So I'm going to be running a series of guest posts over the next several months to do just that! First up is Barbara Barrow, whose psychological thriller THE QUELLING was published last month. Barbara has kindly written a post about her path to publication, and after you read her story, you can find out more about THE QUELLING and its author.
Ever since my debut novel, The Quelling, was released, people have asked me two questions.
The first: What inspired your book?
This one is easy! I love Gothic novels like Wuthering Heights and The Woman in White: sinister books about madhouses, gender, hysteria, and crime. So I wrote a contemporary Gothic novel about a couple of bloodthirsty siblings, a murder, and a rare psychiatric disorder. I told the story through multiple narrators: two sisters, their doctor, and their two nurses.
The second question: How long did it take to get published?
This one is hard. The truth is, my road to publication was less a direct path and more of a long, meandering detour, the kind that can leave you feeling stranded and lost and desperately behind schedule. But just as a detour can make us slow down and pay attention to new scenery and unexpectedly beautiful vistas, so too did my winding path to publication teach me invaluable lessons about the publishing process, and about my own writing.
The road to publication began with an email and a phone call from an editor at a small press. I had revised the manuscript five times, over the course of several years, and had been submitting for a few months when he requested the full manuscript and showed it to the lead editor. He liked the manuscript very much, he said, especially its elegiac and mournful mood. However, he felt that the characters’ voices needed to be “peeled apart” more, to be made more distinct, perhaps with different vocabularies and ways of speaking. Would I be willing to make revisions?
Thrilled that a press liked my book, I said yes right away. And I began the revisions. I re-read and studied classic multiple-narrator books like William Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying and began to peel two of the first-person narrators apart. I gave my learned doctor character more of a scientific vocabulary and a clipped, businesslike tone, and my loutish nurse character Simon a frank, talky, and arrogant voice. I worked through a revision or two with my beta reader friend, and I sent the chapters in.
Finally, the editor emailed back. He appreciated the revisions, especially to Simon’s chapter, he said, but he felt that with the new voices the book had lost some of the lyric, elegiac quality that he had admired so much in the earlier draft. What did I think about trying a close third-person omniscient narrator who could get into all of the character’s heads?
So I went back to my desk. I studied novels with a close third-person narrator like Meg Wolitzer’s The Position, and, over the course of one bleary weekend, I switched my whole novel into third person. I sent the revised book back in, and waited.
This was the hardest part. Months elapsed without much other than a few lines of acknowledgement, and I began to wonder if the novel would ever be published at all. I dallied. My creative life felt stalled. At the encouragement of my friend, I kept submitting the original version of the manuscript, since I hadn’t yet had much feedback on the third-person revision. And I waited and waited. It was a long, agonizing summer.
At the same time, that interval deepened the third-person revision for me. I began to think of my characters in the third person. Whenever I read fiction or watched television I paid even more attention to perspective and point of view. Whenever I listened to a friend tell a story, I noticed the switch between the I and the They. In that time period, my novel went from being written in the third person to actually becoming a third person novel.
Then, one day, I checked my email and found some correspondence from a small press that specialized in the “weird and strange.” Expecting another rejection, I clicked on it to discover the opposite: the editors had read my submission, loved it, and felt that the style was a great fit for the aesthetic of their press. Was the manuscript still available?
I was elated. I reached out to writer friends (including YA Guy!) for advice, I parted ways cordially with the first editor, and in a week, I had a contract with the new press. A year later, after some revisions and some copy-editing, the book came out: with its original cast of first-person narrators.
It’s tempting to think of my experience as roundabout: almost as if I had to walk in a very long circle in order to get back to square one. And there were days, especially during that long summer, when it felt that way. But the process taught me patience, and also a kind of creative flexibility, a willingness to re-imagine my characters and story and structure in radically different ways.
It also reminded me that the editorial process is subjective. At the launch party for The Quelling, someone asked me about the revision process, and I talked about the third-person alternative version. Afterward, a colleague and writer friend who had read the book said, “Oh, I don’t think this would work in the third person at all.”
Was he right, and the editor wrong, or vice versa? Probably neither. In the end, I learned, the best stylistic choice is the one that a publisher and author agree is right for this story. There is another version of The Quelling that exists in an alternative universe, and I’m okay with that. It also taught me the importance of always submitting up until you have a signed contract in hand. It’s important to revise, of course, but it’s also important to find a press whose aesthetic vision merges with yours.
Finally, the process taught me that editorial feedback has a long, rich afterlife. For my next novel, a multiple-POV book, I’ve been thinking a lot about the power of richly contrasting voices, about other uses for the different versions of the two characters I revised, and the lessons I learned from studying other books and re-thinking my own manuscript.
As it turns out, even a long, agonizing detour can be worthwhile.
Thanks, Barbara! Readers, when you dive into THE QUELLING, I think you'll be pleased to see that Barbara stuck with her vision and her gut (while also cultivating the flexibility to make the editorial changes needed). It's a taut, tense story with great characters and tone, and I can't wait for the next book to come out of Barbara's (dare I say slightly twisted?) imagination!
About THE QUELLING: Addie and Dorian have always been together. They're clever, beautiful--and hopelessly violent. Diagnosed with a rare psychiatric condition and accused of murder in childhood, the sisters have spent most of their lives in a locked ward under the supervision of eccentric researcher Dr. Lark. Now on the cusp of adulthood, Addie has a plan: start a new family to replace the one she lost. Dorian struggles to quell her violent tendencies in time to help raise her sister's child.
But Dr. Lark sees these patients as key to the completion of his revolutionary cure, and he will not allow Addie's absurd ideas to get in the way. As his "treatments" become increasingly bizarre, they put Addie and Dorian's safety at risk. The girls' only lifeline may be Ellie, a ward nurse with troubles of her own, who's never felt the need to protect anyone--until now.
Harrowing and bittersweet, at times claustrophobic, this gritty debut explores the fragility of familial bonds and the sometimes intractable tension between freedom and safety.
Order THE QUELLING from Amazon: https://www.amazon.com/Quelling-Barbara-Barrow/dp/1941360181
Or directly from the publisher:
Or directly from the publisher:
About Barbara: Barbara Barrow is a literary critic and fiction writer who loves all things Gothic and strange. Her short fiction has appeared or is forthcoming in Cimarron Review, The Forge Literary Magazine, Folio, and elsewhere. She is Assistant Professor of English at Point Park University in Pittsburgh. In her spare time she eats mangoes and binge-watches old seasons of Grey’s Anatomy. THE QUELLING is her first novel. Anca L. Szilágyi calls it a “ferocious, tender, astonishing” book that “lays bare our animalistic drives toward violence and love.”
Author website: www.barbarabarrow.com
THE QUELLING on Goodreads: https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/40518199-the-quelling