How Writers Revise: Erin Flanagan

Erin flanagan Deer Season

How Writers Revise: Erin Flanagan

Author Erin Flanagan’s fifth full-length fiction, the brilliant and beautiful Deer Season, released yesterday, September 1—but it was her debut novel.

Ering Flanagan Deer Season

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.”

“Failure: What a great teacher.”

Erin Flanagan

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.

“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.”

Erin Flanagan

“[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.

18 Comments. Leave new

  • Maryann Kovalski
    September 2, 2021 1:22 pm

    This is the BEST, most authentic article I’ve ever read on drafting and redrafting!

    I have hired two professionals who have given helpful, though disparate responses to my novel. Both, published writers as well as editors/coaches, are very different from each other in their genres and literary tastes. Still, their notes, though quite different, have been helpful at least in forcing me to be more sure of my own opinions.

    One thing is beginning to concern me: Neither address my questions about what they think of this or that writer I admire. One admits to not knowing the works, the other does not address.

    How important is it that your coach/editor/reader know the work you love?

    Reply
    • Tiffany Yates Martin
      September 2, 2021 2:50 pm

      Hi, Maryann. I loved Erin’s approach too, and her candor (and pie graph!).

      I don’t know the full circumstances/backgrounds of your editors, but in general I think it’s much more important to have someone who works in and understands your genre (and its market) rather than who is familiar with your favorite authors. For starters, the former is much more germane to getting your story on the page as effectively as possible, but also, sometimes the risk is that an author might lose or suppress her own voice and style if the focus is on emulating favorite authors. In that case it seems like a benefit to me, perhaps, that your editor isn’t conversant with that author’s books. They’re seeing what’s actually there on the page, not necessarily what you want it to be, and helping you express YOUR intentions and vision (ideally).

      For what it’s worth, I’ve worked in the publishing industry for nearly 30 years, and yet there are plenty of authors–even in the genres I work in–whose work I haven’t read. There’s so much work out there, it’s impossible to know all of it.

      That said, if you feel strongly about this, the most important thing with an editor is that you feel comfortable, you trust her skill and knowledge, and you feel you are a good editorial “fit” for each other. Maybe this doubt worming into your psyche has to do with more basic issues related to those areas–a feeling that this might not be the right editor for you? It’s so subjective–it’s hard to know what are good instincts to heed and what might be normal author fears and hesitations around letting someone swim deeply around in their work with them that we have to take a deep breath and work through.

      Also, regarding the two disparate types of feedback–this is a subjective business, and editors are subjective humans, as we all are. It’s not uncommon to get differing perspectives on the same manuscript, but in general good editors will point out the same foundational things that may not be working as well as they could, even if they take different approaches to addressing them. If the feedback is wildly different, that might be a good point to get more beta readers to see what you hear most consistently.

      Good questions to raise–thanks for the comment.

      Reply
      • Maryann Kovalski
        September 2, 2021 6:51 pm

        Excellent points Tiffany, especially that it isn’t necessarily vital that an editor know what writers you want to sit beside on a shelf.

        No doubt, it is a subjective business. I just hope that that elusive time comes, when one knows for certain when something is working on the page
        and when it’s not!

        Reply
        • Tiffany Yates Martin
          September 3, 2021 2:03 am

          I think we do get better at assessing our own work subjectively–but also, as artists, I don’t think any author ever feels it’s “finished” entirely. And as we grow as creators, we see new things in our work.

          Reply
    • Thank you so much, Maryann!

      Reply
  • Kristi Leonard
    September 2, 2021 1:36 pm

    My favorite part of this is the time-keeping strategy. Especially because Erin is right, there’s A LOT of procrastinating going on and not as much actual writing. I use Scrivener, so I’m able to get all that detail about the number of words written each day, but I don’t get the amount of time I spent. Thank you for sharing this fantastic idea! I’m 5 chapters into my 1st revision, so I’m going to start tracking my time. Thanks Tiffany for always bringing such valuable insight through your writing and your guests.

    Reply
    • Tiffany Yates Martin
      September 2, 2021 2:55 pm

      SO true! Giving our full focus and attention to the work is transformative, and it can be astonishing how little of our “writing” time we’re actually doing that. Just paying attention to that can make a huge difference. I just wrote an article about that here. I loved Erin’s left-brain approach to this, and her self-accountability.

      Thanks for the kind words, Kristi–glad the posts are helpful!

      Reply
      • This post, and your article came at the perfect time for me. I have been finding it very hard to focus (gee, I wonder why?). But I undermine myself by deciding to “quickly” check email or social media or do that little bit of research. Thank you!

        Reply
        • Tiffany Yates Martin
          September 3, 2021 2:04 am

          It’s been so helpful to me to be more mindful of where my attention goes. Glad it resonates for you too. Thanks for stopping by, Cynthia!

          Reply
    • Let us know if it yields helpful info, Kristi! My guess is it will!

      Reply
  • Elizabeth Wafler
    September 2, 2021 4:46 pm

    Fantastic perspective and all too familiar story. I am about at the break-up point with my agent. Glad to hear that you persevered and succeeded not only in landing another agent, but publishing a wonderful book. Thank you for the inspiration Erin, and thank you Tiffany for featuring the article.

    Reply
    • Good luck with this decision, Elizabeth! It was a terrifying step to take but I’m so glad I took it. xo

      Reply
  • Thank you for an amazing article!

    Reply
  • It’s so great to see an honest, “nuts and bolts” of what really goes on under the hood of constructing a novel (and I absolutely feel that first draft pain!). A great reminder that most of what we call “writing” is actually “revising”. Thank you, Erin and Tiffany!

    Reply
    • Tiffany Yates Martin
      September 3, 2021 4:34 pm

      That’s my main mission in asking authors to share their processes! I think it’s so common for authors to get discouraged or frustrated in revisions, but it really is the main work of writing and storytelling. And the most fun, to me. 🙂 Thanks for the comment, Rachel.

      Reply
    • I always find it so reassuring when others admit they struggle with first drafts, so thank you! It’s reassurance I’m not doing it “wrong” but just the way I know how.

      Reply

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