At some point in the past few weeks I started hearing the word “revision” in my head to the tune of “Tradition!” – the song that opens “Fiddler on the Roof.”
“Revisiiiooooon! REVISION!” (Sorry.)
Honestly it had more to do with a Randy Rainbow parody than a creatively inspired return to The Theater, but regardless! It was in my head as I stepped back and reconsidered a novel I’d steadfastly and painstakingly revised over the past year… and it grew louder when realized I had to do it All. Over. Again.
If you, like me, need a support group to keep on keeping on revising, I have good news! On May 31, you can join Craft on Draft for a conversation with novelists Rachel Barenbaum (ATOMIC ANNA), Dariel Suarez (THE PLAYWRIGHT’S HOUSE), and Katherine Sherbrooke (LEAVING COY’S HILL) on the ups and downs and zig zags of their own revision process. Register for both IRL and virtual options through this link from Porter Square Books, where you can also find each of their novels.
Rachel, Dariel, and Kathy were also kind enough to answer some of my burning questions as a preview to the event, and we at Dead Darlings are excited to share their insights below, as well as in a second post next week.
SARA SHUKLA: What books or writers or essays (or even TV or movies) did you turn to when you felt stuck? Or simply when you needed a creative or narrative boost to keep going?
RACHEL BARENBAUM: If I’m stuck, I always just keep reading and reading. I try to pick up books that writers I trust have raved about so I can find really good writing. And I’m ruthless about setting books aside by page 50 if I don’t like them.
DARIEL SUAREZ: While writing my first novel, TV shows like “The Wire” and “Breaking Bad” were actually very helpful. The efficiency of dialogue, the balance between humor and drama, the way tension is built through a scene or episode or even an entire season—they all provide ideas and inspiration for different parts of my book, which had state police, surveillance, politics, and interpersonal conflict as important elements. I also read Elena Ferrante’s first two novels and Aleksandar Hemon’s story collections for language. There’s a way these writers use personal details to create tension that resonated with me. I’m pretty sure I ended up asking myself quite often “how would Hemon show this?” or “how would Ferrante handle this moment?”
KATHERINE (KATHY) SHERBROOKE: While writing my first novel I re-watched every episode of “The West Wing” during mid-day breaks on my elliptical. It was my daily dose of the fantastic and electric dialogue of Aaron Sorkin. These days I turn a lot to music. I’m always amazed how much can fit into one line, one lyric, one stanza. A reminder that every word matters.
What kind of non-word-processing strategies did you find helpful? Note cards? Spreadsheets? A wall of images crisscrossed with red lines like that “It’s Always Sunny In Philadelphia” meme?
DARIEL: I use outlines and chapter breakdowns, all written by hand. My notebooks look like a serial killer’s scrapbook, I think. I like having something physical next to me, including printed and highlighted articles, as I write. I can dig in and out of them as I write and revise without having to remember or make everything up. It’s kind of an immersive experience, really, being surrounded by all the things that are trying to find a way into your novel. It also allows me to change my mind as I go, scratch things off, jot down a new idea, etc., without messing with the manuscript right away.
KATHY: I relied heavily on a wall of (large and small) stickies while writing Leaving Coy’s Hill. It started as an historical timeline and quickly became a repository of possible scenes, character milestones, themes and ultimately served as a roadmap for the book.
RACHEL: Spreadsheets. ALWAYS.
How did you make your manuscript new to you, even after you’d read it one billion times? For example, did you read on an iPad, print pages, read in different locations?
KATHY: I rely a lot on my Kindle once I am deep into revision. Approaching each draft as a reader (i.e., without “pen” in hand) helps me move through the work faster and allows me to see high-level issues of pacing, plot, character development and the like. I also inevitably have trouble with structure and have to print it out. Stacks of pages on my floor, often laid out by chapter, help me see the relative size of sections, the distance between key scenes, etc. I’ve completely retooled my structure more than once after looking at the book in this way.
DARIEL: A friend of mine once showed me how he printed manuscripts to read, which is in landscape and with two columns, so it kind of looks like a book. I love revising like this and won’t do it any other way. There’s something about the length and rhythm of the sentences in that format that allows me to catch things, but also to think of the draft as an actual book. I’m also a freak who LOVES revision, so I don’t get bored by my own manuscripts. Maybe that’s obnoxious to say? If I’ve committed it’s because I like the story and the characters, so spending time with them, even if it’s on an infinite loop, is fun. Getting my words to always do what they need to? That’s another story.
Did you take breaks during revision? What would you do between drafts? When did you know you were ready to return?
RACHEL: After turning in a draft there is a looong wait for feedback. Sometimes it’s 2-3 weeks. Sometimes it’s 2 months. I always start something new during these breaks, or go back to an ongoing project. I find that if I stop writing I lose the muscle and it takes too long to get it back. Maybe I’m just getting old!
DARIEL: I don’t recall taking long breaks, but I did stop working on the novel for a couple of weeks to complete a short story that’d been itching to get out. It was nice stepping away and focusing on something else for a bit. But the novel-writing experience was intense and involved for about three years. I do have other hobbies: I play guitar, chess, and love watching sports, so I had things outside of writing to distract me and let my mind relax.
KATHY: I do think stepping away from the work is important. After I complete a major revision, I try to put it away for at least 30 days. It’s amazing how many of the new changes I am actually able to forget, which allows me to re-read it with fresh eyes.
Stay tuned for more, and please bring your burning questions to Craft on Draft!
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.