Friday, January 28, 2011

Wisdom from the Writing Retreat (finally)

This blog post is two weeks overdue. The only problem (which is so *not* a problem if you'd rather me write books than blog entries) with writing retreats is I get accustomed to doing nothing but writing and when I get home, I don't want to do anything but writing, so my house is a mess, my email box.... well I apologize if I owe anyone a response and my blog.... *blows cobwebs off... again*

But the good news is that I fell in love with writing again. I worked out a lot of the issues that I was having with the Bartender Book while I was on the plane out to San Diego (seriously planes are one of my favorite places in the world to write. I love that you can't get phone calls or the internet--well, unless you pay for it and I won't), so I arrived ready to work. In fact if you read my blog post on YA Outside The Lines about getting prepared for the writing retreat, I was way overprepared. I brought something like 9 books to read and didn't even finish the one I started on the plane until a few days ago. (That does kind of suck. There are not enough hours in the day for me to read all the books I want to read. I want a reading retreat! But I think that will take place at my house *after* I finish the Bartender Book.) I'm a highly superstitious person though and I'm sure if I didn't lug all those books and research material and notes on other book ideas, that I would have completely struggled with the Bartender Book and had nothing to move on to.

Instead I didn't need those books or notes on other novels because I was writing practically twelve hours a day sometimes on the book I intended to work on. My general routine was that I got up, took a short jog in the absolutely beautiful sunny, hilly, palm-tree filled, and ocean smelling neighborhood in San Diego that our rental house was located in. Then I showered, made tea and breakfast and sat down to work.

We worked communally in a living room/dining room area. Sometimes we got a little bit chatty because writers are such socially deprived creatures (hence so many of us flock to twitter as our cyber water cooler) and I discovered what I discovered the last time I was on a writing retreat--at a certain stage in the game I can listen to music while I write. Perhaps it's surprising to people that I don't usually do so. I used to. When I was goth, I would light candles and write to The Cure's Disintegration album. I'm totally serious. Wrist to forehead.

But at some point when I went back to college to really focus on my writing, I realized that I couldn't focus with music on. I use it to focus me beforehand or get pumped up for a scene, but I generally can't write with it on. But when I went on my Canada retreat where I finished my second major draft of BALLADS, I also put my headphones in to minimize distraction. I think I have to get to a certain point with a book where I know the characters and the story so well, I know what would be playing in the background. And it has to be right music, appropriate to the story, but also stuff I know so well that it doesn't distract me. For BALLADS it was PJ Harvey, Screaming Trees, and Johnny Cash. Johnny Cash was an inspiration for the book in general and I like to say that Kara is a bastard child of PJ Harvey and Mark Lanegan from Screaming Trees.

For the Bartender Book, I listened to The Gaslight Anthem when I was writing Zoe along with The Loved Ones (and they work with Ivy a bit too) and I listened Hole's Nobody's Daughter album for the Ivy sections (though that also works with Zoe) and Siouxsie & The Banshees. It worked. I haven't tried it at home and I might today, but sometimes I have a certain mentality on writing retreat that doesn't translate to home. I wish it did because I'm much more focused on writing retreat. There was internet there and I only logged on once for a few minutes. I never have that kind of restraint at home. I normally have to physically unplug my modem downstairs to erase the temptation and sometimes that doesn't even work.

At writing retreat when I found myself getting to distracted, mainly because I wanted to talk to my fellow writers, I went out here to write. And seriously, how could you not be inspired:

And this was the sign that I would have wind things down and eat dinner soon:

And while I'm showing off good views, this was the view from my room:

Yes, that's a pool although it was not heated. But there was also a hot tub. Most nights I exercised *GREAT* restraint and did not even drink at dinner, then trotted off to my room to work until I'd reached my goal for the day. But when I did reach that goal, I joined the others in that hot tub with a pitcher of Cosmos. Good reward. This was my other reward on the second to last day and the only sightseeing I did in San Diego. (It was a writing retreat, not a vacation as I keep explaining to confused people who don't seem to believe that I really did work all day.) We went to a beach (Fiesta Island, I believe it was called?) a few miles from the house and watched the sun set. Pretty:

Anyway I always worked at least until dinner. The folks that planned the retreat wisely got us a personal chef for dinner though being vegan there were only two meals I could eat, so I simply made a big pot of beans and rice the first night I was there and ate from that when I couldn't eat the prepared meals. The communal sit down meal and discussion of all things writing related from plot talk to the business side of writing (and then just some crazy stories from our lives that no doubt inspire who we are as writers) was an important part of the process for me. I was with between five and eight writers (people came and went over 2 weeks, I was only there for the last week) who I admire in a big big way. Personal hero caliber people that I felt lucky just to sit down to a meal with. These people were all in different stages of their careers, though since most of them wrote paranormal/urban fantasy type stuff they are all more successful than me in terms of sales, but I realized, we still worry about A LOT of the same things. We all wonder if we could do better. We all think we suck sometimes. We all worry that this book will be the one we break and cannot fix. But these personal hero caliber people had compliments on my books that meant the world to me, providing much needed comfort after that year of the worst self-doubt I'd ever experienced.

As I continue to do to myself, I went into the writing retreat with somewhat unrealistic goals about how much I could do every day, but once I realized what I was capable of--usually a chapter a day up to two-and-a-half on my best day-- I felt better. This isn't revising, it's rewriting. My first draft was a zero draft, abysmal, the result of forcing myself to write unnaturally fast and focus on words per day instead of quality. So now I'm not just tightening and perfecting my word choices like I normally do when I revise, I adding scenes (god help me since this book is already too long) and removing them and rearranging. Sometimes it happens easily, but more often than not there is a lot of tinkering. There is a lot of dialogue and I freakin' hate writing dialogue. Not so much the actual talking, but the descriptions of gestures and voice and he said, she said, keeping it ground in the room and oh yes, emotional reaction, and all of this must be balanced and it can't bog the story down and I hate repeated words or imagery especially for eyes and looking and flushing cheks and gestures of exasperation and oh good god, the crying. My characters are such a weepy bunch *cough* maybe because I am *cough*. So yeah, that's hard. Along with weaving in back story. So I guess that basically means everything is hard.

Since I've gotten back some days are easier than others. It took me a week to write one chapter and then a day to combine two into one (though that chapter is still too damn long and when I say a day, I mean 12 whole hours). But this is fun again. I love my characters. I'm in love with their love interests (maybe because I've stolen some characteristics from my husband for them). They make me laugh aloud. They piss me off when they screw up. An author friend of mine, Tara Kelly, has been so kind to read part of it and she said it's like an edgy Gilmore Girls and that was a huge compliment. I love that show! And yes, Ivy kinda is like a goth Lorelei who fucks up A LOT more and Zoe is a punk, overachieving Rory and everyone is snarky and witty, but since it's my book, I make absolutely awful painful things happen to them and I take great pleasure in torturing them and seeing if they can get back on their feet. The difference with this book as opposed to BALLADS is I get to be sad and funny-- at least I think I'm being funny--and I really needed that. It's also got all sorts of quirky shit that I love from dive bars to soap operas to veganism and it's just freakin' fun. FINALLY!

Of course I still have a lot fears lurking in the back of my mind. Like the length thing. I cut a whole character/sub-plot/love interest, but I'm afraid it will still go way over and I'm going to have to carve up my beginning again and re-figure out how to weave the essential back story through and I do mean *essential* because I'm already cutting those little asides and character details that don't advance the story, painful as it is. But I just have to hope that I can do it with a really tight line-edit. And then there's the fact that it's on that YA/Adult cusp again which has not been a successful formula for me in terms of sales. But I can't help but think there is a market for this book because people watched The Gilmore Girls for seven seasons, right? And mother-daughter stories are good, right? It's basically like bastardized punk rock chick lit and I'm hoping the market is ripe for that because dammit it should be. And it's just not something I can worry about right now because I spent a year worrying about my career and it did nothing but make me miserable. I write what I love and I couldn't sell out if I tried (and admittedly, I have tried, but I couldn't push those stories along).

I realized a lot about my process on my retreat and while I have never struggled THIS much with a book (and I think a lot of that had to do with fears about my career more than anything else), there are patterns. At first I flirt with multiple ideas. I dilly dally. Sometimes longer than others like I did this time. Then I decide which book to focus on and I go! ....And I get stuck. And then I get to a point in the rewriting where it really flows and I finish and I revise again. With BALLADS there was a lot of angst between draft 2 and draft 3. I was certain things didn't connect right. It took a lot longer than I thought it would then. Hopefully with this book I did that in an earlier stage (ie. the past four months). All told, the point from when I had the idea of what kind of book BALLADS would really be (ie. thought up the whole notebook thing) and sat down and wrote it to the point where I sent it to my agent, it was a year. February to February. If this flows like I hope it will, it will be roughly a year too even though it feels longer. Because it didn't because the Bartender Book until last March or so. The book MTV Books turned down (Hurricane Zoe, I think we finally ended up calling it) was a completely different book much like The Morning After as I called my original draft of BALLADS back in 2001 had Kara, Christian, Maya, and Adrian, but was a completely different book (and basically an autobiography. Yikes.)

So yeah, this realization made me feel better. I am on schedule. The only thing is that I didn't start writing a new book right away after I finished BALLADS because I was A. Launching my career when IWBYJR came out, B. Stressing over my career by the time BALLADS came out and C. choosing the idea. A and B were huge time-sucks that I would like to avoid. I also need to learn how to perfect the planning stage so it takes a little less time.

But you can't rush the muse. I've learned this. As my husband will tell you, I'm an incredibly impatient person. It's why I hate painting my nails. You have to do it slowly and precisely and god all the layers. But writing is like cooking, when I power through it, I don't enjoy the process and I mess up the dish and don't enjoy the final product as much either. So I'm taking my time now. I'm trying to revise a chapter a day, but trying not to beat myself up when it takes longer because I have to get the scene right. Initially my goal was to finish this first real draft by the middle of February, but now I've decided the end of February is more realistic. Even then it will probably mean neglecting this blog and my email, etc, but thems the breaks if you want a new book and if even if you don't want one, I want to write it so too bad :-P Anyway, if the first real draft is done by the of February, hopefully I can get a line-edited draft to my agent by March 18. I really want it done by then because my husband and I are going to New Orleans on vacation, which is very appropriate considering certain aspects of this book. I wanted the vacation to clear my head, then I want a week of reading and to start playing with new ideas by April.

So that's the plan. I'm optimistic. It's a new feeling for me and I like it.

Oh also, if you get a chance, it would mean a lot to me if you read this. It's a letter that I wrote to my teenage self for the Dear Teen Me blog. It was hard to write, but it's the kind of writing I like to do and the kind of blogging I will be doing whenever I have the time for Memory Mondays on here. On the total flip-side, here is a hilarious (well, I think so anyway) blog at Teen Fiction Cafe that I wrote about crazy shit that my cat eats. I do like balancing the sad/dark/angry with the funny when I can. Last but not least, here's another thing I wrote that meant a lot to me. It also kind of counterbalances that Dear Teen Me blog and also BALLADS in a way. I hated growing up in Oak Park, where Ballads is set, but I *chose* to live in Forest Park, the next town over and here is an article I wrote about why.

See, I'll make sure you get your fill of fun and meaningful stuff while I'm hibernating. :) I'll see ya when I see ya, but there will be daily progress updates on Twitter if you miss me.


Bee said...

Dude, I loved Gilmore Girls and add punk rock to it? Awesomesauce!

This is such great news, Stephanie. I'm so glad the writing is coming along. You're getting there, Stephanie.

A writing retreat sounds like a great idea. I could do with one. Loving the photos.

Going over to check out your letter to your teen self now..

G'luck with everything! And if ignoring the blog will get the bartender book done, you go girl.

Katherine said...

Bastardized punk rock chick lit--Ha! Now I have a name for the genre I write. Not that I think it's going to help. San Diego is awesome, no wonder it helped you.

Kimberly Pauley said...

Can't wait to see the Bartender book. I know it will be great!

I need a writing retreat myself! I could really use one.

Amy Lukavics said...

Yaay! I'm so happy it's working out for you. I SO want to go on a writing retreat.

Stephanie Kuehnert said...

Thanks for all the support, guys! It's helping me keep up the good energy.

And for you guys wanting a writing retreat, even if you can't go somewhere, I say DECLARE ONE! Yes, it's most helpful to physically escape your house and your puking cats or kids or whatever distracts you, but I really did learn that it is mind over matter and if you tell yourself I am on retreat, I am not doing this, I am writing, maybe it will help. Hmmm now I'm plotting stay at home writing retreat week for us....