By Laura Sibson
When I first met Katherine Locke through a Philly author group, I was struck by the sheer number of ideas they have for stories and their ability to write across age groups. From picture books to middle grade anthologies to young adult novels with fantasy elements, Katherine can do it all. While I know Katherine has an incredible work ethic, I still wondered how they approach their writing projects. Today we will hear a bit about their process.
Thank you so much for joining us today to talk about your writing process and the ways it’s evolved. I’ve started This Rebel Heart (Knopf, 2022) and I’m completely swept up in your story world. Congratulations on the book receiving three starred reviews! For those who haven’t read it yet, could you tell us about This Rebel Heart?
Absolutely! Thank you for having me. This Rebel Heart is the story of Csilla Tisza, a young Jewish girl in 1956 Budapest, Hungary. Her parents were executed by the Communist regime a few years earlier and were recently exonerated for their “crimes”, but that exoneration lit a match in the country and there are rumblings of revolution.
Csilla must decide if she’s staying to fight for a country that didn’t fight for her when she was a child, or if she’ll flee with her aunt. She gets swept up in the precursor to revolution with her best friend Zsu, a student she meets named Tamás, and an angel of death named Azriel.
It’s a story of hope and optimism and fighting for places you love even if they don’t love you back and building a future that you might not get to see. And it’s about how success of a movement is separate from whether it’s important and we should focus much more on importance.
Many authors say that the process for writing each book is often different from the last. This has been true for me as well. How has the process of creating The Rebel Heart differed from your previous projects?
This was a longer project, in part because it came at a tumultuous time in my publishing life as I was leaving one agent and searching for a new one. I started dreaming of this book in late 2017, started writing it in 2018, wrote it again and again and again through 2019, sold it in 2020 just after the pandemic began, and revised it through the pandemic. It’s a book that took many rounds of revisions (not unusual for me), but over many years instead of a condensed period of time. I picked it up and put it down several times.
I think that let the project breathe and grow, and so I’m glad I had that time. Every round of rewrites and revisions brought some new little element to the story (Azriel didn’t exist in the first draft!) that made it the book it is today.
It’s so interesting to hear how the process for This Rebel Heart was significantly different from your previous novels. Each time I begin a new project, I challenge myself on some level whether it’s by including flashbacks or creating an interlocking grief narrative. In what ways did This Rebel Heart challenge you and what did you learn from a writing craft standpoint?
Love this question! I always pick two things to try, something new that I have to learn, in a manuscript. In This Rebel Heart, I wanted to master third person narrative (previous books were all first person) and some unusual points of view. There are chapters from the river’s point of view, there’s a chapter in second person, there are different types of interstitials from letters to journal entries to lists to fragments of articles.
From a craft standpoint, the biggest thing was it would have been so easy to fall into the chosen one trope in this book, when it was exactly the opposite of the type of narrative I wanted to tell. I wanted to talk about how Csilla might have been chosen by the river, but movements, revolutions, and rebellions were made by groups of people and there’s power in numbers and unity and unusual alliances. So I had to really work not to fall into a trope and narrative pattern that’s really familiar to many of us and would have been an easier book to write.
I love hearing how you intentionally avoided the Chosen One trope. I imagine your story is richer for the level of thought you brought to it. There is an abundance of professional advice available to writers from guidance on developing craft elements to suggestions on how to avoid distractions. If you turn to a particular craft book or approach (e.g., David Macinnis Gill’s sticky-note plotting or the Pomodoro method) during your drafting process, would you share with us what you use and how it’s helpful to you?
I don’t rely on a single craft book or approach but I think I have a pretty good process by now. I always outline with a very loose structure:
First turning point:
Second turning point:
And then I write my first chapter, then the last chapter. Then I connect the dots between them. My first drafts are rough, and often fast. They’re usually around 50,000 words. The final book is usually double that. So in revisions, I’m going through and layering out ideas or cutting them completely and putting in new ones.
I start revisions by reading the draft I have and reverse outlining it—writing down what happens versus what I want to happen—and looking for holes in the structure. Then I make a list of everything I want to change/revise. I reorder that list to go from most structural to least structural, and begin revising right down a checklist.
Once I have a second draft, I’m usually at the place where I can start going through and working on just individual elements like two characters’ relationship, or the magical system. My revision process is all about many rounds and layers of revision, rather than trying to tackle it all at once. I think typically it probably takes me 4-6 drafts before I have something I can share.
This used to drive me bonkers, that I couldn’t write or do this faster, but embracing my process has been important to me and made me find joy in writing that I had lost in the mad scramble of deadlines and stress that publishing can often bring.
There’s no sense in trying to write just like everyone else. Everyone has their own system. Read the craft books and listen to the podcasts and read the blog posts, and then take the parts that make sense to you and cobble them together into your own process that you’ll refine over time. Don’t be afraid to embrace trial and error, but don’t fall into the trap of, “If I follow exactly what Bestselling Author Does, I too will have a great commercial super bestselling book I wrote in just six months!”
The process is the process, and the outcome (the book) is separate from that. Some books need two drafts. Some need eight.
The process is what keeps you going back into the document until it’s right.
Thank you so much for sharing so much of your process with us. Your reminder to identify our own processes and embrace the joy in that is so helpful. I can’t wait to try your approach on my next project. Big congratulations on This Rebel Heart launching into the world.
Katherine Locke lives and writes in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania with their feline overlords and their addiction to chai lattes. They are the author of The Girl with the Red Balloon (Albert Whitman, 2017), a 2018 Sydney Taylor Honor Book and 2018 Carolyn W. Field Honor Book, as well as The Spy with the Red Balloon (Albert Whitman, 2018), and This Rebel Heart (April 2022).
They are the co-editor and contributor to This is Our Rainbow: 16 Stories of Her, Him, Them and Us (Knopf, 2021), which had three starred reviews and made Kirkus Review’s Best Middle Grade of 2021 list, as well as It’s A Whole Spiel: Love, Latkes and Other Jewish Stories (Knopf, 2019). They also contributed to Unbroken: 13 Stories Starring Disabled Teens and Out Now: Queer We Go Again (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2018). They are the author of picture books Bedtime for Superheroes illustrated by Rayanne Vieira (Running Kids Press, 2020), What Are Your Words? A Book About Pronouns illustrated by Anne Passchier (Little, Brown Books for Young Readers, 2021), and Being Friends with Dragons illustrated by Diane Ewen (Running Press Kids, 2022). They can be found online at KatherineLockeBooks.com and on Twitter and Instagram.
After a career in undergraduate counseling, Laura Sibson pursued an MFA from Vermont College of Fine Arts. When she’s not writing, you can find her running the streets of her Philadelphia neighborhood or hiking with her dog. She teaches creative writing at Arcadia University and at the Highlights Foundation; she also leads creative writing workshops for middle schoolers, teens and adults. Sibson is the author of young adult novels The Art of Breaking Things and Edie In Between.