Thursday, March 31, 2011

Things I've Learned About My Writing Process (Stephanie Kuehnert)

So I finally finished a solid draft of the book I've been working on for about a year now, the one that I've been calling The Bartender Book. I've mentioned it a few times on this blog and have angsting about it for a long time on my blog. I sent it into my agent on the 18th and celebrated with a trip to New Orleans with my husband. (The trip was already planned and in fact it was quite a struggle to meet my personal deadline of being done before the trip, but you can read about that here.) Now I'm taking a break to do my taxes and clean my house and all of those things that I've been neglecting for the past few months while I battled my way through to THE END. My agent promised me notes rather quickly so I'm probably going to wait for those rather than try to figure out which of the three ideas that I've been pondering to start next. However, since this book was a constant uphill battle, I've been trying to put together what I learned about my writing process so that I can prevent some of the same problems in the future and write more efficiently.... Or at least I can comfort myself with the knowledge that I've gotten through whatever issue I'm having before. Of course the #1 thing I learned is each book is a whole different animal, but I think I've figured out a few commonalities.

  • I don't write fast. This book took a year from when I came up with its current plot (and we'll get to that shortly) to completion of a draft that I was pleased with and it may still need more work to get into sell-able shape. BALLADS OF SUBURBIA took about a year and a half, maybe more, though I was working full-time and juggling the sale of I WANNA BE YOUR JOEY RAMONE, which took almost three years to write. With IWBYJR, I really took my time because I was in grad school working on it as my thesis and I bounced around non-linearly, exploring the characters and the story. This time, I tried to rush though. I focused on huge word count goals rather than taking my time on each scene the way I like to. And it really, really messed me up. That rush to get done faster actually set me back a couple months, maybe more because what happened is I plowed ahead with an extra subplot that if I had taken my more deliberate approach I probably would have figured out was too much sooner. Instead I had to tear the book apart and completely re-envision it. This would have happened anyway, but if I'd caught it sooner, it might not have slowed me down so much. So, for me at least, the whole write-as-fast-as-you-can, do-as-many-words-as-you-can thing DOES NOT work. Quality not quantity is key. Of course, getting stuck on one chapter and polishing it to death is no good either, but I need to find a happy medium where I'm getting words down, but not just writing words for the sake counting them.
  • Set goals, but don't beat yourself up if you don't make them. This is hardest for me. I like deadlines. I work best under pressure even if self-inflicted, but when a book is still forming, it's hard to account for how long one section will take versus another. So I have to remind myself to be flexible about my long-term goals and focus on the day-by-day. At the beginning it was hard just to get into writing mode after spending so much time promoting my last two books. I've finally learned that the key is to get up each morning and other than showering, eating, and exercising, I can't do anything else before I write, otherwise I lose focus. As long as I stick to my daily schedule of focusing on my writing for X amount of time, I have accomplished the most important goal.
  • A book needs stewing time. With the exception of IWBYJR (which took twice as long to write as the other books), there were a lot of false starts/thinking time before writing what I came to think of as the actual book. BALLADS was a completely different book, which I spent a year on, then put in a drawer for about 5 years. The characters for the Bartender Book have been floating around in my head since late 2007, and I originally wrote about 75 pages as a YA book which didn't sell to the publisher of my first two books and I realized that was the wrong direction for those characters to take. This may mean I should go to the book idea that has been stewing the longest, but we'll see.
  • I always have a breakdown about 3/4ths of the way through a book. The Bartender Book was nothing but breakdowns so it seemed extra bad, but the worst breakdown came when the end of the book didn't go as planned. This always happens to me. I'm much more of a pantser than a plotter, but I generally have a loose outline or idea of how the book should end, but when I get to the point where I need to begin to tie threads together.... it never seems to work out how I originally thought it should. Then this leads to me overthinking things and finding something that I believe is crucially wrong with the book and OMG!!! Why did I even start writing this? It is so wrong!!!! I know this happened with BALLADS too, though it was a pivotal scene rather than a major part of the plot like this time. But in both scenarios, I blew things out of proportion, however when I calmed down, I came up with solutions that made the book a lot better. This breakdown always feels awful--like I'm-going-to-quit-writing-forever-because-I-suck-awful--but it ends and it generally leads to the most satisfying part of the writing.
  • And this is the most important part. Ultimately the writing will be satisfying. The characters will become so real to me that I will expect them to walk in through the door at the bar where I work. I will dream about them. I will write and revise 14 hours a day and freakishly enjoy it. The story will take over. The story will come together. It will feel strange like I didn't even do it. The night I finished the Bartender Book, I kept giddily turning to my husband going, "The book has an end! It, like, resolved. And the plot, it doesn't have big gaping holes. Somehow it all happened!"
I don't know what will happen next with this book. Now comes the scary part of getting feedback on it from my agent and critique partners and then trying to sell it. And while it is being shopped, I will start work on another book. Part of me wants to further hone my writing process before that point so maybe I can make it easier (though part of what makes it so satisfying is the whole not-easy thing), but I dunno, maybe I'd like to try some more plotting type exercises and such rather than flying by the seat of my pants the way I tend to.

So this is where you come in, dear readers. I need you to share your gems with me about writing process and I'd especially like books on the writing craft/process to check out because admittedly I don't really read those and maybe it would be good to try a few. Please recommend things to me!

8 comments:

  1. This post is why I love you (and this blog). Its realism is very motivating.

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  2. I agree with Lydia. There is no sugar coating here but definite perseverance:).

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  3. This is a wonderful post. I am new at writing, and super new at the whole blogging deal. I'm trying to find my way after recently completing my first YA novel.

    May I Ask-- Do you outline and plot before you write? Or do you just let it come?
    My first book, I had no idea what I was doing and I just sat down and let my hands do the work. Then came the editing.. urk..
    This next one, I want to get a bit of a grip on it from the get-go..
    Any suggestions??

    Thanks! :)
    Janet
    http://www.janetbtaylor.com/

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  4. I always return to Donald Maass for craft. I just loved his Writing the Breakout Novel workbook!

    And, good luck with the Bartender book!!!

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  5. I relate to this post soooo much. Congrats on reaching the finish line...in your own time!

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  6. Congratulations on finishing. I'm a slow and steady writer, too, so I know how it feels!

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  7. Lydia and Danielle, glad my realism could be encouraging! You've got to persevere if you want to be a writer that is pretty much all there is to it!

    Janet T, I wish I had an answer for you because I would also like to have a better grip on my next book before I write it but I'm not so sure that will happen. All I can say is allow yourself time to daydream and brainstorm. Personally I am not much of a plotter. I dive right in and then after I start to get a handle of the story I try to outline a bit, but that's about all.

    Janet G, A lot of people have recommended that book, I am definitely going to get it. Thanks!

    Thanks Crissa and Trish, glad to know I am in such good company in terms of people relating, and needing to be slow and steady!

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  8. Wonderful post, Stephanie. In answer to your question, I have plotted two of my books and done the "pants" thing on two others. Before I was published I had always seen myself as a "pants" kinda guy, but one thing I did figure out is that sooner or later I would have to get the structure of a book down on paper, usually in the form of a chapter by chapter outline, with maybe a paragraph or a little more on each chapter. For two of my books I did this while thrashing around in the middle -- one of them in sheer desperation because I had no idea where everything was going. For two others, I did extensive plotting ahead of time. I can say for sure that plotting ahead of time makes the writing go MUCH faster, at least for me. I used to be almost afraid to do it, figuring it would kill my creativity, but in some ways it seems to allow more breathing room than the pants method, oddly enough. Because you don't have that overriding screaming alarm going off in your head all the time of "what do I do next?" So you can focus more on character development, dialog, tension in the scene, etc. That said, I still wonder if anything is lost in a book that is heavily plotted. Like those strange things that just percolate up from the base of the brain somewhere that seem to have no reason for being in a book until you suddenly realize that chapter 17 has a deep, vital, almost subconscious connection to something that happened in chapter 2. And there is seemingly no way to think up that kind of stuff 'consciously.' But publishing schedules play a big role in all of this -- they want the finished book so FAST. Which is why I think so many first novels seem to have something 'extra' -- because the writer often poured years of work into them instead of months. I sometimes envy writers like Donna Tartt (The Secret History) who can afford to spend 10 years on each book. Whoa. Anyhow, I love your posts! Keep up the good work.

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