The Story Behind the Story

Screen Shot 2015-01-05 at 7.39.56 PMKate Flora
here. It’s January, which is not among my favorite months except in one respect: January as many writers will tell you, is a fabulous writing month. When I have to put on my heaviest coat–the one that makes me feel like a kid in a stiff snowsuit–just to walk to the mailbox, you will not find me complaining when my work requires me to sit for hours at my desk. I am not tempted out into the garden. I certainly won’t swim in the sea. It isn’t a lovely day to take a walk. Lying on the ice in my driveway watching the clouds float by and imagining shapes in them really isn’t on. But sitting for many hours, slaving over a revision? I’m ready to embrace it in January.

So let’s talk a little bit about revision. Years ago, when I was a young and inexperienced writer, I hated revision. I did not embrace it. During the ten years I spent in the unpublished writer’s corner, having those awkward conversations at cocktail parties that usually ended with, “Are you published?” and when the answer was no, someone walking away to find a more interesting conversational companion, when I finished a book, I would poke at it a few times, put it away, and start a new one. If someone criticized a story I was writing, I would put it away and start another one. When an editor sent a rejection letter, I would paste it to the bathroom wall and start another book.

But I got over that. I evolved. I stopped being so childish and emotionally tender. I accepted that writers need to learn to deal with criticism. I learned to listen to the comments I was getting, looking for common themes or threads, and then rewrite the books. I stopped sulking when an astute reader said, “Your character is being stupid and Thea wouldn’t do that, she isn’t stupid.” And I started getting published, which meant I had an actual editor who might send me a nine page, single-spaced letter detailing the changes that she wanted, ending with “And pump up the Andre quotient.” Then we would have the discussion, or the argument, over those changes, reach an agreement, and I would make some, not make others, and end up with a better book. Thank you, Claire Eddy at Tor and Leona Nevler at Ballantine, for believing in my books and making me rewrite ’til my eyeballs bled.

Then I started my Joe Burgess series. One January day–yes, January, I decided to pick up on something people kept saying when I did library and bookstore talks. It went something like this: Reader–I’ve always wanted to write a book, and someday, when I have a free weekend, I’m going to write one. I confess to being amazed. It takes me anywhere from six months to several years to write a book, and I was meeting people who could do it in a weekend. Awed, disbelieving, and challenged, I decided to see how fast I could write a book. So I sat down that January and wrote Playing Godmy first Joe Burgess police procedural. Four and half crazy months later, during which I wrote about ten hours a day and at the end of which I was so devoid of words I couldn’t write a grocery list, I typed “The End” at the bottom of a 485 page manuscript.

The agent I found to represent it–Joshua Bilmes–was never able to sell it, but he turned out to be the best editor I’ve ever had. He made me get rid of characters and telescope (combine) others. He made me take 100 pages out of the book. He helped me showcase the story and characters and give the book the dark voice and tone it ended up with. He taught me a lot, but the most important things he taught me were what are now my own rules for rewrite. Once the book is done, I make an “after the fact” outline. For each chapter, I describe, in just a few sentences, what happens. Then I ask the all-important questions:

How does this chapter or scene advance the plot?

How does this chapter or scene deepen or develop central character(s)?

Would the book be any different if this chapter or scene wasn’t there?

Eventually these rules expanded to also include a read in which I consider almost every word and ask whether it needs to be there, because I discovered I had a tendency not to trust my reader and so I said things too many times. There are still two words in Playing God that I’m not happy with.

Thank you, Deni Dietz and Gordon Aalborg at Five Star. Again for making me rewrite.

Learning to love rewrite is something I will undoubtedly have to learn, unlearn, relearn, and then learn all over again. Writers tend to love their words, their characters, their scenes. But the part of the beauty of writing is that the learning is never done. So I’ll embrace rewrite, reject it, relearn it, etc. Much like that lover you can’t stay away from because the attraction is so powerful.

And this January? I’m rewriting a book I have rewritten at least eight times over the last eight years. I Screen Shot 2015-01-05 at 7.39.11 PMdon’t know if it will work this time. A year ago, in frustration, I hired a private editor to help me figure out why the editors who were reading it weren’t drawn to my central character, when I liked her a lot. The message: I’d taken the advice from Donald Maass’s Writing the Breakout Novel–to put a character in a bad situation, make it worse, then make it worse, and then figure out how to make it worse–too literally, and failed to first make my reader care enough about my character to want to follow her through all that.

I’m halfway through this rewrite. I don’t know if it will work this time, either. But I’m embracing the new clarity, trying to bring out the character’s voice and strengths, and hoping I’ll get it right.

So, you’ve always wanted to write a book? And sometime when you have a free weekend you’re going to write one? Well…welcome to eight years of free weekends, January weeks, and everything in between. And good luck.

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8 Responses to The Story Behind the Story

  1. Heidi Wilson says:

    Thank you for the “all important questions”! I’m doing my first rewrite of my first novel, and these are just the questions I’m wrestling with. It was great to feel confirmed by a pro.

  2. MCWriTers says:

    Good luck with it, Heidi! Hope you put it away for a while before attacking it. Getting some distance helps. Not sure anyone should need eight years, though.

  3. Jewel Hanley says:

    Kate, this is great and makes me feel better about how much revision and how long I have spent rewritting 50 pages to be sent back to a fabulous editor I am working with.
    Thank you

  4. Great post, Kate. Rewriting and revising are essential, especially for people like me who write really crappy first drafts.


  5. I’m also doing revision right now. It is not my favorite thing, but I am learning to like it. As you say, having an editor with a keen eye makes all the difference. Otherwise I can’t see past my own biases.

    Thank you, Kate!

  6. Lea Wait says:

    Good luck, Kate — and write on! As I plough through a first draft … I look forward to getting to the stage you’re in. (Although I hope it’s eight weeks from now — not eight years!)

  7. Triss Stein says:

    Thank you for sharing these thoughts. It’s very useful advice and perfect timing, as I am wrestling a first draft into presentable shape. I will print this out and put next to the keyboard.

  8. Barb Goffman says:

    Good for you for having the right attitude. Keep working. Keep improving. Always. And this is excellent advice:

    Once the book is done, I make an “after the fact” outline. For each chapter, I describe, in just a few sentences, what happens. Then I ask the all-important questions:

    How does this chapter or scene advance the plot?

    How does this chapter or scene deepen or develop central character(s)?

    Would the book be any different if this chapter or scene wasn’t there?

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