Back to School: Revisions (Stephanie Kuehnert)

Back-to-school time has always, always been my favorite time of the year. I love learning and always have. That is probably the core reason why I write--learning is a crucial part of the process. Learning from the books I read, from conversations with other writers, from the classes on craft that I continue to take, from the classes I teach. Each book I write feels like a new grade--or maybe more accurately, like a whole new college degree program. I do research and study new things to come up with ideas. I take apart the books I love like they are science experiments and cram by reading craft books until I figure out how to execute my new story. At the end of my draft, I am elated. I've completed my latest self-designed course... Except that was just the first semester.

Then revisions arrive. The big test. When I take apart my own book, seek out mentors, take their advice, apply it and try to create a final product that meets my teacher's (in this case my editor's) expectations, and above all else, I try to prove to myself that I am worthy. That I've advanced to the next level, that I am moving forward as a writer.

You may have noticed that I missed my last two YA Outside the Lines posts. That's because I was deep in that revision course. I finished less than a week ago. My office, my email box, my brain is still a mess, but I wanted to take the time to talk about the process. It's always one I love (and hate), one that I learn from (and cry over), and one that forever changes me and my work for the better.

I usually go into it kind of cocky. Though it probably caused me a lot of tears as well, I felt good when I finished the draft. Like I'd mastered that book. This time, I think, I won't have that much work to do. I am always wrong.

This time I was more terrified than cocky. I am working with a new editor, a great editor named Julie Strauss-Gabel, who has edited so many of my favorite writers that I am still half-convinced that this must be a dream or a mistake that we are working together. And we are working on a memoir, which is new and different territory for me. So I was already scared. Then, after I'd handed in my first draft, an article came out in the New York Times about Julie and how her editorial letters make all of her authors cry.


While we were planning our revision schedule, I admitted to Julie that I was petrified. She tried to tell me that it would not be as bad as the New York Times made it out to be. But other authors told me, "No, you'll cry, but you'll learn a lot." Fortunately, I believe that learning is worth that.

I was literally in a school when I got The Letter. I'd landed a two-week residency at Mineral School, a brand-new artist's residency housed in an old school near Mount Rainier in Washington.

Though I've been on many a writing retreat with friends, this is the first residency I'd ever been accepted for and it couldn't have been more perfectly timed. I work a full-time job, so my generally my writing schedule is limited to an hour in the morning on weekdays and a big binge day on Saturdays. This works for drafting, but for a serious revision, I needed more time, more concentration. I'll especially need this, I thought, for a Julie Strauss-Gabel revision.

I still thought, part out of cockiness and part because Julie had said, "Well, we've already had some discussions about this book, so it really won't be that bad," that I'd be able to hammer out that revision in the two weeks.

That was very wishful thinking.

I spent my first day (which was my birthday!) in my amazing room, rereading my manuscript, going back and forth between, This isn't so bad... and It's terrible. The letter is basically going to be, Never mind, I don't want to work with you. 

Jane, the founder of Mineral School, who was basically like the raddest house mother/RA you could ever have, did a tarot reading for me that (thankfully) did not point to this kind of disaster, but seemed to imply that I did have some hard work ahead and it may extend beyond the two weeks. Susan, Regina, and Gretchen, my fellow residents checked in on me during the meals cooked by our incredible volunteer chef, Brittany. "Have you gotten it yet?" they asked eagerly.

I shook my head and went for a walk by the lake:

Um yeah, most gorgeous setting for a writing residency EVER.
I got an email from Julie thanking me for my patience and promising that it would arrive in the morning.

"Oh, you got it," Regina observed when she walked into the common area the next morning and I was staring at my computer screen.

I nodded.

"You aren't crying, so that's good," she said.

I nodded again. I wasn't crying, but I felt incapable of language. The letter wasn't bad, but it was smart. So fucking smart. Too smart for me and my book, was my first reaction. You could tell that my editor had been to Harvard. I kind of felt like I'd need to go through another master's program just to interpret, let alone execute this vision she had for the book--that she claimed was already in there.

After reading and rereading the letter as well as sending it on to two critique partners (who told me I wasn't alone in being intimidated by its smartness) and calling my mom (always my biggest cheerleader and a great brainstorm buddy), I had some vague ideas and I knew I needed to talk them through with Julie. She made time to talk to me that afternoon and our conversation (which took place on that little bench in front of the school and using a landline since cell reception was non-existent) lasted more than an hour and a half. I saw then that she was right, what she saw as the central lens for the book, it was in there. The outline of the structure it was was there, too. I wouldn't be starting from scratch... Not completely.

This is once again where I thanked the universe for my residency. Not only did I have the precious, precious time I needed to get started. I had the two kinds of space I needed. This kind:
My first hike in Mount Rainier National Park with my husband

My second hike in Mount Rainier National Park with my residency mates
 And this kind:

Yep, that was my GIANT room

Conveniently, the day after I got my letter, my husband had a day off so he drove down from Seattle to go hiking with me. I'd go again a week later with my residency mates. That fresh air got and kept my brain working.

And when my brain was ready after that first hike, I came back and took advantage of the GIANT classroom that doubled as my bedroom and work space. I mapped out the three-part structure of my book on one wall of blackboards--using it to brainstorm what should go in each part of the book--and I used the other wall of blackboards to list out the central themes and points of focus that my editor and I had discussed.

I surrounded myself with what I wanted the book to be and sat down, day in and day out, to make it happen.

My view from the desk on a cloudy day.
On sunny days, it included a clear shot of the Mountain
and every once in a while,
a baby fawn and its mother would run by. 
 I got through roughly half of the book in those two weeks. If I'd had another, I am sure I would have had a full, revised rough draft.

I struggled a little bit when I got home. There was still a lot of work to do and it was hard to do it in shorter chunks--being fully immersed definitely helped me to see and figure things out faster (though I got an extra hour most mornings thanks to my awesome job) and though I still have a view of Mount Rainier from my office, it is much further away and my space is smaller and more cluttered. Those blackboard notes had to be copied onto index cards:

I learned that there are some special challenges to writing a memoir. Like that you call your mom and/or best friend begging them to tell you that something happened in the spring not the fall, or the summer before junior year not the summer before senior year because it would make the storytelling sooooooooooooooooo much easier, having them say, "No, sorry..." and then trying to figure out how to adapt the structure you'd envisioned for a chapter or section because you can't simply change the timeline.

I also learned that there are some things that stay the same. Like the desperate emails and texts to critique partners begging them to read something and tell you if it's working or provide advice. (Thanks, Jeri and Carly!) Like all the hours locked away from your family, friends, the rest of your life. (Thanks for all the meals, clean up, and emotional support, dear husband.)

All in all, it took me 8 weeks to do this revision. 2 whole months, not 2 weeks. My most productive time was definitely spent in this classroom:
Thanks, Mineral School!
Especially Jane for running things so beautifully
and Brittany for keeping my tummy full of delicious vegan food!
I've worked with a lot of great teachers, in grad school and after. My editors have been the best of the best and have pulled more out of me than I've ever dreamed possible. Julie has been no exception; she definitely threw down the biggest challenge I've faced thus far.

I don't know if I passed the class yet. I'm still waiting to hear. And passing, of course, just means going on to the next semester, the next workshop. (Though I really do hope to move on to that Line Edits class!) But I've learned more than I thought possible. I think this is going to be a pretty good book, guys. I really hope that you'll love reading it as much as I loved learning from Julie and at Mineral School.


  1. Mt Rainier is one of my favorite places in the world. If you have to be in revision school, that's the place to be. :-)

  2. What a wonderful post! I'm really looking forward to reading your book, especially knowing all this great backstory.

  3. That residency sounds wonderful (and it looks beautiful there); I especially like the picture and your description of your room. I love the idea of having a blackboard in the room where you write. I've always associated blackboards with the ones I write on when I'm teaching; I never thought of using them for fiction writing, but that's a great idea.


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