A Conversation with Ruthie Knox

I’m so pleased to welcome Ruthie Knox to my blog today! Ruthie’s romance, Ride With Me, releases February 13th as part of Random House’s Loveswept line. You can read a well-written, professional synopsis at the end of this post explaining that Ride With Me is the story of a hero and a heroine stuck as unwilling partners on a cross-country bike ride, but I personally think of the book as a series of totally unforgettable scenes—Tom licking the bike tire, the hot sauce contest, Lexie’s solo tent revels, and plenty of two-person tent sex. Gah.

Ruthie and I frequently shoot the breeze via DM and email, and here, excerpted for your reading pleasure, is a conversation in which I harass her about various aspects of her writing process, and she kindly indulges me, because she really is that nice and smart.

We’d love to have you join our conversation. One lucky commenter will be randomly chosen to win a digital copy of Ride with Me. Winners will pick up their copy through Net Galley. Good luck to all!

Serena: I’ve read enough of your writing in beta (including, lucky me, Ride With Me) to grasp that you are a phenomenal self-editor. And I’ve heard many industry people say that being a strong self-editor is key to success in fiction-writing/publishing. What’s your process?

Ruthie: As you know, I have a lot of years as a nonfiction editor—both copyediting and developmental editing—under my belt. One of the first things I learned when I started doing freelance editing was that it’s only possible to do one kind of editing at a time. You can focus on the big picture or on picky little grammar and style stuff or on line-level writing quality, but you can’t do all those things at once. So editors tend to work in “passes” through the manuscript.

The trick to self-editing—if I may be so bold as to make a sweeping, universal statement—is to figure out what shape the multiple-pass system needs to take that works for you. And I’d argue that most of us need to design a system that accommodates our strengths but also (probably more important) makes it structurally difficult for us to indulge our weaknesses.

I’m not exactly a perfectionist, but I set pretty high standards for myself. I’m also more of a pantster than a plotter. And I think pantsing and perfectionism are a dangerous combination, because there’s a constant temptation every time you hit a little hitch in the flow of words to go back and fix up what you’ve already written. After all, it’s not perfect yet! And who the hell knows what this character is going to do next? I sure don’t.

But I’ve only got a finite number of hours every day to write—three on a good day, maybe two and a half on average, and some days just half an hour. If I indulge my desire to go back and fix what I’ve already written, I’m going to waste that time. So instead, I make myself keep forging ahead through those hitches, writing even when I’m not sure where the scene’s headed or if there’s any point to it at all. I’ll wait until I have a full scene before I do any revision at all.

At that point—end of scene or end of chapter—I’ll go back and start reworking what I’ve got. Usually, I do this during the second writing session of the day, when my son’s taking a nap. This second pass is really important for me (so important that I’d never let anyone read a scene I hadn’t done a second pass on), because it’s when I figure out what the scene or chapter is really all about: where the emotional focal point is, what the pacing feels like, what the purpose of the scene is in the various character arcs, and so on. I expand a lot, writing in quite a bit of the characters’ emotional processing that I’d inadvertently skipped over, adding sense impressions, fuller description. I make bad sentences better, as well as find whatever accidental hidden gems of imagery I buried in the first draft, dig them up, and put them on display.

Finally, I just kind of comb through the thing. Sometimes I only have to do that once, and sometimes I have to do it three or four times until I can read it without getting stuck anywhere. Then it’s done, and I stop looking at it—completely stop—and move on to the next scene. And once I have the whole book written, I’ll do a few passes through the full in the same sort of way—slower and more development-y, faster and pickier (usually I do this fast one on my Kindle).

Serena: My process is very similar to yours in THEORY—first pass, which can be pretty drecky, second pass, in which I fill in the missing stuff, and third pass, during which I polish. But I’m not disciplined about it, so my finished manuscripts are pretty uneven—some parts that are still in first-pass mode, some in second, almost nothing in third etc. And then I have to wrestle the whole beast to the ground at the revisions stage, which is intimidating, demoralizing, and time-consuming. I’ve often read your stuff, which is gorgeously clean despite being very early, and wondered how the heck you do it. I think the answer is that you’re more disciplined about getting at least to the second pass before you move on.

Ruthie: I never start writing the next scene until the scene before is “done.” It’s never occurred to me that I’m being disciplined in doing this—it’s just the way my brain works. Can’t move on to the next thing until I’ve finished the thing before!

And of course, “finished” is subjective, since I know that once I finish the whole book, I’ll start seeing all sorts of things to fix, and then when I share it with beta readers there will be even more. But for the most part I do write the best version of every scene and ever chapter that I possibly can before I move on, and that means doing all those self-editing passes scene by scene.

It probably helps that I don’t get too charged up about word count goals. I like to count words as much as anybody, but my sense of progress is the same as long as I’m working on the book. If I rough out a new scene one day, that’s fantastic. If I rough out a shorter one and edit it until it’s done, that’s fantastic. If I work my way through a list of revisions from a beta reader, that’s fantastic. Anything that needs to happen to get the book done is WORK, right? So as long as I’m doing legitimate work on the book, I feel like I’m accomplishing something.

Writing’s such a strange process. There’s a lot about it that’s so much fun, it’s almost giddy-making—those days when the creative flow is really amazing, and you’re pantsing scenes that are funnier and more interesting that you could ever have dreamed. But writing is intensely anxiety-producing, too, especially when you’re worrying about selling a book while you’re still trying to write it. For me, I have to find processes that will inoculate me against the angst as much as possible. And that means editing as I go, and not moving on from a scene until I feel like it’s “done.” Because if I leave it in a half-finished state, or even a half-polished state, there’s always a little kernel of anxiety in the back of my mind about it, and those doubt kernels accumulate and get heavy until I’m sort of filled with dread about the whole manuscript.

I can’t write that way. I can only write in a state of positive feelings, or at least neutral-tending-toward-positive. And the way I get there is to make every bit as good as it can be as I go along, so that I’m convinced, “This is the best thing I’ve ever written! This is so great!” And I’m moving forward in that frame of mind.

Then when I get to the end, of course, I decide it’s complete crap. But that’s a good frame of mind to revise in. Not so much for writing.

Serena: This—the idea that polishing as you go might provoke less anxiety—is immensely appealing to me. I do always have that little kernel of anxiety in the back of my mind about an unpolished scene, and the doubt kernels do accumulate. I just thought it was the nature of the beast. The idea that I might be able to work with less ongoing anxiety is very exciting.

Also, I’m a “systems” girl, so I’m curious about how you actually do the successive passes and reads. I know you write the first pass in Scrivener. Do you read the first pass on screen, print it out, or read it on your Kindle? And how do you take notes about what you want to get into that scene on the next pass? Same question applies to subsequent passes.

Ruthie: I do all my writing and revising in Scrivener. I export work-in-progress files to send to beta readers, but for my own sanity, I keep all the writing and editing work inside Scrivener until I finish a full draft of the manuscript (or the proposal chapters, if I’m working on a proposal). When I’ve read it and edited it on screen until I think it’s as good as I can get it, I’ll send it to my Kindle.

I do the Kindle read for a couple reasons. First, since I do all my pleasure reading on the Kindle these days, the manuscript feels more like a book to me on the Kindle than it does on screen. I read differently, more like a reader instead of a writer, in ways I can’t replicate with a printout. So I tend to catch different sorts of problems on the Kindle than I do on screen.

The other reason I read on the Kindle is that it’s a pain in the butt to stop and make picky notes, which forces me to read more and nitpick less. I get a better sense of the arc of the whole book, what parts are slow, and where I might have plot holes than I do when I’m reading on my laptop. It’s just a whole different experience, in a good way.

I never print.

Okay, that’s a lie. I printed Man for the Job [a work-in-progress] once. But I don’t like to read paper manuscripts, and I don’t find that I catch much on paper that I’m not catching on screen. Other people’s mileage may vary, but I’ve spent so many years editing on screen for a living, I think it’s safe to say that I’ve got sharp eyes.

Oh, and here’s a niggly little editor tip: Submit your manuscript in a standard font, preferably Times New Roman, but copyedit it in a fixed-width font, like Courier New. It’s ugly, yes, but every letter and punctuation mark takes up exactly the same space. It’s far easier on the eyes for editing, and mistakes of spelling and punctuation tend to jump out in Courier in a way that they don’t in Times.

Serena: I think part of why I can’t read onscreen is that I’ve conditioned myself to have ADD about reading in my desk chair. I just tried to read a magazine sitting in this chair and it was like trying to get a whole room full of three-year-olds to sit still.

Ruthie: I do morning writing and editing on the laptop, lying on the couch. That may affect my willingness to read onscreen.

Serena: Laptop on couch would be great but I don’t think my neck and wrists will permit it! Oh, maybe I could use the big TV screen and the couch? I hook the laptop up to the sixty-inch TV, and put my keyboard on my lap on a lap desk. That has worked pretty well in the past for small amounts of typing. It’s also entertaining because there’s a HUGE picture window behind me and I imagine the whole neighborhood is reading my screen.

Ruthie: I always enjoy the visual of you with your romance writing on the sixty-inch TV. I hope you do that, and it works, so I can continue to imagine you scandalizing the postman.

Serena: I’m curious about how humor comes together in your writing. Is it all there in pass 1? Do you put a lot in on pass 2? I REALLY like reading funny books, but whatever I write comes out serious. If I’m working with a lighter premise, I have to keep going back and taking out the parts that are trying to get really dark and heavy.

Ruthie: A lot of the humor is there in pass 1. I’m often surprised that it comes out that way, because I’ll think a scene isn’t all that funny after I’ve finished it, but then I’ll re-read and realize it’s more lighthearted than I thought. Or I’ll expect a scene to be serious, and then I’ll start writing it and come up with a random bit of hilarity that ends up being the focal point that the whole thing revolves around.

The truth is, I run into trouble when I’m trying to *keep* my characters from being funny. I’ll tell them, “Fight, damn you!” or “Be angsty!” and they’re just cracking jokes and trying to get their hands down each other’s pants. It’s frustrating, sometimes.

In pass 2, I’m mostly taking what humor is there and bringing it to the surface, improving the wording or the pacing, or moving a joke into a better spot.

It’s possible that funny just may not be your “voice,” you know? Which is fine—it’s not Nora Roberts’s, either, but the voice she was born with seems to be working for her.

My writing actually started out less funny and got more so with my second and third manuscripts, in part because my friend Faye Robertson (who also writes as Serenity Woods) was reading my drafts as I wrote them and telling me, “Oh my God, this part is so hilarious! Write more like this!” She really helped me come to realize what I was naturally good at, and I was finding that writing the funny parts made me feel good, too.

I think about a writer like Maisey Yates, who seems really blissed-out-happy writing emotionally charged novels for Presents—lots of angst, lots of emotion—and then about myself, totally content on the complete opposite end of the spectrum. There’s room for everybody in between!

Please join the conversation and enter to win Ruthie’s RIDE WITH ME! We want to know: What’s your process like, and is it working for you? Have you ever made radical adjustments to how you write/self-edit, and did they help? Have you ever tried to be funnier, and did it work? And, you know, whatever else is on your mind.

Ride with Me, available from Loveswept on February 13, 2012!

In this fun, scorching-hot eBook original romance by Ruthie Knox, a cross-country bike adventure takes a detour into unexplored passion. As readers will discover, Ride with Me is not about the bike!

When Lexie Marshall places an ad for a cycling companion, she hopes to find someone friendly and fun to cross the TransAmerica Trail with. Instead, she gets Tom Geiger — a lean, sexy loner whose bad attitude threatens to spoil the adventure she’s spent years planning.

Roped into the cycling equivalent of a blind date by his sister, Tom doesn’t want to ride with a chatty, go-by-the-map kind of woman, and he certainly doesn’t want to want her. Too bad the sight of Lexie with a bike between her thighs really turns his crank.

Even Tom’s stubborn determination to keep Lexie at a distance can’t stop a kiss from leading to endless nights of hotter-than-hot sex. But when the wild ride ends, where will they go next?

 ABOUT RUTHIE:

Ruthie Knox figured out how to walk and read at the same time in the second grade, and she hasn’t looked up since. She spent her formative years hiding romance novels in her bedroom closet to avoid the merciless teasing of her brothers and imagining scenarios in which someone who looked remarkably like Daniel Day Lewis recognized her well-hidden sex appeal and rescued her from middle-class Midwestern obscurity. After graduating from Grinnell College with an English and history double major, she earned a Ph.D. in modern British history that she’s put to remarkably little use.

These days, she writes contemporary romance in which witty, down-to-earth characters find each other irresistible in their pajamas, though she freely admits this has yet to happen to her. Perhaps she needs more exciting pajamas. Ruthie abhors an epilogue and insists a decent romance requires at least three good sex scenes.