On Writing and A Bar at the Folies-Bergere

When things get rolling with my writing I’ll start a separate page for all things writing, and leave this for all things reading. In the meantime, I get a lot of questions about why and how I write (they say “why” and “how,” but I think they really mean, “WTF?”). People think the how and why on the first one is the most interesting, so here we go, in timeline format….

1996:

In my last year of college, I took an art history class to fill one of the million graduation requirements Miami University lovingly calls the “Miami Plan.” At the end of the course, we had to write an analysis of a piece of art of our choosing. I chose A Bar at the Folies-Bergere by Edouard Manet, and I wrote my analysis from the point of view of the painting’s subject, a barmaid in 1880s France. I was a science major and I’d never spoken to my art history professor, but she took the time to write a long note on my paper, starting with “Do you know you are a great writer?” I’d already decided to go to law school, where I could write, instead of medical school.

1997-2016:

In law school, I started reading so much for school I stopped reading for enjoyment. Except the occasional Stephen King and Harry Potter, I didn’t read for enjoyment for nearly ten years. I watched a LOT of turn-of-the-century TV, like The Sopranos, The X-Files, and Lost.

I started reading recreationally again around 2005, when my first son was born. I started back up gradually, but by the time I left law firms for in-house corporate management, I was reading at least a book a week. As my kids got older and I discovered YA fiction (credit Twilight, but don’t tell anyone), I started reading one YA book for every four or five adult fiction and nonfiction books.

When my oldest son was in fifth grade (2016), he was getting annoyed with the books I recommended (like Hunger Games, 5th Wave, Divergent), because most had a female protagonist. I looked into it, and learned that about 70% of YA fiction has a female main character.

2017:

Around the time we were searching for “boys” in YA fiction, my son and I had an idea for a book of our own, marrying elements of science fiction and history (without time travel, though I LOVE time travel and will probably write something with time travel someday). He told his fifth grade teacher we were writing a book together, and we did a lot of the early brainstorming together (he required we include Pearl Harbor). Then he lost interest.

I didn’t lose interest, and the idea for my first novel took on a life of its own inside my head. I don’t normally write down ideas (on the theory good ideas will stay in my head and get better), but some of the framework for this book was so complicated I would occasionally get out of bed at night to map it out. I started saying, “I think I have to write a book.” When I thought writing a novel was a crazy idea (of course it’s a crazy idea), I thought of A Bar at the Folies-Bergere and “Do you know you are a great writer?”

January – May 2018:

I decided I had to write my first novel around the time I couldn’t tolerate things at work. Hard to say how much one had to do with the other, if anything. The day my boss (the CEO) was fired, I decided I had to exit my job as Vice President and General Counsel.

June – August 2018:

I transitioned out of my job over the summer of 2018, working almost exclusively from home. Even during the transition, my job was still too demanding and distracting to start writing, so I spent this time researching, outlining, and reading books on writing (my favorite: Story Engineering, by Larry Brooks).

September 2018:

I gave myself my first month post-employment (September) to get my house in order. I split my days between organizing/cleaning house and planning the novel: more outlining, researching, character development.

October – December 2018:

On October 1, 2018, I wrote the first words of my first draft. I wrote between four and six hours every weekday and a little on the weekends. I hit 25,000 words on October 19, 2018.

January 2019:

On January 10, 2019, I completed my first draft at 130,000 words, and was horrified to learn it shouldn’t be longer than 100,000. Still, I was glad to be cutting rather than padding. I started cutting, then I handed the second draft (still around 125,000 words) to my first round of beta readers. I kept cutting.

February 23, 2019:

I attended my first writer’s conference, the one-day 2019 New Orleans Writing Workshop, where I met some amazing aspiring writers. I was totally out of my element and disheartened over my own writing (turns out my query letter sucked, a genuine thank you to Chuck Sambuchino). When my husband and I sat down for lunch at Maison Soule in the French Quarter, A Bar at the Folies-Bergere hung directly above our table. I tried to explain its significance to my husband, and I cried.

March 2019:

Revise, revise, revise. Drafts four and five went to beta readers. I took a two week break between four and five and started working on book two (unrelated to book one, but also hard science fiction for young adults with male protagonists).

April 2019:

Down to 106,000 words and querying agents. Setting it aside to focus on book two.

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