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.
I’ve been wanting to invite fantasy author Vaughn Roycroft to my How Writers Revise feature for a while to share his journey to publication with his debut, The Severing Son.
I wrote a little about it in this post for Writer Unboxed, referencing one of my favorite posts of Vaughn’s on the same site (where we’re both regular contributors) in which he talks about why he decided to self-publish. It’s an inspiring story that shows how reframing the way authors think of their careers can make the difference between one that is pleasurable and long-lasting, and one that may leave writers discouraged and even ready to give up.
An avid reader of Tolkien growing up, when Vaughn realized at age 12 that the author had passed away, his first thought was, “Somebody’s got to keep telling stories like this…. I just loved it so much. And it was so immersive to me. And it felt like something magical might die if I didn’t do something about it myself.”
But Vaughn’s early writing efforts fell short of his aspirations, and eventually he put it on the back burner amid the distractions of life and running his own business.
Then at age forty, with seventy employees and a thriving lumber wholesale business he and his wife operated, they had what he calls “one of those ‘life is too short’ moments” and began questioning whether this was what they wanted to do with the rest of their lives.
The answer was no—and they sold the business and moved full-time to their summer cottage on the shore of Lake Michigan to pursue creative interests.
“I didn’t really talk about [my writing] at all,” Vaughn says of that time. “And I didn’t really admit to myself what I wanted…because if I were to admit that I was seeking it, then I would have to admit to myself that I was going to have to show this to other people and be judged. And I didn’t even want to face that in the beginning. I just wanted to have fun with it.”
He worked on his first manuscript, and 500,000 words later found himself with a self-described “rambling and meandering” epic fantasy and no idea how to address the story on a developmental level. “What I thought then was, go through sentence by sentence and fix things. That was how clueless I was.”
He hired a professional editor, who helped him tighten and polish the story to a 130K-word draft, and then Vaughn started submitting to agents—”to either overwhelming silence or rejection,” including one that arrived in his in-box within 15 minutes of his query.
Vaughn was tempted to throw in the towel—but instead in an effort to learn more about his two protagonists, he began writing short stories about their parents. And “it was going smoother. It was more straightforward. I knew more what I was doing.”
Those stories grew into what became The Severing Son, and Vaughn began querying again with this new manuscript.
This time he landed an agent. But after a year shopping the story to publishers—with favorable responses but no offers—he hired another developmental editor to help him continue to develop and hone the story with feedback from publishers who had liked the story but passed on it.
Another year and a half later, his agent shopped the manuscript again—but again they received no offers of publication.
“Do I Really Want to Keep Going with This?”
Vaughn was frustrated. “I thought I had made it so much better,” he says, in the meantime having completed the next two manuscripts in the projected trilogy. “And I thought I’d done what they asked… [but] I felt there was just so much more silence and editors just not getting back to us. And so at some point I said to myself, Do I really want to keep going with this?”
Read more: “What Do You Do When the Worst Happens?”
This was when I joined Vaughn’s story, reading about his journey in his excellent Writer Unboxed post about what he terms his “deep soul searching” about what to do next.
“I thought about shelving it and it just hurt,” Vaughn remembers. “That was the thing that I just couldn’t live with. It almost felt like a betrayal of my characters and all the years that I’d already put into it.”
He decided to self-publish, hoping to reach readers with the story within a few months. “Some of the things that I heard back from agents and editors over the years were things that I realized that I could never compromise on,” he says. ”And once you know that and you admit that to yourself, it doesn’t matter what their opinion is, because you know what you’re going to do.”
Read more: “Leave Me Alone—I Know What I’m Doing”
The steep learning curve of self-publishing and other unexpected issues took another two years, but The Severing Son has been well received by readers—including one advance review by a prominent BookTuber with nearly 20K followers who called it “one of the best self-published fantasies I have ever read,” and Vaughn is happy with his unexpected path to publication.
He likes not having to compromise. He likes making his own decisions about the story and its packaging and marketing that lets him stay true to his vision. And the most important element—Vaughn likes reaching readers with the story he wants to tell.
“I’m Not Really Looking for Validation Anymore”
“The thing that that I learned through those ups and downs and hitting those roadblocks was, I believed in the story,” he says. “I just wanted to stay true to that belief…. It didn’t matter if I was on a bestseller list or won an award for it or any of those things. I just wanted the story to be true to what I envisioned and then to find its own way with its own readers…. I’m not really looking for the validation anymore. I just want the connection.”
Eventually, Vaughn says, his path brought him to the point where he felt confident and secure about his writing and his story—and that’s his definition of success. “I don’t feel like I need to prove anything to anybody anymore other than to stay true to myself. That’s what I need to prove I can do.
Read more: “How to Be a Working Writer”
Read more: “Giving Your All for the Few”
“That takes some time and work and you’ve got to be patient with yourself, and you’ve got to keep at it,” Vaughn advises other writers. “It’s about finding that path that seems clearest, and you’re going to be lost for a while, but then you’re going to find the path. Just trust that you will, and keep moving forward.”
Read more: “Why Do You Write?”
Vaughn shared more about his path and how his journey led him to more confidence and autonomy in his career in our full interview, which you can see on my YouTube channel here.
I asked Vaughn to talk about his editing and revising his trilogy, and he shared helpful insights on his process.
How Vaughn Roycroft Revises
How I edit has much to do with how I draft. At the onset I know little about the story, but I always know the end. I rely on intuition during the first draft, finding a path to the ending I seek. I can easily stray, but I don’t beat myself up for it. Since every story I’ve told is from multiple points of view, when I feel like I’m wandering off course, I simply start again from a POV that feels like it’s making solid progress.
Although I wouldn’t claim this process is the fastest or most efficient, I feel as though it’s the best way to access my subconscious. Once I’ve found my way to “The End” and have a completed draft, it’s time to consider the reader. The initial revision process is about taking a look back at the route taken. The idea is to see if I can make the path clearer, and even more impactful, for someone else to follow. Notice I didn’t say shorter or smoother. The final route may have some diversions, and even some bumps and jarring patches. I’m seeking the most powerful experience, not the safest or easiest one.
In seeking the best story path, I like to break it down to a scene-level examination. My scenes are almost all written from a single perspective (the rare exceptions are typically expansive action sequences). Thinking of each scene as a step on the path to the end, I evaluate not just how they advance the story, but the impact they might have on the journey for others.
At this stage, I’ve found it helpful to put the scenes into a spreadsheet. The end result is a handy tool, but I’ve found creating it to be illuminating. I use a system I learned from my first coach, Cathy Yardley. I label each with the POV character, then briefly list their GMCs, which is their goal in the scene, their motivation for achieving it, and the conflict that is keeping them from it. I also note how the scene ends in a crisis, disaster, or segue. The idea of monitoring the ending of each scene is all about maintaining story momentum.
Looking at the whole in this way really helps me to grasp the story I’m trying to tell. I can only begin to consider employing symbolism or the enhancement of themes.
My biggest challenge is probably spending too much time and energy polishing and perfecting writing that I know will need developmental work before it’s ready for that level of editing. It’s a challenge for me because part of my process includes reading the previous day’s work to get myself immersed to draft new material.
To overcome it, I try to spend some time after I write thinking deeply about the story and the way to move it forward. I typically jot a few notes for the next day at about dinnertime (epiphanies that often come during my daily walk or in the shower). This helps me to get excited about moving forward, rather than dawdling and procrastinating by polishing the previous day’s work.
Processing editorial feedback and deciding what feels right and what to disregard has always been a tricky one for me. It’s easy to say that we should only take on what feels right and disregard the rest, but it’s never been easy for me to disregard any critique. I’ve agonized over it in the past, and I’ve done a lot of work, revising to meet imposed standards and opinions that I’ve later decided did not match up with my vision. I won’t say any of it has been wasted, because ultimately even work that I ended up discarding led me to who I am now as a writer.
For me, learning how to parse feedback, and truly being able to discard what doesn’t fit my vision, took a lot of years. And no small amount of heartache. Maybe there is a way to teach others how to find their way to it more quickly, but I don’t know it. It’s a fine line. We mustn’t succumb to fear of being judged. But we also have to learn to trust ourselves.
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Vaughn came on my radar when the Booktuber who reviewed my novel By the Gods’s Ears reviewed his novel a few months later. After a few very brief exchanges on social I found myself comforted in finding someone with a similar writing/publishing journey to my own. We are of a similar age, writing a similar length of time, similar failures, similar successes. While not exactly the same (everyone’s journey is their own after all) the commonalities remind me that no one is ever completely alone in their journey.
Christopher, I’m so glad you commented, to remind me to order By the Gods’ Ears! It really is comforting to know we’re not alone. I think it’s pretty cool that we chose to place our stories in such similar settings. Onward! Thanks, and cheers.
What a cool story! I was struck in our interview by Vaughn’s involvement in the writing and reading community, and the connections he built. It’s such a warm, supportive world. Thanks for stopping by, Christopher.