Catherine Ryan Hyde works magic with words. Not only does she conjure them, she arranges them in a way that draws you into a story and keeps you there long after the last word of the story has been read. It’s so much more than a mastery of words, though. Ms. Hyde’s plots draw you through the pages, and her characters ring true. The intricacies of human emotion are putty in her hands.
I first experienced her literary dexterity when read the novel Love in the Present Tense, which I happened to pull off the shelf at my local library. I soon realized she’d also written the book Pay It Forward, upon which the movie was based, and read that as well. Vastly different from the movie, I enjoyed this book immensely, too. Appreciative of the wonderful stories she’d created, I emailed Ms. Hyde to thank her, and found her to be very humble and kind in her response despite her success.
Ms. Hyde has had 50+ short stories and 13 novels published, in addition to a collection of short stories, and has won numerous awards along the way. Her most recent novels are Second Hand Heart (UK) and Jumpstart the World, and though Jumpstart the World is Young Adult fiction the story crosses boundaries of both age and gender. I recently read Jumpstart the World, and loved it. I can’t wait to read Second Hand Heart!
I “reconnected” with Ms. Hyde this fall when I started researching blogs of writers and artists I respected in order to determine how I might proceed with my own blog. Once I started my blog and accepted the need for a blog-related Twitter account, I started following Ms. Hyde on Twitter. I’ve since learned that she’s tucked away in one of my favorite coastal towns in California, Cambria, and was delighted to exchange some tweets with Ms. Hyde regarding her home town.
Just beginning the rewrite of my first novel, I’m very curious about the rewriting methods of successful novelists. I asked Ms. Hyde if she’d answer some of my rewriting questions, and she graciously accepted. So, without further ado, here is my interview with Catherine Ryan Hyde.
Thank you for your time, and for sharing information about your rewrite process. How soon after you finish a first draft do you begin your rewrite?
Let me start by saying that my method of revision is a little different. And possibly not advisable for someone just starting out. Then again, it may work fine for others, provided you can avoid the trap of getting stuck on revisions to the detriment of moving forward.
Here’s how I do it: I start the draft, and move forward for as long as I can before getting stuck. By stuck, I’m not talking about full-on writer’s block. Just that inevitable low wall that tells you the next chapter needs flesh, details, life that haven’t yet arrived.
At that point, I go back and start cleaning and polishing the part of the draft I’ve already written. And I just keep working on it until I’m able to move forward again.
This works well for me, because I find I turn my attention away from a first draft at my own peril. Not that I can’t get back in again. Just that the longer I wait, the further away I go, the harder it is to gear myself back into the work. When I look away, the ideas stop coming. So revising and polishing earlier chapters is a perfect way to keep my head in the work.
By the time I finish the draft, the first three-quarters are pretty darn well squeaky-clean. I don’t stop at that point. I just keep cleaning and polishing until I feel I have something worth showing.
If I have time to allow myself the luxury, I’ll set it down for a month or two and come back at it with fresh eyes. But often by the time I finish the draft, it’s been so long since I’ve reread the beginning that I can see it with a whole new perspective.
What does your first rewrite or run through consist of? Please give us an overview of your process.
It’s fairly unstructured and something I do by feel. I think this was less true when I was newer to novel writing, but now almost every run-through consists of simply rereading the work, with my “feelers” at the ready for any gnawing sense that something is off. Usually I find smaller, more sentence-level issues.
If there’s anything bigger and more substantive, it tends to present itself to me on a hike, in the bathtub, or as I’m waiting to fall asleep at night.
I realize this is not a very helpful how-to, but I hope it’s encouraging to hear that, with continued experience, revision gets more instinctive.
And the second rewrite? Is it more of the same?
I think each time I hone it down a bit, so that what I find is smaller, more at an almost cellular level.
On average, how many times do you rewrite your novels?
I’d say I give each passage a good 25 to 30 run-throughs before I feel ready to show the work to anybody else. But toward the end, this may be no more complex than reading it through, changing a word here and a sentence structure there. When I read it through more than once without anything changing, I figure I must be done. For the moment.
Do you have anyone read drafts along the way? If so, at what point?
I don’t. I used to. But now I find I can locate my own inner guidance, and follow it, saving the perspective of others for later, when the draft is done and they can’t possibly pull me off track.
How much does your word count change from the first draft? Does it usually go up or down?
I’d say less with each consecutive novel. But it definitely tends to go up rather than down. What is almost always needed is a bit more fleshing out here and there. My earlier novels were only in about the 60,000-65,000 word range. I haven’t had to learn to be less verbose. Pretty much the opposite.
Start to finish, from the time you type the first word of a story to the time you send it to your agent or editor, how long does the whole write/rewrite/polish usually take?
If it’s a Young Adult, which tends to run much shorter, about five months. For an adult novel, eight or nine. This is fast. I write faster than average. I don’t know why, but please don’t anyone feel they need to aspire to it. If you’re getting words into memory, you’re doing it right. And if it takes longer, it just does.
Wow, that is quick! Though you’re a seasoned pro at this point. Is there anything else you’d like to share regarding the rewriting process? Anything I may have left out?
Well. Just that neatness does count. And spelling, grammar, and punctuation mistakes, along with too many typos, can be off-putting to agents and editors. It’s a double-edged sword. On the one hand, writers tend to think the small stuff can be left to the copyeditor. And the copyeditor will indeed check your small stuff, if you’re able to secure a publisher. But meanwhile, anything less than a polished work tends to make agents and editors feel that you’re asking them to work harder than you were willing to work yourself.
So think of your manuscript as a job interview—for that dream job you want more than you’ve ever wanted a job in your life. You wouldn’t go in wearing those sneakers with the holes in the toes. Even though it’s supposed to be about your work skills, not your sneakers. But every aspect of your presentation speaks to your professionalism and your pride. So prepare your manuscript in a way that shows your commitment to it. And others will be more inclined to commit to it as well.
Thank you so much for your time, Ms. Hyde. I wish you continued success! Thank you for sharing your gift, and your heart, with the world.