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So You Wanna Win a Book Prize?

In honor of the Prairie Schooner Book Prize and the Sillerman First Book Prize for African Poets (open now!) We've revived our interview series about publishing the first book. This week, Book Prize Coordinator Katie Schmid Henson talks with critically acclaimed novelist Adrienne Celt about editing and plotting, and all of the *headdesk* moments that led to her first novel The Daughters, recently shortlisted for the PEN Southwest Award. Read an excerpt from the book here

1. How many books have you published, and where?

My debut novel, The Daughters, was published this August by W.W. Norton/Liveright. I've just finished the bulk of my book tour, and it's all very exciting!

2. Describe the process of constructing your first manuscript. Did you plot organically? Did you outline? How did the story come together? 

The novel began as a short story way back in grad school, and, upon the urging of my workshop cohort, I revised it into a novella and then into a novel (letting myself spin out longer and longer as it became clear how much space the story I wanted to tell would take up). That makes it sound so tidy though – although I wrote the first draft front-to-back in what might be considered the traditional way, the book contains many threads of past, present, future, myth, and questionable reality, and in the process of revision I frequently spliced and reorganized the entire manuscript, based on the emerging needs of tension, plot, and character development. I didn't outline originally (unless you count that short story – which one well might), but I did end up plotting the book out on index cards. I reshuffled them, added and subtracted, and then sketched that plot out on a single page so I could see it all together before revising towards it.

Sometimes I also hit my head against the desk for awhile to move through periods of extreme uncertainty. It's only with great luck that I avoided physical bruises.

3. Did you notice any writing tics or themes once you’d gotten through a first draft? (For instance, I spent the year 2007 trying to break myself of the verbs “bloom” and “ache,” once I realized everything I wrote was blooming or aching.) How did you decide which tics were fruitful (interesting in that they accrued throughout the story in a meaningful way) and which were not?

Ha, this is a great question. One of my grad school professors made us revise a story draft by pinpointing two tics of our own – and also seeking out every instance of the words "it" and "that" in our piece – then ruthlessly cutting them whenever possible and choosing a more precise or original phrasing. The exercise forced us to interrogate our own voices, and recognize that even those aspects of our work that felt intuitive or innate could be handled with careful intellect, and often made much better through hard work. Put another way, the goal was not to elide our personal style with arbitrary edits, but to discover and highlight that style. 

I can't remember which tics I chose for the exercise, but during the revision process for my book, my editor pointed out that I have a habit of repeating and reinforcing ideas at the end of my sentences by using a comma and then a synonym. (Fake example: "She was perfect, quite splendid.") That hit pretty close to home for me; I still do it, but I try not to let myself go quite so crazy.

4. What was the editing process like? How did you get from draft to draft? Did you find yourself excising large portions? Adding?

Editing/revising really encompassed a huge amount of my writing process for this book – I'd say that the book took five years to write, and probably four of those years were revision/rewriting/index card plotting/etc, some of which I've already touched on. It was interesting, after all that time, to work with an editor who really understood my book and yet still had ideas for how to make it better: she and I cut an entire chapter, reversed the order of two more chapters, and made other significant edits (both by adding and subtracting). By that point, though, the process was much more straightforward, because the bulk of the novel's structure and thematic integrity already existed. We were making very intentional changes.

5. How did you decide where to submit the finished manuscript? 

I wish I had even one iota of good advice about how to know when your book is "ready," but the best I can do is to say: make it as good as you can, let several people read it, revise it several times, and then wait for a couple of months and look at it again, and edit it some more. I had probably written three drafts of my novel before I sent it to agents, and based on the feedback of a couple of them (both of whom offered similar advice which felt intuitively correct to me) I withdrew my submissions for long enough to write a fourth draft. 

Querying is a funny process: there is little that's less fun than writing a synopsis of your novel, especially when you're still quite close to the initial composition and everything seems essential. ("You mean I have to describe just a few key pieces? But everything is vital! That's why I wrote it that way!") But painful as it was, I found that process helpful in clarifying to myself what my book was about and how it was structured. And it resulted in a wonderful agent, and later a wonderful editor! So: worth it.

6. What does current-you wish you could have tell past-you about the whole process?

Keep going. Being fiercely critical of your work can be a form of deep love. Maybe don't buy a house the same year that you're launching your first book.

7. What did you do when you heard it was accepted?

I interrupted a video meeting I was doing for my day job – in fact, I think I just ran off-screen without saying anything to them at all – and then drank some bourbon and boasted to my co-workers and soon thereafter began to cry.

8. What was the most surprising thing about the publication process?

Certain things move very quickly (changing the title; choosing the cover) and other things move very slowly. Also, right after publication, I couldn't always predict what would make me happy or sad on a given day, and sometimes I still can't. I've learned to just lean in to the happy times, and try to stay focused on the next project. That's where the future is. 

9. Can you say more about that title change and the cover art?

The original title of the book was Rusalka, which I chose because of its thematic resonance both in the world of Polish folklore and the world of opera (both key elements in the book). But, I suspected I might be asked to change it, since it was usually a 50/50 shot whether someone I told that title to would say "I love it!" vs. "Ruska-what?" And I was right. I still love that title, and find it distinctive, but I understand why it made the marketing team nervous. Once we decided to change it, the funny thing to me was how seemingly casual (but wonderfully collaborative) the process of choosing something new was. Basically, my editor, agent, and I went back and forth with suggestions and reactions for a couple of weeks, until finally I hit on The Daughters, and we all immediately knew that was the title that worked. (Everything else had resulted in some form of hemming & hawing, whereas with The Daughters our reaction was "Oh dang, I actually think I like this? A lot?") And then it was done! Just like that! I guess I expected there would be some more formal approval process, but the marketing team liked it and we liked it, and that was all there was to it.

In terms of the cover, the only reason it was surprising to me was that I didn't really talk to Liveright about it until they had two good options to put in front of me – and I feel very lucky that they were both good, and that they listened to me in terms of which one I preferred. In that case, it seemed like a swift process of approval to me, but I know from the designer's point of view there was a lot more that went into it. Thanks, talented designer! You're a gem!

10. Why do you think there was so much emotional whiplash involved in the publication process?

In terms of the whiplash of publishing, I'd just say that there's a big difference between talking about something great that hasn't happened yet and then seeing it happen. There's a lot of emotional investment not only in the book itself and in its reception, but in the whole public face you as a writer are asked to put forward, and it can be hard to feel like you have two sets of emotions – the good and the terrified – and there is only a receptive audience for one set of those feelings. One thing that really helped me feel calm was talking behind the scenes to other authors about their debuts and learning that they shared those feelings of uncertainty and anxiety, in balance with the joy and pride and gratitude (which, luckily, are also very real parts of the experience). As always, it's nice to learn that you're not alone in anything. 

And of course the other things that helped were working on new projects, and getting the hell out of the house sometimes to go hiking/horseback riding/hanging out with friends and talking about something completely different.

11. What is your favorite part of your first book? 

I couldn't possibly pick one thing – its very existence is my favorite part. Maybe the fact that I began, and then finished. The fact that it's a beautiful object I can hold in my hands. More importantly, the knowledge that other people can hold it too.


Adrienne Celt is the author of the novel The Daughters (W.W. Norton/Liveright 2015), which was recently shortlisted for the 2015 PEN Southwest Award. A writer and cartoonist living in Tucson, AZ, her work has appeared in Esquire, The Kenyon Review, Epoch, Prairie Schooner, The Rumpus, The Lit Hub, The Toast, the Tin House Open Bar, and many other places. Find her online at adriennecelt.com or visit her webcomic at loveamongthelampreys.com.