Blog Post with Haley McGee: From Stage to Page

In this blog post, writer and performer Haley McGee discusses the process of publishing her first book “The Ex-Boyfriend Yard Sale” based on her solo show. The show premiered at CPT in 2018 and was developed on in CPT’s starting block’s scheme in 2017.

The show and the book are all about the quest to determine an accurate price for the material things we’re left with when a romance dies – in other words, to create a mathematical formula for the cost of love. 

In this post, Haley is going to let you in on her process of turning a 90-minute autobiographical solo show into a 400-page book. 

But first let me tell you about the show… 

The idea came to me while I was on the phone with Visa, promising to pay off my bill my having a yard sale. Then I looked around my apartment and realised, the only things I could sell had all been given to me by my exes.

But when I thought about pricing my goods, I got stuck. Surely all the pain, suffering and sentimental value connected with my goods should be reflected in their prices. 

Shortly thereafter, the title ‘The Ex-Boyfriend Yard Sale’ popped into my head and I knew I had to forgo the yard sale and make a show.

The Ex-Boyfriend Yard Sale smashes together personal divulgences, mathematics, interviews with my ex-boyfriends, economics and the politics of commerce in a quest to determine what our romantic relationships are actually worth. 

It’s an autobiographical work that offers eight items “for sale” – all gifts from my exes – and introduces a new formula, developed with math expert Melanie Frances, to calculate the cost of love.

A brief timeline of the show’s development 

From 2017 through summer 2018, I beavered away at ‘The Ex-Boyfriend Yard Sale’, performing excerpts at The Wilderness Festival and Pulse Festival and doing R&D (research and development weeks) at CPT, Battersea Arts Centre and Albany, along with several full-length work-in-progress performances for audiences at CPT.

 
By November 2018 I’d assembled a production team, got an arts council grant (on my second try – first one was rejected), met our fundraising target rehearsed the show with my wonderful director, Mitchell Cushman, and it was opening night in London.
 
The show resonated with audiences, word of mouth spread and the fact that it was receiving good reviews was icing on the cake. A write-up in The Guardian resulted in a literary agent reaching out to me. She thought my story would make a great book.
 
After the show closed, my agent helped me put together a non-fiction book proposal, and after a couple months I landed a publishers in the UK (Hodder and Stoughton) and in Canada (Penguin Random House).

And now, the nuts and bolts of how I tackled the towering task of writing and finishing the book.
 

The memoir delves deeper into the show’s themes and stories with candid material about my financial life and love life while the show was being created (none of which is in the show) and includes storylines about a few closes friends of mine who were grappling with the cost of love in entirely different ways. 

PHASE 1: THE VOMIT DRAFT
Aug – Oct 2019

I started writing the book in earnest in early August 2019. Because the book was based on my show, I spent time working on a structure (think post-its all over my walls) before I got to work on my VOMIT DRAFT

The VOMIT DRAFT  is a draft where you just get the thing out of your brain and onto the page with NO PRESSURE for it to be good (and for me, no pressure to write in sentences).

Using the post-its covering my office wall as my guide, over 90 days, I gave myself the task of generating 1000 words per day. My rule was that I could go over the quota if I was in the flow, but any overrun didn’t count towards the next day’s quota.

I tried to do my writing first thing after waking up, but if I had other things to do, I’d do it later. I write in silence – sometimes to melancholy music, but nothing with prominent lyrics.
 
NO ONE saw my vomit draft.

PHASE 2: CLEANING UP THE VOMIT
November 2019 – January 2020

Once I’d got everything down on the page, I printed it out, and edited it with a pen. Then I implemented all the changes in the word doc. I like this two-step process because it gives me a second pass to clean things up. I turned non-sentences into sentences, moved things around, re-wrote chunks and filled in narrative holes.

I was aiming to edit 10 pages a day, but I found it easier to work for about 3 hours each day, 7 days a week. 
 
Once I had it completed that, I printed the draft out and did the process again, addressing gaps in the plot, re-arranging material, making cuts and cleaning it up. 

By January 2020 my 3 hours a day had morphed into 6, 8 sometimes 10 hours, as I tried to wrangle the draft into a shape that I felt okay sending to my editors. When I’d finished, I sent it off. 
 

PHASE 3: BIG EDITS
April – July 2020

The editors came back to me with notes a month later, and then the pandemic happened. I didn’t touch the book again until April 2020.

In April, I re-structured the book (adding a chapter in the middle and another one at the end). And through addressing their notes, I ended up adding about 40k words to the manuscript. 

I worked on it about 3hours per day but 5-6 days a week this time. I sent off that draft in July.
 

PHASE 4: Editing Process with Publisher
September – November 2020

In the next part of the process, I worked with an editor at my publisher, who read the book and made notes and edits in the word doc. Then I either accepted her edits or not and made changes based on her suggestions.

We went through that process twice. This was very chaotic timing because I was also teaching my Solo Show Creation Lab, and so rather than measured 3 hours per day sessions, I was blitzing it in fits and starts (NOT FUN).
 
In November I worked with a copy editor for a couple weeks who looked at the book with a fine-tooth comb, making sure the timelines added up and that details were consistent. We passed the draft back and forth. She’d ask me questions, make suggestions and we’d figure out solutions.

I found this stage scary as my opportunity to change more than a word here would be over after it.
 

PHASE 5: FINAL TOUCHES
December 2020 – January 2021

Around Christmastime the pages of the book were sent to me in a huge package. These were the ‘typeset’ pages, which means we were no longer working with a word doc. A graphic designer had laid out each page, as it would appear in the book. I had several weeks to go through and mark any word replacements I wanted to make.

I found this part extremely fun. So interesting to see what words I’d used a lot and figuring out what to replace them with was an enjoyable challenge. For this I was able to return to a methodical way of working, attacking a chapter each day for two weeks.

And then I typed up all my changes with the page and line number and a person at the publisher put them into the draft. At the same time a proofreader was reading the book and making changes. 

These were submitted and then implemented by an editorial assistant at the publishers. 

 

PHASE 6: THE BOOK IS OUT

In March 2021 I recorded the audiobook. And on 27th May 2021 the book was published. I held a virtual launch on Zoom and the book is out there doing its thing. 

So that’s how I attacked the task of turning something created for the stage into a literary object. I hope it’s a useful account, should you be undertaking a mammoth project of your own. 

Full disclosure, without fail, I had LONG days (12-14-16 hours) leading up to every single deadline no matter how consistent and diligent I’d been – perhaps something about control!? – or perhaps part of the learning curve with a book?! A book is truly something you cannot cram or do last minute. It’s an exercise in endurance and showing up for yourself day-after-day-after-day. 

TLDR?

Let me summarise! If you’re working on a big, huge project, I highly recommend:

  • Implementing a daily word count quota for writing a vomit draft 
  • Implementing a daily page count quota when you reach the editing phase
  • Go for daily logged hours on the project when the quotas aren’t as useful (don’t start with 3! Start with 10 or 20 minutes and work up to 3. For anything more 3 yields diminishing returns)
  • Experiment and figure out what auditory environments let you write most freely and stick to them
  • Establish deadlines with other people to keep a fire under your bum 
  • Go for a walk EVERYDAY

Wishing you the best with your big projects. 

About Haley

Self-proclaimed love idiot, Haley McGee is an actor, improviser, theatre-maker, author of The Ex-Boyfriend Yard Sale and host of The Cost of Love Podcast.

“one of the smartest, funniest books I’ve read about love in a long, long time” – Red Magazine

“exceedingly witty” – The Independent 

“illuminating” – Metro