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.
Writers are often born from discomfort, not complacency: the desire to change an injustice, to explore a question or mystery, to alleviate or make sense of suffering and pain.
Author Kyla Zhao has the discomfort and uncertainties of the pandemic to thank for her upcoming debut, The Fraud Squad (Penguin Random House, Jan. 17).
Kyla was in her third year at Stanford in San Francisco when the pandemic hit and, unable to return to Singapore to be with her family, she found herself alone for months on end in a small studio apartment, too worried to even go outside, feeling increasingly isolated and lonely.
She started reading a lot, wanting, as she puts it “to lose myself in this imaginary world.”
But as she did, she had another discomforting realization: She didn’t see herself reflected in the pages of most of the stories—and she hadn’t since she was a child reading Nancy Drew and the Sweet Valley High stories, whose characters had “long blond hair, and their blue-green eyes that sparkled in the sun, and a perfect golden brown California tan,” she recalls. “When I was younger, I thought they were the coolest people in the world. I wanted to be just like them, and I thought that to be like them I had to look like them, so there was a lot of internalized Eurocentric ideals of beauty that…I’m still kind of in the progress of untangling and unpacking.”
At the time Kyla was also seeing worrisome headlines about anti-Asian sentiments and attacks on Asian people. “I just wasn’t really seeing anyone that looked like me, or that I could identify with and relate to, that wasn’t, you know, a sad story being portrayed in the news.”
And so, even though she’d never done it, she decided to try her hand at a story of her own.
Prior to that point Kyla’s writing had been confined to articles she had written as an intern for top fashion magazines in Singapore like Harper’s Bazaar, a job she had attained at age 16 after boldly pitching herself as a writer to the magazine. She didn’t intend to pursue journalism—or any other kind of writing—as a profession; in college she majored in psychology and got a master’s in communications, and she currently works in marketing for a tech company in Silicon Valley.
But her first draft came together quickly, within a few months. “I didn’t really care about how good or bad the book was. My whole life, I have cared a lot about what other people think of the work I produce. I was always writing for magazines…always executing someone else’s vision,” she says. “But for the first time this was something entirely of my own creation. And my only thinking was, if I liked it, if I enjoyed it, then that’s what matters. So I didn’t think about making it good enough for other people.”
Kyla didn’t even tell anyone she was working on it, even during revisions, which took another six months, and she wasn’t thinking about trying to get it published at the time. “It gave me a sense of structure and a routine during pandemic, which I really needed,” she says. “It really pulled me out of a pretty dark spot in my life.”
Finally she showed it to a few friends—and they told her they thought she should try to have it published. Knowing nothing about the process, Kyla got onto Twitter, where she connected with other authors and members of the writing community. “There were published authors who I really looked up to, but also people just like me, who had just written a manuscript and didn’t know where else to go. So we were kind of all figuring it out at the same time. And we all were helping one another.”
She participated in Pitch Wars, before it was defunct, which helped her further with revisions, but her manuscript wasn’t ready in time for the agent showcase. Kyla was disappointed, but began the query process on her own a few months later. She got multiple offers, and signed with CAA.
A month later, after another round of revisions and on the eve of Kyla’s twenty-third birthday, her agent took it out on submission. “I still remember writing an email to myself the day I went on sub; it was basically like…‘You have to accept the fact that this book will most likely not sell. And that’s okay,’” she told herself. “Because writing this book, the process of writing it, I think really did change me. It kind of changed how I viewed myself, and I think it taught me discipline. It also taught me that I was more capable than I imagined I would be…that I could rely on myself…. Even if the book didn’t sell, I wrote a book. That’s the one of the top accomplishments in my life.”
But it did sell—at auction, in fact. Kyla was so green in the business that she didn’t know what that entailed, and imagined a room full of publishers raising cards to bid on her manuscript.
The reality was a little more plebian, but still exciting—she sat glued to her email while her agent offered updates. At two a.m. she got word: Her book would be published by Penguin Random House in a two-book deal.
Despite her success—she has since sold a middle-grade book to a different PRH imprint—Kyla is trying to stay in touch with her no-expectations approach to writing that made her first book such a welcome distraction during a difficult time, and she has no plans for quitting her tech job to pursue writing full-time.
“I think I’m trying not to put too much pressure on myself, like labeling myself,” she says. “For now, this is very much still something that I do for fun. If one day I ever feel like writing brings me more stress and joy, I’ll just stop. I’ll do this for as long as I enjoy it.”
See our full interview here.
I asked Kyla to tell me about how she developed her revision process and what works best for her, and she offered some unique approaches that even I have never heard before, despite my many years of editing.
How Kyla Zhao Revises
With three books coming out from Penguin Random House in the next 1.5 years (my debut novel The Fraud Squad is out on January 17), I like to think I’ve developed a pretty good understanding of what works and doesn’t work for me when it comes to revisions. This is a system I’ve discovered through a lot of trial and error, which I now apply to everything I write regardless of genre and age group (I write both adult and kidlit novels).
(20 Dec update: I wrote the above on 16 Dec. I’m now knee-deep in revisions for my kidlit novel and not having a grand time at all. All I can say is: The writing work never gets easier. I’m just better now at setting expectations for myself upfront about how much work I have to put in.)
- Take a break between the first draft and first round of revisions
I like taking at least a couple of months off between finishing the draft and starting revisions. Firstly, that reduces burnout and ensures I don’t lose interest in my manuscript (which can happen if you are always working on the same thing). Secondly, taking some time away from the book lets me return to it with a fresher pair of eyes. That helps me see the entire forest and what’s not working rather than getting lost in the weeds. Thirdly, the break also helps to erase my emotional attachment to my story and characters, so that I’m not afraid of getting rid of what doesn’t work (and also better at recognizing what those are) when I come back to the book.
- Rewrite from scratch
This only goes for the first round of developmental edits (a.k.a. the first round of revision I do after finishing the initial draft), but I always open up a new Word document and write the second draft from scratch. Having a blank slate (literally) helps to reduce my emotional attachment to my characters/scenes so I can more decisively “kill my darlings,” since I tend to overwrite in my first drafts. Editing directly on my first draft feels like changing the center pieces in a jigsaw puzzle—that means also needing to change all the surrounding pieces, and then the pieces around those pieces, and so on. That feels pretty overwhelming to me, so I like just rebuilding from the ground up instead of diving straight into the deep end.
- Make your font size really small
I know that a first draft is supposed to be messy and chaotic, so I don’t bother editing as I write. But once it comes to revisions, even if it’s just the first round of developmental edits, I’m struck by this notion that I must get everything right. That often becomes crippling because I’m so afraid of not getting it right that I don’t even dare to start. To overcome this mental barrier, one trick I use is to do my revisions in a supersmall font, like font size 7. If I can’t read what I’m writing, I won’t be able to critique it, get tempted to start fixing things along the way, and end up derailing my progress.
- Don’t settle for what’s easier
When I start revising, it’s tempting to go for the small wins first—the line edits, because you can see immediately how changing up a word here or there can make the sentences appear more beautiful. But it’s very likely that those sentences I beautify might have to be deleted if I subsequently realize the entire scene isn’t needed for my plot. That’s happened multiple times before and it’s always frustrating realizing I wasted so much time editing something that ultimately doesn’t contribute to my book. So now, I consciously tell myself that revision is like a funnel: you have to start on the broadest level and tackle the biggest changes first before homing in on the more granular edits. Even though it’s tempting to leave the big changes to the end because they are the toughest, I know that’s the most efficient way for me to approach revisions.
- Enjoy your story!
Doing revisions means rereading your manuscript over and over again. It’s easy to get sick of it, so I always try to remind myself what I love about it. I enjoy rediscovering my story and finding new things I like about it. Sometimes I end up pleasantly surprised by a piece of banter (“Hey, I’m funnier than I realized!”), or an emotionally charged scene between two characters that makes me fall in love with their love. It’s these little moments that make revisions worthwhile and remind me of why this story needs to be told and why I’m the person to tell it. 🙂