Monday, July 26, 2010

My Retreat Journal/Guide to Novel-Writing/Failed Attempt Not To Panic.

Welcome to Stephanie’s Retreat Journal A.K.A. Stephanie’s guide to novel-writing A.K.A. Stephanie tries not to panic but does anyway.

Last week I went here to write:

That would be a cabin in Oregon, IL, part of White Pines State Park:

It was definitely the perfect place for a writing retreat.

I got a lot written on my retreat, but left feeling a bit stressed and not entirely fulfilled. I came home to a shit-ton of stress, some of which I knew was coming (my cats are sick again) and some that was an unpleasant surprise (big rainstorm the night I returned that caused our basement to flood for the second time in a month). I'm not gonna lie, I am NOT in a good head space right now. Even before those stressful turns, I wasn't. I'm kind of in one of those "what am I going to do with my life" moments of panic where nothing seems right (except for my loved ones, especially my husband, he is my rock as always). I wrote a couple of journal entries that I will share here and they demonstrate the stress and panic and may sound a bit whiny, but they also record my process, so I'm posting them more for myself than anyone else. When/if I finish this book (and right now it feels a lot more like an if), I want to see how I went about doing it and have this as a reminder for future stressed moments that I can get through it. I'm not posting this an attempt to get sympathy or anything so I'm really sorry if it does come off as whiny and if it is not useful to anyone but me (though it does talk about novel writing methods). But if any of you have been through this place in your writing career or in writing a book and have any advice, I would greatly appreciate it so please share away.

My general routine on the writing retreat in case you are interested was I got up around 9 most days, usually went for a walk or run surrounded by this type of gorgeousness:

Then I wrote until roughly 5:30 or 6 and walked to the gift shop to reward myself with chocolate. Then my mom, friend Jenny and I would make dinner, play a game (my mom loves this old word game Probe and also a rummy-style word game called Triversity) and watch the Gilmore Girls (we watched all of season 3 over 5 nights lol!) My reading material for the trip was Bring On The Night by Jeri Smith-Ready, book three in her WVMP series that is all about rock 'n' roll, vampires, and now zombies with a kick-ass heroine. I highly recommend it.

Now here are the two journal entries I wrote:

Day 2 of 4 day writing retreat:

Not gonna be enough time. In general, not gonna be enough time to write this book in six weeks.

Feeling incredible pressure and that needs to stop so I can enjoy writing again.

I’m not good at taking compliments so whenever anyone tells me what an accomplishment it is that I wrote and published two books, I just smile and nod and say, “kind of, I guess.” Writing a full book must be really hard they’d say and I’d shrug.

But yeah, it fucking is.

Maybe I had more energy and drive then, motivated by possibility instead of fear of failure. I need to get back to that place. The place I am in now is making me tired. This place is hard, worrying about word count and process and do I even know how to do this right and all the stuff I never even though about before.

And sometimes I just want to give up.

Last day of the writing retreat:

Today I wrote 5,049 words. That came out to 17 pages, written in roughly five hours.

Monday I wrote approximately 2,250 words. Tuesday, 3,247. Wednesday, 3,236. All together 13,782.

I finished section 3 (of what will be a five part book). It had about 9K words written, but I had to rearrange and edit them. I only have two more sections and an epilogue left.

I should feel more accomplished about all of this, but I’m not. It was satisfying on some levels, but not on others.

For most part it’s crap. Total shitty first draft. There were some little gems, the prized moments of discovery, but mostly it feels like an expanded outline, all dialogue and rambly character thoughts with a few stage directions thrown in.

(Is this how other people’s first drafts are??? I’ve never really written this way before.)

I’m learning to write a novel all over again. I haven’t worked on a first draft since fall of 2006 if that even counts because Ballads was a different book before it was Ballads so a lot of things were already planned.

It took me ages to write IWBYJR. I wrote scenes as they came to me and polished them like crazy. The polishing is my favorite part. I didn’t outline til the end when I got stuck and even though I got to take my time with the chapters I figured out that I had to write. My deadline was not nearly as rigorous or seemingly impossible as this one.

Both my books were written before I’d published. I wasn’t aware of certain things like that it seems other writers produce much faster than me. (I know I was doing things for the past three years, polishing both books, promoting them, writing two partials that didn’t sell and now I’m working on the fulls of both of them. One at a time since I’m already breaking myself. But still, I feel really unaccomplished and lazy.) I also did not know about the average word count. I guessed that the 152K that IWBYJR first came in at was too long but it sold at 112K and was published somewhere around 95K. Ballads sold at 106K and cut to just under 100K. I stupidly emailed my agent on day one of this retreat (when my phone signal randomly worked for 4 hours. It has not done it again since. Probably a good thing except for the stress of finding a way to get the landline # to my husband and hoping it worked.) and asked what the word count should be for a women’s fiction/commercial fiction/whatever general adult fiction book this is. I expected her to say 100k like Ballads, which I already felt like would be a crunch. Then she said 80K to 90K and I nearly had a heart attack. I was already at nearly 50K. Now I’m over 60K and trying not to think about the fact that I’m probably going to have to cut a lot of that beginning section that is so perfect and polished and that I’ve written bare bones chapters that will likely double in length.

The initial plan was to pound my way through 10 pages or 2500 to 3000 words a day, which I’ve been managing to do. I also have a list of scenes that I laid out story board style last night—something I’ve never done before. I cut some scenes (actually, a whole subplot), combined some things and can’t help but think there are still some scenes missing. I don’t know whether to be delighted by this—the potential for discovery, that great feeling that I get when something clicks—or terrified because it’s already too big, too long, too much of an undertaking. And I’ll never make my personal deadline of finish by Aug 28, revise by Labor Day or the following week so it’s in before agent goes on maternity leave. (Does this even matter? I’m so far away from the release of my 1st and 2nd books now that it’s going to be starting over by the time this one can sell and be released in what 2012? 2013 at this point? This is like starting over but starting over with counts against you because my first books didn’t sell well. So am I in the author version of bankruptcy?) I don’t know how I did this before. This whole week I’ve been stopping and thinking about going to library science school or finding some kind of real job I can enjoy, but I don’t think that exists! The idea of going back to school or working full-time leads to panic. I have to do this. This is all I know how to do. Even if I totally fucking suck sometimes. And I have to go home to ???billion emails [Note: it was actually 150 emails. Ugh.] and at least 1 sick cat (but hopefully it’s not Sid [note: it was Sid and Kaspar, very stressful]) and a house that is torn apart because the new windows are only partially installed (husband tried. He is amazing.) [Note: this was not nearly as inconvenient as the basement flooding that would occur the very next night] And I have to try to keep up with this pace which is either going to kill me more make me stronger because I don’t know how to write a novel. I’ve forgotten how.


So I’m combining everything I do know. I outlined. I plotted. I even storyboarded. Now I will write as fast as I can so that I can reach the finish line, feel kind of accomplished and then go back and do the fun part (oh god, I hope that is still fun or else I really am going to have to find a real job that I like). Right now I have my page count/word count goals, but I should probably also break out a calendar and do scene goals. Yikes.

Writing this way is not wholly satisfying but my perfectionism and my impatience cannot be both met at once. If the perfectionist side takes over, I will try stopping once I reach the word count goal (perhaps setting it slightly lower) and revising once the forward motion steam runs out. (I tend to be most awesome at just diving in and writing fast for the first hour and a half or two). Or if this totally drives me bonkers, I’ll finish a section or certain number of chapters at a time the fast way and then go back and revise and dilly dally and try to enjoy for a little while. We shall see where I am in two weeks, a month and then six weeks. I can only hope for the best (despite the fact that this journal entry shows optimism does NOT come naturally.)

So that was my retreat. Now I have to see if I can keep up this pace. Feeling totally beaten down by the events of this weekend during which I didn't get to write at all and I probably won't today either, I'm feeling pretty uncertain, but I will be trying. That's all I can do.


cat said...

There are oh so many other important things I could comment on from this post, but I'm going with this:


My mother, grandmother (and occasionally my aunt when she was visiting) and I used to play all the time. This post totally made me wonder who got the game when my grandparents moved to their apartment and then passed away. Either my mom or my sister. Must get to bottom of this!

Welcome back and remember to take some deep breaths!!

Jeri said...

Writing this way is not wholly satisfying but my perfectionism and my impatience cannot be both met at once.

OK, I'm printing that one out and hanging it on the wall above my sofa (which is my desk for the summer).

I know what you mean about extended outlines with dialogue. Hell, I have some parts of SHIFT that are like that, and we're into line edits already (my poor editor)!

But I try to just have faith that it has worked out before, that putting in hours and hours at the later stages (the ones the perfectionist loves) will solve the problems and the rough stone will somehow become a gem.

You've done it before, beautifully and brilliantly, Steph, so you CAN do it again! Hang in there, babe.

Karen Mahoney said...

Jeri is wise.

You can totally do this!! (Also, don't worry at all about emailing me, only if you think it will help to talk to someone who is a natural fairly-fast-drafter who doesn't outline.)

I'm sorry you're so stressed. Honestly, I can totally relate - so much going on here, too. Not all of it good. Not at all.

But Stephanie, you already wrote two amazing books - well, two I've seen (*g*) and you can and will write many more. You're letting The Fear get the better of you, and I know all about that too, my friend. (Dude, I really do.)

You need to quit thinking about publishing - just for a while - and find the love for words again. Find the GOOD part of telling a story that only you can tell.


Stephanie Kuehnert said...

Cat, yay!!! Someone else has heard of Probe! It is a fun game. I hope you find your game.

Jeri, thank you. I'm glad I'm not alone in having this issue. And I want to print out what you said about having faith. And I really appreciate what you said about my writing. That means so much coming from you. Good luck with those SHIFT line edits!

Kaz, thank you so much for your comment. I know you are right about the forgetting about publishing part (though it is so hard!) and I will be emailing you because I could use the support and commiseration!