This post is part of the monthly How Writers Revise series, where I talk with successful authors about their editing and revisions processes, as well as the challenges and setbacks they’ve faced in their careers and how they overcame them. If you’d like to receive these and my weekly writing craft posts in your in-box you can sign up here.
“Everything I’m about to tell you is exactly this ride. This crazy-ass ride.”
This is how author Lisa Barr prefaces the story of the wild highs and devastating lows of her fiction-writing career, which started nearly 25 years ago with what became her debut novel.
Working on that first manuscript over a ten-year period, starting when she was confined to nine months of bedrest while pregnant with her first child, now 24, Lisa finished the story across the span of two babies, five pregnancies, a career as an investigative journalist, and what she calls “a hellish divorce.”
She submitted it to the Hollywood Film Festival—and won first prize, the Opus Magnum Discovery Award.
But “Just like everything in my life, everything comes with a price tag,” Lisa says: The day she was to receive the award personally from Steven Spielberg in Hollywood was the exact day her divorce was being granted in court, and she had to be present.
With two young children, then five and three, reeling from the very traumatic divorce, she went into what she calls “survival mode,” focusing on work and supporting her family as a single mother and tabling her writing.
When she finally turned her focus back to the manuscript—three years later—she struggled with how to convince an agent to look at her story after such a long lag: “How can you explain in a one-page letter that nothing happened with your award-winning novel because you were in a personal crisis?”
But eventually she signed with a top literary agent—only to find out weeks later that the agent was facing some personal and professional challenges that compromised their ability to represent her. Lisa took her book back, “at this point so drained and so exhausted.”
By now, despite her hope of a “Big Five, old-fashioned traditional house,” a friend pushed her into trying self-publishing, which was just beginning to gain traction at that time, saying, “This is going be the hottest thing.”
She self-pubbed Fugitive Colors, and within two weeks was signed by an agent, who then sold it to a traditional house. The book won the IPPY gold medal for “Best Literary Fiction” that year, among several other awards, and Lisa toured with the book in 25 cities over three years.
Meanwhile she signed with another prominent agent and worked on two new projects–a memoir based on her experiences with international divorce, and a thriller. “I needed to be able to jump genres. I couldn’t be a cookie-cutter author because that’s not who I am.”
But she shelved the memoir when one of her daughters said she wasn’t comfortable with publishing the personal details of their family history, and the thriller failed to find a publishing home—and meanwhile her new agent got wrapped up in a personal lawsuit that forced Lisa to seek new representation yet again.
“Somewhere inside of me was this confidence that however long it takes, I’m going to get there,” Lisa says of facing yet another stumbling block in her career.
This time she and her new (and current) agent submitted a new manuscript in yet another genre—what she calls “sexy women’s fiction”—repurposing some of the details of her own past from the memoir in fictionalized form. “This way I was able to create a fictional character who had hit ground zero very much as I had in my real life, emotionally. I was able to draw on that in a big way. [The story] flew out of me.”
“Nothing ever came easy to me, so I never expected I’d be an overnight sensation.” Lisa says of the long, tortuous road to her current success.
“I always knew I was going to have to work hard and fight for it. I believed in myself, counted on myself—no matter what. Even during the lowest times, when everything was stripped of me and I literally had 67 cents in my bank account and two babies to raise…I never stopped believing in love, my ability, and that I was going to get to my destination.”
I asked Lisa to share a bit about her revision process, and I love her unique take, visual aids, and her unusual editing partner.
How Lisa Barr Revises
Plotter or Pantser? What is your process? How do you write your book? These are ALWAYS questions asked at every book gig. And like everything else in my life…it is not clear-cut. I’m a hybrid–a “plotting pantser.” I know exactly who my main characters are before they hit the page; I can tell you what perfume they wear. I also know my story–especially where I want to end up. The getting there–the middle–is, well, circuitous.
I usually begin by making an in-depth outline, which inevitably changes in bed (when I can’t sleep), in the shower (when I’m deep-conditioning), or when I’m walking my dog. I begin to “feel” my characters and my creative brain churns in different directions. I’m also a research geek. All my books have a news hook, due to my twenty-five years as a journalist. I can’t help it…that’s where I live, baby. I then start intensely researching the subject at hand and meet real-life characters, and usually my own characters begin to evolve with pertinent colorful details. When I’m satisfied with my research, I begin to write.
Just to give you a loose timeline…my debut novel, Fugitive Colors, a WWII thriller, took nearly four years of research before I would “allow” myself to write it. You can’t mess with the Holocaust, and I was determined to get every detail precise. My second novel, The Unbreakables, took nine months from start to finish…it literally bled out of me. And my third, Woman on Fire, took an entire year of COVID, lockdown, intensive writing, self-imposed deadlines, and a mandated word count. I was a mean, coldhearted bitch to myself…no slacking, no “watercooler” socializing. My motto: Meet your daily word count or else. I was determined to get the manuscript out to my editor as soon as possible.
Here’s where I differ from many authors: I don’t belt out a first draft and write “ugly.” I go chapter by chapter, at a grandmotherly pace, and fine-tune each paragraph as I go. Once I’m satisfied, I can move on to the next chapter. In the back of my Type A-plus head, my characters will inevitably encounter various unexpected scenarios, so I jot them down in my phone and know that I will get there. By the time I finish my first draft, my book is in relatively good, clean shape. Then I do all the fill-ins, the missing blanks, the if-this-then-that-must-happen. I really love this part of the creative process. My bones are good, the story is strong, and I’m about to flesh it out.
From there, I revise two or three more times; then I will print it out and lay it out across my kitchen and dining room tables with colorful sticky notes to myself–a color is assigned to each major character–so I can visualize it. I then read the manuscript in hard-copy form and make my line edits on paper.
For a final touch before turning the manuscript into my editor–and this is the kicker–I read my entire manuscript aloud to my dog. This has become a big joke among my writer friends. But truthfully, it is the most meaningful part of my process. I “hear” my dialogue, run-on sentences, repetitive writing, those unnecessary descriptions that make my story drag. I morph from author to Mad Slasher–and implement all those changes. I read it through one last time and then off it goes. And yes, a good bottle of red is always waiting for me on the other side.