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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Stubbornness you need for living

I paint with the stubbornness I need for living.
-Suzanne Valadon

I think there’s a vein of stubbornness in you.

That's a good thing!

Especially if your stubbornness rears its head when you’ve just about given up, when the curve ball has knocked the breath out of your lungs, and you think the worst must finally be over… and it is not.

The person I've quoted, Suzanne Valadon, is stubborn. My protagonist, Johanna, has just met Suzanne in the chapter I wrote last week.  

Suzanne was a French painter who broke into the ranks of her male post-Impressionism peers and was recognized in her lifetime. She lived in Paris at the same time as Vincent van Gogh. She is the first woman painter invited to join the Société Nationale des Beaux-Arts, a society of artists that organized to show exhibits independently of what I think of as the Red-tape Art Establishment of the late 19th century (aka Paris Salon).

At the time Suzanne meets Jo in my novel she has just started to paint. 

At their first meeting, they don’t have a lot in common. Johanna grew up in a sheltered, upper-middle-class household in Holland, a country that sat like a side street between the pulse-pounding cultural competition between Paris and London. Jo was well-educated and her upbringing followed societal rules of respecting the separate spheres men and women inhabited. 

In contrast, Suzanne was raised by an unmarried mother in the poor outskirts of Paris. As a little girl, she worked alongside her mom — among her jobs was as a laundress and in a milliner's shop. She went to school until about age 11. She then quit to make her own way, including joining the circus as an acrobat. At 15, she fell from a trapeze, injuring herself so that she had to quit. However, at the circus she had met some artists, including Henri Toulouse-Lautrec, and decided to move to the Montmartre artist community in Paris where she took up work as a model. 

Over the next decade it was through this modeling work that Suzanne became intrigued with art and began to draw and paint herself. This self-taught education gave her artwork a freedom from following a specific style. The female figures she drew weren't as idealized as the ones male artists painted, preferring to draw and paint the reality she experienced. 

At the time I have the women meet in the book, Jo has been getting pelted by curve balls (I love my book coach saying to me, “Think of the worst thing that could happen to Jo” - so I do!) Jo needs some role models to encourage her to keep forging ahead and to discover the mis-beliefs that are holding her back.  When I came across Suzanne in my research, I was thrilled. Suzanne has the authenticity to really challenge Jo’s view of herself.  

Stubbornness, rebellion, independence, bravery --  Jo will need all of this. 

Once I started to reflect on these qualities, more role models have caught my attention. 

  • One is the comedian Hannah Gadsby in the Netflix special, Nanette, a stand-up routine Hannah does before a live audience in Sydney. This one-minute trailer gives you a hint of it. What starts out as typical funny routine becomes suspenseful and angry and heartbreaking and compelling. Hannah's dialogue has peeled away artifice or acting. It’s the first time I’ve witnessed such a tour de force. It brought tears to my eyes. My friend Cyd alerted me to it, and it is so worth seeing.

  • The second is a friend who at her work is facing down the sabotage of insecure bosses by standing up for herself with truth. The honor she ascribes to herself -- her self-respect -- inspires me. When you beat back the fear and side with truth, you find strength. How many times have I not stood up for myself when I should have?

So, these two women shine in my thought as role models for me to attempt to write into Johanna. She has a lot to overcome. I think Suzanne can help her. 

Stack of books I'm researching on the 19th century, and Suzanne Valadon in her studio in 1925. 

How I'm Writing the Book
Extended the Plot. While plugging away writing a few weeks ago, a sneaky little feeling began to grow larger. For awhile now, I've been ruminating on whether the "ah-ha" moment I'd planned would work, because in this climax Jo has not yet sold a Van Gogh painting - not yet. I wondered whether this omission would be too disappointing to the reader (since we know that ultimately that's her legacy)? This niggly doubt kept popping up on the periphery of my mind. So, to address this, I drew in a deep breath and took a shot at extending the novel, digging into more of Jo's past to identify the tent-post experiences that would lead her to a different, big moment. I think I got it. The book is still targeted to be about the same length of 300 or so pages. This week I'm writing chapter 10. 

Books on Strong Women by Female Authors. As a recommendation from my W4 Book Club, I recently read Before We Were Yours by Lisa Wingate. It's based on the real-life story of Georgia Tann and how her Memphis Tennessee Children's Home Society was set up to steal and sell children into adoption. The book is chilling as told through the eyes of its 12-year-old heroine. Wingate is a master at storytelling; the suspense and pace kept me up reading late into the night, and, even though it's sad, there is redemption. 

It's been 100-degrees hot in the midwest this month. My mom, sister and I are speeding out of the heat next week with a 10-hour road trip up to my brother and sister-in-law's house in Three Lakes, Wisconsin. Gorgeous towering pines, glass-surface still lakes, sweatshirt-cool mornings...my Macbook and I will be tapping out words to the call of loons. Meanwhile, next up with Cristina's wedding planning is a KC trip to the florist to design flowers. I can't wait! But Juan said he'll sit this trip out. What??

Here's a final quote attributed to Suzanne. Perhaps it will be written as dialogue for her to say to Jo:

I had great masters. I took the best of them of their teachings, of their examples.
I found myself. 
I made myself, and I said what I had to say. 

In Therese Diamond Rosinky's book, Suzanne Valadon

Are you saying what you need to say?

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