How to break the rules

Hello -- broken any rules lately?

If you obey all the rules, you miss all the fun.
— Katherine Hepburn

I ask, because I’m trying. To be clear, I’m attempting to obey the rules of storytelling. It’s the rules of society I’m trying to break -- more on this in a moment.

First, about doubling-down on the rules of storytelling...

At this stage of researching and revising my book, one of Storytelling 101's lessons is to be clear about the story's "Rules of the World." Suppose you have the idea for a sci-fi fantasy. You can really have fun creating its Rules of the World. Imagine mapping out a fanciful country - what does it look like? Who is in charge? Does it have a special language?

For instance, think of the name Offred, the main character in Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale. Her name has two parts, "Of" and "Fred" to indicate she's the handmaid "of Fred," her Commander. Once this is explained, we understand her friend, Ofglen, is the handmaid for a guy named Glen. Right away, this rule within Gilead, the book's fictitious setting, gives us creepy insight into the authority and relationships these women will navigate.

As readers, we get Rules of the World instantly because we all live under societal rules. Standards for "normal" behavior are steeped beneath our skin. Every society has them. We know intuitively that if an individual steps outside of her/his expected behavior there will be backlash. First, informal sanctions from peers. Worse, actual punishment by those in authority if the person deviates too far.

Yet, the gradual evolution of society goes on, in spite of this risk in confronting the status quo.

I remember in the early-1970's when it was taboo for women teachers to wear pants in the classroom. I was just a 12-year-old kid and I don't remember exactly why this memory sticks. My mom was a kindergarten teacher and the rule that dresses and skirts were the "right" way for women teachers to dress lagged the sticky reality of kindergartners crawling around on the floor. Mom's fellow teachers objected, "Kindergarteners are short!" They appealed to the all-male school board. Eventually their persistence paid off and the men okayed pantsuits.

Polyester knit. No bell bottoms.

Still.

In this case, the "dresses-only" cultural standard got relaxed because some teachers thought to object to it. In fact, my mom told me she was not part of any protest around the teacher dress code. It never occurred to her to change it. Women wore skirts and dresses. A simple expectation, right?

Rules of society are so ubiquitous we only notice them when they're missing, not when we’re obeying them.

So, how does this apply to revising my story? I've had a nagging worry that I need to be clearer about what societal rules my heroine Jo is living under in the late 19th century. Just like now, at the time of my book, in Paris and Holland where Jo lives, society is a patriarchy. Patriarchy is more than white European men getting first dibs on stuff. The patriarchal authority is interwoven into all aspects of living — dressing, speaking, walking, gesturing, etc. And enforcement of this power is embedded in relationships -- of men-to-women, men-to-men, women-to-women, parent-to-child. I figured if I can get this society more distinct in my mind, it will pack wallop into the yucky visceral mess Jo stirs up.

This is important because, as readers, we are lightening quick in spotting inconsistencies in the worlds of stories. And we don't need to be experts about a particular time in history to do it. Every society gives constant cues on what "right" behavior is, so I need to include these in my book. Jo can hack the system, but I better be sure to explain not just how, but why and what she's up against to do it.

To help me explore these rules I got in touch with a new friend, Sally, who is a PhD professor of women and gender studies. We met at a Starbucks on a blistering hot Saturday a few weeks ago. Our iced coffees grew warm as we talked for 2-1/2 hours. I'd sent questions to Sally in advance; she brought answers and more. Since our meeting I've spun out nine pages of notes on how and where I'll edit my manuscript. Here's an example of what these changes will be.

  • 19c societal rule: Girls are raised to have the aspiration to marry, care for children and run a household. Their upbringing emphasizes learning about domestic duties and ladylike skills such as conversational French, playing the piano and dancing.

  • Jo's bio facts: Because Jo is the youngest daughter, she's spared from household duties since her older sisters take care of them. This freedom also means her education goes much further and she ultimately earns the equivalence of a college degree in music. After that she travels to London to work in the British Library and then as a teacher at a boarding school before marrying her husband.

  • New insight: This unusual background gives me one reason why Jo would make the unconventional decision to try to sell Vincent van Gogh's artwork herself, even though art dealing is a men's-only club. Her deeper education and independent-earning experience as a single woman gives her a background different from her peers.

Here's another editing note:

  • 19c societal rule: Boys must separate their identity from their mother's in order to be masculine. One way this was done is to have boys leave home to go to a boarding school at a young age.

  • What I wrote in the first draft: Because young Vincent, Jo's son, is being raised by a single mother, the need for him to go to boarding school is keenly critical. He must overcome the stigma of having no male role model growing up in order to be a "man" and successful in life. So, Jo is desperate to find the money for his boarding-school tuition.

  • New insight: Later, young Vincent rejects following in his mother's footsteps as an art dealer, but instead chooses to become an engineer. He leans towards an analytical career far removed from the art he was surrounded by in his youth. Originally, I'd interpreted this as Jo generously encouraging her son to choose work that was true to himself. Now I wonder whether she encouraged him to help solidify his separation from her so that his masculinity is beyond question. In so doing, she protects his ability to succeed in life with an occupation separate from his mother's.

Notice these two examples are less about the external action of plot and more about digging into the internal motivation of Jo and young Vincent. This is where story happens -- not what is going on, but why.

This past week I decided to list out the characters in my book. First of all, I found out there are 47 - who knew?! 28 men and 19 women. I'd no idea. Secondly, I started discovering right away that peering through the gender lens is bringing each individual into sharper relief for me. Each one must serve a purpose in the story. Each one is in various stages of accepting or objecting to the rules.

And you know this means they're in various stages of accepting or objecting to Jo.

A girl's gotta know who her friends are.

I met women and gender studies expert Sally at Starbucks. I tucked notes from our conversation into my "Rules of the World" folder in my author files.

I met women and gender studies expert Sally at Starbucks. I tucked notes from our conversation into my "Rules of the World" folder in my author files.

How I'm Writing the Book

Held another "Jumpstart Your Art" workshop. I held a second workshop last week thanks to my good friend Diane who organized the gathering. Eleven artists-in-the-making committed their lunch hour to explore ideas on how to make room for pursuing art in a jam-packed life. I start the workshop with quoting the No.1 Regret of the Dying: "I wish I'd had the courage to live a life true to myself, not the life others expected of me." To be true to oneself can be to express the art that calls to you. In this workshop we had writing, painting, music and photography represented.

Went to Hear Actress Jane Fonda. My friend Joyce and I just attended "An Evening with Jane Fonda" in Kansas City. We packed up our one-night bags and cruise-controlled west on interstate 70 to catch her at the beautiful shell-like Kaufmann Center a few weeks ago. Jane’s just wrapped the fourth season of her hit Grace and Frankie Netflix show (co-starring Lily Tomlin) and her website shows she’s now doing a brief speaking tour across the country.

Jane told a bunch of great stories, especially about the movie On Golden Pond. Her father, Henry Fonda, had been told he was dying so the movie was really important to Jane. It would give her a last chance to act with him. One day the phone rings. Jane answers it. "Jane? It's Katherine Hepburn. I need to be in your movie!" Jane had never met the venerable actress, and she'd heard she could be tough on set. Jane travels to Ms. Hepburn's Manhattan apartment to meet with her about the role. Ms. Hepburn asks her, "Are you going to do your own back flip?" (If you haven't seen the movie, Jane's character has to do one into a lake.) As Jane explained it, she'd already decided no, absolutely not, and had hired a double. "Yes," she replies to Ms. Hepburn.

The day of the back-flip shooting -- after months of practice, first with a harness on a mat with a gymnastics instructor, then a pool, lots of bruises -- there's Jane on the dock. Camera crew is all set. There has to be one take (too much delay to dry hair and a dry bathing suit to do it all over again). One. Two. She does it! As Jane comes out of the water sputtering, Katherine Hepburn steps out from behind a bush, shaking both fists in the air, "You did it! You did it!"

I love that image.

Personal Stuff

Our new grandson's arrival date is getting closer! When Husband and I get the phone call that he's arrived, we'll toss clothes into bags and the cat in the kennel. Our neighbors will know we're gone by skid-marks on the street. Stay tuned for photos!

I started this blog by saying I'm working on breaking societal rules. What I mean is that this research has challenged me to be more conscious of unconsciously accepting limitations. To take calm charge of my own thoughts. To question. To keep moving.

Or, in the words of Katherine Hepburn,

As one goes through life, one learns that if you don’t paddle your own canoe, you don’t move.

Call if you break a rule and need bail money,

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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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Kick in the a**...pants!

Some crazy stuff has been happening, 

If you could kick the person in the pants responsible for most of your trouble, you wouldn’t sit for a month.
— Theodore Roosevelt

Ha! 

I couldn't resist this quote. That's me right now. 

Here's the trouble I created: I knew while I was writing my book that I was forging forward with only quick dips into researched facts. Writing it felt like my pen was a battering ram. So I was scared to relax the drive of getting the story on the page by looking up too much stuff. Now I'm thick in the muck of digging to find answers to research questions I pulled out of the first draft once the story was finished. 

It's not the most fun I've ever had. 

For example, by trying to get unknown Vincent van Gogh's art noticed, my protagonist Johanna runs up against the Official Art Establishment. First up, she's a woman who has no business in the business of art dealing. Secondly, she's in Paris, the glittering 19th-century center of all-things-art, so that Parisian authority figures have a heightened self-righteous huffiness about what "true" art is, and a self-proclaimed haughty duty to keep Art's sanctity from being tainted by new artists. 

Imagine their disdain of Jo. 

Like bestowing a Good Housekeeping stamp-of-approval, one way Authorities kept artists in line was to control entry into the Paris Salon art exhibition, a major biennial event giving artists exposure to patrons and reviews in the local press. Critical for artists trying to make a living.  

So, I've written how Jo runs up against all that.  

Except that my book opens in 1891. And in my research I found out the last Paris Salon was in the fall of 1890! 

Arghhh! 

See what I mean?! And I have no one to blame but me. 

This is what revision is for, I guess. Because, of course, all those bureaucratic, protect-my-turf characters are still roaming the streets of Paris. It's not as though suspending the Salon got rid of them. I just need to rejigger some of Jo's opposition. The core of the ages-old conflict is still there: The old way versus the new way. 

When she leans into the new way, other avenues and solutions reveal themselves. Which, interestingly, crazily, is what's happened with this research.  

The "old way" has me hunched in front of the computer screen. When I met with a local research librarian a few months ago, she turned me on to HathiTrust digital library and Google Books and an archive site for newspapers. I've been doggedly searching for answers to my spreadsheet of questions, trying not to go down too many rabbit holes, getting a little bleary-eyed, when a couple of cool things happened: Two people showed up. 

  • Sara - an art history professor who has a deep specialty of the artists and period of my book. I'd been unsuccessfully contacting local universities to find an art-history graduate student to help me when through a friend-of-a-friend I was able to track down Sara. We met a week ago; she is thrilled to help me!

  • Kathy - a friend in my neighborhood who pulled me aside at a happy hour to say, hey, she enjoys fact-finding, and can she help? Yay!

After such a long solo journey writing the book it's a nice little nudge to know there's collaboration in my future. 

The universe works that way sometimes, doesn't it? As the old saying goes, just as one door closes -- keep a look out -- another is opening. And when that solution involves another person, well, the potential for fun exponentially explodes.

Have you ever had an experience when the right person showed up in your life at just the right time?  Tell me about it. 

I'm grateful they do.

Whistling while presenting at my art workshop.

Whistling while presenting at my art workshop.

How I'm Writing the Book
Did a "Jumpstart Your Art" Workshop:  I got the chance to conduct a workshop on how to get started with pursuing art at my former employer. Eighteen brave souls -- people daring to take the first step of leaning into their artistic curiosity--  came together. Using lessons learned from the last 17 months in writing my book, we charged through tactics and ideas and how to overcome the worst critic -- ourselves -- as an hour flew by. Yay, to these folks for exploring next steps for their art!

Books on Strong Women by Female Authors: Author Marie Benedict has been churning out novels based on real people.  Her latest is The Only Woman in the Room, a behind-the-movie-star story of Hedy Lamarr. This absorbing novel centers on the complex life of Austrian-born Hedy Keisler – wife of a high-level Nazi sympathizer, anxious Jewish daughter, Hollywood superstar, scientific inventor. Benedict captures a voice for Lamarr that’s distinct, desperate, intelligent. Told against the backdrop of WWII’s mounting tension, the book shows Lamarr caught between Hollywood’s indifferent glamour and her nagging need to take action. Her scientific mind saw the opportunity to solve a persistent problem with torpedoes. She did it, only to face frustrating opposition. Benedict captures the frustration Lamarr felt of her keen mind being trapped behind her beautiful face.

Personal Stuff
Husband and I are on a quick Washington DC getaway when you read this. On the agenda: Checking out the new International Spy Museum, seeing if we can get a same-day pass to the Smithsonian's National Museum of African-American History and saying hello to the Van Gogh's in the National Gallery of Art. Plus, for me, just spending time with my best friend away from laundry and errands and, oh yeah, book research. 

Back to Teddy Roosevelt and his thoughts on moving forward from mistakes:

It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena...who strives valiantly...who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds...who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly...

I dare you!

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