The Hardest Part: Nathan Kotecki on The Suburban Strange

Durham author Nathan Kotecki’s debut novel is a young adult urban fantasy novel The Suburban Strange [Goodreads | IndieBound], and he is as a self-described  “classic literature snob” who has never read Twilight or Harry Potter. Cue the contradictions? Maybe not, as you may learn in this week’s “The Hardest Part”. Writing outside the influence of these commercial juggernauts gave Kotecki some freedom to follow his own storytelling urges — and also led to an interesting revision process both with his agent and with his editor.

By Nathan Kotecki:

The Suburban Strange is my first novel, and when I wrote it, I wasn’t considering the idea that it might be published – it was a completely self-indulgent exercise in storytelling that took on a life of its own. I realize now, that’s a rather liberating way to write – no deadlines, no outside considerations, few compromises.

So for me, the hard part came late. I spent some time showing the manuscript to trusted friends before I decided to explore the possibility of finding an agent – the first step in the traditional publishing route. That process could make a fascinating column in and of itself, and I have no complaints about my experience navigating it, particularly because I’ve heard horror stories from other writers. The hardest part of my experience writing The Suburban Strange began with my amazing agent and continued with my fantastic editor, but I am in no way casting aspersions. It was squarely on me, from start to finish. The hardest part was transforming the book I had enjoyed writing into a book others would most enjoy reading.

I have always favored literature as a reader. I am much more inclined to read something by someone who is long dead (and likely European) than new, commercial books. (I have been making amends for that since I have entered the realm of young adult fiction!) Unsurprisingly, some of the choices I made in early drafts of The Suburban Strange were influenced by literary concepts. My agent, and then my editor, had to point out the differences between the conventions that govern literary works and those applicable to commercial ones.

For example, until my agent took the manuscript, nothing supernatural was happening in the first half of the book – I had conscientiously constructed it to operate in two layers – the real world in the first half, followed by the supernatural in the second. I am paraphrasing her, but in our first critique conversation, my agent told me, “You have six pages” – meaning, something supernatural had to happen by the sixth page, or I was never going to keep the attention of the young adult reader we were hoping would read my book. That manuscript revision was probably the most radical one I undertook, but once I understood the reason for it, it made sense, and I will be the first to acknowledge it made the story more engaging, more suspenseful, stronger.

Another example is a scene that comes at the halfway mark in the novel, over winter break between the fall and spring semesters. It’s a lovely scene, still one of my favorites in the book, and it crystalizes a number of characters and relationships. It also provides what I think is a welcome respite for the reader to catch her breath after a somewhat intense fall semester (now I had reworked it) has ended with a number of ominous things looming, and to remember all the lovely things about these characters and their aspirations before diving in to the perils of the spring semester. But the scene does very little to advance the plot, and my editor wanted to cut it.

I fought for that one. Here’s another topic that would make a fascinating column: is it necessary for every scene in a novel to advance the plot? I’m quite sure in literature the answer is no, but such scenes are infrequent in commercial fiction, and so I understand why my editor’s answer was (and continues to be) yes. But she was kind enough to indulge me, and with some reshaping, the scene survived.

A number of people – aspiring writers in particular – have asked me for my perspective on traditional publishing (agent, publishing house, distribution channels) versus nontraditional (self-editing, self-production, self-distribution – each of which can take a number of shapes) and while I don’t have a simple answer, I can say this: finding an agent who made me rewrite The Suburban Strange twice, and then getting a publishing deal with an editor who made me rewrite it twice more, was both the hardest part of my writing process, and also the reason the novel is worth reading. These two brilliant people didn’t ask me to change the story; they just helped me figure out how to tell it better. They coaxed a better novel out of me than I knew I had.

The things that are most worth doing are often the hardest. If I have the impression something (a character, a scene, a revision) is going to be difficult, it’s probably important, and definitely worth my time and effort. I hope I never lose the ability to follow my muse in whatever direction it leads me. And I hope I never shy away from what may always the hardest part for me: figuring out the best path back once my muse has taken me there – the path that makes for the best story.

—-

The Suburban Strange was published October 2nd 2012 by Houghton Mifflin in hardcover and ebook, available wherever books are sold. And, see below, there’s another local reading (Monday, November 12, at The Regulator) after a few earlier events in the area.

Photo of Kotecki copyright Mr. Gates.

RELATED EVENTS:

November 12 (Monday) 7 pm — Durham author Nathan Kotecki visits The Regulator Bookshop for a reading and signing of The Suburban Strange. [Facebook]

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