Notes from the Writing Trenches: Revising My First Novel

By Anna Brady Marcus

As a first time novelist, for years and years my main goal was to get to the end of my first draft. When I wrote the last sentence on page 420 of my novel “After Alice” (working title), I felt euphoric. I bragged about it on Facebook, and slapped myself on the back. I thought it would just take a month or two for me to polish up my manuscript and start sending it out to agents and editors. This time next year I’ll be closing on my publishing deal, I told myself privately.

I laugh at my naïveté now, and I hesitate to tell you, dear reader, of how quickly I fell from my precipice. First, perhaps out of shear exhaustion, or perhaps from fear of hating what I had written, it took me a good two months to even open my manuscript again. Many people say you need to take a break between the writing phase and the revising phase, and for me it was a major process to retool my brain and take stock of what I’d done before I felt ready to read my book with fresh eyes.

At the advice of an agent I met, I bought “The Last Draft,” a book on the revision process by Sandra Scofield. She is a big proponent of reading and revising on physical paper, so I printed out a hard copy of my manuscript, single-sided, double spaced, on three-hole punched paper. When I picked it up from Staples it weighed about fifteen pounds and barely fit inside the carton! Seeing my manuscript in a huge stack like this made me proud of all the work I’d done, mixed with a double portion of dread. How many pages would I have to cut to get this to a manageable size?

I bought a thick binder to contain the sprawling script, and armed with multicolored highlighters and many sticky notes, I sat down and read my novel cover-to-cover. To my relief, the bones of the book I thought I had written were there, but there were many passages that needed major work – plot inconsistencies, dead ends, unnecessary characters and scenes, and far too many clichés. I really didn’t know where or how to begin to fix it all.

Luckily I had already signed up for a writing class with Julie Chibbaro, and she leant me a book called “The 90-day Rewrite” by Alan Watt. This book breaks down the rewrite process day-by-day into bite-size chunks filled with encouragement, psychological advice, and short exercises to help a writer get a handle on their manuscript. I immediately latched onto the title of this book. Only ninety days! There was hope! I made schedules for myself based on Watt’s process, which follows the general narrative arc of a novel. In week one I would make my new outline, in week two I would cover the dilemma and inciting incident, and so on and so forth. I could practically see the end of the revision already!

Well dear reader, it became clear within a few days that I would not complete my rewrite in ninety days. It took me a couple of weeks just to finish the preparation exercises in the book. I had to redo my forecasted schedule every month, continually pushing out the final date of completion. Nevertheless I plodded on, at my own pace, and I started to actually enjoy the rewrite process. I was honing my craft, smoothing out the plot points, and finding more juiciness in the characters. Slowly, I was peeling away the chaotic layers I’d laid down in the first draft and finding the pulsing heart of my story. I rewrote whole chapters, rearranged the scenes, changed one of my protagonists’ names, and cut out several minor characters. Finally this summer, a year and a half after starting my rewrite, I got to the end of the second draft! This time I didn’t bother to post anything on Facebook about it. I still have lots of work to do. I’m rewriting large chunks of my second protagonists’ chapters, and then I need to check my antagonists and make sure they are truly living up to their menacing potential. When that is done, I will give my manuscript to a few beta readers, and then I’ll have more changes to make based on their feedback. After that, I’ll need to hire a copy editor and get it all proofread and clean before I start to send it out to agents and editors.

I won’t lie and say that it’s been fun and easy. It’s been a real slog to rewrite my novel, but in the process I’ve become much more invested in my work. These characters are like my family now. I owe it to them to get their story right. Writing a novel isn’t about acquiring fame for me, it is about saying what I need to say, listening to the small voice inside me, and exploring the questions that have nagged me all of my life. Ninety days or 548 days, what difference does it really make how long the rewrite takes? I’m not going to give up now, if anything, I’m more optimistic than ever that what I’ve written is powerful and it will be shared with the world, when it is good and ready.

Are ‘Bad Women’ Characters Really the Author? Interview with Laura Sims

By Julie Chibbaro

I was fortunate to share the stage with author and librarian Laura Sims at a local reading event (check out the ongoing Spring Street series), and I happened to fall in love with Laura for this reason: She seemed really humble and genuine, despite the content of her fantastically successful recent novel Looker. She didn’t seem at all like the female stalker at the center of Looker.


I was intrigued by her outward vibe versus her character’s inner evil thoughts/deeds, so I asked her a few questions about how a “nice person” novelist pulls off such an authentic ‘bad woman’:

GLB: You seem like such a nice person. What does it take (i.e., what has to happen inside you) to enable you to write such a disturbed character as your female stalker?

LS: Ha! That’s a great question. My emphasis would be on the word “seem” — I “seem” like a nice person. But am I really? And how “nice” would I be if my carefully ordered life were to implode? One of the things I wanted to explore in the novel was the idea that many of us who seem to be fine and functioning adequately in society may be just one tragic occurrence away from losing our grip on reality and our place in the world. And where do we go from there? How do we react? My narrator obviously has issues that underlie her outsized, inappropriate reactions to misfortune, but she is also an Everywoman, someone who has gotten by pretty well until now. While I do find her disturbing, I also empathize with her — quite deeply. Even when she’s doing Very Bad Things. I’m also fascinated by the idea of women doing Very Bad Things, because we’ve been programmed through the centuries to stifle those urges, even though we have them. It was liberating to let this woman loose on the world, to follow her where she’d go, let her urges take her where they would. Megan Nolan, a columnist for The New Statesman, wrote a great piece recently about Looker and the female gaze. In it she says, “It sometimes feels that in service of basic feminist gains, women have had to assume the role of superior beings: wholesome, sane, moderate. ‘There would be no wars if women were in charge!’ we say, hopefully, alongside other glib phrases. Sometimes I want to scream that women are just as capable of being weird, lazy and violent as men, even if they haven’t historically been able to show it. It doesn’t flatter me to brush over my capability for violence, it dehumanizes me.” I love this, and wholly agree with it. Why should women always have to be so damn nice and well-behaved? And yet, I am a nice woman. And a generally well-behaved one. But I do like to explore the full human spectrum on the page — especially the darker side of that spectrum.


GLB: You came from a poetry background. How/why did you take this leap into fiction?

LS: Well, I started out, as a kid, writing both poetry and fiction, and then sometime during high school I decided I was a poet and became committed to that identity from then on. Then in my thirties, I felt that I wanted to write fiction again. I didn’t begin writing fiction until right after my son was born, but once I’d started it became the focus of most of the (limited) time and energy I had for creative pursuits. I don’t think there’s much of a dividing wall between poetry and prose, though — it seems like more of a permeable boundary. And my writing in either genre tends to be driven by the same things: voice, idea, emotion, atmosphere, and sound. The sound of the line is very important to me, whether I’m writing poetry or prose. In some ways, the novel is just an extension of the poem — it’s a very long poem, and one shaped by elements that don’t regularly appear in poetry, like plot, character, and setting (with exceptions, in both genres). Sometimes it seems like it’s all about the line breaks, and what those do to the words on the page, how they limit you or allow you to expand. I guess, in my thirties, I felt like I wanted to expand beyond the line breaks I had loved and lived by in poetry, and see where that led me.

GLB: As you’ve gone around talking about your books, have any stalkers approached you to confess their inner obsessions?

LS: Thank goodness, no! But I have been interested in the varying reactions to this character, which range from “I totally identified with her” to “I can’t stand her, she’s annoying and narcissistic.” I’m glad she and the book have provoked strong reactions in readers — passionate engagement is always better than indifference!

Laura Sims is the author of Looker, a debut novel. She has published four books of poetry, most recently Staying Alive, and is the editor of Fare Forward: Letters from David Markson. She lives outside of New York City with her family.

We are so fortunate that Laura will be our December guest!

First Impressions

by Linda Pratt

So, what makes a good opening line? I work in children’s books, and here are a few of my favorites:

“Trouble cruised into Tupelo Landing at exactly seven minutes past noon on Wednesday, the third of June, flashing a gold badge and driving a Chevy Impala the color of dirt.” —Three Times Lucky by Sheila Turnage


“There was once a boy named Milo who didn’t know what to do with himself—not just sometimes, but always.” —The Phantom Tollbooth by Norton Juster

“If your teacher has to die, August isn’t a bad time of year for it.” (The Teacher’s Funeral: A Comedy in Three Parts by Richard Peck)

And a couple from books for adults:

“The man billed as Prospero the Enchanter receives a fair amount of correspondence via the theater office, but this is the first envelope addressed to him that contains a suicide note, and it is also the first to arrive carefully pinned to the coat of a five-year old girl.” —The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern


“I wish Giovanni would kiss me. Oh, but there are so many reasons why this would be a terrible idea” —Eat, Pray, Love by Elizabeth Gilbert

Those lines might be described as intriguing, puzzling, oddly funny, or mysterious. Whatever adjective used, the commonality in all great opening lines is that they evoke curiosity, and for a reader – or an agent or editor – to get vested in any story, they have to be made curious . . . and quickly!

A strong opening line, paragraph or page is probably the most important tool you have in getting your work noticed. Does every acclaimed novel have a fabulous opening? No. Does every fabulous opening line assure that novel that follows is going to be great? No. But in trying to attract the attention of agents and editors, it is the first hurdle to making your work stand out.

Author Sarah Aronson once wrote in a post about First Impressions on The Mixed-Up Files Blog, “usually, the impression made by the end of the very first paragraph is accurate”, which was a relief to see an author say to her fellow authors because it’s true. Editors and agents agree with that almost unanimously when we talk among ourselves, but frankly saying so to a wider audience can make a person sound cranky, jaded or arrogant.

However, agents and editors get hundreds if not thousands of submissions every year, and any single agent/editor is only able to represent or edit a limited number of authors in that year. Picture yourself in that situation – your mindset is likely to look first for a reason to decline a submission rather accept it. A first page is going to say a lot about what’s to come. A first sentence even more. It’s a little like American Idol or any other tv competition show; you aren’t given too much time to settle into a song or an act before your fate is decided by the judge or audience. The difference in writing is that you aren’t doing it live. You have time to really sharpen and hone your introduction, and it’s absolutely worth the time to do so.

So take another look at your first lines. Do they grab a reader and not let go? Give us your best first line!

The Long and Short of It

by Kristen Holt-Browning

Sometimes, I just want to sink into a thick, wide-ranging novel. Getting lost in a world completely unlike my own, or sliding deep into the consciousness of a character—my earliest reading memories are of experiences like this, whether I was reading Black Beauty or Little Women.

Over the last several years, I’ve been drawn a bit more toward work that is lean and spare. I suspect this is because I feel inundated by news and social media on all fronts (who doesn’t?), and I long for something focused, quiet, and controlled. Then again, sometimes the best way to drown out the everyday noise and chatter is to dive deep into a long book. It’s like food cravings: sometimes all I can think about is pasta drenched in a hearty meat sauce—but then, on another day, a crisp, fresh salad calls my name.

Lately, I tend to ping-pong back and forth between these reading tastes. I’m reading Marlon James’s new novel Black Leopard, Red Wolf, as well as The Collected Stories of Lydia Davis. James’s book is over 600 pages long, and is the first installment of a proposed trilogy. Drawing on African myths and narrative traditions, James has created an entire universe which, while rooted in African sources and sensibilities, is also profoundly original (the book includes maps of the various regions and locations which the characters inhabit, such as The Darklands, The Blood Swamp, and The House with No Doors) and unabashedly expansive (it also includes a list of all the characters, which is helpful, given that there are over 50). I’ll be honest: I don’t want to enter the world of Black Leopard every day. It’s a violent and complex one, and sometimes, after a day of work and kids, that’s not what I want. But even on the days I don’t visit, I marvel at the scope of the book, and the many threads it weaves.

The Collected Stories of Lydia Davis clocks in at just over 700 pages—but it includes about 200 stories. The longest are no more than 8 or 9 pages; the shortest, a paragraph or two. Many of them are singularly unnerving, not only in content but in form: how does she compress an entire narrative down to a couple of pages? When I read Davis, I often finish a story and my first instinct is that I’m disappointed that it’s already done. But this isn’t because the story seems incomplete—if anything, it makes me a little sad to realize how succinctly a story, or a life, can be summed up (not that it’s easy to do as a writer!).

Reading Marlon James, I’m reminded that, as a writer, I have the right to go big, and to offer my readers entire worlds. Lydia Davis, meanwhile, reminds me not to burden my stories and poems with anything they—and the reader—don’t need.

I’ve now tried my hand at writing a (still unfinished) 250-page novel, as well as several poems that are no more than a page. I’ve written lyrical essays that clock in at 15 pages, and barely 1 page. The writing has its own necessary length—whether it’s 500 pages, or 5.

Don’t Do the Hustle: an Interview with Author Belinda McKeon

by Julie Chibbaro

In a society where the dollar is everything, and our very existence depends on money, it’s often difficult for writers to find the time and resources to reach down deep to discover what we really want to say. This is a fact that I’ve been struggling with as an author, and it’s great to talk to other writers, to understand their ways of dealing with the grind of life while also making time for what they want to focus on —– their writing.


Belinda McKeon, our February 2019 guest and the award-winning author of the novels Tender and Solace, doesn’t have all the answers, but she does have an amazing ability to juggle a tremendous amount of creativity. I asked her how she does it:

GLB: You are a playwright, journalist, novelist, professor. How do you manage to do it all?

BM: I don’t really do it all —- I just do one thing at a time. I tend to work on projects in blocks, including teaching work, which consists of a lot of syllabus and assignment-writing over break, and then class prep in blocks during the week. Around that, at the moment, I’m trying to spend two to three hours a day working on my current novel, and there’s no journalism or playwriting happening. They’ll return, I hope, when the teaching semester is done and I have some space for them. When I was in my twenties, the idea of firing on all cannons was much more attractive to me. Now I see the pressure to be massively productive as, basically, another part of the neo-liberal con, even for writers. I write what I can, when I can. That’s really all anyone can do. The rest is hustling, which is not the same as creating.

GLB: You’re from Ireland. How does that inform your work?


BM: Fundamentally. The cadence, intonation, sentence structure, grammatical structure, of my writing is Irish. That’s before I even get to the question of character, storyline, themes, settings. I was born in Ireland, I lived there until I was 26, I return there several times a year, and in a sense I’m always halfway there, or half there, because a good deal of my reading, my social media feeds, even sometimes my radio listening, is from there. Also, my husband is Irish. But we’ve been in the US for almost 14 years, and life here, and the texture of life here, has become an organic part of my thinking and my writing over that time. The novel I’m working on at the moment is set here, between Newburgh and New York, and that is something I think it took me almost 14 years to be able to do without (I hope) forcing it. It took that long for the experience of being here to filter down into the writing in that way. Of course, one of my characters is still Irish, and is thinking about the immigrant experience all the time…there’s not much getting away from that. Still, it contains many aspects, so I don’t feel limited by it.

GLB: Lots of times, writers want to protect their characters. How do you get so honest in your work?

BM: I don’t have a choice. Honesty, often horrifying honesty, is just what comes out when I sit down to write. I don’t have any interest in writing characters who portray me in a flattering light. I’m just a messy, needy human.


Belinda McKeon’s debut novel Solace won the 2011 Faber Prize and was voted Irish Book of the Year, as well as being shortlisted for the James Tait Black Memorial Prize.

Her second novel, Tender, was published in the US by Lee Boudreaux Books in February 2016. (Read the Kirkus starred review here.)

Her essays and journalism have appeared in the New York Times, the Paris Review, the Guardian, A Public Space and elsewhere. As a playwright, she has had work produced in Dublin and New York. She lives in Newburgh and is an Assistant Teaching Professor of Creative Writing at Rutgers University.