I’m sure many of you will recall that a few months ago I reviewed Murder, Magic, and What We Wore by Kelly Jones. That was one of my favorite titles from 2017, so I’m very excited to have had the opportunity to interview Ms. Jones about her work. Check out our conversation below
1. I had been reading your blog and know that Murder, Magic and What We Wore had originally been written years earlier with a different title. Many writers think of their books as their children. Tell me how you developed that professional objectivity/attitude that allowed you to rewrite your novel. (By the way, the title is what caught my attention. I bought it without even reading the jacket!)
I taught myself to write novels with Glamour (the story that eventually became Murder, Magic, and What We Wore), alternating with a couple of other projects. I worked on it from around 2005 – 2008, spent a lot of time on sentence-level edits (choosing the perfect word here and there), and almost none on structural work (thinking about whether the plot made any sense or not.) I shelved it in 2009, when it didn’t find a fit with the agents I’d queried.
But, I still loved the characters, the world, and the ideas. So, my agent and I pitched it to my editor after my debut novel Unusual Chickens for the Exceptional Poultry Farmer was published, and she was interested in seeing a proposal.
Turns out, four years away from a project really helps with perspective! I’d worked on four more novels since I’d shelved Glamour, as well as critiquing many projects for other writers, and I’d learned so much from each project. Now, I could see issues that I hadn’t been focused on before, and I thought of ways to handle what critiquers had pointed out wasn’t working before. And, once I could see them, I really wanted to fix them. Perhaps my perspective is more that of a homeowner who looks up and notices the roof is leaking, than that of a parent?
The new version’s full title was originally How to Sew a Glamour, or, Murder, Magic, and What We Wore — a mouthful, to say the least! I’m glad the final version worked for you.
2. Can you tell us more about your revision process? Was there anything left of the original story when you finished? How did you know what to keep and what to discard? In your blog you mention that the process is not easier than writing a new book, but do you have a preference as to how you work?
I’d never attempted such a massive revision before, and I didn’t know if I could accomplish what I’d set out to do! Doubt is part of the process, for me, so I decided to try anyway. When I looked back at the most recent version, I could see right away that I wasn’t going to be able to change a little bit here and there to make it work. It needed a complete overhaul: first person point of view instead of third, a looser, less clipped historical voice, and a plot that made sense, for a start! I tried fixing a paragraph or two, and couldn’t squeeze a word in edge-wise. I couldn’t just change verbs to change the point of view, because the entire lens of what a character notices and what the reader sees changes when you look out from their eyes. And, working on all those other projects had grown and strengthened my writing (thank goodness!) My new writing didn’t match the old, and wasn’t going to slide into the old draft smoothly.
At that point, I made the best decision I could: I put that draft away, and rewrote the entire story again from scratch, the way I wanted to write it now, without looking at the previous one. I didn’t want to slip back into the same comfortable, familiar, structurally flawed flow. I’d done more than eighteen drafts, and I knew those characters, and what drove them forward. I didn’t need to look at the old words telling it, because they didn’t work with the way I wanted to tell it now.
So, as far as I know (I still haven’t looked back), there are no sentences that remain from the original version. But, most of the main characters came over unchanged. I feel like I finished telling the story I wanted to tell, even though all that wordsmithing on all those drafts never got used. (Well, aside from teaching me how to write — no small gift!)
It helped to know the story I was writing (in general, I don’t actually know what story I’m telling until I finish a first draft.) But, it wasn’t faster than writing a brand new first draft, and it still needed just as much revising. My editor had just as many suggestions. It was also harder in that I was trying to match this story to an idea I’d had long ago, and tried to capture. It always felt like chasing smoke, and I always wondered what I’d capture, in the end, and whether it would finally be what I’d wanted. My compass was the characters, what they wanted, what they struggled with. I wanted to stay true to them, even if everything else changed. I think I put far more pressure on this idea than I do on brand-new ones, because this was my chance to finally tell a story that had been important to me for years. What if I still couldn’t do it well enough? That constant wondering didn’t make anything go faster, or easier.
My preferred way to build a story, these days, is what I think of as a coral reef: I find and collect bits of ideas and characters and put them together in a place where they can grow a story for years, undisturbed. Once in a while I find something to throw in the tank with them, and they grow around it. Then, when I’m ready for a new project, I look in the tanks and see what I’ve grown, and what I want to do more with — what feels ready for more light, perhaps. Murder, Magic, and What We Wore was more of a sunken ship, but I love that it had the time to grow depths and reveal new aspects while it sat there in the dark. That coral reef process is my preference for the very early stage — after that, it’s writing and revision, over and over, regardless of how it started. But I find it hard to add new depths and organic growth in time for a deadline, so I try to build those in first.
3. Can we look forward to more magic, wildly wonderful garments and perhaps even a bit of romance? (I hope the answer is yes!)
Definitely more magic! I’m fascinated by “what if” stories, and magic is often a part of mine. I’m also fascinated by young people who feel a sense of responsibility, and are interested in the work they do, and who try to learn to do it better. I like stories about young people who aren’t very good at things yet, perhaps because I spent a lot of years not being very good at things, and trying to do them anyway.
The next couple of books I’ve been working on don’t have a fashion or romantic focus, though: the middle grade sequel to Unusual Chickens for the Exceptional Poultry Farmer will be out this fall, and although Are You Ready to Hatch an Unusual Chicken? follows a young woman determined to do the best she can with a difficult situation, it’s another novel about taking care of chickens with magical abilities, not sewing glamours. After that will be the tentatively-titled Sauerkraut, also a contemporary magical middle grade novel.
I do have a couple of coral reefs growing around more Regency magic, though, and I’d very much like to know what Millicent thinks of the adventures that come next, so perhaps one day? (I can assure you that Annis will not stop being concerned about what everyone is wearing anytime soon!) This is an area where readers have more power than writers: the sequel to Unusual Chickens happened because readers were interested in the characters, the world, and what came next. They read it, and talked about it, and shared it, and wondered. So, whenever you love a book and wish there were more, tell someone else about it!
While you wait, I hope your readers will try some of the books by other authors mentioned in my Author’s Note — as well as the Regency fantasy novels that come after!