Finishing and Starting (Stephanie Kuehnert)

This is where I am right now:

Beautiful, right? An open road. So many possibilities ahead. That's how the start of a new project is supposed to feel.

But the thing is that this time it doesn't.

I actually feel like I'm in a nightmare. In my nightmares I can never run. I get all sweaty and out of breath, but it's like I'm fighting my way through quicksand and not getting anywhere. And that's what is going on right now. The race has begun. Someone fired the starting pistol, but I'm running in place, swinging my arms, clawing desperately at the air trying to get some forward momentum, and it's just not happening.

Let's talk about where I was at the end of May. This exhilarating moment:
I'd finished my third draft of my third book, The Bartender Book as I've been calling it (because for some reason I'm afraid I will jinx it if I use it's real name). That book was struggle pretty much from start to finish. Like many of my fellow authors here, I generally love beginnings and endings and hate middles. I usually am in total lust with my story idea when I start the beginning and work and rework that first chapter a million times. For both I WANNA BE YOUR JOEY RAMONE and BALLADS OF SUBURBIA the first chapter stayed the first chapter and though I cut the excess and refined for word choice, it flowed pretty much the same. But with The Bartender Book I had a few different attempts at first chapters and still during the third draft I found myself doing major restructuring on it that took a couple of weeks.

I also had more problems than usual with the middle, the most major being that I realized the plot had gotten too huge and I had to go back and extract an entire thread and character. Then even after I did that, I hit that icky place about three-quarters of the way through the book where I doubted if the book was even worth writing. (This does seem to happen to me with every book and it sounds like I'm not alone.) But after a lot of crying and moaning to friends, critique partners and my husband, I made it through to the end. Usually I go into the book with a sense of how a book will end, but figure out more as I write. I actually struggled with that a lot more than I usually do, too and it ended in a slightly different way than I thought it would.

All in all, this book was very difficult, but by the time I finished my revision on it at the end of May, I was absolutely head over heels in love with it. In fact, I really miss my characters and will be eager to do more revisions on it when the time comes (ie. if it sells, which I really really hope it will!) But now I'm having a really hard time settling into a new project.

It's been almost three months now and I'm still puttering about trying to figure out what to do, which is maddening and has never happened before.

Starting BALLADS after I finished IWBYJR was easy because I'd actually written a crappy first draft of BALLADS before I started IWBYJR. IWBYJR was just an idea that took over while I was figuring out how to fix that crappy first draft. It took me three years to write IWBYJR and in the meantime, BALLADS simmered and I had a pretty solid idea of where to go with it when it was time to start a new book.

Picking an idea after I finished BALLADS was a little bit harder. I had two ideas that were competing for my attention. I went back and forth on both of them for awhile until I ultimately committed to writing what became The Bartender Book. The plan has always been to go back to that other idea once I finished. I did have two shiny new ideas that distracted me. One was my affair book as April Henry says. During the hard parts of The Bartender Book, I wrote about twenty pages of it. Then towards the end of my revisions of The Bartender Book, a second bright and shiny idea started to flirt with me and I've written about thirty pages of that one.

I've learned that I can really only work on one thing at a time so I decided to go back and forth until I figure out which one is calling me like I did the last time. I've narrowed it down to my oldest idea, the one I started back when I started The Bartender Book, and my newest. But I am strongly leaning toward my oldest. It just feels like it should be time for that one while the newer one needs time to simmer. Also the older idea will be breaking new ground for me. I've always written realistic fiction, but this idea will have a twist of paranormal/fantasy, so it should be really fun to write. The twist deals with a mythological concept (or the combination of a few mythological concepts, actually) that has fascinated me since I was a little girl and having been dying to write about for a few years now. Over those past few years, I had a number of false starts as I tried to figure out how to go from concept to story, but now I have a pretty solid plot idea. I should be golden, right? After all I've started with a lot less before. With IWBYJR, all I had was two characters, a general concept and a scene in my head and off I went.

But like I said this time, I'm doing that attempting-to-run-really-hard-but-going-nowhere thing of my nightmares. I think that struggling every step of the way with The Bartender Book really took a toll on my confidence. Though I'm usually a pantser, I've felt like I need to plot so I don't end up taking such a massive detour like I did last fall. So I plotted. I talked through my ideas with critique partners and over the past few weeks all but a few elements have fallen into place. I have a first chapter, which is almost like a prologue, but it was like pulling teeth to write it even though I'm very excited about this idea. Also, I can't seem push on to chapter two. And while I documented started documenting everything about my process when I started to struggle with the last book so I would have ideas of what to do when I got stuck in the future, I didn't document my process for writing the beginning because I was okay then.

I'm starting to feel like a huge freak because aren't writers supposed to be insanely excited about their new ideas? Aren't they supposed to jump in and not get stuck until page fifty or one hundred or something? That's usually how it works for me, but this time, even though I'm excited about the idea, I can't get going. I even tried to switch back to that newest idea because maybe I misjudged and it was the more compelling one, but nope that didn't work either.

I'm going on vacation at the end of this week so I'm hoping that some relaxation and fresh sights in a new city will inspire me, but if not... Well this is where I desperately need your advice my fellow writers. How do you start a new project and what do you do get it going when you can't just dive in? I want to have that blissful feeling I had a few months ago when I was finishing the last project. Any suggestions on how to enjoy a new start?


  1. Stephanie, I know exactly what you mean when you say, 'I want to have that blissful feeling I had a few months ago when I was finishing the last project.' I had that exact same hope when I started my new novel, and became terribly depressed when it never happened. As it turned out, I was being incredibly unfair to myself because the beginning of a book is never, ever like writing the end, when you can see the goal ahead and everything is coming together. I had spent so much time writing my first book, I didn't remember that it took me a while to find my footing in the first place. For me, at least, I jumped all over in timeline and had to put all the pieces together later... using the old Columbia formula to write "whatever captures my attention," as you know. When I was at the end of my first book, I was knocking out 20 pages at a time, and I expected to do the same when I started my next book. That didn't happen. In fact, I could barely get more than 2 pages out at a time. I started to freak out. It took me months until I thought I had a story worth pursuing, and all during that time, I compared it to my last novel and wasn't into it as much as my first one (which had taken me 5 years to write).
    After several months, I had strung together enough small bits of writing to make up a nearly completed novel. It didn't come out as easily, nor as fun as my first book, but maybe they're not all supposed to be so simple. (As if any writing is actually simple. HAH) What got me through it? Well, discovering new music, for one. Also, letting myself take extended breaks where I didn't dwell on my book. I had to let it go for long periods and then come back to it so that every scrap I had previously written didn't seem so precious any longer. You may not be having so desperate of a time as I was during this second book, but know that others completely understand your feelings right now and empathize! Good luck with your new project. I'll be rooting for you!

  2. Before my agent sold The Vicious Deep, I was working on a magical/realism kind of adult novel. I knew where I wanted it to start and end, but just couldn't write the middle bits.

    That's when I started writing this crazy mermaid urban fantasy that kept poking its little head and demanding attention. It just came out!

    Right now I'm trying to start book 2, which is more difficult than book 1. I know where it starts and ends, but I'm almost scared to write the middle.

    *le sigh*

  3. Sometimes I feel weird talking about my fiction as I am not published yet, but here goes:

    I just finished the final (for now) draft of a novel I've been working on for two years. Meaning now, I have a choice: I can either submit it to agents or I can sit on it forever. At times, the latter is sounding mighty tempting. I really loved and believed in this story, except when I didn't and I was questioning myself and wondering whether all this blood, sweat and tears were worth it. I know I need to submit it, though. It takes a lot of courage, which I am trying to work up right now.

    In the meantime, I wrote a crappy first draft of another story, which is now being reviewed by some beta readers, but I'm not sure if that one is going to be worth revisiting. I really love the two main characters, but the plot needs a lot a lot a LOT of work.

    And then in January, I had this other shiny new idea (in a dream. How cliche, right?). I've been working on the characters (Stephanie, I was working on the protagonist the last time I took your class!) and have some of the plot figured out, plus I know how it will end. However, I always struggle with plot. Also, I'm pretty sure this is going to be a book for adults rather than YA, so that's new for me too. Basically, I just write write write. I keep at least one notebook on me at all times, and I went to a writers' retreat this summer, which really helped me work on some of the scenes and plot points. I use NaNoWriMo as a motivator to write my first drafts, so I've got until then to figure out as much as I can. I'm a total planner before I write my first draft. I'm a dork like that.

    Good luck, Stephanie, and keep us posted! Enjoy your vacation. :)

  4. Thank you guys for commiserating and offering advice! Ara, you are totally right. I know that I can't keep the same pace as I could toward the end of a book, but yeah, it takes me so long to finish a book that I always forget what beginnings are like. Plus every book is different. I feel like one day ONE of them should flow out of me easily though! Maybe I'll try the old jump around to what is taking my attention route.

    Zoraida, I think the fear of the middle is a big problem for me too... so much so that I can't see past like the first ten pages.

    And Lauren, you damn well better submit that book, girl! I'm glad I'm not alone in struggling with plot, but I am going on a writing retreat at the end of November so maybe I will think of November as a big writing month for me and give myself a little more leeway time to plan and scribble things down.

  5. Thanks for your honest description of the process. I wish books flowed effortlessly out of me too but I guess it's more like childbirth--some are easy, some are hard, but they all hurt!

  6. Very true, Vicky. Well, I haven't had a child, but from what I imagine...


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