“There’s no way to know whether or not you can write a novel without writing a novel,” says New York Times bestselling author Laurie Frankel.
As a university professor of literature and writing, Laurie had been “writing about reading other people’s novels,” as she puts it, for years—“which is very, very, wildly different from fiction writing in more or less every way”—when she decided to find out whether she could write a novel.
Given the demands of her academic work, she wrote only in the summers for two months at a stretch. Working that way she finally completed a first draft in “five years or ten months, depending how you look at it.”
She wrote each chapter in a separate file, and when she cut and pasted them all together, “lo and behold it turned out I had written a novel. And then I reread it and it was terrible, of course.”
She set out to edit and revise, feeling her way as she went, with no experience in novel writing. But her years of reading and analyzing other people’s stories had laid a strong foundation. “Writing about books and talking about them for years—having to articulate ‘what is this thing doing, and how, why’—it’s such good training for this…despite the fact that I’d never taken a writing class.”
When she felt the story was as strong as she could make it, she turned to Google and the library to learn how to find an agent and write a query letter. “I crafted the shit out of that query letter,” she remembers.
Almost right away, her “pie in the sky, never-in-a-million-years-going-to-say-yes agent” called and asked for the full. A week later Molly Friedrich called again to offer representation.
“The day she called me was almost as good as it’s ever gotten,” Laurie says. “The rest of the process is such a roller coaster. The more I learned the harder it got.”
Friedrich told Laurie the beginning of the story was a mess and that she wouldn’t have read past the first page if the query letter hadn’t been so good. She suggested Laurie completely overhaul her first fifty pages, which in hindsight Laurie describes as “highfalutin”—academic in tone and out of step with contemporary fiction—and to do it quickly.
At the time Laurie was in the middle of a semester and in the process of adopting a child, but she revised the story within weeks. “What I know now is that she would have waited however long, but at the time I thought it was a pending offer.” Her agent sold it quickly: The Atlas of Love debuted in 2009 with St. Martin’s Press.
Since then she’s published three other novels translated into more than twenty-five languages and optioned for film and TV. Her most recent, One, Two, Three, was a Reese’s Book Club pick and an Amazon “Best Book of 2021.”
“The highs are very high and the lows are very low, and they vacillate between one another pretty regularly in my experience,” Laurie says of her writing career. In our chat she offered so much excellent advice for authors I had to include it all.
On querying agents:
- “While it is true that these people get a hundred queries a day, it is also true that this is their job. What they want more than anything is for new writers to reach out to them with something that they want to sell. They’re not looking to say no; their whole raison d’être is to find people who make them say yes.”
About selecting representation:
- “Finding an agent is like finding a spouse—it’s very tempting when you’re querying agents to be so desperate and take whoever will have you, the first person who wants you, but I think being a little bit picky about it is a good choice, in the same way that you wouldn’t take a random marriage proposal. [Ask yourself], ‘Is this someone I can work with, someone who will love me and get me and nurture me and help me be my best self and who isn’t going to drive me crazy and who I can do a good job of working with?’”
And about persistence:
- “The thing I did not understand that my agent understood was that I was going to keep doing this. This is what I was going to do–I was going to write novels. The first one I wrote and published with no expectations, but then I kept doing it and it became a career rather than a hobby or a lark.”
But it’s her thoughts on editing and revising that delighted me most, because Laurie is a “revision writer”—finding the heart of her stories in editing as she writes, revises, cuts, rewrites, a process she likens to making sourdough bread, where portions of the starter are discarded to allow the rest to flourish.
“With every book I’m convinced that this thing is too much of a disaster to be salvaged–and that’s because it is. I write very, very shitty rough drafts. It’s not like the prose is so bad—it’s that it doesn’t make sense, it doesn’t hang together, the structure doesn’t work, the plot sometimes doesn’t work and sometimes is nonexistent.
“Well, well into what looks to other people like a draft, I can still see that this thing is not working, and I routinely cut 300,000 words from a novel—and not all in a row.”
She advises authors, “Keep revising, keep editing. Just because it’s done doesn’t make it done. For me I think of it as tightening, and I want that weave as tight as I can possibly get it.”
I asked Laurie to share some of her process of editing and revising, and her response is among my favorites for her insights into the truest thing I know about this craft: that writing is revising. (Emphases are mine throughout.)
How Laurie Frankel Revises
Most people, when they think “writing,” mean “drafting,” that initial coming-up-with-ideas storytelling phase. We think of drafting as the bulk, the meat, of the writing process and editing as the cleanup, or even as the penance, like if we drafted better, we wouldn’t have to revise at all, and editing is what we have to do to fix whatever shortcomings happened while we wrote.
I think this is exactly wrong. Writing is editing. I think of drafting in the same category as outlining, researching, brainstorming, storyboarding. It’s pre-work. Having gotten a draft down, the real work—editing and revision—begins.
I love editing. But I feel like that’s not saying much because about 97% of the book-writing process is editing for me, and “editing” encompasses such a wide swath of things, many of which have little to do with one another. The first time you go back to the beginning after writing through to the end is a completely different exercise than the seventieth time through when you’re fine-tuning language and bonding heavily with your thesaurus. We might call both of those editing or revising, but that’s about all they share.
I edit in laps. I start at the beginning, edit through to the end, go back to the beginning, and do it again. Over and over and over. Hundreds of times. I don’t always do it exactly in order, but that’s more or less the process. Predictably, the second time through is different than the third and the tenth and the ninety-first. In part that’s because what I fixed the second time therefore doesn’t have to be fixed the third time. In part it’s because what I fixed the second time broke something which itself then has to be fixed the third time. In part it’s because in the beginning I have no idea what the book is about or who the characters are or what they do or how they feel about one another or what happens or what it means or how it’s all going to come together, and as those things slowly become clear, I realize what I guessed wrong about in early drafts, what I now need to go back and fix.
Because I know I will fix it later, I’m free to draft as messily as I will. I’m free to edit as messily as I will as well for the same reason. It doesn’t have to be good now. It has to be good eventually. Editing is how I know I’ll get there someday.
All of which boils down to this: don’t despair. For one thing, needing lots of editing doesn’t mean you did something wrong. It means you’re doing something right. For another, your work-in-progress not being great yet doesn’t mean it won’t be. It just means you’re not done yet. Editing shouldn’t be scary, and it shouldn’t make you feel miserable. It’s not even a necessary evil. Really editing is nothing more or less than writing. If you want to write, really you want to edit. Or if you like: if you want to be a writer, really you want to be an editor. Looked at like that, editing isn’t part of the process; it is the process.