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!