Monday, March 28, 2011

My Triumphant Return! A Finished Draft!

I haven't blogged in two months and for the past month or so I've barely been online at all. In fact for the first couple weeks of March, aside from going to my bartending job and occasionally the grocery store, I was completely lost in the world of my characters-- even my husband and cats barely saw me. Sometimes this was enjoyable, sometimes it was pure torture.

In my last blog entry, I was feeling incredibly positive about the book. I was on schedule to have a solid draft done by the end of February and then a line-edited version of the book to my agent by March 18. A week after I wrote that, things came to a screeching halt. I reached the same exact point where I continually got stuck every time, the final act. (As you may have noticed I always divide my books in sections, IWBYJR has 3 acts, BALLADS has those Verse/Chorus/Verse sections, it's just kind of a thing. This book has 4 acts (though at one point it was 3, at another point 5) and for some reason when I got to the last one, right after the reveal of a major secret, I didn't know what to do. When I wrote what I'm calling my rough draft, which doesn't really count as a real finished draft because 3/4ths of the way through I decided to cut a subplot and never went back and fixed it, the dreaded last act was barely a sketch. This time I thought I knew where I was going. Then I realized that I was avoiding a bunch of scenes that actually needed to happen and had written a bunch in that rough draft that were totally irrelevant not to mention took the book into a whole new direction instead of wrapping things up like I was supposed to. This realization was preceded by the big freak-out.

I had the big freak-out on February 8th (according to the dismal series of updates on my facebook page). It started when I realized that idea for the end wasn't clicking, worsened when I looked at my still insanely high word count and then came the biggest and worst wave-- suddenly I thought that one of my main characters was completely unredeemable. I thought that I couldn't figure out how to resolve the conflict between two of my characters because I didn't see how one could be forgiven for her actions which THE WHOLE PREMISE OF THE BOOK was based one. I sent panicked emails to my critique partners asking why I hadn't noticed sooner that the whole premise of the book was flawed and I was going to write myself into a corner I could never get out of. I tweeted that this was it, I'd wasted almost an entire year on a book that did not work at the core. But then fellow writer friends that I really admire told me to calm down, that this happens to everyone at the end of a book or at least it happens to them, which made me feel sort of better and I realized that yes, it's true, I had a freak-out like this at the end of writing a draft of BALLADS too, however I was still convinced that this was way worse and this time I would not be able to get over the hurdle. The only way I did was with the help of my friends.

One by one my critique partners wrote back assuring me that the book wasn't fatally flawed and my character wasn't completely unforgivable. Even my mom (who knows a lot of this story because A. I spent much of last summer and fall writing at her house because one of my sick cats was living with her and B. the book involves a pregnancy and my mom is a NICU nurse) assured me that my character was forgivable which helped a lot because this character, who is a mom, is so unlike my own mom. So I started to think of ways to tweak my character's back story and the fucked-up thing that she does so that I could make it work. However, fixing the ending still took a while and it honestly never could have happened without my good friend and one of my favorite authors, Jeri Smith-Ready, who told me she'd be willing to give the first three acts of the book a quick read and talk through the ending with me.

So my schedule for writing the end of the book went out the window, I sent the beginning to Jeri and distracted myself by writing a different opening chapter (because I'd also convinced myself that the beginning was still screwed up too), which I sent to critique partners and also my friend Christie and my husband, but all of them told me to stick with the original beginning. In the meantime, I was starting to come up with ideas for the end. I was using twitter for cheerleading and guidance. Mari Mancusi, Melissa Walker and I started setting daily goals with each other as a way to hold ourselves accountable and it helped immensely, but also was a good place to vent. And when I got stuck on the scene I needed to start the last act, Leah Clifford started throwing out semi-ridiculous scenarios (one involved a pterodactyl), but one of them, someone loses a shoe, actually gave me a little jumpstart. Then Jeri finished reading in record time, assured me that the book wasn't total shit (in fact she actually said it was good which means a ton coming from a writer as amazing as her. Seriously have you seen the first chapter preview for SHIFT the sequel to one of my favorite books of last year, SHADE? Awesome!) and we had the first of several plot talks on Skype.

Finally, during the last week of February when I meant to be finishing the very end of the book, I started on the last act. I had to write a chapter a day for the first week of March. I finally hit a stride though and was barely sleeping because I couldn't stop thinking about the book. I was consuming a giant pot of tea every day to keep my energy up. I was writing until 1 am on the nights that I wasn't working at the bar. Of course I hit some snags and I got thrown off slightly at the very end when I realized that the epilogue I always planned to write seemed to resolve things too neatly, especially for the type of books I write. The ending of the last chapter of act 4 surprised and pleased me and I thought it might be the end of the book, but I wasn't sure. Once again Jeri and my critique partner Jenny (who had slogged her way through my 160K super rough awful ugly draft) came to my rescue and read the last couple chapters for me while I went back to the beginning again to start revising. I had some major changes to make, some chapters particularly at the beginning required a complete overhaul. Everything required tightening because the the book was still way too long and I had a week to do it in if I wanted it done before my vacation. Which I really fucking wanted. I did not want to have it hanging over my head.

I need to revise something like seventy pages a day if I wanted to get done on time with a day to read it aloud (which is my preferred line edit method). The first day or two went okay, but then I got stuck on one of the scenes I was adding. Still determined, I was revising 14 hours a day for 4 days straight. I asked my co-worker to cover my Wednesday night shift for me so I could have more time. Jeri and Jenny's verdict on my ending came in and thankfully with some slight tweaks/tightening they felt it worked. I would have had to finish on Wednesday night or Thursday afternoon at the latest to do my read-aloud, line-edit thing, but I didn't. I finished around 4:30 on Friday the 18th. I'd done a pretty good job tightening as I went along. I knew I could do a better line edit job, but I also knew my agent and critique partners would have comments and edits of their own, so I figured I might as well do the line-editing then. I went back over a couple places that I had concerns about, but by 8 pm that night, I decided I had done my best. I sent my draft, the polished version of the first real draft of the bartender book (so it was kind of a second draft) into my agent.

I did it. I finished the book at the eleventh hour before my vacation. The book that was supposed to be done in October and then in December and then in January, finally FINALLY I pulled it off. It does have a title other than the bartender book of course, but for some reason I don't want to share because I really like it (and I didn't even come up with it, my editor at MTV Books did way back when we decided this should be an adult book not a YA) but I know that books don't always keep their titles (BALLADS was always BALLADS, but IWBYJR had a few different titles), so I'm afraid of jinxing it.

In fact, now that the hard work is done, the really scary part starts. Because in the end, even though I thought it would never have a satisfying conclusion and always have plotholes and fuck, I honestly thought it would be the first big project that I completely abandoned, I fell in love with that book. Hard. During those first couple weeks of March when I was writing and/or revising 14 hours a day and things were finally clicking, I've never loved writing more. My characters came to life for me. Sometimes I laughed at them, sometimes they made me cry, their love interests definitely made me swoon (while still not anywhere near traditional, the relationships I wrote in this one are a lot more romantic than I've done in the past). This book is all things that I think it should be. It's funny. It's sad. It's frustrating. I think the characters and the place are pretty well-developed and did I mention that it actually has a freakin' end and I figured out the plot problems because it does and I did! So in other words, I worked harder on this book possibly than either of the others (though my perception may be skewed on that and I know revisions on BALLADS were very intense and that was a more emotionally intense book to write for sure), but I'm very happy with it. And as a result I'm fucking terrified that now my agent or my critique partners will tear it apart or that they'll like it but it won't sell and even if it does, it's still on the long side and somebody is probably going to make me cut some stuff I really like somewhere along the line. So yeah, those are the things I have to look forward to, but even though I am scared to death, I'm still happy that the book actually clicked. Those first two books that I wrote weren't just flukes, I did it again!

So I went to New Orleans and celebrated for a few days:

Don't worry, it wasn't really as bad as it looks! I'm just pretending there. I wasn't really fall-down drunk. In fact, I wasn't even that drunk throughout the trip especially compared to previous trips to New Orleans, though I definitely had my fair share of celebratory cocktails. (And this started the night I finished the book when I went to the bar I work at and had three shots of Patron.)

Those of you who have been following along with the saga of this book over the past year, starting with the YA version of it that my publisher turned down, know that it has been rough and while there is still a lot of potentially hard stuff ahead, it was time to celebrate. I know my struggles with writing over the past year have made the blog, my twitter feed, facebook, etc (and god help you if we're real-life friends) a bit gloomy to say the least, but when I got my tarot cards read in Jackson Square (after carefully selecting the most legit seeming reader), the reader pointed out that deep down I'm an eternal optimist and I am. I hope that the book will sell and that what I've recorded here is the creation of a book from it's rough writing days through publication and maybe my honesty will help other writers... or at least serve as guidance for me when I start the next book and inevitably face the same struggles.

I do have three other book ideas milling around in my brain and I am not sure which I will choose next. I'm taking this week off to catch up on house-cleaning and tax-doing and blog-writing and email-answering and then hopefully I will have agent notes and start revising or begin to tackle those other ideas, but I'm hoping to lead a slightly more balanced life. Part of me loves those total binge write days/weeks, but I can't do that all the time, so you should be seeing me back on the blog more often, starting with some posts later this week with more on New Orleans and the things I've been enjoying on my break in terms of books, music, TV, etc. So thanks for coming with me on this journey, dear readers!


Karen Mahoney said...

I am SO proud of you. SO happy for you!!!

YOU DID IT!!!!!!!


Congratulations. No matter what happens next, YOU DID IT. Nobody and nothing can take that away from you.


Melissa Walker said...

Super inspiring, S. So glad to have cheered with you in some small way and I can't wait to read more of you! xx

Jeri said...

YAAAAAY!! I'm so proud of and happy for you. And I do think it's great that you share both the ups and the downs here on your blog. Inspiring!

PKJ said...

yay!!!! I am so happy and excited for you- congrats Steph.

Liviania said...

Congratulations! To turn Tim Gunn's words around a little, you made it work.

Leah Clifford said...

I am SO god damned proud of you, girl! *does shots*

Robby said...

This is SO exciting. Congratulations. You are unstoppable.

Liana said...

wow! triumphant indeed. this was a very inspiring read. Can't wait to read it!

Audrey (holes In My brain) said...

That's so exciting! I'm so glad for you, congrats!! :) Loved the post!

Stephanie Kuehnert said...

Thanks for all the positive comments and cheers of congratulations! I really can't tell you how much it means to me. Knowing I had folks like you rooting me on meant the world to me!

Matthew MacNish said...

Wow. You've got a lot of blogs. I hope this is the right one to follow.

Well, congratulations either way!

Stephanie Kuehnert said...

Thanks Matthew and yes this is my primary blog :)