Wednesday, November 17, 2010

13 WOW Wednesday: Kat Zhang on Letting Go of Timelines

This week's guest post is from Kat Zhang, who (don't hate her) is still in college studying English. Kat was a finalist in our first lines contest and recently signed with Emmanuelle Morgen of Judith Ehrlich Literary Management. She spends her free time whipping her book HYBRID—about a girl with two souls—into shape for submission to publishers. That is, when she’s not writing for her college newspaper or performing as a Spoken Word poet. She also contributes to Let The Words Flow, a site where aspiring writers may learn more about story craft and the publishing process, and blogs privately at the The Katacomb.

On Letting Go of Timelines
It seems like just about everyone in the writing world is in a rush. Rushing to finish their book. Rushing to start querying. Rushing to get onto subs and make that first sale. I completely understand. To be honest, I’ve spent most of my life rushing to get published, too. As I kid, I swore up and down I’d get published before sixteen (you’ll excuse me. I was twelve. And kinda dumb). Then the age to beat became eighteen. And then twenty-one. I haven’t hit twenty-one yet, so that goal is still possible, I guess, but lately, I’ve come to the realization that… (wait for it)...there really is no rush. And guess what? It’s not about publishing early or publishing before someone else or anything like that. It’s about writing a good book. A great book. It’s about putting your absolute best work out there.

And most of the time, that means you’re not going to do things perfectly the first time around. It’s a funny thing how first-time novelists expect to make it big with their first book (hey, I’m not judging. I totally believed it too). Now I’m not saying it doesn’t happen, but how many other professions have people expecting to get everything exactly right their first time on the job?

I divide my life into novels the way other people might divide their life into places they’ve lived or people they’ve been with. Unfortunately, this means that I don’t really have anything to label my pre-twelve years with, but I just rather lovingly call them the “pre-novel” years.

I started working on my first novel at twelve. There’s nothing like a first novel, is there? This is the one that really lives inside you for the rest of your life—at least this is true for me and many of my friends. This is the first one. The baby. I was twelve and had no idea about how to go about getting published, what on earth agents were, or even what a character arc meant (my biggest problem was a lack of plot, but we won’t get into that). I poured my heart into this first novel, and if nothing else, my writing style (I’m talking pure sentence level here) improved more from the ages of twelve to thirteen than it has in the years since. Which could just be sad, but hey, I’ll take what I can get.

Did I believe at the time that this would be the book to get me on the best seller’s list? To make me famous and get me on morning talk shows? Totally. And guess what? I never even finished the book. I racked up about 50k, half typed up and half scribbled into various notebooks, and then, eventually, I stopped working.

I didn’t complete a novel until I was seventeen. It was a 160k monster that I managed to whittle down to 130k before querying. This was the book that taught me about agents and publishers and advances. More importantly, it taught me about pacing and theme and satisfactory endings. I learned that a passive protagonist makes for a weak story, that flashbacks in dreams are kinda lame, that melodrama is not a girl’s best friend. Oh, and that if you query agents with a 130K YA, it kind of cuts down on the nibbles you get.

But despite all the flaws of Novel Number Two, did I really believe that this book would be The One? Absolutely.

...only it wasn’t. Not by a far shot.

No matter, I was writing HYBRID before the first query for Novel Number Two went out, and I finished it around my nineteenth birthday. Then, for the first time ever, I learned how to properly revise. Suddenly, revisions weren’t just about line edits and cutting extraneous scenes. It was work. I also had a legit critique partner, my very first one, and I realized that my first drafts weren’t as great as I’d thought they were. My book needed surgery. Major reconstructive surgery.

I started querying again at the very end of June and got my first offer almost exactly two months later. I signed with Emmanuelle Morgen by the first week of September, and in the two and a half months I’ve worked with her, I’ve learned so much more about books and the business of publishing.

Nowadays I alternate between working on (more) revisions for HYBRID and my next work in progress, which I supposed shall be dubbed Novel Number Four in the timeline of my life. And honestly? I can’t wait to start working on it again. Because today, seven years since the day I started dreaming up my first book, I’ve amassed so many more skills and so much more knowledge. With every book, there’s a little less muddling and a little more confidence, and while I don’t think novel writing is something that can ever be done without a bit of struggle, I look forward to the day when I look back on what I’ve written now and see how much I’ve improved.

Because it’s not about getting there faster (wherever “there” really is). It’s about getting better than you were before. Unpublished, or even unfinished novels aren’t something shameful. They’re badges of honor. Think of them as diplomas—certification. You’re earning your novel writing doctorate, and these are the steps you’ve hit along the way.


  1. I love that you wrote about this, Kat. It kind of takes the pressure off. Yeah, the timeline pressure we place on ourselves. Great road to publication. Thanks for sharing.

  2. Great post Kat. It's true that we need to focus on learning how to write better and not rushing to querying. Congrats on getting your agent. Good luck with your book.

  3. What a great story. Thanks so much for sharing...and good luck!

  4. Terrific story - thank you so much for sharing! :)

  5. This was a great reminder. Thanks so much for sharing your journey and congrats on how far you've come!

  6. Wonderful post, Kat! I struggle with rushing through my stories and expecting the first one to be a blockbuster, so it's nice to have a reminder like this.

  7. Great story and reminder, and best wishes to you for a publication sale! Congratz on being able to finish a novel--more than one novel--as well as getting an agent. HYBRID sounds like a fascinating book!

  8. FANTASTIC post, Kat!!!!

    "I divide my life into novels the way other people might divide their life into places they’ve lived or people they’ve been with." <---SO true.

    Great job! <3

  9. Thanks, everyone, for your comments! I'm really glad you guys enjoyed the post :D

  10. Really inspiring Kat. Just what I needed to hear :-)

  11. Such a great post! And soooo true. And I love that you compare it all to badges -- I wish we could all remember that when we're feeling frustrated. I certainly will in the future. "This is my First Rejection Badge, and here's my First Full Novel Badge." :D

    And I love that you organize your life by novels. That's AWESOME.

  12. Kat, SUCH a great post. As a woman slightly past the age of 21, I couldn't agree with your logic here more. Thanks for the encouragement!

  13. Great post! I am an email subscriber so while I read every post, I don't often click the link to comment (as much as I'd like to) This made me do that. Thanks for sharing your story


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