Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Work-in-Progress Wednesday: Shaking Off a Slump

I apologize for not posting a WIP Weds last week, but I was sick for almost an entire week right before then so I've been behind on everything. (Also, I'm not sure I'll be able to keep coming up with topics, so these may become sporadic eventually or morph into something else or you guys should just give me topic ideas if you have them and find this helpful. I'm not entirely sure it is for anyone but me sometimes...)

The sick and a conversation with a writer friend produced a good topic though: shaking off a writing slump.

I define a writing slump differently than writer's block. "Writer's Block" to me is having the desire to write, but being blocked or stumped about where to go with your idea. Blocks can be large or small, and for me sometimes small things like how to kickstart a scene lead to larger blocks where I think the entire premise of my novel is flawed and a complete breakdown results. (This seems to ALWAYS happen to me 3/4ths of the way through a book, but sometimes it happens earlier or more often or when I'm starting to revise and I feel like something is just not quite right, but can't put my finger on it.) There are lots of suggestions out there for writer's block. I wrote about some of the techniques and exercises I use to fight my way through a block in November on this blog and also talked about stirring up inspiration for a project when you're blocked on Rookie a couple of weeks ago.

I think while "writer's block" can cause the "writing slump," it really is a whole different animal. Maybe I'm splitting hairs and you would lump all of this together or at least apply some of the same treatment plans (and I do do that), but I think the "writing slump" (and I hate the overuse of quotation marks so this is the last time I'll do that, I swear) is when you just don't want to write at all. You might have an idea, one that you think is really awesome, but something--or more likely a bunch of things--have killed off your passion.

I've been struggling with the slump for a few months now. I wrote in depth about what caused it here, but here are the basics. I've been working my ass off and barely making ends meet for a long time now. I worked particularly hard and took on way too much in the fall. I burnt myself out. I felt really depressed and hopeless about my career. Worst of all, I felt like I have no control over it. I worked really damn hard on a book for a year and half, but I don't know when it's going to sell and every time I get asked, "When's your next book coming out?" it was like being kicked in the stomach because I have no answer and it seems really pathetic that it's been so long. It got to the point where I felt really bitter and resentful reading about everybody else's bright and shiny publishing news because it seemed like my career had ended before it even started even though I put all I could into writing and promoting my books. I was overwhelmed by the industry, the industry, the industry. What are the trends? What about eBooks? Self-pubbing? What's hot? What's not? Am I writing something that is already dead? Is my great idea too late? UGH, WHAT THE HELL IS THE POINT?

And that's about when my brain exploded and the biggest, scariest doubt that I've ever had settled over me: What if I don't love writing at all anymore?

This was the rock bottom of my slump. I thought it was over, writing gives me no joy, so I stopped doing it. I only wrote the very essential things, ie. freelance assignments I was already obligated to complete. I barely answered email because even using my computer, and especially all of the social networking that is linked in my mind with my writing career, seemed tiresome and painful.

Since I had a friend in town, I had all the more reason not to write and to shut myself off from the internet. I did a lot of fun, mind-numbing things, which again, are documented in detail here, but basically include a lot TV and movie watching, some old school video game playing, eating crappy food and drinking a lot, shopping a lot, some crafty stuff, and a short road trip.

But then she left and I had a decision to make: try to get back into writing or um... quit, I guess. I have to say all the TV watching made it tempting. I just loved having so much free time and I was still so behind on things around the house....

So I cleaned and I watched more TV and I thought a lot. The idea of life without writing while more appealing than it had ever been before still made me panicky. I decided I need to give it one last try to see if I could still find the joy in telling a story if took the pressure off myself about it being a career, an industry, etc.

My husband and I had a short trip planned, so I let myself putter around before we left and then when we got back, I decided to find ways to ease my way back into writing (or trick myself, depending on how you look at it). My laptop was five years old and pretty damn close to wheezing its last breath, so I scraped together enough to buy a new one.

Now I had a shiny new toy for writing. This pleased me. (It also worked as a guilt factor. If I'm not a writer there is no reason why I can't just share my husband's laptop. So I needed to be a writer again to justify my purchase.) I organized my files and my music. I started tinkering with my WIP playlist again. I finally decided to download and learn the Scrivener program.

"Just play," my brilliant writer friend Jon Skovron told me, advice that applied both to my slump and the use of Scrivener. So I did. (If you are interested in what that entails, I documented my learning/plotting process with Scrivener here.) I've also developed a very low pressure routine wherein I spend half as much time writing as I used to, but instead of spending that time stressing about how much I produce and what else I need to do, I spending it playing. Sometimes I write over a thousand words. Sometimes I write a few hundred, but figure out something new about the plot or a character's name. (This was extremely exciting to me. She's minor, my protag's friend/sort-of love interest's mom, but she does have a role and now a name: Ana Francisca.) Best of all, I still have built-in me-time to watch Buffy and knit or make sundresses out of old concert tees and refuel.

Am I 100% content with this? No. Absolutely not. I still have plenty of worries that I'm a failure and can get all distracted and tied into knots thinking about the industry and my future. But I try to tamp that stuff down. Also, my inner overachiever is screaming that I need to make actual goals and write more, write faster if I'm ever going to get this book done in a reasonable time frame. But I keep telling her that I will, when I'm ready. Maybe I'll even talk about that next week.

I'm definitely wayyyyyyyy happier than I was though. I'm actually enjoying writing and that's what I've told myself is the most important thing right now. A slump like the one I was in is really hard to shake and I don't want to slide backwards--that's why I tried to be really gentle with myself while I was sick. I let myself take another mini-break with lots of TV watching because my body needed it, and when I felt healthy enough to try to do a normal writing day, I worked extra hard not to beat myself up for being slow.

So that's my story and if you are struggling with a slump, my tips are as follows:

1. Wallow in it for awhile. Watch TV, read trashy magazines, play video games, clean your house, cook, make stuff, organize stuff, do all the things both pleasurable and tedious that have slipped down to the bottom of your to-do list until you are totally sick of it or too sick with guilt to keep doing it. If you can, wallow in things that may lead to inspiration. For example I watched a lot of Buffy, Supernatural, and Skins since I knew those may be triggers for idea building and/or storytelling for me.

2. Find ways to ease back in. For me, organizing my files and playing with my story in new software got me tweaking things and eventually writing new scenes. I also started listening to the music that is inspiring this WIP and started reading mythology books.

3. Talk to writers who get it and can provide gentle encouragement. If it weren't for my writing buddies and CPs, I never would have kicked the slump. I talked about my ideas with them and they responded with excitement. I have one CP who I've been exchanging really short bits with. Just a chapter or two, but she doesn't push me too hard, so that I don't feel like I have to rush to send her things. Also, super duper essential, I've got three friends who I check in with every day on Twitter, just so I can say "hey, I'm going to try to write today!" which holds me accountable.

4. Set really small manageable goals for yourself so you don't feel overwhelmed. Get into the mindset that being actively involved with your book, even if you are typing really slowly, but daydreaming about it, is a good thing.

5. Focus on the story and what you love about it, not on the wider where does this/do I fit into the marketplace. Easier said than done, I know, but so essential. Stop those thoughts about query letters, word counts, genre categorizations, and comparisons to other book deals as soon as they start. If this means limiting your Twitter time or canceling your subscription to certain industry mailing lists, do it.

6. Make sure you have time to do those things you found you enjoyed during the slump, especially other creative tasks and any viewing/reading that can fuel inspiration, even cleaning provides good thinking time.

This is what has worked for me. Slowly but surely I'm falling back in love with writing and I've gotten really invested in my idea again, to the point that I'm even waking up and falling asleep thinking about it sometimes.

Since it's still a process for me, and I imagine is something a lot of writers go through, I would love to hear your tips. Have you been in a writing slump? How do you shake it?

Oh and I suppose I owe you a little snippet from my work-in-progress. Actually probably a big one because it's been a while.

*Deep breath* Okay, this is really rough... My main character, Dee (her full name is Perdita), is at the back entrance of a club asking the bouncer if he's seen her sister:

Winston’s lips spread into a wider smile and I notice that he has black ink tattooed inside of them, too, and shiny fake silver teeth. His voice is soft and trustworthy though. “No, she isn’t. I promise. But if you want to look for yourself…”

He steps aside and the music grows even louder. The darkness seems to pulsate, beckoning me.

Then someone else shouts my name, “Perdita?”

And a third person, a woman, “Perdita Branwyn?”

“Shit, I think it’s actually her!” The voices are coming from my right, the direction that boy in the red jacket disappeared in.

Winston steps between me and them, still holding onto the door with his bulky hand. “You need to get the fuck up outta here!” he bellows. “Ain’t nothin’ or no one to see.” Glancing over his shoulder at me, he hisses, “Go inside, Perdita.”

Monsters or flashbulbs…. The Monsters almost seem like the better option, but the the flashbulbs will still be waiting for me when I get out… if I get out. And there is a third option: the path to my bike is still clear.

So I turn and run. Cameras click, my name and my sister’s are shouted, but I manage to get to the Triumph, put my helmet on with sweaty hands and fly away before they get too close.

I feel the end of the feather poking into my ankle bone and silently thank it for keeping me safe.

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Work-in-Progress Wednesday: Music as Muse

If you've read my books, BALLADS OF SUBURBIA and I WANNA BE YOUR JOEY RAMONE, you know that music plays a huge role in my writing. Music drives and inspires Emily. It gives Kara a much-needed emotional outlet. It does both of those things for me. When I listen to a song, I see a story. IWBYJR is a prime example of that. In the song that I named the book after, Sleater-Kinney sings of a girl who wants to be the queen of rock 'n' roll. I wrote that girl's story as I saw it. Many people ask if I am a musician. I'm not, but I've often daydreamed of it. Emily is the girl I wanted to be. Kara from BALLADS is the girl I was. I spent most of my teenage years surrounded my music, whether it be shut in my room with the stereo up as loud as I could get away, walking around with headphones in, driving around with music blasting, or going to shows. The songs I loved tapped into my emotions on such a deep level. They knew me better than I knew myself. They helped me release pent-up anger or sadness.

Now, as a writer, songs help me tap into the emotions of a story: themes, characters, a particular scene. When I was an angsty goth girl writing horrible short stories, I used to have this routine where I had to write with The Cure's Disintegration album on. Oh and there was also candlelight. You can laugh, it's okay. I do when I think back about it. Oddly enough after that I could rarely listen to music while I was writing though, especially not in the early stages of the first draft. Usually music provides inspiration before I sit down to write or keeps me connected to the story when I'm not writing.

While I'm shaping my story, I'm on the lookout for songs that remind me of my characters, story, or particular scenes. When I find them, I add them to a playlist. I tend to arrange that playlist to match the story, so if a song speaks to the overall theme or in some cases is going to be one I quote at the beginning of the book, it goes first. For example, if you look at my IWBYJR playlist here, it starts with the song "I Wanna Be Your Joey Ramone" by Sleater-Kinney. Then I put the songs that match up with particular scenes or emotional moments for a character in the order that they happen in the story. My playlists are literally like soundtracks. They follow the story arc. For example if you look at the BALLADS soundtrack here, toward the end you'll see "Down In A Hole" by Alice In Chains. That is my song for Kara's OD. (And this is not a spoiler because you know from reading the back of the book that Kara ODs.) I actually added that song to playlist pretty late in the game when I was doing my final revisions on the book, but I listened to that song over and over again as I tried to nail that moment. So, for me, playlists are usually a work-in-progress that grows with the book. Though it may seem like procrastination, sometimes when I'm stuck I do play with the order of the songs in my playlist because it's like playing with the structure of my story and it can give me insights.

As I said, I don't usually listen to these playlists while I'm writing. I use them much the same way I did when an album or band became an emotional crutch for me in high school. They are on my iPod and they go with me when I drive or run or ride the train. I play them when I clean the house or right before I sit down to write. Sometimes when I'm dealing with a particularly difficult scene, I listen to a certain song or part of the playlist repeatedly until I get into the zone.

There does eventually come a certain point when I am able to listen to music and write at the same time. Usually in the early stages this is a huge distraction, but once I know the characters so well that certain songs and bands no longer belong to me, but to them, I can listen to music while I'm writing, though I generally only tend to do this during certain scenes or when I'm on a writing retreat and need to either tune out the noise that people writing around me are making or the silence of an unfamiliar place. Even then, I don't tend to listen to a playlist, but a particular album or artist over and over again. When I was writing BALLADS, the artists were PJ Harvey, Screaming Trees, and Johnny Cash. While I was at work on the Bartender Book, it varied by which character I was writing. When I was writing Ivy, the still-stuck-in-the-eighties-goth-scene mom, I listened to Siouxsie & The Banshees early albums on repeart. When I was writing her punk daughter Zoe, it was The Gaslight Anthem and The Loved Ones.

It's also worth noting that my playlists have grown over the years. Perhaps music has played more and more of a role, perhaps I've just gotten more into iTunes and my iPod or perhaps it shows which books I've struggled with more, but the IWBYJR playlist on my computer (which is different from what I posted online because Project Playlist only had certain songs) is 22 songs, BALLADS is 36, and right now the Bartender Book is 40.

Last week I blogged about how my current WIP (The Modern Myth YA as I'm calling it) is a completely different animal because I've actually been plotting it and using Scrivener. My relationship with music while I'm writing has been completely different, too. Not only am I listening to my playlist while I'm driving or cleaning. I'm listening to it while I'm writing, too. This started out of necessity because I was on a writing retreat in November, but when I got home, it continued. I don't know if it's because I'm struggling harder than usual to get the book going and the music really helps me connect or because a lot of it is a different sort of music than I usually listen to or what, but my playlist which I've been listening to mostly on Spotify is up to 104 tracks and it is on CONSTANTLY.

Like I said the music itself is a lot different this time around. Many times my books draw from what I'm currently listening to or from old favorites. IWBYJR is primarily the punk and riot grrrl music I grew up on. BALLADS is punk and grunge. I was obsessed with The Gaslight Anthem when I started writing the Bartender Book, so that music fed it along with more punk and me reaching back to my own goth/new wave phase to tap into Ivy's character.

The Modern Myth YA is more complicated. At first I saw mainly the anger in my character, so I went to two artists that have fed most of my books: The Distillers and Hole. When I was first reimagining the book (as I believe I mentioned, I wrote a partial of it, but it was Not Quite Right), I listened to this Distillers song in particular over and over:

It worked, but as I kept writing I realized I was missing something. My character was more haunted than angry. Hers is a world that everyone thinks of is bright (Hollywood), but she lives in the shadows. I went back once again to my goth phase, but the darker side of it than I went to when I was writing the Bartender Book. These songs were really speaking to me.

Peter Murphy "Cuts You Up" relates to both my main character and her sister and is now at the very beginning of my playlist:

Switchblade Symphony "Clown" fits the end of the book:

And I found myself listening to Faith and the Muse over and over:

I felt like I needed more of this kind of music. It's something I loved, but hadn't really been in touch with since the late 90s. But I knew my critique partner Tara Kelly knew the kind of music I wanted well and since she'd been a brainstorming buddy, she knew the story, too. So when I went on my retreat and got super stuck, I emailed her begging for music. This is how I ended up using Spotify because she sent me 45 songs on there. They are perfect. So, so perfect. They transport me instantly to that world. Here are a few of my favorites:

I've also gotten really into Adam Hurst thanks to Melissa Marr.

And I've incorporated a few songs from my own music archives like these:

"City of Angels" by The Distillers especially because it pretty much sums up the L.A. that my main character is living in.

But yeah, all together I'm up to 104 songs on Spotify now, though I find Spotify mildly annoying for two reasons. One problem is that it doesn't want import some of my music even though it is in a compatible format, but the bigger issue is the commercials. Right now I have a free month of premium, but I can't really afford 10$ a month to be commercial-free and the commercials obviously really break my concentration. So I guess I'll be buying all the songs that Tara shared with me on Amazon or iTunes and going back to iTunes as my main playlist source unless you guys have some suggestions.

Do you make writing playlists? Do you listen to them while you write or do you find it distracting like I usually do? What song or songs are really speaking to you about your current project right now. I'm actually not sharing a WIP snippet this week because with all of those songs I almost feel like I told you the whole story. Seriously that's how deep my music and writing ties go!

Thursday, February 9, 2012

Interview and giveaway with Holly Cupala

Though I may not being doing Women Who Rock Wednesday features regularly anymore, I promised that I would keep bringing you interviews with amazing people from time to time, so here you go.

You've probably already heard me talk about how amazing Holly Cupala and her new book, DON'T BREATHE A WORD are. If you haven't, check out this blog entry, which pretty much sums it up.

Or you can simply watch Holly's new trailer to learn more about the book:

Because DON'T BREATHE A WORD had such a big impact on me and I think my readers would love it, I decided to invite Holly to talk a bit about it and I bought an extra copy of the book to give away to one lucky reader. Let's meet Holly, shall we?

Q: DBAW is an incredibly book, which I have been saying good things about in as many places as I can because I think it is so important for teens to read. I would have loved to read this book when I was in high school and in fact it probably would have helped me A LOT. What inspired you to write it?

HOLLY: Thank you, Stephanie! (I hope you don’t mind I’ve been quoting you all over the place!)

Years ago, I had an idea for a girl who fakes being homeless (maybe a cheerleader by day and spends time on the streets after school). Silly idea, I know. I'd sort of forgotten about that when
a couple of years ago my friend who was a youth pastor was looking for donations—socks, toiletries, etc., to take to the homeless teens in Seattle.

Quite suddenly, I had this picture of a girl who runs away for real. She meets up with a group of homeless kids and has to make a terrible decision. When I actually started writing, her boyfriend, Asher, came out of nowhere. He was dark and sexy and menacing, and it turns out he's intimately tied to her reasons for running away.

Q: Though the emotional abuse that Joy is dealing with was a really personal part of the story for me, I was also really taken by the tales of these kids on the Seattle streets. I have a friend who worked for a Seattle homeless organization for years (Real Change) and I've of course seen the number of homeless you have there (and that most big cities, Chicago included, have). It's something that we are almost immune to. We become used to seeing homeless people and too often don't pause and think about their situations. You obviously did. Can you tell me what kind of research you did to write as realistically as you have about homeless teenagers?

HOLLY: Yes, there is a huge homeless teen population here in Seattle. When I first started writing, I wasn’t sure if my ideas would fit with the reality, so I did a lot of independent research, talked to people who worked with homeless teens, did some street-level recon, and took a class at New Horizons (the homeless teen org in the book). I asked Pam Longston, board president at, to read an earlier draft for street verisimilitude, and she provided a critical piece to Joy’s story: she told me at some point, homeless teens decide it’s safer to live on the streets than
to live at home. That helped me get to the emotional core of Joy’s story, her breaking point.

Q: What impact do you hope DBAW will have on readers?

HOLLY: Power is a big theme in DBAW—Asher has power over Joy, and she thinks to survive on the streets she must develop a power of her own. She sees that kind of authority (she calls it “street powers”) in the homeless friends she finds—Creed’s power is through his music. Santos can talk his way out of anything. May has the power of disguise. But at some point all of those powers fail, and what is left is survival skills. One thing I learned through my research was that there are three typical outcomes for homeless kids: they go home, they get off the streets, or they die. One better choice can make the difference between a hopeful outcome and a grim one. Joy’s choice is internal—she discovers her words have power. She finds the courage to speak, and that makes all the difference for the survival of her friends. I hope readers will realize they have that kind of internal resource as well.

Q: Getting to a lighter question, there is a lot of music in DBAW. Creed is a musician and that is what draws Joy to him in a way. I'm sure music influenced writing the book in some way, so what are five songs that you would put on the soundtrack to DBAW and please explain how they relate to the characters, theme or story?

HOLLY: I actually created a playlist for DBAW from songs that struck me before and during writing:

(A couple of songs not on that list: “Frontload,” by Freezepop; and “Deserter,” by Splashdown.)

Frontload, Freezepop – On the night Asher shows his true colors, Joy and her friends go to Chop Suey to see Freezepop perform, and they sing this song. It’s a bit of an inside joke, because the Freezepop band members are our friends. They make a cameo appearance in the book. :)

Deserter, Splashdown - I’ve loved Deserter for a long time, and it captures the essence of Joy’s story. I wanted to use it for the trailer soundtrack but it was a bit too melodic so we used Splashdown’s “Need Vs. Want” instead (Splashdown members are also friends, and they generously gave us permission!)

Street Spirit (Fade Out), Radiohead – This is such a deeply painful and hopeless song, reminding me of the plight of many on the street. Joy begins to feel this kind of hopelessness before she meets May, Santos, and Creed.

You’re Not Alone, Saosin – Things change for Joy when she meets Creed, May, and Santos. But there are challenges even in finding a new family, especially when they have secrets of their own.

I Will Follow You into the Dark, Death Cab for Cutie – A song about life, death, loyalty, and love. Joy will find all of them, but in this moment, she finds only happiness.

Q: I've been really analyzing how I work as a writer. In addition to writing you are a mom and are about to have another baby (congrats!). So you have and will have quite the juggling act. Can you talk a bit about your writing routine, how you balance things and maybe what you've learned about what works and doesn't work for you now that you have two published books under your belt?

HOLLY: Thank you! Yes, it’s definitely a juggling act these days. I hired a babysitter one day a week so that I could write Tell Me a Secret. It felt so stressful at the time, but now I realize how easy I had it, with no deadlines or expectations, no agents and editors waiting for the next book…! I find I have to separate and create writing time or else it falls to the wayside. I try to keep family time as sacred as possible. Right now I’m working on a third novel, hoping to finish before the big day.

Q: I know you are still in the thick of promoting DBAW and baby excitement, but can you tell us a little bit about what is next for you as a writer?

HOLLY: There’s this idea that won’t let me go—four voices, four terrible secrets, one explosive murder that will connect them all… It’s a contemporary YA, sort of like TMAS and DBAW on steroids. Very emotionally charged and suspenseful and hopeful. I’ve written about two-thirds of the first draft and have gotten to the place where I’m flying a little bit blind, wondering how it will come together. I know how I want to feel at the end, though, which is a tiny lantern in the darkness.

Today's Contest:

After hearing more about it, I'm guessing you want DON'T BREATHE A WORD and you are in luck! I've got an extra copy to send out to one lucky person and this contest is open to international entries!

To enter all you have to do is leave a comment. However you can gain additional entries:

+1 for tweeting or posting on facebook about this interview
+1 for tweeting or posting about DON'T BREATHE A WORD
+1 for every place you share the DON'T BREATHE A WORD trailer
+5 for blogging about DON'T BREATHE A WORD

Note your additional entries in your comment as well as giving me an email address or some way to contact you if you win. I will email the winner a week from today.

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Work-in-Progress Wednesday: Pantsing, Plotting, Scrivener & Me

My friend BethEllen who is teaching me to knit described me as a "do-er" in terms of my learning style. That was always the case with my writing style as well. I got an idea--usually via having the sense of a character or a scene--and I dove in and wrote it. Then I continued on to the next scene and the next. Sometimes in order, sometimes non-linearly. Sometimes I wrote a lot of scenes that would get cut because they would be me exploring the backstory of a character or going off on some unexpected tangent with them. When I got really lost or panicked that the story just wasn't working--which happened three-quarters of the way through the book with I WANNA BE YOUR JOEY RAMONE and after the first major draft of BALLADS OF SUBURBIA--I would finally sit down and map out the pieces I had, how they fit together and what I wanted the story to look like overall.

To use a writing term that I didn't even know until I'd graduated college and had at least one book under my belt, I was a "pantser." I wrote by the seat of my pants until I got stuck, and then, only then, would I sit down and figure out the missing pieces of my puzzle or rearrange them, or in other words, plot.

I was forced to do my plotting earlier after my first two books sold because my agent wanted to see 50 pages and a synopsis, which she would then send on to editors. I never wrote those synopses until after I'd finished my 50 pages though because at that point I would have explored and written enough of my story to have an idea of its direction.

But last year something happened. I finished revisions on The Bartender Book and was ready to figure out what my next project should be. I had three ideas. I dove right into two of them, wrote the scenes as I saw them and wrote my vague version of a synopsis, which at that stage consists of a lot of "Maybe this will happen.... but wait, would this be better?" However, deep down, I knew it was not the time to work on those ideas. The third idea had actually be brewing almost as long as The Bartender Book. A version of its first fifty pages and a synopsis (that was a lot more polished and committed sounding) had actually made the rounds with editors, earning a couple of straight no's, but several, "We like it, but would need the whole thing." I wanted to follow up on that opportunity, but I also wanted to make some major changes to my idea. Even when it went on submission, I'd felt that it wasn't quite right.

I had a new opening scene in my head and I wrote it. I was thrilled with it. My critique partners who read it loved it. My new agent saw it as "The One" even though the other two projects had more pages and stronger synopses. But despite my own enthusiasm and that of those around me, I couldn't shift into gear and actually write it.

As you regular blog readers know, writing The Bartender Book was hard. I practically quit that book and writing in general more times than I can count. For the first time my write-till-you-get-lost-then-spend-a-couple-weeks-puzzling-it-out method failed me. I kept pushing past the point that I knew I was lost until I had a mammoth novel with no ending and too many plots. I had to rip a storyline out and start again. Then I got stuck again. It was a nightmare. Additionally, this was the first time I was writing with the idea that books were my "career" or my "business" in my head, and my career seemed to be tanking hardcore. BALLADS, the book that I had poured my soul into, the first thing I'd done in my life that I actually thought was good, had totally flatlined, and since that was my best effort, who was I to think that I could actually write.

Even though I'd gotten both a bachelor's and a master's in writing, I'd gotten it at a school for pantsers, a school that emphasized sitting down and writing, not worrying about anything else, which was awesome at the time, and is the reason I have two books written and published. But I thought, I need to analyze things more. I need to have methods. I need to plot. So I asked for recommendations of books on writing. I bought a bunch of them, and I'm not going to lie, I've yet to read any of them cover to cover. I did do a lot of skimming though, looking for plotting methods and techniques that might work for me, make me a better writer, and most importantly prevent a six-month breakdown like I'd had while writing the Bartender Book. I found THE WRITER'S JOURNEY by Christopher Vogler and PLOT AND STRUCTURE by James Scott Bell particularly useful.

I'm not entirely sure if it is my fears of failure (both of getting stuck mid-book in such a big way again and of failing completely and never being able to write or sell another book) or if it is just this particular project (which has some fantastical/magical realism elements to it, something that I've always loved to read, but never tried before) that has been fueling my need to plot. Another issue could be that I have been trying to write some version of this book since 2008 and every time something has felt Not Quite Right. No matter that the driving reason is, I can tell you that the majority of the time I spent on this book last year (which happened on and off from June and October while I was revising the bartender book, agent hunting, and trying to decide between ideas and then more solidly from November on) has been spent writing and rewriting synopses, backstory and world notes on this book and sending long brainstorming emails to critique partners who have probably grown weary of me. I tried to just dive in and write during NaNoWriMo, but it just wasn't happening.

Finally around the middle of last month, I started to make progress. I felt like I had enough of the details about my characters' histories, the setting, and the plot to push past the first two chapters that I'd written and been stuck on for roughly three months.

Actually, no, that's a lie. I didn't feel like I had enough. I still didn't feel comfortable with the story or with writing at all. I was fucking terrified, convinced that I would fail, or worse, I would discover that I didn't like writing anymore. But I knew I couldn't keep brainstorming and writing the same emails to my CPs asking them if they thought this worked or that worked because they couldn't make my story decisions for me (much as I wanted them to because I felt like they were way better writers than me). So I decided to ease into the writing. I did so by checking out a program that had been on my radar for awhile, but I knew might have a bit of a learning curve and eat up my writing time: Scrivener.

My interest in Scrivener first surfaced last January when I was on a writing retreat with Carrie Ryan, who was using it and showed me some of the cool features. I thought, that's awesome, but it seems like it would be a time-suck to learn and I was desperately trying to finish the Bartender Book. When I'm in my regular writing routine, I don't want to do anything that might eat up my writing time, even if it might be helpful. But since I took most of December and the beginning of this January off from writing and I'd just bought a new computer, I decided why not try Scrivener. It has a 30 day free trial (and it only counts the days when you actually use the software, which is awesome) and I was going to spend some time reviewing all my notes and the bits and pieces of my WIP that I had written, so why not do so while learning new software.

There's an adorable ten-minute introductory video on the Scrivener website, which I watched. It has a narrator with a British accent, which always makes things better in my book, and it didn't seem too horribly complicated, so I downloaded my trial and started the tutorial. It warned that it would take two hours, but again, I was taking baby steps back toward writing so I had the time to kill.

Fortunately it was written with UK spellings and there are bits throughout where the tutorial suggests that you get coffee, and as it progresses, chocolate and wine. This kept me amused and able to hang in there when I was starting to feel like I did whenever I went for software training sessions at my old office job: overwhelmed and terribly sleepy. I'd started out extremely enthusiastic, seeing that the way "the binder" is structured could really help me when I'm rearranging scenes, so I don't have to print, highlight and cut my manuscript into tiny little pieces that I lay out on the floor like I did at one point while revising the bartender book and knowing I could use the virtual notecard feature. But after two hours of the tutorial, I was pretty much convinced that Scrivener was way too overly complicated and I would waste more time procrastinating as I tried to figure out how to make it work for me than using it in a useful way.

But when I panicked on Twitter, Jon Skovron came to the rescue. He told me he'd been working with Scrivener for quite some time and while he didn't use 75% of it, he found what he does use to be very useful.

In very typical Stephanie fashion, I was worrying about the exporting part and how the novel would look when it was done. It had all these templates and I couldn't figure out which would make my novel look the way I wanted it to when it was complete. Jon told me not to worry about that. He said just take what I'd written in Word, import it into Scrivener and start chopping it up into chapters and/or scenes. He was convinced that playing around in Scrivener would help me find my way into the book. I figured it would either do that or be a new procrastination tool, but there was only one way to find out. I followed his advice.

Here are the things I love about Scrivener:

  • You can dice up your manuscript however suits you best, right now I have it by chapter, but my chapters are folders so that when I get to the editing phase I can dice them into scenes and easily rearrange them.
  • You have a few different ways you can look at your manuscript. The "binder" on the side holds all your chapters and scenes plus any other documents you might need. It is easy to be working in one scene and then if you need to look at another one, instead of scrolling through, you simply click on it in the binder. If you want to see all the scenes in one chapter together or all of the chapters together, you can look at it in "Scrivenings" view and see the whole thing. Then there are the corkboard and outline views which really deserve their own bullet point.
  • The corkboard and outline views basically do the same thing in terms of letting you view short summaries of your chapters, scenes, etc and rearrange them, so you can pick which one suits you visually. For me, it's the corkboard view so I haven't outline at all. The one plotting tool I have been using since BALLADS is notecards. This is a way to do it virtually. I have my manuscript split into acts and then chapters. I was stuck moving past chapter one because the initial way I was thinking of having the story unfold wasn't working for me. I was trying to figure it out by writing in my neverending brainstorming/synopsis document, but it just wasn't work. So I went to Act 1, went into corkboard mode and created a notecard for each chapter (adding notecards then adds blank documents in your manuscript binder which is cool because then they are ready to go). I numbered it, wrote a short description of what I thought could happen and then rearranged the notecards (which then rearrange in the manuscript binder for you, also very convenient) until I figured out how I thought the order of events would go. This is also a good way for when you are just writing by the seat of your pants or doing minimal plotting to jot down an idea for an upcoming chapter.
  • As I mentioned above, you can add any additional documents that you may need to your binder. You can create separate folders so they aren't mixed in with your manuscript and won't get compiled with it unless you want them to. There is always a research section in your binder when you start a new project. I added in some articles like Nova Ren Suma's great piece about Magical Realism in YA as well as a bunch of other articles that are specific to the mythologies I'm playing with. Additionally, I imported a bunch of pictures that inspire this book. I also created a few additional folders. One is "Synopsis" which has my synopsis, timeline and other ramblings wherein I tried to figure out the plot of my novel. Another is "Characters" which contains both images that inspire my characters and some character worksheets that I have not filled out yet, but will use when I get stuck and also to keep track of details like hair and eye color. Another is "Setting," which has worksheets for my main settings that I can fill in as needed and also has pictures that provide inspiration for the setting. Then I have "CP Notes," where I imported the bits of chapter and synopsis that my critique partners gave me notes one. I have "Rough Scenes" which contains most of my scenes from my NaNo attempt that I know I will incorporate eventually (with a lot of cleaning up!), but I'm not sure where yet. And finally I have "Cuts" which I don't really need (and I will explain that in another bullet point), but it's an old habit of mine from Word to keep a document that I paste lines and chunks of text that I am deleting. This may sound like overkill or procrastination, but it's actually been insanely helpful for me to have everything in one place. I was always working with three or four Word documents open and I'm insanely easily distracted so even opening my pictures folder to look at pictures can get me off track for hours and when I have to hunt down research online, it's even worse. Now that I have everything in one program, I can completely shut off all other distractions.
  • In fact Scrivener even has full-screen "compose" mode for exactly that.
  • And as for the cutting thing I was talking about, it has a snapshot feature so if you are about to make changes to chapter or scene and are paranoid (like I always am) that your original version will be better, take a snapshot, it will save your original version and you can easily look back at it or roll back to it. Now, since I'm paranoid, I'll probably still keep a "cut" document, but at least it's easier to navigate back and forth between in Scrivener.
  • There is also a project targets box you can pull up to view your word count and set overall goals for yourself (like I know I want this book to be closer to 85K than 100K like my other books) or session goals if you like to keep track of how many words per day you write or set word count goals.
  • Oooh and there is a name generator, which I don't really need, but it has name meanings in it so that's another thing I don't have to open my browser for.
I am sure there a bunch of other things that I haven't discovered yet, like different colored highlighting and labels. I'm not sure if I'll use them or not, but they may come in handy.

The only con I've found so far is that you don't have page numbers so you can't see the breakdown of your chapters/scenes that way, but there is a word count right at the bottom that gives a general idea.

I also don't know how the exporting to Word will go yet. I've heard people say that there can be formatting hiccups, but I figure I'll deal with that when the time comes. The nice thing is that you can write in whatever font you want in Scrivener and then export it in the proper manuscript format.

Ultimately, though it could be a procrastination tool, I found it to be more of an organization and motivational tool. It really helped me finally begin to write and make progress on this project that has been stuck in the planning phase for so long. Once I dove in, I started figuring out those last pesky details that had been plaguing me and Scrivener has built in places so I could quickly make notes about them and get back to the writing. It's still slow going for me right now (which I will probably address in a future WIP Wednesday about goals), but I will certainly be purchasing Scrivener when my trial expires (at only 40$ it's a steal compared to Word!) and using it for the bulk of my novel-writing from now on.

I highly recommend it if you are in a good place to spend a couple days learning it and using it to map out your document. So if you are in the early phases of a project or about to do a revision, I think it would be a good time to try Scrivener.

Those are just my two-cents though. I'd love to hear other people's opinions on Scrivener and any tips they have for using it. Also are you a plotter or a pantser or a mix of the two? What are your plotting and writing tools?

Last but not least, here is the snippet from my work-in-progress for the week. How are you doing on yours?

They know how they’ll caption pictures of me before they take them: Haunted, Lost, Poor Thing. And that didn’t start when my sister disappeared. My story was written before I was old enough to read. I’m a book judged by the cover, defined by photos that I can’t remember being snapped and in them I always look like I’m on the verge of tears.

Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Work-in-Progress Wednesday: Writing Routines & the Importance of Me-Time

I get asked a lot about process and my writing routine when I do interviews. It's something I never mind sharing because it's something I'm extremely curious about myself. I know there is no right or wrong way for a writer to work (and hopefully you do, too!), but I'm always interested in hearing about what other writers do, so I can try their techniques out and steal them or adapt them to suit my own purposes.

My writing routine is a work-in-progress itself. It has changed as my life changed, and even though my life has been the same for the past three years or so, I still haven't worked out all of the kinks so I keep readjusting.

When I was a student, I was a binge writer. I did this out of necessity. I was going to school full-time and working two jobs (bartending and office work), sometimes three (teaching). So while I carried my journal with me everywhere and sometimes wrote by hand when it was slow at the bar or the office, I mainly had one day a week, Sundays, where I binged. I wrote from when I woke up til at least dinner time and sometimes til I went to bed.

When I finished grad school and got a "real grown-up job" (more office work that paid slightly better and demanded way, way more), I still often binged one day a week and I also wrote a few hours at night during the week. This pace was really kind of a killer for me, but I hadn't yet been published. I didn't have blogs and websites and social networking and email to keep up with, too. Publishing was like this dream that I wished for, but never thought would come true. I wrote purely out of the enjoyment of writing and the need to tell the story. I thought that if after I finished the book I was working on (BALLADS OF SUBURBIA), it didn't sell, I'd just go back to school for library science and find a different way to be involved with books.

Then my first book, the one that had making the rounds on editor's desks for over a year, the one that I was calling "All Roads Lead To Rock 'n Roll," but renamed I WANNA BE YOUR JOEY RAMONE, sold to MTV Books and my routine changed again. Not immediately. I did my revisions for IWBYJR in the come-home-from-work-and-write, binge-write-on-the-weekends fashion I'd become accustomed to. I finished BALLADS in that fashion, too, and we sold it to MTV Books before IWBYJR was released. But knowing that once IWBYJR came out, I'd have a lot of extra work to do, plus I'd have revisions for BALLADS and I would want to start a new book, I decided to quit the soul-sucking, grown-up office job and go back to bartending. It would mean less income--and unreliable income at that--but more writing time.

And I'll tell you a secret: I thought it would only be temporary. The bartending, I mean. I had these giant dreams that IWBYJR would be a big enough deal to make my future in the writing world secure. I hoped that it would sell well and then BALLADS would sell well and I'd have no problem selling more books for better money, plus I'd have royalties and foreign rights sales and I'd be okay. I didn't want to be Stephen King or J.K. Rowling, but I thought writing could be my one and only job.

And here is the reality check: my books came out during the recession. I did the best I could to promote them, but they haven't sold enough to earn me royalties and I've yet to be able to sell a third book. I haven't made a dime from writing books since the very beginning of 2009 when I got the final part of my advance for BALLADS.

So at this point basically all of my income is from bartending, another small portion is from freelancing (which doesn't pay particularly well, but I'm passionate about the places I write for and it's the only writing that is earning me any money at all right now), and I've taught a couple college classes to bring in a little bit extra. These three part-time jobs definitely add up to the hours I spent at the office job, but I was still thinking of myself as a full-time or mostly full-time writer.

Figuring out how to balance all of the jobs plus all the stuff I didn't do before I was published (everything from answering the higher quantity of email to social networking to blogging, group blogging, and reading other people's blogs, to setting up events). For the past couple of years, I pushed myself to do it all, all the time. I've designed and redesigned my routine to try to balance it all and beat myself up when I failed. I felt like since my job is at night and only three days a week, I should be trying to write forty-hours a week during the day. Sometimes I would because I was really trying to meet a goal or deadline and I was into the story, but everything else would fall to the wayside and I'd feel guilty about it. Sometimes I would get on top of everything else and feel accomplished about that, but feel like I wasn't doing enough writing. The majority of the time I would be so angsty about my writing that I was getting absolutely nothing accomplished. And last fall when I was teaching and started a new freelance job with ROOKIE, I was pretty much working or sleeping. Other than Friday nights out, my husband barely even saw me because on the other nights that I wasn't working at the bar I would swear that I'd be finished with whatever project/business/freelance piece I was working on "in half an hour or so" and before I knew it, midnight had come and he'd be kissing me goodnight. I didn't see my friends at all aside from the ones who came into the bar I tend or work at the college where I teach.

It become untenable. I broke down. This happened. In summary because that is a long blog entry, I took a month off to hang out with my friend and then realizing how nice it was to not be working every minute of the day and how I associated my writing with failure and stress, seriously considered the quitting-writing-to-go-back-to-school option. Over the course of the last month, I've taken the parts of my writing routine that have worked and adjusted them so I'm not hating life. Here are the things that do work for me:
  • On the five days a week that I am committed to doing book-writing, I start with book-writing. I mean, I get up, exercise, shower, feed the cats and eat breakfast, but that's time I use to start getting my mind moving about my story. I don't answer email (though sometimes I delete some while I'm laying in bed still waking up), I don't go on social networks other than to link to a pre-written blog post or tweet about that days' goals, I don't do errands or chores. I write. Because if I don't write first, I'll never get to it. I know this is something I have to train myself to better about or otherwise emergency trips to the doctor's office like happened last week throw me off entirely. But hey, I know this is a weakness and the best way to deal with it is to avoid it when possible.
  • #90minWrite. If you follow me on Twitter or Facebook, you'll sometimes see me say that I'm going to do one and invite other people to join me. I wrote a blog entry about why I write in 90 minute increments here. When I get around to blogging about goals, I'll probably talk more about time goals vs. word count goals. But basically this works for me very well. I also like to tweet with a group of other writers about our goals for the day because the accountability factor helps keep me off the internet.
  • Binge writing when I need it. I do love a good, guilt-free writing binge. This is why I scrimp and save to go on retreats so that I can say to myself (and in my away message in my email), I am devoting this entire week to writing and nothing else, so sorry you have to wait. Or sometimes toward the end of the book, I set a hard deadline for myself and treat it like a publisher is holding me to it, so I again I can tell myself and other people, sorry, deadline, not doing anything else. And on those binges I will write up to 14 hours a day. But I cannot do that at the beginning of a novel. I can do that when I'm in the thick of it or revising it.
And here are the adaptations I've made to my routine/writing mindset to attempt to make 2012 more liveable and fun.

  • No more overpacked schedules. As I stated, I haven't made a dime off of my books in three years. I am not a full-time writer. I am not even a paid part-time writer at this point. So I cannot feel guilty about not writing 40 hours a week. When I force myself to write, I lose the joy and I end up scrambling to get my paid work done. I have a new routine now where I write from 11 to 2:30 or 3 Monday through Thursday. Sundays, I spend another 3 to 4 hours in a writing group with a friend. That's only 18-20 hours of writing a week, but it's time spent productively instead of feeling stressed. And it works right now because I'm at the beginning of a project. Once it starts flowing I'll re-evaluate and change it if necessary and of course give myself permission to binge.
  • During the week I spend the late afternoon hours writing my freelance pieces, blogs, and keeping up on email, etc. I spend Fridays cleaning the house, running errands and catching up on whatever I didn't get done that week. I do this because if I've learned one major lesson over the past few years it's this: Things will always take me longer than I think they will. Books take longer. Scenes and chapters take longer. Freelance pieces take longer. Blogs definitely take longer (because I'm wordy, sorry. This is another thing I aim to work on.) Even simple errands will often take longer that I thought they would. When my schedule is tightly crammed because I'm trying to do it all, this leads to a constant state of frustration and feelings of failure. I have enough of that kind of angst in my life right now, so I'm working harder to allot more time to everything I do. I used to write until 4 or 5 six days a week, and then I'd be scrambling to tend to other responsibilities. Now I'm carving out real time for those other things and I'm also trying not to to take as much on.
  • Here's a biggie that goes along with that. I'm trying not to feel guilty or obligated to do everything that people ask me to do, and only do what I really want to. I'm also telling myself that if I start something, don't quite get to where I want to be in the time allotted, but have time to devote to it later in the week, it is not a big deal. Like this blog entry, I wrote it in a few different sessions. Also when it comes to book writing, stopping in the middle of a scene when I know what is happening next can be a good trick to get a solid jumpstart the next day of writing.
  • Last but not least is the biggest, most important lesson I've learned: I need some time each week where I'm doing what I want to do and relaxing. I used to tell myself that the Friday errand-running was good enough because it was a day that I wasn't writing. But it's not like cleaning the house and going to the store is fun. So now Saturdays are "me-time" day. This may mean going to a hair appointment like it will this Saturday or hanging out with my niece who always makes life happier or doing some reading, even if it is novel research reading, the key is it being something I want to do.
  • I've also discovered the importance of having other creative outlets BESIDES writing. I've never thought of myself as artistically talented. Writing is the thing I do well and that's about it. I'm a fairly decent cook and I enjoy my time in the kitchen immensely as it gives me a chance to clear my head and do something. Then when my friend Lindsay visited and we started deconstructing t-shirts and make them into to new shirts (see this blog entry), I realized that I could some crafty type things without being too terribly skilled. Then about a month ago, a friend of mine who has been knitting for 20+ years offered to teach a group of us who were interested at the bar. I thought, hey, why not? So now I have a Monday night knitting group, which forces me not to stay up all night Mondays overworking myself. It also provides good thinking and relaxation time.
So, this past Saturday, I spent the afternoon making bread in the bread machine I got for my wedding but hadn't made time to try and while it baked, I watched several episodes of Buffy (which I've never seen. I know! What is wrong with me! That is why me-time will be including lots of Buffy this year), and I made some pretty good progress on this scarf I'm making for my mom.

I intend to spend many future Saturdays with Buffy and doing DIY projects like knitting, t-shirt deconstruction/reconstruction, other fun things like this that I find out about on Rookie (I must give Rookie a lot of credit for helping me see that I can be creative in making things even if I don't feel particularly artistic or design savvy) and hopefully, if I can find a new pattern of some sort, making curtains for my office. (If you have any tips on that let me know!)

I'm sure this won't be a luxury I'll have forever. I mean, hopefully I'll sell another book soon and have actual deadlines, but in the meantime, a day to myself a week is a necessity to keep me sane and exploring other creative outlets actually allow me to do a lot of random thinking about my story, so it's a win-win.

What about you? What is your routine? Do you allow time for yourself? What other creative outlets do you have? Any cool craft ideas to share?

Oh and here is a tidbit from the WIP:

I called her a bitch when she turned away. I repeated it a few times so that she would hear me because I didn’t know that my last sight of her would be cinnamon-streaked curls swinging across the back of a ratty black sweater with Queen of Hell screenprinted on it in red lettering that resembled spattered blood.

I’ve been holding on to that blurry image of her walking away from me for eight months—eight months and fourteen days ago to be precise, not that anyone except me and maybe Gran keeps track that closely anymore.