Sunday, November 28, 2010

Progress Report: Starting on the Road to Revisions

*Blows the cobwebs off of the blog*

I know I have been neglecting this blog terribly. Some of the reasons for that are good (I've been focused on writing books instead) and some are bad (I've been struggling big time with the writing and it has been a hard year in general, so since I've had nothing nice to say, I haven't been saying anything as I don't want this to be a super negative place), but I hope to get back to regular blogging soon. That may not happen until early next year and I may never blog four or five times a week like I used to, but I promise to share progress reports, bits of inspiration and random thoughts whenever I can. I hope to bring you more frequent Women Who Rock Wednesday interviews next year and I really really hope I'll have good news to share some time in the near future, though that of course is dependent on me finishing a book.

So let's talk about that.

This year I had a very lofty goal: to write two books. I had two ideas that had been brewing for a while. One based in Greek mythology and the other a mother/daughter story wherein the mother is a bartender and the daughter an idealistic, politically driven, punk rock girl. At the beginning of this year that book was a YA and I had high hopes that MTV Books would want to buy it. They didn't. So I started to rework it as an adult book because I was equally as compelled by the mother's story as the daughter's. I thought it would be interesting to watch an eternally young mom finally come of age beside her daughter. I was also interested in writing about that time period at the beginning of college where you discover that the world is not exactly as you imagined it and you have to figure out where you fit (or I did at least.) This is slightly outside of YA territory, though IWBYJR certainly touched on this. But I also wanted the story to be set heavily in a neighborhood bar, which is definitely not YA material. I tried to tell myself that I was okay with the rejection from MTV because it allowed me to write the book I really wanted to write, not force it to fit a certain age range (not that my MTV Books actually did, which may be part of why they didn't sell well, but I'm trying not to think about that.) And I would still write YA--real YA, not crossover like my previous two books--with the Greek Myth based book.

So I alternated back and forth between the two books at the beginning of this year, working on one while the other was either with my agent or on submission as was the case for the 75-page partial of my Greek Mythology book. It was a paranormal, a unique idea that I hadn't seen, so I really hoped it would sell this spring. I kind of pinned all my hopes on it. Then it didn't. My agent and I came to the conclusion that since the economy is bad and I'm far from being a big name, I need to write full manuscripts before she tries to sell them. Since I was in the midst of the adult book (which I've started calling the bartender book) at the time and had written 100 pages that I really loved, we decided I should finish it first.

The new goal was to get it done before my agent went on maternity leave in mid-September. This got pushed back til the end of September when she assured me she'd still be able to read it then. I'd been fast drafting it, just writing as fast as I could with no concern about quality, something I'd never done before, but for some reason I thought I could do that and get the book done in a month and then revise for a month. This only resulted in me hating what I wrote, hating the process of writing, thinking I was no good, and then, right around the time I thought I'd be done, hitting the ultimate writing low. The plot of my book was a mess. It was way too long and I had no idea how to fix it. The rejections I'd gotten earlier in the year caught up with me. Life--the twice-flooded basement, the cats who had been sick for ten months with an illness we could not figure out how to conquer, the feeling of being stuck in Chicago longing to move to Seattle but having no way to do it as a 31 year-old bartender with a bunch of student loan debt and a writer career in shambles--all of that totally caught up with me. And I found myself more depressed than I had been in years, like post-abusive relationship in high school depressed, like sobbing nervous breakdown in the shower depressed. I wrote this blog post about it on the (now-defunct) MTV Books blog (or reprinted here in case that disappears at some point). I was brutally honest, which is something I can't help even though it hurts me sometimes, but this time it worked out. I got tons of amazing advice. One piece of it was to try National Novel Writing Month.

I had another story idea, a post-apocalyptic sort of thing, that I'd been kicking around for over a year, so I thought I might start that. Then days before NaNo, I stumbled upon another idea for a contemporary YA about a girl who is dealing with her brother's murder and a stifling emotionally abusive relationship. I couldn't decide which book I wanted to write. I tried both, roughly 20 pages of the post-apoc and 15 of the contemporary. These story starts reminded me of why I love to write and reassured me that I can indeed write. But the idea of starting something new while leaving the bartender book incomplete terrified me. I'd gone so far that I had to finish.

Taking a week off and writing other projects gave my mind a break--and the writing of other projects was key. Many of my friends urged me just to relax, not try to write at all, and I did a little bit of that, but if I'm not writing, I'm thinking about writing, so the only way for me to escape one project is to start another.

After I did that, I started mulling over one of the suggestions my critique partner Vanessa had suggested. It involved cutting or minimizing the role of a character that I do quite like and I'm still not entirely sure which I will do, but knowing that I didn't have to deal with him in the last section of the book allowed me to figure out a way to resolve many of the other loose threads. I also broke the scenes down into smaller pieces than I'd originally envisioned, which helped.

I had good days and bad days over the past three weeks, but I kept pushing ahead. Sometimes a scene was nothing but a vague outline--mostly dialogue. Those were the bad days. I've really come to hate writing dialogue. Everyone in this book is far too chatty. But sometimes I really nailed a description or the emotional undercurrent of a scene and those were the good days.

Saturday, I sketched out a last chapter/epilogue. It's very sketchy because there are so many changes I know I'll be making to the book that I'm not entirely sure how I want it to end, so I basically jotted down some possible scenes. Perhaps I will use several of them, perhaps just one. But I decided at that point to call the rough draft finished.

I wish I could say that I felt accomplished or satisfied on some level, but I honestly don't. This may be due in large part to the fact that I didn't write a final scene and couldn't legitimately type THE END. But I think it's also because this is a "rough draft" not a first draft. I usually write a first draft, meaning I have polished it somewhat as I go, I have gone back and fixed what is broken, there are no INSERT SCENE HERE notations. Sure, my first drafts are still very rough and there is a lot of rearranging and editing to be done. I did between five and seven major drafts for my first two books. But the first draft was still a fully written draft unlike this "rough draft," which doesn't even count as complete in my eyes. So yeah, not feeling very satisfied. I just wanted to call the rough draft done because I know it's time to go back to the beginning and figure out the problems with the book and fix them. In fact, it's possible that I should have done that a while ago, but I thought it was important to see exactly what I'm dealing with, ie. how BIG is the story.

The main issue is that there is too much going on and it is too damn long. It's roughly 159,000 words which is at least 59,000 too many. Some of this is the result of my characters being too chatty, but I also know that I still have a lot of scenes to add too, so the idea of cutting the word count that much is incredibly intimidating. I have some ideas of how to do that. There's that pesky character that I either need to trim down or eliminate. There's the beginning, the only part of the book that I have polished and completely love.... which is way too long and I have to figure out how to cut it down a lot. As usual my problem is that my characters have so much backstory and I have to figure out what to use and how to weave it through. I have an idea of how to restructure the beginning, but it involves a complete rewrite of the first four chapters and letting go of that beginning chapter with the perfect opening line that I thought I'd finally nailed. I'm not entirely sure how to start it off. I'm going to have to kill a lot of darlings. I spent three hours of my afternoon at writer's group yesterday trying to plot it out and failing miserably. And today I have to try again.

As freaked out as I am by the daunting task before me, I am not in that ugly place I was in mid-October when I actually told myself that I was going to quit this book and possibly quit writing forever because if I had had any talent in the first place, I'd used it up on the last book.

I love these characters and I want to find a way to tell their story. So this week I'm going to play with the puzzle pieces that make this book up and try to determine a definite way that the need to be arranged. If I absolutely can't figure it out, I will step back and work on those other projects again (though I hope it won't come to that!) And then I will write scene by scene, slowly and carefully the way I prefer to write.

I tried to write this book as fast as I could, allowing myself to be a lot sloppier than I normally would be because I needed to feel like I could finish it. It wasn't very satisfying and I probably won't take this approach again unless I do a lot more outlining first, which is another thing I don't like doing. But I do much prefer revisions so I hope that even though this book has soooooooooooo many problems, they will be easier for me to tackle mentally if I think of it as a revision.

I'm no longer imposing a hard deadline on myself. As much as I would like to say this project will be done by the end of the year, if I do that, it will be done badly. I have a writing retreat coming up from January 8 through 14. At first I was upset at my progress because I wanted to be starting something new on that trip. Then I realized that writing retreats are far more productive for me when I'm in the thick of a project. So ideally, I will be most of the way through the real first draft of the book by then and able to finish it and polish it while on the retreat. Then I can come back and reexamine my other ideas: the post-apocalyptic, the contemporary YA, and that Greek mythology inspired book that I think needs a total make-over.

So, I've gotten to the end of the first leg of the journey. I'm pretty badly bruised and I think I left a lot of blood and rubble on the trail behind me, but I'm eager for the next leg, hopeful that I will hit my stride and not create such a mess this time.

I'll try to update with fun random things when I can as I don't want to be all doom and gloom no matter how much I feel it at times.

So I'll leave you with two fun things to check out.

If you haven't read my latest (and perhaps last for the year though I am trying to line something cool up!) Women Who Rock Wednesday interview with Caridad Ferrer, do it! She is an inspiration and her new book sounds amazing and you can win it! You have until Wednesday to enter!

And as I mentioned in passing, the MTV Books blog has run it's course. Most of us involved aren't writing for MTV Books any more and even though we loved our time there, we decided it was time for something new and to bring some other fabulous authors into the mix. We decided the thread that joined us besides writing for MTV Books was that we all write outside of the lines, we don't write for the market or to follow a trend, we write from our hearts. We collected some other authors that do this as well and YA Outside The Lines was born. I will be blogging there the 13th of every month (lucky 13!) and we have so many great authors on there that there will be new content almost every day, so you should check it out. And in honor of the kick off, I am giving away a signed copy of BALLADS and a copy of one of my old 'zines (which is basically my ballad, if I really think about it, as I put it together right when I was leaving Oak Park and high school.). That contest runs until December 13, so enter it here! And Jenn Echols, who really spearheaded this blog and the MTV Books blog is giving away some of her books there too with a really fun and creative contest, so enter hers as well here.

Thank you for being patient with me as I struggle through my blah period and try to finish this book. Now off to figure out that pesky new beginning I need to write!


Annika said...

I suppose one way to look at it is that now you know you absolutely can't write fast and dirty. And that's valuable knowledge, because it will spare you the heartache of trying it again. But I know what an expensive lesson it's been in terms of time lost. <3

Karen Mahoney said...

I know it's been such a terrible struggle, but you are slowly coming out the other side. The rough draft (some authors I know would call what you have a 'zero draft') is DONE.

YAY!! Even if you don't feel like celebrating - and I can understand why - I will celebrate FOR you. ;)

Now you can move onto revisions, and produce the 'real first draft'. And then you'll be able to give that a final polish on your retreat. Good plan, give it a shot but remember it's okay to set goals and then change them. Goals are flexible things, imho.

I am still planning to read You Know What over Christmas. I got a Kindle as my early Xmas gift, so I will read it on there! Very exciting. I'm looking forward to it. :)

I totally owe you an email, but the short version for me is: aiming to be finished and hand this sucker in by mid-December at the VERY latest. I keep shifting my 'deadline'... haha... Which is why I fully endorse flexible ones.


Stephanie Kuehnert said...

Annika, it is valuable knowledge and it was a lesson I needed to learn now. I'm naturally very impatient. Hopefully this will make me less so with my writing so I don't pay the price again.

Yes, it is definitely a zero draft. I'm now getting nervous as hell about the first draft because I'm still not trusting my instincts on how to fix it. This may continue to be a long angsty process. And you are so right about goals and deadlines. I'm glad you are plugging away and hope you are able to meet yours. Thanks for offering to read That Other Book for me. Hugs to you too and GOOD LUCK! You can do it!

Anonymous said...

It all seems terribly dreadful when you're in the thick of it, but please now that your willingness to be so candid about your experiences really inspires me as a writer. I have definitely had my moments of doubt bundled with sheer terror about the worthiness of my work. But it matters to me and I love it, and if that's the only person who ever realizes that I'm okay with it.

Stephanie Kuehnert said...

Thanks Adrianne, glad I could be inspire you. Yeah, dread, sheer terror, that is defintiely where I am now, though I hope things will change soon!