What lies behind you and what lies in front of you, pales in comparison to what lies inside you.
Ralph Waldo Emerson

On the surface it was a good week: 

  • 19 pages submitted, 5,723 words written — 158% of my weekly goal. Awesome, right?
  • Wednesday is my weekly submission deadline -- I’ve already received great feedback from my book coach. On the right track, right? 

Something felt off. 

Has that ever happened to you — on the outside humming along, but on the inside you’re unsettled? Like a buzzing invisible insect close to your ear, the mental insistence feels hard to pin down. It's not clear: Does the mental irritation mean you've missed something important, or is the needling the emergence of a new question?

Last week I ignored these unsettled feelings in order to just write. I had a 12-hour goal I had to meet so I wrote a series of events that take my protagonist, Jo, from Amsterdam to Paris. The journey is important, eventually she needs to meet Vincent van Gogh there. I researched how she would have traveled and found in the late 19th century, today's comfortable 3-hour train ride would have been a much longer, exhausting day: Amsterdam to Rotterdam by train, then to Antwerp by boat, and from there another train into the Gard du Nord station in Paris. 

And just as travel today often means crossing through airports and their chaotic cross-section of people, train stations in the late 19th century were epicenters of bedlam. Here’s a sentence I wrote trying to capture what Jo saw in the Amsterdam station: Everyone seems to be in constant motion as though a great sea had rolled them all in and they were stumbling and turning and spinning where the tide dropped them. 

All fine and good, right? I spent a bunch of time describing this and the rest of her journey. Still felt a little off. 

Last week, too, important characters in Jo's life showed up in the scenes I wrote -  in particular her favorite brother Andries (nickname "Dries") and his friend, Theo van Gogh (who eventually becomes Jo's husband). Hopefully, the scenes are spirited and surprising, and dialogue, too, is coming along. (My favorite 19th century expression is What the deuce!)

All fine and good, right?

But the writing still didn't seem right. Too shallow. So I turned to my journal and paged through previous entries, the musings I make in the morning to rev up my writing. Funny, I noticed that I'd been writing similar questions to myself, over and over:

  • What is Jo's limiting belief?
  • Why does she long for something more than the typical Victorian Age woman?
  • What happened so that she thinks outside these norms?
  • Why would she be feisty? And later, courageous?
  • What is her mis-belief - the thing she believes that's unknowingly holding her back and that she will have to overcome...and this is the why she makes the decision to promote her brother-in-law's work...thereby, giving the world this incredible gift?

This last question relates to why I like some of my favorite books. They are stories based on the protagonist suffering from a mis-belief. In The Secret Life of Bees (Sue Monk Kidd), Lily believes she killed her mother. In News of the World (Paulette Jiles), Captain Kidd believes he's meant to be a loner. 

Even though I'm just four chapters in, I realized I need answers to these questions now because I'm putting words in Jo's mouth and having her encounter people that will help and hinder her. All of this needs to be aligned to the actions that ultimately lead up to her role in history. Since saving Van Gogh's paintings will be an outcome of her life - what change in Jo's  thinking precedes this action?

I asked this question on Thursday afternoon on a call with my book coach, Sheila. In my thrashing around with these questions I'd come up with two possible solutions: Should I be focusing on a different genre? (maybe literary fiction -- though I wasn't exactly sure what that meant). Or, should I create a deep character sketch of Johanna?

Sheila had a different answer.

"Read a book called Story Genius by Lisa Cron," she said. "It tackles how to think through these questions. Or, better yet, it turns out there’s a deep-dive class based on this book. Guess what: It starts Monday."

"Guess what," I responded. "I already have the book," turned and pulled the red-covered paperback off my "writer craft" bookshelf, an arm's reach away. 

So, perfect timing. Four chapters in have brought these issues to light. I feel like I'm asking new questions that wouldn't have made as much sense until now. Like a real person, Jo keeps nudging me and asking, why did I do that? 

Ok, ok, I need to get the why right. 

How I'm Writing the Book
Words/Week:  I'll suspend the Manuscript Accelerator program while I take the Story Genius class. My goal shifts to 10 pages/week, though not all of it will be actual scenes as I'll be completing assignments too. In 10 weeks, I'll restart MA in order to complete a first draft of the manuscript this year -- still a stretch goal. 

Determine a book genre: Upmarket fiction? Literary fiction? Commercial fiction? This decision needs to come soon. If you're curious on what makes them different here's a good infographic developed by a literary agent.

Watching movies as research: One way I'm mixing up my research is to watch 19th century period movies for their settings, dress and mannerisms. So far I've seen Lust for Life (1956) with Kirk Douglas as Vincent van Gogh, and Vanity Fair (2004), starring Reese Witherspoon as a young woman in Paris. I welcome any recommendations of movies to watch!

Books I'm reading: I'm still in the thick of Teri Case's Tiger Drive. Four characters are duking it out; each has secrets they are keeping from each other!

Meanwhile, on the wedding front, Cristina, Jay and I checked out a KC wedding venue Tuesday night --  almost perfect! Just not available on the preferred date. Eric and Angie's wedding is about to hit 100 Days Before the Big Event. I decided to order three mother-of-the-groom dresses from Neiman's Last Call website so I can calculate how much weight I'll need to sweat off before June. Lastly, Juan and I are flying to Maui this upcoming Saturday. Freezing temperatures are forecast in St. Louis for that weekend. Darn it, so sad to leave town. 

I'll end with a blessing for Johanna (and you!)  from Mr. Emerson again: 

To be yourself in a world that is constantly trying to make you something else is the greatest accomplishment. 

Get the why right!



Life is given only once, and one wants to live it boldly, with full conscious and beauty. 
-Anton Chekov

I became a spy Friday night. 

When Juan and I decided to check out a gastropub, Basso, I was not yet so secretive. That evening the light drizzle felt warm, in the 50's, compared to temperatures in the 20's just a week before. The bar is in the basement of a larger urban hotel, but, unexpectedly, its sign is unlighted so we didn't realize we'd passed right by it until Juan's GPS intoned, "You have ARRIVED at your destination." Puzzled, we u-turned and pulled into the full parking lot just as another car was exiting a space. We saw the sign then, and pulled in. Perfect timing. 

Down a circular staircase and into a surprisingly big, dimly-lit space. A wood-burning pizza oven gave the air a wintry feeling. A few sitting areas of overstuffed armchairs broke up the modern metal/wood bar and rows of high-topped tables. Music pumped out a great beat; the cheerful Friday-night vibe of it being the end of a long work week felt contagious.  

Happily, we pulled up barstools.

Then we started yelling. 

Basements are not built with acoustics in mind. So the sounds of loud talk and kitchen clatter and bass beat competed with each other. The noise snuffed out any chances for much more conversation then. "ARE YOU GETTING THE PIZZA?" "NO, THE BURGER!"

So there we were, enjoying the atmosphere and people-watching, when the idea hit:  I'm a spy now. I have permission to be nosy. A thief, a rip-off artist.  I'm in the hunt.

I'm a writer.  

Just this week my book coach, Sheila, had reminded me to show, not tell. Phrases like, "she wonders" or "thinks" or "believes" are to be avoided, she counseled in her feedback. They distance the reader from the story. By contrast, showing what my protagonist Jo is feeling and thinking pulls the reader into the action. For example, when describing when Jo unexpectedly sees her father, I wrote: "Her heart beats wildly. How did he know about this evening? Why is he here?" This is better than "She is startled and nervous when she sees her father." The first is closer to being right inside Jo's head.

To use a familiar phrase - our actions speak louder than words. So, like a squirrel hoarding nuts I tried to watch and store away little gestures from around the bar and what they might mean. Did the girl peeking at her phone under the table mean she was bored with her date, or meeting someone else later, or addicted to a video game? Did the guy stifling a yawn work at a job with long hours, or was he on a blind date, or suffer from sleep apnea? 

As readers we are adept at picking up on cues. We like figuring out the riddle of what's going on before the narrative tells it. A physical description of action can point to what's going on -- even before the protagonist realizes it. It's clunky right now but I'm trying to use description more intentionally, even in this first draft.

Another thing - as I've begun to write in earnest, I've found that writing is kind-of a back-and-forth exercise. Long after a scene is written, I'll think of clues to go back and insert so that the reader has bread crumbs to recall as the story unfolds. Nuance and new ideas keep popping up after I've shut the Macbook down for the day. 

This spying is a new skill for me to practice. I'm usually non-observant most of the time. For instance, Juan can always spot a toupee on a man faster than me. "Wig!" he'll pronounce authoritatively, then absentmindedly slide his hand over his fashionably shaved head.

Now, what does that gesture mean?

Can you tell I am loving being a writer?

How I'm Writing the Book 
Weekly Words: My weekly deadline through the Manuscript Accelerator program is set for Wednesdays by midnight. So, last week for Week One I turned in 15 pages (4630 words), which took me nearly 12 hours. (I'm trying to write 12 pages or 3600 words/week). I need to get ahead, as well as write a little faster, because of upcoming wedding stuff. Stretch goal this week is 18 pages. All geared to complete the manuscript (90,000 words) by August 1. 

Books I'm Reading:   I've just finished Paulette Jiles', News of the World. So beautifully written. I am in awe of how captivating the author created the characters and story. Based on the stories of children captured and adopted by Native Americans on the Texas frontier, the narrative is complex and powerful and brought tears to my eyes. Next up: Teri Case's Tiger Drive. One of her reviewers said, GO BUY SEVERAL BOXES OF KLEENEX.

"Go buy several boxes of Kleenex" - a perfect example of meaningful description! 

In closing, a final word from the masterful observer/author Chekov: 

Don't tell me the moon is shining; show me the glint of light on broken glass.



Over and Over and Over

Failure is probably the most important factor in all of my work. Writing is failure. Over and over and over again.
-Ta-Nehisi Coates

Coates received a MacArthur genius award and wrote the bestseller Between the World and Me. Eight years prior to saying this he'd been unemployed and desperately searching for freelance work. I chose this quote since he's an example of perseverance and following a deliberate practice. 

Here are the rules to establish a deliberate practice:

  • A clearly defined stretch goal
  • Full concentration and effort
  • Immediate and informative feedback
  • Repetition with reflection and refinement

In her book, Grit. The Power of Passion and Perseverance, psychologist Angela Duckworth shows how high performers -- athletes, artists, executives, entrepreneurs -- achieve amazing results. She dissects how achieving one's potential is more about showing up and persevering over the long term versus simple talent. (I read this book for my friend Asma's investment book club meeting this week --I'm always relieved when the chosen book is non-investment oriented!)

According to Duckworth, it's popular to believe that people are achievers because they have a special talent, a grand slam gift from God. Yet, what her research revealed is that talent alone will not generate high achievement nor is it a requisite. "Grit," or perseverance, is the hidden ingredient. In simple terms, talent + effort = skill and then skill + effort = achievement. 

For example, Duckworth writes about the kids practicing to compete in the National Spelling Bee. There are basically three activities recommended for practicing spelling: reading for pleasure and playing word games like Scrabble; getting quizzed by a person or computer program; and memorizing words and Latin, Greek and other word origins, then reviewing words in a spelling notebook. Duckworth found that it was only the last activity -- deliberate practice -- that truly made the difference and predicted the winning spellers. 

It's the same with athletics - sure, you can learn about basketball by watching a lot of games on TV, but to achieve skill you need to do drills on the court. Lots and lots of them. Even better, with a coach that gives you feedback on how you're doing and what to correct.

So, how do these ideas apply to writing a book?

I'm using Duckworth's ideas to establish a deliberate practice.  Here goes:

  • A clearly defined stretch goal = Complete a manuscript in six months
  • Full concentration and effort = Commit to 12 pages or 3,600 words/week
  • Immediate and informative feedback = Get a book coach
  • Repetition with reflection and refinement = Create a ritual so that writing is a habit

 Right now I am really worried about whether I can do this. 

I just know that in January I wrote about 15,000 words on my own and then attended a writer workshop. It gave lots of great instruction and helped reshape my ideas on plot, but essentially scrapped a lot of the previous writing. Needing to start over the writing -- plus the knowledge that I need to do more research and I'm shaky on writing craft -- put me into a tailspin last week.

I don't think I can do this alone.

So I decided a coach will tell me what to do when I'm confused and also call me out when I'm making excuses. 

Book coaches have emerged as traditional publishing has changed and self-publishing has grown popular. It used to be that a publisher's editor not only edited manuscripts but was much closer to authors, nurturing, cajoling and cracking the whip when needed. (You may have seen actor Colin Firth's portrayal of this type of editor in the 2016 movie Genius. Firth plays famed Scribner editor Max Perkins who worked with Thomas Wolfe, Ernest Hemingway and F. Scott Fitzgerald.)  Today a typical editor is working on 30 books/month, so unless you are a blockbuster author, you won't get this attention. 

So a book coach fills this demand.  

My book coach is Sheila. Like me, she’s recently retired, an experienced editor and happily avoiding our arctic cold by living in Jacksonville, Florida. Every week I'll submit pages to her and within three days she'll send back revision notes and comments. We have a bi-weekly call and as much emailing as needed in between. (Sheila gave me feedback on my "sprint" writing in October so I’ve already experienced a bit of her insight.) 

It's a six-month commitment.  25 weeks.

Every writer is unique and sets his or her own goal with what they want to accomplish in that time frame. My goal is to complete a first draft of the manuscript. So, I've learned that a typical fiction manuscript is about 90,000 words or 300 pages, so I will need to write about 3,600 words, or about 12 pages, each week. 

How many hours will this take me? I'm not sure. I'm pretty slow so it may be one page/hour. (It usually takes me at least three hours to write this blog -  often times, much more if I change the theme.)

There is more framework I'll need to put around this 6-month commitment -- like a daily ritual to get going, and how to plan for happy interruptions (like Eric and Angie's wedding!). 

I have to tell you: It feels GOOD to WRITE DOWN the goal. It puts a little more umph to my intention. 

Do you have any passions that could be umphed by deliberate practice?

How I'm Writing the Book 
Scrivener Software (Still): This past week I attended a free 90-minute webinar on the latest software version - Scrivener 3 (along with my friend Crystal) to see how it’s been improved. However, I've decided to set the software aside for now. I'll be submitting pages via Word to Sheila so it will waste time to be simply transferring the pages back and forth. 

Books I'm Reading:  In addition to reading Grit, I've just started News of the World by Paulette Jiles. A National Book Award finalist, the book is historical fiction taking place during the Civil War. I'm paying attention to how historical fiction writers subtly layer in the context of their periods into the narrative. 

On the wedding front (plural: fronts!) Juan and I booked an Airbnb for the June Flagstaff wedding plus made hotel reservations for my mom and Aunt Cynthia who will be hitting the town HOT for Wedding Week. Meanwhile, back in KC, Cristina and Jay decided to warm up their household by adopting two English bulldogs (Pods and Pebs). C & J were foster-caring the little rascals and fell in love with them (Uh-oh, foster-failed). Pods and Pebs hit the jackpot. Come to think of it, Eric and Angie’s greyhound mix, Kota, is doing just fine too - he gets a bunch of run-walks in every day on trails around Flagstaff. Hey, I just realized Juan and I are grandparents of pets before kids. 

In closing, let me return to Ta-Nehisi Coates. If you have three minutes, here's a short video where he shares just a little of his experience. Toward the end of the video he gives a wonderful description of what it's like to be a gritty writer:

The challenge of writing is to see your horribleness on the page. To see your terribleness and then to go to bed. And wake up the next day, and take that horribleness and that terribleness and refine it. And make it not so terrible and not so horrible, and then to go to bed again,. And come the next day, and refine it a little bit more, and make it not so bad. And then to go to bed the next day. And do it again, and make it maybe average. And then one more time. If you're lucky maybe you get to good. And if you've done that; that's a success. 

I want to be this gritty.