10 Years Working in Book Publishing / Writing on the Weekends

2021 marks my ten year anniversary of working in book publishing. The aluminum anniversary! (I have no idea what I could thematically gift myself to celebrate. A six-pack of craft beer, maybe?) It’s weird to think that it’s been ten years since I was in undergrad workshops at my creative writing program, shaping words into rough-hewn stories, sharing my writing with peers for the first time, scrolling endlessly through blogs for glimmers of information about breaking into the publishing industry. Ten years feels like a natural milestone to pause for reflection before barreling on to the next decade.

Unquestionably, I prioritized my career over the last ten years and it’s satisfying to review the results: I’ve worked at three book publishing companies, a series of promotions and shifts that started with assistant editor and built to senior managing editor at a Big 5. I worked so hard for each advancement and I am immensely proud of my professional collaborations with every team I’ve been lucky enough to work with. (Book people are the best people.)

I tried to prioritize writing, too. When I started my working life, I knew I wanted a work-creative life balance. Practically, I knew I had to have a day job; all those blogs I’d read had made crystal clear that creative writing would not pay the bills, with full-time book writing a rare financial success story. Amy Spalding has spoken frankly about this on numerous occasions, in various podcast interviews and elsewhere that have always really resonated. As my career has grown and I’ve learned more about how my own brain works, I’ve come to realize how important it is, for me, to have a steady, reliable paycheck so that I can spend my free time being creative rather than financially anxious, and that I need something besides writing to professionally focus on, because, as Amy puts it, “the publishing world often moves at a snail’s pace, and I’m glad I don’t have to rely on it and it alone for career satisfaction!”

I’d wanted to work in book publishing as long as I can remember, since high school at least, so much so that my mom’s friend of a friend of a friend, who ended up being Emily Giffin, wrote a very nice encouraging email with advice on breaking into publishing. I took a print out of that email to college, to reread for encouragement sometimes, and I still have it saved in a drawer somewhere.

So at graduation, I knew two things: I wanted to write and publish books and I wanted to learn how to publish other people’s books. Those were my my distant mountains, as Neil Gaiman put it. And every decision I’ve made since has been in an attempt to grow my publishing career while simultaneously supporting my writing, giving it the space, time, and attention it needed to grow.

For example, when I heard multiple acquiring editors on panels say that the demands of their day job regularly depleted all their creative energy, I started looking at other position postings. (My creative well can be a shallow, fickle thing, I needed a job that wouldn’t siphon it on a regular basis.) I love working in ManEd for this reason. It requires a lot of creative problem solving 9-5, but I can save the creative output for my personal writing time.

At the end of the NYU Summer Publishing Institute, while everyone else was signing leases with three other roommates to afford a two-bedroom bunk bed living situation, I was applying fast and furious to non-NYC publishing jobs. I knew, from college experience, that my writing process needed a quiet environment. And I would never find the time and quiet I needed in a cramped roommate situation paying NYC rent. I needed to live somewhere where the cost of living allowed me my own one-bedroom, a room of my own. As tempting as it was, I could not allow the day job mountain, and the draw of NYC trade publishing opportunities, to eclipse the writing mountain. So I accepted a position at a small academic press in New Jersey and set up my designated writing desk in the middle of the living room.

Sometimes, writing has had to take a backseat. In the earlier years, weeks of writing time would get bumped to make room for freelancing when budget required. Twice, writing time was consumed for months by hours-long daily commutes when I transferred to a new job before I could geographically relocate.

But I kept putting my butt back in the chair whenever I could and over time all those nights and weekends of dedicated writing time added up. The metrics look like: I research, wrote, and published Byberry State Hospital, wrote four fiction manuscripts, queried one of them, signed with a great literary agent who unfortunately left her position a year later, wrote and queried two more manuscripts before signing with a new amazing agent. Sprinkle throughout: going to half a dozen writing conferences, trying out several in-person writing groups, and finding/swapping chapters with critique partners online. Somehow, in those ten years, I also read [double checks Goodreads] 644 (!!!) books in an endless effort to study words and story and improve my craft.

There were other priorities, too, of coursethe ones that have resulted in unquantifiable amounts of joy, the ones that fill photo albums rather than resumes and LinkedIn profiles. My now-husband and I moved in together, got engaged, bought a historic house, got married. I’ve become an aunt and a godmother. I’ve kept friendships with amazing humans. I’ve learned how to cook and how to keep plants alive. I’ve been a pet parent. We’ve traveled (…mostly to various coastlines, I’m now realizing, can you tell I’m a water sign?)

There’s something about writing this post in the early days of Spring, with the crocuses and snowdrops beginning to bloom, that has me hopeful. There’s so much about the last ten years I want to carry forward and repeat in the future. I want more words, more books in all forms (reading, writing, publishing). I also hope for more balance and peace. More good food, more flowers, and, when this pandemic abates, more friends, more family, more adventures.

Ghosts (and Lessons) of Shelved Manuscripts Past

Editor/writer Ashley Hearn posted recently about how “it’s easy to feel stuck after multiple stories without a ‘success.’ But when you look at [your projects], you really come to understand how no story is a wasted effort.” Goodness, wasn’t that exactly the adjusted perspective I needed in the year 2020? Despite being proud of the writing progress made and time dedicated (both revision and drafting), there is a small, human part of me still disappointed to be closing the year out with no exciting publishing news. I have been writing for publication for ten years (!!), currently at work on my eighth manuscript, and what do I have to show for it besides hundreds of thousands of abandoned words on my hard drive? Quite a lot of growth, actually!

Book 1 was a MG historical fiction (35,000 words) that taught me how to finish a book! Also, how to shape non-fiction research into story. It also ended up being a practice novel for writing a query and synopsis and quick pitching agents, which was a lesson in and of itself on how much learning and growing I had ahead of me.

Book 2 was a YA contemporary fantasy (54,000 words) that taught me the storytelling benefits and limitations of writing in diary format. As a NaNoWriMo success manuscript, it also taught me how to keep my butt in the chair, hit a deadline, and the joys of connecting with an online writing community.

Book 3 was a YA post-apocolyptic (70,000 words) that taught me to write what I’m passionate about, rather than chasing trends. Also, that it’s okay to abandon a story when it’s neither working nor bringing joy.

Book 4 was a YA fairytale retelling (abandoned at 34,000 words) that was an extensive practice session in writing dialogue. Paging through this old draft, I can really see my dialogue starting to come alive for the first time.

Book 5 was a MG contemporary fantasy (50,000 words) that taught me structure and beats. It’s also how I learned to revise. I reworked this book at least five times as I learned how to translate critique partner feedback into action items.

Book 6 was a YA contemporary fantasy (62,000 words) that taught me to lean into my natural MG voice and stop trying to force my writing into the YA genre. Also, how a character’s motivation works as the engine of a plot.

Book 7 was a MG contemporary fantasy (60,000 words) that taught me how to weave multiple POV timelines, juggle multiple POV voices, and layer in theme. Another lesson learned: never dive into drafting blind / without an outline again.

As a result of all the above practice, book 8, a MG contemporary fantasy that is coming out in fits and starts, has been the best drafting process I’ve ever experienced, I think, because I now have more tools in my writer’s tool belt, making me more capable of wrangling a story onto the page.

So, here’s to another year of learning and growing and becoming a better storyteller!

Reading in 2020

When I am reading a new book and know exactly who I’m going to buy a copy for their Christmas gift.

’tis the season for book giving! I love to comb through my Goodreads Challenge in December to figure out which books I’m going to buy for the loved ones on my gift list. The silver lining of going nowhere and doing nothing this year is that my husband and I finally have the time to participate in a holiday tradition I’ve long coveted, the Christmas Book Flood, where you exchange books on Christmas Eve and spend the rest of the night in bed reading and eating chocolate.

But also…when I realize I can’t book-talk it to that person and gush about how great it is…for fear they’ll buy a copy before I can gift it.

When I was a baby writer I used to give my brutally honest opinion on Goodreads with 3- 2- and 1-star reviews—really just for my own record keeping purposes, since I treated the first few years after graduation like a DIY MFA program, reading as much and as critically as possible for craft purposes while simultaneously drafting my first few (totally 0-star) practice novels—my system has streamlined into:

  • 5 stars: love it! Recommend it to anyone who will listen! Definitely a gift contender.
  • 4 stars: liked it, will read something else by this author, but for whatever reason—often, a personal distaste for the ending, maybe—likely won’t book talk it to everyone I meet.
  • No rating: This book wasn’t my cup of tea and I’m pretty sure I wasn’t the right audience for it. And, therefore, I’m not going to muddy the review pool with my opinion.

What a weird year for reading, though. It happened in fits and starts, when it was happening at all. The first few months, I had a hard time finding the mental peace and quiet necessary to sit down and focus on reading anything lengthier than my newsfeed. After that, I was exclusively drawn to books set against the back drop of either WWI and the flu pandemic or WWII, domestic stories with an international tragedy overshadowing it all. And with all the extra time for home cooking experimentation, I found great joy in actually sitting and reading the cookbooks in my collection I’d only perused before (returning to this one for baking and this one for new dinner recipes again and again). Thanks to #MGBooktober, October was an inspiring page-turner of a month where I binge-read ten books, driven by the fast and furious book recommendations and the desire to keep up with the daily prompts (definitely check out the hashtag if you’re looking for suggestions for your next great MG read, or if you have a middle grade [~9-13yo] reader in your life!). While I normally read an average of 65 books a year, this year I’ll likely clock in more like 50.

The reading format was a bit of an upheaval for me this year too. In the past I’ve tended to read more audiobooks than anything else, thanks to the daily commute, but WFH has me focusing more on print, especially combined with screen and video-call fatigue from the day job (total: 25 print books, 14 audiobooks, 10 ebooks / 50% print, 29% audiobook, 21% ebook). And just a call out for libraries, an absolute godsend with their curbside pickup and digital options. 35 of my books this year were library loans. And to the indies (consider BookShop.org to support local bookstores when shopping online! Or, if you don’t have a specific book in mind, gift an audiobook subscription through Libro, which also supports local bookstores!) and B&N who have kept me well-stocked with online orders and preorders for joyful pandemic mail—and who I’ve already ordered my holiday gifts through. (If you haven’t placed your book orders yet, consider doing so ASAP! There’s been serious shipping, paper supply chain, and printer upheaval and delays with the pandemic that might put a wrinkle in your plans!)

Besides reading books, I’ve also been crafting with books—old mass market paperbacks that I’ve been unable to donate during pandemic. Tutorials for the pumpkin and Christmas tree, if you’re interested.

How to Write a Book Synopsis (and Know When a Book is Ready to Query)

I wrote my first book report in third grade and it was a disaster. Like the little homework-lover I was, I’d prepared: I read the book well in advance and wrote a portion each night (I distinctly recall it being chunked into requiring a paragraph or two write up about setting, characters, maybe “new to you” vocabulary, etc.), until the night before it was due. And I’d saved the best for last: the plot summary.

Let’s just say 8-year-old me had been deeply moved by the story of Scruffy, the orphan street dog, and when I sat down to summarize her 152-page adventure, I just couldn’t comprehend skipping a single, critical moment. I detailed it all, until it was well past my bedtime, my parents were scolding me both for still being awake and for procrastinating on a major project, and I was about six handwritten pages deep into my “summary.” (When my parents were skeptical of it qualifying as a “summary,” I held my ground and insisted that it was “shorter than reading the whole book.”)

For context, and humor, here’s the Goodreads summary of the book (SO MUCH HAPPENS! Adult me is in awe of the professional talent evident in fitting all the twists and turns into such tight copy, honestly, hahahahaha)

Has anyone else read this book? This cover is SEARED into my memory. I’ve never forgotten the beat up paperback I read!

Life began in hardship for Scruffy, carried to survival by her mother from a fire in a condemned building, only to be orphaned by a sheepherder’s rifle. Soon she is rescued and nursed back to health by some merciful children but leaves them to make her way back to the city. A kindly street performer takes her in and shower her the possibilities of human decency. But in the middle of a cold night, fate decides that Scruffy must once more be alone. 

Alone that is, until a bullterrier named Butch accepts her as part of the street pack that beds down each night in an abandoned car and roams the streets and back alleys during the day. Then one terrible day they are all taken to the pound and condemned to death. But by now, Scruffy has a talent for survival. She not only saves the day but she becomes a national celebrity!

Scruffy, Jack Stoneley, Goodreads

Unfortunately, my parents’ correctness was painfully proven the next day when we all had to read our book reports aloud to the class and everyone else was able to do theirs in about five minutes…and my mic was cut off after about fifteen (hahahahahahaha/cringe).

Given the whole slightly traumatic book report experience, maybe it’s no surprise that I approached writing a book synopsis with a bit of dread. How, I bemoaned, was I supposed to compress my 50,000-word book baby into a trim, double-spaced page or two? In 2015, when I first started querying agents seriously, I (unsuccessfully) tried to skirt around the minority of literary agents that required them. But by 2019, when I was back in the querying trenches, they were practically standard request among agents (for good reason). And they’re often utilized elsewhere: for quick pitches at conferences, in submission packages to editors.

Simply put, there’s no escaping writing your book synopsis.

And, more importantly, you shouldn’t. I’d argue that to write a book-deal worthy book synopsis, you have to have a book-deal worthy book. Beyond the frustrations of writing succinctly, the main source of my book synopsis dread is that it reveals problems. When I’m beating my head against a wall trying to make it read like the story isn’t slow in the middle, a character’s motivation isn’t trite, the premise isn’t too complicated…there’s a pretty good chance that the real reason the synopsis isn’t working is because the book isn’t working.

[cue ice-cream eating pity party]

Isn’t that the worst thing in the world to realize? And the worst timing, when you’re 3-infinity drafts in, polished and chomping at the bit to query, only to realize it has broken bits that still need attention and it’s back into the revision cave? Writing a book synopsis is the ultimate litmus test, a pass-fail situation.

But it also provides me with a big-picture, top-level perspective that can help me identify and correct structural problems I was previously blind to. And that’s actually a great tool to have in your tool belt! And, by choosing to write them earlier, to fold it into the revision process, I get a stronger book faster.

So, after a lot of practice, this is my tried-and-true method:

  1. Write chapter summaries. 2-3 sentences for every. single. chapter.
  2. Panic when I reread the chapter summaries, because despite thinking I’m done with the book at this stage, this bare-bone skeleton of the story usually highlights plot holes, pacing issues, etc.
  3. Write myself an edit letter.
  4. Revise the book.
  5. Rewrite chapter summaries to suit the new draft.
  6. Compress those chapter summaries into a one- to two-page summary that reflects the entire shape of the book, complete with the main character(s) motivation(s), the stakes, major plot points, the full character arcs (and how they change), and make sure to include the ending. This is key: whoever is reading this book synopsis wants the ending spoiled. They want to know if they like the shape of the book, the themes, before committing to reading all 50,000-100,000 words.

Plotting, Pantsing, and Meal Planning

A recent pizza experiment—red potato / red onion.

Meal planning was once a tool exclusively to organize budget- and health-friendly meals that reduced the likelihood that I’d panic-order pizza delivery multiple nights a week. It’s taken on an entirely new art form during pandemic: we stretched our bi-weekly grocery run to three weeks, innovated new aisle routes to maximize efficient shopping and minimum in-store time. But even with those responsibilities, my meal planning is never the rigid templates of Meatless Mondays, Taco Tuesdays, Pizza Fridays. I totally see the appeal—and time savings!—of that sort of menu rotation. But I love to indulge in an evening trying a new recipe I just happen to have all the ingredients for (like this bacon-wrapped pork loin I made last night and the potato pizza I’m tried for the first time today) and decide what I’m going to cook based on my mood. I love plating a creation, unsure whether we’ll love it or hate it until I take the first bite.

It’s not total chaos though. And we eat before 8:00 pm (…most nights). Like Deb (and goodness, can I nominate how she stocks the smitten kitchen as one of my favorite reads?), “I have to be strategic; I need a system.” Every grocery trip I make sure to restock on chicken, chicken sausage, and frozen shrimp; half a dozen 28-ounce cans of plum peel tomatoes are always in the pantry for our reliable standby favorites of shakshuka, lentil soup, tomato soup, and a new household favorite of shrimp with capers from this cookbook; Better than Bullion in chicken, beef, and vegetable (because #SOUPSEASON, folks), the vegetables we like best and can mixed into a dozen recipes, and the assorted 40 spices we keep in the cabinet. And on the baking end of things, I try to have plenty of butter, flour, sugar, cocoa powder, heavy cream, and chocolate chips on hand at all times for whenever the craving strikes (I’ve been baking my way through this delicious book during pandemic, no regrets). These baseline ingredients create a sort of outline that’s looser, flexible, more open to regular experimentation—a creative process a lot, I realized, like my writing process.

I keep a brainstorming notebook with scraps of ideas, scene details, character sketches, and once a story idea has enough meat on the bone, I create a loose outline. Enough of a road map that I know where I’m going, what ingredients I want to mix into the bowl, and some of the pitstops along the way. I allow the creative process to innovate, explore, and wander for the pages in between, excited to taste the results in a reread.

“Writing is like driving at night in the fog. You can only see as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.” ― E.L. Doctorow

It allows for discovery and impulsive character-driven scenes. Rather than a predictable outline that I’m bulking out with dialogue and description, when I sit down to write this way, I’m excited by the chance that I’ll be surprised on a hairpin turn 1,000 words in. It might not be the most efficient writing (or cooking) process, but I’ve come to accept that it’s the way I love to create.

Stay Calm…and Focus on What (Writing) You Can Control

With everything spinning out of control—routines, plans, the world, etc.—I’ve found a lot of comfort and calm focusing on smaller-scale things 100% within my control: a neatly trimmed lawn, a weed-free garden bed, a freshly organized closet, a tricky recipe followed to the letter. No surprise, a lot of people have found home renovations a calming coping mechanism during pandemic, and no except here. We’ve undertaken a lot of DIY and home improvement projects in the last six months: fresh paint colors, hanging art, rearranging furniture, ripping out and planting a new garden, home decor retail therapy.

When I feel myself spiraling with stress, I try to step back and identify something I can do—something end-to-end entirely accomplished through my own efforts, rather than wishing on stars, birthday candles, and dandelion seeds for the universe to go my way, or depending on someone else’s action.

Writing forced me to learn how to do this. Think of all the anxiety-inducing, out-of-control situations writing books involves: drafting, beta reader feedback, querying, submission, and after publication, hitting lists or getting starred reviews or getting award nominations, the list goes on! Rather than being joyful, there were definitely years when writing Stressed Me Out. I had to change my tactics.

When I was beating myself up for not drafting at a faster word count pace, when I was frustrated with my revision production, I embraced the star system: instead of measuring my accomplishments based on word count metrics so infuriatingly out of my control (curse you, creative process!), I focused on the hours I put my butt in the chair and committed to the work. When I focused on scheduling—and increasing, as possible—how much time I dedicated to writing, it gave me a sense of control over the process and my writing-related anxiety decreased significantly.

Querying? I couldn’t control the rejections that inevitably resulted. Or the timeline. (Waiting is hard!) But I focused instead on what was within my control: writing the best book I could, researching agencies thoroughly, and maintaining a querying schedule and routine.

On sub? You can’t control how editors are going to respond to your book (or when!) But with literally everything out of your hands and in other people’s inboxes at that point, the best trick was to focus on the one thing I could control: writing the next book.

How to Procrastinate Until Your Book Writes Itself

It’s been a long time since I wrote a brand new story idea. I’ve been in revision land a looooooong time. The blank page can be awfully intimidating, writing something rough and misshapen and new, especially after working on something that has years of polishing, and I found myself avoiding some serious butt-in-chair writing time. So I started procrastinating…with purpose.

I was a history major—I LOVE researching before writing. In college, when I had a paper due, I would spend weeks in advance reading articles and books, surrounding myself with them, organizing the sources, before finally putting pen to paper (yes…I wrote first drafts [because yes, there were multiple drafts] of my papers longhand). I once maxed out my university library card and checked out 99 books in total for my capstone research paper. And when I returned them all in a literal suitcase, the front desk manager blinked at me like I was a crazy person…before offering me a job.

All that to say, I really love research. And it’s an excellent, productive way to avoid writing, especially when I’m still in the preliminary brainstorming stage. Jumping in and writing right away is a surefire way to get myself stuck and stumped and frustrated. Maybe so much so that I’ll abandon that story idea entirely. Instead, I read as much and as widely as I can in preparation, really indulging my curiosity and entertaining any and all story directions it could take. Any nugget could spark a future plot twist or prove handy while world building!

So this is the germ of the WIP idea I got a few months back:

EYbIberXgAAoo1Y

I usually start with some broad topical non-fiction, to really fill my brain on the topic, fill in some knowledge gaps, and inform the direction of future research and reading. In this case, I dove into some murder and crime solving non-fiction. Murder lead to a more specific curiosity about murder with poisons:

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And some plant non-fiction:

Then I go broad, fictional, and multi-media—movies, TV shows, podcasts, any age-range—to survey what’s already been done on the topic, common themes and what might be familiar to readers thanks to pop culture:

I love when I can settle down to watch a movie and call it research. It feels so…multitasking.

Then I macro my research further; specifically, I start reading middle grade books that would be adjacent to the story I’m imagining, maybe shelved together or recommended to the same reader. Mostly, I’m trying to triple check that the story I’m imagining hasn’t already been done. I’m looking for a little inspiration. I’m procrastinating in its purest form and pleasure reading. But in the back of my mind, I’m also hunting for potential comp titles to be used in a future pitch.

Along the way, I keep a notebook handy, to jot down any ideas or snippets of scenes I might dream up. It starts to fill up pages, a really useful treasure trove to dig into once drafting starts.

As the research (aka, procrastination) continues, the story takes shape in my head and the excitement to write it starts to overwhelm the anxiety about drafting. Once I finally dream up the opening scene, know where the story starts, I know it’s time to stop researching and write.

 

 

The 5 Stages of Accepting and Integrating Critique Partner Feedback

In the last post, I detailed the process of writing and revising (and revising some more) until my manuscript is as good as I can make it by myself. Now, it’s time to get a few second opinions!

Enter: critique partners! If you don’t have any yet, here are some suggestions on how to find them. Critique partners are WORTH THEIR WEIGHT IN GOLD! They read your manuscript in full, and give constructive feedback and suggestions on how to make it better. Usually, I ask 2-3 critique partners, depending on their availability, for big picture feedback—plot holes, where they want/need more explanation or details, or character development (my early drafts always need to be expanded).

These fantastic writing pals dig in and, 3-4 weeks later, the perfect amount of time to have distanced myself from the manuscript and prepare to objectively receive a laundry list of all its many many flaws (hahahaha, jk), they send back the manuscript with with scene-level margin comments (example: confusion about how a chapter ends, queries, flagging where the voice deviates, or where a character says or does something out of character, etc.) and a short edit letter with more global feedback (example: add the best friend more throughout, clarify this character’s motivation, consider adding additional chapters from X character’s point of view, etc.).

I’ll admit it: Feedback always stings. EVEN THOUGH I sent the manuscript out KNOWING it needed work, specifically ASKING for suggestions for improvement, when I get those emails, my first reaction is always disappointment (oh, why didn’t I write a perfect novel on the first round?!) and disagreement. Sometimes I read the feedback and, like Leslie Knope, just want to shout “NO!” It’s a protective instinct. I don’t want to tear the manuscript apart, I don’t want to make all these changes.

But the book won’t get any better if I don’t listen to feedback. This is where the 5 stages come in:

1.  Defense & Denial

Read the feedback. Deny, loudly, to myself and anyone within hearing distance, that any of the things pointed out for revision are actual problems.

2.  Mourning

A few hours later, consider, upon further reflection, that the manuscript is a mess, that all the feedback is correct, and I’m probably going to have to overhaul the entire book. Maybe it’s not even worth saving. Revision is hopeless. Or, at least, endless. Usually chocolate is required. And a loooooooooong walk.

3.  Reconsider

24 hours later, reread the feedback. Every. Single. Time. On the reread, I realize that 80% of the feedback is spot on. Perfect, even. I nod my head as I read along: How didn’t I think of that? That’s EXACTLY what the ending needs. My critique partners are BRILLIANT! This is what it feels like when feedback resonates, when it fits with my vision of what I want the book to become, falling into place like a missing puzzle piece. I usually know when a revision change is right because I’m energized to make the changes.

What about that other 20%? It’s not that I disagree with these comments and suggestions necessarily, but they don’t resonate in the same way. They feel off, not right for the book.

I’ve found, as Neil Gaiman put it:

“…when people tell you something’s wrong or doesn’t work for them, they are almost always right. When they tell you exactly what they think is wrong and how to fix it, they are almost always wrong.”

If, even after 24 hours, feedback such as “Consider simplifying cast of characters and get rid of this one entirely,” results in my stomach flipping, my heart squeezing, my gut screaming NO! That character is critical! That suggestion is wrongwrongwrong for the story. The book—as I envision it—doesn’t work without that specific character! If the Leslie Knope inside of me is threatening to come out and throw a temper tantrum, then clearly, this feedback doesn’t resonate with me and my vision and shouldn’t be integrated during revisions.

But. Instead of totally throwing the suggestion out the window as entirely incorrect, I parse down the reason behind it. Why did the reader feel that way? I skim the pages and, as a reader, I can usually identify why that character wasn’t working for them. Maybe in my head the character looms larger than life, but on the page I failed to make that clear. Maybe they only have a few cameo scenes. Of course the story as-is lead the reader wrong! If I’m still sure they’re critical, then I figure out a solution that both resolves the issue my critique partner had but also resonates with my vision. For example, in this instance, I’d decide that instead of deleting this character wholesale from the book, I need to make them a more active character throughout.

4.  Thank

Profusely thank my amazing critique partners for their time and help and insights. Ask follow-up questions, if any, about that 20%. Usually, I throw a brainstorming idea at them. “You responded negatively to X and suggested Y, but what if I did Z?”

5.  Edit letter

Yes, again!

I take all the reader feedback that resonates, dump it into one collated document, add in all the other revision ideas the feedback kicked up in my brain, and keep that up on my screen while I reread the book. AGAIN.

Just like the first solo rounds of revision, I make margin comments throughout. Don’t allow myself to edit. Revise the edit letter until it’s complete. Organize revisions from biggest to smallest and tackle accordingly.

Rinse and repeat—including sending the latest revision to a second round of critique partners—until it’s as good as I can make it, as good as it can be in my reader’s eyes…and then…it’s done!

(For now. There’s always more revisions on the horizon, with an agent and with an editor!)

How to Revise a Novel (Before You Waste a Year Fixing 300 Pages That Never Get Any Better)

Writing is rewriting is rewriting is rewriting.

After years of reading craft books about how to shape hooky opening chapters and structure A+ plots and experimenting with nearly every revision process an author has ever posted on the internet—handwritten index scene cards taped to the wall, printed out chapters sorted like puzzle pieces on the floor, color-coded highlighters, color-coded sticky notes, red ink markup on hardcopy, tracked changes in Word, dozens of chunks rearranged digitally in Scrivener, leaving my laptop open when I went to bed in the hopes writing elves might revise it overnight (no luck there)—to finally come up with a process that works for me.

Having a go-to revision process was a writing game changer. Firstly, the quality of my writing leveled up as I became better at executing my story vision during revision, ultimately reducing the number of rounds of revisions I’d need to circle through from first to final draft. Secondly, my precious writing time efficiency and turnarounds skyrocketed. Rather than an entire writing session spent trying to figure out how to revise and puzzling out where to even start, I could spend the time executing my revision action plan and actually revising. Rather than taking a year to do a revision, I was able to execute a major revision in a few months, a smaller one in weeks. 

So, in the hopes it helps develop your own efficient and customized revision process, I thought I’d share details of mine.

Revision is not a small thing. It’s not a tweak here or there. It is a deep review and reshaping of story, character, and plot. In my early writing days, I thought my revision attempts were significant. I deleted an entire chapter! I added an entire 1,000-word scene! How many darlings can there be left to kill? Those were important steps towards a better manuscript, true, but often it was just addressing surface problems and window dressing. I added three scenes and deleted two chapters. And polished every sentence from beginning to end. Done! (Right?) And then I’d cycle through rounds and rounds of “revisions” that continued to poke and tweak, but never ultimately addressed the bigger, underlying problems that demanded an entire overhaul.

With time I realized that with true revision, especially early rounds, no word is left unturned. Revision looks a lot like this:

A recent revision on the WIP based on my agent’s amazing feedback. It took 3+ months and ultimately added 16,000 words! The story was SO MUCH STRONGER as a result.

Once a draft is done, I set it aside to rest for 2 weeks. Distance and a brain break is critical.

At the two week mark, I reformat the document in Word with a new font that’s appealing to read but also makes it look different from the “drafting font,” fuss with the margins and change the spacing to 1.5 so it looks a little like a typeset book page (about 250 words-per-page). I heard Markus Zusak mention this at an author event years ago as his own personal revision brain hack and I immediately went home and tried it and have been doing it ever since. I make the Word document full screen so I read in spreads, just like a book. These things might seem simple and a little silly, but it tricks my brain into reading the rough manuscript like it’s a book. Not only does it look like a book, but it feels like one too when I “turn” (scroll) the pages at the same pace. It results in a more immersive, objective, and critical reading experience.

I read the entire manuscript, as much in one sitting as possible, to keep it fresh in my mind, and only make margin comments. I do not allow myself to get sidetracked actually fixing anything at this point.

I read over all my comments and write myself an edit letterthat revision action plan I mentioned earlier. An edit letter is a big-picture strategy to-do list of what needs to be revised and how, usually 2-3 pages. It’s a great point of reference every time I sit back down to revise. It’s useful (and satisfying) to see what’s been done and what’s left to do, and keeps me on track.

I organize it, and tackle it, from biggest issues to smallest. Hallie Ephron describes this really welland in greater detailin her book Writing and Selling Your Mystery Novel (though, as a craft book, I think the entire book is useful no matter what genre you’re writing and worth a read), as “flying high” for the big-picture changes (plot holes, global character issues, missing pieces, timeline issues) and “flying low” for the more prose-level improvements and polish.

Why biggest to smallest? It’s another revision efficiency. If you’ve decided to change the POV from third person to first person, for example, it’s tempting to do that first. Fix it everywhere, it’s a global improvement, right? A worthy investment of time? Well, imagine you do that, then get to work on the big picture issues: deleting and rearrange scenes, rewriting a subplot, anything major that will have ripple effects throughout the manuscript. After spending all that time addressing the POV and polishing sentences…you ended up deleting five of the chapters anyway. Thousands of words that didn’t need all that fussing! What a waste! 

Rinse & repeat until the manuscript is as good as I can make it by myself. Revision isn’t over yet—far from it—but at this point I’ve done a ton of work and I’m book blind. The next step is to send the book to beta readers for a fresh perspective. What I send doesn’t have to be perfectit’s a judgement free, constructive criticism zonebut before I hit send it needs to be thoroughly combed through, book shaped, but has some known weaknesses. For example, I often know that the ending on an early draft isn’t right, but I’m at a loss about how to fix it. So, when I send it to beta readers, I mention as much and ask them specifically to provide feedback on that and other weak spots.

Next post, I’ll talk more about revising in response to reader feedback.

 

 

 

Where I Write and a #Shelfie

Quarantine has me spending a great deal of time in the home office/library, thanks (many many thanks) to the day job combined with additional writing time. It’s the coldest room in the house so we have a little space heater in there and it’s also, officially “the cat’s room” where he has laid claim to his own chair that’s draped with a blanket and no one else is welcome to use. We’ve spent the last year focused on shaping the room into the cozy, colorful place it is, painting it Dragonfly, building and installing shelves to finally get the full book collection out of the boxes we kept moving from one room to another the first year we lived in the house. (The DIY before/after is documented here.) 

Gizmo cat

Being in the room so much has given cause to touch up the paint in spots, but also several other quarantine-induced hobbies:

Shelved all the books that had been sitting in piles on the floor, first by category, then alphabetical. It goes: adult fiction, then YA, then middle grade, and finally non-fiction. (Quarantine activity time: 2 hours.)

Weed the shelves, pulling books that, if we’re being honest with ourselves, we’re never going to read, and books we’ve read that we’re never going to read again or recommend to friends. Into two giant donation boxes they went, waiting very patiently in the trunk of my car (no, I have not been inspired to clean it, we’re not that desperate for Things to Do) for the libraries (and world) to reopen. (Quarantine activity level: 1 hour.)

Considered the “collectibility” of first editions and signed copies that mingle indiscriminately on the shelves. Went down a rabbit hole on this site and discovered to our great surprise that a few aren’t even worth the paper they’re printed on, while a handful of others are perhaps worth double, or triple, or sometimes ten times their original listed price thanks to the addition of an author’s scribble or the unknown and unintended fact that our copy happens to have a print history line on the copyright page reading “1.” Who knew? What does one do with a book that is, in all likelihood, worth more than my 12-year-old, 150,000-miles, check-engine-light blinking car? For preservation purposes, are we supposed to put them in, like, Ziplock bags? In a dark closet? Do we only handle with archivist gloves in the future? For now, at least, we’ve pulled them with some reverence and have put them on a separate, dignified shelf, awaiting further research. (Quarantine activity level: 3 hours.)

It was fun to go down memory lane and recall how all the signed editions were acquired. Some were gifts. Others, such as Mary Pope Osborn, were authors I vividly recall visiting my elementary school. Some were bookstore author events, such as Meg Cabot and Markus Zusak, or festivals such as Neil Gaiman. There was the time I got to see JK Rowling speak and thanked her for writing Harry Potter. In a similar wander down memory lane, this is how my writing space used to look. Same desk (at least one of them), but very different set up.

The desk has secret drawers (which I discovered currently contain $.06 and a safety pin, for unknown reasons). Perhaps I should stuff my quarantine diary in there, for future generations. The desk itself was a gift from my dad on my eighteenth birthday and I’ve lugged it everywhere I’ve lived since. The framed letter was another gift. It was my very first acceptance letter for my writing, a poem that won a county contest when I was in high school, that he kept and framed as a surprise. I love being surrounded by these reminders of early support and encouragement for my writing.