Her four previous efforts at a novel lie in the proverbial dark drawer, “None of which I will probably go back to,” she says. “They were part of the journey. I have no desire to turn back and look again.”
After graduating in 2004 with a PhD in English, Erin was quickly signed by a literary agent, and her first short story collection was published in 2005.
After this early success, she spent three years writing her first full-length fiction, just under five for her second. Despite her grad-school study, Erin felt unprepared for the challenges of long-form fiction as opposed to the short stories that had been a focus of her degree program.
“I had spent so long writing those short moments that when it came to a novel, I realized, ‘It’s not just longer—how come I didn’t know that?’ It took me a long time to get from writing short, quick stories that took place in a day or a weekend or longer to actually sustaining a plot.”
But neither of her first two manuscripts sold. Nor did her third one.
“It was awful,” she remembers now. But she was determined to crack the code on writing novels. “I’m like, ‘Just one more.’ I cannot believe I kept writing them.”
She began to read voraciously, analyzed the novels she read, created outlines of them, and finally figured out what was hampering her stories: “I didn’t realize it was structure that was holding me back. That’s so key–it’s what holds the thing together.”
Feeling more confident, she sat back down and started writing a fourth full-length fiction.
It also didn’t sell, which “stung quite a bit,” Erin says, as it was a story she especially loved.
That was when she broke up with her agent, worried that they weren’t a good fit.
“That was really, really scary,” she says. “After four failed novels I was like, ‘Who’s going to want me?’ [But] I kept telling myself, ‘You can’t stay in a relationship because you’re worried no one is going to want you.’”
Meanwhile, the University of Nebraska Press published a second collection of her short stories…and Erin started writing yet another of what she hoped might be her first published novel.
This time, she was right. The University of Nebraska Press bought the story, and finally Erin was a published novelist, mastering the craft after doing it “over and over and over again,” she says with a laugh. “Failure: What a great teacher.”
Because she’d sold Deer Season directly to the publisher, Erin was still unagented when she finished her most recent story, but she found what she calls her “dream agent” within a month of querying the manuscript.
This one sold within weeks, to Thomas and Mercer, and Erin Flanagan has finally found her feet in full-length fiction. “I’m having so much fun writing novels now that somebody wants the dang things!” she says, attributing her success to straight-up stubbornness.
“I’m pretty persistent, I will say that. That’s a thing people don’t talk about–they think it’s about talent, and I’m like, ‘Pretty sure it’s about sitting down in the chair. Pretty sure it’s about keeping going when you don’t think you have any reason to.’ It’s easier to believe it now, but it will be hard again.”
Her long journey to get to the goal she set so long ago has taught Erin valuable lessons she shares with other authors:
- On rejection: “It’s one of those things that you can’t help but take personally. But at the same time I feel like the work has to be separate from whatever happens with the work.”
- On setting goals: Every week Erin sits and plans her to-do list for her everyday life—but also for her writing time, setting a specific goal for the week. “That’s what has helped me stay focused on actually doing the work.”
- On knowing why you write: “As much as you can, the writing has to be the joy. It can’t be any kind of accolades; it can’t be anything that’s coming as a result of it. But if you can convince yourself that you love sitting down and doing it, then that’s why you’re doing it…. You do it because you love it.”
But it’s her thoughts on editing and revising her work that I loved most.
“First drafts are really, really, really hard for me, and, and they are really, really, really bad…. I feel like I’m constantly losing faith in myself, constantly feeling like it’s not going to be good enough,” she confesses, a feeling many authors will recognize.
“[But] at this point I can at least tell myself, ‘You’re going to survive whatever you’re trying to write and you can always make it better. Whatever you’ve done–you can always make it better. And that’s really reassuring.”
I asked Erin to share her editing and revision process, and I loved her practical, left-brain breakdown of it (complete with pie graph!).
How Erin Flanagan Revises
It strikes me as incredibly unfair that how I revise changes with each book, because each one presents me with some new, supposedly insurmountable problem. In one book the big issues lie with structure, and the next with character, and the next with some ungodly thing I haven’t even thought to be worried about yet. But what I have found continually helpful is tracking my writing and revising time.
It took me 497 hours over 23 months to complete my latest novel, from first words to finished draft for submission. Depending on how you look at it, I wrote one draft or a hundred, so I’ve broken these hours down by three stages: first draft, better draft, and “final” draft. Here’s a sexy pie chart showing how I spent those hours by percentage:
The most obvious thing I learned is that I dread first drafts. The first draft took 13 months, but it was only 91 hours (18%) of the writing time. So it wasn’t that I spent hours and hours at the computer, but weeks and weeks avoiding the work. For my current novel, I’m setting the goal to grit my teeth and pound out a 1000 words/five days a week. Ideally this means I should be able to finish an 80k draft in 16 weeks. Given how much I hate first drafts and love procrastinating, I’ve gifted myself an extra two months, but even so, that goal will shave my first draft from 13 months down to 6, and as a writer who’s trying to not only get better but faster, that would make a huge difference.
The “better draft” stage took me 286 hours. This is where I fixed the big, gaping problems in that crap first draft, and I do mean big. For instance, in the first draft the plot included travel between dimensions, while the better-draft plot was based in neuroscience. After I cleaned what I could, I passed it on to two readers as well as some experts, and then hammered out more revisions and made it officially the best I could make it my own. I admit, I was pretty excited about this draft. I felt I’d said something new and had written a complex, well-structured story with characters I adored. But don’t say yet.
The “final” draft (in quotes because I’m anticipating more revisions now that the book has sold) is where I worked with a professional editor. We broke the book down and put it together again two more times taking 120 hours. I’d thought I was almost done, but I was still moving the heavy pieces, reworking the plot, and deepening everyone’s motivations, not just dusting up the language. A book I already loved was only 76% of the way done, so when I hit this wall next time I can remind myself: just imagine how much better it’s going to be.
So I encourage you to track your writing time, and I guarantee the information will prove useful in further books and revisions. I’m back to writing a first draft right now, and every day I say to myself, just a thousand words, Erin. Do you think you can write a thousand words?
And the data shows me, most days I can.