Some writers pen works you fall head-first into, making you not want to climb out until the very last page. Lisa Wingate is one such author, who has been able to achieve this feat time and time again. Lisa’s novels have been translated into over thirty-five languages, and on top of her skills as a novelist, the group Americans for More Civility, a kindness watchdog organization, selected Lisa along with six others as recipients of the National Civics Award, which celebrates public figures who work to promote greater kindness and civility in American life.
For these reasons, and many more, I am absolutely beside myself to present the following interview, which is full of inspiration and valuable writing and editing advice.
Lisa Wingate is a former journalist, inspirational speaker, and New York Times Bestselling Author of thirty novels. Her work has won or been nominated for many awards, including the Pat Conroy Southern Book Prize, the Oklahoma Book Award, The Carol Award, and the Christy Award. Her blockbuster hit, Before We Were Yours remained on the New York Times Bestseller List for over ten months, was Publishers Weekly’s #3 longest running bestseller of 2017, and was voted by readers as the 2017 Goodreads Choice Award winner for historical fiction. Before We Were Yours has been a book club favorite worldwide and to date has sold over one million copies.
Q & A with Bestselling Novelist Lisa Wingate
Kris: When you hear the word “editing,” what is your gut reaction?
Lisa: After 30 novels, “edit” doesn’t strike the fear in my heart that it once did. I remember those early editing letters with the returned manuscript all red-penciled (on paper back then, just imagine!) with comments, questions, suggestions to cut this and that, rearrange chapters and/or scenes, cut out a character or add one. My heart would rebel. Eventually, I learned that if I’d just let it all settle a bit, the answers would come. I’d know how to fix the issues, satisfy the editorial suggestions, and sometimes work around them. Mostly, I learned that, while having someone else step into your story and critique it, editing (beyond self-editing, I mean) is necessary. It makes the book better, the story more complete, and more satisfying for all the eyes that will take it in when the book hits the shelves.
Kris: Tell me about your process. Do you revise as you write?
Lisa: Very little. I write a messy first draft, then edit after I have the whole story on paper. The first draft is just me telling the story to myself. When I edit it, I’m shaping it into something others can read. If I hit a rough spot as I’m working, I might take a little break, turn on some music, brew a cup of tea, or even grab my iPhone and take a walk or move to the porch, but once I’ve “reset,” I make myself write on until I reach my goal for the day. Sometimes, I’m thinking, “This is junk.” But the thing about junk is, you can always revise it later. Sometimes when I read back over the scene later, it’s actually not bad, and I don’t end up tweaking it much.
The main thing for me is to get the first draft on paper—have I said that already? Once I know the whole story, it’s much easier to shape the bits and pieces.
Kris: Oh, yes. We all have those “this is junk” moments. And we’ve all got to push through. Getting that first draft down is so essential. Thank you for saying that. So, on a macro-level review, looking at story structure and whether what you have down works, what is it that you look for? Would you walk me through how you elevate your structure to make the most of every chapter and every scene?
Lisa: Even though I’m not a big plotter and I will discover much of my story as I work, I always work according to Three Act Structure. It gives me the skeleton on which to hang the flesh of the story. I’m always working with the three act plot points in mind as I write. Every writer’s process is different, but for years I taught a workshop featuring a very simplified Three Act Structure outline. While there is no “magic bean” for writing a great story, it’s helpful to understand how the three acts of a story break down. I don’t teach the workshop anymore, but the worksheets from the class are on my website.
Kris: That is an amazing resource! I appreciate you sharing it. Now, when it comes to historical research, I’m sure there’s so much that you find that is utterly fascinating but that has to be taken out of the final draft of the book. I know this is a problem I sometimes have. How do you decide what can stay in and what has to go?
Lisa: I’m fascinated with history. I love finding a little-known historical gem and thinking, who would have lived this event? Where is the story in this? In the case of Before We Were Yours, I was up in the middle of the night, pulling a deadline. I had the TV on, but with no volume. An old episode of Investigation Discovery’s Deadly Women cycled through and caught my eye. There were images of an old mansion with a front room filled with bassinets and babies. Crying babies, laughing babies, babies who were red-cheeked and sweaty-faced and sickly looking. I turned on the volume (writers love a good distraction) and immediately became fascinated by the bizarre, tragic, and startling history of Georgia Tann and the Tennessee Children’s Home Society. I was shocked by how recent her adoption-for-profit operation was, operating from the 1920s until 1950.
I knew I had to write about this, and it occurred to me that what hadn’t really been told were the stories of the children. Mostly, I focused on that—the experience through their eyes and what parts of it would have mattered to them. What they would have seen, experienced, felt, heard, etc. when they crossed paths with Georgia Tann’s spotters and were suddenly foisted into a holding home, awaiting adoption-for-profit. I wanted my readers to be caught up in the story, the mystery, the danger. Any piece of the history that enhanced that, I tried to incorporate. Anything that slowed that down, I left out.
There was much more that could have been told in terms of the history, but a novel isn’t a history book. It’s the tale of one character’s journey (or multiple characters’ journeys). Anything not relevant to that journey, anything not propelling it along, should be left out.
Kris: That’s wonderful advice, hard to follow sometimes in a rough draft, but crucial in a final manuscript. Turning to another story element, how do you revise your dialogue so that you know it rings true to both your reader’s ear and the truth of the character voice?
Lisa: I develop a lot of my dialogue as I’m dictating into the iPhone. When you speak it and then answer yourself, it sounds genuine (and a little crazy, so this isn’t something to do at the local Starbucks). It’s a lot like playing Let’s Pretend in childhood, imagining yourself as a character, talking and living the story. The toughest part of dialogue for me has to do with dialect, which can be tricky. It’s a matter of adding enough dialect to make the characters real, without adding so much that they’re speaking in code. Regional phrases are interesting too. An editor once red-penciled the phrase “she had a rigor.” In the South, people have rigors all the time. Not so on the East Coast. My editor had never heard of it. We engaged in a bit of discussion and decided that “conniption fits” are universal and understood by readers everywhere.
Kris: I’m just imagining you sitting on your front porch having conversations with yourself, phone recording it all. I love it. Some people have that natural ebb and flow to their speech that translates so well onto the page. You’re clearly a natural storyteller. Here’s my last question for you: what is your best editing advice for newer writers?
Lisa: If you receive a particular critique from one person—even an agent or editor—be skeptical unless there’s a book deal on the table. Really think it through. Does it make sense? Will it enhance your story or make it better? Could it be a matter of opinion? If you’ve received similar commentary from multiple sources, it’s time to ask the really hard questions and think about revising your story.
Hard questions. That’s really what the best editing brings outs, and with the close examinations of those hard questions, your story becomes better. I love how Lisa notes that all advice isn’t to be automatically followed. It’s a matter of finding the greater truth of your story and your characters, what works for you as a writer and for your readers—whether it’s that Southern expression that may or may not be universally understood or that fascinating history that weaves into (but not necessarily beyond) your plot.
Sometimes editing makes all the difference, self-editing and external editing. Both are crucial pieces of the writing process.
Thank you so much, Lisa Wingate, for taking the time to talk editing and craft issues with me. I’ve been truly honored to have you join our Authors on Editing conversation.
No matter what everyone is working on, happy writing, folks!
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