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.
KJ Dell’Antonia has the soul of a writer. A former journalist and editor, she’s the author of two nonfiction books, two novels, and cohost of popular writing podcast #AmWriting. But her writing career has largely been guided by her practical approach.
“I’ve just never been precious about it,” she says. “I write what I think people would like to read, what I would like to read, or if you’re an editor I write what you would like to publish. It’s not a problem for me. I just want to do it.”
Yet she started her career as a lawyer “to please my father, because it’s an easier path to gold stars,” she jokes. But also because a career in writing just didn’t seem practical. “I didn’t know a single soul who made a living with a creative thing. It wasn’t something you could make money doing.”
After getting her law degree she worked seven jobs in seven years and hated most of them, writing all the while—resulting in multiple “terrible half-written novels in which I murdered ex-boyfriends, basically. I don’t think I was ever not writing.”
After 9/11, Dell’Antonia (then a new parent) was laid off from a start-up, and she and her family moved to rural New Hampshire. With no job and very few local opportunities, she decided the time was right to give writing a serious go.
Having written a weekly opinion column for her college paper while pursuing her law degree, she started pitching nonfiction articles to national magazines: on mothering, parenting, food and restaurants, whatever she could come up with that she thought might appeal to editors.
Though at first she faced “rejection after rejection,” finally she broke in with what she calls an “early listsicle” about odd popular baby foods in other nations. After that Dell’Antonia began contributing articles to a variety of publications on an array of topics. “I just said yes to everything,” including coauthoring her first parenting book, Reading with Babies, Toddlers, and Twos. When an acquaintance turned down online magazine Slate’s offer to serve as children’s media reviewer, Dell’Antonia pitched herself and got that too.
“There are definitely writers out there who have a thing they want to say and a way they want to say it, and they need to do that,” she says. “And if you’re that person you already know it. Do your thing, the way you need to do it. I respect that, if that’s what fires you up.
“But there are a lot of us out there who just need to be heard. And we don’t necessarily care whether we’re heard on the topic of foreign baby food. We just want a chance to get our words in front of people…. Writing the things that people want to read isn’t selling out; it’s smart.”
She doggedly developed her new niche, contributing occasional articles to the New York Times parenting feature Motherlode and, when she learned the Times’s children’s book reviewer was leaving, she went after that too, though she was “literally laughed out of the editor’s office.”
But then one evening, over dinner with friends and fellow writers Jessica Lahey and Sarina Bowen (now also her cohosts for #AmWriting, a podcast they started in 2016), she got an email from her editor at Motherlode that she was leaving the Times. Dell’Antonia got up from the table, searched out the editor in charge of hiring a replacement, and immediately pitched herself for the position.
At first the hiring editor brought her in only as a recurring temporary fill-in while auditioning writers (including Dell’Antonia) for the full-time position. Dell’Antonia fought hard (“every week I’d send her an ‘subtle’ email about how much better my weeks were than those of the other auditioning writers”) and eventually won the full-time role.
She served the next five years as Motherlode editor, but when a new editor changed the direction of the feature, Dell’Antonia took leave to finish a nonfiction parenting book she’d been working on…and didn’t go back. “It took me a while to tell them…because that’s just a really hard thing to let go of,” she says. “It was a dream job.”
Expectations were high for her book, though—How to Be a Happier Parent, which had sold at auction—and meanwhile her friend Jessica Lahey’s parenting book The Gift of Failure had hit the NY Times bestseller list. “There was the possibility—no, the expectation— that that would happen for me too. It didn’t,” Dell’Antonia relates matter-of-factly, adding, “They paid me a big advance, and I didn’t come close to earning it out. And now I didn’t have my other job, either. I was really sad and angry and upset with myself for a long time.”
During all this time she’d been “noodling” on other projects, including a memoir, but the one she kept coming back to was an idea for a novel about the small Kansas town her parents were from, and its two quirky chicken restaurants—a story that had been slow to fully develop. “I think I was afraid that I couldn’t do it.”
But when she interviewed book coach Jennie Nash on #AmWriting, Dell’Antonia realized coaching might be just what she needed to finish a polished draft. They worked together for six months before she showed it to her nonfiction agent, who referred her to a fiction colleague within the agency, and the book sold shortly after. After another year of editing, and an unexpected delay thanks to COVID, The Chicken Sisters released in late 2020.
Dell’Antonia’s follow-up novel, In Her Boots, releases July 5, after a “several-month-long facedown on the coffee table dealing with an editorial letter” that forced her to find a workable way of executing revisions. I asked KJ to share what she learned about editing and revising, and how she tackles them in her own work.
How KJ Dell’Antonia Revises
There’s how I imagine I revise, how I revise on my own, and how I revise when working with a coach or an editor. In some ways they aren’t that different—process, really—but I’ve found that when other people are in the mix, they force me to really look at the things I’ve been glossing over or just hoping “worked” without doing the hard work it sometimes takes to really reach the reader and say what you want to say.
In terms of process, my first draft tends to be a long process of two steps forward, one back, one forward, three back (which, yes, puts us at no steps at that point). I write, I figure things out, I outline, I write more, I figure things out, I go a little backwards, I outline more, I write more. Then I usually hit a sort of tipping point that allows me to keep going forward, at least for a while. That might repeat four or five times before I finally write a draft of the final scene. Invariably, at that point, there’s a list of things I need to go back and change which range from hair color to “ok, now he’s not her ex-boyfriend, he’s her ex-husband and the father of her kid” and even “from here it’s in first person, change the rest”.
At that point, if I’m on my own, I usually outline again. This outline includes “what I have” and “what I need” and takes as short as possible a look at the plot (outside) and emotion (inside) of every scene. It’s partly to cement what I still have in my own mind and it also becomes a tool to give me an idea of how much each scene/chapter needs.
I tend to work sequentially, although sometimes I’ll start mid-book and then go forward. I do hop around, but usually only to make things match up—she remembers him saying this, so, back I go, to make sure he says it.
When I have the book to the level I am aiming for, I give it to whoever’s next. My agent, in the case of my current WIP. A coach/developmental editor sometimes (and I did that mid-project with In Her Boots, too). My editor.
What happens next seems to depend on a lot of things, including my personal mental health and whether we’re in the middle of a global crisis. I might take the resulting edit and talk to the editor/coach/agent. Make a plan for the bigger changes and then go through that same process again—outline, figure out what different places in the book need. In this instance, I might work on a bigger level than scenes. So, maybe it’s “the first act needs to go faster” or “we’ve got a saggy middle” (or more likely both). Now I’m looking at what I have/what I need on the larger scale. Not “how is this scene” but “do I need this scene?” I’ll make a new outline and talk THAT over with the editor, then revise and either give it back or—if we were in agreement on what I was doing and I’m confident I’ve done it, revise it to the next stage (which might take a couple of passes).
Or I might spend a week facedown on my coffee table, firm in the belief that the edit letter said, not “let’s work on this” but “this is the worst thing ever and you should rewrite it from scratch or maybe consider another career.” Then, forget revising. Suddenly I’m all “maybe she should be a poet! Or what if it takes place in Patagonia instead of New England! Vampires? What if instead of reconciling with her father, she murders him?”
At this point I need to be stopped. If not, I will throw away the whole draft and start over, and that might not be necessary. I think I’ve probably actually done that once—other times, I’ve presented my plan for the entirely new book to various wiser people (including my brilliant current editor and my equally wonderful agent) and they have talked me off the ledge.
Resisting that panic mode is probably a key step in revision for me. So, maybe it looks like this: Write book. Revise book. Hate book. STOP BREATHE WAIT. Listen to what people are really saying. Revise again. Accept that hating the book is part of the process—because it always falls short of what you’d hoped. Revise again, send it out again, get it as good as I can, take edits, do my best, let it go.