Monday, November 28, 2011

Lessons on book beginnings and NaNoWriMo and other things I'm bringing to my writing retreat

I went to great lengths to document my struggles with the Bartender book so that I would have a reminder of what I’d been through before and what I did to get past the hard parts. I even wrote a post for Nova Ren Suma’s inspiration series on her blog about how my struggle with that book will inspire me in the future because I’ve learned how good a hard-won victory feels. (All of the inspiration posts on Nova’s blog are amazing, so be sure to check them out.) But I've never documented how I start a new book and this is proving to be a bit of a dilemma as I try to settle into a groove with my new YA project, which henceforth shall be called the Modern Myth book. (Just like the the Bartender book-- and before it the Rock Star Girl book and the Suburbia book--it has a real title, but I'm superstitious.)

I don't remember struggling with the beginning of a book in quite the way I am now. All of my books definitely come together slowly, but generally they do so visually in that I start clearly seeing (and writing!) characters and scenes. IWBYJR worked like that. I saw different moments in both Emily's and Louisa's lives, I wrote them and then one day while I was in an underground tunnel waiting for the train, it all came together. Emily would be a rock star and this fucked-up Louisa character would be her mom. From there, I just wrote and wrote, mostly in a non-linear fashion until I reached my usual point of self-doubt and chaos roughly three-fourths of the way through the book when I finally sat down and outlined. As I've mentioned before, BALLADS was actually started years before IWBYJR. I wrote a crappy rough draft that was way too autobiographical, decided I didn't feel comfortable with it and would write another suburbia story once I had better (ie. not as real-life based) ideas for it. When I finished IWBYJR, it was the only time I went directly to work on another book without having to flirt with several ideas first. It was also relatively simple (in my memory at least) because I pretty much took the ideas I'd come up with while I was working IWBYJR, combined them with my old draft and had a outline. I plowed ahead linearly that time until I reached the usual self-doubt part, which actually came about after I finished my draft that time.

And then there was the Bartender Book. The characters in the Bartender Book date back to grad school (ie. IWBYJR writing days) and they went through a few different incarnations too: a short story, fifty pages of a YA version of the novel. I also flirted with an early incarnation of the Modern Myth book at that time, but I sat down and drafted and then re-drafted the first 100-125 pages of the Bartender Book between March and early July of last year. That was a happy time. Then all hell broke lose. But ultimately, as you know, I finished that last month and was pumped and ready to dive into my next project.

The usual battle of the ideas took place. I'd been meaning to go back to the Modern Myth book, which is actually an idea that I’ve been toying with since early 2008 and wrote a 75-page partial for last spring. That partial failed to sell because it just isn't a good market for selling on partial unless you are a big name and I'm not. I'm actually relieved it didn't sell because I knew that partial was Just Not Right for reasons I couldn't quite put a finger on. So I did the same thing I had with that old, Not Quite Right version of BALLADS while I was working on IWBYJR, I set aside the Modern Myth book and made notes occasionally while I worked on the Bartender book. However I did not make as many notes because the Bartender book was frustrating and all consuming. Also I was intimidated by the Modern Myth book and I got another great, shiny new idea that seemed easier. So I spent the last week of October/first week of November going back and forth between the ideas, trying to decide which I liked better and since I like both and unfortunately still have a lack of confidence in my own gut, I sent to them my agent and some critique/brainstorming partners to decide. They voted Modern Myth book. I totally adore it as well, but it scares me shitless. Some of that is the usual self doubt (those natural fears that I suck/I'll never write another book/if this book isn't super awesome my career is shot, fears that aren't fun, but do keep me motivated and on my toes in a way), but the fear mainly stems from this being new territory. This book is still edgy and contemporary and *mostly* realistic, but the key issue here is the *mostly.* It has a twist, a bit of otherworldliness or magical realism, that modern myth thing.

Getting going on this book has been strange because instead of diving headlong into it like my first three, I'm slowly dipping my toes in, contemplating how the water feels and what it looks like in front of me. Maybe I did do this with my other books and just don't remember.... That's the problem with taking over a year to write a book, you really *don't* remember. All you can do is try things until something seems right and remind yourself all the while that every book is different.

I've done a lot of plotting for this book, which is something I rarely ever do. I usually see a scene, write it, then another scene, and so on til I get stuck and then I outline. Or more recently, I write roughly 50 pages for an agent or editor and put together a rough outline to go with it. But this time I sat down and started writing a summary. I even sent it to a couple of critique partners and brainstormed with them on it. I'm not entirely sure why I felt the need to do this--because it's story with mythical/otherworldly elements so it seemed like I was supposed or because I was just nervous after all the struggling with the Bartender book and because the previous partial didn't work.

After writing a general outline, the first 30 pages and confirming with my agent that this should be the next book, I decided to take advantage of NaNoWriMo to get going. This is also something that I've never tried before. I told myself I was aiming for 30K instead of 50 since I was already "cheating" by using a project I've written on. Secretly though, I kinda wanted that 50K. It started strong at first, but by the second week, I hit a wall, I couldn't see the scenes that I needed to write. I had no idea what was going on. So I went back into summary mode and wrote 10k words figuring out the back story and the middle of the book that has been hazy. Then I dove back in again writing fast and furious. By Thanksgiving, if I counted the chunk of summary, I'd met my personal goal of 30K. I ranged from writing 19 words (on a day when I had *no* time, but wanted to get something written, so I wrote a sentence) to over 2k. I averaged closer to 800-1000 words. Some days were good, but a lot were bad in that they *felt* bad. I wasn't enjoying the writing, I was just doing it to make my quota and it was crap.

This is when I discovered that there are varying degrees of crap. I expect my first draft to be shitty. I mostly want to get it over with, so I can get to the rewrite and polish, which is what I consider to be the good part. But there is that kind of acceptable crappy and then there is the crap where you are writing words for words' sake and you aren't connecting with the story at all. Maybe some people don't see the difference and can write through that disconnected feeling. I envy them as they probably write way fast than me. But I can't do it.

I didn't write Thanksgiving Day, and the day after I banged out about 150 shitty words because I was exhausted (Thanksgiving is a very busy bar time and I'd been working). Saturday when I was better rested, I tried to push myself to write 1500 or 2k words, thinking that if I just keep going til November 30th, maybe I'll have a full 30K that doesn't include summary or maybe I'll even get 50K if I really push. Then I could go back and fix all of it and finally capture the spirit of the story.... Hold on, I realized, why am I waiting to a certain date or certain word count to do what I know I need to do.

NaNoWriMo doesn't work for me in this stage of the game. Looking back at the Bartender book and my other two books, I realized that I really spent time on and homed the first 100 pages. Sure I end up doing a lot more polishing, and in the case of the Bartender book a lot of changing and restructuring, but by spending that time trying to write at a higher quality (not gourmet Mexican food, but not Taco Bell either, maybe Qdoba or Chipotle), I got to know my characters and their voices, my place, and the tone of the story. I don't have that for the Modern Myth book because I only wrote 25-30 polished pages. I won't ever find that by speeding along and writing a rough draft that is basically an outline with dialogue. It's just not how I function.

So, even though it's not December 1, I am done counting words for now. I met my personal goal and NaNoWriMo *did* work for me in a couple ways. It got me writing daily, something I plan to continue whenever possible even if it just means putting in 30 minutes or a couple of sentences on my busy days. I also loved the community of support and plan to keep posting about my goals and cheerleading other writers online. It also got my brain spinning on this book. Sometimes just putting the shitty words on the page got me to think about other parts of the book and helped me figure more out. And last but not least I learned (again in some ways because I did have disastrous results when I tried to write part of the Bartender book fast, though that was for different reasons) that I'm a turtle writer and I just have to accept this. Especially at the beginning of the process. I need a long time to stew and then I need to ease in to get to know the story. Then I can pick up momentum and set bigger word count goals and be less perfectionist (unless I have a major out of control sub plot, which was the issue with the Bartender book and why writing fast just dug me into a deeper hole.

I actually think that NaNoWriMo might work for me on novels that I'm roughly 30 to 35K into. That's the point when I need to stop lingering, obsessing and just go. I'm kind of hoping (though given my usual writing pace, it may be wishful thinking) that next year will line up that way. I know that is "cheating," but 50K isn't a whole book and I'm not the kind of writer who can write a bare bones book and then expand in the rewrite. (I wish I was! I feel like it would be less painful than all the cutting I've had to do.) So using it to finish a book when I'm at a good place to sprint would be awesome.

But for now, I'm going back to the beginning (or almost the beginning) to try to break into the story world. I'm actually writing this from an airport baggage claim while I wait for a friend that I'm going to a writing retreat in the Arizona desert with. I hope that removing myself from my busy life and fully immersing myself in writing the book will help.

I did a similar retreat (warm locale, same writer friends) in January when I was finishing up the first draft of the Bartender book. I talked about what I was packing and what my approach to that retreat was here, but this retreat is different since I'm starting a novel rather than trying finish/save a broken one. So I brought pics of the moodboard that I'm building for the novel at home:

Of course I can always look at my tumblr for visual muses too. (And so can you by going here.) I also have a very messy playlist (mostly a hodgepodge of Distillers, Hole, and The Corin Tucker Band songs that capture the general feeling of the book, but don't necessarily correlate directly with scenes/chapters as my playlists tend to do more of as my novels progress). I added a few more songs to the playlist ("Burn" by The Cure, "Clown" by Switchblade Symphony, "Ash Gray Sunday" by Screaming Trees, and "How Dirty Girls Get Clean" by Hole) and I also put the Faith and The Muse CDs I found in a box recently on my iPod because I feel like they might help. (I need to combine punk and goth for this book...) I only brought one paperback, which along with critique partner manuscripts will be my pleasure reading. Then I brought my research books, two nonfiction books on lore and mythology from a feminist perspective and a graphic novel that is a big inspiration behind this book. I also brought a plot book, which I read some of on the plane and used to go through the print out of my outline/summary. I still have a lot of questions for myself and I'm nervous as hell, but I think I have as much of a grip on the plot as I can right now and tomorrow I shall wake and begin a week of serious work.

I know it will be rough and crappy, but as long as I connect with it I'll be pleased. Hopefully I can return in love with this story and eager to keep up the daily writing routine that NaNoWriMo got me into with more realistic goals (500 words) until I'm ready to start sprinting.

That's my plan of action, what's yours? Especially if you did NaNoWriMo or some version of it, how did it go and what did you learn?


miaohdeux said...

Great post, Stephanie! I love reading about your writing process and hope you get a lot out of your retreat. (Writers' retreats rock. It's so nice to step away from the real world for a few days.)

I did NaNoWriMo this year for the third year in a row. I use it as an excuse to get a first draft done. Before I did NaNo, it would take me months to write a first draft and really, the quality was about the same as if I wrote it in 30 days, so I figured why not? It works well for me, though I can understand why it doesn't work for everyone.

Normally with NaNo, my process goes like this: I think of the idea earlier in the year, normally when I'm working on another project. I jot down notes on plot, characters, etc. until November and then I dive in. So I don't exactly fly by the seat of my pants: I'm the type of person who would freak out if I just had a blank page and no idea.

NaNo's been a little more difficult for me this year, for a few reasons. I now have two freelance writing jobs, in addition to working full-time and naturally, the stuff I'm getting paid for has to take priority. Also, in September and October I accepted a new full-time job, so I had to tie things up at my old job (and there was some drama about my leaving) and get used to a whole new workplace. Did I mention I was battling a nasty sinus infection during this time?

Finally, my third act is more of a mess than usual. It's going to require more research because it's set in a very specific time and place. I tried to do some research before NaNo started but again, life got in the way. Basically, I got the characters to a certain place and I know where they will end up, but the part in between is a little confusing. I know that right now I am thinking too hard and therefore drawing a blank, so as is my custom with NaNo, I will soon put this draft aside for a while (and work on revising my 2010NaNo, which a critique partner thinks has a lot of potential) and hopefully more ideas will come to me then. I'm having to make peace with the fact that the third act is basically a narrative outline right now (way more telling than showing), but I know the things I want to expand and develop (namely, the different relationships between all the characters), so hopefully I can go from there.

As is my custom with NaNo, I am going to write until the end of the month, even though I hit 50k last night (yay!).

Sorry for the long-winded comment. It feels good to talk about this. I think the Modern Myth book sounds really cool, and I love the idea of a real world with fantastic elements.

Have a great day!

Stephanie Kuehnert said...

Hey Lauren, thanks for sharing your wisdom and how NaNo usually goes for you. I hear you on the way too busy fall. Sorry NaNo was harder but good for you for preserving and good luck with your revisions on both projects!

Stephanie Kuehnert said...
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