Saturday, April 24, 2010

Why Learning to Revise Turned Me into a Published Author

There are some authors who can get an idea, sit down, write it out, run a spellcheck, and publish. I'm not one of them. I've published eight books by now and every one of them has had to go through anywhere from three to five drafts before it was published.

It doesn't matter what I'm writing about. Whether it be the subject of my first sale--Louisa May Alcott's childhood--or of my latest nonfiction bestseller--blood sugar--my first drafts are ugly. So are my second.

Because what I'm doing when I write an early draft is finding out what it is I'm going to be writing about. And much of what I discover in the process which will make the final book work doesn't make it onto the page in those early drafts.

What turned me from an aspiring writer to a paid writer was a graduate seminar, Writing Biography, taught by Stephen B. Oates. Oates's biography of Abraham Lincoln, With Malice Toward None, spent months on the New York Times bestseller list in the 1970s and is still in print today, and for good reason. It reads like a novel, pulling you through the story while explaining complex political issues in ways that made them accessible and understandable.

What Oates did in that seminar that was so transformational was to make us write a 50 page seminar paper and take it through three drafts. He looked at each draft and made suggestions. I thought I knew how to revise before that, but I learned how wrong I was.

Because the changes Oates showed us how to make were NOT line edits. He didn't suggest we use more felicitous phrases or more vibrant language. What he did instead was show us how we could alter the structure of the piece or the theme around which we organized our facts.

The discovery that you might have to throw out fifty pages you thought were pretty good and start all over again with the same material was an eye-opener for me. Until then, if I managed to get fifty pages of anything written the only changes I'd make when I turned to revising was to pretty up the sentences.

But it is only when you start reworking theme and structure that revising turns into the powerful process that can turn good but not great prose into something worth reading.

When I finished the last draft of my seminar paper--the fifth, I think--Oates suggested I submit it to American Heritage, which at the time was the most prestigious market for historical pieces. I did, and they bought it for an sum that could have paid my rent for four months.

That sale changed my life, even though it never saw print. Though I got paid in full for it, my acquiring editor died shortly afterwards and the magazine's new editor changed its format so that they no longer published long pieces like mine.

But every time I looked at the living room sofa I bought with the proceeds from that sale I knew I was an author--and I also knew that it could take many drafts to get my work from what I started out with to something that would sell.

That hasn't changed no matter how many books I write, because books come to me in bits and pieces and often without the organizing principle or theme that will make them work. Only after I've written a couple hundred pages do I start to get a sense of what I'm really writing.

My novels have worked that way too. Lord Lighting sold only after I found a different climax and resolution than the one it had through its first three drafts.

And now I'm finishing up the next book in its series due in a few weeks and have just completed draft four. The story is the same story I told in draft two--with a different sequence of scenes, quite a few new scenes, and a slightly different emotional story underlying the external plot.

Everything that ended up in this draft was present in some form in the earlier drafts, but what changed is the book's structure and theme. Because in the early exploratory drafts I learned so much about my characters that it took a while to find the strands of their stories that would make the most satisfying novel.

This time my mentor through the process--and the saver of my sanity--was author Lisa Brackmann, whose brilliant debut novel Rock Paper Tiger received a starred review in last week's Publisher's Weekly. She was also featured there in a wonderful PW Talks with Lisa Brackmann which I urge you to read.

Lisa and I have been exchanging manuscripts for years and we sold our debut novels within a few months of each other. Without Lisa's encouragement I don't think I'd be a published author now. She writes with a process similar to my own as her books also gradually surface as she writes and revises many drafts.

Because she writes that way, she could read my draft and see that there was a good story buried in it, and her confidence and suggestions made it possible to go through the two more drafts which brought that story out.

When I read books by authors who are frustratingly close to publication but not quite there yet, I often see a story that would benefit from the kind of structural revisions I've learned is what it takes to make my books salable.

If you are stuck in, "You write well, but" territory, instead of revising your sentences, consider revising your plot, the sequence in which events occur, your conflicts, or even the dynamics of a character. This is a lot more work than polishing your prose, but it might just be what will turn you into a published author.