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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100 Hundred Percent

You miss one hundred percent of the shots you don't take.
-Wayne Gretzky

This weekend my daughter, Cristina, and her boyfriend, Jay, drove over from Kansas City and spent a few nights. They'd come in town for a friend's wedding. Cristina also is a writer and we've agreed to co-write a book someday.

While she was here I asked Cristina to read something I'd written. Since she didn't audibly gasp while reading, I'm taking that as a green light. 

It was my book jacket copy. 

Strange, right, since I haven't actually written the book yet.

This is preparation/pre-work for the 60-hour writing course sprint I'm doing at the end of this week. After procrastinating for three days, this weekend I drafted it. By reading the book jacket copy from 15 other books and studying the pre-work prompt, the jacket copy structure should look something like this: set the stage, give context, introduce characters/what goes wrong, then end with the big takeaway. 

That's the structure; yet, I also want the book to reflect my mission statement (the same one I use when doing the storytelling in this blog): I share stories of perseverance through challenges, and how this connects us to what matters and each other. Why? Because in everything I do I believe in pushing against the edges of limitation. In everything I do I believe in finding connection. 

I am so hoping the book will reflect this. I want to write a story I would want to read. 

Here's my shot at a book jacket draft:

Johanna is a young woman trapped by the social rules of her upper-class upbringing in Amsterdam in the late 19th century. The youngest daughter in a family of seven she’s allowed to taste a little freedom by studying languages and living in London, until she is summoned home to concentrate on becoming “marriageable.” While her father is more lenient, her mother is practical: there is no better alternative for women than a good marriage match. So, when Johanna’s brother introduces her to Theo, an aspiring art dealer, she rejects him, angry that he fits the definition of what her parents ordered. Miserable and struggling with her new restrictions, Johanna seizes the opportunity to go to Paris when a sister needs help with her new baby.

 

Turn-of-the-century Paris is dazzling. Magnificent gardens, broad avenues, and packed crowds are vivid contrasts to Amsterdam’s backwater provincialism. Johanna is intoxicated by the energy of exotic discoveries. She explores Paris and stumbles into its less glittery reality. She befriends a young millinery worker, Patrice, and learns about an underworld of long hours, next to nothing pay and prostitution. It’s during these explorations that Theo reappears, declares his love for Johanna again, and this time she accepts his proposal. Life is joyous; she is in love. They marry and soon have a baby on the way.

 

Theo is passionate about advancing new ideas in art. While a few well-known artists are fawned over at lavish social events, an outlier community of artists is challenging the Impressionist status quo, experimenting with new ideas. Theo fervently believes in the unrecognized talent of his troubled brother, Vincent, whose artwork is startling and emotional. He struggles between supporting Vincent and withstanding the criticism of established artists. When Vincent dies unexpectedly, Theo is distraught and languishes. Mistaking Theo’s poor condition as grief and remorse, Johanna realizes too late that Theo is ill and he dies. Widowed, with a young child and unwelcomed by the artist community, Johanna must determine whether to return to the safety of her Dutch homeland or make her way in a suddenly inhospitable city...and what to do with some 800 paintings she’s inherited from outlier Vincent?

 

With 19th century Paris as a resplendent backdrop, through drama and adventure, this novel explores the obstacles Johanna Van Gogh overcame to bring Vincent’s works to the world. It celebrates the resilience of the human spirit and the durability of women, especially when life plays out differently than expected.

Just a start...no doubt it will evolve as the book unfolds. 

How I'm Writing the Book
Research: The Van Gogh Museum has a new exhibit on Dutch painters in Paris so I was able to read about the artists Van Gogh looked up to as well as his contemporaries, a little about life in Amsterdam and the dazzle of 19th century Paris from their website

Books I’m Reading:  I finished The Underground Railroad, by Colson Whitehead. In addition to winning the 2017 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction and the 2016 National Book Award for Fiction and the Carnegie Medal for Excellence, The Underground Railroad was just honored with the 2017 Zora Neale Hurston/Richard Wright Legacy Fiction Award. It's the third book in a row that's multi-layered and jumps to different character's perspectives chapter by chapter, so I've tucked that idea into the back of my mind for my own writing. The book is so well-done; if only the cruelty of slavery was fiction. Next up, The Boys in the Boat, by Daniel James Brown, which my aunt gave me. She and my mom came by for a visit about a month ago when we talked about it. After they left, I realized that somehow I never finished it! I'm starting back from the beginning. 

Plot Party Update: Last month I wrote about doing a Plot Party on October 10. This is an experimental way to research and find out what readers of historical fiction look for and love. I had to cancel it because of going to Maui unexpectedly. Hey... I should have done it beach side!

On a final note, since I started out with a sports quote so I'll end with another. 

You are the handicap you must face. 
You are the one who must choose your place.
-James Lane Allen

Thank you for joining with me on this journey!

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