Durham author Nathan Kotecki‘s debut novel, 2012’s The Suburban Strange, was an exercise in lengthy revision, as Kotecki wrote about in a The Hardest Part piece about its writing. When I got to talk to Kotecki about his new sequel, Pull Down the Night, on Carolina Book Beat, I started to get the impression that his second book had been an almost painless process. Not quite so, as the author writes here. Welcome back, Nathan Kotecki, to The Hardest Part:
By Nathan Kotecki:
When it came time to write my second book – the sequel to last year’s The Suburban Strange – I was not at a loss. I had plenty of inspiration, a solid conceptual idea, and no shortage of motivation. I suppose I felt a bit of anxiety that my first book might have been a “fluke,” and that perhaps lightning wouldn’t strike a second time, but that concern wasn’t strong enough to slow me down.
I had a clear idea of how the series was going to develop. Rather than follow my protagonist from The Suburban Strange (Celia), the series is really about a location through which characters will continue to pass – Suburban High School. And so as much as I loved Celia, and even though she is still a major character in books two and three, I was going to shift the point of view to a new character with each subsequent installment. I met Bruno and a few other new characters to join the story in book two, titled Pull Down the Night, and got down to work.
As with the first book, I felt it was important for my secondary characters to have some sort of arc, themselves. (In The Suburban Strange, seven of Celia’s friends have minor but significant arcs of their own.) If only the main character grows and changes in a novel, it feels artificial; while we change, the world is changing around us, too. So, in conjunction with the coming-of-age crossed with supernatural journey I envisioned for Bruno, I conceived secondary plot lines for his friends, attempting to weave them together into a coherent whole.
For a while, though, the coherent whole wasn’t appearing. I had plot points sprawling out in every direction: a love triangle as well as a shot at romantic redemption, sets of misaligned agendas – both real and supernatural, the meddling of a mischievous ghost, a chaotic neutral gatekeeper, a few betrayals and their consequences, and a flock of boys who want to sleep with everyone. Oh, and a minister who is trying to deal with a crisis of faith.
Yeah, it was a bit of a mess. But as sprawling as it was, I loved all of it, and I really didn’t want to let go of anything, because deep down I believed there was a place in this book for all my ideas. I just had to figure out how to whip it into shape.
(That wasn’t an easy call, by the way. I imagined my editor saying, “We really need to think about walking away from [insert any of the subplots here].” There is that dreaded note: “Plot confusion.” When I resolved to protect all the pieces I had, it was very important that I get it right, or I risked giving my editor the impression that there was too much going on, and then having to try to overcome her request to cut back.)
Typically my writing process begins with a research and idea-generation phase, which results in a collection of clear impressions of scenes, moments, and turning points toward which I will begin to write. For Pull Down the Night, instead of creating an outline at that stage – which felt like a flat and lifeless exercise, I jumped directly into a gloriously messy first draft, replete with gaping holes, inconsistencies, and unresolved chronology issues. This paid off, because I had many great experiences of being pleasantly surprised during those early writing sessions.
I always get excited when I realize mid-scene that a character really needs to take a different direction than I envisioned, or that a missed opportunity can be reclaimed with a certain change in setting or plot – these epiphanies convince me I’m being true to the project, allowing it to develop authentically, rather than forcing my agenda. (I will admit, this approach probably also contributed to my overabundance of ideas.) Once the first draft was done – and fully aware that at that point it resembled three distinct novels more than one, I went about extracting an outline from the draft, and in so doing, began to make structural decisions to refine the manuscript.
This is what saved me with Pull Down the Night. I made a mess, then wrote an outline to tighten it up. Then I wrote the next draft (still incredibly messy and sprawling) and afterward went back to re-outline, see what had changed, and figure out how it might change further. I kept looking around in my story for the places where loops could be tightened, scenes and motives combined, and characters returned to balance.
The design process – whether it is in visual art, choreography, architecture, or, yes, writing – has always fascinated me. I have found so many instances in other people’s work and in my own when the work is strongest because the design process was customized to best facilitate the project. What I mean by that is: While this cadence of draft/outline/draft/outline/draft/outline worked very well for Pull Down the Night, it’s simply the technique that was appropriate to solve the problems I encountered with this project, and not the default approach I’ll use to write other books.
As it happens, the next project I’m working on – a young adult novel without any supernatural elements – is a bit of a roman a clef, and as such, it called for a much more structured outline before I began any writing at all. That’s not to say there haven’t been some major epiphanies following the first draft, but they have been of a very different type, and the outline has remained intact. Hopefully I’ll be able to tell you the hardest part of finishing that novel before too long.
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.
November 12 (Monday)
7 pm — Durham author Nathan Kotecki visits The Regulator Bookshop for a reading and signing of The Suburban Strange. [Facebook]