a guest post by author Lindsay Eagar
Let me tell you a story about a story.
In 2016, I turned in a first draft of THE BIGFOOT FILES to my editor.
In 2017, we revised it until my editor left for maternity leave. We were mere weeks away from the copyediting date. When she returned to work, she called. “I reread your edits with fresh eyes, and… I’m sending you another editorial letter this week. It’s a lot,” she warned. “Read it and digest it and let me know when we can discuss it.”
“I’m sure it’s fine,” I said.
Reader, it was not fine. It was a gut job.
I’d turned in a dead book. Full of plot holes, full of miscalculated stakes, full of nonsensical character goals. Not a tragedy! It happens. But in order to keep my original publishing date, we’d need to get it into copyedits in six weeks.
Six weeks to rewrite, revise, and line edit a new version of this story. Somehow we arrived at the copyediting deadline with only about two minutes to spare.
Since then, I’ve had time to reflect on how exactly I managed to make this happen—to rewrite a book entirely on such a tight deadline without losing the joy of creation in the process. I have a few tips I’d love to share.
Grief is part of the process
You are asked to ax a project and try again. It is an opportunity to do better, which is a good thing—but that doesn’t mean you don’t feel pain letting go of the book you thought you’d written. I believe that wallowing and grieving is an important step in the revision process. You wrote a book. You were proud of it. You were told it wasn’t enough. Grieving the story you thought you had written (but was clearly only a ghost) is a way of ruminating. It’s a way of preparing your brain for the important upcoming act of resurrection—you kill your old ideas, you bury them, you mourn them, and then you begin to look for new life.
Find the heart
If you can, sum up the heart in one or two sentences. Then you’ll have a true north to follow as you tear your book into pieces. My heart for Bigfoot book was this simple line: “Some things are true, whether you believe in them or not.” Every story element had to push me further along to that heart. If it didn’t fit, it was tossed or placed into a file for future stories.
Finding the heart is sometimes easier said than done—you probably have your own method for conjuring it. Playing a song, talking with a friend, paying attention to daydreams and night dreams, pretending you are being interviewed by Oprah, sketching, making a board of images and quotes—all are great ways of excavating the heart of your book.
You have two jobs
You have a charge to make your book better, in no uncertain terms. You have wallowed, grieved, and made the decision to shape the book into a new form. You have discovered your book’s heart—the spine, the core, the thing around which everything else revolves.
Now you have two jobs. You must fill the well, and you must not say no—for now.
Fill the well. This doesn’t have to mean you spend all your time gorging yourself on new material for new stories—it does mean you should go back to the original sources for this story. Playlists, pictures you held onto, those ever-esoteric “feelings” that you were hoping to give your reader… Now is the time to make an absolute glutton of yourself. Listen to soundtracks while you drive. Take a walk while you think. Doodle while you watch a movie. The goal is to reenter a mode where you are generating ideas large and small, and you must feed the machine. My own brain has a very difficult time shifting from drafting mode into revision mode. It takes a big to-do. Keeping my creative well full to the tippy-top with music and images and words helps me get back into brainstorming mode.
Once your brainstorming mechanism is up and running, it’s time to produce. Your job now is to never say no. Sometimes an idea will come to you for a fix (either from your own mind or from a well-meaning editor or critique partner trying to help) and you just know in your gut that it is not right for this book—that’s fine. Write it down anyway. Making a list of the wrong things can help trigger the right thing.
My original plan for Bigfoot book was to have a small cast, a tight timeline, and an almost claustrophobic-like road trip structure. Single narrative. No flashbacks. Nothing tricky (which was honestly a relief after both HOUR OF THE BEES and RACE TO THE BOTTOM OF THE SEA turned into these double-narrative puzzles that had to be woven together perfectly). Any sort of second, nestled narrative did not belong in Bigfoot book, I was certain…
Until a little niggle in my brain said there was probably more to my main character’s friendship with a girl named Emma than I had originally thought. I gave myself two minutes to explore it and ended up with a five-chapter arc of their friendship’s beginning and dissolving. In the finished book, this is such an important part of the story, I can’t imagine the book working without it—and it’s only in there because I refused to shoot anything down before I gave it a fair shot.
Make lists. Lists of things you know are wrong. Lists of things you know are, for sure, not right for this book—explosions, betrayals, hauntings, breakups, car crashes, embarrassing moments, concerts, whatever it is, make it a game to write twenty wrong things that would not help your book. Just the act of making the list can jar the right things loose.
Let your subconscious do the work for you
It is a good thing, to put in the work. But it’s imperative that you give yourself breaks and leave the screen or the page so your brain can do its undercover web-weaving and bridge-building and furniture-moving. There’s a lot of redecorating that happens when you step away from the desk. There is so much happening under the surface. There are connections being made. Don’t do so much of the upfront, intentional, work that you begrudge your brain the chance to do its secret, quiet work.
There are ways I help my brain with this process. Some of them easy, some of them wacky. I take a walk and I leave headphones behind every once in a while—filling my head with podcasts or audiobooks or music can disrupt the heavy lifting happening behind the scenes. I do laundry (really!), or dishes, or sweep a floor—something where my hands are busy and my mind can wander.
Basically, step away from your desk occasionally to live your life—it’s not that the work will be there waiting for when you come back; the work continues in your head even when you’re not sitting at your desk.
More hardcore tricks for getting your subconscious fired up include taking a midday shower or bath (showers are notoriously fantastic places for letting your mind wander; for me they are a signal of the beginning of the day and my brain reawakens if I take a second shower), putting together an actual puzzle, getting your brain involved in another task that requires problem-solving (baking or cooking is one my favorites), or drinking coffee right before taking a nap. (Really! Get ready for the most vivid dreams of your life!)
Grit and momentum: how I did it
How did I do it? I had a one-year-old, a seven-year-old, a husband who worked full-time, other book deadlines, and zero childcare. I did not have a magic pill for superfast revision brain. I did not have six extra hours added to my week. I did not have a breakthrough.
I had a stubborn insistence to make this book work in the allotted time, and nothing more.
For weeks, I did nothing but write. I woke up before the baby and wrote. I dictated on our walks. I dreamed of the book and woke in the middle of the night, taking notes on my phone. I finished a draft; I printed it out; I covered it in red notes; I started again.
It was… not a healthy balance.
I was able to strip a book down to its core and build it up again because of what I sacrificed. I did not sleep enough. I didn’t eat or exercise enough. I did not spend enough quality time with my children. I definitely did not relax enough on my own, or unwind, or do anything that didn’t contribute to rewriting this book.
I’ve already promised my editor, my agent, and my husband that I won’t try to do that again.
Because in the end:
It’s not actually a bone; it’s a book
File this one under: THINGS LINDSAY IS STILL TRYING TO LEARN.
It’s not a bone.
If it doesn’t get mended, or if it takes a long time, the world will not stop turning.
Sometimes when the deadline is tight and the edits require your blood and sweat, the stakes feel inordinately higher. They’re not.
It’s still just a book. It’s still just play.
Tom Waits says artists are “just making jewelry for the insides of other peoples’ heads.” Don’t sacrifice too much for a piece of jewelry.
The revision process for THE BIGFOOT FILES was over so quickly, I didn’t have any chance to take breaks or read with fresh eyes—I turned in a book with almost no objectivity, basically, and so I held my breath when I received the galleys. I read it out loud to my daughter, whom the book is dedicated to, and was pleased to find that it is a decent book. It’s not perfect, but it’s so close to the book I held in my head. It’s also the most directly personal of any of my published work, and for that reason, I think it beats with a heart and a rhythm that is very close to my own heart. I am very proud of it—but if I ever need to do a rapid rewrite like this again, I’m either locking myself in a panic room to do it, or else I’m going to wisely say, “No, I need to take my time with something like this.”
Bio: Lindsay Eagar is the author of HOUR OF THE BEES, RACE TO THE BOTTOM OF THE SEA, and THE BIGFOOT FILES. She lives in the mountains of Utah with her husband and daughters.
About THE BIGFOOT FILES:
The Loch Ness Monster. The Frogman. Bigfoot. Twelve-year-old Miranda Cho used to believe in it all, used to love poring over every strange footprint, every stray hair, everything that proved that the world was full of wonders. But that was before her mother’s obsession with monsters cost Miranda her friends and her perfect school record, before Miranda found the stack of unopened bills and notices of foreclosure in the silverware drawer. Now the fact that her mom’s a cryptozoologist doesn’t seem wonderful — it’s embarrassing and irresponsible, and it could cost them everything. So Miranda agrees to go on one last creature hunt, determined to use all her scientific know-how to prove to her mother, once and for all, that Bigfoot isn’t real. Then her mom will have no choice but to grow up and get a real job — one that will pay the mortgage and allow Miranda to attend the leadership camp of her dreams. But when the trip goes horribly awry, will it be Miranda who’s forced to question everything she believes?