Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Work-In-Progress Progress Report

I'm hiding out in the writing cave for the next ummm month or two or however long it takes to get this book done. But the plan is periodic updates or progress reports. I don't know how exciting they will be because mostly they are to remind me how I write novels if I ever take two years off from doing that in order to revise and promote my published books (which I'm going to try NEVER to do again because figuring this out again has been hell), but others may glean some tips too, I hope.

Here's the latest:

Up until about a week and a half ago, I was plowing through my work-in-progress, the bartender book as I’ve been calling it. It was nearly 250 pages and 70,000 words long. 125 pages of it felt beautiful and perfect and I was so proud of them. I’d spent more than two months on those pages alone, mainly because I thought my agent was going to shop it as a partial. However, after the YA project I was working on failed to sell on partial, we decided that the market was too bad and I don’t have enough of a name to sell on partial. Mid-July, my agent told me how much she loved what she’d seen of the bartender book and that she thought I should write the whole thing to ensure that it sold and sold well.

Of course, the issue is that she’s going on maternity leave in mid-September, so I felt I had to finish it by then if I had any shot of selling a book this year.

So I took the plow through it, shitty first draft approach. My last progress report blog entry was about my struggles with that, how it didn’t totally feel comfortable for me. I liked seeing huge word counts at the end of the day, but the writing didn’t feel satisfying and I wasn’t taking the time to discover, just plowing through my outline. Still, I had a plan to finish a shitty first draft around the 23rd or so of August and then spend a couple weeks revising and have the whole thing into my agent right after Labor Day.

Oh what a beautiful pipe dream.

The fast and shitty draft came to a screeching halt on the last day of July after I got overwhelmed the enormity of it all. Basically I realized I still had approximately 200 pages to write, meaning I’d need to drop something like 100 pages. For one, I knew it meant changes to my beautiful, perfect beginning. Then I realized I needed to cut 50 pages from the 125 pages of crap where I’d rambled quite a bit and taken a bit of a wrong turn.

I continued to panic for a few days, going back and forth between my desire to make the changes I knew the manuscript needed and to just plow ahead and deal with it all after getting through my full story like I’d originally intended.

Last Wednesday I got a flash of a solid scene that would help streamline my beginning and I decided that I would write that. Finally 2000 words that felt good to write. So I decided to tackle the section I’d just wrote since I knew it needed changes. They haven’t come easy. In the past two weeks, I feel like I struggled for four days in a row to get to one good day of writing and have had two good days of writing all together. Obviously if this keeps up, I’ll be lucky to finish this book by the end of the year. But during my last period of four days while I was struggling, I figured out how to compress some things, so I’m hoping my anxiety about length won’t be so crippling anymore.

I’ve also learned some things about myself as a writer. Fast and shitty isn’t satisfying. The word count numbers may be, but I don’t feel accomplished and in fact am prone to derail myself. I basically have to do the two weeks/125 pages of fast and shitty all over again. I have to go at a pace where I am at least visualizing what is going on not just writing what is basically an expanded outline with dialogue. Maybe it comes from the method of writing that I studied in college, but if I’m not seeing at least some of the tiny details, I’m not deep enough into the moment of story and I easily lose my way. But those tiny details can get me back on track. The first sight that got me back into writing was an image of a girl sticking her feet out the window of an old car. From that image, I discovered a new scene that taught me essential back story about one of my bigger characters. (And that was the other reason I got so frozen last week. There was a character whose backstory I’d taken from another version of this story and it just wasn’t working. I tried to move on without knowing his backstory, but I could not. It went against everything I care most about in storytelling which is building character. How could I move forward and just have this character perform like a puppet for me without knowing his motivation.)

Most recently I got stuck arranging a chapter. I knew several things needed to come out, but wasn’t sure how they would all occur. (It was like a smaller version of the problems I’ve been having with this book in general; I know what needs to happen, but executing it, getting it all to flow together smoothly, is the problem.) I had a workshop with my critique partner on Monday night where we both forced ourselves to work and push even though we didn’t feel capable. I skipped ahead to the beginning of the next chapter when I got a strong image of ice cubes clinking into a glass. I kept pushing and pushing at that image and figured out exactly what I needed to have happen in the previous chapter.

The next morning, I started writing in a blank document, developing the scene I saw the night before, getting it down, pushing it as far as I could take it and writing it well (as in good for a first draft). Then when I started to tire, I took a lunch break, re-examined my plan of action and went back and fixed and finished the chapter that had been stalled out for the past three days. All in all, I wrote 3,100 words and for the most part I was happy with them, by first draft standards. There are places I need to flesh out later, parts where I may have rambled, but the writing actually felt good.

So I have a new plan. I have about 200 pages/60,000 words/17 and a half chapters left to write. Before, when I was doing the shitty first draft, I was trying to write at least a chapter a day. Now, I’m trying to write half a chapter a day. This will cause me to finish about a month later than I’d originally intended and I will still have to revise, so I may not get the manuscript in at the beginning of October as was my latest hope (Labor Day became quickly unrealistic once I saw exactly how shitty the shitty first draft was). In fact I may be getting it in around the same time my agent is having her baby, which means she won’t read it for a while and may not be ready to shop it until next year. Yes, this sucks. This will mean going 2 years without selling a book and more than likely, two or possibly three years without having a book on the shelves as I’m guessing 2012 is the absolute soonest it could fit into a publishing schedule *if* it sells fast.

But I’m trying to put this out of my mind. I have another project to work on while my agent is reading this one. I can take a two week break and then dive into that one, hopefully having established a work pattern that works for me.

The pattern I am trying now is to open a new document every day, write as vividly as I can for as long as I can hold out (hopefully at least 1000 words before lunch, I think Melissa Walker does that and she’s awesome and I admire her so I’ll try it), then let it devolve into semi-shitty and then when I’ve run out of energy either revise or plot and visualize for the next day.

Since I’m trying to be a full time writer, my goal was to spend 8 hours a day writing when I’m not working at the bar. But eight hours is a long time to do that, especially with any quality to it. I tend to burn out sometime between 5 and 6 and that’s fine. Of course, I can hope that I will get into a rhythm like I did with my previous books where I can pull a 10 to 12 hour day on occasion and maybe that will make this happen faster. Who knows?

But hopefully today will be another good day since I could really use a reversal of my pattern and instead of sucking four days in a row to have one good day of writing, I’d rather have four good days in a row with one sucky day (or preferably none!). We’ll see. But so far this is what I have discovered works for me. Fast, furious and totally shitty is just frustrating and takes me off course. Solid for a thousand words and then semi-shitty for the next thousand is more what I’m aiming for. It’s not quite as fast, but far more satisfying and will hopefully motivate me through these next two months where it’s gonna be all work and no play for me.

No play except for my appearance at the PAYA festival in Pennsylvania on the 21st where I will be leading a writing workshop, so if you want more writing tips and you are in the Philly area you should sign up!

But yeah, other than that I’m on a strict schedule of writing solidly five days a week, taking one day off for errands and one day off to try to cram in a bit of socialization so my friends don’t totally hate me. I guess this is what I get for not finding balance in writing new books/promoting my current books earlier!

If you are also pounding away at the keyboard, locked in the writing cave, trying to finish a draft, you should check out this writing challenge for September. You can win cool prizes for throwing your name in the ring (Including a copy of Ballads of Suburbia with a signed bookplate!), so go for it!

Before I go back to the cave, I'll share a bit from the scene I wrote that helped me break into my one character (Bender) and get back into my groove (however briefly) last week. This isn't the scene where I write about his background, but it helped me see him, Cole and an very important object to the story, Bender's fifties Lincoln.

As I've mentioned before this book is written from two points-of-view, 39 year-old bartender Ivy and her 18 year-old daughter Zoe. This is from Zoe's POV, remembering when she met her two best friends:

Due to our abrupt move, I started school a week later than everyone else. All the kids in my first class turned and stared at me when I walked in, escorted by the principal’s secretary. The teacher forced me to stand at the front of the room and introduce myself. It was a humiliating experience I’d been through too many times in my life, and I couldn’t bear the thought of repeating in every single class that day. When first period ended, I proceeded directly to the nearest exit.

It was drizzling slightly, so I pulled up hood of my worn black sweatshirt and zipped it up as I cut through the parking lot behind the school. Pete had given the hoodie to me for my thirteenth birthday and it bore the logo of a Swedish hardcore punk band, one of our mutual favorites who weren’t very widely known, so I practically jumped three feet in the air when a boy stuck his shaved head out of the passenger’s side of a boat-sized, vintage black Lincoln and remarked, “Great band!”

He laughed at the way he’d startled me, his bloodshot hazel eyes glistening. His friend leaned across him from the driver’s seat and apologized. “We didn’t mean to freak you out,” he said, though his face full of piercings—left eyebrow, right nostril, labret, and eight-gauge stainless steel hoops stretching both earlobes—and the blue spiky hair that nearly touched the soft tan fabric lining the roof of the car told me that he usually enjoyed freaking people out. “We just got excited because no one around here has decent music taste. This place is such a—”

“Nowhere?” I finished. “That’s what my mom calls it.”

“Pretty much,” Blue Hair agreed with a grin as Shaved Head nodded, unrolling the sleeve of his plain white t-shirt to retrieve his pack of cigarettes. He had an anchor tattooed on his bicep and just as much stubble on his chin and cheeks as he had on his head, leading me to wonder exactly how old these guys were.

I gestured over my shoulder at the high school and asked, “You guys go here?”

Shaved Head cracked a smile that made him look younger than me and joked, “We go, but we don’t go inside.”

Blue Hair rolled his eyes and punched Shaved Head in the shoulder. “That’s one of Cole’s favorite dumb jokes. He has many. We’re juniors. And I’m Bender, by the way.” He extended his hand, which had dirt permanently caked into the nail bed from constantly tinkering with the Lincoln as I would learn.

“ZoĆ«,” I said and added sheepishly, “Freshman.”

“Really?” Bender asked. “You look older.”

I shrugged. I got that a lot, presumably because of my height. I’d sprouted another few inches that summer and was fast approaching six feet.

But my age didn’t matter to them and they didn’t seem to care that I turned down the joint that Cole stepped out of the car to smoke either. We were the only punk kids in Nowhere and I knew about a bunch of bands that they’d never heard of. Within twenty minutes, I’d plugged my iPod into the Lincoln’s stereo system and they were giving me a tour of the town. That was all it took to bond us for life.


Jamie B said...

Good luck with your WIP! I've been speed writing as well and finding it isn't producing the greatest results. Here's hoping you get your great book finished and sold fast!

Katherine said...

Love the excerpt.

Carrie said...

I love to read about your struggle as an employee and an author. You're so real. Look forward to buying this book. Stay strong. This is the dream and you'll be living it. Get those words done. There'll be time for a life later.

Annika said...

I think that your realizations and new understanding of how you write are HUGE. You've cracked the code! Knowing this stuff won't make writing EASY-easy, but it will be so much easiER because you won't be wasting time doing it wrong.

I love you and I believe in you! This book is going to rock.

John McNally said...

When I'm working on a new book, I try to keep James Joyce's words about the artistic life in mind: "silence, exile, and cunning." To which, I would add "patience." Good luck!

Stephanie Kuehnert said...

Thanks everyone, for your words of encouragement.

Jamie B, clearly speedwriting just isn't for everyone. you and I have proven that!

Katherine, thanks!

Carrie, thank you. I'm trying and I sure hope all my friends won't hate me by the time I am done and I will still have time for a life :)

Thanks Annika, I hope I have cracked the code. I've notice the code has it's way of changing on me, but hopefully this will be much easier and thanks for believing in me.


That is a great quote and a great addition to it. Man, I suck at patience. Give me instant now!!!! Thanks for the advice and the much needed luck!

Alexa Young said...

I love the way you write--about your life, as well as in your fiction. That excerpt is fantastic. I'm hooked. I'm also inspired to finally dive into my WIP, for which I've only done an outline so far. Beginnings are the hardest for me. Well, one of the hardest parts, anyway. Good luck w/this! I do feel your pain...XOXO

Stephanie Kuehnert said...

Thanks Alexa. Yeah, I feel you with beginnings. At least with this book. The first two, I had a really solid idea of the beginning and the struggling came later. This time around the whole first draft has been a struggle! Good luck with your writing. I can't wait to read it!