Sunday, August 22, 2010

Progress Report and inspiration from PAYA

I'm not gonna lie. I'm feeling burnt out lately. Even though I love the story I'm working on, I hate my writing right now. Slowing down, speeding up, none of it seems to help. And it's stressing me out to the point where I'm getting my least favorite anxiety-related tic--twitchy eye. So annoying.

And there have definitely been times where I think I'm done. I've said all I had to say. Ballads was the book I became a writer to write, I wrote it, it had a very small publishing run and still hasn't gotten another one meaning that it's not reaching very many people. It's disheartening and feeds those not-good-enough-so-why-bother feelings.

But then I get an email or a tweet or a facebook comment about how much somebody loved my book or how much it meant to them. And I remember why I bother.

This weekend I got to meet some of those people at the Bring YA to PA or PAYA festival right outside of Philly. This fest was organized by the teen blogger from Harmony Book Reviews organized it as a way to bring YA authors to YA readers and benefit the Pennsylvania libraries. It was absolutely amazing and I was proud to be part of it. I helped put together a riot grrrl fest when I was 16, but Harmony spearheaded this thing, which I think is a huge accomplishment and she deserves a round of applause. It meant so much that she invited me. And the event affected me in a few different ways.

For one, there were the readers. A girl who had emailed me in the past came with her mom and a friend of hers to get her copy of Ballads of Suburbia signed. The book was battered, drawn on, written in. It reminded me of what I did to a beloved pair of jeans or Converse sneakers and it allowed me to see how much someone actually loved my book. I could feel that she lived in that book the way I used to leave in my sneakers.

This is why I write.

I also did a workshop in the morning with five other YA authors, Josh Berk, Amy Brecount White, Shannon Delaney, Jeri Smith-Ready, and Jon Skovron. We broke into groups and got to hear and critique (in a productive manner, of course. I hate negative, mean, red pen critiques) a few pages from aspiring novelist. Both young women that I was grouped with were amazing.

This is why I write.

Yes, the why of writing was definitely very clear on that Saturday in Pennsylvania, but a lot of the time, the how still gets in the way. The I want to write, but I don't think I'm good at it anymore, somehow, while I was dealing with the publishing and promoting part of my job, I forgot how to do the most important part. Fortunately my fellow writers at PAYA were there to give pointers and though those pointers were intended for the aspiring writers in the audience, I took notes like crazy and didn't care that I was up there on the panel, scrawling down the words of my fellow panelists.

Jon Skovron talked about rough drafts--not even first drafts, but rough drafts because they are rough and this is the right word for them. He pointed out that he is not good at them and most writers aren't. Most writers hate their books during this phase. At the hotel bar the night before, an equally burnt out Jeri Smith-Ready (well, probably even more burnt out because she has had a crazy summer full of real deadlines unlike my deadlines that I made up for myself) and I had also discussed this. The reminder that I am not alone in thinking that I suck really felt good. If writers I admire think they suck and they definitely don't, that means that there is a possibility that I don't suck either. Jon also talked about doing whatever you need to do to shake loose, write through and finish. For him this may be pretending that he is writing a short story instead of a novel. For me, this may be just letting myself write that shitty draft after all. It's not real. And I won't totally suck when I work on it later.

Jeri Smith-Ready shared some revising and rewriting tips that I am storing up like a squirrel preparing for winter. With these tricks, I may be able to convince myself that I can write this shitty draft now because I know how I'll fix it.

Jeri says she approaches revising in three phases:
1. The rewrite, where you break it all down and put it together again. You look at what you wrote, reimagine it and restructure it.

2. Then she re-reads it to see what she may have lost in the process and she goes on to the revision state, smoothing her draft out. This usually takes another draft or two.

3. Now comes the polish phase where she makes sure to get read of those repeated buzzwords and that she has fleshed out the weakest parts of the manuscript.

She also told me about a color-coding system she learned from Margie Lawson's Deep Editing online class, where you break down your manuscript and highlight it according to things like dialogue, description, thoughts and backstory, action, so you can see where you are overdoing it and where you are lacking. I definitely intend to do this in the future.

We were all throwing in our suggestions while discussing these topics and Shannon Delaney mentioned that she keeps a big whiteboard calendar to arrange the events of her book. This was an interesting idea to me. I've been thinking about where to put a bulletin board or whiteboard in my office to help with the drafting process.

Amy Brecount White reminded us to write the novel that only you can write, to figure out what we love and want to share with the world and that is definitely this novel that I am working on. It's different than what I know and wanted to share through Ballads, but I know there is something about a neighborhood pub or dive bar that can really teach someone a lot about the world and I want to show that in a novel.

So I left PAYA ready to do that.

I recently read an amazing women's fiction (for lack of a better category) book called After You by Julie Buxbaum that really illustrated how to weave thoughts, dialogue and back story together and pack a major emotional punch. I took notes about that while waiting for my plane. I hoped to do that in my writing on Sunday, but it didn't exactly happen. I can go back and do it later though. I just need and want to push forward. If I can finish a rough draft in September and spend most of October rewriting it, having it ready to send to my agent and critique partners by the end of the month, I will be happy. Sure, I wish I could have done it in six weeks like I originally hoped or by the beginning of October as I later thought I could realistically do, but the important thing is writing a book that I am proud of, that someone will carry around with them and treat like their favorite pair of jeans.

So I'm going to try not to beat myself up so much and just push on.

Thanks to all those at PAYA for reinvigorating me.


Annika said...

Another alternative to the white board is index cards, which I love because they take up zero room on the wall (I lack wall space that isn't 'public'). Will and I were working on a screenplay that opened with a soldier getting injured (big firefight, lots of fun to write), then made its way to six weeks later, introduced new characters, and just took too long to get to the story. I wrote every scene on an index card and rearranged them so the opening was a flashback later, where the information about the injury was important. It seems like such a small, obvious thing, but I couldn't visualize it until I physically moved the scene.

Annika said...

(I hit submit too soon -- I meant to add that moving the scene allowed me to have an action beat where things had been too slow later in the movie, which was awesome. Some day I will do revisions on that thing. I really liked it.)

Jessica Secret said...

Thanks so much for this post. I'm an aspiring writer working on my first draft, so I'll definitely be using some of these tips!

Stephanie Kuehnert said...

Great example, Annika! I also use index cards for that purpose and the reason I wanted to get a bulletin board (if I can make space for it) is so I have a place to do that laying out and rearranging, but if I can't get a bulletin board, I will just do that on the floor, lol.

Jessica, glad to help! They were great tips, meant to be shared!

Jamie B said...

I love the idea of color coding your ms. I'm over my head in revisions right now and should have never read Perfect Chemistry this weekend because that just made me feel like I have no business trying to write a YA romance. It is good to hear that people you admire, who have books you love (Ballads), struggle too with feeling like they don't have a clue. :) I'm using these revision methods - thanks for the PAYA notes!

Veronica said...

I don't know anything about writing and I know even less about YA literature. But I have a daughter who loves to read so I took her to PAYA. I saw those two girls with their tattered and worn copies of Ballads of Suburbia. I think it's a rare and special thing when a book speaks into someones soul like that. It made me want to read your books. It made me want to hear what you have to say.

I'm glad you were encouraged.

Stephanie Kuehnert said...

Jamie- glad the notes were helpful. And yes, we all struggle! And we all feel that way after reading a good book too, that we have no business writing, but if you have a story that needs to be told, tell it!

Veronica,That was so good of you to take your daughter to PAYA and encourage her and I would love it if you check out my books, they are for all ages and it meant so much to me that they speak so deeply to those girls!

Carrie said...

I love your revelations. Often I keep losing sight of the fact that published authors have misgivings just like the rest of the world. I look forward to collecting your works simply because I've grown fond of your personality. It's also how I became of fan of Jeri's. Stay strong and finish your book. You can do it. :)

Stephanie Kuehnert said...

Thanks Carrie! That means a lot. And yes, we definitely have our misgivings. Lots of them. But encouraging words like yours definitely help!

April Mosqus said...

Index cards make the writing process more manageable for me, and make me feel more in control of the story. I will usually take one to two index cards (scenes) a day and just spend my day focusing on them to really flesh them out as much as I can. Basically treating each card as a separate "story." This gives me more of a sense of accomplishment than just free writing. It's in the second draft that I really focus on the story as a whole and smoothing it out. I found this worked for me for screenplay writing, and now I'm using the same process for my first book.

Good luck to you! I'm sure in the end this book will be as amazing as your others!

Stephanie Kuehnert said...

I like that approach, April it does sound satisfying. I will try it!