Why I Love Survival Horror (or, Wasting Time Is Sometimes Okay)

There are days when people look at me and see a vague, flighty girl with too much hair and not enough common sense. And yes, I’ll admit it—I don’t always do a lot to dispel that notion. And honestly, why should I? After all, that girl exists. She’s a real, true (-ish) version of me. Part, but not all.

Here’s the thing: when I’m on, I’m ON. I mean, it’s like being a person-sized nuclear reactor or some sort of freaky futuristic human battery that’s the opposite of those lazy, comatose ones in The Matrix.

I don’t need food or sleep or social interaction. I can literally live off the warm, quick-burning fuel of ideas. I dismantle things and put them back together and get stupidly ambitious. Sometimes, if I spend enough nights not sleeping, I make bloody anatomically-representational hearts out of cake. I go off on wild, incoherent tangents. I can’t tell the difference between a good idea and a bad idea, and what would be an unequivocally awesome idea if that last elusive piece would just drop into place. Basically, if I concentrated hard enough, I might accidentally catch on fire.

This is all starting to sound like a superpower, and it’s not. Or at least, it’s not a very good one. Similar to a number of chemical elements, when I’m in my most productive state, I’m also massively unstable, and I don’t mean in a mental-health way.* It’s more like I’m walking a fine line between sustained fission and full-scale meltdown. One false move and the whole structure will go up in a tower of flames.

It’s exhilarating, but unnerving. Let me just say, when I feel the productivity-switch flip, I tread very carefully.**

This is me taking an unnecessary number of paragraphs to say that I turned in my first draft of Paper Valentine, and then spent the last two days doing nothing.

And it was weird.

Oh, I did stuff—I slept ten hours a night and watched three different football games and made banana bread, and played video games. I read some books and did some Christmas shopping. I have yet to tackle my laundry.

But I didn’t do anything that really qualified as work. Later, I’ll probably make some floral-themed hair ornaments out of paper. I’ll snuggle up on the couch with a sandwich and a blanket and kill some more zombies. I’ll sleep really well.

Whenever I finish a project, it’s hard to adjust. There’s a big, important part of me that needs this—this complete powering down—but the quick, puzzle-solving mastermind part hates being put back in the box. That part panics and thrashes and tells me things like I’m falling behind, wasting time. Malingering.

No matter how stark and eerie sleep-deprivation starts to feel, it’s always kind of a rush to be in the heightened state. I can’t help it—I have a soft spot for the version of me where I write fourteen hours a day and bake ten pies and watch Arrested Development at three in the morning because it’s just going to be light in four hours anyway.

But she is not okay.

It wasn’t until grad school that I truly started to understand I was stuck with this part, maybe for the rest of my life. She wasn’t something I’d eventually grow out of (in fact, she was getting stronger), and so I was going to have to learn to deal with myself one way or another. I developed a strategy.

This is where the video games come in.

See, the mastermind part hates dithering or wasting time, but she loves survival horror. Whenever it’s time to ease her back into a normal schedule, I placate her with creaky ghost-towns and decrepit zombie-filled mansions, because if she feels useful and like she has a task, she shuts up. She lets vague, dreamy Brenna clean the kitchen and make barrettes and do Christmas shopping.

So, for the next few weeks, this is what’s going to happen: the hyperfocused, task-oriented part of me will sit quietly, shoot her zombies, hone her strategies and solve her puzzles. She will do this without complaint. Cheerfully, even. She will stop fidgeting and get a grip.

The rest of me will be doing good if I make it to the post office.

*I should check with D on this one, having lost absolutely all objectivity.

**Figuratively speaking. In real life, I bump into the furniture a lot.

Some Thoughts on Time/Drafting

I know I’ve said this before, but I’m not all that good with time.

Yes, I’m ridiculously punctual. Yes, I can execute a recipe or follow a schedule, and on a purely intellectual level, I understand that time is always passing and this particular moment—right now—is not the same moment it was even a heartbeat ago. I get that.

But I don’t really understand that it’s true.

Here is an example. I have a wedding ring, and I always wear it, except when I’m cooking or doing the dishes. In this picture, I’m not wearing it. That’s because when the box of ARCs for The Space Between showed up on my steps, I was doing the dishes, but I wanted to know what was in the box right away without waiting, so I opened it, and I was really excited and I took a picture.

And now, every time I see the picture, I irrationally panic and think I’ve lost my ring somewhere, even though I’m currently wearing it, because something in my brain can’t tell the difference between now-this-minute, and a photograph that happened six months ago. I do this every single time.

Basically, what I’m saying is, my brain is sort of like the Overlook Hotel—all times are now.

Which is why I find it so incredibly fascinating, so impossible, that my first draft of Paper Valentine is due to my editor in two days, when I’m pretty sure this deal was announced an hour ago.

Also, I should probably finish writing it.

Revision will eat your brain. (But that’s okay, because your brain will grow back.)

This is not a scary story.

I feel like I needed to start with that, because looking at it head-on, revision can seem awfully bloodthirsty, and also like it wants you dead.

But your manuscript (my manuscript) is not some shambling monster, even when it kind of looks like one. It is not faster, stronger, or smarter than you (me).

Sometimes, you might leap to the daunting conclusion that it’s meaner, but that’s only because you’re feeling exhausted and overwhelmed. You let a few scenes get totally out of hand, and now the whole thing is well on its way to turning into one of those hideous fast zombies. You can hear the manic flurry of approaching footsteps, but have no idea what direction it’s coming from, which is insanely scary.

Do you know how to stop a fast zombie? Set it on fire.

Except, figuratively. The main point I’m trying to make is that even when you (I) feel like the situation has gotten very bad very quickly, there’s still a solution somewhere. So don’t actually set fire to your manuscript. That would be dangerous and irresponsible. Plus, it’s almost always unnecessary.

(Also, because I grew up watching Romero movies, I tend to use a lot of zombie/shopping mall/shotgun metaphors. I should probably stop.)

The thing is, it’s difficult to talk about revision in any sort of umbrella-way, because there’s not a one-size process. It depends on the writer, and on the book, and even though it’s pretty easy to hit up the internet for some blanket guidelines, the actual revising part is really personal. (There is no one-size-fits-all zombie apocalypse.)

So, instead of a neat set of precise step-by-step instructions, here is one big fat paragraph of generalization:

There’s a point in the lifespan of most stories—almost always sometime after the first draft—when the situation gets really ugly really fast. Suddenly, the flaws are taking over, seeping into the cracks, covering up every scrap of brilliance and goodness and light, and it’s up to you to put on your flak jacket and save your made-up world. And this isn’t easy, because all at once, the problems are EVERYWHERE. Maybe you hate the pacing. Or you hate the way that subplot plays out. Or you wish the characters were different people and the setting was glossier and the kiss happened on page 64 and the title wasn’t stupid.

To be clear, this is usually the place where I completely rewrite the book (burn it down), because the whole scenario just seems incredibly dire, and my default survival mode is to panic and start hacking up the place indiscriminately. In light of this, what I say next is going to sound kind of strange.

Revision is my favorite part of writing.

Seriously, it’s where all the good stuff happens. Everything that came before is just a big, sprawling mess of words and ideas. But once revision sets in, there’s hope for a better brighter future (one that actually makes sense). You discover meaning and nuance where there was none, and that those two characters should actually be combined. You realize that you’ve said the same thing three times, and you probably only need to say it once. And these are all realizations that improve a book.

There are a lot of different kinds of revision—big parts and little ones. Some people do all the parts all at once. They’ll overhaul a character or refine a plot point, while also making all the sentences the best sentences ever.

This is not how I do it. Which is kind of weird when you think about it, since I can usually be counted on to pick the most complicated thing (sewing patterns, recipes, friends). When it comes to revising though, I try to do all the big structural stuff first, and then the character development, and then go through and look at the scenes and sentences to decide if I like them, or which ones I would rather have. Then, once the last good sentence is in place, the book is done.*

This was supposed to be a how-to post, but I don’t know how.

I mean, I know how for me, but not for you, because you’re different. Your book is different.

There’s only one thing I can actually tell you—one overarching rule about revision, which is that you have to be willing to do it.

Also, I lied. There is one other thing I can tell you.

No matter how hard the work is, you don’t have to be scared of your book. Revision is safe. It’s basically a no-risk proposition. Computers make adding and tracking changes so, so easy. When you rewrite a paragraph or gut a whole scene, or rip out 50 pages, or 100, it’s not like painting over something precious—those pages are still there, and you can always go back to the earlier version if it turns out that you’ve made some terrible mistake. Mostly though, you haven’t. Mostly, you did the right thing, even if it was hard.

In the end, it’s all going to turn out okay. The quirky genius scientist finds a cure and the dog doesn’t die.

But first, it’s going to be kind of complicated and bloodthirsty.

And that’s fine.

*Until I look through it again, and realize that it’s not. (Sometimes writing a book takes a long time.)

Dreams (the nighttime kind)

You know what?

Something really interesting just occurred to me.

(Yes, I do realize that roughly 75% of all my conversations start this way. No, that’s not the interesting thing.)

So, I’m currently working on the first draft of Paper Valentine, and when I woke up this morning, I had the startling realization that I’ve never dreamed about the story.

Typically, I’m a big dreamer (when I’m not busy being a huge insomniac). I have vivid, complex dreams every night, and I tend to remember them. I like them.

When I was finishing up The Space Between, I was dreaming about it all the time—almost every night. I dreamed that I was sitting at my desk, frantically writing it, and I dreamed that I was walking around in its shiny made-up world, checking out the set design and asking the characters who they were and what they wanted.

I went through the same thing when I was writing The Replacement—a lot of nights chained to a dream-desk or wandering vaguely around the House of Mayhem, looking at all the cool stuff.

Anyway, this occurred to me, and my inner-monologue immediately kicked in with its neurotic stream of chatter, mostly in the vein of: But I dreamed about my other books! If I don’t dream about Paper Valentine, does that mean I don’t love it as much as the other ones? I mean, I think I love it, it feels like I love it, but what if I’m wrong? I want to love my books! Why don’t I love this one enough to dream about it?

And then I said, “Shut up, neurotic inner monologue!”

(Just so we’re clear, I do not typically tell people to shut up. I think it’s rude. However, I tell my interior monologue to shut up all the time, because let’s be honest—she often needs to hear it.)

Now, here we come to the interesting part:

The dreams I had about my other books? The bright, vivid ones, that totally robbed me of restful sleep and also made me so unwaveringly sure that I loved those books?

I realized just now that I dreamed those dreams while I was revising. They were all dreams about problem-solving, refining, measuring the existing space for furniture and carpeting. (Metaphorically speaking. The House of Mayhem has no carpet.) They were not dreams that happened while I was busy inventing.

And that is really excellent, in a clear-cut, science-y way, because I love that I’ve discovered a pattern in myself. (Often, I am chaos theory on wheels. I am the butterfly effect. I am ill-defined. I am endless extrapolation.)

I love that I’ve accidentally defined a parameter and that my personal writing process has just become a little bit more demystified.

But not too demystified. Because of this realization, the process is now simultaneously less and more mysterious. Which is the hallmark of a thing that may in fact be unsolvable.

Which is good, because believe me—there is nothing I love more than a good unsolvable.

Do you dream about your stories? Do you remember your dreams? If you usually dream about your stories, and then you don’t, do you have to slap your inner-monologue in the face and tell it to get ahold of itself?

(That last one might just be me.)

Introducing, Paper Valentine!

Okay, so.

I’ve been sitting on this for a while now (which will come as no surprise—this is a business of patience, secrets, the occasional meaningful look), while behind the scenes, things have most assuredly Been Happening.

And then last week, the deal memo hit Publisher’s Marketplace, which means that I can finally share it:

NYT bestselling author of THE REPLACEMENT and THE SPACE BETWEEN Brenna Yovanoff’s PAPER VALENTINE, in which a girl haunted by the troubled ghost of her best friend finds herself sucked into a darkly mesmerizing string of murders, in which a serial killer who leaves a paper-heart ‘valentine’ on his victims’ bodies draws ever closer, again to Ben Schrank and Jocelyn Davies at Razorbill, in a good deal, in a two-book deal, for publication in Spring 2013, by Sarah Davies at the Greenhouse Literary Agency (NA).

Here is a quiz. I am:

a) Thrilled to be working with Razorbill again (they’ve done such a beautiful job with The Replacement)
b) Excited to see Paper Valentine take shape (they helped me make The Space Between into the book I always knew it could be)
c) Ecstatic to have Ben and Jocelyn in my corner as I dive into my weird, creepy ghost story (with kissing)
d) All of the above

(P.S. I’m not giving you a hint)

Facetious quizzes aside, I DO want to treat this with the gravity it deserves. But I’m really bad at being earnest. I wish I could say something profound and articulate about goals and dreams and milestones, but as soon as we approach the things that really matter to me, my talking almost always breaks down.

Most of the time, it’s easy not to think about this being my job. I mean, with enough dogged insistence and enough avoidance, I can regard sitting down to the keyboard and writing books as “something I do every day.” That’s accurate and true. It’s reductive. It’s manageable.

This is not one of those times. Seeing my name in print—my work summed up in a tight, hooky paragraph—always seems to bring on that crashing realization that this is what I do now. It is actually a profession. Like that aptitude test I took in high school. My life is distinctly this, and not something else. Not any of those other jobs I had. This is the state of things now.

This is the career.

It’s everything I ever wanted.

Also, significantly less monumental, but still exciting in its own way: I get to make a new tag.

Hello, Paper Valentine tag—hello!

Fried. For Real.

Okay, so I just sent my editor the first draft of Book 2. Ordinarily, this would warrant an exclamation point or several, but I am currently all exclamationed-out and all I want to do is eat Chinese food and watch Dexter. Sadly, I am also marginally responsible.

Now, while I await editorial feedback, I will turn my attention to other things. Like laundry. And the lamentable state of my inbox. And laundry.

However, because this is not a very informative post, and because I really love this book, and because it’s Friday, I will leave you with this video, which is basically my Book-2 theme-song of epic proportions.

Drafting—Now With More Book-Two Action

Wow, I’ve been lamentably internet-absent lately! But—this is okay, because it has a reasonable explanation, which I will explain.

I’m hard at work on Book Two, and I’d talk more about that if I thought I could come up with anything coherent, but sadly I can’t right now because drafting is one of those things that takes over a person’s life and makes one’s brain start to lock up if one were to think about anything that isn’t demon-related for more than, like . . . two seconds.

So, in lieu of coherent content, I will now share a tiny glimpse into the Book Two process. Apparently, it involves listening to these two songs fifty trillion time on repeat:

(It should be noted that because I am somewhere in the middle of all this, the character relationships are so weird right now that this juxtaposition actually makes sense. I swear.)

Also, check out this page of process notes,* because not only is it vaguely teaser-y, it also makes me look like a straight-up crazy person.

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Agent Appreciation

Over at the , (The DUFF, Fall ’10) came up with a great idea: Unofficial Agent Day.

For those who don’t know (mostly because I’ve been very remiss in actually talking about how I acquired an agent), I’m represented by Sarah Davies at the Greenhouse. And let me just say, I am a weird, flighty girl in need of some fierce grounding, and she is a perfect fit.

Before she became an agent, Sarah was the publishing director of Macmillan Children’s UK. Meaning that in addition to having an unparalleled knowledge of the business, she’s what’s known as an editorial agent. And also British. Sometimes when she calls, I like to pretend that I’m talking to Adelle DeWitt from the television show Dollhouse. Yes, I really am that nerdy.

There are so many things that I love about Sarah—she’s competitive, focused, but she’s also compassionate. And patient. She took me on in September of 2008 and my book didn’t even go out on submission until May of 2009, because one condition of representation was a pretty big revision. When I said she was an editorial agent, I actually meant genius.

I realize now that I never did get around to talking about The Call, so here is an abbreviated account:

I’d been making a sort of general effort to be more methodical, so when my YA manuscript was ready for submission (or so I thought), I sent out an initial round of eight well-researched queries. Right away, I started getting requests for partials and fulls, which only served to further my conviction that the book was ready.

Then Sarah called me out of the blue one day, just as I was about to leave for the airport, and told me that she’d finished the manuscript and wanted to talk about it. After behaving like an inarticulate loon, I got it together—mostly—and we talked about the book. We talked about everything that needed work and everything that was poorly-developed and confusing, and by the end of the call it was clear that what I’d written needed a lot of work and the only solution was to do a comprehensive revision.

Then, I put my suitcase in the car, got on a plane, and went to a wedding.

A few days later, I got another offer of representation from an agent I’d been coveting for a long time. The second agent was very enthusiastic about the manuscript and only suggested a few minor changes, after which, it would be all set to go out on submission. But all the things Sarah had talked about had taken root in my head, and the previously-ready manuscript didn’t seem so ready anymore.

At that point, there were still several agents reading. In an uncharacteristic display of resolve, I sat down and pulled the manuscript from consideration. Because I knew right then, unequivocally (and those who know me will appreciate how exceedingly rare that is), that I wanted Sarah to be my agent.

Were there times during the Big Revision that I was tempted to yank my hair out? Yes. Did I drink more coffee than is decently good for anybody? Again, yes. Did I ever, at any point, kick myself and wish I’d gone with someone demanding less work? No, I did not. Because the entire time I was drinking coffee and despairing, I never doubted that Sarah was absolutely right about everything.

She helped me overhaul my book, then shepherded me through the whirlwind of an auction that was a direct result of her hard work as an agent, but also as an editor. She assuages my fears, answers my questions, and always keeps me informed about what’s going on.

Sarah Davies is my agent, and she is absolutely wonderful.