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.
Stephanie Storey wrote her first “book” at seven years old, a self-illustrated first in a series called Horty the Hog, and she’s written “some form of fiction–even two lines of dialogue” every single day since—including her wedding day.
“It’s like breathing for me. The only thing I ever wanted to do was be an author. I wanted to escape into some imaginary world.”
But in a family of businesspeople and engineers, she didn’t think writing was a real career people could have. Instead she enrolled as an English literature major in college—her mom thought a PhD in teaching would lead to a legitimate career—quickly shifting to a fine arts degree, and art history in her postgraduate work.
One day her department chair—one of the top five Michelangelo scholars in the world—painted a bleak picture of the job prospects for their field; but, he countered, “the only thing you guys can’t imagine not doing is art history.”
And Stephanie had a revelation. “Everybody else in the room nodded, and I said, ‘Oh, shit, I’m in the wrong room. The only thing I can’t imagine not doing is writing fiction.’”
She immediately switched over to pursuing an MFA in creative writing, one that offered a program in Hollywood. “I realized that there was this land where people made money telling stories.”
Within a few months of graduating she landed a job as a researcher on Candace Bergen’s talk show on the Oxygen network, where she spent the next twenty years, working her way up to content producer for talk shows: researching, booking, and prepping celebrity guests and writing questions for their interviews—”the story side of producing talk TV,” as Stephanie calls it.
Meanwhile she and her husband, an Emmy-winning sitcom writer she’d met on the show, wrote screenplays together, where Stephanie honed her revision skills polishing their stories to pitch to major studios and directors.
And during it all she still wrote her own fiction, including multiple full-length works that lived “in the drawer” because somehow she still believed that being an author wasn’t a job.
Claiming Her Passion for Fiction
Two events changed the course of her life and her creative career. In 2006 on a trip to Italy with her husband, she regaled him with stories and background from her art-history days about Michelangelo and Leonardo da Vinci, a real-life rivalry she was obsessed with. “That’s a screenplay!” he declared, and Stephanie started working on it.
And in 2011 her fit, healthy, relatively young husband had a stroke, and during his recovery Stephanie realized, “If it can happen to him it can happen to anybody. Life is really short. All I’ve ever wanted to do since I was seven years old was be a novelist—what am I doing?”
She began working on a novel version of their Michelangelo/Leonardo screenplay, but “it was too big a story; it was too scary. It was historical fiction–I’ve always loved it but I was always afraid of it.”
She spent five years researching, drafting, and revising the manuscript. “I was really hard on myself because I’d been in a professional storytelling industry by that point for fifteen years, where I knew what was ready for prime time and what was not.” She’d compare her drafts to some of her favorite books and decide it wasn’t there yet—then keep revising and polishing. “Finally I decided to submit when I couldn’t figure out what to fix anymore.”
Making Fiction Her Career
She queried five carefully targeted agents and received requests from all five and an offer of representation from two, signing with her first choice—but her new agent felt the manuscript still wasn’t quite submission-ready and suggested she hire a professional editor.
“She helped do what I didn’t quite know how to do yet,” Stephanie says, “tightening things, fixing all the bad habits I think everybody comes to fiction with.” Her agent began submitting the polished story in September, and after a few near-miss rejections, by February they had an offer on what became her debut novel, Oil and Marble.
A rave New York Times shortlist review the weekend before publication seemed like a gift—but it came with an unexpected, unpleasant side effect for her creativity: “I suddenly was attached to what other people thought about it instead of just doing it for me.”
Having seen from years of working with celebrities as a producer the toll success and acclaim could take on creatives, she learned ways to combat those demons, including writing what she calls “private fiction, in a folder that my husband knows to delete if I ever die. I go in there if I’m really in my head, because then I get lost faster, the noise goes away—the voice goes away.”
After her first book’s exceptional success, Stephanie followed up with Raphael, Painter in Rome, a second novel planted firmly in her passion for humanizing legendary artists. “I have a whole list; I will never finish all the ones I want to write,” she says, but she still works on other projects that call to her, resisting the idea of pitching ideas or outlines pursuing a publishing contract for her stories.
“I want to be able to do what I do and write what I want to write,” she says, and she shares her advice with authors for how to stay true to their own creative passions:
“Listen to your gut. When that voice in the back of your head or in your gut says that’s not the story to tell or that’s not the way to go, then go with that. Don’t write something else to please someone else. You will not please them! That’s the stupid part. The thing that you love…that has the potential of working.”
When I asked Stephanie to share something of her revision process with authors, true to form she brought her own unique, story-obsessed spin on it.
How Stephanie Storey Revises
I LOVE revisions. I’m a problem solver by nature, so revisions are my happy place.
When I get stuck, it’s in the drafting phase—trying to figure out which version of the story I’m telling—but the more that I think about it, I’m pretty sure that my drafting process is really a major part of my revision phase, so I’m going to start there.
I always write several different “first drafts” of the same novel to figure out which story I’m telling. For example, my second novel—what turned out to be Raphael, Painter in Rome—was always supposed to be my “Michelangelo painting the Sistine Chapel ceiling book,” so, I started with a version from Michelangelo’s perspective.
But then I realized I wasn’t saying anything in that version that hadn’t already been said by other writers, so I decided to write the story from the perspective of Pope Julius II’s illegitimate daughter, Felice della Rovere. But she’s not an artist, so I discovered that I wouldn’t have enough passion to revise it properly, so I scrapped that, too.
Then I wrote a version from the points of view of four different characters: Michelangelo, Felice della Rovere, Pope Julius II, and Raphael. But it was way too unwieldy.
So I decided to write the story in the same way I’d written Oil and Marble—chapters bouncing back and forth between the two rival artists: Michelangelo and Raphael. That version worked well, and I thought that was the one I would revise. Except, Raphael would NOT SHUT UP. So, I decided to let him have one “journal entry” to get his feelings off his chest, and then I could go back and finish my dueling chapters version. But when Raphael let it all out on the page in that voicey first-person, well… I knew that was the book that I had to write. And that “journal entry” became the prologue of yet another “first draft.”
So only after multiple drafts of the same book am I ready to begin my so-called “revision phase.” By this time I’ve already written hundreds of thousands of words. I’ve seen the story from multiple angles. I’ve solved almost all of my character and plot problems. Some of my subplots have whole novels written about them. I have loads of sand to play with, so if I’m working on revisions, and I think, You know what I really need?Blank. Well, 90 percent of the time I already have that idea, paragraph, or scene written in one of the other versions.
So I start what I call my “revision phase” late the process, when most of my revisions are pretty straightforward. Red pen, lots of notes, and a “17-point” or “24-point” or “32-point” revision plan (whatever that draft needs) focusing on story problems first.
For example, one point on my revision plan might be: “Fix the Margherita Luti subplot because it doesn’t build properly”—and under that point there might be six different things I’ll have to do to accomplish it (from rebreaking the story to implementing changes in specific chapters). I work through that plan point by point, attacking each story problem separately. After that, I’ll go through this process again and again, as the revision notes get more and more specific, down to word choice, sentence flow, punctuation, etc.
My writing/revision process isn’t the most efficient, but I’ve ALWAYS worked this way—even when writing piles of novels that are locked away in filing cabinets that will never be seen—and I’m proud of the two very successful novels I’ve published so far, so I don’t see a reason to change. Plus, my next novel has been going this same way, and you know what? EIGHT “first” drafts later, I finally love where this one is landing, too.
All of this to say: even if your process is messy, it’s YOUR process. So embrace it.
Find more about Stephanie and her books on her wonderfully artistic website, and check out her other passion project, her YouTube show “Storeytime,” where she deep-dives into interviews with authors and creatives of all stripes about their own stories.
What a great post, such an interesting prelude to becoming an author and really motivating to hear about Stephanie’s drafting/revision process.
Thanks, CJ–Stephanie is just a force, and endlessly delightful to talk to and listen to. She was so generous with her story. Check out her YouTube channel–her interviews are top-notch and deeper than many.
Thanks CJ! I’m so glad you felt motivated by it. It’s nice to know when I scream something into the world, sometimes it lands. Happy writing out there!
Very happy you wrote this. Haven’t heard anyone else talk about multiple first drafts. It makes such sense. It’s encouraging to hear a respected author has a less talked about, or less conventional? way to finish a novel.
(Haven’t published a book yet, but…) This is how I’m bungling through my large world Sci Fi book. At first I didn’t have the skills. Now I have pretty good skills but am writing another “new” story (for the 4-5th time) within the same novel. Am so happy to hear you do the same.
Each draft is much better than the last and much more focused. I’m doing this to figure out which story to tell in her big world.
As you said… one of the things I’m learning is to tell the story I WANT to tell rather than the story others push for.
I think it’s easy to wonder whether we’re “doing it right,” especially with editing and revising, which are so often opaque to readers and other authors. One reason (of many!) I love doing this feature is hearing how many different approaches there are to these processes–and that there’s no “right” way of doing any creative activity. Thanks for your comment, Anne–and good luck with your SF story! You’re in my favorite part of the process now, the honing and refining and digging out all the gold.
Anne, I’m so glad my crazy process resonated with you! I mean each draft DOES get better and helps you dive deeper into the world and figure out what it is you want to say! There’s that Stephen King quote: “I write to find out what I think.” THAT’s how I feel… I have to write it out before I know what I REALLY think… great luck with your sci-fi. Keep at it. The longer the process, the more rewarding the whole thing will be — regardless of what happens with it 🙂
What a great post! I don’t do it that way, but she’s validated how I do it. Thank you so much for sharing this.
Yay! One writer validating another… hey, we gotta stick together. Good luck on your writing and YOUR process. No matter how crazy it seems, if it’s yours… it’s YOURS 🙂
My pleasure, Bob–I love exploring authors’ stories and processes. It helps to see how widely they all vary, doesn’t it? Glad to see you here.
Thank you Tiffany for this forum and thank you Stephanie for sharing your process with fellow writers. I’d love to read your take on Artemesia Gentileschi. Her personal story–complete with a notorious rape trial–was as compelling as her powerful paitings.
Thanks again for your insightful comments
Thanks for joining the conversation, Lyri–I’m intrigued by Artemesia Gentileschi’s story and will check it out.
Thank you, thank you, thank you. Am currently on my sixth rewrite of the whole thing and am beginning to wonder if I was insane to start this in the first place. Your method, besides going beyond what I have (Shall I “liberate” it?) validates what I’ve been doing.
One reason I love sharing other writers’ revision processes is to authors see there’s no “right” way to do it–you have to find what works for you. And putting in the work of doing it is often where stories find their feet–and their souls. Thanks for stopping by, Vickie!