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Stuff We Love: Joan Didion

A warmly welcomed word from Beth Monaghan, founder and CEO of Inkhouse PR. 

 

The man who runs this enterprise would caution against author crushes. Should I tell Stuart that I named my new electric car Joan Didion? This thought fluttered briefly the first time a notification flashed on my phone:

 

Why would someone name their car after an author? Well, if you’ve ever had to rely on books to help you survive life, you get it. I always chose irreverent and courageous female authors who left guides for that survival behind. In fact, I loved books before I loved writing.

My crush on Didion began in college when I read Play It As It Lays. I still have the used copy I bought from Follett’s Orange Bookstore in Syracuse, New York for $6.75. Back then I didn’t write in my books so I don’t have a key to my favorite parts. But I remember the feeling when I finished: she was showing me how to stand inside my own darkness while still being able to take a look around. I wanted that.

 

When I began typing my own words, I wanted to write beautiful sentences. They’re how most of my author crushes begin. He looks shaken by this request, but still I monster on about it. Jenny Offill carving a moment in Department of Speculation. On and on she’ll go, the way she does when she thinks she doesn’t understand something and she’s scared, and she’s taking refuge in scorn and hypercriticality. A single sentence in Vivian Gornick’s memoir, Fierce Attachments, that tells us everything we need to know about her mother.

Time is the school in which we learn. That’s Didion in The Year of Magical Thinking, her memoir about her husband’s death. She possessed the power to go through grief while witnessing it, which is how we make things make sense. As we were. As we are no longer. As we will one day not be at all. Didion again, in that book that made my crush run amok. I wanted to write and live like Joan.

When I read Didion back through time, I also wanted to be her in 1968. In The White Album she published her own psychiatric report. She’d gone in for vertigo and nausea, but was kept there because of her “fundamentally pessimistic, fatalistic and depressive view of the world around her.” After a page-long reprint of her fragile mental health, Didion wrote, “By way of comment I offer only that an attack of vertigo and nausea does now seem to be an inappropriate response to the summer of 1968.” Her packing list that year included 2 leotards, a mohair throw, cigarettes, bourbon and a typewriter.

Didion lives deep, lets herself off the hook, and never assumes she knows everything. I hoped reading her words would work like osmosis, but that’s not how writing or life go down well. The shift from reader to writer asked me to type my own way into living.

These days I read in between writing projects, but rarely during them. Didion’s new volume of essays, Let Me Tell You What I Mean, just arrived and I haven’t opened it yet. In advance of its release Time asked her what it meant to be the voice of her generation. Didion: “I don’t have the slightest idea.” I fell for her all over again, for a single line that is both humble and arrogant. However, I know I can’t pull that kind of thing off; it’s not who I am. It’s okay to have stuff we love, as long as it helps us create our own stuff we love.

Stuff We Love: Spring Training

Everyone has their own personal new year. For some, it’s New Year’s Eve, or the Lunar New Year, or the first thaw of spring when the crocuses burst from an impossibly frozen ground. Mine is going to see some Spring Training baseball.

I have been fortunate enough to go to Arizona four times now, where the teams from the western part of the US tune-up their skills. The first time I walk out onto the concourse and glimpse the field in its entirety, my heart bursts open. Coming from New England every time but this last, I would have said it was largely the weather. But now that I call Southern California home, I know it is something else. It is possibility.

 

 

As a writer, I interpret this possibility in the light of a new project I am embarking on, or a fresh draft of an existing one. Commitment, or recommitment, it doesn’t matter a whole lot. It’s the knowledge that a new season is at hand.

We can get better at certain parts of our game—and there are drills for that. There are even exercises with aptly named “resistance bands.” We can refresh our strengths while we dig into tools we fear are missing. There are coaches, there is sunshine. And the best thing of all…we don’t have to be game-time ready yet. In that sense, this edition of Stuff We Love has a lot in common with the piece we ran on demos last month. It’s the same feeling of we’re just getting started here.

At the early stages of a new process, the first requirement is to announce to yourself what you are doing. Invite the work. It is one of those paradoxes of creativity: you have to prepare yourself to receive.

Now, not every idea that tries out is going to make the team. It would be foolish to say there is no competition here. But there is a moment, in the first few weeks, when the intensity of an inning isn’t turned all the way up. Everyone is on their own journey: young kids seeking their long shot or on a meteoric rise, depending on how the papers write about them, alongside mature veterans looking to hold onto their peak of mastery.

Some ideas will get sent down to the minors, the developmental leagues, but those decisions aren’t being made this week. Coaches are still trying to familiarize themselves with players, more than evaluate them. And the players are playing hard—but it doesn’t matter if they win. Imagine that for a minute. So many other things will have to fall into place before you get your jersey assignment. Right now, your best is all that matters.

Without the shadow of constant competition, players hang out in centerfield before the game, joking with members of the other team. The heckling from the stands is a little softer. The stadium staff, the fans, the players—numbered #0 to #99—stand in that possibility that anything can happen. This team can win the World Series.

In a similar way, there is nothing to say this piece isn’t going to go all the way, provided you can just keep that love of the game.

 

***

Clients Crushin’ It: Dominique Mielle

Madison Utley interviews Dominique Mielle financial phenom, self-identified daredevil, proud Franco-American ahead of the release of her first book Damsel in Distressed: My Life in the Golden Age of Hedge Funds

***

Speaking to me now, in March 2021, just months before her memoir is set to be published by Simon & Schuster, debut author Dominique Mielle admits: “Was I confident we were going to pull this thing off? No. I certainly had my doubts.” 

Long pause.

“But not in myself.”

This. This is Dominique Mielle: a woman with a straightforward commitment to hard work, to staying true to herself, to surrounding herself with excellence. It’s not a matter of conceit, it’s a matter of fact. 

 

 

The confidence is certainly warranted when you consider who Dominique is; she joined a little-known hedge fund in the ‘90s, and stood decades later as the only female partner and senior portfolio manager running what had swelled to become one of the largest hedge funds in the U.S. 

At the end of this impressive career in the “golden age of hedge funds,” Dominique retired; but, rather than coast (if it’s not yet clear, this isn’t a woman we should ever expect to coast), she circled back to her early aspirations of becoming a journalist. She thought of her recurring column for Forbes. She thought of her contributions spanning just about every publication in the financial sphere. She thought of writing a book; and so, that’s what she set out to do. 

Dominique was sure that her voice – breezy but intense, bright but unapologetic – would add much-needed depth to the male-driven narrative dominating the hedge fund industry; she describes her tone as being loosely-inspired by Sex and The City and has been known to quote Samantha Jones on occasion (“I love you, but I love me more”). 

“I knew I had developed a distinct voice,” Dominique explains. “I knew I could nail a 1,000-word piece, but I didn’t know how to carry that into a 60,000-word book. It was clear to me the first step was finding excellent help.”

True to form, Dominique would accept nothing but top-shelf guidance in making her book a reality. She found it in the second writer she reached out to. Enter: Stuart. 

“Contacting just two writers is really not a lot. But with Stuart, we connected from the beginning. And that was it,” Dominique says. 

“This is a relationship that matters. You’re spending a lot of time with and energy on this person. I even just remember thinking, ‘This is someone who will laugh at the same jokes as me.’  Building trust matters. This is a person you’re entrusting with your story.” 

The wisp of a reservation Dominique harbored upon partnering with Stuart at the start of the project what she describes as her “natural skepticism” sure to arise when allowing an unknown quantity into her process was dashed in the earliest stages of working together. The moment of certainty came in receiving the first draft of the manuscript; then and there, Dominique remembers realizing, “Stuart is someone excellent.” 

Rather than the external help tainting or suppressing the integrity of her story, each stage of the Book Architecture method was crafted to capture the best of what Dominique had to say, helping her voice carry true and strong throughout the manuscript a dynamic clearly exhibited in one of my favorite excerpts from the upcoming book:

Lehman filed for bankruptcy on September 15, 2008 and was eventually liquidated. Christine Lagarde, who was Finance Minister of France at the time (the first woman to hold such a position in a G-7 country), and went on to become the Chairman of the International Monetary Fund (the first woman head) said the following…. 

And I am not citing her because I admire her sense of fashion, although I do, or because she is French, although she is, or even because she was a synchronized swimmer as a child, and I have a weak spot for incongruous amusements. 

I quote her because she might be right: ‘If it had been Lehman Sisters rather than Lehman Brothers, the world might well look different today.’”

While Dominique initially considered the writing process to likely be the primary takeaway from her book project, the refinement achieved through each draft made getting her manuscript published feel increasingly achievable. And, here we are. 

Damsel in Distressed is the first hedge fund memoir written by a woman. In it, Dominique’s inimitable blend of intelligence and humor is used not only to provide insight about what it’s like being a female hedge fund manager in a business dominated by men, but to make clear she is “unwilling to be minimized by genderism.”

***

Pre-order Dominique’s book here, ahead of its August 24th release.

Scrivener & The Book Architecture Method

Please welcome Book Architecture’s guest blogger and award-winning author  – Ray Daniel!

 

Stuart Horwitz’s Book Architecture trilogy, Blueprint your Bestseller, Book Architecture, and Finish Your Book in Three Drafts, delivers a powerful framework for writing a novel.

Scrivener, the software package from the company Literature and Latte, is a powerful software tool that combines word processing with outlining, research storing, and task management to create a single novel-creating platform.

One would think that there would be powerful synergies between a novel-writing software tool, Scrivener, and a novel-writing creation tool, Book Architecture, and one would be correct.

This blog shows one way to use Scrivener to manage the Book Architecture process.

Since it’s easier to work from example, I’ll be using my third Tucker Novel, Child Not Found, and parts of my fourth Tucker Novel, Hacked as examples of a novel built using Book Architecture and written in Scrivener.

The Binder

The binder is the perfect place to begin, because it organizes all the information about your project into a single place. The binder for Child Not Found looks like this:

image1

 

image2The first thing to notice is that my binder contains the three drafts Stuart outlines in Finish Your Book in Three Drafts. The messy draft, method draft, and polished draft each have their own folders. I didn’t actually write three drafts of the novel. I generated the material for the novel in the messy draft, and then duplicated the messy draft to create the initial version of the method draft:

 

Here we see the first place where Scrivener intersects with the Book Architecture method: draft management. Rather than have separate word processing documents for each draft – or even worse, one document that keeps changing – we have a place to store each of our drafts so we can refer to back to previous drafts as we move forward.

As we see here, we copy the messy draft to create the method draft. But where did the messy draft come from? It came from Blueprint Your Bestseller’s Action Step #0.

Step #0: Generate Material

Generating material is the first step in the Book Architecture method. There are many ways to generate material and Blueprint Your Bestseller discusses several of them. One of the most basic ways to generate material is to start at the beginning and simply write the book into a word processor. This results in a long document containing your entire novel.

Organizing Material into Scenes

If you’ve generated material, and need to bring it into Scrivener, you can import and organize your novel into scenes. Blueprint Your Bestseller encourages writers to cut up their scenes as Action Step #5. I suggest, for reasons that we’ll see, that Scrivener users do this as Step #1.

Scrivener makes it easy to cut your scenes. You import your book into Scrivener (perhaps with copy and paste) and then use the Split at Selection command to split the document into two documents:

image3

You place your cursor between two scenes and use the right mouse button to split the scene at the selection. This gives you two scenes that you can name. You keep working your way down your document until you’ve “cut up” all your scenes.

Generating Material in Scenes

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While Scrivener makes it easy to split a novel into scenes, I recommend a different approach: generating material scene by scene. That is, you create a separate document for each scene and allow Scrivener to compile it all into a book. You can set Scrivener to compile your scenes however you like.

My books have one scene per chapter, so the compilation process is simple. But you can use folders to combine several scenes into a chapter and several chapters into parts.

Generating material scene by scene in Scrivener has the obvious advantage that you don’t need to split your manuscript into scenes later on. It has additional advantages in that it is satisfying to finish a scene and move on to the next one, and that you can use icons in the binder to add orienting material to your manuscript such as acts, beats, sequences, and days. For example here are the scenes that make up my most recent Tucker book, Hacked.

 

Analyzing Your Scenes

The first five steps of Blueprint Your Bestseller help you analyze your scenes:

  • Brainstorm Your Scenes—Make a list of your scenes from memory.
  • Your Good Scenes—Highlight the good scenes, those that are done for now.
  • Your Bad Scenes—Highlight the bad scenes, ones that need work.
  • Your Forgotten Scenes—Note the ones that skipped your mind.
  • Cut Up Your . . . we already did this.

You can do all this with Scrivener’s Label feature. Each scene has a programmable Label field which you can see in the Inspector on the right side of the window:

image5

You can program the label with the words Good, Bad, Forgotten, and even Putrid (If you want to go beyond Book Architecture’s recommendations.)

image6

 

When you edit the labels you can add colors by clicking on the colored dot next to each label.

Now that you have colors on each of your labels you can use them to examine your scenes.

image8

To color code your scenes, select:

View -> Use Label Color In -> Binder.

Hmm. Lots of green. Not so bad.

 

Working with Series

Action steps #6-#10 from Blueprint Your Bestseller all relate to finding the series in your story and attaching them to scenes. Then you look for key scenes where several series intersect, find the theme of the book, and consciously choose how to present the series in terms of frequency and rhythm.

The Scrivener keyword feature is perfect for managing series in Scrivener.

Creating a List of Series

The first thing we do is create a list of series using keywords. We see the project keywords using the Project -> Show Project Keywords pulldown menu. This gives us a list of keywords and we use it to capture our series:

image9

The little plus-sign icon in the lower left allows you to add series. You can double click on the colored squares on the right to give each series its own color. You are now ready to add your series to your scenes.

Adding Series to a Scene

Each scene should deliver at least one iteration of a series. At this point we go through all our scenes and add series to them. The easiest way to do this is to drag the series (keywords) from the Keywords window above into the scene title in the binder window:

image10

You can see the list of series associated with a given scene using the Keyword panel in the inspector:

image11

Once you have all the series associated with the scenes you can easily see how your book handles the series.

Searching for Series

The easiest way to analyze your series is to ask the question “Which of my scenes relate to a given series?” For example, let’s examine the places where the series “secrets” came up in Child Not Found’s messy draft.

First we tell Scrivener that we want to search for keywords:image12

Next we do the search and look at the binder:

image13

We see that we have ten scenes that deal with secrets.

Series on the Corkboard

Scrivener lets you view a collection of scenes as index cards on a corkboard. You can add colors from your series by selecting the View -> Corkboard Options -> Show Keyword Colors menu item. This view helps you find key scenes:

image14

The card display button in the lower right hand corner lets you control the number of series colors that appear on each card.

Series in the Outliner

You can also view sets of scenes in the outliner and view their series (keywords) using the outliner’s column selector like this:

image15

You access the column selector by using the right mouse button on the column title area at the top of the list. (By the way, Scrivener does not require numbers on the keywords. I added the numbers myself as part of my process for sorting analyzing scenes.)

Using Scrivener for the Rest of the Process

At this point Scrivener has helped us cut up our scenes, label them as good, bad, or forgotten, and assign series to them. At this point we can proceed using typical Scrivener features.

Finding the Theme

Blueprint Your Bestseller action steps #7-11 have to do with finding your theme. You’ve named your series in the keywords, but the other steps of describing the series, listing the series sentences, and “finding your one thing”, are best done in a spare document in the Story Notes section in the binder.

Drawing the Target

There is no “Draw the Target” function in Scrivener. You can do this with a big poster board and post it notes. Software tool geek that I am, I use Literature and Latte’s tool Scapple to create my target. Once you’ve completed your target exercise you can store the result in Scrivener’s Story Notes section either by taking a picture of it or (if using Scapple) dragging and dropping it.

Ordering Your Scenes

Stuart Horwitz says that a novel is 99 scenes arranged in the correct order. Now that you’ve fully analyzed your novel with help from Scrivener, you duplicate your messy draft to create a method draft and then rearrange and rewrite the scenes. You’ve now got 99 (or whatever number) scenes in the correct order. So you duplicate your method draft to create a polished draft and you’re all set.

ray-daniel-8x8

Ray Daniel is the award-winning author of Boston-based crime fiction and is the author of the Tucker Mysteries. His short stories “Give Me a Dollar” won a 2014 Derringer Award for short fiction and “Driving Miss Rachel” was chosen as a 2013 distinguished short story by Otto Penzler, editor of The Best American Mystery Stories 2013. CHILD NOT FOUND is the third novel in the Tucker Mysteries. For more information, visit him online at raydanielmystery.com and follow him on twitter @raydanielmystry.