Today’s installment of the Once More With Feeling Revision Series comes from editor / writer extraordinaire, Maggie Lehrman, who first got on my radar when our mutual editor, Donna Bray, sent me an advanced copy of Maggie’s first novel, The Cost Of All Things. This is a beautiful book that let me know right away that this gal knew her way around a story. I’m super excited about her upcoming book, which just might have the best cover of 2018, The Last Best Story. You may have seen her fab posts on social media about it. Maggie’s an editor at Abrams by day, so this interview is an extra special treat because not only does she give us insight into her process as a writer, we get a sense of how an editor might think about revision, as well. What I especially dig is how she gets into how we need to stop being so dang slick. (Note to self. Ahem).
Side note: I especially love that Maggie’s part of this series because she and I used to live in the same hood in Brooklyn and she has run into me in coffeehouses several times when I’ve been banging my head against the table (not literally because I’m generally well-behaved in public), and listened to my existential ravings about the book I am FINALLY NEARLY FINISHED WITH AND REALLY LOVE MORE ON THAT LATER. Those conversations always left me feeling better because it was clear I’m not the only one who’s sometimes wandering in the hellscape that is revision—and it’s cool to see others come out the other side. 🙂
If you’re just getting started with the Once More series, make sure to head on over to the Complete Guide to get a list of all the great posts with my favorite authors answering these same questions. I’ve learned so much, and I hope you are, too! Only two more to go until the series is through (hopefully coinciding with the end of my own EXTREMELY INTENSE REVISION (see above). A girl can dream, can’t she?
And now…without further ado…here she is…the one…the only…Maggie Lehrman!
2 Part Question: How do you feel about revision? How have your feelings about revision changed over time, especially as you’ve grown professionally?
I’ve been writing since I was a kid, but I didn’t learn how to revise until my late 20s. When you’ve got some natural affinity for words and you’re pretty good at school, there’s never really a point when anyone forces you to improve your first-draft work. It’s good enough, you know? Even if it’s not great. Getting to great isn’t the goal. And then after college I became an editor, where I was trained to suggest revisions for other people–but that didn’t mean I knew how to do it for my own writing. For a long time I would draft something, take a look at it, understand that it wasn’t quite right, and have no idea how to make it better. This feeling was a huge motivation for me to go to grad school. I knew how to write, but I was lost when it came to re-writing.
I started at Vermont College of Fine Arts in January of 2010. I remember in my very first workshop, someone said my sample pages were too slick. And they were. They were easy, snappy, surface-level–fine on a first read but with nothing to hold onto. It was a very motivating moment. I don’t want to be slick! But the only way to change this person’s mind was to go back in and revise what I wrote. Writing packets every month was great practice. It forces you to send things in the way they are, for one thing–to not get too precious and obsessive. Not that there’s anything wrong with agonizing over every word–I do that, too. But sometimes you have to send something in so that you can make it better next time. And you have to constantly improve. Try new things. Try scary/weird/wild things. Unslick the surfaces of your story.
Do you have any kind of revision process and, if so, what is it?
I try not to do too much revising-as-I-go; I like to have a full draft and see the big picture before I start ripping things up. Then once I have a draft I am brutal. Everything is up for grabs; entire scenes and chapters go out the window. I’ll read the draft all the way through, making notes as I go about subplots, weak scenes, things that don’t fit, and then I’ll go back and try to fix everything I can, tearing it to pieces. When it’s mostly put back together again it goes out to a couple of trusted readers. They’ll send back their impressions, and that means more lists, and a brand-new document. Sometimes I’ll start with a completely empty doc and only copy in the good parts of the old draft, if I know it needs a big overhaul. I’ll outline at this point to spot holes and check pacing and tension. (If only I could outline before this point, but… alas.) And then I’ll go through the whole process all over again until someone tells me to stop.
Do you revise as you draft or do you wait until a draft is completed to go back in?
I tweak as I write, but I don’t do big revisions as I go. I’m a pantser (see above and the lack of outlining), and so usually in my first drafts I’m chasing a very vague dream of what the book sort of looks like. I find I have to get that hazy version completely on the page before I can start chiseling away at it in order to find its real shape. If I chisel too soon I’m liable to lop off an arm or a leg without realizing it, and the original vision of the book is lost.
First drafts for me are very instinctual. I’ll know there needs to be a scene between two characters, and I know it’s important to those characters, but often the first couple of rounds they don’t actually talk about the real thing they should be discussing. It’s only later that I can say “oh, obviously they are angry with each other because of X, and one of them should probably say so,” instead of feeling amorphously mad and vague. I have to write the scene again and again to figure out what happens in it. I really don’t know until I try to write it what’s going to work.
How do you know your book is as good as you can get it?
Oof, that’s tough. I think it’s a feeling more than anything else. Completeness. Also I rely on my agent and editor to let me know if they think it’s done. But with my two published books, there was definitely a moment where I had a feeling it was as close as I was going to get to the picture in my head.
Many writers are totally freaked out about revision. What advice would you give to your fellow writers about re-visioning their work?
My biggest challenge with revision is that I get overwhelmed very easily. And that’s when the mindweasels start telling me that if I were smarter/better/more talented I wouldn’t have written such a crap draft to begin with. And that’s the most demoralizing (and WRONG) feeling–one I think a ton of people have. So to avoid it I don’t think of it as “I HAVE TO RE-WRITE THIS WHOLE THING RIGHT NOW BECAUSE THE BOOK AND I ARE BOTH GARBAGE.” Instead I try to break it down into manageable pieces, like, “I’m going to see if I can start this chapter on a different note,” and then do that, and forget about THE ENTIRE THING. Focus on the moment in front of you and trust that you will have the time to get to everything else eventually.
Maggie Lehrman’s newest book, The Last Best Story, will be available August 7, 2018 from Balzer + Bray/HarperCollins. She’s also the author of The Cost of All Things, which has been translated into eight languages. By day she is an executive editor at Abrams Books, where she works primarily on young adult, middle grade, and graphic novels. She has an MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults from Vermont College of Fine Arts, and she graduated from Harvard College with a BA in English. She lives in Brooklyn with her husband Kyle and their two year old son.
How great was this interview? Also, the word “mindweasels” is totally going into my rotation for everyday conversation from now on. I hope this baby helps you on your WIP and that you keep fighting the good fight.
Breathe. Write. Repeat.
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