Susan Henderson: Trust Your (re)Vision
I thought of a lot of different ways to “introduce” Susan Henderson here, but each time they came out sounding cheesy. You may know her for her powerful writing, published in multiple print and online sources, or from www.Litpark.com, her brainchild and baby. You may know her from when she edited at Night Train magazine or from one of the many ways she champions writers.
Fortunately, Sue speaks very well for herself, and I think you’ll find this to be one of the most inspirational interviews yet. She reminds us that even though we must listen to the sharp and wise voices of criticism, we must also trust our own voice and vision as writers.
You have the distinction of being editor and writer both. So which is harder: walking a writer through a revision, or doing one yourself?
What an editor does is, she says “Based on my vast experience as a reader, these are the things that–to my ear–stand out as needing improvement.” The easy edits to offer are simply pointing out your experience while reading—This is where I got confused. Who’s saying this? This is where I got impatient or bored. Now, the dangerous water for both the editor and the writer is in the suggestions. Sometimes, you have a great idea—I know, what if the story starts on page 8—wouldn’t that be an explosive beginning? Even things that seem easy—a suggestion to change “She was sleeping” to “She slept”—can begin to erode a writer’s voice once you start making these small changes page after page.
What an editor has to be mindful of is that she is put in a very peculiar position for someone in the arts. If you were a painter, it would be unbelievable for someone to come in with his own paintbrush and begin to “correct” your painting. How about more yellow? I’m just going to fix the nose on this woman’s face and add a few clouds in the sky? The editor has to be careful not to fiddle with a person’s work to the point of missing the author’s unique heart, voice, or lens on the world. I mean, imagine asking Cormac McCarthy to be clearer and to shorten his sentences and so on until the final result was something that read more like James Patterson?
But you asked which is harder, and I think offering an opinion is infinitely easier than the work of receiving that opinion with an open mind and then running it through the hearts and voices of the characters to see if it fits. The writer must find that balance between making the story tighter, fiercer, and clearer while staying true to her own voice and that initial and urgent impulse to tell the story in the first place.
What’s your process for revising your own work without the input of others?
I definitely edit in waves. One thing I do, once I have a complete draft, is track a single character from beginning to end. I make sure that character is vivid, that he has a clear story arc, a definable desire that’s always with him, no matter who or what he faces. I do this for every single character, no matter how small his role in the story. And I also do this for the setting, which I consider one more living creature in my story.
Later, I’ll read for pacing. I try to put myself into the mind of someone who’s exhausted and doesn’t have time to read my book. This is my way of making sure each chapter really moves, that there’s something surprising or satisfying that happens, that there’s the promise that more will happen if they turn the page.
The last big edit I do is I read the entire book out loud. This is how I catch anything that’s off about the rhythm. I was a poet long before I wrote short stories or novels, so the cadence is as important to me as the plot.
Your debut novel is being published in 2010. Break the myth for readers that once you sell a book your work is done. Tell us what you can about your post-sale editorial process.
The day my novel sold, I spoke on the phone with my new editor who wanted to let me know some of her ideas for revision. Most had to do with one section of the book that she felt was disjointed and episodic.
Her other thought was that I consider adding a “frame story” to my book. My novel is narrated by an eight year old, and my editor felt there were things she wanted to know as a reader that this kid couldn’t tell her. So she threw out this idea: What if there was another story with its own plot that followed any characters I chose into the future? What are they doing now and what could they say or do that would satisfy some of the unanswered questions carried by the reader?
The wonderful thing about my editor is that she gave her impressions (and I think they were right on), but she really stayed out of suggesting how I should fix them. The fun of edits is that unknown space where you have to get creative again. What’s a different way of getting from point A to point B? What would I like to say about this story that my narrator’s incapable of knowing or communicating? That’s the part I love—it’s going to bed with no ideas at all, and then, over the next week or two, beginning to see ways to make the book something much bigger, something that says much more than the original.
After this revision, there were some nips and tucks, and we’re still without a title, but basically, once your book is taken by an agent, and then again when it’s bought by a publishing house, be prepared to go back in and do more work. Also, don’t expect praise at this stage. You will likely get warmer responses and more compliments in your rejection letters because, once the book sells, everyone is going to look hard for what’s wrong with it and want you to fix it in a way that makes it more marketable.
What is the most difficult revision you ever had to do and why?
The worst—the revision that caused me to lose 15 pounds and nearly give up writing altogether—was taking an editor’s instincts over my own and watching my entire book fall apart. I can’t even talk about it in specifics because the sheer agony of it is still right there. In the end, I made the choice to rebuild something that I’d destroyed, rather than throwing it away. It’s the hardest work I’ve ever done, and I won’t let that happen again. I’ve always been someone who’s open to suggestions. What I’ve had to learn is to not to be so open—or should I say, so intimidated by people in positions of power—that I discount my own voice in the editing process.
What aspect of revision do you embrace or even look forward to?
I love looking at every sentence and trying to sharpen its meaning, to say it in fewer words, to infuse it with action, to take out the clutter, to find the rhythm as one sentence joins with another. I like to try to end every paragraph with an image or a mood or a surprise. That’s sheer joy for me, just playing with language.
How do you know when you’re done revising?
You can only know when you’re done revising “for now.” Sometimes, you know because you’re exhausted. Sometimes because you’re euphoric. And sometimes because you hate the characters and think you’re the worst writer on the planet. When you’re done, for whatever reason, put the manuscript away. For a week, for two months. Later, when you go back to it, you’ll have a much better sense how close you are.
What advice do you have for the aspiring writer about learning to love revision?
My agent taught me this: think back to when you really loved writing—before it was about feedback/publication/rejection, before it felt like a chore, before you felt like a failure. Remember the joy in coming up with the exact color blue for a character’s eyes. Remember looking up at the clock and discovering a whole day had gone by while you were lost in the world of your story. Find that again.
If it’s hard to remember when writing was something you loved, try this. Imagine stopping. Imagine not finishing that story or book you’ve been stuck on. Imagine losing your computer and all your unfinished manuscripts in a fire. If that sends you into an utter panic, then—hard as it may be to get it right—you simply must find a way to tell your story.
SUSAN HENDERSON’s debut novel, (TITLE COMING SOON), will be published by Harper Collins in September 2010. She is Curator of NPR’s newest literary venture, “DimeStories,” produced by Jay Allison (of “This I Believe”), and is the recipient of an Academy of American Poets award and grants from The Ludwig Vogelstein Foundation and The Lojo Foundation. Her work has—twice—been nominated for a Pushcart Prize. Publications include Zoetrope, The Pittsburgh Quarterly, North Dakota Quarterly, Bellevue Literary Review, South Dakota Review, The MacGuffin, Arkansas Review: A Journal of Delta Studies (nominated for a Pushcart Prize, 2004), North Atlantic Review, The Green Hills Literary Lantern, Opium, Other Voices, Amazon Shorts (nominated for a Pushcart Prize, 2006), The World Trade Center Memorial, The Future Dictionary of America (McSweeney’s Books, 2004), The Best American Non-Required Reading (Houghton Mifflin, 2007), Not Quite What I Was Planning (HarperPerennial, 2008), and Online Writing: The Best of the First Ten Years (Snowvigate Press, 2009). She blogs at LitPark.com, and occasionally at Huffington Post and Brad Listi’s The Nervous Breakdown. Her husband is a costume designer, filmmaker, and tenured drama professor. They live in NY with their two boys.