How Writers Revise: Camille Pagán and Betting on Herself

Camille Pagan Good for You

How Writers Revise: Camille Pagán and Betting on Herself

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.

Author Camille Pagán started her career as a novelist with many writers’ fantasy of breakout success: She wrote her very first novel, The Art of Forgetting, in a burst of inspiration in four months; queried seven agents and got two offers of representation to choose from; then sold that book at auction for six figures, along with foreign rights to three countries even before she sold in the U.S.

“Sounds like a dream story, right?” Camille reminisces. “Like, ‘Oh, I’m on my way.’ And I thought I was; I was like, ‘I’m just going to write a book a year. I’m going to do like what Emily Giffin’s doing.’”

The novel wasn’t her first foray into writing—Camille had created a long and successful career as an editor and writer for major outlets prior to that, writing for publications like Forbes, Health, The New York Times, O: The Oprah Magazine, Parade, Time, WebMD, and Real Simple, where she also served as health editor.

But she didn’t try her hand at fiction until a dear friend with whom she’d shared mutual hopes of writing books one day was diagnosed with stage-four cancer. Her friend told Camille, “I don’t think I’m going have a chance to write my book. But I really want you to.”

The moment was a turning point for Camille.

“There’s the parable of you know, which wolf wins? The one that you feed,” she relates. “And I thought I should probably be the one that tells me I can do this.”

She began writing in one-hour blocks of time at night while her then-infant daughter slept—and then came her rocket-ship rise to the top of the publishing pile with The Art of Forgetting.

But that book—whose somber cover didn’t quite fit the tone of the story—didn’t do as well in hardcover as anticipated. Camille’s publisher passed on her next manuscript and said they wouldn’t be offering on her second book. 

She wrote two more manuscripts after that, even as her spirits flagged. “With each story, I would try more to meet market demands than my own taste,” she says. “So they were lousy books…. As my agent can attest, they were terrible. But it was like my one-woman MFA.”

After three years of what she calls “utter misery,” Camille was nearly ready to give up on fiction. Then one day, while enjoying a glass of rosé on a beach in Santa Monica during a moment of downtime on a journalism assignment, “Suddenly this entire book came flying at me. In retrospect, I think it was because I just let go of all the expectations.”

That book was Life and Other Near Death Experiences, and it was Camille’s breakout smash, becoming a #1 Amazon Charts bestseller for nearly a month, and was optioned for film by Jessica Chastain’s Freckle Films. “I thought, My career begins now. And it did,” Camille says.

Her follow-up novel, Forever Is the Worst Long Time, was an RT Reviews Top Pick and an Amazon, InStyle, and Real Simple best book of the month. Her fifth novel,  I’m Fine and Neither Are You, was an Amazon Charts and Washington Post bestseller. 

She’s since sold nearly a million books, and her work has been translated into 20 languages. Her tenth book, Good for You, released March 1. In addition to her own writing, she is a master certified coach who offers career strategy and writing advice to other authors through her podcast, You Should Write a Book, and her company, Even Better Co.

Reflecting on her journey, Camille shared an anecdote I loved about a conversation she had with a friend and fellow author about their long-term successful careers.

“She and I are both like, ‘We’re not the best. Like, what is happening when we’re still here?’ And at the same time…we’re like, ‘Oh, we’re still here.’ There’s no secret. We just stayed in the game. We’ve switched publishers, I’ve self-published some books, we’ve done things to stay in the game that were required of us. That’s the secret. That’s it.”

“You don’t have to think everything is going to be perfect because it won’t be and you’re going to be flattened when that happens. But…what if you believe that you could continue upward in spite of those bumps?”

–Camille Pagan

I asked Camille what she wished she’d known at the beginning of her career.

“I think so many people, there’s so much doubt,” she says. “I would encourage every person to think about, what do you actually do well, and how can you do more of it, instead of fixing all the things that seem broken? Go all in on the stuff you already do. If I can do it, so can you. Truly, I believe that.

“You don’t have to think everything is going to be perfect because it won’t be and you’re going to be flattened when that happens. But it’s like, what if you believe that you could continue upward in spite of those bumps? That’s my perspective.”

You can see our full interview on my YouTube channel here, where Camille offers insights and advice for authors and a deeper glimpse into her career path. I also asked her to share a bit of her editing and revision process:

How Camille Pagán Revises

Some authors love editing. I’m not one of them. For me, the magic happens in the first draft—that beautiful space where I’m creating for creation’s sake. Editing is when I worry about how the writing will land; it’s when I’m more likely to feel stressed. But that doesn’t keep me from going all in on edits—and I’ve learned not to dread or avoid the process.

In addition to being an author, I’m a master certified coach who helps aspiring to established authors. And I came to embrace editing by coaching other writers through their edits. I often ask clients to ask themselves: “What do I need?” Not what they think they should need or think they should do—but what is truly best for them in that moment.

Well, a good coach answers her own question. And when I ask myself what I need after I get an edit back, the answer is almost always, time.

I draft fast. For example, my latest novel, Good for You, came to me in a fit of inspiration and took eight weeks to write. But whether it’s an initial self-edit or a full developmental edit from my publishing team, I need to think for a week or so before diving into changes. Then I usually need two weeks for each round of developmental edits. Many publishers, my own included, prefer a faster process—but at the end of the day, they want the best book possible. I now ask for extra editing time when I sign a contract. Pressure may create diamonds, but it rarely creates great stories.

That said (controversial opinion ahead), I no longer believe in sh*tty first drafts. You can structure a first draft to reduce the amount of editing required; with apologies to pantsers, the answer is plotting. If you, like me, prefer writing to editing, careful plotting can save you hours upon hours of agony. In fact, my last novel only took two rounds of minor developmental edits. The reason? I took two full weeks to plot out my story before writing it.

As I tell my clients, plotting doesn’t have to be complicated. There’s no need to buy colorful Post-it notes, use a story board, or create a Save the Cat outline if you don’t want to. A simple three-act structure can help you determine whether you have a compelling story on your hands. (By a three-act structure, I mean one to three lines explaining what occurs in the beginning, middle, and end of your story.) As you write your structure, channel your inner toddler and ask “why” to each thing that happens. When you nail the internal and external forces driving your plot, you keep readers turning the page … and yes, reduce the number of edits you’ll face later in the process.

8 Comments. Leave new

  • This article sings to me. I love the creativity involved with outlining/writing the first draft. And sure, revising improves the writing although I’m a bit cranky about some of the edits I feel are more involved with meeting market demands. It’s nice to know I’m not alone in that thinking. I look forward to investigating the full interview.

    • I’ll be interested to hear your thoughts, Doug. Editing and revising can have to do with marketing concerns, but a good edit should maintain the author’s vision amid those considerations. Glad you enjoyed Camille’s approach!

  • The speed and efficiency of her writing process are surely a reflection of her long experience doing this work. It’s both daunting and inspiring. These interviews are always fascinating.

  • Why did I never think of “channeling my inner toddler” before? That’s EXACTLY how this process works and it feels so much more FUN if I’m doing it with a toddler who doesn’t believe she knows everything. Thanks!

  • Nathan S. Jones
    April 8, 2023 5:45 pm

    I’ve been pondering “When you nail the internal and external forces driving your plot, you keep readers turning the page” ever since reading this. What an excellent way of describing that ever-elusive way of achieving what I call, ‘narrative pull.’

    • I love when something clicks like that and offers a fresh way of approaching an area we may wrestle with. Glad you enjoyed Camille’s interview, Nathan! She’s a terrific writer, if you haven’t checked out her novels yet. Thanks for the comment.


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