Liesl Shurtliff is the first-time author of Rump: The True Story of Rumpelstiltskin (Knopf, 2013). From the promotional copy:
In a magical kingdom where your name is your destiny, 12-year-old Rump is the butt of everyone’s joke.
Rump has never known his full name—his mother died before she could tell him. So all his life he’s been teased and bullied for his half-a-name. But when he finds an old spinning wheel, his luck seems to change. For Rump discovers he can spin straw into gold. Magical gold.
His best friend Red Riding Hood warns him that magic is dangerous—and she’s right! That gold is worth its weight in trouble. And with each thread he spins, Rump weaves himself deeper into a curse.
There’s only one way to break the spell: Rump must go on a quest to find his true name, along the way defending himself against pixies, trolls, poison apples, and one beautiful but vile-mannered queen. The odds are against him, but with courage and friendship—and a cheeky sense of humor—Rump just might triumph in the end.
Could you describe both your pre-and-post contract revision process? What did you learn along the way? How did you feel at each stage? What advice do you have for other writers on the subject of revision?
I loved the concept for my book, but it became apparent early in the process that I could not rely on the inherent interestingness of my concept to carry the story, and that while my writing was lively and my characters fun, I had some real work do to when it came to plot, especially the ending.
This was slapped into my brain when I attended a local conference and had an editor critique the first ten pages of an early draft of my novel. She was very complimentary. Loved the idea, the writing, but then asked where I intended to take the story and how I was going to resolve it all. Admittedly, I was still working through some of those things, but I had to tell her something. Unfortunately what I told her was just a notch above lame. She sort of sucked in her breath and said, “Hmm. Be careful with that. I’m not saying it can’t work, but it has the potential to be disappointing to your reader.”
After that fateful meeting with the editor, I spent a weekend totally depressed and drowned myself in chocolate. After I gained five pounds and cried chocolate tears, I picked myself up and decided that I wanted to do this right and to do that, I had to do the dirty work.
I brainstormed like crazy over my plot, agonizing over character motivations, and small details. I used my husband as a sounding board. I rewrote 50% of what I had and within just a few months of that editor’s critique, I had a much stronger novel. I landed an agent in a month and got a contract just two months after that. Sometimes we have to get beaten down to get strong, I guess.
I also worried about being a “Yes” Girl, and letting my story get away from me. I’ve always been open to suggestions and criticism, but I’ve also never had a problem disregarding advice that simply did not resonate with me.
Somehow it felt different working with an editor. I really wanted to please her, so everything she said seemed to come with a little extra weight. Still, I agonizing over little things my editor asked me to cut or tone down. I worried that I might be watering down the voice, oversimplifying the story, or even sacrificing creative expression for the sake of pleasing librarians and parents, which at the time felt like a betrayal of my creative integrity and my intended audience.
In the end, I found my editor to be right on just about everything. Still, I think it’s right to agonize over these things. I’m glad I did, because now I have complete confidence that the revisions and changes I made in my story were mine. I listened to suggestions and reason, as any writer should, but I never made changes without first reasoning it out in my own mind and deciding that this really would make the story stronger.
Advice for Other Writers
There are a lot of good writers out there. I mean people who can string words together in beautiful ways and write a stunning paragraph, and have lots of awesome ideas that make for a killer opening that probably gets lots of requests from agents and editors, but that doesn’t always translate into an amazing story. This is where revising comes into play, and it’s just as much of a skill as the writing itself. You have to become a kind of book surgeon. Revision is all about proper diagnosis and treatment. Cut out the bad, develop the good, murder the extraneous darlings.
The best writers I know are great revisers, and this takes practice. So practice.
As a fantasy writer, what first attracted you to that literary tradition? Have you been a long-time fantasy reader? Did a particular book or books inspire you?
I still get a little nostalgic as an adult, and when my nine-year-old daughter admitted that she wished she would get a letter from Hogwarts, I had to admit that I would really like one, too. I really would.
But at the end of the day, I think what I really love about fantasy is the connections between the fantasy and the real world. It isn’t really the strange and different things that make fantasy so wonderful. It’s the way those strange and different things are similar to the ordinary. They give a lens for us to view our everyday lives in a different way, and hopefully come away transformed.
Here’s something I don’t tell people very often: I stayed away from fantasy as a writer because I didn’t think I was creative enough. It’s easy to read other fantasy novels and get intimidated by the brilliance of the world, the unique concepts, the intricate magic systems, etc. I thought it would be much easier to write realistic fiction (that is not true, by the way) but my imagination always gravitated toward fantasy.
Eventually I got over my inferiority complex enough to give it a go. I’m so glad I did!
For Rump, I think I have been most inspired and influenced by Gail Carson Levine, particularly Ella Enchanted, and Roald Dahl. Matilda was always my favorite, though James and the Giant Peach is a close second.