takeaways of what I've learned so far:

  • Sh***y first drafts are a part of the process. Instead of avoiding them I've learned that the path to perfection starts with just getting words down. My first drafts are definitely sh***y, but the process leads to ideas under the surface, behind the initial thoughts. If there's time, I can then edit a second draft. I'm finding the critical thing is to just go ahead and spew. For instance, yesterday this was a completely different blog to you!

  • Ask for help and keep looking when you don't get it. In my high school drama class I still remember performing a scene followed by stony silence. Out of the darkness at the back of the theater, Mrs. K., the drama teacher, called out, "Why didn't you ask for help?" I didn't know, I don't know why I hesitate now. Because it's hard. Because you don't know who to ask. So, for example, I need help on beginning to build an author platform right now. I contacted a PR agency. Way too expensive! Now I'm trying out an intern. I'll let you know how it goes.

  • Ask Jo when I don't know. A few chapters back I got some tough love from my book coach. The chapter I'd submitted was too forced and she thought I should do it over. I tried a second version, a third. Still forced. Then I remembered an idea from a writer seminar, "When you're not sure about a scene, ask your protagonist." So, I got quiet, turned to the picture of Johanna I have in my office and asked her, "What do you want to do?" Do you know... an entirely new idea appeared! I had to scrap three-fourths of the chapter, but the new one came together beautifully. I suppose what really happened is as  I let go of the intellectual, plot-driven reasons for the scene, Jo's internal motivation revealed itself. It's the internal that drives the external, right? In life, not just books. 
  • Self-doubt is never far away. I have no remedy yet, because I'm afraid it's true. I may not be any good at this. So, when self-doubt comes knocking, I look at it, mentally set it down on the desk beside me, and write anyway. I know that if I stop writing this book, I will look back and truly regret not trying. The idea of living with that personal disappointment in myself is worse than any threat self-doubt can drum up.

How I'm Writing the Book
Found a Mean Antagonist. The plot didn't start out this way, but a creepy guy crept into my pages and has emerged as an enemy for my heroine to confront. For "inspiration" I read The Sociopath Next Door. Its subtitle is "1 in every 25 ordinary Americans secretly has no conscience and can do anything at all without feeling guilty." Perfect description of Jo's nemesis!
Books on Strong Women by Female Authors. The first line of Everything I Never Told You fascinated me. The novel by Celeste Ng starts out by giving the entire plot away: "Lydia is dead." How can an author construct a story when the reader already knows how the story ends? I found out. Ng brings the reader inside each character's mind -- how he and she views the world, their childhood, their losses and desires -- so that when the characters miss connections, we have the empathy and ache of understanding the disconnect, and longing to see it corrected.  In the end, Ng weaves the story threads together in a seamless, beautiful, satisfying way.

A strange, seconds-long well-behaved moment for Cristina and Jay's bulldogs Pebs and Pods. 

A strange, seconds-long well-behaved moment for Cristina and Jay's bulldogs Pebs and Pods. 

On a personal note, September is the month we drive to KC for a "tasting" of the food Cristina and Jay are thinking of for their March wedding. Juan and I are always up for a free meal!

Let me end with a quote from the Vanity Fair article. It captures my hope for my protagonist, Jo:

I was scared a lot in the early days, but once I stopped being so scared, I was happy.
-Marianne Partridge

Change is worth it.

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