How Writers Revise: Lyn Liao Butler

This month I spoke with author Lyn Liao Butler, whose debut, The Tiger Mom’s Tale, releases from Berkley Publishing this Tuesday, July 6, with her follow up, The Red Thread of Fate, hard on its heels next year.

Lyn’s living many authors’ dream at the moment, with two books coming out through a major publisher—but when she first started writing in 2015 she faced not just rejection from the industry, but total indifference.

A dancer and yoga instructor living in New York City, Lyn and her family moved out of the city in 2013 and in response to friends’ queries about what she was doing with herself “in the country,” she started a blog to let them know. Two years later she decided to turn her posts into a book that she wrote in six months–her first attempt ever at writing full-length fiction, having never taken so much as a writing course.

She immediately sent out about 25 agent queries, without anyone else ever having read the manuscript or her submission materials. And…she heard absolutely nothing.

“It was radio silence,” she says. “I didn’t even get rejections. No response.”

Lyn started googling to find out what she was doing wrong and realized she needed to connect with other writers and to join a crit group, which she did, revising her story and resubmitting. This time she got interest from five agents, but all of them passed.

Undaunted, she started a second manuscript, thinking she knew better this time, but she was too self-conscious to tell anyone else she was attempting another story. This time 15 agents asked for a partial or full—a fantastic response by any measure in this business…but again, no offers. So at the end of 2017 Lyn decided to give up writing.

But that first manuscript kept playing through her head. She took a month off work and rewrote the story completely, but retaining the same characters, setting (NYC and Taiwan), and basic plot line, and began querying at the end of 2018.

Agent Rachel Brooks of BookEnds Literary Agency had requested Lyn’s second manuscript, and while she’d passed on it then, she remembered Lyn, and with this submission she asked for an R&R–revise and resubmit. Lyn went back to the editing process yet again, and sent back her revision a month later. Rachel called within ten days and offered representation.

“It took me three and a half years and three manuscripts to find an agent,” Lyn says.

Five months later the book sold to editor Cindy Hwang at Berkley/Penguin (“It felt like five years at the time,” Lyn jokes), who also bought her second book, which Lyn had been diligently revising with her agent while the first one was out on submission.

“It’s really about luck, timing, and just stubbornness, and not giving up, I really think,” Lyn says. “Sometimes it doesn’t even matter how good a writer you are–it’s just [whether you’ve written] a great story. Some great writers don’t get picked up. A lot of it just luck and timing so you just have to keep at it till something sticks.”

“Sometimes it doesn’t even matter how good a writer you are–it’s just [whether you’ve written] a great story.”

Lyn Liao Butler

I asked Lyn how she processes editorial feedback, and how she decides what feels right for her story and what to disregard, and her answer reflects that key reality so many writers forget about writing: that drafting is just part of the process, and editing and revising are often where the story really comes to life.


I love editing. For me, writing the first draft is the torturous part. Once I have a very messy first draft down, I love diving into edits. I usually go through the book a few times myself before sending it to critique partners, or to my agent. I know some people have trouble processing constructive criticism but for me, it really opens my eyes. Sometimes, something I wrote is taken in a way that I didn’t intend, so it really helps to have people read it with fresh eyes.

I trust my instincts a lot, and rely on my gut to decide if a feedback is relevant, or if it’s something I can disregard. But in most cases, the editorial feedback I get from my critique partners, agent and editor makes a lot of sense and I am able to use it in some ways.

Ultimately, it is my story, and only I truly know what I want out of it. But it is with the help of feedback that makes the story stronger, points out any inconsistencies, lagging pace, too much backstory or not enough character development.

Be open to feedback, but stay true to your story.”

Lyn Liao Butler

I don’t see editorial feedback as criticism. I am always eager to see what others thought and will often take their critiques and mull on them for a while, letting my instincts guide me. I have pushed back a few times when I felt something was important and should stay, but I have also put my ego aside and accepted that some feedback was spot on.

My best piece of advice is to be open to feedback, but stay true to your story. Does the feedback make what you are trying to portray stronger? If it does, then it’s probably a good idea to incorporate it.

Authors, how do you revise? What challenges have you faced in the process–or in your journey toward publication? I’d love to hear your perspectives in the comments.

6 Comments. Leave new

  • For me it starts with an idea: e.g. I want to write a mystery. I’d like to take off from Hamlet, but tell a different story, not a modern version of the play.

    When I’ve gotten to the end of the first draft, I finally have an idea of the story I want to tell, and where the draft falls short. I step away from it for as long as it takes. Then, I make notes about what happened that shouldn’t have or didn’t need to, and what needs to happen that didn’t, and where something needs to be intensified, deemphasized, or changed. I know there will be changes and discoveries along the way, but at this point, I’m ready to start rewriting.

    First I try to bring the story up to where it needs to be, that usually involves plot and stakes, maybe clarification of the theme. Then as necessary, I tweak or perform surgery on the characters, the setting, the voice, and finally on the grammar, style and punctuation.

    At this point, I know what I think and where I have questions, but I need feedback, so I ask for time and candor from my writing group. They show me a lot of the stuff I couldn’t see, and I go back to work incorporating their input selectively, based on what I’m trying to do.

    I believe that novels are never finished, they’re abandoned. When I reach the point where I’m tweaking what I’m sure is nit, I try to find more beta readers.

    When I have digested and deployed selected portions of their feedback, and am again tweaking nit, I’m ready for professional editing:

    Short prayer, hold breath (and thumbs), and submit.

    Reply
    • Tiffany Yates Martin
      July 2, 2021 6:12 pm

      Ha–I love this play-by-play of your process, Bob. 🙂 It pretty closely matches the way I work too, both in my own writing and with authors. Starting with the 30,000-foot view and circling in closer on each pass to me is such a logical way of honing the story. I always liken it to a woodworker making pass after pass of a piece of furniture with an ever-finer-grain sandpaper, till it’s smooth as glass.

      I love that you do all that before you work with your editor too–I think that’s essential to get the most from a professional edit. And I quoted you yesterday that novels are never finished but rather abandoned. So true! Most writers could noodle and “improve” forever, couldn’t we? 🙂 Thanks for the comment.

      Reply
  • Renita Bradley
    July 2, 2021 12:34 am

    I’m with you. I love the editing phase the best. That’s when I really become proud of what I wrote.

    Reply
    • Tiffany Yates Martin
      July 2, 2021 6:08 pm

      Me too! That’s when the magic happens, as I always say. 😀 I always love it when authors relish that part of the process–it’s so rewarding to dig into the mine and unearth even more gold. Thanks for stopping by, Renita.

      Reply
  • I revise using Intuitive Editing, of course! 🙂 Then I get feedback, have the story read aloud on my word processing program, edit, polish, put away for a time. Repeat. My biggest challenge is not knowing that magic number of days or months to set aside for objectivity. I thought I was done with my current MS, and have been querying for several months. Then recently, an agent had some suggestions for revision and invited me to resubmit. As I incorporate those revisions and go through the MS again, I am finding so many other things to fix that I hadn’t noticed before. The hardest thing about the editing and revising process is not knowing when it’s really done. Or, accepting that it will never be done, as Bob stated above.

    Reply
    • Tiffany Yates Martin
      July 5, 2021 7:26 pm

      Love this technique, Cate. (Especially Intuitive‘s role in it. 🙂 ) I don’t think there’s a set amount of time to regain objectivity–you take whatever you can spare or what feels right, but I agree–every single time you pull it back out you’ll likely find things to tweak, because meanwhile you’ve grown as a writer. That’s why I like Bob’s comment too–that at some point you have to just let it go and move on to the next story. It’s never “perfect,” which can be frustrating for an artist. But perfect isn’t really possible, and even if it were, it’s a moving target as we grow as artists. Thanks for sharing your process!

      Reply

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