Wednesday, June 1, 2011

I'm Done (I Hope!) Now What?

A week ago today I collapsed in total exhaustion... I mean I handed in revisions on The Bartender Book (and yes, it has a real title but I am superstitious about these things so only a few people know it). I almost collapsed in total exhaustion too. I had to go to work at my real life bartending job right after and it was not pretty. I was dazed. I could barely figure out how feed myself, comb my hair and put my makeup on. I paced back and forth behind the bar, swilling Diet Coke to stay awake, I kept sort of expecting Bender and Eli and Ivy and Zoe to come in. Those are the characters. For the last week of revisions, I spent more time with them than anyone else, even my husband. They became completely real to me, my best friends. And I miss them.

I've been focusing solely on this book (as my only novel project at least, I've had other freelancing and essay projects) for over a year and those characters are what kept me going. If you are regular blog readers, you'll know that writing this book has been HELL for the most part. If you aren't familiar with the saga, I will quickly bring you up to speed. This book idea was born from a YA idea that I knew wasn't quite right and that got turned down as my option book by my publisher, MTV Books. I had a discussion with my editor about refocusing the story and writing it as an adult book and that got me really excited about it... for a few months. The early enthusiasm and the final push of revisions are the most fun parts of writing for me. The middle part is always a challenge, but this time it was worse because I was worn down. By the endless promotion of my first two books. By my perceptions that those two books had failed. By the most intense period of depression and self-doubt that I've had since my junior year of high school when I was recovering (surviving?) from an emotionally abusive relationship. I was drained and desperate. I'm not by nature a fast writer, the ideas take a while to stew and then it takes me a year or more to write a solid draft. But I felt like I had to write and sell another book as fast as I could because the other two I'd written were completely forgotten. I pushed myself so hard that I broke and my book broke. I wrote so fast and desperately that I lost control of the story. (This is why word count goals, especially big ones, are not the best method for me.) It took six months to rein it in. I lost faith and almost quit--this book *and* writing in general-- on several occasions.

But those characters--Ivy, Zoe, Bender, Eli, Dylan, Rex, Troy, Reed, John B, Adam The Grouch, and the setting where the story takes place--a small Midwestern neighborhood bar that feels like home (probably because the description and vibe of the place are based on the bar where I work, my home away from home)--they wouldn't let go. I had to tell that story. I had to prove that I could finish, that it wasn't just a fluke.

On March 18, I completed a draft I was proud of. I knew it wasn't perfect, but it was solid, it told a full story without major holes or flaws and I could give it to my agent and critique partners without cringing. So I sent it off. Then I went on vacation, I caught up with friends, I did major spring cleaning, I toyed with a couple of ideas, but I knew there would be revisions so I was mainly biding my time.

On April 11, notes from my agent arrived. I was terrified to open the email at first. I'm still with the same agency, but working with a different agent there now. This was a major change while I was feeling really fragile about my writing, so I was extra uncertain. But of course, Elana my new agent is super cool and I did not need to be afraid. Also as it turned out, my hard work had paid off so the notes werent devastating, they were smart and insightful and for the the most part, stuff I knew I needed to do.

The book was long and had lots of back story, I knew and my agent reinforced that I needed to trim the fat and make sure the back story wasn't taking over, especially at the beginning. I'd also spent so much time making sure I'd nailed the motivation and growth of one main character that I'd neglected the other. Those were the main issues.

So I got to work. It was slow at first, but it's always slow getting back into the writing zone. Admittedly, I also thought this would be the easy part. I hate first drafts. I love revisions. But I conveniently forgot that revisions are hard too. They might not push me as close to the edge as first drafts, but revisions are when my perfectionist side kicks into high gear. Each phrase, each word must be perfect. This means I might analyze a page or a paragraph for a day or two. That is the frustrating part. No matter how much leeway I give myself I always seem to be behind on the deadlines I set for myself. (Only for myself, when a publisher/agent gives me a deadline, I'm much better about it.) Things always take longer than I think they will.

In this case it was the first chapter that really slowed me down. I spent like two or three weeks agonizing over the changes I need to make to it. I cut it up into pieces and spread it out on the floor trying to make sense of it. I thought I totally fucking nailed it and sent it to my critique partners. When I got notes back about work that still needed to be done, I wanted to cry. In fact, I might have cried a little. I know I lost a night's sleep. But after I rested, I tackled it again. What she said made sense and I used it to make the beginning better.

My technique of shrinking the manuscript pages down four to a page and revising on paper that I mentioned in my last update worked really well. It took twice as long (actually, maybe longer than that) to go through them as I thought it would, partially because I found myself reading the manuscript aloud at this stage. I resisted at first, thinking that was supposed to be the last stage, but realizing it came naturally, I went with it. Why do a light revision on paper if it was working for me to do a deep edit? Of course then I thought because I'd done such a deep revision, typing in my edits would be a snap. That also took twice as long as I thought because I found myself making more changes as I went. That was a good thing, though, a built-in extra round of edits.

The only thing I didn't do was a full read aloud. Note to self a proper full read aloud will take at least 3, maybe 4 days. I should also allow a full day for searching and replacing of overused words and phrases. Instead I crammed all of this into a day and a half, partially because I'd been revising almost 7 weeks and I was determined to finish by the weekend, but more importantly because the book *felt* done. Since I'd been reading aloud throughout the revision I knew the manuscript almost too well. I thought I was using certain words or phrases too many times, but as it turned out I'd cut them. As I was doing my type-ins, I did keep a list of words/phrases that I felt like I was using a lot and employed Word's handy search feature to check on them. Then I consulted my handy Synonym Finder to change out the overused stuff--being careful not to go overboard. With IWBYJR, I went a little too wild with the Search for overused words/Synonym Finder thing and as a result my editor noted a lot of places where my writing had gotten "too purple." I think (hope!) I've learned my lesson about that.

Sometimes the hardest part about revising is knowing when to stop. For me, it's when I am reading through and realizing I know the manuscript too well and I'm starting to toy with phrases that shouldn't be toyed with and over-perfecting things. Then I have to say goodbye to my lovely characters, hope the person I am sending them too (in this case my agent) will be as pleased with them as I am.

So my last day and a half was spent doing some search and replace and reading aloud of the scenes that were particularly hard for me. I think if I were going to do a full read aloud, I would have needed to take a couple of days off first. But at this stage in the game, I feel pretty good.

It was bittersweet to hit send, though. Like I said, I was very deeply involved with my characters at the end and I was also so in the zone. The zone is kind of a masochistic place for me. I spent the last week of revisions getting roughly four to five hours of sleep, waking up somewhere between 7 am and 9 am (early for me), sitting down at the computer and working until 1 or 2 am. My average day was 14 or 15 hours of writing time, breaks only to eat and use the bathroom. It sounds kind of awful and the whole aching arms and shoulders, twitchy eyelids, and ignoring my friends and family thing definitely sucked, but at the same time I loved it. That is being a writer to me. Total immersion in my story = total bliss. This is when I'm at my happiest as a writer. Things may be going slowly, but they are going and I am happy with what I'm writing/the changes I'm making. I'm confident that I can reach my goal (and confidence is not something that comes easy to me.) I also don't want to do anything, but write. For example on my second to last day, I woke up the a clap of thunder and found the power was out. On a regular day I might have used that as an excuse to sleep in until the power came back, but I needed to write, so I rushed to get up and write by candlelight while my laptop battery still had juice and made plans to go to my mom's if the power stayed out a long time. (Fortunately, it didn't because it was kind of throwing off my groove.)

So in short, over the past 6 and a half weeks, I worked my ass off and I emerged victorious. Yes, there are a few phrases here and there that I probably could have tweaked, maybe even a bit here or there that I need to add. But I feel really accomplished. I cut over 8,000 words from the manuscript which was my primary challenge and I handled my massive back story better. That was a win to me.

Now I just have to hope that my agent is just as pleased. That's the next step. Waiting.

I suck at waiting, but it's a huge part of the writing/publishing process.

There is waiting while you figure out your story (though at least you can do that actively which is better for me). Then, you wait for your agent to say, yes, this is good enough to go out. Then you wait to get responses from editors. Then if one of them accepts it, there is a whole ton of waiting for the manuscript to turn into an actual book.

I can't even think that far ahead yet. I'm too busy biting my nails about whether my agent will like it. I hope she does because I feel so very done with it, but of course if she has an amazing insight about something I overlooked or need to tweak, I will revisit it. I want this book to have a good chance of getting published.... Thought at the same time, I don't even want to think about it going on submission. That scares me shitless.

I decided to forget about it over the weekend and celebrate. How so?

With this.

Yep, my first free night I went to see Johnny Depp eyecandy the latest Pirates movie. It was very pleasing and a good kick off to relaxing mode.

I continued the relaxing by finishing my re-read of the fourth Harry Potter book and then proceeding to devour SHIFT by Jeri Smith-Ready and THE DARK AND HOLLOW PLACES by Carrie Ryan. Both of which were sooooooooo good! And it was so nice to read again. I also did some Very Important things like upload over 100 more CDs to my iPod to round out my old music collection's presence on it (and I'm sure this will trigger a nostalgic blog post soon) and caught up on a week's worth of One Life to Live. I did some essential things like cleaning my house and office and catching up on email. Then I did fun things like gabbing away with old friends I haven't talked to in way too long, lunches with my parents, and FINALLY some spring gardening with my mom.

I could continue to do these things for a lot longer. Not gonna lie, part of me wants to. But I have to keep writing.

Part of the reason I was losing so much sleep during the last couple weeks of revisions was that a Shiny New Idea for another YA contemp (goddess help me, I know these things never sell well, but it's what I do) was taunting me to. So far that idea that seemed so easy when I was lying awake thinking about it, has been difficult to wrangle and translate on the page. But I'm going to keep wrestling with it. I have two other ideas and am not sure which will be the Next Main Project (because I have learned that I must work on one thing at a time). Maybe I need closure on the Bartender Book (is it going on submission? do I have to revise more?) to fully invest myself in something new. I also admittedly still have a lot of self-doubt leftover from last year. I'm afraid of picking the wrong project to pursue. I'm also not entirely sure how to choose. I've never had so many choices, with my first two books I just knew those were the ones to write. I never thought about market or the publishing industry. Now I kind of do, but I try to put that out of my mind.

It's also frustrating that until one of these ideas takes off, I don't get to sit in front of the computer writing for hours on end like I've become a junkie for accustomed to. Balance is still a major part of the writing career that I haven't figured out. I like to be massively organized, have a daily schedule and to-do list and when things don't go according to plan, I tend to feel at loose ends. Also I'm best when I'm binging, doing nothing but writing, and then crashing and catching up. However, I know that approach isn't very sane and then I have a hard time getting back into the writing when I stop for a week or so. Also with a new book, the binge phase won't come for a while. So my goal is to carve out a nice daily routine that incorporates writing as well as the stuff I feel I've been lacking so far this year while I binged: like regular reading, blogging, keeping up on email and other tasks. We'll see how it goes. If anyone has tips for the writing balancing act, let me know!


PKJ said...

Just so you know, Jefferey Eugenides said that it took him two years to finalize the first paragraph of Middlesex.

_ Polly

Stephanie Kuehnert said...

Thanks Polly! That actually makes me feel pretty good about my beginning struggles, though my book is definitely no Middlesex!

Audrey (holes In My brain) said...

Congrats =D I've been following your blog so yeah, I've read about your struggles and I'm soo happy you've overcame them and you're 'done' the book (for now)! *hugs* Also, in no way were your first two novels failures, because Ballads of Suburbia is still one of the BEST YA contemps I have ever read. I'll be reading this 'bartender book' even though I don't wander out of the YA genre often, because I need to meet these characters you talk about so often!

Stephanie Kuehnert said...

Thanks, Audrey! And it means a lot to hear how much you loved Ballads and that you are willing to read this one even though it's adult. Honestly I don't think it will be too different from IWBYJR, just that the mother character gets more of a story telling role.

Wendy said...

Hey Stephanie!

A few months ago, I read "...Joey Ramone". To this day, I can't get that book out of my head. I honestly thought it was an epic work of fiction. Because of that book, I was inspired to start a new blog devoted to music-themed books. A review of your book will be the first on the site. Please know your book did have an impact and was not a failure. Also know, as a fan, I appreciate what you have gone through with your latest novel and look forward to reading, being moved by, and helping you to get the word out about it. Keep writing. The success, in the form you desire it to be, is coming.

Stephanie Kuehnert said...

Thanks so much, Wendy. You don't know how much hearing from people who were excited and/or inspired by my books means. It is the readers that get me through my rough patches. I hope to write many more books that you will enjoy as much as you did IWBYJR!