Month: September 2018

Before and After: Developmental Edits

Before funding Rock of Ages, I was mostly ignorant of the editing process a book goes through before reaching shelves. When I thought of editing I thought of line editing and copyediting– going line by line marking misspellings and grammar mistakes, maybe providing some insight about characters and plots in a note at the end, but mostly correcting mistakes. There’s a whole other step, I learned quickly. The developmental edit.

This broad level edit looks at the story as a whole, making suggestions sometimes as sweeping as dropping or adding characters and chapters or whole subplots. Settings change, sometimes tense and point of view.

My own developmental edit letter was thrilling, which is not how I expected it to feel. In spite of huge suggestions (work really hard on my descriptive prose, drop several subplots, change the setting for parts of my story, age down my characters, etc.), I was so excited about my editor’s vision and could really tell they would improve my book immensely.

It’s been a challenge explaining to my supporters how I can be making such huge changes to the manuscript while still delivering them the book they signed up for. So here’s a before and after example that I hope will make this a little clearer, as well as provide authors who are nervous about their developmental edit some assurance that though it is a lot of work, your book will still be your own, just better!

A warning that there are some minor spoilers for Rock of Ages below, but none that should greatly affect your reading of the book.


“Becca,” Simon said, turning his gaze back to me.
“Yeah?” I asked.
“I love you.”
“I love you, too. Thank you for always being there for me. I really needed this.”
“I’m…in love with you,”  he said, hugging his the sleeves of his red flannel shirt, too warm for the 80 degree weather. “I always have been.”
“Simon,” I started.
“I would be so good to you,” he said.
“I know,” I said. We were silent. We looked at our drinks, Simon’s almost gone and mine still full.


“Cass,” Simon started, and then pushed himself up to seated, staring over at the far bank, thoughtful. I watched him, lifting one arm to shield my face from the sun, which had emerged from behind a fluffy cumulous cloud.
Simon sighed.
Is he going to lecture me? I wondered. It didn’t seem like him, but I had no idea what else he could be saying.
“Cass, I’ve been in love with you for a long time,” he finally blurted. I propped myself on my elbows and let him continue.
“I know this probably isn’t the time to tell you this. I know.”
I sat up all the way now, listening.
“Cass, I would be so good to you,” he finished.
“Simon,” I started, not sure how to respond. I had never even felt a hint of romance with Simon. We had always been more like siblings than anything else, but here with him now, hearing this, I noticed for the first time how handsome he was. How he had lost the chubby cheeks that had made him look so much younger than he was for so long and was now lean and muscular from working in the gardens. I thought about his compassion and loyalty, caring for his family, how steadfast and dependable he had always been. He was so familiar, so safe, but at the same time there was something new and intriguing about him. He had changed since I’d been here last— he was more confident and determined, and I had to admit when I tried to see him from an outsider’s eyes, from the point of view of someone who was just meeting him now, for the first time, he was attractive, all of those things together were attractive.
You should kiss him, I told myself. And I almost did it. I almost leaned in and kissed him. It would have been like a movie— I could see it playing in my mind.
“Simon,” I said again, and his face perked, reminding me of a puppy. But that was it— I couldn’t see him from an outsider’s perspective. He would always be the kid I grew up with, regardless of who he was now. And he was always a part of here, of Buckhannon. And the weight of Buckhannon, of all of it, of my dad and my grandma and my mom’s dumb marriage, how she said she never loved my dad, and the drownings and the mine disaster and the little girl at the health clinic and the mom at Wal-Mart and Simon’s mom and brother and my fight with Tim and just all of it. Buckhannon was more than a place now— it was a weight, pressing down on me with all the heaviness of all of those awful things. And I wasn’t really sure, like Grandma had insisted I needed to be. And if I wasn’t really sure, if I didn’t get out now, I knew I never would. I thought of my job at Pow!, of LA, of good vegan food and blending into a crowd. I had a week left of family leave before I would have to tell Karen I wasn’t coming back to the office.
“I’m sorry, Simon,” I said, my face crumpling. “I think I have to go back to LA.”
His face mirrored mine, his eyes creasing at the corners and his lips turning down, but he nodded, holding his tears at bay, and lay back down on the rock. I lay next to him and grabbed his hand. Together, we watched the clouds for a long, long time.


In the first excerpt, I relied on the dialogue to convey all the things I said explicitly in the second excerpt. There are changes to the setting, additional descriptive prose, and more developed characters. You’ll also notice that I had to rewrite the passage mostly from scratch, but I hope this example shows how I can be rewriting most of the book while still keeping the heart of it! If you’re nervous about a developmental edit, I hope this makes you more excited! If your editor is good, you’re in for a lot of work but a book that is still yours, just a lot better!

Have any of your projects gone through a developmental edit? What was the process like for you?

Book Review: On Homesickness by Jesse Donaldson

I like most books I read, on some level. Even if it isn’t my favorite, or if I didn’t like it enough to read the next one in the series, I can usually find something redeeming in everything I read. More than that, I’d say I like most books I read a lot. Maybe this means I’m good at picking books, or maybe this means I like reading enough that I have a very low threshold for enjoyment when it comes to literature.

Every once in a while, though, I pick up a book that sings to me– that speaks so much to me that it feels like it was written directly to my heart.  The Unbearable Lightness of Being, The Wind-up Bird Chronicle, Bird by Bird, Everything Is Illuminated, Even Cowgirls Get the Blues, and now On Homesickness by Jesse Donaldson. I want to hold it to my chest and take deep breaths until it becomes a part of me. It feels like it already is a part of me.

Each page of On Homesickness has the shape, name, and year of formation of one of Kentucky’s 120 counties on the left and a prose poem on the right. The poems detail Donaldson’s nostalgia for his home state from his new home of Oregon. So many of his sentiments give voice to my own feelings about West Virginia in my new home of California. Part of this is because the geography is so similar. We both left Appalachia for the West coast. Part of it is because Donaldson and I are both young married adults with young children. I relate so much to the culture shock Donaldson describes, ache reading the myths and legends he shares about Kentucky because they remind me so much of those from West Virginia, and also felt incredibly invested in his story as it parallels my own.  We have the same cultural references, particularly Wendell Berry. I earmarked almost every other page.

On Homesickness  made me ache in another way– one I didn’t expect. For the first time, I read a book that I so wanted to share with my father. Of course there are lots of things, lots of moments, lots of thoughts I’ve wanted to share with him, but this book…he would have loved it so much. I haven’t felt his loss like this in a while– so fresh. He’s been gone for 19 years now and it hurts that he can’t read it.

Donaldson’s book conveys so many of the feelings and themes I’d like to capture in Rock of Ages so well and I’m so glad I read it while working on the rewrite. This is a book I’ll keep on my bedside and pick up to read a page or two every once in awhile. It has earned its place next to my favorites.

What books feel like they speak directly to you?

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Motivation, Accountability, and Bribery: How I Get My Writing Done

I’ve always been a responsible person. I was a conscientious student from preschool, completing extra worksheets at home with my mom just because I wanted to. This personality train persists today, and is essential for my success as a writer. After all, no one is telling me I have to write a blog post each week other than me. No one has set any deadlines for the rewrite of my novel. It would be next to impossible to write without some amount of self-directed motivation and accountability, and though these seem to come naturally to me, I know they’re really hard for some people. I decided to intentionally consider the roots of these habits and how I cultivate them.


At the heart of all of it, is motivation. If you don’t know why you’re writing, you won’t keep writing. For me, it’s a few things: Stories come up from somewhere inside me and I can’t think about anything else until I get them out. The stories need to be told. I want to be recognized as a writer– to have people read my work and be moved, to feel like it speaks to them. I want to hold my own books in my hands. And of course, now that people are waiting for my book, the desire not to disappoint them is a motivator too. If you don’t know why you write or paint or study, or do whatever it is you’re trying to do more of, spend some time thinking about it. Verbalize it. Imagine it. Really let yourself picture what it would feel like to achieve it. Studies show our brains respond the same way to things that are vividly imagined as they do to things we really experience. Get used to the feeling, so that it really feels possible, and come back to it any time your motivation is low.


I give myself deadlines and I treat them like external deadlines. I only let myself compromise on them in rare circumstances. Writing down goals is essential for me. I write “write” in my planner every day and cross it off when I meet my goal. If something comes up and I don’t get to my 1000 word goal in the morning like I planned, I stay up that night until I do, even though I’m the only one checking. Investing in yourself requires holding yourself accountable. Don’t give yourself excuses. That being said, make sure your goals are reasonable. They should be challenging yet realistic. If it’s a struggle to meet them every day, they’re too difficult. If you’re meeting them easily every day, they aren’t hard enough.

If you really struggle with keeping internal deadlines, make them external. Sign up for NaNoWriMo or 750Words. Get a writing buddy and check in with each other.


Don’t be afraid to bribe yourself. Before I started the rewrite for Rock of Ages, I made a list of milestones in the book and how I would treat myself when I reached them. Everything from coffee at your favorite place to bigger gifts can do the trick.

Is self-directed work hard for you? How  do you keep yourself motivated and accountable? What would you do if you could just make yourself do it? 


Nature as Birthright

We returned yesterday from our annual trip to West Virginia, and though it’s nice to come home– to my own bed, to my own kitchen, to my own routine, it’s always sad to leave some things in the Mountain State behind. This trip was particularly wonderful. I spent lots of time with my Grandma, saw several friends and family members, documented part of the trip for the Travelin’ Appalachians Revue Instagram, found some great primary sources for my novel, and learned a lot about my hometown from the local historical society. For my children, it was wonderful because of the time they spent outside.

I’ve heard a lot about “Nature Deficit Disorder,” a term coined by Richard Louv in his book Last Child in the Woods. In my training as a Tinkergarten leader, I learned something jarring– children in my generation spent an average of 30 minutes outside per day (even this seems shockingly low to me). Children now spend an average of nine. My children spend time in our yard and in parks. We go on hikes. But there is something totally different about just being in the real, undeveloped, unmanicured, untamed wilderness– of having time to explore and take risks and discover. And watching my children do those things in the same place that I did as a child was so moving. It’s their birthright, I realized. To climb vines and throw sticks on this same piece of land that their mom and their grandpa did.

Of course this gets into issues of land appropriation from native people. My part of West Virginia belonged to the Mound People first, and then to other native tribes. A book published in 1907 about my county’s history claims that these tribes actually left before it was resettled by white settlers, which does make me feel a little better if it’s true, but I still want to be clear that I don’t believe in manifest destiny when I talk about a birthright. Rather, it’s everyone’s birthright to spend time in the wild, particularly in the place where their ancestors did the same. In fact, that’s part of why the theft of homeland is such an atrocity. Land and home and place are such a part of us– integrated into our consciousness and DNA the same way trauma can be. If I visited the village in the Ukraine where some of my ancestors lived, I think a part of me would recognize it, would sing “Yes! This place is a part of you.” I think it’s why so many people feel that draw– to return to their ancestral lands.

So we’ll keep going back, keep intentionally giving them this time, this place.

Did you have unstructured play in the wilderness as a kid? What did you learn? How do you feel about it now?