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Re-envision Revision with Sandra Scofield

Sarah McCoy with Sandra Scofield

I first met Sandra Scofield over ten years ago. A visiting professor to my MFA program, Sandra was lauded for her unparalleled storytelling and a National Book Award Finalist (Beyond Deserving) as proof. To work with her, master students had to submit their stories and be accepted for one-on-one workshops. I had the great honor of being selected. I was working on my thesis, which would go on to be my first novel The Time It Snowed In Puerto Rico. At the time, however, I came to Sandra with only a handful of short stories set in 1960s Puerto Rico. She was loving but brutally honest in her critique. Her aim was not to foster her students’ egos. No participation trophies in Sandra’s satchel. The ultimate good of the story was paramount.

At the java shop that my fellow MFA-ers gathered, some lamented the criticism of our straightforward Montana mentor. But I’ve never been one for mollycoddling—giving or receiving. I took to the fierce twinkle in her editorial eye, and we forged a friendship through common understanding that it isn’t the author that earns praise or censure but the writing. It’s been over a decade now. I’ve lost touch with many of my MFA colleagues but my devotion to Sandra has only rooted deeper.

She came to visit me in Chicago last year. We had tea at the local indie bookstore, swapped stories, photos, laughs and books, of course. She shared her new novel Swim: Stories of the Sixties [1] with me. The narrative mastery left me wonderstruck. So when she sent me the advanced copy of her new craft book (releasing December 5, 2017), I nearly tackled the mailman on delivery. St. Nick came early! And I was not disappointed.

The Last Draft [2] is an invaluable guide to a novelists’ revision process. All the lessons I learned from Sandra for the last ten years are bow-tied and bound into this compelling resource. Author guru Janet Burroway (Writing Fiction) calls this “a needed book…” And I have every confidence it will be part of the creative writing canon.

So it is with great pleasure that I welcome Sandra to share her wisdoms with our Writer Unboxed community.

Sarah McCoy: Let’s jump right into the meat of it, Sandra. You write that a novel is not finished until it has undergone the revision process. In The Last Draft’s introductory welcome to writers, you say: “To revise a manuscript, you have to see the story in a new way.” In fact, this book is a new way of looking at the last draft of a novel. What inspired you to write a book specifically about the revision process?

Sandra Scofield: I’ve been teaching for over two decades at the University of Iowa’s Summer Writing Festival. A couple years ago I decided to organize my files; I knew I was both repeating myself and reinventing the wheel every summer. It was to be a consolidation project. What I discovered was that I had constructed a kind of revision curriculum. I didn’t go through the MFA system so I learned from scratch. I’ve always seen teaching as an act of sharing and coaching, rather than instructing. I was inspired when I realized that I might have something to contribute to other writers that they haven’t already heard. And I liked the idea of shaping my thoughts into a coherent system. It was a discipline and a celebration.

Sarah McCoy: Indeed! You’ve taught me that revision is the modus operandi of the novelist. What do you see is a common problem that both young and careered writers struggle?

Sandra Scofield: It’s very easy to get ahead of yourself when you start a novel. You’re excited and you rush for the end. Well, it’s likely you get slowed down in the middle, but the point is it seems natural to think of it as if you’re taking a walk along a path; you assume you’ll get there. And chances are you’ve been stomping out branch paths and back-stepping and skipping ahead. It takes courage and faith to say: that was a good try. Now I can figure out what the heck I’m trying to do here. I hope I won’t sound tetchy here, but natural born geniuses are rare; better to think like a craftsman.

Sarah McCoy: I wholeheartedly agree. My mother is an elementary school principal. Growing up, she raised me that talent was like blowing bubbles—enchanting but incapable of rising without someone to blow the wand. It brings to mind the debate of mind vs. muscle, artistry vs. business, popular (commercial) vs. literary (artful). I can’t tell you how many dinner conversations with author friends have been about this very topic. Can you give us your opinion?

Sandra Scofield: Hold two thoughts at once. The first is: art and commerce are different. The second is: Quality is possible (and necessary?) across both. I worry that apprentice novelists get overly concerned about their prospective place in the literary firmament—or the market–when they ought to focus on making a good story. All this talk about pitches and arcs and journeys on one hand, and about voice and deep meaning and style on the other. Story, story, story. Think it, feel it, write it, and then decide who you think will read it. Study models—the writers, the books you love. Make a list of the characteristics of the books you want to sit beside on the shelf. Be humble about your talent, but set your sights high. Believe in the efficacy of hard work. Don’t get all caught up in being fancy arty, and don’t give yourself whiplash trying to be high concept and shocking. Just be the best you that you can be.

Sarah McCoy: That reminds me of one of the first notes you scribbled in the margin of my manuscript, Don’t be afraid to sing your own song, Sarah. I think of that whenever I hit a writing rough spot. Getting the first creative flush (draft) out on paper is a monumental task. What do you recommend a novelist do upon completion—what’s the first step into revision?

Sandra Scofield: I have really strong feelings about this. You have to take a big step back and get perspective. What is this I’m telling? What’s it about? And then describe what you have produced. Is it a manuscript made up of lots of scenes (many novels are so constructed), or does it have summary and thought? What is the point of view? What is the world of the novel? Who wins and loses? I really do mean you should describe the manuscript, in detail. Know it. Then you can start evaluating it.

Sarah McCoy: I am a planner. My husband might argue I plan to an OCD degree. What can I say—it makes me feel secure. Even if I don’t know exactly where I’m going, I have a path so I’m always moving forward. Do you see revision similarly?

Sandra Scofield: Yes. In fact, I like to plan in several different ways. I write summaries: of scenes, of chapters, of the book. I draw visual representations of the narrative line. I put characters inside circles and then draw arrows among them. I put up a long piece of paper that’s just for questions as I’m working: about the story, or the characters, or how I’ve done something, or why or when or who. Eventually I turn the draft into something logical (to me!), a pattern. Things may change, but I feel led by my analysis.

Sarah McCoy: The process of revision is about cutting extraneous material and regenerating for the betterment of the story’s power and delivery. What are your recommendations on how to foster that renewed perspective on a story that the novelist is prone to feeling overprotective?

Sandra Scofield: Well, there’s the source of the resistance. But that’s how I see it. You have to get a cold eye, somehow. Maybe that doesn’t sound creative, but all things made beautiful require some kind of discipline. It’s something you learn the hard way. I’ve come up with a lot of questions and little sequences for assessing and planning. You’re saying, but don’t lose the love, the vision; and I agree. I do something so simple it’s almost embarrassing to say: I tell myself my story every day. It works very well with walking. Or I sit with my eyes closed and enter a scene I’ve written or am rewriting, and I try to think a movie. I try to be a character. I feel.

Sarah McCoy: Polishing a novel is the final step of your four part revision structure. How do you know when you’ve reached this stage? And after you’ve polished, do you suggest giving it to a first reader? I know your book doesn’t discuss beta readers, but that’s another hot topic on many novelist binder boards. To beta or not to beta, that is the question!

Sandra Scofield: You’re ready to “polish” when you are confident that you’ve told the story you wanted to tell; you’ve balanced action with feeling and thought; you’ve looked hard at your characters; you’ve created a place and time. It’s done. Except you couldn’t yet attend to spelling and pronoun referents, and there are some clumsy sentences–I think if you have a trusted reader, you could use feedback just before the stage of polishing. You could even let someone read a first draft, if you are able to discern what’s useful in someone else’s opinion. (I don’t do this.) If you are in a group, you can bring scenes and work at that level. But you have to be pretty strong to take in advice early on and know whether it’s useful. That’s why I suggest doing absolutely everything you can with the story before you show it. Then I’d say to a reader: Please don’t pick at it. I want to know how you respond to the story. I’ll take care of the tics myself. (You may want to have a professional editor read it before you send it out.) I remember reading a fine draft of one of your novels, and seeing some possibilities for you to think about. It was wonderful to engage in a good novel’s process, even in a small way. But I also knew you are experienced and tough, and you’d be neither insulted nor intimidated by criticism.

Sarah McCoy: Yes! I love when a trusted reader points out areas of plot exploration. It’s like going home the same way day after day and then someone points out an unseen path of interesting potential. The key is for the revising author to be brave enough to take it. What would you say are your most important pieces of advice for novelists at any stage of their career?

Sandra Scofield: Shut out the noise. Don’t compare yourself to published writers. Don’t fret about the future.

Read something other than what’s hot. Dig a little. Read some small press books (some of which are hot!) Read some old novels. (I’m working my way through the New York Review of Books catalogue.) Buy books! (Who else if not us?) Talk about books to everyone you know. What are you reading? Have you heard of–? Make books your #1 gift choice. Write authors and tell them you read them and what you liked. Be a Patriot of Books. There are numerous good sources for reviews, ways to discover new writers. I like lithub.com and the “In Brief” reviews in the New Yorker. I like the long reviews in The Atlantic and Harper’s Magazine. Bookforum. I ignore ads. I devour Narrative Magazine.

Sarah McCoy: Once again, you leave me with so much insight for my own creative process. Thank you, Sandra! We’re all eager for The Last Draft. I know my Writer Unboxed friends agree.

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About Sarah McCoy [3]

SARAH McCOY is the New York TimesUSA Today, and international bestselling author of The Mapmaker’s Children [4]; The Baker’s Daughter [5], a 2012 Goodreads Choice Award Best Historical Fiction nominee; the novella “The Branch of Hazel” in Grand Central [6]; and The Time It Snowed in Puerto Rico [7].

Her work has been featured in Real Simple, The Millions, Your Health Monthly, Huffington Post [8] and other publications. She has taught English writing at Old Dominion University and at the University of Texas at El Paso. She calls Virginia home but presently lives with her husband, an orthopedic sports doctor, and their dog, Gilly, in Chicago, Illinois. Connect with Sarah on Twitter [9] at @SarahMMcCoy, on her Facebook Fan Page [10], Goodreads [11], or via her website, www.sarahmccoy.com [12].