Author, writing teacher and coach, and podcast host Rachael Herron has been trying to crack the code on how to tell a story since long before she even began her writing career.
“I’m always looking for the silver bullet. I know the silver bullet does not exist but I will keep looking for it for the rest of my life.”
That quest led her to pursue a master’s degree in creative writing, where “All we learned was how to write beautiful literary prose.”
But in 2006 her sister told her about NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month), an annual event meant to encourage writers to write their stories by setting a 50K-word goal within a month.
“I told her that I was a literary writer and I would never stoop to [being] that kind of fast writer,” Rachael says. But she couldn’t help signing up for it that very day (and has since apologized to her sister).
“It was the best thing I ever did. It was such a rush. I had never, ever written regularly. I was writing 1,667 words a day; it was awesome. I was writing terribly–it was some of the worst writing I’d ever done, but I just kept going and it was so exciting.”
At month’s end she “won” NaNo by meeting the 50K-word goal, and “I just felt so proud of myself. It really broke everything free for me in terms of how to get words on the page.”
Success and Failure
Writing fast and furious wasn’t the silver bullet she’d been hoping for, but it “got me out of my [inner] editor’s way,” she says, and led to signing with an agent and a three-book deal sold at auction with HarperCollins.
But when she turned in her second book, her editor told her that as good as the writing, character development, and dialogue were, the story had no plot. Rachael calls this one of her darkest moments as a writer, and feared she was in danger of losing the contract.
She sequestered herself in a coastal hostel for three days and “frantically googled ‘how to write a novel.’ I still had that literary demon on my shoulder saying, ‘That’s formula.’ That was before I realized that story structure is not formula; it’s literary gravity. It’s how stories work.”
She took the story down the studs and rewrote it as “an entirely new beast. Now that’s how I write all my books—I write a terrible clunker and then I put it back together. It gave me the confidence to believe it was a repeatable process, and that I could never break a book so badly that I couldn’t fix it.”
Reinventing Her Writing Career
After her third book didn’t earn out, her publisher didn’t offer another contract, but Random House Australia picked up the rights for the stories and they became bestsellers there. She followed that up with two more in the series for them, and sold three women’s fiction titles to Penguin U.S., in addition to self-publishing—writing four books a year while still working 80 hours a week at her “day job” as a 911 operator.
“The faster I wrote, the more I wrote, [I realized] these books were good! They surprised me with how good they were.” But, Rachael adds of this time, “My friends never saw me. For years they never saw me. I never saw my wife.”
So of course this seemed like the right time to start a podcast. Rachael’s “How Do You Write?” began as what she describes as a pet project to have “free information going out there, as much of it as I could give…. I feel like I was born to be a cheerleader for people to get their goddamned writing done.” Now, more than 260 episodes later, it’s consistently on lists of top podcasts for writers.
Taking Ownership of Her Career
In 2016, ten years after her first NaNo, she succeeded in her goal to “write myself out of a job,” and now supports herself through her writing—both fiction and nonfiction—and her coaching, which “gives me the ability to write what the hell I want.” After some spectacular failures to earn out her advances, she’s had great success with self-pub and selling foreign rights. Her agent reps her thrillers and memoir, and she self-publishes the rest.
I love the way Rachael has taken ownership of her career—and her kind and practical advice for authors:
“You have to be more gentle on your writer self than you are with any other part of yourself. Your writer self will always feel frustrated and let down that you’re not doing the best work as a writer. The biggest part of being a writer is learning to sit in the discomfort of not being good enough yet. That’s what revision is for. We learn from our writing.”
I asked Rachael to share a bit about her revision process, and she delivered like nobody’s business, with a step-by-step plan for success.
How Rachael Herron Revises:
Revision and I are best pals. We weren’t always. We used to sit on opposite sides of the construction site. Revision would glare at me, and I’d pretend not to notice it was even alive. But now we share snacks from our lunchboxes, and while I always get to pick the radio station we have playing in the background, revision always dances with me to the beat. We even share a toolbox now. Here are a few things we keep inside it:
- Sentence outline. Every single revision that I undertake on a manuscript gets a new sentence outline made from what’s on the page. Not what I wish to be on the page, and not what I’m going to put on the page, but what’s actually there.
All sentence outlines look a bit different from writer to writer (some writers love a tidy, color-coded Excel spreadsheet, and others, like me, just jot it by hand in their writing journal), but basically, what you want is a few words on what happens in each scene. Bob goes to the office, meets octopus friend. The next line might say, Mika – swims under the boat.
This a quick-reference cheat sheet that no one else would ever understand, and the best part is that once it’s done, you can “read” your whole book in forty-five seconds! And when you do, ideas start to spring forward, leading to:
- Post-its. As I skim a draft, I catch every idea I have, big and small, on a wee Post-it. Those little ones are big enough for really small ideas (He should wear a jacket in fifth scene) to REALLY BIG ONES (kill the father, bring mom back to life).
Once they’re on a Post-it, you can relax, knowing the idea is safe. You won’t forget it. Don’t scribble or type the idea in the manuscript itself—as soon as you flip the page, it’s invisible, and in my brain, that’s the same as forgotten. Post-its, kept together somewhere, are tactile. You can move them around, making connections between them. Color code them if you’d like to, or just use whatever’s closest to hand on the desk, like I do (I personally like the rainbow effect I get when I start to move them all around).
- Revision Map. Combine the sentence outline and the Post-it ideas to make a Revision Map for yourself. Type in your Excel sheet, or scribble all over your handwritten outline. Brainstorm with yourself. Is your inciting incident in the right place? What about the midpoint turn? Is your dark moment dark enough? When you’re done combining, you’ll have a place to start, and an idea for each scene you come to.
- Trash File. Be brave! The Trash File (carefully saved) is your friend. Swear to yourself you’ll eventually use every single word and sentence and paragraph you toss in there. Believe it. (You probably won’t ever pull out a single clause to reuse it, but this lie is very important to believe at the time of the trashing.)
- Editing Glasses. When we’re in revision for a while, our brain gets super critical. (You’ll notice this when reading—suddenly, you see tons of things you could make better in other people’s published work!) So when you need to first-draft to fill in something you left out, remember that this uses a different muscle. Take off the editing glasses to write a crappy first draft, and then edit it.
- Kindness. Be really nice to yourself. Revision is so fun but it’s also hard work. Reward yourself liberally. I like reading in the bath with chocolate close by. What’s your favorite way to pat yourself on the back? Have whatever it is readily on tap.
If revision is new to you, don’t worry—it’s not as scary as it looks. In developing your favorite revision techniques, you’ll be picking up tools that you’ll use for the rest of your writing life. Those tools are always there for you, and they’re reliable.
First drafting, to me, always feels a bit fraught. Will it work today? Are the words going to come? Revision, on the other hand, feels more like routine labor that rewards practice. You get good at pounding in the nails that hold the frame together, and soon enough you’re able to hammer away, talking around the nails you hold between your teeth while shaking your hips to the song on the portable radio set at your feet.
First drafts can be fickle. Revision, though, will be a best friend, true blue, all the way to The End.