Monday, November 21, 2011

Rachael Herron On Knitting, Writing and Revision

photo credit: Khalil Robinson
"I hate writing, but revisions are magic," said Rachael Herron, the featured speaker at last week's Writers Forum. Author of a trilogy of novels, which she cleverly coins "knit lit" after her favorite pastime, she recently published A Life in Stitches: Knitting my Way through Love, Loss and Laughter--a memoir collection of heartwarming stories that spin around the theme.

Too young to write the story of her life, Herron joked, "It's the story of my sweaters." Each scarf or pair of socks tells its own poignant tale. The book, which I finished in three days, was this week's featured nighttime read-aloud before sleep. In fact, I was so inspired by her luscious skeins of yarn-spinning (both sweaters and stories), that today my favorite autumn-hued scarf and I stepped foot inside a store to sign up for a beginner knitters class!

Herron has been knitting since she was just five years old, and writing just as long--she was smitten as soon as she figured out there's an author behind each book. Getting her MFA at Mills College gave her permission and the space to write. But although her pursuits were "literary heavy," she was never able to type the words 'The End': "I'd write 25 pages of genius followed by 75 pages of crap."

It was NaNoWriMo ("where you have a month to write 50,000 poorly chosen words") that led Herron to write and publish her first book. A lover of romance, she carefully considered her protagonists: "Who can I pit against a knitter? Ah, a hot sheep rancher. They both love wool." When her thirty days were up, she added 20,000 more words, edited it and sent it to agents. It took her 32 queries (sent five at a time). Then, after almost two years of polishing, she got a 3-book deal with Harper Collins. With that contract, she had just six months to churn out a second book. "The language and characters were great," she said, "but I had no plot."

Overhauling the book with a major rewrite gave this author insight into her revision process--a series of 15 or so steps she uses, from restructuring scenes to final touches. From choosing your book's theme ("its core, its heart") to creating an elevator pitch ("that 1-sentence hook you tell an editor between floors 2 & 11"), from re-reading that first draft ("the egregious things & lovely things--'someone sneaked into my office late and night and wrote that!' ") to creating a cuts file ("a place for your brain to rest"), Herron outlines it step-by-step on her seven-year-old blog Yarnagogo.

Rachael Herron's (Yarnagogo) Book Signing/Reading
photo credit: Michael Wade at Ravelry
One additional hint not included there: print your story in 2-page sections and bind it like a book, or send it to Kindle, which will format it as such; you'll notice things you didn't as a document, and even "fall in love with it all over again after hating it for so long."

Herron calls herself a "pantser"--someone who flies by the seat of her pants, writing as fast as she can. She allows her characters to take her somewhere and never knows how the story will end. For 2-3 months she "spits words onto the page," as opposed to a "plotter" who first outlines her text. But Carolyn Jewel, a forum participant and author of historical & paranormal romance, disagrees.

She said any "office supplier" like Herron, who makes good use of sticky notes in what she names "the magic post-it method," plots plenty. Or, maybe, as Marlene Cullen suggests, she's "a pantser with a plan."

While Herron recommended the GMC approach (Goal = what your character wants more than anything else; Motivation = why the character wants this; Conflict = why she can't achieve it, externally and internally), Jewel said "my writer brain doesn't work that way." Instead, Jewel writes 1,000 words (about 4 pages) a day, revising and "fixing wrong spots" as she goes along.

Whether you're a pantser, a plotter, or something in between, there's no shying away from revision. Just as in her book Herron points out the "similarities between putting words on paper and making stitches on the needle," there are times when there's nothing left to do but unravel it. Then, trust yourself to put it back together, page by page, piece by piece. Speaking of... back to those 25 pages!

Dear Reader: Do you fly by the seat of your pants or plot/plod along line by line? What is your revision process and how does it compare to Rachael Herron's rehaul?

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