(Design & illustration by Robert Roxby)
Reading this deeply honest guest blog from Stephanie Kuehnert about her struggles writing over the last year is so helpful and inspiring to me, I can’t even tell you. I have a feeling I’m not the only one who needs to read this one:
Last October I was more frustrated than I’ve ever been as a writer. I wasn’t happy about my writing career in general and the book I was working on in particular.
My first two books had been out for a year and two years respectively at that point and I didn’t feel like they’d been “successful” enough—not that I even knew how gauge success because unlike in school and at my other jobs, no one gave me any standard of measurement, but I hadn’t earned out my advance, had multiple print runs or anything like that, so I was pretty terrified that it would mean the end of my career if I didn’t pump something amazing out soon. So I convinced myself I could write a book in six months (so many other writers do!) even though I’d never written one in less than a year before.
That book, which I publicly referred to as The Bartender Book (it has a real title, but I’m oddly superstitious about sharing titles of books I’m working on) during my many rants about it on Twitter and my blog (one of many can be found here), had stalled out right around the time that I was hoping to finish the first draft of it. I’d had two other ideas bouncing around in my brain and started toying with the idea of giving up on The Bartender Book and working on one of those for NaNoWriMo. After reading my many Twitter rants, a lot of my writer buddies were saying it might be a good thing. They told me to think of it as taking a break, not quitting. But I was distraught. I’d never abandoned a manuscript in the state that The Bartender Book was in. I’d given up on ideas after fifty or seventy-five pages before, but I was three-quarters of the way through The Bartender Book. I’d set things aside before, but again not in this unfinished state. My second book published, BALLADS OF SUBURBIA, was actually the first book I’d ever written. After my first draft, I’d realized that that version of the story (which was called “The Morning After”) wasn’t working, so rather than revising I shelved it until I could figure out how to make it work. I felt like if I was going to shelve The Bartender Book and actually come back to it, I would have to write a full draft. I also worried that if I couldn’t finish The Bartender Book, it would prove that either my first two books were total flukes or I’d totally lost my writing mojo.
These were all the wrong reasons to keep plugging away at a project that was sending me deep into the pits of writerly despair. Everyone kept telling me so and I finally listened after a couple of my particularly wise writer buddies, Jeri Smith-Ready and April Henry, found a way to make the separation easier. They encouraged me to “have an affair” with my other ideas. Cheating on a book is not like cheating on a significant other, they said. No feelings get hurt, but it will help you figure out where you stand or it will just give you a little bit of relief. So I told myself I was going to have a torrid month-long affair with a fabulous new idea and then I’d see where I stood with The Bartender Book.
Though I did write a couple of killer scenes and character descriptions, the affair didn’t even last a week. My characters from the bartender book, Zoë and Ivy and Bender and Eli, kept popping into my head. I missed the little town and the bar I’d created for them. I kept thinking about the ways they made me laugh, and because I’m such a sadistic writer, how much I enjoyed putting them through the ringer. I wanted to see where they ended up. And I knew that that was the right reason to stay with a project. So I bid the affair book adieu, thanked it for reminding me that I could write, and dove back into the mess that was The Bartender Book.
Against my better judgment, I fast-drafted and forced myself to plow through to the end even if the last act of the book was mostly a rough sketch made up of a lot of dialogue and notes like [INSERT MEMORY HERE]. And how did I feel when I finished that rough draft? EVEN SHITTIER THAN BEFORE. The book was a whopping 60 thousand words too long as I’d known it would be. One of my critique partners had been hinting at what she thought I would need to do, but I’d ignored her because it meant major surgery. I would have to remove what I thought was an important character and storyline from the book. Poor Gabe. I loved him so much. He’d been one of my favorite parts of my initial idea. “I love him, too,” my smart critique partner said. “But I don’t think he fits in this story. Maybe there can be a sequel or maybe he can go in another book.”
“This book will not have a sequel,” I’d told her repeatedly and I held firm to that even when I saw the enormous word count of my rough draft. I couldn’t chop the book in two. There wasn’t a way. But finally I agreed, “You’re right, Gabe doesn’t belong in this story.”
So I cut all of his parts out and started to stitch the book back together. It was easier than I thought to remove him because DUH! he really didn’t belong. Things were smooth sailing until mid-January when once again I was three-quarters of the way into the book and at another self-imposed deadline for finishing it. Then I panicked. The word count was still too high, I couldn’t figure out how the last act was supposed to evolve, and I suddenly realized that one of my two main characters might have done something completely unforgivable. I cried to my mom, my husband and my writer buddies about this. I threatened to quit—not just the book, but writing in general. I was not cut out for it. Between the icky career part of it and the writing being so damn difficult, it was no longer fun.
Then one lovely writer buddy said, “I’ve got a couple days off, let me read it and help you brainstorm.” So I did and she and I went back and forth over the phone, email and Skype until I felt confident enough to push ahead. I did this more slowly this time, setting a third and final more realistic deadline of mid-March, which would mark roughly a year since I’d started the book. Not actually bad, I told myself. I am not a fast writer and I am fine with this.
I felt relatively decent when I finished that draft and even more so when I finished a third draft at the end of May. But the career stuff came into play again when I had to find a new agent. It wasn’t as easy as everyone kept telling me it would be since I’d been previously published. I went about it very slowly, because with my self-confidence at an all-time low, it really freaked me out. But once I met the right agent things happened very fast. She loved the book. Her ideas about it were in sync with mine. She only felt it needed a few little tweaks. So in October, the anniversary of what I felt like was my lowest point as a writer and with that book in particular, I took a deep breath, opened my latest version of it and prepared to tackle what I hoped would be the final issues before The Bartender Book could go on submission.
It took only two weeks, but they were probably the happiest two weeks of my entire writing career. Being back in that story was like a reunion with my very best friends. I laughed and cried with them. I dreamed about them. I lived in their world—a fabulous world that I’d created. I kind of didn’t want to leave because we’d gotten to know each other so well and they were so much fun, but they smiled at me and said, “You told our story right.” And in that moment it was all worth it. In fact, even though a year earlier I’d been saying how much I hated that book and how there was no way in hell I’d write a sequel to it, I told my characters, “I really hope a publisher loves you as much as I do and they will let me write a sequel.”
While I wish I could end this story with some fantastic news about how it sold at auction and I’m definitely going to write that sequel, all I can tell you is that it’s on submission now, but whether or not it sells, I can already say the experience of sticking with this troublesome book was worth it. I came out of it with several valuable lessons. I learned to cheat on my ideas when I’m feeling burned out, to fast-draft when I need to push through, to STOP fast-drafting when my instincts and my critique partners are telling me to stop, to listen to advice even when it hurts if I know deep down that the advice is right, and most importantly when the story and the characters are crying out to be written, not to give up on them. From now on whenever I’m struggling with a story that I know must be written, I will remember those glorious two fall weeks when I realized I’d nailed the story I thought I could never get right. That feeling will be my light at the end of the tunnel, my inspiration. So do whatever you need to do—because there is no one “right” thing or any “wrong” things you can do, every book and every writer is different—to enjoy that feeling yourself. Trust me, it’s worth it.
Stephanie Kuehnert got her start writing bad poetry about unrequited love and razor blades in eighth grade. In high school, she discovered punk rock and produced several D.I.Y. feminist ’zines. She received her MFA in creative writing from Columbia College Chicago. Her first YA novel, I WANNA BE YOUR JOEY RAMONE was published by MTV Books in July 2008, and her second, BALLADS OF SUBURBIA, was published in July 2009. She lives in Forest Park, Illinois with her husband and three cats. In addition to writing novels, she is a bartender, teacher, staff writer for ROOKIE, an online magazine for teenage girls, and an award-winning columnist for her local paper, the Forest Park Review.
Read Stephanie’s blog at stephaniekuehnert.blogspot.com.
Follow @writerstephanie on Twitter.
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