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.


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,


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.



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.


Small things together can become great

Great things are done by a series of small things brought together. 
-Vincent van Gogh

I'm in the middle of a big sort. 

In Vincent’s words, a bunch of small things like puzzle pieces I’m hoping will eventually fit into a complete picture. 

The sorting is between fact vs. fiction. Squish a timeline or reflect it accurately? Write only about real people or add imaginary ones? 

The final arrangement will need to be a mix of real and unreal. Even though my novel is a story based on actual people, historical research gives only a scant record of external events. My heroine’s internal motives, the influences on her decision-making, in short, the “why” behind her actions can only be guessed at. So I’m making those up. I’m figuring out why each conversation or meet-up (for we come into each others' lives at just the right time, don’t we?) is intentional and how it will push protagonist Jo’s journey forward. 

There’s more. 

It would be simpler if all the story needed was what Jo thought. Instead, it gets complicated fast because Jo doesn’t live inside the safe bubble of her own point-of-view. For example, when I write about Jo searching out artists that knew her brother-in-law, Vincent van Gogh, it isn’t just her thought process that’s in the scene but also the unspoken thoughts from the other individuals — how they interpret her conversation, approve or judge her, and then respond based on their own self-interest. It’s a cause-and-effect matrix in which Jo is in the middle.

This realization is changing my writing. Previously, when drafting a scene, I’d find the first pass to be a little flat and one-dimensional if it only considered Jo. Thinking of each individual she’s encountering as a full-bodied person with his or her own agenda adds depth. The dialogue and the behavior they exhibit adjust from simply reacting to Jo to a fuller expression of what they’re thinking.

It gets more fun. 

Each scene includes a third invisible actor: the times they live in.

The late 19th century and its prevailing sense of the world is undergoing enormous change — worldwide exploration, inventions like the steam engine and photography, the Industrial Revolution’s exchange of an agrarian life for an urban one — all mashed together is giving Paris the heady feeling that it’s ascended to a new pinnacle of civilization. Its institutions are safeguarding this advanced view of itself but also trying to cling to values from the past. Law, custom, culture — each is doing its best to support social order by toughening up with all of this change going on. 

  • Question: How can a young widow like Jo buck up against rigid laws of acceptable behavior for women without getting pushback? Answer: She can’t. 
  • Question: But what if she AGREES with the laws, even thinks they are protecting her, but nevertheless is forced to act contrary to them and then suffers the consequences? Answer: She has a mean author (ha!)

The real answer is that she has a moral dilemma. So that takes me to the final actor in each scene, also hidden from view, but the most powerful influence on the page: what Jo thinks of herself. What she thinks about who she is, and who she is not, undergirds everything. She may have worked for 15 years to promote Vincent’s work before his talent was finally recognized, but I don’t think she did this because she's a selfless superhero. Assuming so, to me, doesn’t do the real Jo van Gogh justice. 

Instead, Jo confronts herself in every scene. Self-doubt dogs each step she takes to try to move forward. Why the contempt for herself? Because institutionalized bias — by gender, race, you name it — entraps one into feeling somehow you’re not okay, you don’t fit in, you’re not normal. 

  • Here is how Hispanic author Carmen Giviencz Smith described it in a recent interview, “[Growing up looking for Hispanic role models] We didn’t feel we could do anything about institutional racism and the self-loathing it elicited...this daily encounter with structures and apparatuses that diminish or limit or erase my sense of identity.”
  • Or from Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg in the excellent documentary RBG: “People knew that race discrimination was an odious thing, but there were many who thought that gender-based differentials in the law operated benignly in women’s favor....the pedestal on which some thought women were standing all too often turned into a cage.”
  • Or, finally, from Barak Obama’s memoir when he was a young boy: “I came across the picture in Life magazine of the black man who had tried to peel off his skin. I imagine other black children, then and now, undergoing similar moments of revelation... When I got home from the embassy library, I went into the bathroom and stood in front of the mirror with all my senses and limbs seemingly intact, looking as I had always looked, and wondered if something was wrong with me."

Systemic, powerful attacks on an individual’s identity takes awareness and resilience to overcome. If Jo can defeat the bias, her victory will spur the beautiful outcome of her not giving up on Van Gogh’s art. To be able to honor another by honoring herself. 

This is quite a list of small things coming together.

One scene, one chapter at a time. 

How I'm Writing the Book
Working with a Book Coach: A few weeks ago I completed a 10-week class on crafting a story and so have restarted the book. I had to toss out the previous chapters, including changing the scene where the novel opens. Each week (for the next 22 weeks) I’ll be trying to submit up to 20 pages to a book coach. My days are a mix of dipping time into three buckets: research and story development, editing old pages and writing new ones. So far, so good.
Books on Strong Women by Female Authors: New York Times bestseller author Kristin Hannah wrote a beautiful story of love and suspense called The NightingaleIt’s a WWII drama about two sisters in German-occupied France. and how their lives and ideals collided against this backdrop - the novel is unusual as a story focusing solely on the women’s experience in the war. I’m reading Hannah’s most recent book, The Great Alone, for a bookclub meeting at the end of June. 

On the wedding front, we’re on COUNTDOWN for Angie and Eric’s wedding on June 16! Juan and I leave Friday for the 16-hour drive to Flagstaff and the Airbnb we’ll use as our wedding central. The dress is hemmed; the shoes are purchased. A pile of items to pack in the car is growing on the dining room table. I never did sign Juan and I up for dance lessons so our dance-floor moves will be unrehearsed! 

In this wedding spirit, let me end with a final word from Vincent:

I feel there is nothing more truly artistic than to love people. 

It’s June already!