Book Review: “Gilded Dreams,” by Donna Russo Morin

Rhode Island author Donna Russo Morin’s historical fiction novel, “Gilded Dreams,” could not be more timely. Coming on the 100th anniversary of the passage of the 19th Amendment to the US Constitution, granting women the right to vote, this gem of a novel puts the fight for women’s suffrage in personal terms. At the same time, it is a story of two women from different social classes who form a bond that endures through times of loss, violence, and national upheaval.

Its setting, in Newport, Rhode Island, gives the story a dimension that contrasts the wealth of families in this summer playground with the dire struggles of women who were often consigned to poverty upon the death of a spouse.

The story begins in April of 1912 with the sinking of the Titanic in the frigid north Atlantic. Socialite Pearl Worthington Wright lost both her parents, who were aboard the ship. Adding to her grief, Pearl later learns from the reading of the will that all her family’s wealth and property will go to her husband, Peter, who married into the family, and not to her. This gross unfairness ignites a flame in Pearl, who shares her feelings of outrage with her best friend and confidante, Ginevra, an Italian immigrant and naturalized citizen.

Pearl and Ginevra find a kindred partner in powerful Newport socialite Alma Vanderbilt Belmont, who actually was a leader of the suffrage movement and not a fictional character. One of the most vivid and powerful character in the novel, Alma is a formidable force for the women’s suffrage movement. They met when Alva was consoling Pearl for the loss of her parents. Alva invited Pearl and Ginevra to a suffrage meeting in Newport.

Their meeting with Alva changes the course of their lives. Pearl and Ginevra devote the next eight years to advance the movement to gain passage of the women’s suffrage amendment. Morin’s novel reminds us all that the right to vote, like the fight for equal justice, is one that was hard earned in the face of prejudice and violence. Pearl and Ginevra encounter stiff resistance in the form of the “antis,” men and women who push back on the suffrage movement. The story moves through World War I and the Night of Terror, when women’s suffrage protesters were jailed and subjected to cruel treatment.

Gilded Dreams was published as America prepares to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the passage of the women’s suffrage amendment on Aug. 18, 2020. At a time when the quest for racial justice and equal rights for people of color has boiled over in the wake of the police killing of George Floyd and other Blacks, Gilded Dreams reminds us that the struggle for equal rights has existed throughout our nation’s history.

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Query Letter Basics and Beyond

Your novel is ready. It is time to send query letters to land a literary agent. As I prepare to send off my own query letter, let me share some basics of writing a query letter that will get your manuscript noticed.

Is Your Manuscript Really Ready?

First and foremost, make sure your manuscript is polished. This does not mean you have finished a second or third draft. It means you have a fully refined manuscript that has undergone professional developmental editing, line editing, and proofreading. Your manuscript should be as flawless as possible. If not, you are not ready to send a query letter to agents.

Do Your Research

Second, conduct an extensive internet search and visit the websites of literary agents. Make sure the agent you are querying accepts work in your genre. You can do this by checking the submission guidelines on the agent’s website. If you are pitching a sci-fi thriller and an agent only accepts non-fiction submissions or Young Adult fiction, you should not query that agent.

Third, make sure the agent is currently accepting submissions. The agent will usually indicate on his or her website whether submissions are being accepted.

Make a List and Track Submissions

Next, make a list of literary agents who accept manuscripts in your genre. Open a spreadsheet and list the agents. Make columns for agent’s name, website URL, email address, submission guidelines, date the query letter was sent, dates for follow-up emails, and notes (any relevant information, such as whether the agent represents an author you like). As you query agents, it will be important to track which agents you have written to and the status of your query.

The Query Letter Itself

Okay, so you have a killer manuscript, you have a list of agents who accept submissions in your genre, and you have a spreadsheet to track submissions. You are ready to write the all-important query letter. Where do you start? Here are a couple of considerations. If you have met the agent at a writer’s conference or if another agent has recommended that you query that agent, this is a perfect way to introduce yourself. If not, go right into the story. Make sure your writing is punchy. If your query letter is boring, the agent will assume that reflects the quality of your writing.

Here’s what must go into your letter:

The Basics: Title, genre, word count. Make sure your word count is within industry standards and the agent’s submission guidelines.

The story’s “hook,” a concise summary with special emphasis on what makes it unique. What is it about your story that makes it stand out from the flood of manuscripts that inundate agents? The story summary should include the main character’s name, the setting, the character’s goal, the central conflict, antagonistic forces, and the choices a character is forced to make to achieve the goal. All of this should be done in 150 words or fewer. Experts caution against describing the theme in a query letter. Agents want to know what happens in the story. That’s the best way to judge whether they can sell the story to a publisher. The theme does not tell the agent anything about the quality or marketability of the story.

Brief bio, including publishing credits. If you have not been published, mention any writing you have done for newspapers or magazines. If you have a blog, which you should start well before you query agents, mention that.

Close your letter. Thank the agent for considering your manuscript. Include your contact information. Be brief, professional, and straightforward.

Your query letter should be no longer than one page (400 words). If it is longer, you will increase the chance the agent will not read it. Agents are busy and they get tons of query letters. Be concise, get to the point, and don’t gush about your work.

Query letters are the key to getting published. Make sure to take your time to create the strongest possible letter.

Here are more query letter resources:

Jane Friedman-The Complete Guide to Query Letters

The 10 Do’s and Don’t’s of Writing a Query letter
Brian Klems, Writer’s Digest

Rachelle Gardner-How to Write a Query Letter

Nathan Bransford-How to write a query letter

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Re-entering a COVID-19 World

I have not posted anything on my blog since I started graduate school 20 months ago. With the rigors of academic writing and research, I found it hard to shift gears into fiction writing, so I have also not written any new fiction since September of 2018.

I am a changed person since I earned my master’s degree in organizational leadership in April of 2020. More significantly, the world has changed dramatically with the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic and the related public health orders that have restricted social contact.

This is a watershed event, like the Sept. 11 terror attacks and the Great Recession of 2008-2009. The big difference with the COVID-19 outbreak is that life will not return to normal any time soon. After 9-11, life as we knew it resumed quickly. I remember President George W. Bush at the time stressed the importance of restoring a sense of normalcy because the way the terrorists win is to disrupt our way of living. After a brief pause, life resumed its former pace. Sporting events and concerts returned, people began flying again, and the World Series was played weeks after the terrorist bombings.

As I write this, my hometown of West Hartford, CT, resembles a ghost town. Few cars are on the road. People walk the streets with face masks, careful to keep social distance. On a recent hot, sunny day, scores of people flocked to a local park, the entrances to which were blocked to prevent vehicles from entering. The people walking in the park respected social distancing. There were no large gatherings within the park, where normally people might sit on a blanket and gather within close proximity.

I have heard many writers say they write to make sense of the world. I have even said this myself. But, how do we make sense of a global pandemic that has upended our lives? How do we process this? How do we write about it? What conclusions should we draw?

I don’t have the answers to these questions. The best advice I can give to writers is to focus on what you can control. Establish a daily routine. This may include time set aside for writing, for daily tasks, remote work (if you are employed), for reading, and, importantly, for connecting with others. I have participated in more Zoom videconferencing calls than I can count. These have been a lifeline to me in maintaining social contact with friends, colleagues, and other writers.

We will emerge from the COVID-19 crisis at some point. I prefer to take the long view. I plan to follow public health guidance, maintain connections, practice self care (eat healthy and exercise), and I am even getting back to my work in progress. Let’s support one another and stay connected!

What about you? How are you coping with the global pandemic?


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Back to School After 40 Years

Followers of this blog may have noticed I have not posted any new essays since last August. And, this was after I had made a New Year’s resolution a year ago to post regularly–at least monthly. What happened?

In September, I returned to the classroom after 40 years to pursue a Master’s of Science in Organizational Leadership (MSOL) from Goodwin College in East Hartford, CT. I had always wanted to pursue a master’s degree, but circumstances got in the way. When I was hired as a Grants Officer at Goodwin College, I noticed that the college offered a master’s in organizational leadership. When I reviewed the curriculum, I discovered it aligned with the many years of experience and non-academic training I possessed in the subject matter.

My interest in leadership dates back to my involvement in the Greater Hartford Jaycees during the late ’80s and early ’90s. The Jaycees is a leadership training organization for individuals under the age of 40. I had served on the Greater Hartford Jaycees Board for five years, rising to the position of Chapter President. My experiences in the Greater Hartford Jaycees changed my career trajectory. I left the field of journalism after spending 15 years as a daily newspaper reporter and began a long career as an association management executive.

Leadership development is a must for any executive and I took advantage of every opportunity for training in the subject. In 2003 I earned a Certified Association Executive (CAE) credential from the American Society of Association Executives (ASAE). I have renewed my CAE credential every three years by attaining 40 continuing education credits in executive leadership-related training. All the while, I have dreamed of obtaining a master’s degree. The opportunity finally emerged last year. With the support of my boss and the MSOL Program Director, I enrolled in the program. I have now completed the first two courses. I am on track to reeceive my degree in June of 2020 (Goodwin has year-round semesters).

So, what’s it like to go back to school after 40 years? It’s exhilirating! I am using a part of my brain that has been dormant for a long time. I am leveraging many of the skills I have developed as a fiction writer, but in new ways. Academic and fiction writing are different in some ways and similar in other ways. In academic writing, we begin each paper with an introduction that serves as a roadmap for the paper. We present a thesis and then use a well-constructed argument based on facts and examples to prove the thesis. We end each paper with a conclusion that wraps up and summarizes the main points of the paper.

Academic papers are fact-based and use evidence to prove a point. In fiction writing, we make up stuff. We invent imperfect characters and place them in uncomfortable situations. We challenge them in ways that are sometimes cruel, like killing off their best friend or a family member. While fiction is rooted in make believe stories, these stories must be connected to reality. A novel set in the Civil War era, for example, must be historically accurate (unless it is historical fantasy) in describing the key battles, as well as the norms, customs, and fashions of that time.

Like academic writing, fiction writing has an organizational structure. Every story has a protagonist who has a goal, but faces weaknesses and challenges that prevent her from reaching the goal. Overcoming these challenges forces the main character to grow. The main character reaches his goal at the end of the story and emerges as a transformed person.

Organlizational leadership requires an understanding of people, group dynamics and cultural diversity. We are learning about emotional intelligence, conflict resolution, and employee motivation. These same concepts apply to fiction writing. The best characters in fiction must navigate a culturally diverse world, possess emotional intelligence, and, through overcoming challenges, exhibit conflict resolution skills. Motivation is a key elemeent in fiction as it is in leadership. Many leadership theories explore various ways for a leader to successfully motivate followers.

As a lifelong learner, I recommend the continuous pursuit of learning and self-development. The only downside is that it cuts into my fiction writing time, but it’s a fair tradeoff, given the sheer depth and breadth of what I am learning about leadership. And, the biggest benefit is what I am learning about myself, which will help me to develop my leadership skills.

What about you? Have you thought about pursuing a degree? Have you considered taking a course?


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Should You Persevere or Pull the Plug?

I recently received my manuscript back from a trusted beta reader, who made a number of thoughtful suggestions and recommendations to improve my story. That was the good news. The bad news was that the changes I would need to make will take weeks, if not months, at a time when I thought the finish line was in sight. My first reaction was that I should finally pull the plug on this story, which I’ve worked on for six years.

Then I thought about all the time and effort I’ve put into this story. At an average of 10 hours a week for 52 weeks times six years, that comes out to 3,120 hours. This wasn’t the only project I worked on during this time. I drafted two novellas and numerous blog posts and a couple of short stories, but this was the project that consumed my passion. It was the centerpiece of my fiction writing and I just couldn’t throw it away.

So, I patiently went through every one of my beta reader’s excellent comments. I thought long and hard about how I could reorganize sections of the story and make adjustments to some of the scenes. I wrote down the adjustments I would need to make and then I began attacking the manuscript with a rejuvenated enthusiasm.

My experience with multiple rounds of revisions over a period of years begs several crucial question: when should a writer decide whether to pull the plug? What are the factors the writer must weigh? What process should the writer use to arrive at the best decision? I’m hesitant to tell any writer to throw away years of work. That is an individual decision each writer must make, but at some point the writer needs to make an honest, self-assessment of the work.

Here are some questions the writer should ask:

• Do you still have the passion for the project? If the answer is yes, by all means keep going.
• Are you getting closer to realizing the full potential of your story and having a publishable manuscript or do you feel after several rounds of revision you are still far from the finish line? If this is the case, you may want to consider abandoning the project?
• Is the story itself flawed? Is there something about the premise or the execution of the story that your trusted beta readers have consistently found lacking? If the answer is yes, you can always go back and fix the premise, but that will leave you with a lot of work ahead. It would be almost like starting from scratch.
• Are you comfortable moving on to something else? Or will you be second guessing yourself? A good way to find out is to start a new project. If you find a gnawing yearning to get back to your work in progress, you can always return to it. Sometimes a break from it will allow you to view it with fresh eyes and a new perspective.

This is a difficult decision and not one to be taken lightly. I hope these suggestions help and I wish you the best on whatever project has you stymied at the moment.

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Book Review: “Little Fires Everywhere,” by Celeste Ng

Celeste Ng’s second novel, Little Fires Everywhere, begins at the end—in the aftermath of an arson fire that destroys the tony suburban home of the Richardsons, the family at the center of this story. From there, Ng goes back to uncover the origins of the “little fires” that smolder at first and ultimately ignite the conflagration.

Little Fires Everywhere is a brilliantly plotted story that touches on hot-button issues of race, assimilation, abortion, adoptions, motherhood, the tenuous family bonds and the furtive lives and shifting alliances of teen-agers. That’s a lot of ground to cover, but Ng does it skillfully and without coming across as preachy.

Set in 1998, the novel offers powerful lessons that are relevant today as our nation struggles with racial tensions and deep fissures that roil on national political debate.

The Richardsons are in many ways the embodiment of the American Dream. Elena, the matriarch, is a third-generation resident of Shaker Heights, a progressive suburb of Cleveland, Ohio, built on order and rules. Their lives are upended when an itinerant visual artist, Mia Warren, moves into town with her teen-age daughter, Pearl. Mia rents an apartment in a home owned by the Richardsons at a below market rent, which Elena sees as an act of charity.

Pearl quickly forms a bond with Moody and the two high school sophomores are inseparable. But Trip, a year older than Moody, has designs on Pearl. And, complicating matters, Lexi, the Richardson’s oldest sibling, a high school senior, takes Pearl under her wing. And that’s just the children’s dilemmas. Conflict erupts among the adults when Elena and Mia find themselves on the opposite sides of a custody battle after family friends of the Richardsons try to adopt a Chinese-American baby. Elena, who works as a reporter for a local paper, is suspicious of Mia’s motives and begins digging into her past. What she discovers is troubling and she makes the fateful decision to act on it.

The most mysterious figure in this tale of two entangled families is Isabelle (Izzy), the youngest Richardson. A high school freshman with no filter and an iconoclastic streak, Izzy is able to grasp the toxicity of the situation, but lacks the judgment and maturity to deal with it in a constructive way.

Secrets and mysteries can create unbearable burdens, just as a slavish devotion to rules and order can cloud judgment and impede empathy. At the same time, people who believe they have progressive views on race can act in ways that are contrary to their professed beliefs. These are among the chief take-aways from this thought-provoking story.

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Not All Revisions are Alike

Writers tend to use the word “revision” as a catch-all term that applies to every type of self-review of their manuscript. The fact is that all revisions are not the same. A recent blog post by Janice Hardy on Fiction University outlined three different types of reviews: revision, rewrite, or redraft. In a revision, changes are minor. “The focus is on the text and the flow of the scenes,” Hardy wrote.

The next level is a rewrite. “The focus is on reworking an existing story to bring out the core idea,” she wrote. In this type of revision, “large chunks of the novel are often scrapped or reworked, but the bones are there to build on.” In a rewrite, “goals, conflicts, and motivations frequently change to reflect the new direction of the story.”

A rewrite is necessary when the writer is happy with the idea, “but the story isn’t quite unfolding the way you want it to yet.”

Then, there is the third type of revision, and the most comprehensive. This is the redraft. In this type of revision, she wrote, “the focus is on the original idea and how to get back to it.

“Nothing you’ve already drafted will work—it’s too fundamentally flawed to save. You have changed your story in a significant way.”

In a redraft, the writer is “not happy at all with what’s there.”

In my current work-in-progress, I’ve done all three types: revisions, rewrites, and redrafts. By far, the most difficult type of revision to undertake is the redraft. I threw out half of my draft novel after receiving feedback that the story didn’t work. Specifically, certain events in the story and decisions of the main character made her appear cold and unfeeling, the exact opposite of how I wanted the reader to perceive the protagonist. Discarding the latter half of my book meant wholesale changes to the story itself. In the original draft the main character’s mother is murdered after she goes out looking for her daughter (the main character), who was kicked out of the house. Now it was important to the story that the main character lost her mother, but there were other ways to do it (talk about killing your darlings).

In the first draft the father kicked the main character out of the house after she told him she intended to have an abortion. She doesn’t have the abortion, so she should have come back home, right? That was the reason she was kicked out, but she doesn’t come home. She stays away for 10 years, because it allowed me to use all of these phony plot devices.

In the redrafted story, she comes back home shortly after she decides to have her baby, only to discover her mother has dementia. In her condition, her mother is lost to her and she ends up dying a lot sooner, anyway. The main character is forced into a role she is not ready for and it challenges her in ways that relate strongly to her internal goal and obstacles.

The lesson for writers is that there may come a time, even after multiple rounds of revisions, when the story still doesn’t work. That’s when the writer is confronted with a difficult decision: undertake a redraft or scrap the story entirely. What makes this such a difficult decision is the redraft is a daunting, time consuming challenge, that occurs at a time when the writer has already put a lot of time into drafting and revising a story. What makes it worthwhile is the possibility that the writer can create a more powerful story.

How does one know whether to kill or redraft a story. Here are some questions to ask:

–Does the main character have a strong internal goal? Is that goal clear to the reader? If achieved, is the goal worth the reader’s time?
–What are the stakes and how do the stakes relate to or threaten the main character’s achievement of the goal?
–Do the oppositional forces, whether an antagonist, external events or other obstacles, grow naturally from the plot in a way that makes sense?
–Do the events of the story relate to the main character’s internal quest?

In my case, I hadn’t spent enough time identifying and developing my main character’s internal goal and the forces that prevented her from achieving it. Instead, I piled on a lot of external events (a plan to hide from her family in plain sight, a murder that her brother unwittingly caused) that I thought at the time would create a better story. Those events only served to weaken the main character and cause the reader to lose respect for her.

Once I thought through the main character’s internal goal and identified the obstacles that would block her from achieving it, everything fell into place.
Redrafting can bust a writer’s confidence, but once the writer moves past the fear of the work required, it can be satisfying to resurrect a moribund story and breathe new life into it.


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Cures for the Sagging Middle

The word “middle” gets a bad rap. Middle age is associated with “midlife crisis.” Middle of the road in politics means wishy washy, often referring to a person with no guiding principles. In music, MOR signifies an artist who takes the safe route, the plain, formulaic and predictable road.

In fiction, the middle is where novels either soar or die. Mystery writer James Scott Bell has written a book about the importance of the middle, where many authors get stuck. Here is his recent post from The Kill Zone blog.

Bell’s book is called, “Write Your Novel From The Middle: A New Approach for Plotters, Pantsers and Everyone in Between.”

In the classic three-act structure, the midpoint is when the main character must take a stand. The main character shifts from reactive to proactive. Often it is referred to as a reversal. As Janice Hardy puts it in her Fiction University blog:

“The midpoint reversal creates the center point for the story arc, and connects the beginning with the ending. The first half of the novel is all about the protagonist discovering he has a problem and trying to solve it, and the second half is all about the protagonist realizing it won’t be so easy and he’ll have to go above and beyond to succeed. It’s also a solid turning point to write toward to avoid a sagging middle.”

The midpoint reveals who the main character is and what she must do to overcome her obstacles and reach her goals. I can hear that author voice in my head saying, “But I already know who the main character is. I’ve written a five-page character sketch. This advice doesn’t help me at all.”

Fair enough, but the question the author must answer is this: how have you forced the author to confront her fears? Have you put your main character to the test? Have you made it harder for your author or have you let her off the hook?

Here are some of the causes of the sagging middle, based on my own experiences:

• Failure to think the story through. This is a particular problem for pantsers. As a recovering pantser, I’m guilty of this. I’ve started many a story with a great premise that includes a beginning, a middle and an end. Or least that’s what I thought. But when I got to the middle my story ran out of steam. I hadn’t considered all the possibilities. I hadn’t put the main character through the kinds of challenges that result in transformative growth. I envisioned a straight road to the finish line, but I failed to put any bumps or potholes in that road.

• Lack of complexity in the story. This relates to the first cause. Let’s say you are writing a murder mystery. The detective discovers the identity of the killer in Chapter 3. He was the only one who had a weapon, a motive and a key to the victim’s apartment. Not much of a story there. What if those same circumstances existed, but the obvious suspect had an airtight alibi? He was in Australia at the time of the murder. Now what? Did someone close to him steal the key? Who else could have had a motive? What if someone else fingered this guy to hide his own guilt? What about that insurance policy that named his younger sister as beneficiary, and not his close friend? Ah, now you have multiple suspects.

• Poor character development. This sometimes stems from a writer not giving his character serious flaws that prevent her from reaching her goals. Or, placing daunting challenges in front of her. Weak characters produce weak stories, which are often exposed when the writer gets to the middle.

• Lack of imagination and a failure to explore all the possibilities. It’s been said that writers when developing a story should ask a series of “what if” questions. What if this happened? What if I put my character in a terrible situation? How would she react? What would she do? How could she make her situation worse? Or to paraphrase literary agent and fiction writing guru Donald Maass, Ask yourself what’s the worst thing that could happen to your character Then, make it happen.

So what should writers do to avoid to add sizzle to the middle of their stories? Here are a couple of ideas:

Use the midpoint reversal Janice Hardy described in her blog post. As she puts it, the midpoint reversal throws the plot sideways because the main character realizes her worldview or plan will not work and, as a result, she has to change in some fundamental way. But not just internally. Her actions have to change. Events have made her goal harder to reach. What she was doing in the past won’t work. This occurs around the halfway point. Often it is manifested by a disruptive event that creates peril or a crisis for the main character. This launches the second half of the novel.

The midpoint reversal almost always involves higher stakes and a loss of the main character’s support system. A supporting character is no longer available. Or, the main character loses her job. Or there’s a death in the family. There are numerous ways a writer can create a more challenging road for the main character. Whatever event you choose it should grow organically out of the story or there should be some foreshadowing of it.

Think about how to disrupt the main character’s world and create ever-increasing daunting trials. The possibilities are endless. Use all the tools in your toolbox: opposing characters, antagonists, deep, dark secrets, family dysfunction, power struggles.

What about you? Do you struggle with the sagging middle of your story? What works best for you?


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Is Setting Goals Setting You Up for Failure?

It happens every January. I go to the fitness center to work out. I can’t get on a treadmill. They are all taken. So I wait until someone finishes their workout. By March, I have my choice of unoccupied treadmills.

Studies show that most people abandon their New Year’s resolutions within a month or two of making them. I used to set annual writing goals and post them on my blog at the beginning of each year. I’ve stopped doing it. It’s not that I don’t believe in goals. Taking stock of my life, my writing, and my work periodically is healthy. I do it more than once a year. I do it whenever I find myself in a rut.

Here’s the thing I’ve learned about goal setting and it gives insight into why so many well intentioned New Year’s resolutions fail. Setting too many goals and unachievable goals is a recipe for failure. What has helped me more than anything is to focus on The One Thing that is causing the problem. And once I’ve identified The One Thing, I can turn all of my attention and energy to fixing it.

Let’s look at resolutions or goals that are too ambitious and unrealistic. Let’s see…I want to work out four times a week, eat healthy, lose weight, meet the person of my dreams and crank out a novel—all in one year. When I fall behind, when I can’t get to the fitness center, when I’m too tired to write, when I don’t have time to eat and I wolf down some fast food because it’s cheap and delicious, those goals fade away. And it shatters my confidence.

How to get back on track? Focus on The One Thing. Two years ago, for health reasons, I revolutionized my diet. I dedicated myself to work out three to four times a week and eat a health diet with no sugar, no processed foods and very little red meat. Two years later, I feel great. I’ve lost weight, I’m fit and I sleep better. I did that by focusing on The One Thing. And I’m a more productive writer.

While I am still struggling six years later on my novel (one of my old goals was to write a novel a year), I am a better writer now. Writing is hard. Writing is time consuming. My work-in-progress is stronger now because I’ve torn the story apart twice and rebuilt it into a more coherent and powerful narrative. My novel is infinitely better than it was two and a half years ago, when I sent it to my editor. I thought it was ready for publication again, but I had a long way to go. I’m now writing with focus and purpose.

So here’s my take on setting goals:

1. Set realistic goals, assessing where you are and what is realistic. Setting a goal to run a marathon in six months is unrealistic. Start with a quarter mile, buildi up to a half mile and you will be running a mile before you know it. It’s the same with writing. If you’ve never written a book before, it might not be realistic to expect to write one in a year, though that shouldn’t stop you. If you can’t get to 1,000 words a day, try, 500, or 300 good ones.

2. Take small steps. You’ve heard the advice that the best way to tackle a big project is to break it down into small pieces. It’s true in writing goals and in life goals. Using the word count analogy, if you have only 30 minutes a day, you can probably write 500 words. That’s 3,500 words in a week, and 42,000 words a year. Not bad for a half hour a day. of course you could always do more with more time to write.

3. If you don’t achieve your goals, recalibrate them. Small achievements lead to big ones and you’ll be surprised how much progress you will make.

So go for it. Set realistic goals and focus on achieving them.

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Book Review: “The Ninth Hour,” by Alice McDermott

Alice McDermott’s new novel, The Ninth Hour, begins with a suicide and a failed cover-up, setting off a series of events tinged with moral dilemmas that cascade for decades.

Fired from his job as a train man for the BRT and with a pregnant wife, Jim, an Irish immigrant, commits suicide in the apartment he shares with Annie. An elderly nun, Sister Saint Saviour of the Little Nursing Sisters of the Sick Poor, takes pity on Annie. The crafty nun makes a foiled attempt to cover up the suicide, wanting to give Jim a Christian burial.

The scene highlights the conflict between the Catholic Church’s rules and the compassion Sister St. Saviour feels for the fallen man and his poor widow. It’s a theme McDermott returns to throughout the story.

The nuns give Annie a job in the basement laundry room of the convent, where they practically raise her daughter, Sally. Annie befriends Michael and Liz Tierney, and their families become close over the years, their stories intertwining with hers.

Set in early 20th Century Brooklyn, The Ninth Hour portrays the nuns not as overly virtuous or inhumanly harsh caricatures, but as three dimensional sober-eyed champions of the downtrodden: cleaning bedpans and soiled clothing, ministering to invalids and poor people, and giving comfort to people without hope. Their morality is guided not by the priests, who rarely appear in the story, but by their own sense of what is right and fair.

The nuns are richly drawn characters. Sister Jeanne, a young nun who takes Sally under her wing, “believed with the conviction of an eyewitness that all human loss would be restored: the grieving child would have her mother again; the dead infant would find robust health; suffering, sorrow, accident and loss would all be amended in heaven. She believes this because…fairness demanded it.”

Sister Illuminati runs the basement laundry room with energetic efficiency. Here, McDermott’s fine eye for detail is on display as she writes of Sister Illuminati’s assortment of laundry ingredients: “the store bought Borax and Ivory and bluing agents, but the potions she mixed herself: bran water to stiffen curtains and wimples, alum water to make muslin curtains and nightwear fire resistant, brewed coffee to darken the sisters’ stockings and black tunics, Fels-Naptha water for general washing, Javelle water (washing soda, chloride of lime, boiling water) for restoring limp fabric.”

There is the no-nonsense Sister Lucy, who is described as having “a small tight knot of fury at the center of her chest.”

Each of the nuns makes compromises in the name of love and mercy. Sister Saint Saviour, when she reflects on her attempt to obtain a Christian burial for a man who committed suicide, prays to God, “Hold it against the good I’ve done, she prayed. We’ll sort it out when I see You.”

On the cusp of adulthood, Sally believes she has a vocation for the convent. However, during a train ride to a Chicago convent where she will prepare for her orders, Sally is revolted by the cruelty and squalor she experiences. She quickly decides not to become a nun.

What she desires more than anything is to find happiness for her mother, who spends her afternoons with Mr. Costello, a milkman, but cannot marry him because he is married to a bedridden, invalid woman. Sally witnesses Mrs. Costello’s cruelty and contempt for the nuns who care for her each day while Mr. Costello is on his milk route, and she wishes life were more fair.

Eventually, Sally marries childhood friend Patrick Tierney. Later we learn from their children that she has plunged into clinical depression in midlife.

McDermott chooses as her narrator Jim and Annie’s grandchildren, which gives the story a panoramic scope and the perspective of the passage of time. Interwoven are vignettes about the family’s history and the sacrifices made and sins committed in the name of love.

There are many lessons to draw from this novel. The one that resonates most for me is that we are all imperfect, but we must strive to do what is right. As Mrs. Tierney, Sally’s mother-in-law puts it, “God’s not going to hold it against you if you’re something less than a blessed saint. Aren’t we all human? Aren’t we all doing the best we can?”


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