The Rewrite

On December 30, 2018, Kyryiann wrote, So, editing. This last November I finished a first draft for the first time. Any tips on the whole editing process?

A few of you had suggestions.

The NEWLY REPRESENTED Melissa Mead: I usually let it sit for a bit, so I can re-read with fresh eyes to spot errors and make sure that everything makes sense.

Christie V Powell: I like to make a list of all of the scenes, describing them in just a few words, then organizing those descriptions into chapters. It helps me see at a glance what needs to be rearranged and what scenes I still need to write.

viola03 says: Congrats on finishing the first draft!

I’m like Melissa Mead in that I like to let it sit for a bit and re-read it with fresh eyes. My first drafts often turn out more like just the plot line and not a whole lot else, so I start with reading it over and adding some more detail, description, backstory, etc. In a draft that I spent a year editing (I know, yikes!), there was one scene that I just couldn’t get right. I tried it one way, let it sit, then tried it another way, let it sit, until I was happy with it. Sometimes trial and error is the best way to get a scene right :).

Once you’re happy with your edits, let your friends and family read the draft and ask for constructive criticism.

Yes! Congratulations, Kyryiann! You’ve done what for me is the hardest part!

Last night I sat in on a webinar on revision conducted by children’s book expert and free-lance editor Harold Underdown, along with his business partner, Eileen Robinson, another kid lit publishing pro. You can link to their revision workshops and revision info here: http://www.kidsbookrevisions.com/. Harold, whom I count as a friend, is the person behind the informative website, The Purple Crayon http://www.underdown.org/, which I encourage you to visit and noodle around in if you’re interested in writing for children. The book that Harold and Eileen had chosen to illustrate their revision process was my historical novel, Dave at Night. I was honored!

(Many years ago, before I was published, I submitted my picture book manuscript called “Dave at Night” to Harold. He was one of the few editors at the time who took interest in my work and gave me thoughtful feedback. He asked me to expand the story into a chapter book, which I did, and which he rejected–but in the revision I discovered that I’m a novelist, that the longer form suits me. Before then, I had been afraid to try a novel, and I’m forever grateful. Several years and many revisions later, the book was published with a different editor.)

This is a long way to get to telling you that the process the webinar described is called a revision grid, and it’s very much like what Christie V Powell does. Essentially, it’s a list of scenes along with description. The descriptions are organized into a few metrics, like thoughts, dialogue, setting, that characterize the scene. In the process of creating the grid, the writer sees what she’s accomplished and locates the spots that need work.

I agree with Melissa Mead that it’s useful to wait a while before diving into revision. Distance gives us the perspective to see our work fresh. Depending on our natures, we can be less hypercritical–or we can see that not everything is perfect.

If you feel that the draft is dreadful–no worries! First drafts are supposed to be a mess. You’ve done it right.

Here are some of the major things to look at in going through your draft:

• In places, our story feels rushed. In these spots it may be hard to know how the character got from one setting to the next, one feeling to the next, one time to the next, or how relationships, attitudes, or feelings have shifted. In those places, we have to expand to show our story’s evolution. We may need to add scenes and reveal more, remembering to include our MC’s thoughts and feelings, as well as who-said-what and why and where. This expansion and seeming slow-down is likely to have the paradoxical effect of making our story appear to speed up, because, for the reader, being on the ground where events are happening is thrilling.

• We’re bored when we’re reading our manuscript. The problem here may also be that we have to add more showing. We may be narrating too much. Or it may be that we’ve been protecting our MC and we have to inflict the worst, or almost the worst, on her.

• Our setting may not be fully fleshed out. The reader may have trouble envisioning it. I know some of you draw maps for your stories. In this case, you might like to draw the setting. Or you can draw it in words in your notes, and then think about how your characters would experience and navigate the space and what they would react to in it, keeping in mind what you want to make the reader aware of.

• Are your characters consistent? Are we making them do things for plot reasons that they wouldn’t do? In revision, we can think about how to move our plot along without forcing our characters to go against their natures. Or we can rewrite our characters so they’ll naturally do what we need them to. Or, we can have them change, making sure the reader is looped into all the steps in the change.

• Here’s one I’ve been guilty of more than once: making my MC, whom I want the reader to adore, unlikable. For me, when I’ve done this, I’ve made her a tad self-centered and clueless about the people around her. I hasten to add that you may not want the reader to love your MC, or you may want him to come to love her gradually as she evolves. In this case, you just want to be sure you’re achieving the effect you’re after.

• And another I keep running into: pacing. Mine is often too slow, especially at the beginning. My solution is to trim, or, more accurately, hack. Every sentence is a candidate for the chopping block. I don’t think I’ve ever revised a novel without cutting more than 100 pages. As I’ve said before here, I don’t just send them to oblivion–I copy them to my Extras document in case they turn out to be essential after all. And this comforts me. They still exist. And my remaining pages move faster. Besides, I believe in concision. Wordiness is my enemy.

While I’m writing my first draft I always become aware of problem areas that I don’t want to go back to fix right then, because it’s generally best, if we can, to soldier on to the end. When I sense an issue, I go to the top of my manuscript–you can do this in a separate document, if you prefer–and make a note. Here’s one from my forthcoming book about the expulsion of the Jews from Spain: Handling slaves. Is there anything apologist about it? Should I make Hamdun be a servant and skip all that?

(Ultimately, I decided to keep the slavery, because it was common then, and I wanted readers to know that, at the time, most slaves in Europe were Muslims from North Africa, and most slaves in North Africa were Christians from southern Europe, both taken by conquest. The sub-Saharan slave trade was in its infancy in the fifteenth century.)

Anyway, when I finish my first draft, I consult my top-of-the-manuscript notes. As I clear them up, I delete them.

I’m an inveterate fiddler, so I repair my sentences and paragraphs at every stage, even in first drafts, when it’s a foolish time-waster–because the sentences and paragraphs are likely to be cut. I vary sentence length and sentence and paragraph beginnings. I’m even, a product of my poetry training, sensitive to the sound of my prose and its meter. Sometimes I add or delete alliteration and assonance. When I want extra punch, I may bring on the iambs, da DUM, da DUM, because ending a sentence, a paragraph, or a chapter on a stressed syllable packs a wallop.

As we go through successive revisions, when our drafts are more polished–and certainly before submission–we make sure all is clear, because clarity is the writer’s deity. We have to say exactly what we mean. (By the way, that last sentence is in iambs. We HAVE to SAY exACTly WHAT we MEAN.)

Here are four prompts:

∙ Your main character is in a twelve-step program and is attempting to make amends to the people he’s hurt. Some take this well, but others not so much. Pick one of the not-so-much characters and write a story about the relationship and how it develops in this real-life revision.

∙ The fairy Lucinda has decided to reform herself. She is visiting the (still-living) victims of her gifts and attempting to repair the damage her gifts created, but, in her bumptious fashion, she brings on hosts of unintended consequences. You can pick gifts from my books or make up fresh ones. Write a story about one or more of her attempts to repair the past.

∙ Pick a paragraph or a page from a finished draft or a WIP and rewrite it five ways.

∙ Pick a chapter from a finished draft and trim it as much as you can. Do this in more than one pass. Trim. Walk away. Wait an hour. Go back and trim again. Pay special attention to your adjectives and adverbs. Do you really need this one or that? Sometimes I discover that I’ve written two sentences in a row that say the same thing. One can go. When you’re finished and have waited at least another hour, read the skinny chapter. What do you think? Better or worse?

Have fun, and save what you write!

Transformations

After my last post Erin Edwards wrote:

I was thinking some more about this. It is interesting that you don’t do a lot of planning and organizing before you write, because I have found that if I don’t do at least some, I can’t write *anything* that isn’t extremely boring (if I can write anything at all.)
I am beginning to think that what some writers call first drafts and some call outlines look nothing like what I think a rough draft or an outline would look like. I learned a lot once from a conference where an editor showed the steps a manuscript took between submission and the final picture book. I wonder if you would consider showing us the rough draft of a scene and how it developed in the final book?

I asked for clarification, and Erin answered:

What I mean by a rough draft or an outline is what is the first thing you write down about a scene?

Then do you build directly on that? Or just take those ideas and start writing something new on a clean page?

I thought it would be easy to answer Erin’s questions, but when I looked at my notes I founds that my method isn’t methodical. Many many many and more scenes that I start with vanish and new ones take their place. I found an example, but I don’t know how representative it is.

Anyway, I write notes first. Sometimes I write some of the scene in my notes. Then I copy what I’ve written into my manuscript, which is just story, not a mix of story and notes. If I’m beginning a book, I write notes and then, when I figure out my beginning, I write it in a separate document (the clean page). This isn’t particularly the right way, it’s just my method.

The notes and the three fragments below are from my Mesopotamian fantasy Ever. These are my notes for the scene. The words in parentheses are from me now.

Maybe Kezi is there when Father swears oath. Maybe she plans to be there, to have oath carried out on her. Maybe she thinks father wouldn’t carry it out on her. Maybe the 3 of them are there. Maybe mother says she’ll be ok. Maybe mother says, keep everyone from him for three days. Then the oath will have no power, or Kezi knows this. She tries to keep everyone away, but a cousin comes. Kezi saves the cousin.

If Father had sworn that if Mother recovered he would sacrifice a goat, he would have had to do it. He wouldn’t have been able to wait three days and then forget about the oath. But if he swore, for example, that if IL (god whose name changes in each version) gave him a safe sea voyage he would sacrifice the first fish he caught to IL, if he didn’t catch any fish in t first three days, he could eat the fish on the 4th day. If no one congratulated Father (Trails off here, which notes can do.)

This story fragment, the beginning of the oath scene, was written around 3/24/06:

Only IL’s altar flame is steady. I am thrumming with fear. I’m pouring Mother a cup of water. The pitcher isn’t heavy, but I spill water on my hand anyway.
Mother is trembling more than I. Beads of sweat stand out on her forehead, and yet she shivers. Red welts run up her arms.
Father paces. He sits on the divan next to Mother, dries her face with his own sweat cloth. He stands, paces, sits again.
“I don’t want to die, Senat,” Mother tells Father, shaking so hard her voice is staccato. “I wish I could die.” She laughs jerkily, but it is her usual ironic laugh.

In the next version, the POV changes to third person. It was revised before 4/21/06:

Only Anlil’s altar flame is steady. Kezi thrums with fear. She pours her mother a cup of water. The pitcher isn’t heavy, but Kezi spills some of the water anyway.
Merem is trembling more than Kezi is. Beads of sweat stand out on Merem’s forehead, and yet she shivers. Red welts run up her arms.
Senat paces, which frightens Kezi more than anything. Her father is always confident.
“I don’t want to die, Senat,” Merem says, shaking so hard her voice is staccato. “I wish I could die.” She laughs jerkily, but it is her usual ironic laugh.

This is from the copy-edited manuscript, revised in 1/08, but the scene didn’t go directly from the one above to this. There must have been more changes along the way. Notice that the POV has gone back to first person. What you cant tell from this scene, though, is that now there are two first-person narrators. Here it is:

My bones hum with fear. Mati (Mother) didn’t rise from her bed this morning. Pado (Father) and I are with her. She’s shivering with fever and sweating at the same time. She presses one hand into her belly.
Pado paces, which frightens me almost as much as Mati’s fever. He’s always the calm one. An hour ago he sent for an asupu – a physician. Asupus are called when there isn’t much hope.
Admat, the One, the All, pity my pado and me. Let Mati stay with us a little longer. As You wish, so it will be.
There is no sign from Admat. The altar flame is steady. My prayer pulses through my mind, under my other thoughts.

I’m not confident in the usefulness of this example. It’s only one scene, and everybody works differently. My problem is rarely awkward writing; it’s getting the stories and the characters right. I head off in wrong directions and write lovely scenes that I adore and mourn when I have to amputate them. In my last three novels, Ever among them – I may have mentioned this earlier in the blog – I’ve had trouble making my main character likable. A lot of my revising has gone to making her someone a reader can identify with. I don’t think this is an issue, however, in the scene above.

To get a really solid idea of the way I wander around until I get things right, one would have to go through all my drafts. It may be possible actually to do this for an author you love. The Kerlan collection at the University of Minnesota holds drafts of children’s literature and I believe there are other libraries that do the same. I’ve donated to Kerlan, but never enough for a thorough reconstruction.

If you’re in a critique group, you could share notes and outlines with one another. If you’re not, you might ask other writers you know how they revise. And it’s worthwhile to look through your own past work and outlines and notes to understand your personal mysterious process. Have fun!