My Writing Process – Blog Tour

Hey there! I was lucky enough to be invited to participate in a blog tour by friend and fellow YA writer, VB Bernard. We’ve been writing buddies, accountability partners, beta readers and all round writing supports for each other for about a year now. Please check out her author page on facebook: www.facebook.com/vbbernard and check out how she completed her blog tour entry last week.

So here we go with question:
1) What am I working on?

What aren’t I working on is the question. I’m working on revising two contemporary YA novels. One called Takes One to Know One about a girl and boy who are hiding secrets from each other, or at least think they are. The other is Punx Not Dead, about a girl who loses herself when she falls in love with a drummer in a high school punk band and attempts to find the new her in the midst of some heartbreaking news. I’m also drafting a contemporary women’s fiction piece called Debut, about a woman who gets the chance to live her dream life, doing her dream job and realizes that dreams and reality are pretty different. In the meantime she dates not so great guys and tries to break herself from repeating the same mistakes over and over.

2) How does my work differ from others of its genre?

I love dialogue and I craft it with as much realism as I can. Some of work reads like a screenplay, because the banter flows so well. I also like to have characters from small towns in out-of-the-way places.

3) Why do I write what I do?

I was a classroom teacher for a long time and I loved watching my students discover new books. Teachers often get into the habit of suggesting old books, or books with outdated characters and that can turn some kids off from reading, so I first set out to write books my students would like and could relate. I also read a ton of contemporary YA, so I write these books for myself, too.

4) How does my writing process work?

I get an idea and the draft it linearly. I don’t write out-of-order or in nonsequential scenes. I write beginning, middle, end. Second drafts are plotted a little more than first, because by then I know where I want the story to go. They’re usually complete rewrites, though. Third drafts and beyond are reordering and reworking scenes to tighten up the multiple story lines and answer any sticky or lingering questions I still have.

I also work with a writing critique group and their feedback through the process is VERY helpful.

Here’s where I’m supposed to link to the next people on the blog tour, but I didn’t actually recruit anyone. So instead, I’ll bid you adieu.

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I’d Rather Be Writing

I didn’t take a 2 and a half month hiatus on purpose. In fact, for a few weeks after the writing conference I wrote everyday. I won CampNano in July with 50,000 words of a YA Thriller. That was a fun ride. I’m not sure I’ll ever do anything with the beginning of that story, but I sometimes think about it now and then, so maybe it’s worth going back to someday.

The distraction of CampNano kept me from doing a lot of revision work, but really, I could have made the time. I avoided it like the plague because I was so tired from the pre-conference work I’d done. Writing, then rewriting, editing, and revising my first novel in just a few short months. So when I got the news an agent wanted to see the novel I’d pitched AND this other novel, panic set it and the ability to work left me angry, and uninspired.

On top of all that I’ve had some strange health issues that are still unresolved. So I took some time away from writing to focus on myself, on healing, and on learning what I really wanted. I put so much pressure on myself to finish my book, find an agent, publish publish publish, and all on such a short time frame, that I lost my love of writing. I made it something I had to do and not something I wanted to do.

I’ve still been going to weekly writing groups, but I’ve slogged through maybe a page or two of revisions and started journaling again. Until recently I just felt so eh about writing.

But then a few things happened around the same time. First, I read an article about remembering your passions. And I thought about how I’d always wanted to be a writer. Then I got an email from a writer I’d met at the conference and she invited me to join a no pressure writing group and told me about an upcoming writing retreat. Then I threw away my beat sheet and my notes for revision and committed myself to just rewriting the second novel. I discovered that I’m not good as revising until much later in the process. From now, second drafts will be written from scratch.

Giving myself permission to veer off course, a friend reaching out to check in about writing and offering to support me through it, and a gentle reminder from the universe that I love writing and can do it without putting loads of pressure on myself have all brought me back to the bright side of life.

Holding Myself Accountable

Remember that last post about feeling underwhelmed once you finish writing something? Well, that was my life for the last three months, which is partially why you haven’t heard from me. But now I’m back (…from outer space). So here’s the run down:

!. Finished revising book

2. Sent it to writing group and friends for feedback. In the meantime I was going to read it again,  without trying to revise it, just read it through like a book.

3. Signed up for an Agent’s and Editor’s conference. 

4. About 25 pages I wanted to cry. It was not the story I wanted to tell. All that work, feeling like I was maybe close to done, Oh, the humanity!

5. Got great notes and feedback from my amazing writing friend, Candace.

6. Reevaluated story. Created quick outline of how it needed to be rewritten.

7. Started rewrite, excited about the new direction.

8. Then life happened. I started doing a lot of creative writing at work and felt tired and creatively spent at home. I didn’t make time for writing.

9. Got an email with my agent assignments. Realized I had very little time before I was supposed to pitch this story.

10. Started to have a nervous breakdown, not really, but maybe a little. 

11. Used the forums at She Writes to find an accountability partner. I was very productive during Nanowrimo when I emailed my accomplishments to my writing group everyday. With this insanely close deadline, I knew I needed to light the fire under my, ahem, laptop.

12. Found two amazing partners and have written everyday since then!

I’m now steadily developing the story I meant to write in the first 3 drafts. It’s an exciting time as I realize how much of a story there was, that I wasn’t telling. I’m so grateful for my writing group and my accountability partners. Knowing I needed to send the email every day has really made writing seem like less of an optional activity and more of something that’s nonnegotiable.

The Birth of a Novel and the PostPartum Depression That Follows

I stayed right on track this past weekend. On Friday, I took a day off from work to stage my own little writing retreat. I worked on revising my novel. On Saturday, I finished revising and wrote a few extra chapters to close out the story. I got so into the story that at one point I wrote a pivotal scene and gave myself goose bumps. I loaded everything into Scrivener. Piece by piece I saw the outline of my first novel grow. I hit compile and held my breath. 72,200 words birthed from hours upon hours of work. It was written everywhere from my couch, to my bed, to the coffee shop, to the bus, to SXSW, to my office during lunchtime. This novel has come with me from fall to winter and soon to spring. The novel has travelled to California (via email), to Maine for a funeral, to Chicago and Philadelphia for layovers. I have spent joyous and angry and sleepy and hungry emotions on this writing. It felt so good to get it compiled, like a big gulp of clear, country air.

On Sunday I should have been ecstatic to get it printed and go through it, right? Draft 2- one step closer to feeling ready to share it with the world. Some timeline updates, character tweaks, and line edits are what stand between now and submission time. But, the monster in my mind has taken over and now I can’t stand to look at it. All that work and I worry that the story that’s on paper is not what’s in my head. I bought colored Post-It notes, all ready and eager to stick them all over the draft on pages that need work, and now I’m paralyzed in my progress.

I know I need to suck it up and just get reading. I can hope the distance of the last two days away from the work will make the process easier. Does this happen to anyone else? If I can’t even get through this round of revisions, how will I ever feel “done” with this piece? Self-doubt is really the worst, because you can’t blame anyone but yourself.

Keeping My Word

I’m a big fan of keeping commitments. I committed to a lifelong marriage, I committed to caring for my two sweet puppies, I committed to a 30 year mortgage, and I committed to getting through revisions for this story by March 30.

I’m happy to report here, that I’m well ahead of my goal. As of last night, I’ve written a whole new introduction to the book and revised and reworked 24 of 36 chapters. Something about this process just clicked recently and I found myself easily tying up loose plots ends and having no trouble deleting lots and lots of things that didn’t work.

I think part of my inspiration comes from the week I spent at SXSWedu. The company I work for was a sponsor and I got a badge and was able to attend sessions, workshops, and panels full of interesting and innovative ideas. Being surrounded by people who think big and people who want to change kids’ lives was extremely motivating, both professionally and personally.

I thought this process would be a lot more difficult. I thought I’d be too attached to chapters, plot lines, and characters to delete them. But I found that just the opposite was true. It felt like spring cleaning to go in and take out lots of stuff. I wrote this piece during Nano and I found a lot of incessant character rambling and inner thought diatribes that were written just to fill up word count. Taking that stuff out has freed me to do so much more with my character and to leave a little more to the reader’s imagination.

With all this progress, I’m revising my March goal. Instead, I’d like to be done with this round of revisions by the 15th and to print a hard copy of the piece sometime this weekend. Then I’m committing to a full read-through and making additional revisions by March 30th.

Plans Begone! No Wait, Come Back!

I’m in the middle of revising my book and it occurred to me that I finally really like the direction it’s going in now. November Nanowrimo provided a great time to get past writer’s block and just power through a draft. It helped me rebuild a daily commitment to writing and forced me to show up to the page.

Revision is a great exercise in making decisions and really thinking through what’s important in this story. With my Nanowriomo stories, I’ve had to do A LOT of thinking through after the fact, rather than planning and thinking through before and during the writing process.

I’m a planner in all areas of my life. It’s something that I get sick of every so often and try to shed. I’ll live spontaneously for a few days and then inevitably revert back to my routine. It’s comfortable, it keeps me going. Last year, when I really put some effort into building a writerly life, I took a planner’s approach. I mapped out stories on index cards. I made graphs and charts of when characters would come in and out of scenes. I was pretty proud of my story before I even sat down to write it because it was all planned out and, assuming it went as planned, it would be awesome.

As we all know, assumptions are often wrong. I’d spent so much time planning and trying to be what I thought writers were and do what I thought writers did, that I forgot to include the creativity into my creative writing. Imagine my surprise when I wrote my first novel in a month and it was nothing like my planned outline. In fact, it didn’t have solid A and B plots with interwoven themes. It had one- dimensional characters following boring paths. It was frustrating. That novel is sitting on my hard drive and will potentially never see the light of day.

In that practice, I gave up control and let the story take over. I wasn’t sure about that whole “let the muse be your guide” and “your story wants to get told” rhetoric that you often read in creativity and writing books. I wasn’t sure I had a muse or a story to be told. I only knew I liked to write. I liked to put pen to paper and create. But, lo and behold , the story did come, not as I expected and planned, but it came nonetheless.

When I did Nano again this year I also planned out my story, but I knew for certain it would change as I went through the month. When November ended, once again I had an incredibly disjointed, not totally coherent story with a few glimmers of good dialogue and character emotion. What was different for me this time was my commitment to revision, thanks in large part to my writing group who read my first draft and offered invaluable feedback. I knew what was wrong with the story, but I needed to hear someone else say it too, so I knew I was on the right track and not just being too hard on myself.

Starting tomorrow my writing group is starting our own revision Nano. We’ve committed to certain daily revision practices (days, words, hours) and daily email check-ins to prod each other along. So my statement of finishing this draft by March 30th still stands. My commitment was to revise at least one existing chapter each day. They may not stay chapters, because a lot has to get cut and reworked, but I’ll go into the old chapters and see what I can do with each one, at least one a day. So that’s my plan, and muse be damned, I’m sticking to it!

Three Dimensions

Something that bugs me in the YA books I’ve read recently  is making the characters too one-dimensional, too much like stereotypes. This is especially true of female characters that are meek or shy at the beginning of a story and then suddenly transform throughout the story in response to a quest or other dramatic event. Wouldn’t it be fair to say that most kids, most people, have a little bit of everything in them?  We’re usually not one way all the time. With some people we’re outgoing, with others we’re reserved. In some situations we’re adventurous and daring and in others we’re terrified.

I saw this most clearly in my own writing when I finally got a chance to spend some time with my 16 year old niece. The story I’m currently revising is very loosely based on some of her life experiences. From an outsider’s perspective, I thought I needed to make the character angry and cynical, in order to make some of the big events and revelations make sense. And, though I wrote certain glimmers of happiness and contentedness, I kept the character sort of guarded and surly through much of the book. However, when my niece came to visit, I got a glimpse into the life of a 16 year old. And maybe there is some anger, but mostly there’s still growth and development. Sixteen year olds like one thing one minute and another the next minute. They want to wear make-up and have sex, and they want to make origami boxes and color the driveway with chalk. They’re walking contradictions as they discover who they are.

It was stunning to realize how much I’d underestimated and pigeonholed this character, because my own memories of teen life are permeated with angry, discontent feelings.  Those strong feelings clouded the others. So much that I forgot about the humdrum of daily life. I forgot that I wasn’t angry all the time, or even half the time. After I spent time with my niece, I went back and reread my story. I didn’t do the age, the experience, or the inspiration very much justice in what I’d written.  I know there needs to be elevated emotions and drama to come across strongly on the page, but I want to do a better job of making my character well-rounded and more accessible to lots of different types of readers.

On a side note, this post seemed timely because I did the same thing in real life.  I sort of under-estimated, or maybe assumed is a better word, I assumed things about someone I work with because of his position in the company and his experience in business. Instead of thinking of this person as a well-rounded human begin who probably has many likes and interests, just like everyone I know, myself included, I assumed he was stuffy and maybe uninteresting. When in reality, since I’ve learned a lot from him and about him, I’ve been surprised by how wrong my initial assumptions were.

 As a former teacher, I should know the rule about not judging a book by its cover. I’m working on it, though. It’s a hard habit to break. I think maybe it’s not about breaking the habit, but rethinking the process- maybe it’s okay to make initial assumptions, as long as we actively seek to find ways to contradict them.