Friday, December 31, 2010

Solutions and Resolutions

Thank you to everyone who weighed in my dilemma earlier this week about whether or not it is time to break up with the bartender book. You all gave me so much to think about and I'm still processing it. I spent Wednesday outlining the book and listing the scenes that were giving me problems. I haven't found solutions for all of them and I'm still afraid that this story is just too big and I won't be able to shorten it as much as I need to. It's not really a back-story issue so much anymore. I've pretty much figured out how to work with that. It's just a really HUGE story. It's told from two POVs and both characters have a lot going on. I've pondered cutting one of the POVs or dividing it into two books but neither of these options seem feasible.

What it comes down to is that I'm still in love with these characters and this story though. I can't get it out of my head and whether it is good for me or not, I'm not quite ready to let it go. That eight year relationship that I stayed in for way too long.... well if I hadn't I wouldn't have met my husband, so I have to think that things happen for a reason.

What is more important to me than going into the New Year with a project that is ready work perfectly or a new project, is going into the New Year in the right state of mind.

I started last year in a very bad mindset. As I mentioned, my cats were sick with what was a mystery ailment at the time, so I'd barely slept and I was super worried about getting them healthy again in time for me and my husband to go on our honeymoon (which was lovely but also did not go as expected because it was FREEZING in Florida) and I had to work that night. Until 6 am. I started 2010 with a massive headache, feeling tired and stressed and resentful about life. And the rest of my year followed suit.

That's not what I want for myself this year. Right now my cats are healthy (knock on wood!) as are the rest of my loved ones. I have the night off and am planning to spend it at home with my husband, two of my oldest and best friends, and their husbands. We will eat, drink, play board games, laugh and enjoy each other's company. Then on New Year's Day my husband and I will go and have brunch at the place where we went on our first date exactly 5 years ago, New Year's Day 2006. He took me out to celebrate my almost completion of the final draft of I WANNA BE YOUR JOEY RAMONE that my agent was about to put out on submission. It would take over a year to sell. That's where I was five years ago. Something my good friend John McNally reminded me to think about in a pep talk facebook message exchange following my last blog entry. John is an amazing author (seriously, go look him up on Amazon and buy his books. My personal favorite if I had to choose is Book of Ralph) and has been a mentor to me since I was in grad school. And he's been through the ups and downs of publishing like so many of my more experienced writer friends have been.

Five years ago, I was working my butt off on that book about that rock star girl that I had no idea would actually find a market. And I didn't care. I wrote it because I loved the story and the characters.

This past year I've been fretting so much about my career. I've been so depressed by the sales figures on my first two books. I've hated myself for not being a faster writer and being able to write and sell a book a year like some of my peers. I've put so much pressure on myself. I haven't just let myself love story and love writing.

I'm a worrier by nature and I don't know how to stop. I'm also impatient and prone to pessimism, those are without a doubt my worst traits. I don't know how to make a New Year's Resolution to solve that except to say that I'm going to try to worry less, be more patient with myself and my process and be kind to myself. And I'm not going to make lofty goals about my writing this year. I'm a dedicated writer and I know that. As long as I am writing at least 5 to 6 hours a day for 5 days a week this year, that is good enough. We'll see what comes out of it.

And as for the Bartender Book, my solution for now is that we are going on vacation together. We're going to that writing retreat in San Diego from the 8th through the 14th and we're going to try to have a good time together. Because I'm going to work on it for *me*, not to meet a deadline, not for my agent or a potential publisher or even as much as I love you guys, not for you. We're gonna see if we can make it work and perhaps it will be the honeymoon we need. Perhaps I'll see that the magic has fizzled and when I come home, if it's still not working, we'll separate. And I'm not gonna lie, I'm bringing my idea journals and I'll probably look over my notes on my other projects before I go too and if I decide I'll have a better time with one of them there, then that's what I'll do.

But I'm going to write for the love of writing that week in San Diego and hopefully for all of 2011. I hope it will result in something that is good for my career, but if not, I'll deal with that in 2012.

I want to share a song that the lovely Kate Tyler Wall sent me to lift my spirits and it really did. It's from a forthcoming solo album by Dave Hause, the lead singer of The Loved Ones, which is one of the bands that has been a muse for the bartender book. The song is quite appropriate for the time of year and matches my mindset completely. It's called Resolutions. You can here the album version here, but here is a live version I found on YouTube:

Thank you again from the bottom of my heart for all your support and encouraging comments. I can't tell you how much it means to me to have such good friends and readers online and off. I hope you all have a wonderful 2011! And please feel free to share your resolutions!

Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Out with the old, in with the new?

I don't have very many nice things to say about 2010. The Blackhawks won the Stanley Cup, but I think that might be the only good thing that happened. That and I have an amazing husband, family, and friends. Every time I hang out with them, especially the friends I've known forever and don't get to see enough, I feel so lucky to know such smart, funny, kind, caring, and completely unique people. And my husband is like that too of course, plus he is my stability, my rock.

Without these people I don't think I could have survived 2010.

2010 has been hell year in so many ways. It started off with a mysterious sickness affecting all three of my cats that would take 10 months to get under control and is something we'll be walking a tightrope to handle for the rest of their lives.

2010 was the year that anything that could go wrong did. It was the year the house flooded. Twice. Exactly one month apart. I used to tell myself that bad things happened in threes and then came the good. But the bad things just kept coming. Every phone call was bad news, another worry, another heartache.

So good riddance to 2010. My only concern is that it won't take all of its bad juju with it. But my best friend keeps pointing out that we have better luck in odd number years. I'm trying to tell myself this is true. I met my husband in an odd number year, married him in an odd number year, and I sold my first book in an odd number year....

Oh the book thing, without a doubt that has been the worst thing about 2010. I had a lofty plan this year to write two books in one year even though TWO YEARS is the shortest period of time it has ever taken me to write ONE book. I thought I might be able to sell on partial though, particularly to the publisher that put out my first two books. But they rejected my third book in January. I told myself it was okay because they were interested in seeing an adult book from me and I wanted to rewrite that partial as an adult book. Plus I had another partial that I was super excited about and thought would get snatched right up. That one got rejected by multiple publishers, though a few of them said they would be interested in seeing it if I developed the whole thing.

Okay, I thought, I'll do that after I finish this adult book. The bartender book as those of you who read my blog or follow my Twitter have come to know it. At that time I was in love with the story, in love with the characters and the writing was going well. I still love the story, still love the characters, but the writing has been terrible for the past four or five months. Every time I hit my stride, I hit a snag. I've tried every trick I know. Taking a break and starting something new. Writing quickly, writing slowly. Getting my critique partners to take a look at it. I finished a very rough draft thinking that rewriting would be a new mindset and that was when things would clear up for me.

For a while they did. It was very slow going. Like I've revised four chapters/sixty pages this entire month slow going, but it felt good. I'd done a fair amount of cutting and compressing and reshaping and I was feeling positive even though I know I have a lot of work ahead. (Altogether I have to cut 60,000 words. Yeah, that's a lot.) I still thought with my upcoming writing retreat, I'd be in a good place. By then I would have gotten past the hardest parts and would have nothing but momentum to build on during my retreat. For me, that is when a writing retreat is truly productive, when you've already got a project off the ground and know it well. Then you have the time to really fly through it. My best writing retreat was when I was finishing a major draft of BALLADS and had time to start a second draft immediately. I was totally in the zone and I thought that was going to happen this time too. And if it did I thought I could possibly finish the rewrite by end of January/early February and have a full book to shop for the first time in three years. Yes, three years. That's how long ago I finished the draft of Ballads that sold. I've been struggling to find the right story and write the whole story ever since.

Monday, I hit a wall. There is so much back story that has to be woven into this book. It can be woven through out and would work best that way, but I don't know how to do it. Tuesday, I skipped the chapter where I got stuck and tried the next one. Ran into the same problem. Maybe I need to carefully outline, something which I normally hate doing because I love making discoveries on the page. Maybe I'm just not good enough to tell this story.

I'm not trying to sound whiny or fish for compliments here. I know I'm a pretty good writer. This year I've begun to doubt that I'll ever seriously be great though. This year, after all of the rejection, from publishers, from my dream writing retreat, after the disappointment with the performance of my first two books, I started to think about all that I'd given up to do this. I told myself that if I was ever going to have kids I'd decide to do it by the age of 32. That's next year. I'm in no financial state to have a child if we decided we wanted one. I told myself I'd be living in Seattle by now, the place where I really really want to be, but I'm still stuck in Chicago, a place that though I have friends and family here, I really have never liked living in.

Again, not meaning to sound whiny. This is what being a writer is. Sacrifices for the story, for doing what you love. And when it comes down to it, when I sit there and try to think what else I could do instead of writing--and I have admittedly done that many times this year--I draw a complete blank. This is the only thing I want to do. I can't imagine a life without writing stories. Though sometimes I want it and think it would be so much simpler to just work a regular job and come home and enjoy other people's stories in books, in TV. But really truly I can't imagine it. This is what I do.

And 2011, I kept telling myself, would be my year. I would break through. I would sell another book. Maybe even my breakout book, but dude, if I could just finish a book, a book I was as proud of as the last one, that alone would be an accomplishment.

But now I am starting to wondering if I made all of these sacrifices this year for the wrong story. Have I wasted an entire year trying to write a book that is too big or I am simply not good enough to write?

I have other ideas, but none of them as fully formed as the one I'm working on now. To start fresh would mean to spend months brainstorming and drafting, maybe even a whole year. Instead of having a book ready to shop this spring, it would most likely mean next winter. That scares me. Starting again scares me. I don't do that. Not without finishing something. Yes, I stopped writing the book that became BALLADS for years to work on I WANNA BE YOUR JOEY RAMONE but that is because I'd gotten that book as far as I could take it and knew it needed time and because IWBYJR was tugging so hard. I knew it was time to set one aside and work on the other. I knew.

Right now I don't know.

I love the bartender book and I want to see it through, but I'm afraid that I can't and I'm so sick of the constant battles with it. For every good week of writing, I have a shitty month. It's beginning to remind me of a bad relationship. Before my husband, I dated someone for eight years. For at least three of those years, I knew that the relationship was never going to work, but I was too scared to admit that I failed. So I wasted all of that time and energy.

My point is that even though I knew when to break up with the pre-BALLADS book, I have a history of not being able to admit failure. And I'm really starting to wonder if I should scream UNCLE! and walk away from the bartender book. Start 2011 fresh. No bad juju from 2010 left. However that also means that 2011 will feel a lot like 2010-- a long uphill battle to get my writing career back on track, a whole new book that I don't feel like I have confidence to write. AND the writing retreat I've been looking forward to may not be as helpful as I hoped because that kind of writing time is not productive for me on a fresh project. I need more daydreaming time then.

So there are pro's and con's on both sides, but I just don't know. I guess I'll see how today goes. Due to work and holiday plans this is my last day of 2010 to write and I think I'm going to spend it outlining and index carding and seeing if I can figure things out. Then I'll at least give it one last try on January 2 at my writer's group, but man, if it doesn't work....

I leave on my retreat in a little over a week. I really want to be productive there because it cost me money that I don't really have to spend and I really do just want to be in a much better mindset next year. I need to be happy with my life and my writing again.

So I'm looking for advice here. How do you know when it's time to break up with a book? And would you ever break up with a book if you wrote 160,000 words, spent a year on it and were already part way into the revision? What's more important, a fresh start for the new year or feeling like I've accomplished something? And for those of you who have listened to me whiny closely over the past few months, your thoughts are especially appreciated because you probably know my angst better than anyone. I love this story, but is it worth the continued agony? Out with the old, in with the new? Or keep on keeping on?

I guess for now, I'll go tackle that outline.

Friday, December 24, 2010

My gift to you: a Bartender book teaser

I've been plugging away at the revisions on the bartender book even today on Christmas Eve. I reached my goal for the week though. The revision on the first four chapters are rewritten. It's taken me all month to do those, which doesn't really bode well for meeting my goal of finishing a complete rewrite by the end of January, but restructuring the beginning was one of the hardest parts (and it's still too long, but I'm hoping I can cut other stuff along the way to compensate) and I'm really in the groove now. So much so that if it wasn't Christmas, I'd spend the weekend writing. But I've got a week of nothing but writing in sunny California coming up soon.

Anyway I thought I'd share a couple of the new/reworked scenes that I added.

So that you have context you may want to check out some of my previous teasers.

The story is told in alternating points of view between eighteen year-old college student Zoe and her thirty-eight year old mother, bartender Ivy.

Zoe starts the book with a slightly reworked version of the beginning you'll find here. (I changed it so the book begins during her winter break from her first semester of college, so now she is getting the tattoo as a late birthday present. This is the first chapter now though it was the second at the time and it is actually way way better. Sigh, maybe I shouldn't post teasers because of this...)

And then there is Ivy who works in a bar that is actually named The Bar in a town that she and Zoe refer to only as Nowhere. I posted a bit of her introductory chapter here. This is no longer the first chapter, but I still kept a lot of this as it sets up the primary place in the book, The Bar.

This teaser is where I introduce Zoe's best friends Bender and Dylan (who was previously named Cole, so sorry for any confusion that may cause) and give you a sense of their friendship and what Zoe is leaving behind. It will be important in the latter part of my teaser.

Today I'm going to give you a bit from Ivy's point of view and then a bit from Zoe's. It's probably the biggest teaser I've ever post, but it's the holidays so enjoy.

We're going to start with a scene to give you context and introduce one of my favorite characters, Eli, then skip ahead.

Oh and a couple dorky little notes. Both Eli and Bender have my husband's tattoos. And since I decided to pay homage to my favorite soapy TV with some of my character names, Dylan is in honor Dylan McKay from Beverly Hills, 90210, and Bender's first name is a tribute to Rory's smart but rebellious boyfriend Jess on the Gilmore Girls. (Can I also just say that when the awesome author Tara Kelly read part of my rough draft and told me it reminded her of an edgy Gilmore Girls, I was overjoyed!) The name Bender itself though comes from mine and Ivy's favorite eighties movie, The Breakfast Club.

Anyway.... this is Ivy:

“Whoever invented the Irish car bomb must’ve really hated their bartender. It leaves what looks like curdled baby puke at the bottom of the pint glass and you have to stick your hand in there to get the shot glass out.” I shuddered, adding, “And it’s impossible to get those glasses clean. Only a scorned lover would wish that on someone.”

Eli laughed. “Or an inconsiderate riverfront rat.”

Nowhere’s riverfront was like a college town without a college. Every bar had a beer pong table and their clientele was underage or freshly returned not-so triumphantly from State. The girls went out wearing little more than underwear and high heels. The boys wore their baseball caps backward and had perpetually red faces—booze sunburns.

Gesturing at the front door, Eli said, “I saw the former high school football stars out there smoking.”

I rolled my eyes. “I only served them because tonight’s been so dead. The regulars were wasted when I got here and left by nine. Had about six or seven customers after that including those guys. They had two pitchers of beer, six car bombs and that’s my tip.” I indicated five quarters piled in the middle of the bar. “But least I made Howie a little money. And now that you’re here, we can mock them. Did you see how they can barely squeeze into their old letterman’s jackets? That’s what happens when your college experience is one long frat party.”

We both grinned. Normally Eli would build off of my insult to create a whole story about the riverfront rats, but instead he patted his belly and said, “I know the years of drinking haven’t been the kindest to me, but I’m nearly forty.”

I winced at his use of the ‘f’ word especially since he’d yet to turn thirty-eight like me. Every night, I slathered on creams to smooth the wrinkles that were forming around the corners of my eyes and mouth. Fortunately makeup kept them hidden and the black hair dye I’d been using since fourteen covered any lurking gray.

Eli didn’t go to such lengths, but the years hadn’t been unkind. He had a slight paunch, which probably seemed more extreme to him because he’d been such a skinny kid. But unlike most guys we’d graduated with, he still had a full head of hair. In fact, I’d hardly recognized him because he’d kept his head shaved in high school and now he allowed his dark brown curls grow in. He’d gone gray at the temples and the stubble on his face came in more salt than pepper, but he looked good.

“You’re doing much better than those guys,” I assured him.

He flushed slightly, took a swallow of beer and changed the subject.

Okay, I'm going to skip ahead now to get to a scene that originally was the opening to the book and I'm glad I found a way to reincorporate it. This is still Ivy, but you will see when it changes to Zoe.

At last call, Eli opted to pay his tab instead of having another beer. Since he’d only had one, I refused to charge him. He offered to stick around to help me close up, but I shooed him off knowing that he had to open the auto shop at seven in the morning.

“Zoë will be here any minute along with Bender and Dylan,” I told him. “They’re just across the street at the pool hall.”

That seemed to reassure him enough to get him out the door, but I expected Zoë and her friends to come in the side entrance, so when the front door slammed open, I thought Eli had smoked a cigarette and changed his mind.

“And they say chivalry—” I stopped at the sight of the riverfront rats staggering toward the bar, more bleary-eyed than they’d been when they left. “I already did last call. We’re closed,” I informed them.

The smaller of the two stopped and wobbled side to side, preparing to turn around, but the bigger guy held out his cell phone to display the time and said, “It ain’t two yet.”

I motioned at a clock on the wall behind him, set ahead like all bar clocks. “According to that it is and that’s what I go by.”

“C’mon, Bobby, let’s go,” the big guy’s friend urged.

But Bobby narrowed his eyes and said, “It’s bullshit the way the bars in this town operate. It’s not like this in real cities.”

Like where, your college town? I thought. But while I seethed on the inside, I managed to sound unruffled. “Actually I’ve worked in many different bars in many different cities and they all operated like this hence the phrase ‘bar time.’”

Bobby lumbered toward me. Slamming a meaty hand on the bar, he spat, “I don’t give a fuck about bar time. Real time says I got ten minutes so get me a beer, bitch.”

I considered two options. One, calmly pick up the phone and call the police. Two, calmly jump on top of the bar crushing his finger under my boot in the process. Before I could decide, a third option presented itself.

It was not the option I would have chosen.

Bender came from behind and threw his arm around Bobby’s thick neck. He used the headlock to steer him toward the front door, threatening, “You better get the fuck out of here like she told you, asshole. She’s like a mother to me and what would you do if someone talked to your mother like that?”

I hadn’t heard Bender enter, but there he was with Dylan beside him and Zoë holding the front door open.

The smaller guy danced around Bender like an excited terrier. “We’ll get out of here, man. No worries, no worries,” he yapped. “We’re going. Just let him go.”

Nearing the doorway, Bender loosened his grip. Bobby turned on him and reached for the long blue spikes of hair jutting out of Bender’s head. He managed to flatten one into Bender’s face before Bender shoved him. Bobby landed on the wooden bench built into the wall beside the door, his head inches from the window.

“Did you learn to fight from sorority girls?” Bender scoffed. His fists were raised as were Dylan’s, who hovered behind him. Bobby pulled his knees in, ready to kick.

Everything would unravel before I could get around the bar. A window would break. The cops would come. Brawls like this happened at the riverfront bars all the time, but not here. And Zoë and Bender were underage. If we didn’t end up in the hospital, we’d end up in jail.

I panicked like I had as a nineteen year-old cocktail waitress during my first Vegas barfight screeching, “Stop it! Get out! I’m calling the cops.”

All the lessons I’d learned at the biker bar I’d worked in for a year during my mid-twenties had vanished. But fortunately Zoë remembered.

My daughter stepped between Bender and Bobby. She stood as tall as Bender, and with her head shaved except for her bangs, she looked almost as intimidating as he did. She stamped her combat boots and flapped her arms like they were pterodactyl wings.

Slim, a biker who was most definitely not, had coached me to do this the morning after a particularly scary fight. “I know you’re little, Ivy,” he’d said, “But puff yourself up big like an animal in the face of a predator. Make sweeping gestures and use a booming voice.”
He’d demonstrated with four-year-old Zoë present and she’d mimicked him, flailing her arms as she chirped, “Get the fuck out!”

Fourteen years later, her voice was much more powerful. “Get the fuck out!” was punctuated with more stomping and arm-waving. She forced Bender and Dylan to back up, clearing a path for the riverfront clowns to the door. The smaller guy dragged the bigger one out and Zoë pulled the heavy wooden door shut and bolted it.

While Bender and Dylan whooped and high-fived her, I called the non-emergency police line to notify them that I’d ejected two hooligans and would like an officer to cruise by to make sure they didn’t cause further trouble.

The boys jumped around, reenacting the fight while Zoë put the stools up. When the three of them met me after work, they usually cleaned and stocked while I balanced the register. Zoë slipped right into that routine, but I needed to settle my nerves.

As soon as I picked up the bottle of vodka, Bender and Dylan rushed straight to the baby bar. Zoë rarely drank, but I decided that we needed to honor her, so I grabbed shot glasses for all of us. She walked over, arms crossed, as I poured.

I lifted my glass in her direction and said, “To Zoë.”

“For saving our asses,” Dylan added with a laugh.

Bender met my daughter’s eyes as he spoke. “Because we’ll miss her like crazy.”

“And don’t know what we’ll do without her,” I continued, picking up the fourth glass and offering it to my daughter.

She was supposed to take it and say, “The Bar knows best.” She’d grown up watching the routine and I needed her to do it quickly so I wouldn’t cry.

Instead Zoë shook her head. Glowering at me, she said, “You’ll probably end up arrested. You just asked the cops to drive by and now you’re serving alcohol to minors after hours?” She stomped to the side door. “I’ll wait outside so you don’t get in trouble.”

“We’re still going to drink to you,” Dylan called after her. He was the only one still smiling as he clinked his glass against mine and Bender’s.

Bender downed his shot and ducked out after Zoë, muttering that she was probably right.
I swallowed the two shots that remained, whispering, “The Bar knows best,” but without others to echo them, the words failed to comfort me.


“It’s locked,” Bender said, emerging from the Bar’s side entrance as I tugged on the passenger’s door of his car.

Spinning on the frozen snow, I faced him and cupped my hands, demanding, “Toss me the keys.”

He arched his pierced eyebrow in a way that seemed to ask, “Throw something that might scratch my car? Are you crazy?”

The glare I shot back read, “Not as crazy as the drunk, underage fool who started a fight in my mother’s bar.”

I waited for him to tell me to come back inside, to roll his eyes and say that I was overreacting because the cops weren’t going to drive by until they were done patrolling the riverfront where fights always broke out at closing time. And he would probably be right about that just like he had been about the drunken frat boys. When they’d been turned down for last call at the pool hall, Bender had insisted on heading to The Bar to make sure they didn’t cause trouble for my mom.

Go ahead, I thought, tell me you’re right so I can tell you that I was, too. You and my mother are just as predictable as the riverfront rats and the cops. You’re always looking for an excuse to fight and she’s always looking for an excuse to raise a glass. Nothing ever changes in Nowhere.

Instead of answering the accusations in my eyes, Bender used The Bar’s brick wall as a shield to light his cigarette. He took two long drags before finally saying, “When this kind of shit happens I know you wonder why you’re friends with us.”

His cold words knocked the wind out of me. I grasped for him as he approached. “Bender, I didn’t mean….”

He thrust the keys into my hand, instructing gruffly, “Start it so you aren’t cold. You should drive anyway since you’re the only one who hasn’t been drinking.”

It was not a precaution he took because he feared being pulled over. Bender couldn’t care less about getting into trouble, but the Continental was sacred. No one could smoke in it or drive it after having more than two beers and that night he and Dylan had had at least six each. For a while, this rule meant we walked home a lot because I hadn’t been allowed behind the wheel of that Lincoln until I’d my license for a year.

The car had belonged to Bender’s maternal grandfather, the only person who’d ever mattered to Bender besides Dylan, my mom and me. Bender’s parents had divorced when he was a toddler and bounced him back and forth for years because he fought with their new spouses and stepchildren. He’d been headed for foster care at the age of ten when Grandpa Bender moved to town and took him in. Grandpa Bender had never liked his grandchild’s father, so he legally changed the boy’s name from Jesse Fitzpatrick, Jr. to Jesse Bender. In addition to giving him a new name, he taught his grandson to channel his angry energy into rebuilding the ’59 Lincoln Continental. Grandpa Bender had coveted that car since he’d worked on its production line and bought it to celebrate his retirement from Ford. He’d left it to Bender when he died and though Bender was only fourteen at the time, he managed to hold onto it, often living in the car when his parents kicked him out—at least until he met me.

My mom had a tendency to take in strays, mainly in the form of alcoholic boyfriends. Since I’d made her promise not to do that, she all but legally adopted Bender. She also defended both him and Dylan in the principal’s office after we’d rescued the frogs I was supposed to dissect in biology class and set them free in a nearby pond. When Mr. McGivens implied that I was headed down “a bad path” because I’d befriended “troublemakers,” Mom glared at the man who’d also been her principal and said, “Those boys aren’t troubled, they’ve just been ignored and written off by everyone including you!” She stopped there, but her furious brown eyes added, Just like me.

Mom had only known Bender and Dylan for a couple of weeks at that point, but she recognized the kind of kid she’d been and when we left the principal’s office, she hugged me and said, “You’re their Hanna. You’ll be good for them and they’ll teach you to have a little fun like Hanna and I did.”

I hugged her back, beaming on the inside because Mom’s Hanna stories were the only ones I never got sick of. The epic sleepovers. The band that had never gotten past the two of them tinkering around with a keyboard that Viki bought them, but had the best name ever: Hanna Is Not a Palindrome. The road trips to Chicago and Milwaukee to sneak into goth clubs—not that I wanted to do the clubbing part, but having friends as close as my mom and Hanna had been was my fantasy. After moving around so much during grade school, I hadn’t allowed myself to get close to people in middle school even though it seemed like Mom and Pete were solid. It was like I knew that she’d take me away two months before eighth grade graduation, but when we moved to Nowhere and I had a guarantee we were staying, I could let my guard down.
I wanted to tell Bender all of this to quell his doubts our friendship.

We’re different, but we balance each other, I wanted to say, but I walked around Bender’s car in silence, clutching his keys so they dug into my palm and I could focus on that pain instead of the way his words had gashed into me.

I willed him to go back inside so I could cry like I wanted to, but he remained where I’d left him, smoking his cigarette and watching the block that the riverfront rats had disappeared down. So I started the car as he instructed, but not for the heat. I needed the loud music that would blare from the speakers as soon as the engine turned over.

In the time it took Bender to finish his cigarette, I listened to a Rancid song about “hittin’ the shots” and “broken homes and broken bones” in an urban version of Nowhere. Bender’s driving playlists were composed of angry songs about drinking and fighting with the occasional anthem about shaking up the system thrown in for me. Bender and Dylan didn’t show much interest in the political aspect of punk. They couldn’t articulate what they were rebelling against, but the songs they loved expressed the kind of frustration they felt growing up in a dead-end place like Nowhere—a frustration that I feared would destroy them if they didn’t get out.

After tossing his cigarette butt into the street, Bender tapped on the window and I unlocked the passenger’s side door. I turned the music down as he slid into the car, finally knowing how to respond to his remark about our friendship, his freak-out over my tattoo design, and all of the similar incidents that had occurred over the past two weeks. I knew he was trying to push me away, but I wouldn’t let him.

I stared directly at him even though he wouldn’t meet my gaze and said, “Come with me tomorrow, you and Dylan. Move to Washington.”

“Pffft.” Bender shifted in his seat, fidgeting with the left sleeve of his leather jacket near the freshly tattooed racing flags that he’d had added to the collage of pistons and gears on his shoulder.

I'm gonna leave off there. Hope you enjoyed it. Happy Holidays!

Sunday, December 19, 2010

Memory Monday

I'm an incredibly nostalgic person. A song, a smell, an image, anything can send me tumbling into a recollection, sometimes good, sometimes bad though for the most part I've come to terms with my past and can even view the bad memories with a kind of distance that keeps them from hurting too badly.

There was a time when everything hurt though. The past, the present, and I couldn't even imagine the kind of place I'm in now. I wrote my way through most of this. I fictionalized some of it. I killed some of my demons (some quite literally) in I WANNA BE YOUR JOEY RAMONE and also through Louisa's character got a strong look into what my future would be if I held on to the hurt forever. So I purged more in BALLADS. It's mostly fiction, but the scared girl whose best friends kept moving away, who never felt like she had real friends or truly fit the suburban mold, the girl who cut her skin to deal with those emotions, that was me.

There are still other things though, things I think about turning into more fictional stories and that's probably the way I will ultimately go, but sometimes I want to capture the exact moment, put it in words, set it free.

Yes, even though I am at the very beginning (two chapters have taken two weeks) of a tough revision of a really rough draft of the bartender book AKA the first "adult" book, and I have ideas brewing for a YA Urban Fantasy, a YA Post-Apocalyptic and most recently another YA contemporary realistic (those are just where my heart is and what comes to me most easily even if it doesn't sell. I read the other stuff but doubt my abilities to write it.), I'm also pondering a memoir or more likely a collection of essays about the things I experienced from I don't know thirteen through my early twenties. I don't remember much from before junior high and life finally calmed down in my early twenties, but in between it was fucked up in that interesting way that I like to read about at least. I don't know if other people would seeing as it's not like I'm famous or anything. And half the time I don't even think I could do it. It would mean reopening old wounds and some of them are too freshly healed, some of them I never thought I would close. I've also learned lessons from my teenage zinester days. You can be too honest. It can hurt people that you don't want to hurt. It can make people afraid to be close to you. And I don't want to do that again.

So I'm gun-shy for those many many good reasons. But man when I wrote my essay "Ten Years Gone" for Fresh Yarn five years ago and when I wrote the essay for the DEAR BULLY anthology, it did feel so good, so natural. That kind of confessional, honest story telling is where I got my start.

I don't know what I'll do. Keep weighing the pros and the cons like I have been for years (the DEAR BULLY thing really just opened it up again for me), but I figure this blog which gets so boring and dust-covered at times can be an outlet for the memories I feel a big urge to share as well as this amazing blog I've joined with a bunch of other YA writers called Dear Teen Me, in which we write letters to our teenage selves. My letter won't be up til late January, but there are a ton of good ones going up every day so if you are a nostalgia freak like me, check it out.

Here's the thing that set my nostalgia off the other day:

Yep, that's an '85 Plymouth Voyager. My family got a blue-gray one that year. No wooden paneling. At least I don't think. Like I said, foggy childhood memory so I'd have to look at a picture for reference, but I think I just really wanted the wood paneling for some reason, thinking it was fancier than ours.

A lot of memories in that van. We moved from St. Louis to Chicago in it when I was seven and our cat hid so far beneath a seat we'd thought we'd lost her. I'm sure there are other things too, but when I saw one the other day, the memory it stirred was my last one of that van. It was February of 1995. I'd been hanging out with kids I'd met at Scoville Park for about four or five months. There was a group of them that were really tight and I wanted to be their friend so badly because they were into indie and punk like me and a few of them had this band. But I just didn't feel cool enough and I was friends with another group of people that some of them had problems with. Stupid teenage bullshit. Somebody got the cops called on somebody because they were using their garage to smoke pot. But I'd just started dating one of the guys who was in that band and it was weekend of Valentine's Day and our high school had this stupid King of Hearts dance that being little rebels we didn't want to go to but we also were in need of something better today and this local band that I'd discovered was playing at the Metro. The Lupins. I thought they were the shit and they were *my* discovery. I saw them open for someone else and became obsessed. I'd heard of them and these kids, kids to whom new music was like the most valuable currency, they hadn't. It was my ticket in. I passed my cassette tape of the band through my new boyfriend. The other kids approved. They wanted to go to the show. So I went a step further and volunteered my mom to drive us. Because we had this van:

Only blue-gray and no wood paneling (at least I don't think so, maybe I actually hated the wood paneling and am editing it out?). And it was on it's deathbed. But my mom saw how much it meant to me so we packed the thing full of kids, possibly beyond the legal limit though probably not because my mom was driving and she didn't allow that sort of thing, not like I would later when I inherited (or rather claimed without giving my parents a choice in the matter) our Honda Civic and crammed 9 or 10 people into 5 seats. Anyway, to get on to 290, the highway into Chicago, to the Metro, to the show, we had to get on at Austin which is a bridge and fuck if that van didn't practically catch on fire as my mom sat on the bridge, on an angle with the weight of all those kids. All those kids who I feared might be judging me like most of the other Oak Park kids had been for the past seven years, thinking that I'd gotten them into a death trap, the stinking, smoking van, and my mom who I believe started to freak out in the way she does--and the way I do--when things get stressful, they were probably judging her too. And I hated her and the van for not being perfect and I hated them for judging her if they were judging her and most of all I hated myself because even though I had discovered this band that was so much better than the lame King of Hearts dance, even though I had even scored us a ride to the show which was definitely hard to come by at that point when most of us were sophomores and freshman, I still didn't feel cool enough. I still didn't feel like I would fit in with these misfits.

Everyone had a blast and another band, one called Hum from Champaign was on the bill and we all loved them even more than The Lupins. We discovered that band, the group of us together, and I'd brought us there. Me and the music and my mom and my family's shitty old van. For one small moment things were perfect. But then I remembered that I still felt like the outsider looking in. And then my boyfriend asked me to hold his coat while he went into the pit even though *I* always went into the pit. And I did because he was new and I liked him a lot, but I should have known then. That was the first sign and the second was when he started talking shit about all of his friends, the friends I wanted to know so badly. Within weeks, he would have a big fight with them and leave the band and tell me that none of them liked me and it was me and him against the world. He would break me. He would destroy my chances at real friendship with a lot of those kids who rode in my van. There would be tension between us for years. Like thirteen years until the grief over the death of a mutual friend would make it all insignificant, all the drama that boy who no one spoke anymore caused.

But fuck, the van, the sight of that van just brought it all back. Not the ugly stuff that followed, not the rest of the ride, just that moment of being on the bridge, thinking the van would die, thinking I didn't live up to these people who I know now were just as awkward and insecure as me, thinking we'd never get to the top of the bridge, to the expressway on-ramp, to that moment where I felt like they liked me and I could believe that they liked me. But we did.

Friday, December 10, 2010

Good News Friday!

I know this blog (and my life in general this year) has had a lot more negativity than positivity as of late, so I thought I'd round-up some good news and share it this week.

For one, there is a winner to announce. The recipient of WHEN THE STARS GO BLUE by Caridad Ferrer is Harmony!

Also you might have heard me talking about this on twitter last week, but a teacher designed a website that uper cool interactive teaching resource website for BALLADS OF SUBURBIA: It's got activities to do with the book, resources on the themes in the book, music, and an exclusive interview with me. It will make BALLADS easy to use in the classroom for projects or extra credit. I was really honored that she chose my book to work with and it would mean a lot to me if this leads to more teens getting their hands on BALLADS since I know it was the kind of book I desperately needed in high school (and that's why I wrote it.) So if you can help me spread the word to high school teachers and librarians about this website, I would really appreciate it!

Best of all, I'm thrilled to share that I am a part of this:

A lot of big name authors whom I really admire like Ellen Hopkins and Alyson Noel have contributed essays and I'm seriously stoked that my essay about how I used music to find strength when I was being bullied and teased is going to be included. Here are the full details on the project from Publishers Weekly.

Last but certainly not least, I'm happy to report that rewriting has been making me happy this week. It's been going very slow. I've only finished one chapter and sometimes I feel like I'm jamming puzzle pieces that don't really fit together, but it does feel good when I find a way to make it work. I also am killing some darlings and probably will have to kill a bunch more, but this week I feel like the book is salvageable. (Unlike last week when I was pretty much ready to give up on it again.)

This morning I realized that I also went through several weeks of writer's block before finishing the first draft of I WANNA BE YOUR JOEY RAMONE. Now that first draft was a hell of a lot more complete when it was done (an actual first draft, not a rough draft), but after I got over that writer's block hurdle, I was able to go through several rounds of revision without a major meltdown. BALLADS OF SUBURBIA on the other hand had an easy first draft, but each time I tried to revise it, I felt like it was missing something major and that led to at least two major meltdowns, one of which occurred two days before I was supposed to turn in the final revision to my editor and resulted in the return of my ulcer. So I guess I'm saying that I'm hoping this book is going to be more like IWBYJR and it's going to be smoother sailing from here on out. Of course there are no guarantees, but right now I'm actually excited about writing for the first time in months. In fact, usually I reserve Fridays for errands and catching up on email, but I think I'm gonna sign off now and poke around with the story a bit.

Good weekend to all!

Monday, December 6, 2010

Contests, Bookplates, and the Monday Muse

Look, it hasn't been a month between blog posts! Only a week! And I did blog over at Teen Fiction Cafe about my upcoming January writing retreat. I'm trying to get back into the habit, guys!

I think due to my absence my Women Who Rock Wednesday post suffered a little bit though and not very many of you entered to win WHEN THE STARS GO BLUE by Caridad Ferrer, which looks like an amazing book and I want you to have the opportunity to win it. So I'm giving you til this Wednesday to enter. All you have to do is check out the interview and leave a comment, though of course there are opportunities to get additional entries. So what are you waiting for, ENTER!

Speaking of contests, don't forget you still have until December 13th to win a signed copy of BALLADS and the last zine I put out after my senior year of high school (so it's basically like my ballad) at YA Outside The Lines, my new group blog. So check that out and enter here.

And there is another contest going on exclusively for my street team members. If you want a chance to enter that, sign up here to join my street team!

Now that the folks on my street team and my mailing list (who got a holiday newsletter last week, sign up here if you want that) got a chance at first dibs, I want to open this up to everyone. I'm offering free signed bookplates for both IWBYJR and BALLADS for the holidays. This is a cool little sticker that I've designed and will sign and personalize and you can stick it in your own copy of the book or a copy that you might be buying for a friend. Signed books do make great gifts! I have limited quantities of these, so they are available on a first come, first served basis. I can send send international, but only a limited number because it is expensive, so again that is first come, first served basis and international folks must contact me by Thursday for those because the last time I am going to the post office before the holidays is this Friday. You can request bookplates by emailing me at stephanie (at) stephaniekuehnert (dot) com. (replace the at and dot with the symbols, that is just to foil spammers).

Okay, so that's the fun stuff I had to announce. Now let's talk writing and inspiration.

I'm not gonna lie. The whole rewriting thing I was talking about last week, it hasn't been going so easily. I haven't written a word yet. But as the wise Melissa Walker once said to me (either in a blog comment or an email or something), a large component of writing is the daydreaming and ruminating stage (I think she just said daydreaming, I added ruminating because that seems to be more of what I am doing now). That is where I'm at. Most of last week I felt like I was pulling out my hair and crying during the rumination (and I did cry a couple times) because I'm so frustrated with this book and how it just feels too big and unfixable at times. But my brain has been working in overdrive. I've been losing sleep over this book, laying awake thinking about it and waking up to early unable to stop myself from thinking about it again. This has resulted in a few ideas and I think I'm finally ready to take a stab at the actual writing.

I really wanted to be able to tell myself (or maybe have my agent or CPs or husband or someone tell me) that the idea I have to fix it is perfect and will go smoothly and I will not waste any more time on this book. I wanted to plot until I knew for sure. But there is no knowing for sure. I just need to know enough to try and I think I do at this point. So I'm going to take the plunge and actually write this week. (I hope. That's the plan at least. If it gets too frustrating, I'm going back to the other books I started writing to get over my writer's block at the beginning of last month.) I'm trying to remind myself that this is going to be different than the past few months of it's-okay-if-it's-crap-just-write-as-fast-as-you-can. I'm not going to have satisfying sounding word counts every day. I'm not going to conquer a chapter or even a scene a day. I have to carefully extract what I need, cut out some things I love, and reshape other things. It might take a week instead of a day to fix my first chapter or two. But hopefully it'll be worth it.

During my rumination phase, I tend to listen to the music that inspires my story a lot. I put my playlist on while I'm cleaning the house and try let the music do the work for me. I thought I'd share some of the songs and artists that have inspired me the most on this project as it will give you a little taste of what the book is about.... well maybe. Songs can be so personal and so you may not see the hidden meanings I see. But here they are anyway.

One of my all-time favorite bands, Hole, has recently reincarnated and they have a new album called Nobody's Daughter, which has been a huge inspiration for the book, especially the title track and also this one, "Someone Else's Bed":

The band I've been listening to the most is The Gaslight Anthem. I don't know if I can explain why but that band is all over this book. This song, "Boomboxes and Dictionaries" hits me in particular:

And there there is the Loved Ones. I've mainly been alternating back and forth between The Gaslight Anthem and The Loved Ones. This song, "Pretty Good Year" could be the book's theme song:

Oh and there is also Against Me! whose new stuff I'm not as big into as their old stuff but the first two songs on their album White Crosses, "White Crosses" and "I Was A Teenage Anarchist" fit this story really well too:

There are some other big influences too including The Replacements (How could you write a bar book without the song "Here Comes A Regular), Bruce Springsteen (my brother finally got me into the Boss with his Nebraska album which really puts me in mind of writing this book), and The Cure (one of my main characters is goth and an alcoholic so "Open" is very much her song).

Eventually I'll make a whole playlist, but that won't be complete til the book is.

What about you? What is inspiring you this week? Or when you are stuck like I am, what do you do to jog the muse?