I’m writing this post about revision from inside a lion, because that’s what revision feels like–being eaten by a lion–and it’s rather dark in here.
Hear me out: for months my 6-year-old has refused any and all bedtime reading that isn’t Shel Silverstein poems. My favorite is “The Bagpipe Who Didn’t Say No,” a tale of unrequited love for the ages, but reading each poem 500 times got me thinking.
What is writing a novel, if not getting too close to the lion’s cage [you think you can write a novel? Have you seen how long those things are?] then being devoured, chomped up, swallowed, and simply… continuing to work? Now if anyone can feed this lion a book light, I’m trying to get through Matt Bell’s Refuse To Be Done. I hear good things.
Seriously though, please join Craft on Draft on May 31, for a lion-free conversation with novelists Rachel Barenbaum (ATOMIC ANNA), Dariel Suarez (THE PLAYWRIGHT’S HOUSE), and Katherine Sherbrooke (LEAVING COY’S HILL) to hear how they survived enough revisions to publish their own incredible novels, and to ask your own questions.
Register for both IRL and virtual options through this link from Porter Square Books, where you can also find their books.
Until then, we at Dead Darlings are pleased to share part 2 of our preview with Rachel, Dariel, and Kathy, (you can find part one here) and we hope to see you in person or in the chat at Craft on Draft.
SARA SHUKLA: These are all published novels, so you had some form of editorial support and direction in revision–at least by the final stage. What’s one piece of advice you’d give for staying motivated to revise and revise and revise before you even know if your manuscript will be published one day?
RACHEL: If you love your book and your characters then just keep going. People read for passion and emotion and if you feel it, it will be on your pages. Just keep pushing.
DARIEL: I’m not sure my advice is useful, since I do enjoy revision. I see drafts as a roadmap, the skeleton of something. Revision is where I get to really see everything unfold, notice missed opportunities and connections I hadn’t considered before, and yes, loads of bad writing that needs removing or editing. Each time I sit with the same story or book, it’s a chance to improve it and honor these characters and places I care about. It’s a chance to make the language stronger. So even though it can be hard and frustrating and confusing, I take solace in the notion that something not being published yet means I get to fix it. It’s still totally mine and not the reader’s yet.
KATHY: There are lots of reasons why worthy books don’t make it into the world, and I always want to be sure that a failure on my part to do the hard work, to revise until I honestly believe I can make the book no better is not one of them. I had an early GrubStreet teacher give the class very wise counsel. He said that if you’re worried about a potential flaw in your own work, don’t for a minute think everyone else won’t see it too.
Were there questions you asked of others–editor or peers–along the way or requests you made that you found particularly helpful or impactful?
KATHY: I rely heavily on trusted readers before I show my work to an agent or editor. I like to ask open-ended questions like “who was your favorite character?” or “what were your favorite scenes?” or “what didn’t work for you about the story?” This allows me to hear what stands out (in good and bad ways) and compare across readers to look for patterns. If I have very specific questions (like “did the surprise in Chapter 4 seem realistic?”) I don’t give the reader those questions until they have read the MS and formed their own opinions.
DARIEL: I would sometimes ask for clarification on things I didn’t agree with. Or maybe ask to have a dialogue if it were something bigger, like a subplot. I’ve found that talking the big things through can be illuminating on both sides. I’ve been fortunate to work with editors who understand what I’m going for and appreciate the book for what it is, the audience it’s attempting to engage, etc. So their feedback has always been valuable, and they’ve been fine when I’ve pushed back, because they get it.
What sustained you during the endless hours spent at your laptop? I don’t mean this metaphorically or emotionally; I’m talking snacks, or candy, or caffeine. What helps keep your butt in the chair?
RACHEL: Harney & Sons tea. I’m really picky. It has to be that brand. Tower of London is my favorite but pretty much any of their teas work. Yes, I know it’s eccentric but that’s how it goes.
DARIEL: Coffee for sure, since I’m a morning writer. I also write in shorter spurts, about one or two hours at a time. I’m not someone who can do a long retreat or spend most of the day writing. I run out of steam, so I’d rather spend time with ideas simmering in my mind, reading or watching content that will inspire or influence me, or being distracted by work or a hobby, then give it my best for a couple of hours.
KATHY: I’m a big believer in personal bribes/rewards. Maybe three hours of writing buys me a long walk outside, or hitting a big word count goal gets me a nice bottle of wine. While writing Leaving Coy’s Hill, I had my eye on a necklace—nothing fancy or expensive—but told myself I could not buy it until I had completed my last revision. I love that necklace!
Rachel Barenbaum is the author of ATOMIC ANNA. Her debut, A BEND IN THE STARS, was a New York Times Summer Reading Selection and a Barnes & Noble Discover Great New Writers selection, and a Boston Globe bestseller. She has written for The LA Review of Books, LitHub and Dead Darlings. She is a graduate of Grub Street’s Novel Incubator and the founder of Debut Spotlight at A Mighty Blaze. For more info go to rachelbarenbaum.com, or follow her on Instagram or Twitter.
Dariel Suarez was born in Havana, Cuba, and immigrated to the United States with his family in 1997. He is the author of the novel THE PLAYWRIGHT’S HOUSE (Red Hen Press), finalist for the Rudolfo Anaya Fiction Award, and the story collection A KIND OF SOLITUDE (Willow Springs Books), winner of the Spokane Prize for Short Fiction and the International Latino Book Award for Best Collection of Short Stories. He has also published a poetry chapbook, In The Land of Tropical Martyrs (Backbone Press). Dariel is an inaugural City of Boston Artist Fellow, Education Director at GrubStreet, and he currently resides in the Boston area with his wife and daughter.
Katherine Sherbrooke is the author of LEAVING COY’S HILL (2021); FINDING HOME, a family memoir; and FILL THE SKY, the winner of a 2017 Independent Press Award, finalist for the Mary Sarton Award for Contemporary Fiction, and the Foreward Indies Book of the Year. She currently serves as Chair of the Board of GrubStreet, one of the nation’s leading writing centers. She lives south of Boston with her family.