This post is part of the monthly How Writers Revise series, where I talk with successful authors about their editing and revision 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.
Elisa Lorello began her writing career later than she hoped, but she came to it as an early adopter of self-publishing that eventually springboarded her to the heights of commercial success.
Now a bestselling author of 11 novels and one memoir who has sold over a half million units worldwide, Elisa graduated with two degrees from University of Massachusetts Dartmouth and was teaching college-level writing and composition, intending a tenure-track professor career, when she finally turned to an idea for a novel that had been brewing.
“All of a sudden that thing that had been dormant all those years said, ‘This is this is who you are, this is what you want to do,’ Elisa says.
But when she finished the manuscript—which eventually became her debut novel, Faking It—and shopped it to agents, she got more than 50 rejections.
“The most common answer I got is either, ‘I don’t feel this quite fits in my catalog,’ or ‘I don’t quite know how to sell this,’” she says. “And at that point, I finally got to the point where I said, ‘Well, I can sell it. I know what it is, or I think I know what it is.’”
Self-publishing was still a fledgling segment of the market then—this was even before the Kindle had come onto the scene—and still had a stigma attached to it. But in 2008 Elisa took the plunge, teaching herself everything from formatting to cover design to marketing, hoping the book would sell even a few copies.
When Kindle did begin to emerge as a widespread market the following year, she was an early adopter there too—and her book quickly shot to #6 in the entire Kindle store in January of 2010, selling “something ridiculous” like 22,000 copies in three days.
And that’s when Amazon’s publishing arm came calling. Still in its infancy, the Amazon Encore imprint was signing self-pubbed authors who’d made a splash, and broadening their reach even more. They signed Elisa for Faking It and two other titles.
“And then life changes,” she recalls wryly.
“A bestselling author making six figures”
More releases followed, and in 2012 Elisa took the leap and quit her teaching job, having begun to feel the first stirrings of burnout after ten years, and dedicated herself to her writing full-time.
Her books continued to sell extremely well, one even becoming a bestseller in Germany, and “by 2015, I am a bestselling author making six figures…. All of a sudden now I have enough money to buy a car; I have enough money to pay off medical debt that I had.”
And then in 2016 came a turning point—and not for the better.
The at-the-time new Kindle Unlimited program was taking a bite out of author royalties. Elisa was working under strict deadlines for the first time. She’d met her now-husband—fellow APub author Craig Lancaster—and was planning a wedding across the country, caring for aging parents, and trying to navigate a new household, new pets, and a new relationship.
“In the same way I can look at all the synchronicities that got Faking It catapulted to success. I think there were synchronicities that that conspired that these two books did not do well,” she reflects. Her next two titles, The Second First Time and Big Skye Littleton, didn’t perform to the level of her previous titles.
“I was no longer the flavor of the month by then…. It was devastating,” Elisa remembers. “I was having hit after hit after hit, success after success after success…. It never occurred to me at that point that it could fail. And it is very difficult to accept that…. It’s a crash.”
In the dark period that followed, Elisa “went into panic mode, and I do not recommend this,” she says. “I wasn’t thinking about what’s the next thing I could do? Or how can I just even things out? I was thinking, Oh, I have to get my six figure career back.”
She admits—with some embarrassment—that her focus became on the product, instead of the process, leading her to every “best practices” blog and post and course she could find about how to gain followers, increase income, and churn out stories.
“After that two-book deal with my agent, I’m trying to pitch another and another and another and nothing is sticking because I’m not thinking about a story that I really love. I’m trying to think about, ‘What’s the next thing I can get?’”
“The well had gone completely dry”
Meanwhile at a lunch with their APub team, Elisa and Craig pitched the idea of cowriting a novel—real-life Amazon Publishing superstar authors partnering in life and on the page. The editors seemed enthusiastic.
But when Elisa and Craig wrote and submitted You, Me, & Mr. Blue Sky, Amazon passed.
And that was the last straw for Elisa. “I just stepped back and I took a break. But in that break, I collapsed. I really did break.
“The well had gone completely dry. I had no new ideas. I had no desire to do it. Some people I think their pain becomes the thing that fuels them as writers, and that’s not me—it’s the joy…and that was just completely nonexistent at that point. And I didn’t know if I was going to do it again.”
Learn more: In this episode of the “We Fight So You Don’t Have To” podcast, Elisa talks with authors Liz Fenton and Lisa Steinke about her struggles.
She went into therapy, realizing that losing her publisher hit a nerve about her father’s abandonment when she was younger, and, “It finally hit me…I am terrified of getting my heart broken again.”
With teaching opportunities limited where she and Craig were living, she pursued several other avenues—starting a decluttering business, learning Tarot card reading and beginning to offer her services, and working front-of-house at a small local movie theater—jobs that all helped fill her empty reservoir as she tried to “find the thing that was going to feed my soul again.”
And finally the stories started to come back.
When she stepped away from her writing, her agent had told her, “I will not leave you. When you’re ready, you come to me and I will be here for you.” So when Elisa finished the manuscript, her agent submitted it—to a round of publisher rejections.
Elisa was undaunted. “Now I’m in the head set I was in with Faking It,” she says, “where I said, ‘Well, if they don’t think they like it, they don’t think they could sell it, I love it, and I can sell it.’ And that was the difference. I finally went all in and I said, ‘I’m not going to be afraid of this anymore.’ I got my tenacity back, and I got my joy back.”
That latest joyful novel, All of You, releases October 11.
I asked Elisa to share not only her editing and writing processes—below—but a bit of advice for authors, based on what she’s learned from her career’s ups and downs, and I love what she had to say.
- “It’s never going to happen for you until you finally say, ‘I am willing to be vulnerable. I’m willing to take the arrow in the chest again. And even if it happens, even if I do take another arrow to the chest, I’m going to be okay….’ You have to recalibrate your expectations. You just have to.”
- “When you do have the fall from the success and you kind of fall off the mountain, a lot of people make this mistake: They try to climb the same mountain; they try to go back up the same one that they just came down from, and you’ve got to find the next one.”
- “One thing is redefining what the successes are, and making sure that you treat what are seemingly little wins as big wins…. There was a time I was selling 5000 [books] a month. And now and for the longest time I was looking at 300. And all I was seeing was failure, failure, failure, failure. When I finally look looked at it in a different way…I realized, I have not done a single act of promotion for any of these books. And some of these books are over 10 years old. And this month 300 sold—all of a sudden, that was huge.”
You can watch our full interview here.
How Elisa Lorello Revises
How do you edit—meaning how do you initially evaluate your manuscript and assess what may need developing or changing?
I always say that the blood, sweat, and tears of writing are in the revision. But so is the fun and the joy. Revision is the sandbox as much as it is the mudpit.
I bang out a first draft relatively quickly, meaning I’ll write without stopping to think about word choice, organization, detail, etc. That first draft is a discovery draft. It’s about getting as much of the story on the page as possible. When that’s done, I take some time away from the manuscript (how much time depends on what’s going on in my life, but I try not to make it too long—ideally anywhere about a month, but it’s definitely been longer, like, years).
When I’m ready to pick it up again and read it with fresh eyes, I print out the manuscript, sit somewhere comfortable, pen in hand, and read the draft, making tons of notes. The notes range from suggestions (“tighten this section,” “unpack this,” “more sensory description, please”) to questions (“but why does she feel this way? What’s underneath her anger?” “Is there a better word?” “What if she’s secretly in love with this guy and he already knows it?”) to making corrections, additions, deletions, etc. The story really begins to take shape. It’s like being in the getting-to-know-you-phase of a relationship, and falling in love as you do. In fact, it’s my favorite part of the process, and I do it several times, following every round of rewrites.
Other things I start thinking about the farther along I get:
- What I call the rhetorical situation (audience, purpose, style): What will make this reader want to keep turning the page?
- Pacing: Are the scenes moving too quickly or slowly?
- Dialogue: How is the rhythm? Cadence? Movement? Is the dialogue advancing the story? (Dialogue is also my favorite.)
- What the South Park creators call “but/therefore.” Is my story following a cause-and-effect pattern (known in freshman composition circles as one of the “rhetorical modes of discourse”), or is each scene happening without consequence?
The annotation phase is when I start to get an idea of what the story is really about, and that, too, is a fun discovery.
How do you approach revisions—once you know the areas that need work, how do you go about doing it?
As I said above, I start with printing, reading, and annotating the manuscript. I also sometimes make an outline. I’m one of those people who don’t like to outline before I write the book, but there’s a point in revision—usually farther along, like in a third or fourth draft—when I outline to make sure the story structure and character arc are in place.
With the annotations and outline beside me, I save a new draft on my laptop, start at Chapter One, and revise meticulously—word by word, sentence by sentence, paragraph by paragraph, chapter by chapter. Mostly I work in Word (a.k.a. “the devil I know”), but sometimes I work on one chapter at a time in Scrivener so I can handle the smaller chunks and not feel so overwhelmed. When I come to the end of the manuscript I take another break, print out the manuscript, and go through the annotation/editing process again.
Also, when I’m close to a finished draft, it’s important for me to read the entire manuscript out loud. I hear and notice so much when I do so. Rereading is every bit as important as rewriting. So are the breaks in between because writing is also thinking. Taking walks or long showers or staring out the window and thinking about the story are incredibly helpful for me. But so are the extended breaks—days or weeks off when I’m seemingly doing nothing, yet there’s a lot of mental composition happening. So much about the story and/or the characters are revealed to me in both the reading and the rests.
How do you process editorial feedback, and how do you decide what feels right for your story and what to disregard?
Usually, I read the editorial letter straight through. There’s almost always a bit of an ego reaction at first—those notes and insights are a lot to take in at once—and so I let my ego privately have its say. (“What? What do you mean I need to show more of the character’s inner life? It’s obvious.”) But then the next day I sit down and reread the letter, more slowly, thoughtfully, and objectively, and sometimes I make additional notes. And with the manuscript in tow, I start to work the letter, if that makes sense.
Earlier in my professional novel-writing career, I didn’t always make good decisions when it came to editorial overrides, and I chalk them up to rookie mistakes on my part. And of course, once a book is published, you can’t go back and fix it. I improved quite a bit as a result of those mistakes and regrets, and learned not to rush the process.
Now, when I do disagree with the editor’s suggestions even on the second and third reads, that’s when I do the hardcore ego check: “Is this me not liking the editor being right, or am I really going with my gut on this?” By that point, 99% of the time it’s the latter. Ultimately, the decisions are about craft, and making sure the decision serves the story. And now I rarely, if ever, regret overriding the editor—in fact, there were times when I’ve even talked an issue through with the editor and wound up coming up with something better than both of us initially suggested.
What’s your biggest challenge in editing your own work, and how do you overcome it?
When I’m in the editing stage, so much of it is about what I can take out. Prepositional phrases, dialogue attribution, redundancies… the more I pare down, the more I can make the language clear and concise and fluent, the more doing so serves the story. Coco Chanel: “Dress shabbily and they notice the dress. Dress impeccably and they notice the woman.” That’s kind of how I feel about editing.
I think the biggest challenge for me is trusting my ability to “get it right.” Am I making good editing decisions? Have I edited enough? When I was teaching, I used to tell my college writing students that revision is never really finished, but at some point you have to call it done and submit it, publish it, etc. The challenge, of course, is to get it as close to “done” as possible. And I’m always afraid I’m not there, or that I didn’t do enough.
Also, when it comes to copyediting, even though would say I’m above average, I learned early on that I am nowhere near professional. I want to make the copyeditor’s job as easy as possible, but I sometimes fall short.
Proofreading is also a challenge. No matter how thorough I try to be and how many times I’ve pored through a manuscript or galley, it drives me crazy to find, after the book has published, that I’ve missed something.
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