Saturday, April 13, 2013

Growing up, Breaking Rules (Stephanie Kuehnert)

As a teenager, I pretty much thought that my actions of rebelling were what would transform me into an adult--smoking cigarettes, sneaking glasses of my parents' wine, smoke pot, sneaking out to see that older boy. As it turned out, the consequences of those actions were what really changed me, made me see the world in a new way, forced me to either grow up or be perpetually f-ed up.

So now I'm more careful about my choices and I've created or adopted a lot of rules, particularly about my writing and routine. I actually went so far in the opposite direction, creating so many rules that it affected my writing in a bad way. I became convinced that there was a RIGHT and SUCCESSFUL way to do things and if I didn't follow it I'd never finish or sell another book.

I beat myself up constantly for not being able to stick to a certain plan or regiment. I set myself up to fail. So I took my writing to therapy where I learned that I needed to relinquish some control and break the rules that were holding me back.

On August 20th, I started a contemporary YA that I'm calling (because I'm superstitious about sharing titles) The Grief Book. You can read a bit about it and the songs that kept me writing here. Thursday the 11th... or technically Friday the 12th at 3 am, I sent the first polished draft into my agent. I had cheated on other books with this book before, so I had about 40 pages of it that I wrote back in 2011, but the majority of the writing took place between August and April--and since my beloved kitty Sidney died at the end of November and I couldn't really bring myself to work on a grief story, I didn't work on it for much of December. So that's roughly 7 months that it took me to get a draft that was polished enough for me to be comfortable showing to people. It may not seem fast to some writers, but since it usually takes me over a year to get to that place with a book, it was record time for me. And how did I do it?  By breaking rules.

Here are some of the rules that I created for myself and broke in the process of writing The Grief Book:

  • You can't write fast. For years I've been telling myself that I'm one of those writers that can't do sprints, that needs to take time and ponder each word and if I don't stick to that, I veer terribly off track. Because that's what happened with The Bartender Book. Well, it's true sometimes. At the beginning of the book especially I need to take my time, but there comes a certain point where racing is fine for me. I need to know when to stop if I go off track, but since I hate first drafts, hammering something out so I can go back and revise (which I love), is a good thing.
  • You can't skip around. When you are stuck you must figure things out before moving on. Seeing as I wrote my first book non-linearly, I'm not sure when this became a thing for me, but it was a habit I managed to break again. I can't do it all the time, but scratching out a half-assed version of a scene and moving on or just skipping to the part I've been dying to write is a good thing.
  • You can't stop or break routine or it will be near impossible to gain momentum again. This is the thing I beat myself up the most for. Must write according to schedule, must keep moving or else. Well, my cat died. I was depressed. I stopped for a month and just did other stuff. then I came back and sure it took me a minute to work my way back in, but I still finished the book in record time.
  • Word count is important. My books are always too long. It just is that way. I get too in depth with character backstory. My characters talk too much. I hate killing my darlings. As a result watching word count, just so I can mark how much I wrote in a day freaks me out because I think the BOOK IS GETTING TOO BIG and it sends me into a total meltdown. When I was going through the final push of this draft, I ignored it almost completely. Yes, the book is too long. That's why I have critique partners and an agent. We'll figure it out.
  • You will break the book at some point. I went on a writing retreat right before my cat died and had a major meltdown/crisis of writing faith. I told myself, this always happens. The book gets broken. I don't know what to do. Last time I couldn't fix it. I went to my therapist and she told me I needed to view it differently. Maybe my book was in "crisis." Maybe my book about grief was having "complicated grief." Maybe I just needed a break from the book. Either way I needed to stamp out any this ALWAYS happens thoughts and tend to this book's particular needs. Which happened to be stopping for a while--though I only did it because life forced me, too. I will remember that.
  • You have to know the end. I always have a vague idea of the end, where the characters will be emotionally. Sometimes I know something really solid. Or I think I do. It generally always changes. But this time I got like 3/4 to the end of the book and while I knew where one of my scenes would take place, I had no clue how it would actually end. There was still some deeper understanding of my characters I needed. I wanted to panic. But I kept writing, and even though I had only the most vague impression of this book's ending when I actually got to it this week, it poured out of me. I saw all of it and it came out right in order.
  • You can't just stop and go back to the beginning. This was hands-down the most important rule violation for me. I anguished over it. I broke other rules and tried all the tricks I could, but I reached that certain point where I just couldn't see the end and I knew, KNEW that the reason was because I had changes in mind for earlier in the book and there were places where I had to go back and flesh out the characters and get to know them more--that was the key to figuring out my ending and finishing the book as quickly as I wanted to. So even though I hadn't written the last few chapters, I declared my rough draft done and went back. I polished and honed and sure enough all the puzzle pieces came together like they NEVER have before.
The key thing when it comes to breaking rules is knowing in your gut that you need to, that you doing what is best for you and the story. I wasn't just going back to my beginning to polish, polish, polish and never move on. But I was using my rules as a crutch, saying I couldn't do those things was almost like allowing myself to have writer's block. What all comes down to is trust. Every book I've written has pushed me to take new risks and this one, which taught me to trust my gut again, was by far the riskiest and most rewarding. I really hope I'll be able to share it with you soon!


  1. Thank you so much for sharing this! My writing/blogging partner and I are in crisis mode on our book right now, I'll share this with her and maybe it will help us understand how to get over this hurdle!

  2. Everything you've written about this often angsty book-writing process is spot-on true. Something I've learned and CLING TO when I am stressing is the old saying "Trust the process." Somehow--and I have no idea how this works--the book always comes together in the end. (7 months, by the way, does not seem very long to me at all.)

    1. Yes, I agree that you have to trust the process, but I've had a really really hard time doing that for the past few years because trusting the process also means trusting yourself. It's essential to do that though or you can't finish projects. And yeah, 7 months was definitely fast for me!

  3. I'm beginning to learn that the "rules" I establish for myself with one book don't necessarily work for the next! Each book is its own process...

    1. Yes, so true! And a lesson it seems that I have to relearn every time...LOL

  4. Right, rules should help us get things done. If they don't--if they get in the way instead--then the rules have to go.

    1. Agreed! Funny that it took me so long to realize this. Guess I'm not as much of a rebel as I thought! ;)

  5. Thank you for this post! Sometimes I feel like the only rule I can stick to is that rules don't work for me. ;-)

  6. I grew up (almost) always following the rules, and to this day I still feel more than a little hesitant about breaking them; I keep obsessing over what will happen if I do. I guess on reason I relied on rules was because they provided a structure for my life, so it scared me to think what would happen if I stepped away from that structure. But your post made me see that breaking rules doesn't necessarily have to be a bad thing.
    I'm sorry about your cat. Losing a pet is very difficult, because pet owners form mutual attachments with their animals.