Being thoughtful: la gentillesse, la prévenance, ou l’humeur pensive…

I’m a “thinker” by nature, which works pretty well as an author. But in life, it sometimes presents a challenge.

In English, the word “thoughtful” has different meanings, and in French, there are different words for them. Simply put, la gentillesse veut dire (means) “kindness,” la prévenance veut dire “consideration,” et l’humeur pensive veut dire “pensiveness.”

I strive to practice the first two. After all, being unkind or inconsiderate isn’t very nice. But the last one applies to me as well, and sometimes my tendency to ponder, reflect and ruminate overshadows everything. That’s when I have to be careful to channel my thoughts in the direction of writing (primarily) fiction, since it involves lots of thinking.

pensivejen

Me, as an exchange student in France. Was I thinking about how I would one day write a novel based on my experience? Qui sait? (Who knows?)

Reflection can lead to empathy, and I’m naturally empathetic, a plus when it comes to creating a character and getting inside his or her head. Imagining what my characters are feeling helps me to know what they should say, what they should do and how they should do it. It’s kind of like being in the creativity “zone.”

However, in real life, (over)thinking can be problematic and even painful – or at least, stressful. I do my best to prevent that, but when it comes down to it, my nature is what it is. Que faire?

Write. That’s what to do.

Because life is full of fodder for novels like the one I wrote, MAKE THAT DEUX (and the one I’m working on now) – and if I don’t think about that, I won’t be able to use it. So really, being a “thinker” is not too bad a thing, and quite useful.

Back to la gentillesse and la prévenance: both are also very useful – and necessary – in life, but not so much in writing a tension-filled story. But creating conflict in fiction doesn’t have to include the opposite of these.

Except for when I’m showing the reader le méchant (the villain)*…

* A major character in my Work-in-Progress.

Habit (partie deux), plateaus and follow-through

“Best advice I’ve ever received: Finish.”

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– Peter Mayle

Last June,* I wrote about habit and routines, and my readiness to examine my own. My creative side has always resisted them: I wanted to choose what to do and when to do it, letting spontaneity rule. On the other hand, I was happy I was practicing good health habits (like eating a light, healthy breakfast and exercising regularly) and I was ready to dispose of my bad ones (like drinking too many diet Cokes).

Two truths from a book I had just read were helpful:

1. Replacing a bad habit with a good one works much better than just discarding the bad.

2. Routines save mental energy: you’re freed from making daily choices, and can focus on more important decisions.

I decided it was a mid-year’s resolution time, and I made changes. But it wasn’t until three months later that I began to hold myself accountable to them.

In September, instead of just drinking fewer sodas, I cut them out completely and replaced them with water. I started keeping track of exercise and meals, and when the right choices (soon) became habit, they were much easier to maintain. I felt as though I had discovered the secret (for me) of a healthy lifestyle.

I didn’t make my new choices routines impossible to practice, and since then I’ve stayed on track. Because I was afraid I’d jinx myself (or maybe because I didn’t want to have to defend my decisions), I didn’t tell many people about my newfound resolve or progress. And when others offered unsolicited advice, I smiled, listened, and carried on. What I was doing was working.

I had to be more flexible when it came to my work routines – not what they were, but when to perform them. In the fall, I worked my writing schedule around taking a seriously ill family member to her medical appointments, but I managed to keep it up; thankfully, she’s now healthy again.

Then there was the publication of my novel MAKE THAT DEUX. A short interruption in my writing routine, it took a little time and effort in October to travel from my computer files to e-readers and booksellers. Then, I added marketing to my routine.

But in health – and in writing – I’ve hit some plateaus….which can be very frustrating. I’ve learned something very important about them, though:

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Helicopter views of plateaus in the Grand Canyon

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They don’t go on forever…and to get past them, you have to keep going.

I’m an East Coast girl: I love Atlanta and the Appalachian Mountains, where my ancestors lived, and I’m not crazy about the rugged majesty of the Rockies. Sometimes, when I hit a plateau, I feel like I’m out west facing a beckoning frontier, but one that’s not getting any much closer.

Mais, il faut continuer.

Which brings me to follow-through. I like to bring my endeavors to completion – I don’t like to start unless I feel that I will, come what may. It may sound inflexible, but it’s not; flexibility is key to finishing. I try to save my choices for when I’ll need them: to adapt, to redirect, to coach myself, to revise and improve. I’m determined to get it done, so I keep going, and then…I finish.

“Nothing is particularly hard if you divide it into small jobs.”

-Henry Ford

* See my post of June 6, 2012: D’habitude: routine

Fitting into un grille-pain (toaster), and Thanksgiving

Not long ago, a dear friend (let’s call her “Lisa”) sent me a kitchen/tea towel that fits me perfectly.

Lisa’s birthday is tomorrow, and I messed up and didn’t send her a gift (or even a card). So I wanted to wish her a bon anniversaire here…and tell her I miss her and am thinking of her this Thanksgiving.

We live thousands of miles apart, but many years ago, we were roommates in college. Back then, she didn’t cook either, but she does now. I discovered this a few years ago when she came to visit us and helped my husband with the cooking for our annual Christmas fête. I wasn’t amazed — many women people can, and do, cook. But Lisa went above and beyond the call of a special weekend guest, chopping, stirring, baking and assembling — and loving it. She also complimented my husband’s cooking abilities and asked him for recipes.

Which made him feel très apprécié.

Perhaps because he is such a great cook, early in our marriage he and I lived for many years without a toaster, or un grille-pain (but we did own a funky gadget that produced croque-monsieurs.) I guess we weren’t much into toasted bread or bagels back then (and I try to stay away from them now). We finally bought un grille-pain when frozen waffles became a preferred (and easy) breakfast item for our kids.

(Let me just stop here and say that, though the word grille-pain looks  painful — and I suppose it is, to the bread/pain — it sounds très cool en français.)

Last summer, when we were weekend guests in a French home in Lyon,* we noticed their grille-pain: it was so différent from any we had seen back in America. Made to toast pieces of French bread (baguettes) that have been sliced through the middle, not from the top, it was an interesting appliance, with its long shape and wide, long slots. My husband added it to the list of French cuisine products, ingredients, and customs (like a cheese plate after dinner) that he admired and wanted to acquire.

Unfortunately, we haven’t been able to find one yet, but I may cherche (look for) one as a Christmas gift.

Back to cooking…

Since our wonderful American holiday Thanksgiving is just days away, mon mari et moi (well, more him than me) are planning the menu for Thursday. We will only have seven people at the table, but he will prepare plusieurs plats traditionnels. I will contribute two simple dishes: a sweet potato casserole and fresh cooked cranberries. I’ve done them almost every year for decades, but making them will still be a challenge.

Since they don’t fit into a toaster!

[In my new novel MAKE THAT DEUX, Jenny and her roommates are a little lonely at Thanksgiving. I won’t say what they do about it, but I will say that their solution isn’t ideal….and it doesn’t fit into un grille-pain…]

* for more, see my post Lyon and Beaujolais, with the French and a faux pas, 11-6-12

From “Unwritten” to Published, with confidence (la confiance)

A few years ago, I told a close friend en toute confiance (confidentially) about my dream of writing a novel and my plan to begin that fall. Rather than looking at me like I was crazy, she was excited for me, and very encouraging.  A short time later, she gave me a song to play for inspiration, a few lines of which I quote:

“I’m just beginning, the pen’s in my hand, ending unplanned. Staring at the blank page before you. Open up the dirty window. Let the sun illuminate the words that you could not find.”

– Natasha Bedingfield, “Unwritten” 

I didn’t have a lot of confidence in myself as a writer, but I believed in my idea. I had a finished outline, and I had the time to work. And I had a passion for my story.

So I sat down and stared at the blank page —  on my computer screen — and began.

I also confided in another friend who knows me well. She said: “Don’t ever let anyone tell you that you can’t do it.” Believing in myself — la confiance en soi — has been always been difficult, no matter what my accomplishments or abilities. I’m usually quick to listen to those who say I can’t, and slow to prove to myself that I can.

But like Jenny, the main character in my recently published novel MAKE THAT DEUX, I like to challenge myself. I wrote the first draft that school year. Later, as I worked on revisions (and on my next novel, a Thriller), I decided to re-learn to speak French.

Even though I had once spoken it fluently, I had just moved to a place where few people spoke French. With lack of use, my French-confidence started to wane. Others’ lack of impression with my ability to speak French translated into my lack of belief in it and myself. As the years passed, I lost much of my ability and knowledge of the language as I got (and stayed) busy, with life.

Malheureusement.

De toute façon — anyway —  over a year ago, I let a French friend know of my wish to study the language, and he recommended a small weekly class. I met with Madame, and soon I was doing devoirs — homework — organized in a binder. I started using French language apps on my iPad. I met and began a friendship with Zeina, my mother’s Lebanese neighbor; because she is so agréable, we speak French when we rendez-vous.

And last summer, when my husband and I spent ten days in France, I tried my French at every opportunity…and I had many.

Le résultat: Though I still (at times) struggle with the simplest phrases, I’ve increased mon vocabulaire considerably. And although I continue to say (even en français) that “I don’t speak it well,” mon prof de français (and Zeina) insist that I do. It’s a question of confidence, not one of ability. But I continue to study, speak, read and learn.

And write.

“Today is where your book begins.” 

Make that…my book cover! — et son histoire

As promised…

Because the French are very good at mathématiques, here’s the story of the creation of my book cover, in an equation (une équation):

La serendipité L’artiste  *  [l’inspiration + le talent + la technologie]

MY BOOK COVER (La couverture de mon livre!):

Les détails:

Serendipity: Last spring — at long last — I finished the final edit of MAKE THAT DEUX, and began planning its publication. A top item on my to-d0 list was to find a cover artist. Then, just before Easter, my daughter and I visited beautiful Sarasota, Florida for several days during her spring break. “Kim” lives in Sarasota and she invited us to spend one afternoon with her and her husband at their beach cabana.

I told “Kim” about my plans for publication, and she mentioned a friend and cabana-neighbor, writer Peter McKenzie, author of THE PARAGON GANG. “Kim” suggested I look up Peter’s book on Amazon and give him a call. I found the book, downloaded it on my iPad, and called Peter. When I  complimented him on his book cover, he recommended the artist, Michael Faron of Sarasota. Back in Atlanta, I read through Michael’s website www.msfaron.com and sent him an email…

Et voilà! I had found my cover artist.

The Artist: First, Michael read MAKE THAT DEUX. Then we began discussing ideas and sketches that he sent me. We narrowed them down to one… and, aided by inspiration, talent and technology, Michael did the rest!*

As an added bonus, here’s the book description for MAKE THAT DEUX  that you will soon see on Amazon:

Three American college girls living in an apartment on the Mediterranean. Two boyfriends back home. “The One” (and only), if it’s “meant to be” — whatever that means! 
Jenny Miles has three goals: to speak French like a native, to travel all over Europe, and to have a blast. Meanwhile, two men compete for her attention and amour, ici et là. C’est compliqué! 
Take 10 months. Add 2 (surprise) transatlantic flights, 2 Greek isles, 1 moped (une mobylette) and beaucoup de lettres! Subtract 1 phone, 1 promise to be faithful, and 1 bikini top. La solution?  
Make that…a year that Jenny will never forget.

In the cover art that Michael created (and in the book description above), somehow I’m reminded that the more things change, the more they stay the same…

* Including the back cover, which I may reveal in the future…

 

Le menu, and making a choice

“Vous avez choisi?”  (Have you decided?)

— a French waiter

Choices can be difficult, and many of them haven’t changed (but they may have evolved over time):

Café américain or café au lait? Prix fixe or a la carte? Wine or cocktail? Skirt or pants? Flats or heels? One-piece or bikini? iPhone or BlackBerry? Paperback or e-book?

The list goes on, and making the right selection can sometimes be a daunting task — or at least, pretty stressful. Especially when it’s not possible to choose both alternatives, like buying two pair of the same shoes (or pants) in different colors. Something I’ve been known to do…

But back to restaurants and cafés. When one must make a choice, sometimes it’s best to study the menu (en français, “la carte”), and sometimes it’s better just to glance at it and look for something  appealing. The same could be true for art, and for fiction…and some people judge a book by its cover.

Which brings me to the image below: a small bit of of the cover of my novel, MAKE THAT DEUX. The full cover will be revealed next week…

What’s on the menu?

Beaucoup de choix:

Classes. Beaches. Museums. Wine, and pastis. Baguettes, croissants and mille feuilles. Windsurfers. The Alps. Love.

Bon appétit!

D’habitude: routine

I like (and don’t like) my routines and habits.

A few weeks ago, I read on my iPad The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business by Charles Duhigg. You may have heard of the book — published in late February, it has remained on the New York Times non-fiction best-seller list for months. I don’t always read best-sellers (and let’s don’t even talk about the current best-selling fiction books). But this book was appealing, not because so many other people found it so, but because I was ready to examine my own habits, to keep what worked and to change what didn’t.

I’m still working on some of the changes, but I’ve successfully adopted a few of the more basic (and very important) ones. I’ve cut out almost all (diet) Cokes from my diet — for those of you non-Atlantans, Cokes = all carbonated drinks. I’ve shifted my choices of what to eat for lunch at home from whatever we had in the fridge (like leftovers) to what I ate every day as a younger mom: albacore tuna fish or cottage cheese-and-fruit — and when eating out, I’ve made much healthier menu selections. I’ve increased my weekly cardio routines from three times a week to five or six.

I’ve been doing these things not quite long enough yet for them all to feel like habits; they still feel like choices, causing me to think (see book mentioned above). But with each day, I’m getting closer, and as my husband says, it can be all right to make a different choice occasionally, as long as you get right back on your routine afterward. That’s key for me. Aside from health-related issues, however, I’ve also tried to apply what I learned about routines to my work life as a writer.

In some ways that’s been difficult, but in other ways it hasn’t. When I sat down one August to write the first draft of my first novel, d’habitude I worked every weekday from 9 am to 1 pm straight; I was finished by May but didn’t realize that revisions would take just as much work and a lot longer. Much as I know what daily and weekly habits work well for me, and even though I feel comforted (less mentally stressed?) by them, I also feel rather constricted by them. There’s a part of me that’s figure-it-out-as-I-go and, well, more creative (which is essential when writing fiction). My spontaneous, imaginative, only-as-organized-as-I-have-to-be side has always battled against my productive, organized, good-habit-keeping side. This was even the case when my children were little and my occupation was stay-at-home mother — with four kids, I had to be organized. However, I fought and surrendered to that necessity. Hopefully, no one noticed.

Now that I’m writing full-time, I’ve found that I can balance creativity and productivity while making an effort to re-institute my working routines. Dialogue and scenes (the fun part) appear in my head and on the page more easily once I’ve got the story’s plot fine-tuned. My game plan can and does change along the way, but it keeps me focused when the words aren’t coming.  Aside from a two-week vacation with mon mari this summer, I’ll continue my work schedule even when life’s demands get in the way. And I’ll enjoy (more than he will, I fear) the break in routine. I’ll get to think more, I hope, while maintaining my healthier habits.

I’d better bring some paper, a pen, and my iPad!

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