Swoon Author Katy Upperman's Editing Update: The Third Book Challenge
Way back in September, when How the Light Gets In was in copyedits, I tweeted about how the many months I spent revising the book for publication had been a lot like being hooked up to The Machine. You know, that horrible contraption from The Princess Bride—the one that sucks away years of Westley’s life?
This was obviously in jest; I write books because I genuinely love the process, but whoa—How the Light Gets In was a beast.
Back when my debut, Kissing Max Holden, sold, I heard a lot of talk about second books, and how they’re so much harder than first books. Generally, with first books you’ve got tons of time to write and rewrite, to nit-pick and perfect. Second books, however, are often written on deadline, with a heap of expectations attached. And yeah, my second book, The Impossibility of Us, was a challenge, but it was a cake walk compared to my third.
Fun fact about How the Light Gets In: The ghost in the story, Chloe, was not always the ghost. In the original version of the book (which I wrote almost nine years ago) the ghost was a different character, someone who was interesting but completely unknown to the story’s protagonist, Callie. When I got my first Swoon Reads edit letter, my editor, Kat, proposed a drastic change: What if Callie was being haunted by her sister instead of a stranger?
My first reaction was NO. NO. NO. THAT’S NOT HOW THE STORY GOES. ALSO, MAKING THAT SORT OF CHANGE SOUNDS LIKE SO MUCH WORK.
My second reaction, which came about seven seconds later, was BUT WOW. THAT CHANGE HAS THE POTENTIAL TO MAKE THE STORY SO MUCH COOLER.
As so often happens with edit letters, once the silly and egotistical wait—this book isn’t perfect as-is? feelings passed, I was able to clearly and critically consider Kat’s suggested change.
The more I thought about it, the more I loved it.
So, I got busy setting the groundwork for what would prove to be the most difficult revision I’ve done. You see, I’ve been working on the manuscript that is now How the Light Gets In for, like, half my adult life. Seriously. I had a lot of feelings about it, and I was holding tight to what the book was—so tight, it was hard to look forward to what it could be. In order to dive into such a major revision, I had to find a way to let go of the story in is original form.
I got out a notebook and pencil, and started fresh.
First, I listed the bits of the book that have always inspired me: its summertime setting, its romance, swimming, the beach, Jelly Bellies, kitties, love triangles, home renovation, poppies, Callie’s journey through grief, and so on. I gave myself permission to keep those things—the core elements of the story I truly love. Everything else was fair game for change.
Next, I asked myself a lot of questions: What was Callie and Chloe’s relationship like growing up? What were the circumstances surrounding Chloe’s death? What reason would her spirit have to linger? What sorts of unanswered questions would each girl have? How could Callie and Chloe’s narrative tie in to the decades-old mystery linked to the story’s setting? What would a satisfying conclusion look like?
I brainstormed a lot. I got on the phone with Kat who, as usual, had some really excellent ideas. I ran concepts by some of my best writing buddies. I brainstormed some more. And then I got to work revising character motivations, reworking backstory, shifting scenes, and writing thousands and thousands (and thousands) of new words.
I’d been right—the revision really was SO MUCH WORK. There were countless moments during which I sat, staring hopelessly at my messy, messy manuscript, worrying that the story was beyond me. So many times, it felt too big, too complex, too difficult. It made me tired and, due to the subject matter, it made me anxious and sad. To add to the angst, I was dealing with some pretty epic life stuff during those months of revision: the sale of our first house, a chaotic foster care case, and my husband’s overseas military move.
Apparently, the world doesn’t pause for book edits.
Before this post becomes too woe-is-me, you should know that I finished How the Light Gets In, and I didn’t lose too many years to The Machine. ;-) Also, Kat was right about that whole ghost thing—the story really is SO MUCH COOLER. And wow—how fantastic is it that working on books can serve as a much-needed escape from a whole lot of real-life drama?
So, yeah, How the Light Gets In tested me, and frustrated me, and it inspired me. It helped me grow as a writer. It gave me more confidence in my craft. It showed me that I’m capable of accomplishing really difficult tasks.
Perhaps most importantly, it reminded me that sometimes change really can be a good thing.