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.
The first time #1 New York Times–bestselling and Carnegie medal–winning historical fiction author Ruta Sepetys submitted her writing for professional feedback—at a writers’ conference with a top editor at one of the biggest publishing houses in the business—she got “one of the most notoriously bad critiques in the history of conferences ever.”
Sepetys (rhymes with “spaghettis”) still remembers it verbatim: The editor described her writing as “’obnoxious, annoying,’ and my narrative voice was ‘grating.’ If I had to read one more word I would have hung myself.”
So she asked for pointers to improve, and asked if she could revise and resend it to them.
Call it what you want—pluckiness, moxie, sheer cheek—but this kind of determined resilience has been a hallmark of Sepetys’s writing career, one that began on the heels of a very successful first career in music management in LA.
“I desperately wanted to become an author but I didn’t have the courage to quit my job,” Sepetys says, so she started getting up at 4:30 a.m. and going to a coffee shop near her office to work on the middle-grade mystery she was “convinced” she was going to write.
After her disastrous initial critique experience, she revised her manuscript and tried again at another conference—and this time the editor she was paired with loved it and requested the full.
Deciding she needed representation if she was going to submit, she queried agents, including her top choice, Steven Malk at über-agency Writers House—who requested the manuscript. When she sent it, on a whim she included five pages of another project she’d been noodling on, a historical piece about her immigrant father’s extended family.
Malk called her directly and was very encouraging but declined to offer representation, explaining that he could see why the editor had requested the manuscript but in his opinion it was a bit derivative.
But those five pages of her family’s history caught his eye. Sepetys remembers Malk telling her, “Ruta, this is your authentic voice. It’s original, it’s fresh, and you’re so passionate about this I can feel it. If you are considering a career in this business, if you really want to be a full-time writer, I think you should pursue historical fiction.”
Success and Setbacks
The only problem was, the genre’s sales at the time were flatlined.
With her signature resilience she nonetheless asked Malk if he’d represent her if she wrote that story instead, a promise he wouldn’t commit to.
Yet by this point Sepetys had spent 22 years guiding her own musician clients along their career paths similarly, and “I just admired him so much.” So she abandoned the mystery manuscript despite the editor’s interest and wrote what became her first novel, Between Shades of Gray, which finally garnered her an offer of representation from Writers House, Malk pairing her with another agent there.
After eight months of submissions Sepetys had “a stack of rejection letters that nearly an inch thick, everyone telling me why this book wouldn’t sell,” but finally they received an offer from Philomel Books, a Penguin imprint—where her editor asked for more revisions Sepetys spent the next year working on…and then left the business.
Her new editor wanted her to revise yet again.
As what she describes as “the daughter of two incredibly resilient human beings who had extremely challenging childhoods and decided to embrace that, Sepetys learned, “We can’t choose our hardships, but we can choose how we face our hardships. And I want to face every situation with an opportunity to grow. If I’m not growing as a writer then I’m stagnant, I’m backsliding.”
So she went back to the manuscript yet again for another overhaul.
In total she estimates that she rewrote—not just revised—the manuscript at least a dozen times over a span of years before that first novel finally found its way to publication.
“I tell you this story because I would not change a thing,” Sepetys says. “That revision, it made me a better writer, a better collaborator. If you’re a professional you understand from the get-go, ‘This is a draft. Someone’s going to help me make it better.’”
That debut novel garnered starred reviews from nearly every major industry review outlet and launched her enormously successful writing career.
Since then her books have been published in sixty countries, and she’s won more than forty literary awards, including the previously mentioned Carnegie Medal, a Rockefeller Foundation fellowship, and a Knight’s Cross of the Order for Merits to Lithuania (where her family is from and her first novel is partially set).
She’s even on a postage stamp.
When I asked her what advice she’d offer authors building their career, Ruta said, “I wish someone would have told me this: Give yourself the courage to fail. Failure is a prerequisite to success. There were months when I received feedback on my draft that I processed in a way that was really discouraging: ‘I can’t do this; I’m never going to be able to publish a book,’ or ‘They don’t understand me.’
“If I’d given myself the courage to fail, to be embarrassed and humiliated, that’s just the beginning. Give yourself that breathing room, and the courage to say, ‘I know this isn’t going to be good out of the gate, and it doesn’t matter. I’m going to go back and I’m going to work and work and work.’”
Ruta’s latest novel, I Must Betray You, a historical thriller about communist Romania and the citizen spy network that devastated a nation, released this past Tuesday, February 1. I asked her to share some of her editing and revision processes, and Ruta offered a fascinating comprehensive overview of how they are woven into her overall writing process.
How Ruta Sepetys Revises
I constantly remind myself that I’m not a writer—I’m a rewriter.
When I begin a draft, I give myself permission to fail. I know the initial manuscript will be worse than rough. It will be sloppy, disjointed, and downright embarrassing. But I also know that I will revise the manuscript many, many times. So I don’t worry about the early draft. That allows me to approach the process without fear.
The Continuous Collaboration
Some writers prefer a solitary drafting experience, but I enjoy collaboration. Prior to becoming a novelist, I spent over twenty years working with songwriters and recording artists in the music business. I had a front row seat to creativity and witnessed what can be achieved when energies are combined. As a result, I’m always eager to collaborate.
As I research, I loosely sketch out scenes or flag things that I want to include associated with the research. Research and drafting simultaneously allows me to retain the emotional immediacy I experience while interviewing witnesses, meeting with historians, or visiting a location.
My process is to work in batches. Initially, I write and revise 75 to 100 pages. The first revision is to present to my writing group. I’ve been part of the same critique group for seventeen years. They see my pages before my agent and my editor. They’re extremely tough on me and working with them has made me a better writer. Once the initial batch has been slaughtered by my writing group and I’ve dried my tears, I revise the batch and send it to my agent. Based on his feedback, I revise again. At that point I’ll send the first batch to my editor.
I want to be sure my editor is on board with the perspective, tone, and general direction before I continue with the draft. That saves me the time and heartache of writing a full draft only to be told it’s not working or that my editor envisions things differently.
The Editorial Notes
My editor knows that when I receive her initial editorial notes I’ll take several days to read, reread, and process them. The notes are always illuminating. I do a tremendous amount of research for each book and as a result, I juggle all sorts of facts and figures in my head. I often take that information for granted and wrongly assume that the reader has the same background knowledge that I do. But my editor points out that they don’t. As a result, my initial editorial round often focuses on clarifying historical aspects, sharpening the characters’ motivation, and making sure the opening of the book sets the stage and stakes in a manner that’s engaging.
If my editor suggests a radical plot change or the deletion of a character, I take time to think about it. If something isn’t working for her, it’s often because what I’m envisioning is not what I’m delivering in the manuscript. I try to think of ways to revise that might “land the plane,” so to speak. Once I come up with ideas, I discuss the revision plan with her and then try it. Sometimes I’m successful and sometimes I’m not. I don’t mind losing or changing things, unless it pertains to historical accuracy. I stand firm on historical detail.
The Full Draft
Once I go through multiple batches and have a draft—that’s when the real revision begins. I carve out time to read through the entire draft in one sitting. Full read-throughs are essential to my process. They help me evaluate the pacing, emotional arcs, and identify which areas are weak. I then print out the full manuscript and read it again, aloud. I slash things with my trusty red pen and flag areas using a coded system of post-it notes. It generally takes ten, full read-throughs and edits before I feel comfortable sending it to my editor. Of course once I press “send” I then convince myself it’s terrible and begin making plans for my next round of revisions!
The Final Rounds
Once my editor reads the full draft she sends me another round of notes and I get back to work. Before my editor shares the manuscript internally, we share it with some of the historians and experts who assisted me with research. Based on their feedback, I revise again. After making corrections we send the manuscript to copy editing and the team who will be presenting the book at sales launch. If questions are raised or changes suggested, I keep notes on what to change.
The Finish Line
I love the revision process so much that generally my editor has to pry the manuscript from me. And once, at a book event, I was asked to read aloud from my novel and as I was reading, I caught myself revising.
But such is the curse of a rewriter!
Really interesting and very encouraging to know that such a great writer works so hard behind the scenes at rewriting and revising. You find the best guests!
Thanks, CJ–I love hearing (and sharing) authors’ stories and how they persevered on a path that’s rarely smooth. Ruta is wonderful, and so are her books–glad you enjoyed reading about her process!
OMG! Thank you Tiffany and Ruta for sharing this inspiring and harrowing journey. I won’t forget it.
Isn’t she astonishing? Her fortitude and confidence and willingness to fail in pursuit of success inspire me too. Thanks for dropping by, Sharon.
Thank you, Ruta, for sharing these insights into your process!
Thanks for stopping by, Heather!
This was really, really, really good. It dovetails with your book miraculously but also provides some color and fleshiness to it. It was so good I copied the “How Ruta Revises” section to a Word document and played with the text in a way that helps me absorb the material.
Isn’t Ruta something? And I love the way her writing, editing, and revising are intertwined in her drafting process–and how she utilizes outside feedback to gain perspective. Thanks for the comment, Ken.
Thank you so much for sharing. This was very helpful and reassuring!
Thanks, Shanna–that’s one of many reasons I love doing these. I don’t think we hear often enough how common these struggles along the path to a writer’s career are. And Ruta is such an inspiration. Thank you for the comment!
What a gift brutally harsh criticism can be!
I began writing seriously almost ten years ago. I was lavished with praise by the editors I hired and then by my instructors in the two-year novel writing program I enrolled in.
Then real life happened. Every agent I approached was either silent or, if they took the time to read, said they wanted to like my novel but didn’t.
Thankfully I’ve found an editor/mentor who is as harsh as Ruta’s first. I stopped querying and hunkered down to write and grow.
Finally, after three years of working with my straight goods mentor, I feel I am becoming close to publishable. Who knows if it will happen? That’s not the point. Improving is the point.
I know many disapprove of harsh criticism and tell stories of writers who stopped because of it. But I think it’s the litmus test of whether or not you are the real deal.
If writing is etched into your soul, if life feels purposeless without it, you will continue with unabated passion no matter how many times or how cruelly you are told you stink!
It makes such a big difference to find the editor–or anyone walking the writing journey with you–whose style jells with yours, doesn’t it? I agree that editors do authors a disservice by candycoating their feedback. You need straightforward, intensive insight into what is and isn’t working as well as it could. I tend to prefer a positive and constructive approach, though, because I believe creativity responds much more to the carrot than the stick. It can make the often voluminous and challenging editorial input feel less daunting and more actionable, and keeps authors in the right frame of mind to tackle what’s frequently the long, difficult haul up Revision Mountain. To me there’s a big difference between candor and realism versus harshness and cruelty–that of critique versus criticism. The former is invaluable to authors; the latter risks shutting down the very part of them that can effect the needed revisions. That’s one reason I find Ruta so inspiring, actually, for persevering through that. Thanks for being here, Maryann!
I love your blog and these wonderful interviews with writers who have come out the other side.
I think I may have overstated the bluntness of my mentor/editor’s criticism. It wasn’t cruel really, just absolutely clear with a bit of spicy language thrown in.
Him: (after what felt like an hour of staring at me on the Zoom screen though it was probably only thirty seconds): “Anyone who reads this isn’t going to know what the f**k they’re reading.”
I exhaled my relief (so that’s why I was getting the response I was getting!! I thought it was my last name!).
I thanked him profusely. I felt like I’d been given a hand after wandering, lost in a desert of sugar, for years. He then told me where he thought my strengths were but said we needed to tear the thing up and start all over.
Not sure if other writers would find that immediate reaction candid or cruel.
I think every author has to find the style that suits them, honestly. I talk about that a lot in evaluating a potential editor (as in this article for Writer’s Digest)–it’s about getting straightforward, constructive, thorough feedback, as you say, Maryann, but given in a way that’s most helpful to YOU. It’s so nice you’ve found a good fit! Thanks again for being here.