Today’s Once More With Feeling revision interview is with debut author Miriam McNamara, whose historical YA about queer pirates (woot!) just dropped last week. I got a sneak peek at this beauty and it is a swashbuckling, heart-string pulling good time, so be sure to pick up a copy of THE UNBINDING OF MARY READE and dive in.
Like me, Miriam digs revision, so this interview is chock-full of revision feels. I love how she talks about how essential revision is to telling the story you want to tell. Lots of pearls of wisdom are in here (buried treasure, perhaps?) – so, enjoy! And if you missed last week’s interview with Jessica Rinker, you’re in for a treat.
P.S. The early-bird special for the upcoming revision retreat ends on July 1st, so get thee to this page to sign up and to snag your spot (we only have 16 spaces total and we’re filling up fast!). My co-captain, Ingrid Sundberg, and I are assembling a mighty crew of badass ladies and it’s going to be SO MUCH FUN. If you have any questions, feel free to contact me and I’ll put yer mind at ease, matey.
Man, I really could go on forever with these maritime references…
2 Part Question: How do you feel about revision? How have your feelings about revision changed over time, especially as you’ve grown professionally?
This might annoy everyone, but I love revision! It’s so much less scary for me than the blank page. I love figuring out what isn’t working and seeing my writing improve, even if the process sometimes feels soooooo slow.
Over time, I’ve gotten better at using strategy to revise. With my first book I spent a lot of time revising while I was also drafting, and that led to a lot of wasted time and beautifully-crafted sentences that inevitably got cut. It’s also easy to get lost in the story doing that. Over the years I’ve gotten better at holding off on revising or tweaking until I have a full draft in my hands, so that I get a sense of the big picture and can make a plan to revise based on that. It’s so much more efficient.
Do you have any kind of revision process and, if so, what is it?
Once my first draft is done, I read through and inevitably discover that the plot and structure need major work! I’ll usually re-outline and write a second draft based on that, cutting and pasting what works from the first draft and writing the rest from scratch. Then I need to do another deep revision to strengthen my main character’s development and emotional journey. After that the focus of subsequent passes gradually becomes smaller—secondary character development, bringing out themes, sensory description that might be missing, dialogue work. I try to go from the biggest stuff to the littlest stuff, focusing on just one element at a time until they get small enough that I can manage a couple of them without getting overwhelmed.
Do you revise as you draft or do you wait until a draft is completed to go back in?
At this point I wait until I have a draft completed. Even if I realize that something major needs to shift while I’m writing that first draft, I’ll make note of it and keep going.
How do you know your book is as good as you can get it?
I think it’s impossible to know that! But I find that feedback from others helps, so after I’ve completed the first two or three revision passes, even if it’s not totally polished, I’ll get input from beta readers. I make sure I don’t do this too early; I need to have a solid sense of the story and be pretty sure that the bones are in the right place first. After beta readers, the manuscript goes to my agent. Usually after I incorporate beta and agent feedback and do some polishing I’m ready to let it go. I know there is no such thing as perfect.
Many writers are totally freaked out about revision. What advice would you give to your fellow writers about re-visioning their work?
The only way to write the story you’re trying to tell is to revise it. The first draft won’t say it well enough, and neither will the second. You have to keep what you know the story is about on a deeper level at the forefront of your mind as you strategize. Figure out what you’re trying to say, and then decide if what you’ve written says that, or if there might be a way the story could say it better.
You have to be patient, and you have to go easy on yourself. Set manageable goals. Celebrate each accomplishment along the way. Every time you show up for your work, you are getting closer.
I also really emphasize getting feedback from others on your work, although this doesn’t work for everyone. If I’m feeling stuck, I’ll sign up for a workshop or a retreat. That forces me to prepare pages for others to see, and getting outside input always gives me a jolt of inspiration, although I don’t always end up incorporating the suggestions. If someone has ideas about how you should revise, compare it to what you know the story is about and decide if that feedback takes you closer to it or farther away.
Miriam McNamara earned a Master of Fine Arts in Writing for Children and Young Adults from the Vermont College of Fine Arts, where she won the Norma Fox Mazer award for a historical young adult manuscript work-in-progress. The Unbinding of Mary Reade is her first novel. She lives in Minneapolis, Minnesota, but she also calls Asheville, North Carolina home.
So delicious, right? If this interview got you pumped to join us at Highlights this October, be sure to head on over to the retreat page for more info and to put down your deposit. For all the details (and photos!), you can download the retreat PDF below.
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