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.
Depending on how you do the math, author Sarah Bird is poised to publish the eleventh novel in her sixth genre of her fourth writing career.
She’s been an NPR Moth Radio Hour storyteller; was an inaugural invitee to the Meryl Streep/Oprah Winfrey Screenwriters’ Lab; was inducted into the Texas Literary Hall of Fame; and received a Lifetime Achievement Award from the Texas Institute of Letters.
But first, Sarah says, she had to learn “how to fill up pages.”
As a shy child growing up in a military family that was often on the move, Sarah says, “Books were my salvation…. I revered them, but I didn’t connect books with actual human beings. I thought they were thrown down by the gods from Mount Olympus.”
So instead, she started her writing career freelancing magazine articles and creating stories for an unintimidating venue, True Confessions and similar spinoff publications—contributions that at the time, in the seventies, netted her enough income to pay her tuition in college and grad school along with her rent.
After receiving a fellowship to study journalism at the University of Texas, Sarah planned on a career in that field—but she redirected after working as a reporter and finding herself getting more caught up in the narrative and “characters” of her stories than the actual facts. One of her professors pulled her aside and suggested, “Sarah, I think you ought to go into fiction. Officially.”
But writing fiction didn’t come with health insurance—or a steady paycheck. Yet at her first and only non-writing job, Sarah soon discovered a stumbling block to working a traditional career path: “I adore being around people. For an hour or two. Then everyone needs to go away so I can recharge for a solid eight hours. Nobody at my state job was down with this program.”
Her “escape plan,” as she puts it, was to write a mystery novel. With no agent, and using the skills she had learned as a freelancer, Sarah identified the editors she thought would be most interested in her maiden attempt, Do Evil Cheerfully, and wrote them directly.
Luckily, an editor at Avon Books was interested. Sarah quit that state job as soon as she received the advance and returned to freelancing for magazines like Mademoiselle, Cosmo, National Observer, MS, and People.
It was while chasing a story for one of them that she attended the inaugural conference of a brand-new group calling themselves the Romance Writers of America, where she immediately “buddied up with the only other woman there wearing pants”—an author named Ellie Aufdem Brinke, who had just published her first novel under a pen name…Nora Roberts.
When Sarah heard editors there talking about large print runs and high advances, she loaded up on free books and stayed up all night reading. “I went to bed that night a virgin and woke up pulsing with febrile, moist ideas,” she jokes.
One of them was a romance set in the world of rodeos, an interest that had bloomed while she was studying photojournalism and fallen in love with the fascinating cultures that surround different brands of rodeo from mainstream, to kids, to Native-American, to Black, to women’s, and old-timers’.
She approached a Silhouette editor at that same conference and asked if she’d be interested in a romance set in that world.
“My timing was perfect because that imprint was eager to make a name separate from the more Anglophilic Harlequin Romances, so rodeo was a perfect fit. I just had to take out the manure, bull slobber, and bad language, add a yeasty pair of lovers and I was set.”
She wrote and sold five romance novels to Silhouette under the pen name Tory Cates, by this time having signed as the very first client of a brand-new agent.
While Sarah dreamed of writing books “that sprang out of my soul,” her early novels offered what she calls “the gift of on-the-job training. I was learning to write in full view…. I was working up to having enough confidence to tell a story that sprang entirely from my own vision, without being hemmed in by the expectations and conventions of a genre,” she says. “Those early publications gave me the confidence to chart my own course.”
She used that confidence to write a comic novel, Alamo House—which was rejected 35 times before it finally sold to Norton. “Honest to God, I swear, there were not 35 publishers in New York,” Sarah says. “I think some editors hated it so much they were writing multiple rejection letters.”
Her second comic novel, The Boyfriend School, was bought by Doubleday, but only after it sold first as a screenplay when Sarah wrote it in that format as an exercise to help her get unstuck drafting the novel version. Then came two more novels, also for Doubleday, while working on another screenplay, about the only woman ever to serve with the legendary Buffalo Soldiers, which was also generating a lot of interest in Hollywood.
“I thought, Oh, well, isn’t this easy? Screenplays. Indeed. Why not?” Sarah quips, laughing at her own ignorance.
And thus she embarked on yet another new path in her writing career: For the next ten years she flew between Austin and LA working as a screenwriter for hire for companies like Paramount, Warner Bros., ABC, CBS, Hallmark, and National Geographic—more “on-the-job” training.
It was ten years before she wrote another novel, The Yokota Officers’ Club—“the book I had been waiting to become a good enough writer to write, a book about my family.”
But with a decade having elapsed since her last novel, Sarah was without a publisher. When at a conference an editor at Knopf asked what she was working on, Sarah told her about the manuscript. She said, “Send it; it sounds interesting.” Knopf bought the book, as well as Sarah’s next four novels.
Then came Daughter of a Daughter of a Queen, a passion project she’d been working on for decades, a narrative version of the screenplay that had garnered her such attention in Hollywood, about Buffalo Soldier Cathy Williams.
But when her publisher recognized the sociopolitical difficulties of a white woman telling a Black woman’s story in first person, Sarah made the difficult decision to part ways. “That was very, very traumatic for me because I loved my editor, I loved Knopf, I loved everybody I worked with there, but I had this book that I felt an obligation to publish.”
Monique Patterson, a Black editor at St. Martin’s, championed the book, as well as Sarah’s most recent novel, Last Dance on the Starlight Pier, a vivid sweep of Depression-era America told through the thrilling lens of dance marathons and one woman’s struggle to thrive, releasing April 14.
Sarah summarizes her long, varied, successful career with characteristic humor:
“I treasure how ignorant I was. I didn’t know what I couldn’t do, I didn’t know what I was supposed to do. It’s hard to convey how ignorant I was. I didn’t have a ton of expectations. My whole, entire career plan was, ‘Oh, Lord, let me do it one more time.’”
I asked her to talk a bit about her editing and revision processes, and true to form Sarah—of course—made a hilarious story out of it.
How Sarah Bird Revises
How do I edit? What a good question. You’d think that someone who is about to publish her eleventh novel would have a good answer. And you would be wrong. Asking me about my revision process sort of feels like someone asking Hannibal how he crossed the Alps. Yeah, he did it, but damn, it would have been a hell of a lot easier without the elephants.
So maybe I should just free-associate on the topic.
Oh, okay, I do have one actual tip. When I finish a first draft, I put the whole thing into a different font and read it on something other than the laptop I wrote it on. Like my phone. The phone is really good because what I need is a way to see it fresh. So, adios, Arial, and come on down, Times New Roman. Or Courier New. But never Edwardian Script. Bauhaus 93, you’re also out.
Very early on, I learned that you should never let just one person read an initial draft. Especially if that person is someone you have ever had occasion to see in their underwear. A husband, for example. It gives his or her reading a wildly unfair weight. Five readers is a good sample. The first time I did this, I was very heartened to see how different all the comments are. How one person will love a character or a plotline or a particularly cunning turn of phrase that someone else hates. What I learned to pay attention to is the consensus. If more than one reader stubs their toe on a section, you know that it is not playing the way you had intended it to.
Since you mentioned all the different kinds of writing I’ve done, let me add a word about the advantage of working in several areas. Writing is like having a bad boyfriend. If you have a bad boyfriend, you’ve got to have someone or somewhere else to go when he hurts you. And writing is definitely going to hurt you.
For roughly the first half of my career, I was a child about feedback. Just a giant baby. Unless the comments were utterly, boundlessly jubilant, my mind would shut down and I would default to a highly dramatic All is Lost mode. Fortunately, I ended up spending ten years in LA as a screenwriter where everyone from the producers and studio execs to the new hire out of Brown who fetched Thai chopped salads felt free to weigh in on my latest draft. Somewhere in the barrage of criticism, I started to learn how to do this magical thing: collaborate. How to listen to ideas that did not originate in my own, personal brain and gauge how right or wrong, useful or not, they were.
That story follows, but first a bit about structure. Some books have been like Christmas trees in that I quickly put up a bare-bones structure that tends to run pretty short. Then I have a grand time going back and decorating, filling in the bare spots, and adding a lot of mass.
Most of my novels, however, have been more like stalagmites. Crusty things created by the steady drip, drip, drip of words. These books need whittling. I have to go in and carve out big chunks to reveal what I actually want the thing to be. Unless it was a stalagmite. In which case: mission accomplished.
This is especially true in historical fiction, where I have the tendency to fall in love with my research and pack my poor little manuscript with all the mind-blowing nuggets that I’ve unearthed. I have to then go back, really scrutinize those with a cold eye, and ask myself if this particular gem helps the reader immerse herself in the world I’m creating. Or am I just showing off. It hurts the most to scrap those.
The Flamenco Academy was the worst of both Christmas-tree and stalagmite worlds. I wrote five entirely different drafts of that book. It started out as a murder mystery. Then became a historical novel about the origins of flamenco. At one point it morphed into a screenplay that was optioned by the rock singer Meat Loaf. Nothing really worked.
In my desperation–and delusion that anyone can really tell you what it is you truly want to write about—I flew to a writer’s conference where one of my idols, Margaret Atwood, was speaking. I paid a considerable sum for a few minutes with her and was granted an audience. I spilled my guts. She regarded me with all the Canadian froideur that I so richly deserved and spoke these words, “If a book’s not working either the tense or the point of view is wrong.”
Ding. My time was up.
The snarky child in me wanted to ask, “Tense or POV? Maggie, could you be any less specific? Like the language? Maybe I’m writing in the wrong language? Should I try Urdu?”
In the end, I stepped back and let the book become what it was always meant to be: the story of a 16-year-old girl who falls in love at first sight with a problematic guy and the ensuing catastrophe of their relationship based on my experience at sixteen of falling insanely in love at first sight with a problematic guy and the ensuing catastrophe of our relationship. I took the basics of my suburban melodrama, added a pulsing flamenco beat, and Olé!
So, yeah, I did eventually cross the Alps, but there could have been an easier way. Like what you are doing right now. Finding out how other writers did it and learning from their/my mistakes. After reading so many other authors’ stories and being surprised by how much I learned, I now think of this site as an invaluable pool of knowledge, an essential compendium that should be called, “Do It the Tiffany Way: Lose the Elephants.”