I made a hole-in-one!

Couldn’t help it. Had to butt right into the top of my own newsletter to announce I made a hole-in-one on the golf course! Skip to the end of this email if you must read the riveting tale right away. If not, let me get into the guts of today’s blog first. It begins with non-golfer Andy Warhol...

Sometimes the little times you don't think are anything while they're happening turn out to be what marks a whole period of your life.
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Andy Warhol

When artist Andy Warhol said this I wonder if he was recalling his childhood. When he was a little boy he was so sick with scarlet fever that his mother kept him home from school frequently. She set up a sickroom for him next to the kitchen so that he'd be nearby. This room became his first art studio. Andy and his mother spent hours in constant art-making, cutting up comic books, forming flowers out of tin cans. Many years later Andy credited his fascination for pop culture from these kitchen-art experiments.

I love this image of a mom turning a quarantine into a cocoon of creativity.

How she turned a sad situation on its head.

Instead of mourning her son's loss of a typical childhood, she created moments of exploration and creativity using everyday things at hand from the cupboards in the kitchen.

Neither she nor Andy knew that their play -- all of those little moments easing the boredom of a bedridden child -- would become the impetus for him to become a leader of pop culture, a whole new visual-arts movement. The culmination of those countless moments of discovery and love made the sum bigger than the whole of its parts.

“The little times that don’t mean anything” - Andy said. Sounds like a description of lots of my days. Especially since the focus of writing my book is revision, not creation.

Revising is not glamorous. This is a period of unromantic, day-in/day-out, slogging along. It starts with me opening up a chapter's Word document, then renaming it by doing "save as" to add a "v3" (version 3) to the file name ("v1" is the first version; "v2" is the version with editing comments from Sheila, my book coach).

My first edit: I very authoritatively type Chapter (and the number) in bold, centered, in 16-point font at the top of the page, and then sit back and admire it. Excellent progress.

Then the trudging begins.

Midway through writing the first draft of the book I changed from third-person to first-person — so I’m updating that — and also from past tense to present tense. So those are fairly rote corrections. But I do have little moments of discovering bigger issues. Here are a few examples:

  • I realized there are three “Camille's" in the book - the artist Camille Pissarro; Claude Monet's first wife, Camille; and a third fictitious Camille who is a snooty, high-society ex-pat Dutch woman living in Paris. Since I made up this last Camille, she's the one who must change her name... do you have any suggestions? (Just googled "Dutch female names" There's Sofie, which means wisdom. Rebecca, which means a young woman whose beauty ensnares men...now there's a contender!)

  • Secondly, I've discovered I'm out of control on the seasons. I just read through a scene when my protagonist Jo goes into the countryside outside Paris: "Grasshoppers jump out of my way and the whirring sound of insects rises and falls in the hot air when I step down onto the train platform." (please don't judge that sentence) Just note that this scene take place in February! Winter! When the temperature is in the 30's and 40's and all those insects are dead. What was I thinking? Well, I was thinking about Jo. What was in her head and what she was trying to do and how she was scared and at her wit's end but toughing it all out anyway.

Which leads me to my last revision discovery.

  • My writing got better. As the months of writing my story went by, I got better. Each week when Sheila sent me edits, I read them, but didn't go back to make the corrections. I was scared that if I didn't keep writing forward I would stall out and stop. Besides, I had to turn in new pages every week. So, I saved the documents ("v2") of Sheila's versions knowing I would be making her corrections in the future when revising. Reading them now I see I must have absorbed her coaching instructions because I know I didn't make as many of those early mistakes later on. Here's one of her instructions:

"Always be suspicious of adverbs. Sometimes they are needed, but usually not. If you have a strong verb, you usually don’t need the adverb. In this case, 'race' is strong. It tells us things are moving quickly. Therefore, you don’t need ‘abruptly.’"

As you can clearly see, my writing deeply absorbed her lesson so that my verbs are pungently, eagerly, fragrantly accurate and don’t need superfluously decorative adverbs.

Ha!

What are your “little things”? What are the moments that come to memory that define a period of your life? As Andy says, “The little times that don’t mean anything at the time they’re happening?”

I just had a bunch of those little moments at my nephew Doug’s wedding in Lexington two weeks ago. I had dozens of little conversations — with my Brother who bought a new company, with Sisters I hadn’t met before (my Brother-in-Law’s siblings), with my Navy Nephew contemplating life outside of a submarine, with the Bride Mandy’s lovely mob of delighted family and friends — lots of details and updates and trivia were shared that over time will likely fade from relevance. So what remains? A residue of connection, tendrils of common ground, to be picked up again next time we meet.

The little times — making up a whole period of life — are everything.

Look how that ball nestled right in for my hole-in-one! Meanwhile, I visit a St. Louis literary site, 4504 Westminster Place, meeting place for the women's cultural literary Wednesday Club (author Kate Chopin was a member) with fellow writer Ashley.

Look how that ball nestled right in for my hole-in-one! Meanwhile, I visit a St. Louis literary site, 4504 Westminster Place, meeting place for the women's cultural literary Wednesday Club (author Kate Chopin was a member) with fellow writer Ashley.

How I'm Writing the Book

Incorporating Art History Research into the Manuscript. I pulled together 12 pages of art-history questions into a Word doc, attached them to an email to my PhD friend Sara, held my breath and hit Send. Would she freak out by the quantity? A week later we met at a coffee shop, and I thought it was to review my questions. Instead, she'd answered them! Neatly typed with links to references, of course. Now I have to incorporate her insights into my story. I'm thinking of pulling out the 3-inch binder that holds a hard-copy of my manuscript and write the art-history notes into the margins. It's old-school, but in the long run, I believe faster than trying to incorporate the ideas straight from a keyboard. Some of her insights rattle the plot, but don’t derail it. Need to think it through a bit.

Books on Strong Women by Female Authors. My neighborhood bookclub just read, The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society (Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows). The book’s title hints at its charming style. You guess it will be a playful; you find out it's inventive. The story is told through a series of letters, which makes it all the more impressive how the authors paint background and context and character cleverly all through the voices of the letters. The story takes place just after WWII in which a London writer, Juliet, begins a correspondence with members of the society, people who lived through the German occupation of their Channel island. Eccentric and kind, the characters radiate wit even as they depict the hardship and sadness they lived through. This is one of those small classics. Wonderful book, especially if you’re looking for witty summer reading.

Personal: THE STORY OF THE HOLE-IN-ONE
It was partly-sunny and in the low 90s when Husband and I decided to take advantage of a low-humidity day and tuck 18 holes into the afternoon. I am still so new at the game I don’t have a handicap so have been trying to get playing time in to gather enough scores (you need to play ten 18-hole games to get a handicap calculated).

That afternoon we were both concentrating on each stroke, trying to make every shot count, when we came to Hole 5 — a simple par 3 — but ominously set on a little peninsula, its three sides surrounded by water. For me, its about 105 yards to the flag, so I chose my 7 hybrid club, ran through my mental checklist (club-head aim, grip, weight to the left foot, body still), I swung back and let the club glide - thwack! — that sweet sound of centered connection! The ball sailed over the water and bounced near the flag. “Good shot!” said Hubby. We jumped in the cart and buzzed over. But after we grabbed our putters and were walking up onto the green, Hubby’s ball was there, but not mine. Oh no! I hit it too hard and it rolled into the water! I ran over to the green’s edge to peer into the watery muck, looking for the ball’s white shadow. “Hey, Joan,” behind me came Hubby’s voice. “You’re not going to believe this...” I turned and he was standing over the hole, grinning and pointing down, “You made a hole-in-one!” Couldn’t believe it! Dashed over to the hole and sure enough, there sat the ball, coyly cradled inside the pin. Woot! Woot!

We high-fived a few times then continued playing and were set to celebrate at the clubhouse when we were done except the temperature plummeted 20 degrees on the 17th hole, and a thunderstorm broke out over the course sending us all scurrying.

Doesn’t matter. I’ll be celebrating for awhile!

Now would be the time for me to make the analogy of practicing golf swings and concentrating on each stroke as similar to the “little things” this blog is about. I’m not going to. That game is not a whole period of life. Just an awesome afternoon!

Better is the parting advice of Andy Warhol who says,

It does not matter how slowly you go so long as you do not stop.

Little by little,

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Beautiful

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.

Beautiful.

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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.

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