Tuesday, July 27, 2021

What Hank's Writing: Green Beans


HANK PHILLIPPI RYAN: Today the topic is: green beans.

Some years ago, I came into the kitchen of my father’s house, where he was standing at the sink, snapping the ends off the green beans, and humming.

You seem happy, I said. Happier than I’ve ever seen anyone snapping off the ends of green beans. And, I have to say, there were quite a few of them, since dinner was for dad and his wife, and me and someone (I won’t go there, long ago) and four siblings and their significant others and various of his grandchildren. Lots of green beans.

Do you need help? I asked. Happy to pitch in.

Nope, he said. I’m fine. I like doing this.

And I said, why do you like snapping off the end of green beans? Hundreds and hundreds of green beans? It's going to take forever.

That’s exactly the point, he said. It isn’t going to take forever. It’s going to take me a finite amount of time, just as long as it takes to get all these green beans done. If you think about them as hundreds of green beans, it seems impossible but one by one by one, it’s nothing. And if you persist, and if you finish it, you’ll have fun of having all these nice green beans. And then you can share them. And then they’re delicious. And everyone is happy.

As you can see, that stuck in my mind, but most the time I thought about it when I was snapping off the ends of green beans of my own. I thought about my dad, and all lessons I learned from him, and thought it was sweet that the green bean lesson was so resilient.

But now here I am in my new book, I am on word --to be exact--47,842.

When I am in the middle of thousands and thousands of words in a story, with thousands and thousands words to go, I sometimes think; THIS IS GOING TO TAKE ME FOREVER. That there is no way I’m going to get to 100,000 words, no matter what I do.

And then I began to think about the green beans. And the arithmetic and patience involved. If I don’t write my book word by word– – bean by bean ––I will never have enjoy having all of those words. And by simple arithmetic, they all have to add up. I mean, it’s addition. Add a word, then another word, and then another word.

I teach a class called The Muddle in the Middle. In it, I explain to writers why the middle is so difficult, and offer some steps to avoid getting mired in it. And how to extricate yourself from the middle’s inevitable quicksand. We’ve all read books where this problem is apparent--where we just keep turning the pages, wondering is anything going to happen?  (And sometimes we think: STOP TALKING, YOU PEOPLE!) Until the author manages to crawl their way through the middle and get to Act III, where there is some big revelation and twist and surprise and yet another twist and then the wonderful emotional wrap-up coda.


There are lots of secrets you can use to keep your manuscript moving forward, and I must admit, with some amusement, that when I was sitting there at word 44,000 (see? I took a pic to commemorate the moment), I thought: what am I going to do? What what what am I going to doooooooo?

And then I thought well, Miss Smarty, why don’t you just take your own advice? So I thought about some of the things that I tell my students, and used one of them! (I will reveal that I had the power go out. And it turned out to be a great thing.)

I also reminded myself that I felt exactly the same way in the middle of HER PERFECT LIFE. (Which comes out in about 50 days. Yikes. ) And that time as well, I just kept typing. Just kept going. I just kept saying : write one more line, write one more line. And it all seemed to work very nicely.


Did I tell you HER PERFECT LIFE got starred reviews from Kirkus and Publishers Weekly? Very very lovely.

Or you might say, cool beans.

So as I am writing the new book—pssst--just don’t tell anyone, it's called...well, no, I can’t tell you yet. But here in the middle, I think of my dad, and I think of those beans. And I just persist, bean to bean to bean.

And now I realize I sound like Ann Lamott (sort of), Bird by Bird, but that never crossed my mind until this moment. 

Maybe its falls to each of us to discover our own metaphor for patience. Our own way of muddling through the middle of something that we know it will be worthwhile. Something that is rarely easy, and a major hurdle, but in the end infinitely rewarding.

So thanks, Dad. Those were some magic beans!

Reds and Readers, tell us what you think about in the midst of a long and tedious task!

PS. I’ll be teaching The Muddle in the Middle as a Master Class at this year’s New England Crime Bake. (Where, Reds and Readers, I have been named Guest of Honor.) (An honor for which I am still in utter disbelief. And infinite gratitude. ) The registration is capped, so hurry to sign up for an incredible weekend! Here’s the link.

(And SO funny--just go to the Crime Bake website and see who the GOH was in 2020. :-) )

66 comments:

  1. I love the green beans story, Hank! [I used to snap green beans with my children when they were small; now we are visiting grandbabies in Colorado and they’ve told me about snapping green beans with their mom. Magic indeed . . . .

    What do I think about in the midst of a long and tedious task? It depends on what I’m doing, but most of the time I think about my mom rolling out dough . . . she always said when we were done with our homework or whatever task we were doing, the piecrust would be ready to eat. And it always was . . . .

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  2. Long and tedious tasks. That is much of my job. But you just have to do it, sometimes line by line, to get it figured out and the journal entry done or the account reconciled.

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  3. I love this story. Bean by bean. Word by word!

    Way, way long ago when I had a hiking buddy and we were on the uphill of a steep mountain, Bob Wister would say, "Be as a camel. One foot in front of the other." It works! I still say that to myself, whether I'm walking up a steep hill or writing a book.

    Now I'm off to sign up for your master class, my dear.

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    1. (By the way, Bird by Bird is by Anne Lamott, not Patchett...)

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    2. Oh, yay! That's so terrific.. thank you!
      And yes, you are SO right! My poor brain..`

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  4. Such good advice, as always, Hank. I am sitting here slightly upset. New England Crime Bake would have been my perfect first convention. Alas. Bad timing. (Sigh.) My high school bestie was here with her daughter for an overnight on Sunday and they both knew who you are and have read your books and bestie met you at a luncheon. (Sigh) Congratulations on being honored at Crime Bake, Hank.

    Now, we all have some type of mantra to pull us through the tough parts. I like Edith's hiking uphill. The reward is the view from the top and also knowing you climbed it.

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    1. Oh, I am so sorry about Crime Bake--its not til November, so who knows.

      And SO fun that your friends know of me! Hurray! Very cool, and thank you for telling me! (and thank you for your lovely note. oxoo)

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  5. Shalom Reds and friends,

    In Hebrew, the expression is “Parah, parah.” Literally it means Cow, Cow. It is used to mean “One at a time.”

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  6. Ugh, one of these years Crime Bake is going to occur on a weekend where I can actually go.

    Great story, Hank. What gets me through? One, Hallie's, "Hold your nose and write." But the other one is you: Think of what would happen. Now what if something else happened?

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  7. One more. One more. One more. That's what I tell myself when I'm doing something that seems endless. One more word to write. One more shovel full to dig. One more block to walk.

    It was Anne Lamott who wrote One Bird at a Time. Anne Patchett wrote Bel Canto, among others.

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    1. Bird by Bird is the correct title for Lamott's book. I got it wrong, I realized as soon as I read Edith's comment.

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    2. We will get it right at some point! I changed the last name in the past. It takes a village!

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  9. Love this! Bean by bean is more fun than "keep writing" but it's the same idea. We can't revise, rewrite,improve - or toss and start over! - if we haven't written it. (How do you get to Carnegie Hall? Right? Same answer) People who dream of writing have sometimes asked me "How?" and that is always, always the answer. And sometimes I have to relearn it myself too. Wish I could take that master class...as I approach the complete muddle of WIP
    :-)

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    1. Oh Triss, it is such a slog! xoxoo But you have done it before, many many successful times, and you will do it again. xx

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    2. Thank you, Hank. And congrats on your role at CrimeBake! Have fun

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  10. Bird by bird, bean by bean, Anne Lamott's one inch picture frame, EL Doctorow's "writing is like driving at night in the fog. You can only see as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way."

    I'm guilty of "serial questioning" in my middles, but cranking up the tension and throwing in a Ukrainian thug tailing the intrepid amateur sleuth does the trick.

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    1. OH, what is the one inch picture frame? And yes, the old Ukrainian thug method. Classic. :-)

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    2. I have told reader-audiences more than once, "If my book has a second murder? It's because I was stuck in the middle!"

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    3. Lol, rotfl! Thanks, Edith!

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  11. Those beans look delicious! I used to plant beans in my garden but I haven't for a couple years now. But fresh green beans are simply the best!

    What a wonderful way to conjure up your father's memory and use his advice in your latest work! looking forward to reading it.

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    1. Yes, aren't they? REAL fresh green beans have a completely different taste than the ones you get fresh in a store.

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  12. I'm also reminded of the folk song, "Inch by Inch, Row by Row" - sung by many, including Pete Seeger. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=u90qRE2F7CM

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    1. Oh, love him! (also one of my dad's favorites.) I will find this soon..it will be my reward.

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    2. My dad loved him, too! We had his records, solo and with the Weavers.

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  13. My current mantra is “baby steps.” I had knee replacement surgery six weeks ago today, and I’m itching to get back to my normal walk of a few miles per day. Well, that’s not going to happen for a good long time, but just in the last week alone I have been able to add minutes to my daily walk. Some days it’s only one more minute than the previous day, some days it’s two or three more minutes than the previous day. Normally, I’m not patient with something like this but I realized that I needed to break it down into small steps, “baby steps”, so I wouldn’t get discouraged. There is light at the end of the tunnel.

    DebRo

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    1. good luck with your continuing rehab Deb! You will be so happy when it's all over

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    2. Go for it, Deb! I have survived two and I can walk a fast hilly hour. You'll get there.

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    3. So glad to hear you're progressing well, Deb!

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    4. Go, go, go! Let me know when you can drive! We're gonna have lunch!

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    5. Thanks Roberta, Hank, Edith, Deb, Judy!
      My recovery has been slowed down a bit because the nerve block has not completely worn off yet. (Edith, did you experience anything like this?) My knee feels pretty good and I can straighten it out completely and bend it completely, but I can’t really feel my foot.Therefore, baby steps.
      Judy, I’m driving but only around town so far. I hope to be able to drive farther away within the next month. I want to do that lunch!!

      DebRo

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  14. Bean by bean, inch by inch (I love that, and sing it to myself when I need to), mile by mile (I motivated myself on the drive from Minneapolis with half a candy bar each half hour), word by word. I'd get through grading for six classes with "just one more folder." There is joy in the final product. HER PERFECT LIFE is . . . well, perfect. <3

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    1. Aw, thank you! And there you have my motivation! (your approval, not the candy bars :-) )

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  15. I have a photo of my grand-nephew from last summer, sitting on the patio snapping beans with me. The expression on his face is priceless, totally in the moment, absorbed in his task. I think of it often--the pleasure of being in the moment, no matter the task, no matter how far there is to go to finish.

    You'll get there, Hank--and thanks for sharing your dad's wisdom.

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  16. In the midst of a long and tedious task, I'm usually thinking something along the lines of "For cripe's sake, am I ever going to finish this?"

    But when it is something I'm working at my job, I still keep plugging along because whatever "it" is, has to get done. It stinks and it is a drag but that's just the way things go. Because until I win the lottery, I must survive...and that means I have to do the work.

    As for what I'm writing lately, I finished and submitted a review of the new Helloween CD and I'm working on another new CD review. I submitted a new Cassette Chronicles article that goes up this week. And I've been reading and doing reviews of books on Goodreads. Oh, and two reviews I submitted to Mystery Scene magazine have been accepted.

    Sadly, this morning I learned of the death of Mike Howe, the singer of one of my favorite bands METAL CHURCH. Earlier today, I didn't have the words to express my sadness at his passing. But I just posted a brief piece on my Facebook page and I'll be writing a lengthier sort of tribute to him as I work on my August 12th Cassette Chronicles article which is now going to be about one of the band's albums.

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    1. You are really creating such an influential place for yourself in the writing world. SO great! And I am so sorry for your loss. That is so--unsettling and upsetting, I know. But he lived to bring people joy, and so you gave him a gift already.

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    2. Hank, I don't see it as being any kind of influential presence in the writing world. Sure the people in charge of deciding what gets published and/or posted are seemingly happy to have the content I generate but I don't delude myself into thinking that there's anyone out there wondering "I wonder what Jay thinks of the new Helloween CD" or "I wonder what Jay's review of Daniel Silva's The Cellist will say". I mean it would be nice if the world waited with baited breath for one of my reviews but I don't see that happening ever. But I do appreciate your sentiments.

      Deborah, thank you very much.

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  17. HANK,

    That is a wonderful analogy. Thank you.

    Diana

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  18. Bean by bean reminds me of Mom's mantra, "just one more bite." She insisted we had to try everything and eat at least 3 bites even if we hated it.

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    1. That never worked when my mother tried it with me. From the time I was a baby, any time she tried to get me to eat vegetables, I would spit them out and refuse to eat them. It never changed in all my years on this planet.

      I can be the living embodiment of the word "stubborn" when I want to be.

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    2. We had the three bites rule, too!!

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    3. My friend's rule was "as many as your age" for her children. One spring, when her teacher nerves were a bit raw, she gave her son the choice of eating it nicely or having Mom force feed him. Father calmly advised, "Son, don't mess with your mom in May."

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  19. I love this, Hank! Now I'm going to go write another bean...

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    1. By a nice coincidence, I'm going to be snapping fresh green beans from the farmer's market for dinner. I'll think of your dad!

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  20. Congratulations on the starred reviews, Hank! So wonderful! And I love the green bean story, especially since I hate middles with the heat of a thousand suns. :)

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  21. Congratulations, Crime Bake 2021 GOH! And I see you'll be teaching "The Muddle in the Middle" as a master class as well. I need to sign up, because I definitely have problems with the middle, or, as I call it, the Slough of Despond.

    I love your father's green bean attitude - it's an extremely Zen pose. Being in the moment, just doing the work. Maybe someone needs to teach a master class on Zazen for writers!

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  22. Oh.... so very very tempted to attend the Crime Bake.. Hallie, Julia, and Hank.. and the Hilton.. sigh...//and the blizzard of 2021 perhaps?
    Congratulations Hank. I was not aware that teacher was an additional feather in your cap.
    If I try to plan my time of doing the task and set a deadline, I will become frustrated. If I allow the task to flow a bit each day, I don't know when the middle will be..so less stressful. It does help that I am not living on deadlines any more of course.

    Raises hand to ask an off topic question: Hank. Do you choose character's names to reflect their personality? This hypothesis did fit with Her Perfect Life, and congratulations on both important 'star' reviews.

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    1. CORALEE! YOUR review was SO amazing--oh. I am in awe. Thank you. And about the names. You are brilliant, and we can talk. There's a thing about names "fitting," and sometimes it begins with the characteristic, and sometimes, it's magic.

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  23. I posted this earlier, but Blogger seemingly crashed and it was lost in cyberspace. Oh well.
    My go-to for the midst of long and tedious tasks is the mantra of Dory from the Disney flick Finding Nemo: Just keep swimming, just keep swimming. Heard inside my head to the singsong tones of the character, of course.

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    1. YES! Just keep swimming. I say this ALL the time! xx

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  24. I love the analogy of the beans, bean by bean is a good way to get anything done. And here's a coincidence, I had just registered for Crime Bake and treated myself to a single Master Class, one Muddle in the Middle. Then, ventured over here to see what the JReds and commenters had to say. And look! Muddle in the Middle! (Crime Bake, hip hip hooray!)
    --Melanie

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    1. WOW. Hurray--and meant to be! xxx Cannot wait to see you.

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  25. LOVE you all! And thank you for a wonderful day!

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  26. Coming into this late, but I couldn't resist commenting, as I am currently on page 44,241 of MY latest mystery--although by now, Hank, you've probably added more beans to the bowl. When I'm really stuck in the middle and desperately need inspiration, I usually go interview someone who knows something about the subject of the book. If nothing else, that gives me a break without making me feel guilty (since interviews can be classified as useful), and sometimes it provides me with new ideas.

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