Writers and non-writers alike are sometimes baffled at how long it takes to write a book. To write well, an author needs to do justice to the story that he or she feels driven to tell—and it’s not just the crafting of the first draft. There’s also the editing of hundreds of pages, making sure the characters are true to themselves, that every scene truly drives the story forward in some way, that every line stays true to the tone of the project, and so much more.
That’s why I always feel exceptionally excited when a talented writer, who’s been working hard for years, experiences the success of their first book publication. And Patricia A. Smith, who was kind enough to chat with me about her editing process, is that author who is finally seeing the fruits of her labors.
Patricia A. Smith received her MFA from Virginia Commonwealth University. Her nonfiction has appeared in the anthologies One Teacher in Ten: Gay and Lesbian Educators Tell Their Stories; Tied in Knots: Funny Stories from the Wedding Day; Something to Declare: Good Lesbian Travel Writing, and One Teacher in Ten in the New Millennium: LGBT Teachers Discuss What Has Gotten Better…and What Hasn’t. Her work has also appeared in such places as Salon, Broad Street, Prime Number, Gris-Gris, The Tusculum Review, and So to Speak. The Year of Needy Girls is her first novel.
Q & A with novelist and writing teacher Patricia A. Smith
Kris: What was the greatest lesson about editing that you learned through the process of writing and publishing The Year of Needy Girls?
Patricia: I think my greatest lesson is a truism that all budding writers hear over and over, but it finally became true for me in a concrete way—that less is more. Some readers might find that funny after reading my book, but truthfully, so much of my editing was cutting. I cut entire chapters. Fearful to do it, but trusting my editorial advice, I was surprised to see just how much stronger the narrative became when I cut away the inessential.
Kris: When you worked on your first draft of The Year of Needy Girls, did you try to commit the whole story to paper first, or did you edit as you went along?
Patricia: I wrote this book over a very long period of time, and I think if I had committed to getting the whole story down at once, I might have written it more quickly. Previously, I had written short stories and essays, and those I edit as I go along. But with a novel, it’s important to get down the whole arc of the story before you do too much close editing. Of course, the other reason I took so long to write this book is that I also teach full-time, and for a couple of years, I wrote only in the summers when I committed to going away on writing retreats. Thankfully, a couple years ago, I realized that if I wanted to finish this book, I had to make a more regular writing routine and committed to writing for an hour in the mornings before school and plowing ahead with the manuscript without editing. Instead of going back to change things, as hard as it was, I kept going and relied on my notes about what to change.
Kris: Did you have phases of revising, focusing on different aspects of your story, or did you tackle comprehensive edits all at once?
Patricia: Before I sent my book to Kaylie Jones, at Kaylie Jones Books, I tended to tackle comprehensive edits all at once, and I moved chronologically through the book. After I received editorial feedback, I revised and edited with more singular focus. For example, early feedback from Kaylie suggested (and she was right), that I take out one character who was diluting the focus of the narrative. So, I went through the entire manuscript to remove all the mentions and scenes—some of which had to be changed completely—with that character. Another concern was specific references to time, so I went through the manuscript with an eye for those details. I approached each editorial suggestion in that way.
Kris: Wow, I know deleting an entire character was a difficult process. Creating complex characters that are at once flawed and fully relate-able seems to be a specialty of yours. How do you make sure each individual is fully fleshed out and alive on the page?
Patricia: Character is one of my main concerns both as a writer and reader, so I am particularly interested in creating believable and complex characters. I was especially happy when an early reader told me that Mickey—a character who commits a horrible crime—was like-able. Because even though he is guilty, he is still someone’s son and someone’s brother. I had to work to find that human side of him.
When I was doing research for the novel, I spent some time with a police detective, trying to figure out how Mickey might be caught. And one thing the detective asked stuck with me. She said, “Is Mickey close to his mother?” Well, to be honest, at that point, I hadn’t even considered Mickey beyond the fact that I knew he had committed this crime; I didn’t know if he was close to his mother or not! And I remember feeling overwhelmed, too, suddenly realizing how little I knew about my secondary characters. The detective went on to say that if Mickey was close to his mother—something police might discover from their canvassing once they suspected him of the crime—they might, for example, use a female detective to question him because his relationship with his mother would suggest to them that he’d respond better and more deferentially to a woman. That question got me thinking in a more complex way about Mickey and who he was beyond a criminal.
Stories are less interesting to me if one of the characters is 100% “bad”—because who is that, anyway? We all have the capacity for good and evil in us. People are rarely all bad or good. TV shows, unfortunately, don’t always follow this dictum, nor do all movies, and so if young writers are getting their story inspiration from TV and film, too often they are thinking in terms of heroes and villains. And just as “bad” people have their good sides, “good” people are also flawed.
Kris: That’s a wonderful note. And how an author describes the world around their characters can portray complexity too. How did you create, maintain, and edit yourself to carry an atmosphere of suspense and tension through your entire book?
Patricia: I kept a couple things in mind from the get-go. One, I’m a New Englander by birth and temperament. I grew up in Massachusetts. I knew I wanted to set the story there. And I wanted to set it in the fall for a couple of reasons—one, because fall in New England is glorious, and two, because for teachers, at least for me, fall is the start of a fresh, new year. I’m always optimistic in the fall, looking ahead to the start of a new school year with hopes and goals for how things will happen. So, it felt important to have Deirdre’s life fall apart in the fall and the actions of the story take place against the backdrop of a—mostly—lovely New England autumn. Of course, the gorgeous fall of striking color quickly morphs into the bleak fall of black and white and grey, too, just as Deirdre’s life changes in an instant. It is probably not a coincidence that I teach The Scarlet Letter every year, either.
In my Fiction classes, I do an exercise with my students that comes from John Gardner and his book The Art of Fiction. It’s probably one that is familiar to most writers. He asks us to imagine a man whose son has just been killed in a war. Describe a barn as seen by this man; do not mention his son, or war, or death. It’s an exercise designed to teach us how to use setting to convey emotion. It also asks us to really see through the eyes of this man, to imagine what the barn really looks like to him through his grief. It is one of the best exercises I do with my students every year. And while writing the book, I consciously tried to use the setting to help convey the atmosphere of the story, and I hoped it wasn’t too heavy-handed. The prologue, too, sets the overall scene for the entire story and revs up the tension right away. By going through the manuscript and dropping in references to the missing boy every so often, my intention was to keep reminding the reader of that earlier tension and infusing each scene with an uneasiness, no matter the general feel of what was actually happening. This was something I did in later drafts, though. Early on, I wasn’t as conscious of that while I was writing Deirdre’s and SJ’s separate storylines.
Kris: You have me wanting to be a student in your class! When you have young writers in your classroom, what is your favorite piece of advice to give them?
Patricia: I usually admonish them not to kill their protagonist! I also tell them that there is often more conflict at a typical dinner table than there is in a “big scene” with guns or other weapons. This, of course, is not my original idea. I use Janet Burroway’s excellent book Writing Fiction: a Guide to Narrative Craft, and I have found much of the advice in that book to be stellar. I tell them that all good stories are rooted in character, that you need to know much more than you realize about your characters, and that plot is really a matter of knowing characters deeply and figuring out what choices the characters would make and the consequences of those choices. I tell them that rooting their fiction in familiar experiences is helpful. By this I don’t mean they can’t write fantasy—they can—but if they want to write about spies and murderers, for example, that it’s tough to do without doing extensive research (the kind they are not yet prone to do), or without some knowledge of what they’re writing. Again, they tend to base their knowledge of such characters on TV or other visual media, and for that reason, they come off as rather one-dimensional.
Kris: What’s the biggest grammar lesson you find yourself emphasizing with your students?
Patricia: Each year, with every class, I have to explain verb tenses and how to manipulate verb tense for flashbacks—that if they’re writing a story in the present, the flashback is in past but if the narrative is written in the past, the flashback is in past perfect. Similarly, I have to explain that if they’re writing a story in the past, the future is expressed by “would.” Many of even my strongest writers struggle with verb tenses.
Finally, I’d like to put in a plug for diagramming sentences. I find my students, on the whole, don’t have a strong understanding of how sentences work, of where to put or how to make effective use of clauses.
Oh, diagramming sentences. It comes up again and again, doesn’t it? There are few who went through the process who remember it as any fun (I know I didn’t think it was!), but at the same time, there are few who went through it, who remain totally baffled on the elements of sentence structure. I’m of the school of thought that you have to know the rules of writing before you can break them—or redefine them. Is it possible to teach the subtleties in different ways? Probably. Finding out that answer is a bit of a mission of mine. But I digress…
Thank you so much, Patricia A. Smith, for taking the time to talk about the editing process of your first published book, and happy writing, everyone!
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