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Saturday, May 15, 2010

Rediscovering the Writer's High

Last night I told my husband we were going out to celebrate. We went to the really good Mexican place, the one we can't really afford and we even got an appetizer (it was basically mashed potatoes wrapped in a crunchy corn tortilla with chocolate mole sauce. Seriously chocolate smothered mashed potatoes! How could I resist?) and coconut margaritas. Earlier while I was running errands, I swung by the new location of Bleeding Heart Bakery (which isn't actually that new, I just hadn't gotten over there yet so it was new to me) and picked up vegan cupcakes.

What was the cause for celebration?

As I told my husband, I haven't sold a book and sometimes lately it's felt like that will never happen again, but on Thursday (the 13th, which if you read my blog entry on here is my lucky number so I did time that intentionally), I sent 100 pages of writing that I was very pleased with to my agent and I've spent the past few days on an incredible writer's high--you know, like a runner's high, total adrenaline driven exhilaration?--and I haven't felt that way in over a year. I am officially in love with writing again and I wanted to celebrate it!

I've been really struggling for about a year now. Struggling to balance my writing with promotion of my books that are already out. Struggling with my own perfectionism. Struggling to find my rhythm. Struggling with the disappointments of my career. Struggling to find direction for it.

BALLADS OF SUBURBIA came out. It was a book that was very difficult to write, a book that caused me several nervous breakdowns including one just a day before the revision was due in January of 2009 when I realized the manuscript was 4,000 words too long and I had to cut and rearrange things. My editor told me to take a couple extra days and just do what I had to do. I think I spent the first of those days sobbing and rocking myself and probably making my husband, who had just proposed to me at Christmas reconsider if he really wanted to marry this crazy lady. Then I did what I had to do with the help of my critique partners who were staying up just as late as I was to re-read and comment on the revised sections I sent them. And when I finally sent that manuscript in, I'd never felt more accomplished. Then a few weeks before it was due to land on shelves, I found out that the print run was being slashed in half and I needed to stop what I was doing (which was happily writing) and promote the hell out of it, which I did, but it still came out to very little fanfare because it was a second book and the economy was in the toilet. It didn't get reviewed by PW or Kirkus, both of whom I wanted another shot with because, dammit, I felt this book was awesome and better than my first one. I hardly ever even saw it in bookstores.

And that's about the time when I became bitter. I also started pushing myself really hard because I needed to sell another book. It felt like my life depended on it.

I don't churn out books as fast as many of my peers seem to. It might seem like I'm quick because BALLADS came out a year after I WANNA BE YOUR JOEY RAMONE, but I actually came up with the basic plot for BALLADS and wrote a shitty draft of it two years before I started writing IWBYJR. It took me three years to write IWBYJR. And while I was working on IWBYJR, my brain was working BALLADS out. Then IWBYJR took a year to sell and another year from sale to publication so I had two years to work on BALLADS. Once I hit my stride, I can really move, but it takes me a long time to wrap my head around a book. Maybe if I did more prep work like really detailed outlining and character sketches, it would be different, but I've tried to do these things and it's just not how I function. I cook in a similar fashion. I skim the recipe and then I just dive in. I have moments of panic because I really should have cut up a bunch of things first or I didn't realize how long a certain step was going to take and dinner was supposed to be ready NOW, but it all works out in the end. Oh and I never measure the spices. I throw in what I think it needs and then I usually end up adding things the recipe didn't even call for. That's just my personality.

So when I write, I start with a concept and a couple characters. When I wrote IWBYJR, I wanted to write a girl rock star book to pay homage to female musicians I loved growing up. I had Emily. I had Louisa (though she was from a separate short story, but I quickly realized she needed to be Emily's mom) and then I just started writing a bunch of scenes with them. I'd stop and outline from time to time. I'd ponder structure and arrangement. I knew exactly where I wanted to the story to begin and eventually I figured out how I wanted it to end. With BALLADS, I knew I wanted to write about the darker, ugly side of suburbia, the things no one talked about when I was growing up within it. I had Kara, Christian, Adrian and Maya. I knew Kara would overdose on heroin. It wasn't til I re-envisioned it from that first shitty draft that I knew it would begin with that overdose and then go back and tell the story of how she got there.

But last year, I felt panicked. Needed to sell another book ASAP. I had a couple ideas that had been stewing, one of them since fall of 2007 when I started toying with some characters in between working on revisions of IWBYJR and finishing a draft of BALLADS for my agent. There was a daughter who was very responsible and very politically aware, kind of an older Lisa Simpson or, actually, a lot like I had been as a sixteen year-old riot grrrl. Her mother was a free-spirited bartender. Then there was another book dealing with grief and music and Greek Mythology. That book, I realized via discussion with my agent, needed to have paranormal elements, something I've read a lot of but never tried to write. It would take me longer, so we decided that I would work on the first idea first and use that for my option book with MTV. We also decided that since my books keep falling in this black hole between YA and adult that I would skew it more YA even though I would lose a lot of the bartender mother character that I loved. I wrote fifty pages of it, sent it into MTV and turned to the paranormal book. I plotted and outlined a lot more than usual with the paranormal book because it was new ground.

We got word back from MTV Books after three long months. The answer was no. A very sad, filled with regrets No, but still No. My bubble burst.

But then there was talk of what if the book was skewed more adult than YA and pitched to a different Simon & Schuster imprint. This conversation inspired me. The book had felt wrong anyway as a YA. It was missing something. I told my agent I wanted to take a crack at it as an adult novel, but first I wanted to finish the partial of my paranormal which I was very excited about. I thought this was going to be *the* novel. My big break. The concept seemed incredibly unique. It was different from what I'd done but still had the feminist punk edge that comes naturally to me. I finished the partial. At that point my agent and I had been going back and forth for a year with it (because at first I was resistant to it being paranormal). Finally, we both felt it was good enough. It went out. I turned my attention to back to the other project, but I was distracted because any day now my brilliant concept was going to sell.

I am not usually an optimistic person. I've struggled with depression since childhood. As a teen, I medicated by cutting and in my early twenties I medicated with alcohol. Finally I got on track and mediated with writing. I'm a newlywed who is very much in love and I've sold two books. My life is good and I am supposed to be happy. And yet, due to my personality or brain chemistry or whatever, I am still prone toward negativity and depression. I can't help it and it frustrates the hell out of me. But I was really really optimistic about this paranormal book. So optimistic that I was able to put the No from MTV Books behind me with remarkable ease.

But then it didn't happen. The paranormal didn't sell in the blink of an eye like I'd hoped it would. My dream editor passed on it as did several others. All positive rejections, many of which stated that it was too big of a risk to buy on partial, but if I wrote the full they'd look at it again. But I was crushed. And I found out about this three weeks ago on my husbands birthday--his thirtieth no less. And I had a total meltdown on his birthday (after the celebrating, I managed to force my way through that, trying to be unselfish, though he could totally tell I was bummed). HUGE meltdown. I think the MTV rejection finally hit me then too. I was screwed. I was not good enough. I would never sell another book. I would never be able to make a living off of this and this is the only thing I love doing. I'd be a bartender forever. A bartender with a master's in writing. What a failure. I told my husband he should leave me because I was a loser. Yeah, seriously, I was fucked up. I haven't been *that* bad since the cutting and heavy drinking years.

But hubby is a freakin' saint so he talked me off the ledge and I woke up the next morning to an email from Jeri Smith-Ready who has become a real mentor to me (and she has a new book out that is brilliant and you should buy it, SHADE, check it out), who also said some very wise things including pointing out that selling on partial had become really hard to do and I should consider writing the full, which I probably will end up doing if the one editor on my agent's primary list who still has it, ends up rejecting it. Right then, though I had another thing to work on, the YA to adult conversion of the book that MTV Books said no to, but there was a glimmer of hope that it could be reconsidered as an adult book for a different imprint.

I had to write my way through my depression like I had in my early twenties, but HOLY COW was I distracted. I had emails to answer and blogs I wanted to write and twitter and facebook. I'd taken an approach where I was forcing myself to write an hour and a half at a time and then I could take a fifteen minute break. It was my way of weaning myself off of my many distractions. However, since I was spending so much time just sitting and staring at the blinking cursor, I decided I need to try something new. The fast and shitty rough draft. This wasn't an entirely new concept to me. In fact, it's basically how I got scenes started in my workshops in college. We'd always have to write in class in the teacher would coach us through some seeing-in-the-mind exercises to visualize our scene and then instruct us to write as much as we could as fast as we could and that would get me going, then I'd go home and revise. It worked quite well for me. So, two weeks before I had the total meltdown, I'd decided that since I knew generally speaking how I wanted the first 100 pages to evolve, that I would just speed write my way through them.

I'd done that and was ready to revise and had told my agent (stupidly) that I'd have 100 pages ready for her eyes in a week. Then I had the total meltdown, but I woke up the next morning after the pep talk from my husband, got the email from Jeri, and both things reminded me that I was a writer and what I had to do was write. In fact, writing was all I could do. And fortunately revising is that part I really love. Getting that first draft down is painful for me. I like having the words on the page, no matter how bad they are and then puzzling with them and making them work.

But those hundred pages of words REALLY sucked. They were mostly dialogue and very rambly. Still I dove in and I quickly realized there was no way in hell that I would be able to finish in a week. So I emailed my agent and told her, I'd need at least one more week. She said no biggie, it was just a soft deadline. And I continued to puzzle. I was still distracted by email and twitter and blogging occasionally, but I was no longer needing my breaks after every hour and a half of writing time.

Then two days before my second soft deadline, I realized I'd really screwed something up. There are two major catalysts in this book that push my characters onto a new path. I'd written one of those catalysts like an afterthought, told it in a flashback because I'd been in a rush to get to a certain point. This is definitely one of the pitfalls of the fast and dirty drafting method. Sometimes you go off in the wrong direction and end up way off the path your book needs to go on. Fortunately this happened toward the end of my 100 pages, but it meant I'd have to change around the beginning and the structure of the chapters, both of which I'd been struggling with. Actually, I realized, I needed to change my timeline. At first, I didn't think I could. The book involves a pregnancy obviously certain things have to happen at certain times to make a pregnancy storyline realistic. It also involved one character briefly going to jail, but again, the timing needed to be realistic. Fortunately I have a neonatal nurse mother and a lawyer brother, so I picked their brains and was able to adjust my timeline.

I went to my bartending job with my head in the book, trying to puzzle out how to readjust the structure and the beginning. The story alternates between the 39 year-old bartender mother and the 18 year-old daughter. I'd started with the daughter because I was more comfortable with her. She is just a couple years older than the YA characters I'm used to writing. But it had been nagging me all along that since this was supposed to be an adult book, I should probably start with the mom. I needed the right scene for her though and I couldn't figure it out.

I served drinks and made notes, served drinks, made notes. Kind of wished that all my customers would leave so I could focus, but told myself that being half-focused was good because it would allow my mind to work. This was probably the first sign that passion was finally returning to my writing. I wanted to write. I wanted to figure my story out. I didn't feel like it was an obligation, something I had to force myself to do like I have been for the past year.

By the end of the night, I still hadn't figured things out, but my cats solved that problem for me the next morning. I'd been tossing and turning, barely sleeping and frustrated about it because I knew I needed to get up and write. Now I had a new personal deadline- May 13th, lucky 13, I had to meet it. Then, right as I finally was sleeping, the freaking cats jumped on the bed, fighting. I scolded them and then I jumped out of bed, thanking them because I knew the scene I needed to write: a bar fight.

It took me all day to write eight pages, much longer than I wanted to spend on them, but I thought it worked. I sent it to my critique partners to see what they thought, asking them to take a peek at it over the weekend if they could. One of them got back to me in less than 12 hours (the nice thing about having a CP in Australia is when you send her things at night, it's morning for her and sometimes she can get them back very quickly) with a couple of suggestions, but overall she loved the idea. So Saturday, I incorporated her suggestions and some new ideas of my own and worked until I had to go to the bar. No twitter, no facebook, no email. No time for it. I was writing. The next day was Mother's Day, so I took it off to be with my mom. She, along with my husband, is my biggest cheerleader, so as we spent the afternoon weeding the garden, she was happy to be a sounding board for my ideas. The next morning, I got up and wrote, ignoring twitter, facebook, email, etc. It wasn't urgent. The idea was. I had writer's group that evening with my other CP. I wrote two bits of scene and made notes and came home at 10 pm, apologizing to my husband, saying I couldn't hang out with him. I needed to pull an all nighter. I wrote until 3 am. Got up at 10 am the next day and started writing again. Took a break to work out and watch 90210, then apologized to the hubby again and said I needed another all-nighter.

I'm a binge writer. It started in college. I worked two, sometimes three jobs, and usually had one day off to get my writing done. I'd journal throughout the week, but then I'd spend a whole day writing. When I was finishing a major draft of BALLADS, I went to a writer's retreat in Canada and wrote 10 to 12 hours a day for 10 days. I finished half the book plus did a complete revision. This is how I work best.

But I had to build up to it because in the past two years since I published my first book, I'd been balancing promotion and email and social networking and blogging and all of it felt very urgent like I couldn't just ignore it for a week. Until I did. I'd tweet my progress for the day and my reminder that I was working at the bar and people should come visit me. But on Wednesday, I didn't actually want anyone to visit me. Usually a dead night at work panics me (a large part of my fear over the past year is that I'm working in two unstable businesses--bartending and writing--and I'm the kind of person who needs stability. I don't need to be rich, I just need to know I can pay my bills for the month.), but Wednesday I brought my laptop to work hoping I could write instead of deal with customers.

At that point I'd made it all the way through my 100 pages and I'd absolutely fallen in love with the stories and the characters. One of the main settings for the book is a bar, The Bar, I call it, and it's based loosely on the bar where I work. I love where I work. I love bartending and meeting new people and I've collected a lot of stories over the roughly five years I've been doing it. Bringing what I've lived into this story has been so much fun. And my mom character, Ivy, is hilarious. I like writing a dramaedy instead of a straight up drama for a change. I've been eating up shows like Gilmore Girls and Weeds and Californication over the past couple years and now I get to pay homage to them like I paid homage to my girl rock stars in IWBYJR. Also, Ivy is obsessed with soap operas as I have been since the age of 14 and I get to have fun with that. Zoe, my eighteen year-old daughter character, is a vegan like me and politically active and hugely into punk and about to learn the same lessons and face some of the same bitterness as I did at 18. On my last day of writing, Wednesday, I suddenly made some discoveries about the characters. The last ten pages I wrote truly surprised and that was so much fun.

On Thursday, I did my final polish of the 100 pages. And, wow, I realized, it was actually GOOD. I know there are parts that need some more work, but it's time to step back and let my agent and critique partners read it. But I almost didn't want to. Who cares about the email and everything has piled up, I was having fun. I'd remembered why I loved writing again. I was freakin' high!

I don't know what will happen next. Ideally my agent will love it, I'll tweak it slightly, and we'll send to the editor that I've discussed it with, who I do feel comfortable submitting on partial to even though this is not climate for it. While she is reading it, I will go back to my paranormal with my newfound passion and work on the full manuscript of that. Ideally this book will sell so I will feel more comfortable about taking my time with the other one. But it might not. My agent might not think it's ready yet or she might think I need to write the full manuscript of this one too. My career might unfold more slowly than I want it to. But right now that doesn't matter.

Three weeks ago, I was at my lowest of lows in years. Today, I'm blissfully happy and reminded of why I write--not to sell books, but to weave stories and have fun with characters.

I'd taking a well-earned break to read and catch up on TV (and email, I guess...), but I'm hoping to keep riding this momentum for a long while.

And I apologize for such a long blog entry. It's partially because other than to post interviews, I have not blogged in a long time and partially it was self-indulgent. I wanted a record of how my process works. But hopefully this will help other writers, too and give you ideas about process and remind you that even at your lowest, you can find a way to fall in love again.


Jenny said...

I loved your post. It was actually very inspiring, even if it it wasn't easy for you to go through. I don't know if every writer goes through this, but I've definitely gone through shades.

Glad you came through and let us know about it.

Bev Katz Rosenbaum said...

Great post, Stephanie. I, too, had several editors pass on a partial manuscript, which kinda knocked the stuffing out of me for a while. My new agent advised me to write a full, which I did, and now we have some serious interest. Fingers crossed!

Melissa Walker said...

Fantastic post, SK! I love it when writers lay themselves out like this. We've all had the rejections and the slow starts and the highs and the disappointments. It's so nice to share some of it. Thank you!

Anonymous said...

I love this entry. Thank you for posting it!

Stephanie Kuehnert said...

Thanks Jenny, Bev, Melissa & Stephanie! Glad you all enjoyed the post and I wasn't just totally oversharing, lol! I do feel like we all have these doubts and it's important to talk about them.

Bev, good luck on your ms! Fingers crossed!

Danielle Joseph said...

Steph, thanks for opening up your heart. I think this post will serve as a trememdous help to struggling writers or others struggling to keep their dreams alive. We all have these moments I think and I'm told they make us stronger:). Best of luck and can't wait to see you and Jeri in June!