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.
“We should all reserve the right to pivot if we feel like we want to try something else and we’re in the position to.”
Allison Winn Scotch
New York Times-bestselling author Allison Winn Scotch has mastered the art of the pivot. After graduating cum laude with a history degree, she pivoted to PR when a friend with a start-up solicited her help.
She pivoted from that into ghostwriting a book for wedding site the Knot; parlayed that into magazine writing for major publications like Self and Women’s Health and Glamour; and when those deadlines grew too demanding with small kids at home, she pivoted into writing novels.
“I had always thought I wanted to write a book,” Allison says. “And like many people, I was like, ‘Yeah, I can write a book’—but I hadn’t. [But] the book is only written once it’s written. Like, you can say you want to write a book, but if the page is blank, the page is blank.”
It took her four years, but she finished that first manuscript, which got her an agent but didn’t sell. So Allison wrote a second one.
When that one also didn’t sell, her agent told Allison she should either revise the first manuscript or start over again. “She said…that taking it out would do my career more harm than good. And so I fired her.”
Allison pivoted yet again, found another agent, and they had four offers on that second manuscript, which became her debut novel, The Department of Lost and Found.
Her second book, Time of My Life, was featured in People magazine and the Today show on the same weekend, and hit the NYT bestseller list.
But Allison’s publisher shuttered her imprint just months before her fourth book was supposed to come out. Luckily her contract was bought out by another major publisher—but that was followed by a perfect storm of marketing challenges. A whole new sales plan had to be created on the fly. Planned coverage in People was scotched when a major story broke and crowded out all the book coverage.
“The book did not do well,” she recalls. “I think it probably did the worst in my career, and I’d been paid a lot, and as you know or as listeners may know, you are measured by your advance,” Allison says.
“After that, I really thought my career was over. So I, for a while, felt really shitty about myself. And then I got really angry—not at anybody, but just at the nature of blaming the author for things that she or he has absolutely no control over.”
And so once again, Allison pivoted.
“That’s when I started to sort of reframe it for myself and think, Well, I don’t really understand why nobody is offering me a book deal after this. People were so excited about this book. You know, editorially everybody was on board. And due to a variety of circumstances over which I had basically no control…everything that could have gone wrong did.”
In today’s publishing industry, it’s the author who is often held accountable for a book’s success or failure, and whose career may suffer if a book doesn’t sell as well as anticipated. Allison began to question that way of thinking.
“I just sort of refused to be blamed for things that I didn’t feel I shouldn’t be blamed for. Which is difficult, because authors are blamed when a book doesn’t do well. And I don’t understand it. Like, you know, ten people at a publisher have had to approve the manuscript. So why are the authors held accountable?” she asks. “I delivered what [the publisher] wanted. I am not the sales team; I am not PR. And true, sometimes things just don’t work. It’s like a recipe. Sometimes you try something, and it just fails.”
Ideas were suggested to reboot her career—writing under a pseudonym (publishers often judge future books’ marketability by previous books’ sales), changing genres. But Allison resisted. “I was too stubborn and proud to do that. Like, I hit the Times bestseller list. I’m not giving up my career.”
Instead she decided to do something uncommon at the time, especially for a big-name, traditionally published author: She self-published her next book, assembling a production team culled from major publishers to make it look as professional as a Big Five title.
That book, The Theory of Opposites, came out to good reviews, sold well—including in several foreign markets—and was optioned for film.
It also got her another traditional publishing contract for her next three books with Lake Union, a very positive experience, she says, even though, “I would have kept doing it [self-publishing]. I really enjoyed it. There’s a real freedom in it, and I understand why there are a lot of hybrid authors now” [authors who publish both indie and traditional].
Her ninth book, The Rewind, releases this month from Berkley to stellar advance reviews and plenty of buzz, with a tenth in the works, and I asked Allison if there was a key to sustaining a successful writing career.
“I don’t know what the key to longevity is. I guess maybe it’s that I could walk away,” she muses. “I’m going through this career and learning some things about myself and how I’m willing to feel about myself for the expense of commerce, and I don’t want to feel shitty about myself because of things that I can’t control…. There is a little bit of a detachment, and I feel better because of it. I mean, I’m nervous about this book coming out, The Rewind. But I also feel like, Well, I really love it. And I hope that people love it. And my publisher seems to love it. What else can I do?”
I highly recommend watching our full interview: Allison offers so much spot-on insight and advice for authors it was hard to condense it, including why you can’t write to please your audience; focusing more on the process than on the product; and why authors can’t take responsibility for vagaries of this industry that they have no control over.
“A book’s worth should not be based on how many it sells. There are so many amazing books that do not sell a lot of copies,” she says. “I feel very strongly that if an author delivered a book that the editor and the publisher were happy with, that is all we should be responsible for. If it reached a few readers who were moved by it, plenty of authors can call that success. You’re allowed to let yourself off the hook. And if your book doesn’t do as well as you expected, don’t blame yourself….
“I just think it is a hard, hard business of exposing yourself to strangers. The best thing that you can do is figure out how you’re going to get from A to B without being bruised.”
In our chat Allison also talks about her latest pivot: her successful Adopt a Library program, an initiative she organized to help connect authors and avid readers with underfunded libraries in need of books. (Find out how to get involved at the link.)
How Allison Winn Scotch Revises
The editing phase of a manuscript is one of my favorite parts of writing a book, and I’m not just saying that because Tiffany and I have worked together on three different novels. J In fact, I find writing a first draft absolutely excruciating, and there is nothing I welcome more than smart comments and notes from someone who is reading the work objectively and there to collaborate with me on next steps.
One thing I have long said is that I am a writer who can turn in a B+ manuscript, but I need wiser people to help me get it to an A. Nine books later, I still believe this wholeheartedly. So how do I get there? And how do I embrace the constructive criticism rather than push back on it? Here are my thoughts:
- I firmly, firmly believe that there is no room in the editorial process for your ego. Being an author can be a fragile existence; I get it. But if you bristle when you get feedback because you think your work is so precious that it doesn’t need any suggestions, your work is never going to improve. Notes aren’t about you personally; they are about the strength of your book. Reframe this for yourself: Notes are there to make you a better writer because you are still a work in progress. Every single author needs edits. No single draft is perfect. Let the ego go. In this job, the learning curve literally never ends. If you aren’t interested in scaling that learning curve, you won’t thrive as an author.
- Give yourself adequate mental time and space between drafts. Look. It sucks. You’re gonna have to rewrite your manuscript, like, six times before it’s ready to be published. There’s just no way around that. If you feel your hackles going up when you get constructive criticism, I suggest that you go back and review your first drafts and think about how much better your next iteration was. I personally would be mortified if my first drafts saw the light of day, even if I thought at the time that they were pretty great. It’s the “at the time” that is the key phrase here. When you’re in the middle of something, it’s hard to have perspective on its weaknesses, sort of like when you’re falling in love with someone. There are inevitably going to be issues, but wouldn’t it be so, so, so much nicer if there weren’t? But there are. And there will be. You need to step back, take a break from your work, and return to it with open eyes.
- There’s no one right way to edit. What works for me may not work for you. But here’s how I do it: When I’m writing a first draft, I tend to go back about every 75 pages or so and revise. This helps me stay on track with themes and character development. (I’m a pantser, so I write without an outline.) Once I get my editorial notes, I sit on them for a few days, take a lot of long walks, and move a bunch of chess pieces around in my brain. From there, I print out my editorial letter, and I just work through the manuscript chronologically, i.e., from start to finish. If it’s a real overhaul, I find that it’s helpful to concentrate on the bigger lifts—such as major character changes or shifts in plot—like moving the beams of a house renovation. It’s a lot easier to deal with the smaller details once you’ve handled the structural stuff. I cross out the notes I’ve taken care of on the editorial letter as I go: I find this really gratifying, as I can see my progress, and it also ensures that I don’t miss something important.
- Do I ever push back? I really believe in surrounding yourself with smart peers and people you trust, so if an editor is giving me feedback, I take it seriously and receive it with open ears. That said, there are times when I have to trust myself on what not to incorporate into a manuscript. Tiffany and I talk about this a lot—I was really determined to pull off a complicated time structure in my seventh book, Between Me and You, and admittedly it just wasn’t working for many of the early drafts. (Refer to what I said earlier about first drafts!) She suggested that I axe it and tell the story more linearly. I very rarely push back on something so fundamental in a manuscript because if something isn’t working, then it’s just not working. But I knew that a) I could crack it, and b) it was the right thing for the story I wanted to tell. In hindsight, we are both glad I stuck to my guns. But I can point to that example because it’s so highly unusual for me. Most times I think the feedback from fresh eyes and a new brain will only bolster your work. That doesn’t mean you have to address every single comment in your editorial letter, and indeed, if your gut is really, really telling you to stick with it, then by all means trust that gut. Just be sure that it’s your gut, not your ego, because they can sound like the same voice but they have very different motivations.
- Finally, I just wanted to say that it’s totally fine and normal and necessary to know that you are not a perfect writer. Be aware of your own crutches and limitations! I, for example, tend to put too much backstory in my early drafts, as well as write supremely bitchy first character iterations. I know this. I don’t think I have ever not done it. It’s part of my process, like I need to hack away at some of the crappy exterior to get to the juiciness of the core. Whatever your weaknesses are, we all have them. And your editor is there to help you get out of your own way. Collaboration in an otherwise very solitary career can be the best thing you do, and certainly your work will be the better for it.
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