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.
“Every one of our journeys is different. Comparing is a practice in futility,” says author Rochelle Weinstein. “Your door may look different than someone else’s, but that doesn’t mean one is better than the other. It just means you and your story are unique.”
Rochelle didn’t take a typical path along the route to developing her own writing career. In fact, at first she didn’t even set out to have one. Though she always loved to write, her only forays into the field were her childhood diary and a major in journalism that led her into a successful career in the music industry in California and later Miami.
It wasn’t until MTV bought her company, and Rochelle and her husband had twin boys and couldn’t relocate to New York, that she realized, “I had a story I needed to tell–about relationships, about loss, and I needed to get that on paper. There was really no intention of being a published author. I just wanted to write the story.”
She wrote it over the course of a year in 2000, during her children’s afternoon naps, and then stashed the manuscript under her bed. But when a friend asked to read it–and then wanted to share it with her book club group–their feedback encouraged Rochelle to query “a gazillion” agents, helped by her wide network of contacts from her days as a music exec.
She received no offers, though, and the manuscript went back under the bed. In 2003 she wrote a second story, queried again, and got “positive feedback”—but again no offer of representation.
And then in 2012 she decided to self-publish that first story—back when that was often perceived as a path only for hacks. “I knew there was going to be a credibility factor, and I knew there was going to be a stigma,” Rochelle says. “But I asked myself, ‘What is it you want from your writing–what is your goal?’“
- Why Do You Write?
- Whose Standards Are You Judging Yourself By?
- What If You Don’t “Succeed” as a Creator?
Rochelle realized she wasn’t looking to hit a bestseller list or chase a massive advance. “I just wanted a tangible piece of evidence of what I’d done.”
Taking the Reins of Her Writing Career
She plunged into grassroots marketing for her self-pubbed book, What We Leave Behind. She hired a publicist in her hometown, Miami, utilized her “robust network” of connections, and capitalized on her advertising and marketing skills from her years in the entertainment business. It was a real organic effort, long before the days of Facebook groups and Bookstagrammers. Rochelle called on favors, securing articles in magazines and features on the local news, partnering with indie bookstores around the country for book signings and meet-and-greets, as well as making dozens of book-club visits and building her mailing list.
She donated copies of her novel for silent auctions, along with perks like an evening with the author and two bottles of wine, always brainstorming “ways to keep getting myself out there,” even leaving signed novels on airplane seats whenever she or her husband flew. She was “hypervigilant” about following up with readers to secure reviews, mindful of securing enough to be chosen for a BookBub promotion (long before they were as prevalent as they are now).
Though she dreaded public speaking, Rochelle contacted religious groups and charitable organizations—“dozens of organizations–anywhere I could go, I would go, ‘No charge, take me….’ I was the most terrified speaker in the world,” she says, recalling her first engagement, at a local indie bookstore: “I literally almost threw up in the car on the way there.”
She continued the PR machine again when she self-pubbed her second novel, The Mourning After, and this time she added even more avenues for exposure: contacting an organization for the rare disease one character in the story suffers to seek out speaking opportunities, and approaching businesses she’d mentioned in the book to propose hosting book events together.
“It’s not only about drumming up book sales,” Rochelle says of her tireless efforts. “It’s putting yourself out there and building a brand, building a presence.”
The Leap from Indie to Mainstream Publishing
She built such a presence that Lake Union bought her next book, Where We Fall, in 2016. And two years after the fact, Rochelle discovered that her first, self-pubbed title, What We Leave Behind, had hit the USA Today bestseller list in 2014 and she’d never known.
“Would it have been easier for me to pick myself up after being knocked down having that accolade bolstering me?” Rochelle muses. “Possibly. But I just pushed through and kept going. I know it’s clichéd, but the successful authors aren’t necessarily the most talented. They’re the ones who never give up.”[Related reading: How Writers Survive: Liz Fenton and Lisa Steinke]
Rochelle went on to publish her next four novels with Lake Union, the most recent of which, When We Let Go, releases May 17. But even that hasn’t always been smooth sailing, when a long delay in hearing back from her editors about one of her titles “really killed my ego and self-confidence,” she recalls. “That was an exceptionally difficult time for me, and I was about ready to switch careers altogether.”
Her MO with disappointment and discouragement and failure is to give herself the time to “feel all the feelings,” as Rochelle describes it. “Curse. Mope. Whine. Lament. Complain. Catastrophize. You name it. Then I remind myself of why I’m doing this and the spirit returns, mostly with some new nugget of wisdom attached to it. I don’t like to give up, especially on things I believe in, but you have to go into this business knowing it’s challenging, and everyone faces some form of rejection or vulnerability.”
Her resilience, resourcefulness, and determination stem from Rochelle’s core approach to the business and her writing career, and she shares that with the many authors she mentors and teaches: “It’s all about managing expectations. You must be realistic. We’re not all going to find success. Certainly, there are more ways than ever to get into print, but longevity in the business is about your stamina and the ability to accept that this is where your career path has taken you.”
“Keep going is my mantra, but for some, there may come a point where they’ve reached the wall. That’s okay too. If being a writer is who you are, it’s in you. Give yourself a break. Take the time to refresh and recharge. Who knows? Maybe that’s when the next great novel will take form.”
I asked Rochelle a few questions about her editing and revision process, and she was generous enough to share several aspects of it.
How Rochelle Weinstein Revises:
TYM: How do you edit—meaning how do you initially evaluate your manuscript and assess what may need developing or changing?
RW: First of all, there is no such thing as perfecting a manuscript on your first attempt, so keep in mind that there’s always going to be developing and changing. Writing is rewriting, and when I start a new novel, I just get all the dreck and muck onto the page. There are times I throw a word in that is so ridiculously off, but I tell myself you’ll get to this in the next draft. Just keep going. Now I know my dear friend Lisa Barr does not proceed without perfecting every chapter. This is actually quite horrifying to me. (Hear that, LB?)[Read about Lisa Barr’s process in her How Writers Revise feature.]
My first draft barely resembles a cohesive story, the arc is terribly wobbly, and time lines are often confusing or out of order. But the next draft is where the fun begins. Just assume that the entire manuscript needs an overhaul and go in with gloves and patience. This next draft is where the seams get pulled together, the plot gets streamlined, and the right word magically appears.
I am a voracious reader. Some authors can’t write while creating. I read novels while writing and editing, no matter the genre. I can feel the rhythm of a story in my gut from years of turning pages. If I don’t feel that feeling of satisfaction when I’m reading through a draft, I know I need to revise.
TYM: How do you process editorial feedback, and how do you decide what feels right for your story and what to disregard?
RW: I actually love being edited. Ahem. Having no formal training, I accept any feedback as gospel and treat it with the respect it deserves. At first, the edit can be daunting. (Hello, Tiffany is reading this right now. What is she thinking?) I know many authors who have read the pages of an editorial letter with tears in their eyes, vowing to never write again. I’ve thrown pages across my dining room, watched them fly through the air, and told whoever is around: “I’m never writing another book again.”
That’s good. You should feel that way. Be upset. Be worried. Take it all in. Give yourself a day for this sadistic exercise, because then it’s back to work. One of the nice parts about the editorial letter and the insecurities and doubts it brings forth is that it’s also a terrific way to challenge yourself to do better. Empowering. That’s the word.
I rarely argue with my editor(s) about what feels right for the story and what to disregard. Oftentimes, if I’m on the fence, we’ll have a phone conversation to dissect the different perspectives and options, which leads to an understanding that best reflects the story. A good editor is able to see your vision and help you get there. When you’re in the thick of the forest, you need an eagle-eyed editor who understands your voice and cadence. She knows where your characters are going and how best to get them there.
I hear my editor’s voice in my head every single time I sit down to write. Whether it’s through lizard-brain writing or going deeper—visceral reactions—my books are better and stronger because of tough editing. Why would anyone not want to be edited?
TYM: What’s your biggest challenge in editing your own work, and how do you overcome it?
RW: When you’ve written and rewritten a scene multiple times, when you’ve been inside these characters’ heads for months at a time, it’s difficult to approach the story with objectivity. When this happens to me, I force myself to take a break from the manuscript and return to it with fresh eyes. You’d be surprised how differently you approach a conflict or plot line when you have some distance from it.