Plays With Words: On Writing and Revising with Jessica Spotswood


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In the last two issues, I had the incredible fortune to chat via email with Adi Alsaid (Let’s Get Lost) and Jenny Kaczorowski (The Art of Falling) about writing and revising. This week, I’m wrapping up this segment with an interview with Jessica Spotswood whose third and final book of The Cahill Witch Chronicles, Sisters’ Fate, will be out in August 2014.

E.M. Caines: I have been so excited to chat with about your writing and revision process for The Cahill Witch Chronicles because the full story spans three books, and series are all over the market these days. Sisters’ Fate, coming out this August, is the third and last installment. What was the process of writing a trilogy like? How long did it take you to finish the first draft of Sisters’ Fate compared to Born Wicked and Star Cursed? Were they all kind of different experiences?

Jessica Spotswood: I’m tremendously grateful I got three books in which to explore Cate and her sisters and their complicated magical inheritance. Writing a trilogy is both wonderful and difficult. It took me about six months to deliver a draft of Sisters’ Fate. I think that’s probably my ideal pace right now. It was supposed to be done in four months, so I had to ask for an extension (twice), but it actually worked out super well because my editor wasn’t quite ready for it anyway and I was able to keep working. It was the best first draft I’ve written, I think. My editor left me a hilariously profane voicemail saying how much she *%$#ing loved it and how *%$#ing good it was, which I saved and will always treasure. It needed comparatively few revisions. I think that was partly because I had a pretty good idea of where I wanted the characters to end up by the end of the trilogy, even if I didn’t know exactly how they’d get there; partly because I knew the characters so well by the third book; and partly because I had the time and space I needed.

Writing SF was a very different experience from writing Star Cursed, which was incredibly difficult. Second books are kind of notorious among writers for almost breaking us, because there’s the new pressure to write to a deadline and under contract, and we’re often dealing with reviews and sales numbers for our first books at the same time. Plus, middle books in trilogies are tricky. They have to be more everything—higher stakes, more twists and turns in the plot, more romance, more heartbreaking—while creating a good bridge between books one and three and having their own character arcs / plot. I had four months to write SC, and once I turned that first draft in, my editor and I talked, and then we talked more, and eventually we realized it was irrevocably broken. I threw out 75% of it (the ending stayed largely the same) and started over. There were a lot of tears involved—I didn’t realize at the time how super common this actually is!—but it was absolutely worth it. I’m so proud of that book now.

As for Born Wicked, I wrote it over the course of about nine months back in 2010, while my first manuscript – which got me an agent but never sold – was on submission to editors. Writing it was very joyful. In terms of revision, it was somewhere in-between Sisters’ Fate and Star Cursed. I rewrote the last fifty pages and added a lot of description and added a few scenes in the middle, but the basic structure stayed the same. So, yes, I’d say they were three very different experiences!

E.M. Caines: As I’ve mentioned, Sisters’ Fate is the third book of the series, so I imagine you already had a team of beta readers and critique partners in place. When you’ve already experienced some success as a published author, did you find any difference in the quality of critique and comments you got from beta readers? How would you describe the critiques and comments you received from them?

Jessica Spotswood: I have a wonderful group of critique partners right now—Robin Talley and Caroline Richmond, who are my agent-sisters; Tiffany Schmidt and Miranda Kenneally, who are fellow 2012 debuts; and my longtime CP Kathleen Foucart. We’ve been exchanging work for years now. We’ve all grown in writing skill and critique skill. They each have their own strengths– some of them give me fabulous line notes and reader reactions; some of them ask great world-building questions that are helpful for me to consider, even if the answers don’t end up in the text; some help me clarify character motivations; and some point out weak end of chapter hooks or pacing issues. My very first reader is my husband, who’s a playwright. He reads every draft—often at two a.m. when he’d rather be sleeping!—and helps me brainstorm when I get stuck. He has an incredible sense of plot and his suggestions have been totally invaluable. Honestly, I’d say the biggest change in critique from before I was published is that I often ask my poor CPs to read a section (or a whole ms) pretty quickly, so I’m able to do another pass before a deadline.

E.M. Caines: I know for me, letting other people read my work is a nail-biting experience. How many passes did you go through with Sisters’ Fate before you sent it along to your beta readers? How does this compare to Born Wicked and Star Cursed? How do you feel when you attach your manuscript to an email and hit “send?”

Jessica Spotswood: I edit a lot as I go, so my early drafts are pretty clean, but it’s hard to tell exactly which pass they are. I think I send out a second pass, usually—but I’ve also sent chapters as soon as I finished writing them to get feedback on revisions or something I’m not sure is working. I’ve gotten a lot more comfortable sharing my work over the course of the trilogy—or at least sharing it with these particular CPs. Like I said above, I’ve been working with them all for years, so I trust them to be generous and kind and constructive in their criticism. It’s still nervous-making, certainly, but it’s not as terrifying as it used to be. I like getting a lot of feedback, because I’m always eager to improve. But I’m also learning to be slightly more judicious about when I send things, to reserve some readers for fresh eyes on revisions; I don’t want to ask the same people to read four drafts!

E.M. Caines: The Cahill Witch Chronicles was picked up by Putnam, and you had the opportunity to work with Arianne Lewin. What would you say is the biggest difference between the feedback you received from critique partners and the edit notes from Ari?

Jessica Spotswood: I think CPs are more likely to work with what’s already on the page and give great, insightful feedback on how to make that chapter or that scene better. It tends to be more small-picture suggestions. Whereas Ari is amazing at holding the whole book in her head and giving big-picture notes. She is kind of relentless about cutting and keeping the pacing / stakes up on a scene-by-scene, sentence-by-sentence level, too. She was fantastic about praising my strengths and what was working well, but she also called me out on my weaknesses and pushed me super hard to make each book as good as it could possibly be. I’m a perfectionist myself, but honestly, it’s not always easy to get that intense, scrutinizing level of criticism. I’m not sure I would be as receptive if a CP suggested making such huge changes. But I’m so glad to have worked with Ari. She absolutely made me a better writer. I think I’m a much better CP myself now; I learned so much from her! In fact, I’ve even started a critique business with some other YA writers.

E.M. Caines: What do you think is the most important thing to remember about accepting criticism or edit notes and the revision process itself?

Jessica Spotswood: I think it’s important to remember that everyone has the same goal: to make the book the very best it can be. Try to put your ego aside and listen with an open heart. Ultimately, it’s your book and you have the final say. But if more than one person suggests something, or if your editor feels very strongly about it, or if you have an immediate defensive reaction – that means it’s probably at least worth considering. You may not end up using the solution your editor or CP suggested, but often you can find your own way to solve the problem.

E.M. Caines: Thanks so much for your time, Jessica!

Jessica Spotswood: Thanks so much for having me!

If this doesn’t give you a new level of respect for series writers, I don’t know what will. Check out the Cahill Witch Chronicles’ Facebook page and follow Jessica on Twitter. And be sure to read Born Wicked and Star Cursed before Sisters’ Fate is out this summer!

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About Author

E.M. Caines

E.M. Caines writes as Ella Martin and is the author of Will the Real Prince Charming Please Stand Up?.

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