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.
Author Katherine Center won a creative writing scholarship in high school, received the Vassar College Fiction Prize while majoring in creative writing, and at 22 was offered a fellowship to the University of Houston’s Creative Writing Program. Her first novel, The Bright Side of Disaster, sold at an auction among four of the “Big Five” publishers in a two-book hardcover deal, and she became a New York Times and USA Today bestselling author whose books have been made into movies.
This is the kind of story most authors dream about—pursuing their passion in a steady upward trajectory to bestsellerdom. And after her early writing success throughout high school, college, and her master’s graduate program, Katherine says, “I did kind of think that the next step would be to just be a novelist, like I would get my degree, and I would work really hard, and I would be good. And then somehow I would get published.”
But it didn’t quite play out like that.
She spent the next eight years after attaining her master’s sending “dark, heavy, deep literary” short stories to The New Yorker and getting rejected, a time she calls “tragic and humiliating.”
“I kept getting these rejection notes and getting these rejection notes. And every time it happened I would tumble down into the depths of despair.”
An obsessive love of writing and story kept her getting back into the ring, but when she and her husband had their first child she stopped—the first time since sixth grade that she can remember not writing.
She didn’t write a word for the next year and a half—“not even a grocery list.” But when her sister dared her to write a comic novel about motherhood, something clicked. “Up until that point I had been trying to write very literary fiction, because I had gone to Vassar, which is very literary. And I’d gone to the U of H writing program, which is very literary.” But her sister’s challenge let Katherine tap into her humor, an intrinsic part of her personality, her marriage, and her life. “That was it, those were the right words at the right moment…. I started writing the next day. I got an idea for a story and in six weeks I had a first draft.”
She spent a year editing and revising, but just as she was about to start querying agents, Katherine got pregnant with her second child. “I was suddenly back in Newbornville with two kids now. And I’m not really a multitasker. So I was just kind of overwhelmed. And I dropped the whole trying-to-get-the-novel-published project. I literally had it printed out and ready to go, and I just put it in a drawer–I can still see this moment–and I just shut the drawer.”
It wasn’t until a chance encounter with a novelist neighbor more than a year later that she took the manuscript back out, when the woman offered to send it to her agent in LA. The agent called requesting the full the next day, offered representation within a week, and days later began submitting it to publishers, engendering the multi-house auction that netted Katherine a “dream-come-true book deal” for her debut novel.
But that kind of success comes with high expectations—and Katherine’s first book didn’t perform as well as hoped. “They were really hoping that that first book would hit big, and it didn’t.” Neither did her second, Everyone Is Beautiful, which released on the day NPR announced “the biggest recession since the 1930s.” With her third book, Get Lucky, “I think to this day it has like 35 reviews–nobody read this book,” Katherine says. After her fourth, The Lost Husband, Katherine thought her writing career was probably over (though that book would wind up being adapted into a movie and hitting #1 on Netflix in 2020. “The book I wrote at the lowest point in my career was the first one to get turned into a movie,” she marvels now).
“I just thought, My life dream was to be a writer, and here it is just flowing through my fingers. It was hard. It was a very dark time for me. I mean, I really, really thought the ball came in my direction to do the thing, the only thing I’ve ever really wanted to do, and I fumbled it, and I lost it, and I thought I wasn’t gonna get to write anymore.”
That was when she adopted a new attitude toward her career: cultivating gratitude. “I thought, I’m going to be grateful that I get to do this at all, for as long as I get to do this, and I’m not going to get bitter about anything that I wanted to happen that didn’t happen. I’m just gonna keep loving to write, and I’m going to let love and sunshine be my guide down the road.”
But she also dug in deeper to her writing itself. “I heard somewhere…somebody said, ‘When things don’t go your way, you can blame everybody else. Or you can just double down and try to get better.’ And so I did. I decided I wasn’t going to blame the economy or the publishing house. I was just like, the only thing I could control was getting better. And so I just kept reading books about writing. And I kept practicing. And actually the number one thing that I think I did to get better—and I think the difference between my early books and the books that I’m writing now–is that I decided to pay attention to what I love.”
That began a process of what Katherine calls “de-snobification.”
“I’ve just been giving myself permission to read what I want to read, read for joy. And to write what I want to write and to just follow my own compass, because I think the things that you like as a reader and as a writer are the things you should be reading and writing. You can trust your own compass on that.”
Her publisher did make an offer for her fifth book, Happiness for Beginners, but Katherine and her agent shopped it around and got a better offer from a new house, Macmillan. And with her sixth title, the smash hit How to Walk Away, she finally hit the New York Times bestseller list.
“I think sometimes with writers who have a lot of success early on, they haven’t necessarily had to dig deep and figure out who they are as writers, what they love in stories, why they’re even doing this at all, right? And I think for me having so much failure, I was frontloaded with so much failure that I really had to figure it out,” Katherine says.
Her advice for authors is hard-won from her own publishing journey: “Everybody’s different, you have to find your own thing. But the thing that you love to read about and think about is the thing that you should be writing about. So I guess the number one thing is, give yourself permission to follow your own compass. And then the other thing I would say is, you have to practice the art of self-encouragement. Because writing is hard; there are no guarantees. And if you’re hard on yourself all the time, you’re going to get discouraged, and you’re going to quit. But really, the only way to get better is to keep doing it.”
Katherine offers so much more insight into her writing career, her process, and her best advice to authors in our deep, wide-ranging interview here, or read the full transcript here (I recommend having a notepad handy for all her pearls of wisdom). Her latest book, The Bodyguard, releases July 19.
Meanwhile, I asked Katherine about her editing and revising process, and she dived right into the topic—it turns out she loves nerding out over these key areas of the writing process as much as I do. 😊
How Katherine Center Revises
How do you edit—meaning how do you initially evaluate your manuscript and assess what may need developing or changing?
I’m the poster child for the saying “all writing is re-writing.” Writing and editing co-exist for me in a very fluid, very circular process—meaning I’m constantly circling back, even as I’m writing first drafts, and re-working the language and the paragraphs and the dialogue. But it’s not out of self-criticism, or fear, or perfectionism: It’s out of love. I always fall in love with the stories I’m writing—and so as I go, I just want to go back and re-read and enjoy them. As I’m re-reading, I invariably see things that could be tighter or stronger or funnier or clearer (I can’t even send an email without combing back through it multiple times)—and so I just re-work those things as I see them.
With writing—the process is so much about pleasure and joy. It’s about re-reading with an eye toward noting and enjoying what I’m getting right and then doing more of that. I think that’s a really vital skill to develop if you’re going to do any audience-based work for a living: the art of self-encouragement. You have to learn how to look at what you’re doing with a critical eye, yes—but it’s just as important to know how to look with an appreciative eye. How to savor what’s working. It’s a balance of those two things. That’s really the key to it all: to lean in to what you love. That’s serious advice. I’d never get anything written if I were mean to myself.
The question I’m always asking myself is always, “How can this be better?” One thing I love about writing is that there’s never really a wrong answer. In anything you write, there are parts that are working and parts that aren’t. Once I’ve got that first draft on paper, everything after that is about helping it become the best version of itself—just shaping and reshaping until I’ve maximized the good stuff and it reaches its potential. Even if something’s not working yet, I know I can fix it eventually—and even if I can’t fix it, I can cut it. I’m totally happy to delete things that aren’t working (sometimes it’s a relief)—even whole chapters, if they aren’t serving the story well. I’m about to cut an entire, super-fascinating chapter in my 2023 manuscript because it’s slowing down the pacing. I do get attached to things I write—and sometimes I’m sad to see things go—but ultimately I’m there in service of the story, and so cutting things I can’t make work always feels like a step forward.
How do you approach revisions—once you know the areas that need work, how do you go about doing it?
One really important element for me is time off. Once I’ve got a section or a draft written, I need to take some time away from it for a while so I can come back to it with fresh eyes. If I just write and write and write without ever stepping away, I lose all perspective. So much of editing is about re-reading and paying attention to how your own inner reader is reacting. Is it too slow here? To wordy there? Does that explanation make sense? Does it build properly? Am I bored? Is this funny enough? Some of those reactions can only happen if you’ve taken time away and forgotten the story a little. So I schedule those breaks the same way I schedule writing time.
As for the mechanics of how I do it, my preferred way is always to print the story (or sections of it) out on paper, read it that way and mark it all up in the margins and on the backs of pages. I love watching a manuscript get totally drenched in hand-written notes, and question marks, and scribbles. The more I mark it up, the better. It’s like a visual map of my progress—proof that I’m doing something. Later, when I go back and enter all the changes on the pages back into the digital document, I evaluate them again as I’m going. Then once I’ve typed everything in, I print it out again and start over.
Things I think about a lot while I’m editing:
- Unnecessary words: I’m always tightening—all the time. If I can possibly cut it without losing anything, I cut it.
- Trying things: With certain important words or moments in the story, I’ll try out lots of different options before settling on one. That’s a big thing with me—trying things out. I’m happy to keep trying until I find the perfect thing.
- Gestures: I think a lot about what people are doing with their faces and their bodies when they’re talking to each other. Sometimes I say the dialogue out loud and try it with different shrugs or winces. What gesture can I pair with that line of dialogue that conveys the meaning perfectly—or even deepens and complicates it? If people can hear what characters are saying AND see the way they’re saying it, that’s much more three dimensional.
- Dialogue: I read my dialogue out loud a lot. It needs to sound—both on the page and out loud—the way people sound when they’re talking. Or, at least, like the pithiest, snappiest version of how funny people sound when they’re talking.
- Line breaks: I change where I break lines a lot. I pay attention to how the white space on the page impacts the reading experience. We learn about line breaks and white space in poetry, but the same principles apply in prose—you just have fewer options. I lean toward more white space on a page because I think it makes things easier for the reader, and I’m all about making things easy.
- Variation: I tend to write in a conversational way, like the narrator is just chatting with you. The choices I make about words, tone, sentence length, and paragraph density all start there. But a novel is a long thing. You also need variation in rhythm and pacing. So I make sure that the ratio of short, chatty sentences is counter-balanced sometimes by long, winding ones. Same with paragraphs. Many are one line (or even one word), but I also can have paragraphs that go on for a whole page or two. And same with words. I tend to choose easy, comfortable words. I want to make the story as easy for the reader as possible, and if she has to sit there with a thesaurus—that’s doing the opposite. But I do throw in huge, crazy words from time to time just to keep things exciting.
- Comedy: I am always looking for a funnier way to say something, or a more wry observation, or a more hilarious example. I wrote a middle aged lady stalker character in The Bodyguard who is also a part-time corgi breeder. But then, in edits, I took some time to think about it. Are corgis the funniest type of dog? Is a weiner dog funnier? Basset hound? Teacup pomeranian? I really spent some time on this! In the end, I went with corgi, but only after checking to make sure I hadn’t missed a funnier breed.
- Maximizing emotions: I really go back in edits to make sure that the emotional moments of the story are really there on the page. I try to slow down for those scenes and make them as 3-D and layered and rich with feeling as possible. Those scenes—ones of disappointment, anticipation, ecstasy, hope, longing, anger, grief . . . those are the heart of the story. They’re what it’s all about. So I really pay special attention to make sure they are as immersive and layered and visceral as possible.
- Rhythm: I read things out loud. I listen to the underlying syllable patterns. Does it make a fun rhythm? Is there a better way to shape it? For example! I wrote a tagline for The Bodyguard that read like this: “Coming to rescue us all this summer.” It was a fun idea, but I found myself coming back to it later to mess around with the phrasing, and I finally settled on: “Coming this summer to rescue us all.” Which has a MUCH better rhythm. Right? The syllables in the first one are just a series of random taps. But the second one is iambic pentameter! (Something I realized only later.) They both convey the same meaning, but the second one is SO much more fun to read—and say.
How do you process editorial feedback, and how do you decide what feels right for your story and what to disregard?
I’m lucky to have a really brilliant editor, and I try very hard not to have an ego. Some writers I know just really don’t like being criticized, but I think if someone you trust gives you feedback, you’re lucky. A good editor has a perspective on what you’re doing that you could never access on your own. I take my editor’s feedback very seriously, and I’m grateful for it. I take at least 90% of her suggestions—maybe more—because they’re generally great points. That said, I really don’t like feedback too early in the process. I think writing an authentic, cohesive story is so much about paying attention to your own inner compass about the story that you, yourself, would really love to read. You have to write for your own inner reader—in response to that person’s passions and interests and longings. You can’t follow your editor’s compass—or your 10th grade English teacher’s, for that matter. Only yours. Too much outside feedback before you’ve found your way can derail you. I usually talk about the story idea with my editor early on, then I go away for 8 or 9 months and write it, and then I show her the first draft only after I feel like it’s as fully realized as it can possibly be. Then she gives me her reactions to it, and we go from there.
What’s your biggest challenge in editing your own work, and how do you overcome it?
I always think of writing a story as walking down to the end of a long dock, getting into a little rowboat, untying the rowboat, and drifting out into the vast sea of your imagination. I love, love, love floating out into that sea—but it can be hard for me to let myself leave the shore. Real life is on that shore! People need me! I can’t just float away! But getting away is so essential. I need periods of sustained concentration when I’m working on a novel so that I can let all my real-life preoccupations go and just get lost in the story. And so, I leave town. If I can go away for four or five days at a time, I can really get immersed in the story and build momentum and just write and write. Highly, highly recommend!
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