Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Under Pressure: A Writer's Reality

Sometimes I wish I didn't have these stories clawing at my brain, begging to be written or that I wouldn't feel incomplete and just plain crappy if I wasn't writing. Sometimes I wish I could just be happy working a nine to five job. Or really any kind of regular job. A job with a regular paycheck that would cover my mortgage and all my bills, with maybe a little bit more to go on vacation once a year or splurge on shoes or new clothes occasionally. A job that I could come home from, forget about, cook dinner, watch TV or read a book and hang out with my man. A job that allowed for carefree weekends. A job with benefits and a retirement fund.

But I had that job. And it made me miserable. I quit it a year ago and here I am. I struggle to make ends meet three nights at week at the bar. My books don't pay the bills. The little money I make from them goes right back into promoting them. If I'm lucky I have enough leftover to pay my property taxes. I have crappy insurance I pay for myself and no retirement. No paid vacation, no extra money for vacation or splurges (though I do those things sometimes and put them on a credit card and just feel bad about it). I'm never "off." I'm either writing or doing writing related work or I'm working at the bar. If I'm lucky I spend an hour or two a night with my man on the nights I'm off.

Does this make me happy? Not really. But it's worth it when I get the emails or messages or comments telling me about the impact one or both of my books made. And I'm working toward a dream. A dream that one day I can write full-time and not stress so much about bills. It seems simple, but it's not. I'm not gonna lie, some of those few hours I have with Scott are spent with me crying, wondering if I have strength for this path. He always convinces me that I do and I always press on because this is my dream. It's not easy, but the good so so so much outweighs the bad. Those letters, meeting readers, knowing that I've achieved goals I've been dreaming of since I was a little girl. But with each goal achieved there is a new goal to meet and new pressures that go along with it.

So the first goal was to get published. I was lucky and met my agent while I was still in grad school. That was the one big lucky break. Then it took over a year for her to sell the book. During this time I wrote a second book. Towards the end of this time I started exploring other career path options. Because I hated the 9 to 5, couldn't do it forever and if writing wasn't going to pan out.... But wait, then the call!

So the dream begins. I start to learn about how the industry works. I learn that as an author you have to be heavily involved in promotion, unless you get really lucky and get a big marketing budget, which didn't happen for me. So suddenly there is a new thing to balance. Before I worked and I wrote. Now I had to work and write and promote. I still haven't figured out how to balance it. The only reason Ballads of Suburbia came out so quickly after I Wanna Be Your Joey Ramone is because I'd spent the time writing it while I was waiting for IWBYJR to sell.

Timeline of my writing has gone like this:
2002 to 2005- Write IWBYJR
2006 to 2007- Write Ballads, wait for IWBYJR to sell
2007 to 2008-Revise Ballads for submission to Editor and revise IWBYJR for publication
2008 to present-Revise Ballads for publication and... a bunch of random starts and stops

Why all the stops and starts? This is where the pressure comes in. First of all, writing Ballads took a ton out of me. I wanted it as perfect as possible. This is for two reasons:
1. For the sake of the story.
2. Because the first book got some bad reviews.

IWBYJR got a lot, a lot of good reviews, but it did get some bad ones. And each one that I saw broke my heart and my spirit a little bit. I'm a freakin' perfectionist. It's just in me. Seriously, I totally fucked-off in high school, I was a stoner, I ditched a lot of classes BUT I still made sure I did enough work and went to school enough to get A's. It's just something that is engrained in me.

The bad reviews did make me a stronger writer. I'm not sure if they made me a stronger person because I haven't come across a bad review for Ballads yet, but I'm sure it will happen and I can only hope I freak out a little less than I did last time around. I don't think IWBYJR was a flawed book. I don't have any regrets about it, but I learned a lot. And I'm more satisfied with Ballads than I was with IWBYJR (which I never, ever thought would happen).

However Ballads came out during a really, really, really shitty time. I know we are all sick of hearing about how bad the economy is, but yeah, the book that was my heart and soul came out at the worst possible time. The publisher doesn't want to spend money on promoting it. The bookstores don't want to spend money to get it out there. Places for books to get coverage are disappearing. Not a good time. I don't know how the book will do. I *still* don't know how IWBYJR really did. (My most dreaded question is how are your books doing.)

But that's reality. It's a reality that has been upsetting me terribly for the last month. But I did all I could do. I spent countless hours on the cyber launch party and on every other promo effort I could think of. And now here comes the hardest part of my job. I have to let go and hope for the best. It's gotta be like sending your kid off into the world or something.

I've been struggling for the past 6 months to come up with a third book that I think will surpass Ballads and take my writing career to the next level... maybe to that place I aspire to where writing is my full-time job and the bills aren't so damn intimidating and I get just a wee, wee bit of free time. But at least a book that I can sell. Because I don't have a contract for a new book yet and that is a scary place to be.

Of course, like the perfectionist girl I am, I proceeded to put so much pressure on myself that I couldn't even write. None of my ideas seem good enough. I have one that I have been toying with since sometime in 2007, another contemporary fiction. I have one that I've been toying with all this year, the Persephone story you might have heard me talk about before, which I was trying to do as a contemporary, but I think needs to be an Urban Fantasy. And then I have the one I've been turning over for a month. The one that came to me in a dream that I had on my 30th birthday and as a girl who has long believed in signs I feel like this is one that will truly break through... But it needs lots of world building. It's like books I've read for years, since I was a kid, but have never attempted to write. Part of me is terrified I'm not good enough, but I really want to try....

So this is why I've gone to a place without internet or TV or phone for four days. I've gone to a place where I hope I can forget about sales and Amazon rankings, about reviews, about the fear of never being able to pay my bills. I've gone to a place where I hope I can remember why I loved writing in the first place. How that buzz of completing a story arc feels, that feeling of satisfaction when it all comes into place.

So no, I don't really know what I'm going to write. I'll probably start with the realistic fiction, but I hope to try my hand at something new too (and I hope my readers are open to reading something new and otherworldly from me). I don't know when my next book will come out, but goddammit I'm going to figure it out and write it!

I really hope this blog doesn't come across as me feeling sorry for myself or looking for sympathy. Cause that isn't the case at all. I can deal with this pressure. I can create something beautiful out of it. This is the path I've chosen because it leads to my dreams. Some of those dreams have already been met. As long as I keep putting one foot in front of the other, I'll get the rest of the way.

And if you want to find out some of the methods I use to stay sane and keep writing, come back on Friday, but be sure to come back tomorrow for Women Who Rock Wednesday!


little miss gnomide said...

You are an amazing woman and a wonderful writer. Your first book was honest, rich with well-developed characters, and interesting. Your second book was mind-blowing. How did you juggle so many characters? It really blew me away.

Letting go is the hardest part. Being a writer is kind of like being a juggler.

You inspire me and I know you inspire others.

Now forget about us and go dive deep into that well of creativity!

Jeri said...

Sometimes when I read your blog my neck gets tired from all the nodding. :-) I have been where you've been (am still there 90% of the time!), and it's tough. But you have amazing strength and talent, and I *know* you will achieve your dreams.

That's so exciting that you dreamed a new idea--sounds like your subconscious was working on a gift for you even through the stress.

Have a wonderful vacation, and thank you for another honest and inspiring blog post.

Anonymous said...

Stephanie- Thanks for sharing this honest account of a writer's life. My mom just gave me a copy of Ballands for my 30th birthday (hi! we're old ladies now) and I'm really looking forward to starting it.

Good luck with your "vacation" and I hope you feel productive and satisfied when you return!

RKCharron said...

Thanks for such a heartfelt blog post.
Love and hugs,
twitter: @RKCharron

Mike and Judy said...

Stephanie...you amaze me! Hope all your dreams do come true...you very much deserve them to! Love, Judy

Lisa Schroeder said...

"Sometimes I wish I could just be happy working a nine to five job."

Man, I so hear you on that. I'm not brave enough to quit like you and go after my dreams 110%, and I'm so freaking busy all the time, it's like I ask myself all the time, why? Why am I doing this crazy thing? Why can't I just stop the writing and love the job?

But I can't. We can't. So we keep on keeping on even though it's hell at times.

Thanks for this honest peek inside your soul. I think it mirrors many of ours.

Stephanie Kuehnert said...

Thanks everyone for your supportive comments and Jeri and Lisa, it especially helps to know that the two of you who I admire so much feel the same way a lot of the time.

The retreat was good. Not quite what I wanted it to be, but good. I'll blog about it soon.