Edan Lepucki’s debut novel, California, was published in July. Set in the near-future, it is a dystopian yet entirely human story of a couple displaced from post-apocalyptic Los Angeles into the wilderness.
Lepucki’s publisher, Little, Brown and Company, is a division of Hachette, the publishing conglomerate that amazon.com has been waging an ugly battle against over the pricing of Hachette’s ebooks. Thanks to late-night cable TV host Steven Colbert, also a Hachette author, Lepucki and California became unwitting players in a unique subplot of that battle. As part of her book launch, Lepucki traveled to Powell’s, the great independent bookstore in Portland, Ore. (photo, below), where she signed 10,000 copies of California (check out the video here). A few weeks later, she visited R. J. Julia—Madison, Connecticut’s own great independent bookstore—for a Friday evening author reading that the Fairfield Writer’s Blog attended. Two days after that, California debuted at No. 3 on The New York Times Book Review’s hardcover fiction bestseller list.
In addition to writing novels, Lepucki is the founder of Writing Workshops Los Angeles and a regular at the writing/publishing website themillions.com, where she dispenses advice in her “Ask the Writing Teacher” column and contributes longer features, such as enlightening interviews with her agent and her editors. At the end of Lepucki’s talk in Madison, the FWB handed her a letter posing five questions aimed at helping you and us with our works-in-progress. We told her we’d keep our fingers crossed that, eventually, after her book tour and whirlwind summer ended and her life resumed some semblance of normality, she might have time to email us some answers. It is with great gratitude to Lepucki that we can report that she has, indeed, replied.
Here, then, an FWB exclusive: five questions for—and answers from—bestselling debut novelist Edan Lepucki:
Details: “It’s small details, sensual experience, and brief memories that make a story,” you told The Rumpus. Could you expand on that? What do novice writers tend to employ ineffectively instead of those details?
If you’re writing about a person’s real, tangible, everyday experience of living you will have to include, firstly, how it feels physically to exist: how the body feels at different moments (How does the air feel on her skin? What does the room smell like?); secondly, the physical, concrete objects surrounding the character: objects in a bedroom, the way the light hits the concrete outside, etc. And thirdly, you’ll have to enter the character’s consciousness and follow his or her mind as it leaps into the past and present and future and back again. My advice is to just be with the character in all that he or she feels and sees and does and thinks. Too often, new writers forget that and move either too quickly to the abstract, or to all action.
Timelines: Your editor Allie Sommer had you create a timeline when revising California. Do you recommend other writers lay out timelines for their stories, and what’s an effective way to do it?
I don’t recommend writers do anything that doesn’t appeal to them. For me, reading my work aloud, or making handwritten notes, or retyping whole chapters helps me understand what I’ve written, but those techniques might leave another writer cold. The timeline did help me in keeping my world-building facts in order and straight in my head, but a timeline doesn’t seem necessary for all manuscripts. If your book has a lot of past events to juggle, it might be something to keep in mind. I have no special ways to suggest since I’ve only completed one timeline and it was pretty rudimentary!
Twists: You told Catie Disabato of the New York Daily News that there is a pretty big plot twist about a third of the way through California. Good novels often turn things on their head. Should plot twists be consciously planned, or should they arise organically when you are writing a novel? There is no formula for how to do it, is there?
I don’t think you should or shouldn’t do anything when it comes to writing. Whether your plot twist is organic or planned….I don’t think it matters as long as you can surprise your reader and it can feel emotionally true. My own plot twist was a surprise to me…but it surprised me before I ever started writing the book, so in a way it was both organic and engineered. I don’t think there is formula for how to write a plot twist…if only! I’d suggest simply staying with the characters and experiencing the world as they’d experience it. If they’re surprised, you will be, too, and so will the reader.
Revision: You’ve spoken about learning a lot about revision from both your editors and your teachers at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. Can you enumerate, say, three brief but critical lessons about revision they taught you?
Here are three things I’ve learned about revision from past teachers and my editors: 1. Sometimes your manuscript isn’t working because you, the writer, don’t know what its deeper subjects and concerns are. Articulating, for yourself, what it is you want to tackle, thematically, can help you focus the story, the ending, and so on. 2. If two scenes accomplish the same objective (showing what a person is like, for instance, or shedding light on the past), then you don’t need both. 3. Remember the reader and be compassionate toward them and their time and experience.
Workshops: Do you have any pointers for workshop writers who feel flooded by all of the comments and suggestions they receive from their colleagues when they go back and try to synthesize the feedback into improved versions of their stories?
With workshop, a writer can learn to separate advice into three categories: the advice that makes immediate sense and will be heeded; the advice that immediately makes little sense for the project and will be ignored; and the advice that the writer needs time to consider before deciding to heed or ignore. A story or novel can’t be written by a committee and the writer can’t please everyone. In a workshop, the writer’s only job is to listen carefully and with an open mind to everyone and try to recognize who are the best readers for the manuscript—not everyone is a good match.