Tinker, Writer, Reviser. Sigh.

To give plenty of advance notice to those of you who are SCBWI members or plan to join (you have to be at least eighteen): I’ll be teaching a two-and-a-half-hour workshop on writing fantasy at the national conference on Saturday, February 3rd, in New York City. I’d love it if you’d come!

A shout out to those of you who are getting ready for NaNoWriMo. April Mack, who sometimes comments here, has written helpfully on her blog about NaNoWriMo. Here’s the link: http://www.thelovelyfickleness.com/2017/10/nanowrimo-notes-plans/. And from me: May the wind be at your elbows. May the sun shine on your brain. May time slow as your fingers fly.

One more thing, a poetry competition for students from middle school through college. It does involve using The Golden Shovel Anthology, a collection based on the poetry of Gwendolyn Brooks, which you can buy or ask your local library to get for you. (Full disclosure: I have a poem in the anthology.) The form of the poem is fun, and, if you don’t want to enter the competition or are out of school or too young, it can be applied to other poems as well. Here’s the link, where you’ll find out how it’s done and how to enter: https://www.roosevelt.edu/colleges/education/community-engagement/golden-shovel-competition.

Another one more thing, a podcast interview featuring moi. You can check it out here: http://podcast.9thstory.com/. It’s an in-depth conversation, covering character development, world-building, plotting–the topics we dive into here.

On to the post. On September 10, 2017, Melissa Mead wrote, I’m trying to write a trilogy, which is on a whole different scale than the flash I usually write. I keep getting stuck on Book 2, thinking of ways I could change Book 1 that might tie the trilogy together better, and going back to tinker, even though I know I should write the whole thing first, because things could change. How do I resist the tinkering temptation and get Book 2 to come into focus?

Christie V Powell wrote in response, My way is to publish book 1 first… but I don’t think that would help in this case. I think it’s fun to find the elements of book 1 and twist them around in new ways (like Gail did with Bamarre). My current WIP takes place 500 years before my series, and I’m finding all sorts of ways to play with the world so that they work together.

One thing I do when I’m working on a rough draft but want to change something earlier is to write myself a note, like: “Edit: she’s still wearing the collar” or “Note: White Leader was promoted, not demoted.” Then I keep going.

In Ella Enchanted, Prince Char writes to Ella during his sojourn in the neighboring kingdom of Ayortha that the Ayorthians say little. He goes on at length about their taciturnity. I wish he’d have shut up! Because, years later, I wrote Fairest, which is set in Ayortha, and I couldn’t write a novel in a land where people hardly ever speak, so I contradicted the earlier book. One reader called me on this, and I’m sure others noticed. If only I’d thought ahead!

So it’s great that Melissa Mead’s book 1 isn’t published yet.

If you take or have taken a Philosophy course, you’ll probably read or have read Zeno’s Paradox, which goes something like this: You want to cross the room, but first you have to cross half the room and then half the remaining space and half again, and so on. If you keep halving the distance you can never reach the end. You can’t completely cross the room! Which of course you can, and there lies the paradox.

Writing can feel like living Zeno’s Paradox, with The End forever hanging tantalizingly out there, because we keep halving the distance–in the wrong direction! We keep going backwards to fix and fix again.

I love to revise, as I’m sure writers on the blog know. I much prefer to tinker with my WIP than to forge ahead into new territory. But in general I try not to give in to my proclivities. What helps me keep keeping on is my competing desire to get to the end and find out what happens along the way.
I’m with Christy V Powell about writing a note or notes to my future self about revisions I’ll have to make, which can satisfy my itch to fix. I put the notes at the top of my manuscript, so they’re the first things I see when I start revising.

Going back may be counterproductive. As we continue in Book 2 or in our singleton WIP, we may discover that the revision we made earlier wasn’t necessary or even that the scene we revised needs to be cut. Of course, this isn’t the worst thing in the world. I’ve said here that I toss hundreds of pages in the course of writing every one of my books. But it’s nice if I can avoid deleting even a few of them by reining myself in.

However, I always go back a page or two and do a little revision before I start a day’s writing. This orients me and helps the juices flow.

But if the urge to revise is too strong to resist, we can at least contain it. We can put a daily limit, say twenty minutes, on tinkering with old territory. We can set a timer. When the buzzer goes off, we have to stop.

We can write signs and put them in key places, signs like The End justifies the mistakes left behind. Or just Onward! Or Endward Ho! I have used reminder signs for other purposes, why not this?

The popular wisdom in the writing books I’ve read advises marching forward no matter what. If the species of your MC changes mid-book, march on. If the villain changes from one character to another, march on. We’ll know best what to fix when we get to the end.

I mostly agree with this, and the books that have gone the most smoothly for me have been written in forward motion. But several times–The Two Princesses of Bamarre, Fairest, Stolen Magic–I have snarled up my plot so hopelessly that I’ve had to go back. Usually, my story itself bogs down. I feel like I’m slogging through quicksand. Or I fall asleep whenever I try to write. Then I have no choice: I have to go back. Sometimes, as in the cases of Two Princesses and Stolen Magic, the book that resulted was little like the story I started. In Fairest, I kept getting the POV wrong.

If your story is contorted in tangles, too, I suggest taking a little time to figure out where the difficulty lies. We can identify the moment–maybe fifty pages back–when the story went south. Or we can suss out the problem, which may be, for example, POV or timidity about making an MC suffer. We think about what we need to do to fix it. How big will the fix be? Will the story continue on the path we had in mind? Or will it veer into uncharted territory. If it will go the way we always intended, we can confine ourselves to a note, but if major elements will change, we probably do have to go back and follow the fork in the road.

One of the best (also one of the worst!) parts of writing is that, pre-publication, we can revise and re-revise and then do it again. And one of the worst feelings in real life and in writing is regret. These five prompts are about regret:

∙ Try a memoir piece. Write a few pages about something you regret. Imagine what might have happened if you’d acted differently. You needn’t show this to anyone. However, it may pay dividends in helping you plumb the emotional depths of your characters. If you like, you can fictionalize this memory and make it come out differently–or the same.

∙ Another memoir piece. Write about something that was done to you. Imagine what would have changed if this thing hadn’t happened. Imagine receiving an apology and the effects of the apology.

∙ Back to fiction. In the second act of the musical Into the Woods, the sad consequences of cutting down the beanstalk by Jack are brought to life. Rewrite the story from the moment when the beans begin to sprout. If Jack doesn’t climb the beanstalk or kill the giant, how does his story go?

∙ In your story, the evil queen in “Snow White” doesn’t dance to her death in red hot slippers. She lives to regret her overwhelming jealousy–and she escapes from prison. Write her story of redemption–or further evildoing. Or, pick another fairy tale villain for your story. Or pick one of your own fictional villains.

∙ Speculative historical fiction works with this kind of pivotal moment. Yesterday, a friend and I were talking about what might have resulted if Henry VIII’s first wife, Catherine of Aragon, had given him a son who lived grew into adulthood. Change a historical moment and write a story about the consequences.

Have fun, and save what you write!

Onward! Or Backward?

First off, I’ve come across a magazine that seeks story and poetry submissions from high school students, and, since the submissions must come from students themselves, not from schools, I assume you can be home schooled if you’d like to submit. And the publication actually pays a fee if a work is accepted, rare in the poetry world. Here’s the link: http://www.hangingloosepress.com/submissions.html. Be sure to tell us here if you get an acceptance. Good luck!

Second off, I’ve announced on my website that there’s a sale on the e-book version of A Tale of Two Castles going on until April 20th, which isn’t very far off. Here’s the link if you’d like to take advantage of it: http://www.gailcarsonlevine.com/news.html.

And third off, a reminder of my tour for Stolen Magic, which starts in a few days. The farthest west I’m being sent (tour arranged by my publisher) is Ohio, but for you easterners, I would love to meet you! Here’s the link to the details on my website: http://www.gailcarsonlevine.com/appears.html.

Finally for the post! On December 1, 2014, Bug wrote, I’ve never actually… uh, finished a story. This NaNoWriMo I got 30k, which is twice as much as I have ever gotten. So, it’s exciting, but I’ve realized that I need to change something, and it’s so major that it’ll change EVERYTHING. Should I just continue and pretend that I already wrote it that way, or start over?

Erica Eliza responded with, First, congratulations for getting that far. Some changes aren’t as big as you think. If it’s something drastic, like switching the POV, I’d say restart. If you can get away with rewriting certain scenes and tweaking lines in others, keep moving forward. (This is still the same Eliza, BTW. I just tacked my first name onto my screen name.)

And Rapunzelwriter chimed in along the same vein. I’m not quite done with mine, but I reached 30K as well and am currently feeling like I have to rewrite most, if not all of my story. I’ve also been having a problem with not being able to recognize anything good in my work. Sometimes I’ll finally finish a short story, and after re-reading it, groan because I see so much that needs to be fixed, and rarely anything good. Any advice?

carpelibris offered, Sounds normal to me! Rough drafts (at least to me) are just a pile of “stuff” you make in order to have a complete thing to work on. Raw material that you can turn into something wonderful.

At the time I replied, Everybody works differently. I’d recommend that you keep going and, yes, pretend you’ve already made the changes. By the time you get to the end, you’ll have a better idea about how to revise.

Now, reflecting at my leisure, I still mostly agree with myself, although I don’t always follow my own advice and I’m not even sure if it applies to every story.

In my experience, just moving forward is a happier way to write. In my novels Ever and A Tale of Two Castles, I did just that. I was confused, I often felt that I didn’t know what I was doing, but I kept going. I finished both books in under a year and a half, pretty quick for a turtle of a writer like me. And I look back on those books as comparatively painless. I’m trying to do the same with the manuscript I’m tentatively calling Bamarre, the prequel to The Two Princesses of Bamarre, which I’m working on right now, even though the process has been interrupted by poetry school.

On the other hand, I did start over–and over and over–in both Fairest and Stolen Magic, and both books were miserable to write. Fairest took four years and Stolen Magic four and a half, although I did write Writer to Writer in the middle.

In the case of Fairest, I couldn’t get the POV right. The underlying problem, however, was that I was at a loss about how to handle the part of the story after the Snow White character eats the poisoned apple. Once I realized what to do there, I was able to write in first person from her POV and everything fell into place. Was it necessary to go through all those iterations to figure it out? I don’t know.

I was even more mixed up with Stolen Magic, and my problem was plotting, specifically plotting a mystery, which has to have suspects (I forgot them in the first 260 pages) and has to be solvable (which I forgot in the second 140 pages). Unlike Fairest, if I had managed to write either of the first two versions, they would have been very different stories from the one that I ultimately developed, inch by inch. I regret that I never figured those stories out; they were interesting, and my curiosity about them didn’t get satisfied.

So I suppose my recommendation is to keep writing new pages if you can. If you can pretend that you’ve made the revisions, if it’s clear enough to you what you will have to do later, then just keep writing. Go back only if you absolutely can’t go forward.

About finishing, I always finish. Sheer stubbornness is one reason. A story that is a figment of my own imagination is not going to defeat me.

Another is curiosity. Since I don’t outline, I don’t know exactly how my story is going to turn out unless I write it. The ending may be clear in my mind, as it is in the book I’m working on now, since it has to prepare this world for the events in Two Princesses, and I know the feeling I want the ending to have, but I’m not yet sure how I’m going to get there, even though (I hope) I’ve written two-thirds of the book.

The last reason, and probably the most important one, goes to the heart of Rapunzelwriter’s final question. I can keep going because I don’t look for what’s good or bad in my WIP (work in progress). In fact, I studiously avoid this question, which will just lead me down the rabbit hole of self-doubt. I recommend that everybody avoid it. If that self-doubting voice in our mind starts piping up, we have to stamp it down with both feet. Yes, we have to decide if our characters are acting according to character. Yes, we need to vary our sentences and remember to include sensory information other than the visual, and so on. We have to be critical in a nitty-gritty, detail-oriented way, but we don’t have to be nasty to ourselves! We have to give our stories, ideas, words, plots, characters–all of it!–a chance to shine. I believe we can squelch our negativity if we pay attention to our self-critical impulses and don’t let them take over.

Even when I finish a novel, the big question I ask myself is, Is this working? Not, Is this good? We can let the critics weigh in on that. We can just congratulate ourselves and do a victory dance and have a party and set off fireworks for having made our way all the way to “The End.”

Having said all this, I also think it’s okay for you (not me) not to finish. If you’ve learned all you can from a particular story, or if you’re bored, there’s nothing wrong with moving on. If you’re a young person, you’re changing at a crazy pace. What appealed to you a month ago may no longer be the slightest bit interesting. So try something else, and don’t worry if that fades, too. The only important thing is to keep writing, because if you do, eventually you’ll finish something.

Here are three prompts:

• We never hear about Snow White’s younger sister, who won’t ever cause the mirror to arouse the evil queen’s jealousy. But this sister has extraordinary qualities of her own, which the dwarfs put to good use. And it’s possible that Snow White’s prince has a cousin. Make their lives intersect and write their story, which may or may not interfere with Snow White’s troubles.

• Go back to your Snow White story and switch narrator in the middle. If you were writing in first person from the sister’s POV, switch to omniscient third or to first person from a different character’s POV. Do not go back. Just keep writing. If the story now takes you in a different direction, that’s okay. When you finish, revise.

• Experience finishing. Take a simple story structure. Could be this: Your MC desperately wants to win a contest. Say there’s a kingdom, and every year the young people compete to find a large ruby, which the king hides. Your MC tries three times and finally succeeds. That’s it, the whole story. Write it in three to five pages. Include two to three other characters, no more. Give your MC a personality. Include dialogue, a hint of setting, and get it done!

Have fun, and save what you write!

The Shining

On January 24, 2014, Eliza asked this important question: Anyone have tips on editing? Whenever I read over my stories, all I can pick out are the things I did wrong. Paragraphs that I can delete, plot holes that need to be stitched up, scenes that just don’t make sense. But once you remove the awful parts, how do you shine it up and make it pretty?

E.S. Ivy wrote this in response: Maybe the following suggestions would help:
– check the dialogue, is it entertaining? Do the characters’ personalities show? Can you add humor in them?
– check a scene with your mind’s eye. Can you really “see” it? Can you add touches of description here and there?
– the important parts, the ending and climax etc.: are there places where you could foreshadow them?

I agree, except that I’m not always on board with foreshadowing. You can read my posts on the subject.

Negativity is built into revision by definition. We’re hunting for problems so we can fix them. Still, revision is my favorite part of writing, the most positive as far as I’m concerned. Once my plot is set, then all I have to do is make it better, make it shine.

For this post I’ll be writing about the polish, which involves the little adjustments we make after the major flaws have been cleaned up. If you’re interested in other aspects, check my earlier posts on the subject.

What I do the most is cut. The process is like sculpting in marble: We chop away at the stone blocking our image, and, as the chips fall, the beauty is revealed.

Here’s a sneak preview of the first paragraph of Stolen Magic. I don’t know how to indent, so I’m italicizing, but it isn’t italicized in the manuscript. First is the paragraph I sent my editor after her intial round of edits:

As if she were narrating a mansioner’s play, Elodie spoke across the strait, “And so our heroine–” she blushed at calling herself heroine “–young mistress Elodie, returned to Lahnt, the island of her birth. Five weeks earlier, she’d departed, a humble farmer’s daughter, but now, unexpected by all, least expected by herself, she’d become–“ As the deck of the cog groaned behind her and the sour odor of rotten eggs reached her nose, she continued in her thoughts: Our heroine had become traveling companion to a noble ogre and assistant to a detecting dragon.

Below is the paragraph I sent her after the second round. My editor didn’t ask for these cuts. Read it and then I’ll say why I made them.

As if she were narrating a mansioner’s play, Elodie spoke across the strait, “And so our heroine–” she blushed at calling herself heroine “–young mistress Elodie, returned to Lahnt, the island of her birth. Five weeks earlier, she’d departed, a humble farmer’s daughter, but now, unexpected by all, least expected by herself, she’d become–“ She broke off as the deck of the cog groaned behind her and the sour odor of rotten eggs reached her nose.

In the first version I reassured the reader so that when the ogre and dragon appear, she isn’t worried. But I want her to worry! Why is the deck groaning? What’s causing the stink? These aren’t big anxieties, and they’re quickly put to rest, but still I’m eager to offer that tiny thrill.

Also, as I cut, the pace picks up. As long as I’m not deleting anything crucial to the story or to the development of my characters, a faster pace is an improvement.

Yesterday I received the copy editor’s response to the manuscript, and without prompting I made another slight change. See if you catch it. Here’s the paragraph again:

As if she were narrating a mansioner’s play, Elodie spoke across the strait, “And so our heroine–” she blushed at calling herself heroine “–young mistress Elodie, returns to Lahnt, the island of her birth. Five weeks earlier, she departed, a humble farmer’s daughter, but now, unexpected by all, least expected by herself, she has become–“ She broke off as the deck of the cog groaned behind her and the sour odor of rotten eggs reached her nose.

Do you see? I changed to present tense in the narration, which seems more natural, more like the narrator of a play. If the copy editor or my editor disagree, I’ll be informed, and then I’ll decide.

(If I were changing the tense in the whole manuscript, that would be an important change, but here the story continues to be told in the past tense.)

These are the kinds of itty-bitty adjustments I’m thinking about at this point. Another one is word repetition, which my editor and copy editor are good at noticing. I’m getting better at it, too, and studying poetry has helped. The reader may not notice the repeated words, but she will probably glide along more smoothly without them. Going the other way, however, sometimes we want to repeat, for emphasis or rhythm. We may even create a repetition as we revise, for those reasons.

Obviously, the repetition of some building-block words–like the, he, she, it, and, and or–can’t be avoided and don’t need to be. But I do check to make sure I haven’t started sentence after sentence or paragraph after paragraph with the same one of any of them.

Name repetition is another kind of repetition that I look out for. For example, have I repeated my MC’s name three times in four paragraphs and it’s irritating? Can I replace one or two of those times with he or she without confusion?

A mistake I often make is taking actions or ideas out of order–in a small way. I just corrected an example of this in Stolen Magic. In the narration I’m revealing that Elodie and her friends are traveling by oxcart, and I explain who’s in which cart, and then, boom!, there’s a sentence that jumps ahead to camping for the night. It looked okay; they do camp. But it’s bumpy, so I moved the camping to the end of the mode of transportation.

We also need to look at word choice. Is this the right term to nail a feeling, a description, an action?

Am I weakening my prose with hedging adjectives. For example, the dragon emits an unpleasant sulfurous odor, which Elodie gets used to and even comes to like. But I had her almost like it, which doesn’t take a stand, so I got rid of the almost.

And of course, we have to clean up any niggling grammar errors, anything that might confuse a reader.

Here are three prompts:

• When my editor at the time wanted me to write The Princess Tales, she sent me several chapter books to read to familiarize myself with writing for that age group, which is younger than the full-length novel crowd. To really get inside the writing, I retyped one of the books in its entirety, absorbing vocabulary, style, sentence length. This exercise was more useful than simply reading the book, or even rereading it several times. So pick a book you love, one you think is well-written, and copy out, say, two pages by hand or on a computer. If you have time, do it twice. If you’re having trouble picking a book, may I suggest Charlotte’s Web, because the writing, in my opinion, is splendid? As you go along in whatever book you choose, ask yourself questions about why the author made the choices he did. You may find you disagree about some of them. That’s fine. You’re entering into a conversation with a book. Cool!

• Using my suggestions and E. S. Ivy’s, re-revise a page or two of a story of yours that you’ve already gone over. Is it “shinier” when you’re done than it was before?

• Your MC is in her room, suffering from the results of a very bad day caused by her own actions. She’s antagonized her friends and her family; someone is in the hospital because of her; and whatever else you come up with to increase her misery. A being (elf, fairy, alien, mad scientist, whatever) enters her room and offers her a do-over. She accepts, of course. Write the day as it played out originally and the do-over, and make it come out worse the second time, but not entirely because of her this time.

Have fun, and save what you write!

Smooth

On October 31, 2012, Seawritesforfun wrote, I was wondering how can you make a book fluid? Mine is rather all over the place because I write very sporadically, (started in ’10, still not finished but very close now). I plan to do about 20 rewrites to try and fix it, but I’m not sure whether or not that will disrupt the plot.

First off, when we revise our first principle should be, must be: Everything is up for grabs to make the best book we can at this time.

I don’t mean we have to toss the first draft, because then we’ll be writing a new book, not revising. And I don’t mean that every element always has to change, only the ones that need fixing. For me, some drafts need just a little tweaking; some need much more. We work within the established framework, but we may have to move a few walls and change the furniture. We may have to add characters, drop characters, change POV, and even adjust (or disrupt) our plot. I’ve begun my revisions for my second Elodie mystery. I don’t foresee adding characters, but I’m doing everything else, and my plot is definitely changing.

If you’re young, say you’re fifteen now and you started your book when you were thirteen, of course the story feels jumpy. The you that started and the you who’s writing now are separated by eons of growth and change and learning. So I suggest that you try to go through this revision in the span of a few months, tops, because you’re still on a steep maturing slope. A year from now you may again be vastly different (although, naturally, many essentials will remain). If you start and then stop, fluidity may again elude you.

A lot of the feeling of fluidity comes from voice. Try reading a few paragraphs from page 3 and a few from pages 25, 80, 130, etc. What do you notice? What are the differences? Which do you like? Maybe one of the pages has a contemporary voice, another goes even further into slang, another is more formal, and another has a distinct old-fashioned tone. Decide which best suits your story.

Can you identify something that you can replicate to give the narration a sense of continuity? For example, in the Elodie books, when Elodie is surprised, she has a habit of saying or thinking, Lambs and calves! Just that expression helps create the sense of a single personality presenting the story. I’ve switched to third person in this revision, although I’m not sure I’ll stick with it, but in most chapters Elodie is still my POV character, and the reader still encounters her Lambs and calves!, not in every paragraph or even on every page, but often enough to remind the reader that this is Elodie’s tale.

In the past I’ve mentioned a novel for adults, or for kids high school and up, The Blind Assassin by Margaret Atwood, a fascinating mystery that switches from first-person to third, that changes tenses, and that intersperses the narrative with newspaper articles. The effect is jumpy, I guess, but the reader comes to expect the discontinuity, and the story works as a whole. The key is repetition. We can change tense or POV once right at the beginning or we can sandwich our narrative with a beginning and final shift, but if we’re going to do more, we generally need to do it frequently. If there’s just a single switch a third of the way into the story and not again, the reader is likely to be confused, but if it’s a regular thing, she’ll be prepared.

Here’s another, possibly weird solution. Think of Anne Frank’s The Diary of a Young Girl, which was written over several years, and which, admittedly, isn’t fiction. Anne changes in the course of the book. The youngster at the beginning and the young adult at the end are vastly different. The reader accepts this because of the time span. Maybe you can work something into your structure that accommodates the two years you spent writing your book. Maybe your book can be presented as a journal. Or, if you can’t separate the parts by time, maybe you can by distance. The first part takes place in an earth city, the next on recently colonized Venus, the next in a scientific station on the ocean floor. Or, separate them by narrator, so the voice is different in the different parts. Then, possibly, the revision won’t be so radical.

Here are four prompts:

• Use the scenario I suggested. Your three MCs are geographically apart. Earth is running out of some resource, say, fresh water. Your characters are engaged in a project to save life on the planet, but there are conflicting allegiances among them, and there’s a romance. Write the story, and make it jumpy, with different narrators, different time periods.

• Tell a story within a story within a story, like those Russian nesting dolls that fit inside each other. Your MC is writing a novel about an actor who’s in an original play. Your story includes all three: the life of the MC, chapters of the novel, and scenes from the play. Give your MC problems in her life that find expression in her novel and in the play inside the novel.

• Write a contemporary story but tell it in an old-fashioned, fairy tale sort of voice.

• Retell a fairy tale in a modern setting using a contemporary voice.

Have fun, and save what you write!

Ready… Set… Send

On October 31, 2012, C.L. wrote, …how many times do you edit on your own before you send your work to your editor? How long do you wait before editing a book you just finished writing? What do you do while you’re waiting to edit one book? How many edits do you tend to go through before you’ve found you absolutely can’t do anything more to a book?

For those of you who haven’t yet discovered this, it’s generally not a good idea to start revising the moment after you finish a story. For me, I tend to think everything I’ve just written is brilliant and perfect. Some writers are convinced that their new work is drivel. Neither opinion is objective. We writers need time to let us see clearly.

My answers to C.L.’s questions change as time goes on. My process also depends on the editor I’m working with. So let me answer chronologically.

Since I began writing and hoping to get published in 1987, I’ve sought outside opinion pretty early in my process. My first effort was an art appreciation book for kids, an intolerably long picture book about a desperately ill eagle who’s the king of the birds and a sparrow who thinks he’s ugly. I included pencil drawings by me of birds and reproductions of famous artwork. A published children’s book writer lived on my block. She was kind enough to read my manuscript and blunt enough to tell me I couldn’t write. Undaunted (I don’t know why not!), I showed the manuscript to a few librarians who were more encouraging. I don’t know how many times I revised that book before I sent it into the world. Probably not enough. I leaped before I looked.

When no one wanted that book I really began my children’s book writing education by taking a class. With some of the other students I formed a critique group. And I joined the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators (SCBWI), which I’ve mentioned many times here. Through SCBWI I learned about publishing and I started sending manuscripts out, only picture book manuscripts because at that point I hadn’t mustered the courage to try a novel. My process was to present a manuscript to my critique group. If the criticism was light I revised and started sending. In those days you could send unsolicited manuscripts directly to publishers. If the criticism was heavy, I revised and then showed the story to my critique pals again before sending out. Maybe I revised a dozen or more times. With picture books, because they’re so short, revision goes fast. When I stopped it was because I thought I’d made my story as good as it could be.

Mostly I got form rejections, which tell you nothing. Basically, they thank you for submitting and wish you luck placing the manuscript elsewhere. I’d guess that these days agents send out something similar.

Occasionally I’d get more, maybe a scribble on my cover letter suggesting how my manuscript might be improved. That kind of comment was gold. I’d revise madly and resend.

As time went on I started getting more substantive responses from editors, who became sort of extensions of my critique groups. None of them, however, loved a story enough to buy it.

Whenever I sent out a manuscript, it was because I’d made it as good as I knew how to. I didn’t torment myself about perfection. As good as I could do had to be good enough.

When I finished a first draft or a revision, I would wait a few days or even a week before looking at it again.

My process was the same with the first novel I ever wrote, which was Dave at Night. The second was Ella Enchanted. When I wrote Ella I had begun taking a new writing class, the best ever, and our teacher was willing to critique everything we wrote. Each week I handed in whatever I’d written and the next week I got back basically an editorial letter (she had been an editor) and edits right on my manuscript. I also belonged to a critique group of classmates from this class. It was my golden age of becoming a better writer.

The point is, revision for me has always been part of the writing. Many writers don’t revise as they go. They push through a first draft to get the story and the ideas down, put it aside for however long they decide, and then go back in for the revision. This is a great way to do it, just not my way.

By the time I reached the end of Ella (with a nearly 200-page detour when I got lost in the middle), it didn’t need major revision. I don’t remember how long I put it aside for but I’m sure I waited a little while before jumping back in. I know I showed the whole thing to my critique buddies at least twice. I didn’t start sending it out until I was so sick of it that just looking at the first page made me a little nauseous. A few of my books have gone out into the world in really really good shape. Ella was one of them.

My critique group shrank to just one person. We were fine for a few years until she got sick and had to stop being my writing buddy. That was hard. I wrote Ever, A Tale of Two Castles, and two of the Disney Fairies books alone, which was rough. I like feedback. I have a new critique buddy now, the wonderful kids’ book writer Karen Romano Young.

Nowadays, after I type “The End,” I don’t have to wait very long before diving back in. The reason is that, by the time I’ve gotten to the end I’ve half forgotten the beginning. When I’m writing for my long-time editor at HarperCollins, I’m willing to turn in something that isn’t completely polished. She’s seen my worst and continues to work with me, and she may have ideas that will change my story significantly. If I spend a lot of time on the polish, that effort may be wasted. Maybe I go through the manuscript twice before sending it in. Maybe not even twice.

But if I’m writing for someone new, I do polish. It’s scary to submit a piece of writing. Nothing I’ve ever written – or ever will write – has been perfect. I don’t know how the editor will respond, so I go over it until I start changing words and then changing them back. That’s when I know I’m done done done.

While I’m waiting for an editor’s answer, I start something new. It’s not pleasant to sit around waiting. The waiting is hard enough, but if I’m working on a new story I feel productive and not as if everything is riding on this one thing.

Having said all this, everybody’s different. I like fresh eyes on my work early on, and I like someone else’s take to help me as I revise. It’s hard even to show my writing in its early stages to a critique buddy especially when we’re just starting out together. When I send pages to Karen they’re really rough; my story is just forming itself; I’m exposed as a bumbler who feels my way. That’s scary, but not so scary that it stops me. I’m convinced the rewards are worth it.

Some writers don’t show their pages to anyone. An editor or an agent may be the first to see. That’s fine too. These writers are probably great self-editors.

Personality may be a factor. I’m outgoing and not easily squelched. Rejection got me down, but not forever. I popped up again. And popping up again is a quality to nurture in yourselves.

Here are three prompts:

∙ Your MC has won a writing award. She’s dressing for the award dinner and can’t seem to satisfy herself about the way she looks. Write the getting dressed scene. Make the reader worry that she may never make it to the dinner.

∙ Timothy Toad is competing in a competition to be named Toad of the Year. The contest will be judged by three former Toads of the Year. Timothy Toad isn’t certain exactly what it means to be a great toad. Is he going to be judged on character or looks or hop? Write the story of the contest.

∙ The three members of a writing group find out about a short story contest. They all decide to enter stories and agree that they’re going to critique one another’s entries beforehand so they can be as good as possible. All does not go smoothly, however. There’s tension in the group, which comes out in their communication between meetings and in the meetings themselves. Perhaps not every one of them wants the others to succeed. Write a scene or a story about the process.

Have fun, and save what you write!

Lost in Revision

On April 28, 2011, Grace wrote, ….So I have a manuscript that I kind of edited to death- meaning I wrote it and I edited it so it was better but I got so obsessed with making it *perfect* that I kind of sucked the life out of it. Now it’s just listless words meandering across the page that are all painstakingly grammatically correct and technically *perfect* but it has no life, it has no flare, no sparkle. This breaks my heart to make me think I killed the very thing I wanted to improve, so do you have any suggestions about how to raise my manuscript from the dead? Do you know how I can pump some life back into it and make it my own again instead of it sounding like something any generic computer program could have thought up? Any ideas about how to change my manuscript from being flat stiff sentences to something worth reading again would be most welcome…

And in response April wrote, ….it sounds like you need to back away from the manuscript for a while. Don’t look at it for a few months (or possibly longer). Work on something else while it sits. When you go back to it, you’ll be able to look at it with fresh eyes and make more objective judgements.
I agree with April. Clarity comes with time and distance. You may like your story better when you go back to it. You may even think it has plenty of life, and what were you worried about? But if not, you may see the places that you flattened in revision. Then you may know what to do to resuscitate the prose.

If you have your old drafts, you can look at them too and pick back up the bits the bits that used to make your blood dance.

Long ago, when I was unpublished and writing only picture books because I was afraid to try a novel, one of my manuscripts interested several editors, who asked for revision. One of them said he wanted my story to be more “warmly told” and suggested I read The True Story of the Three Little Pigs by Jon Scieszka. I did, and I loved it, and I knew exactly what the editor wanted, and I rewrote my story, and he hated it and wouldn’t look at further revisions. Other editors wanted other changes, and gradually my story died. What was good in it vanished beyond recovery and I never got it back. So, sadly, this can happen.

But, today, I could have another go at it. If I wanted to return to the story, I would look at my old versions (if I could find them after about twenty years and many computers). If they didn’t show me what to do, I’d just start again from scratch, working from my original idea.

You might succeed with the same strategy. Think about the basic idea and what excited you about it. If you’re like me you’ll write some notes on what you used to love and how to approach the story this time. Most likely you’ve learned things in the many rewrites, and your discoveries will fuel the new beginning.

When I used to paint, this approach worked for me. A painting failed, but I loved what I was going for. I might have been in a class and working from a model. In my first attempt I painted her proportions all wrong, but when I started over I found that I’d learned from my mistakes and she materialized correctly on my canvas this time. Or I was working from a still life or a photograph. A second attempt usually paid off.

But, you may be wailing, I wrote 300 pages!

There may be efficient writers but I’m not one of them. I toss hundreds of pages, which I’ve mentioned many times on the blog. Well, last weekend I found comforting company. The novelist Craig Nova spoke at a conference where I was the kids’ book workshop leader. He talked of his endless rewrites and swore that he’s dumped 100,000 pages during his writing life. That’s thousand with a T. He’s not a young man, but he’s not Methuselah either. And he has twelve novels for adults under his belt.

Craig Nova kept track of those 100,000 pages, and I keep a rough tally of the pages I throw out for each book. I struggled with them as much as I did with the pages that succeeded, so I might as well be proud of them. And you might as well, too.

Goes without saying (but I’ll say it) that you may find it helpful to ask a writing buddy or trusted person to look at your moribund story. She may see where you went wrong better than you can. And she may love parts of your story, which may rekindle your affection for them.

I doubt the problem lies in excellent grammar or technical perfection. We want proper grammar, punctuation, capitalization (unless we have a powerful story reason for ignoring the rules). We don’t want too much word repetition or monotonous sentence structure. Attention to the basics doesn’t suck the life out of a story. It adds to the liveliness of our prose.

You can ask yourself some questions to gain an understanding of how your story floundered:

Why was perfection so important this time? The answer might lie outside the story, in criticism you’d received or a hundred other things. Or you loved your idea so much, more than anything else you ever tried, that you tensed up.

Did you edit out the characters’ thoughts and feelings? This might be the first place to look. Without emotion and an inner life a story will be bloodless.

Is there something inside the story that you were afraid of? If you figure that out, you may decide you don’t want to tackle it right now. Or you may find that identifying the scary element pulls you in and the story catches fire again.

Are there parts that might offend someone? Did you tiptoe around those aspects of the story even without realizing it?

When you answer these questions you may be able to reenter your story with enthusiasm.

The subject of revival sent my mind off to myths and old stories, so here are three prompts:

∙    One of my favorite myths is “Pygmalion and Galatea,” which is the basis of George Bernard Shaw’s play Pygmalion and Lerner and Loewe’s musical My Fair Lady. In the myth, Pygmalion is a sculptor who falls in love with one of his sculptures. Unlike many Greek myths, this one has a happily-ever-after ending with Galatea coming to life. Write your own story of Galatea coming alive with unexpected consequences. What’s she like? How does she adjust to being alive? How does she fit into Pygmalion’s ordinary existence?

∙    The myth of Orpheus, alas, doesn’t end well. He tries and fails to fetch his dead wife back from Hades. In your version make Geraldine succeed in reviving her friend or boyfriend Henry, but he wakes up changed. Write what happens. Though this can be a scary story it doesn’t have to be.

∙    Now I’m thinking of the opposite of Shakespeare’s The Taming of the Shrew. Jeremy’s friend Karen is too easygoing, and Jeremy sets himself the task of making her more lively. Write what happens.

Have fun and save what you write!

Madame Red Pencil, the Editor

Before I start the regular post, and in case you missed it, on the website there’s now a color sketch of the cover for A Tale of Two Castles.  In your comments after my post about covers, many of you expressed a preference for painted covers, and that’s what this is.

Also, I’ll be signing in Kingston, New York, this Saturday and in Fort Thomas, Kentucky in November.  If you’re nearby, check out the details on the website.

Last week I  wrote about this question by Erin Edwards: How do you cope with revision requests/suggestions, or did you never have a problem with them?  But I didn’t get to her second question:  Do you find that they were easier or harder to take after you got a contract or had a book published?

Before I had my first contract, when I was sending manuscripts out, most of my criticism came from the teacher I mentioned last week, Bunny Gabel, and the writers in my critique group.  But occasionally an actual editor would send a suggestion along with a rejection.  If the editor went to the trouble of giving advice, I took this as an invitation to revise and resend – if the advice felt reasonable and seemed a good fit for my story.  Way back then I had total freedom: the editor certainly wasn’t eagerly waiting for a revision.

In every case, when I revised and resent, the manuscript was rejected again.  Further suggestions might be made, with less enthusiasm, and I might revise and resend again.  This wasn’t a fast process.  If I was fixing a novel, revising would take at least a month, and the response always took many months to arrive.  But with the exception of the picture book I described last week, I always felt that I had improved my story.

However, although I had no success, some of my writing friends did.  They established relationships with editors, understood what was wanted, and were rewarded with contracts.

Eventually I did get to work with editors, and of course there are differences.  When a criticism comes from another writer or from a friend, I have context.  If I’m in a critique group, I know my critique buddies pretty well.  I’ve read their stories and seen how they react to other writers’ work.  I’ve experienced their strengths and their blind spots.  When a critique buddy offers a criticism I usually know how to understand it.  Almost the same was true of Bunny.  Although I never saw her writing, I did watch her response to my classmates’ material.

With an editor, much of that is missing.  Usually we have available to read only editorial letters and emails.  The editor – let’s call her Madame Red Pencil – may never have written fiction as an adult – and can still be a marvelous editor.  We can’t tell how she evaluates other authors’ work, only our own.  If, for example, she hates flashbacks, everyone’s flashbacks not just ours, we won’t know unless she tells us.

In both cases, there’s a relationship to preserve.  I don’t want to lose a friend over criticism or to reach an impossible place with an editor.  And with an editor, even if there is a contract, she can decide not to publish the book or that she can’t bear to work with me ever again.

Naturally some editors are better than others, and certainly there needs to be a good fit between the editor and the writer.  In general, Madame Pencil won’t acquire a manuscript unless she loves it.  This is because she has to read it again and again during the editing, and she has to be its booster in the publishing house.  So the most important relationship ingredients are there from the start.  She adores your work, and she’s primed to adore you because you created this marvel.  And, most likely, you’re primed to feel good about her because she gets you.  Maybe she’s the only one who noticed how gradually and carefully you built up the cruelty of your villain.

With luck, her edits will be even more helpful than the suggestions of your critique pals.  It’s her job to crawl inside your story, to see it from within itself.  Then it’s her job to grasp it as a whole too, and also to figure out how it can become its best incarnation, and to present her ideas in a way that you understand, and if you don’t get it right away, it’s her job to rephrase.  When all this happens, yes, an editor’s criticism is easier to take.

When I first handed in the draft that eventually became The Fairy’s Return, my editor wrote in her editorial letter that my heroine was a buffoon, and she didn’t mean it in a good way.  Fortunately or unfortunately, I knew she was right.  Luckily she had a suggestion that showed me what to do.

The editorial letter I got in response to Fairest was eighteen single-spaced pages.  In it my Madame Red Pencil told me to cut entire chapters.  I reacted as I usually do to a long editorial letter – with fright.  Could I do what was being asked of me?

Editors don’t have all the answers.  Sometimes Madame Pencil can see a problem but not how to solve it.  Or she may make a suggestion that doesn’t suit my approach.  When I wrote The Two Princesses of Bamarre, my editor and I both knew that the beginning was a mess, and neither of us had a clue as to how to straighten it out.  Eventually I got it on my own.

By now I’ve worked with a bunch of editors, some more gifted than others.  The worst edit – absolutely useless – I’ve ever received was the most enthusiastic.  This editor wrote Ooh! and Ah! and Eek! here and there in the margins, and that was it.  The only suggestion she made was wrong.  Sometimes I have complete certainty, and this time I had it.  When I explained my reason, she agreed.  This reminds me of the comments from some of you on the last post that friends give you only positive feedback, and you don’t know whether or not to believe it or how to proceed.

But even if the overly enthusiastic editor hadn’t agreed with me about her sole edit, I wouldn’t have done it.  Madame Pencil’s edits are suggestions, and this is understood by both of us.  Ultimately the book is yours, and you have final say.

My editor and I initially disagreed about The Wish.  She wanted a different book and I wanted the book I’d written.  For a little while it looked like she was going to reject it.  In the end she didn’t, and she edited it, and I took her edits seriously and worked to understand and use them as much as I could –

Which is my policy in general.  In minor matters if I disagree with an edit, I just don’t do it, but in major matters, I explain and discuss, and sometimes I can be persuaded, and sometimes the editor can be.  Our interests are exactly the same.  Your critique pals and mine and Madame Red Pencil all want the book to fulfill its potential and find lots of readers.

No prompts again, but save what you’re writing, and have fun!

Do Over

Last week Maggie asked, Do you have any tips on self-editing? Like where to begin? Or a process I should follow?

Self-editing sounds a little punitive to me, like correcting mistakes, so I’m going to call it revision, which seems broader, although correcting mistakes is part of revision. But often I’m expanding or condensing or deepening what I have.

I know of only two absolute rules for revision. One: Always save your earlier versions in case you need to go back. Two: Fix the basics – spelling, usage, and grammar – before sending your work into the world of publishing. If spelling and such aren’t your thing, get help – but try to make them your thing. Neglecting them is like neglecting your teeth, in my opinion.

This post will be about revising after you’ve finished a first draft, but even while you’re writing that draft you can pave the way. Be conscious as you go along of the aspects of your story that are giving you trouble, not in a beating-on-yourself way, but as an aloof scientist who’s collecting data. You can make notes of these aspects to help you later. I put such notes above the first page of my story. When you go back you may discover that what you thought was a problem wasn’t one at all. It’s nice when that happens. But it doesn’t always, and then your notes can be the beginnings of a guide.

When you finish a story, put it aside for a few days at the very least. Oddly enough, the shorter your story, the longer you should let it sit. The idea is to forget it a little so you can come back to it fresh. By the time I finish a novel, I have only a vague memory of the beginning, so a few days’ break is plenty.

Some writers read their first draft through without touching it, just making notes. You can try this and see if you like the method. I jump in and start making changes, and I make little and big alterations as I go.

Much of revising is grunt work, like yesterday for me: I realized that I had crammed too much action into too few hours, and I had to shift time around. Mechanical, but necessary, and it took a whole day in real time.

I go through my story in order, mostly, but I bounce around, too. Something I change may call for corresponding adjustments earlier or later in the narrative, so I make them before I forget.

Revision covers every part of fiction: plot, character, setting, voice, detail. Just thinking about it is daunting. Best not to think, just do. You’re unlikely to catch everything in one run through. I revise my books even when they’re in second-pass galleys. After my editor has edited a manuscript a dozen or more times and the copy editor has had at it half a dozen times, I’m still making changes. If all my books were turned back into manuscripts, I’d definitely do some fixing. The thing is, perfection is unachievable. We do the best we can. This is worth embroidering on a pillow or taping over our desks. Perfect impossible, just the best we can.

Here are some questions you can ask yourself as you move through your work.

Have I caught up all the threads? You may not want to tie up everything, but you want the loose ends to be deliberate. You can leave the reader to wonder if your hero ever reconnects with Sam, his best friend three years ago, but you don’t want to drop Sam because you’ve forgotten all about him. Some threads may be quite minor. For example, in the mystery I’m revising now I came up with an ejaculation for my main character. She says, lambs and calves! – and reveals her farm roots. I need her to use the expression once in a while, not so often that the reader gets irritated, and not so rarely that the reader forgets it.

Are my characters behaving as I’ve set them up to? If there’s a change in behavior, have I explained why? If your main character’s best friend angers easily, and we’ve seen her explode when she thinks a store clerk has an attitude, then we need an explanation if she lets a direct insult slide.

Can I see what’s going on? In a scene I worked on recently, my main character was on the castle battlements and needed to see down to the drawbridge, but I’d put her at the back of the castle, so I had to move her to the right spot.

Am I leading the reader along properly so that what happens is neither predictable nor too farfetched to believe? In my mystery, I want the reader to accept that my villain could have done the heinous deeds but not to see him/her coming.

Are my characters, especially my main character, reacting? If something sad or great or frightening happens, she should show she feels it, through thoughts and physical responses and whatever else is available. In an early draft of Ella Enchanted I neglected to show Ella’s grief when her mother dies. I figured the reader would know, as in, Duh! Of course she’s sad.

Is my main character likeable? (If you want him to be.) I’ve mentioned before that I’ve been having trouble with this. I’ve noticed that I have a tendency, if a disaster befalls another character, to have my main think of the consequences for herself before she reacts with empathy, if she ever gets to the empathy stage at all. I think I do this because the consequences for her are what will move the story forward, but, alas, she comes off as a selfish pig!

Is anyone getting lost in a scene? Suppose your main character’s family is having a meal together, breakfast, dinner, late-night snack, whatever. Say you have Dad, an aunt, an older brother, and baby sister in her high chair. Say the reader knows Dad is quiet because he’s preoccupied with something and the baby doesn’t have many words yet. Older brother, main character, and aunt are having a heated discussion about, say, the best way to apologize. Two pages go by without a peep out of Dad and the baby. The reader will forget they’re there and will get a little jolt if they pipe in. If you need them in the scene, make the reader aware of them occasionally. Have the baby drop her spoon. Have Dad get up for a tea refill.

In brief, a few more questions:

Am I overusing words, repeating sentence structures, starting five paragraphs in a row with I?

Is this scene going on too long?

Have I omitted something important?

Can I give a few characters speech mannerisms that will make them recognizable whenever they open their mouths?

This is not an exhaustive list. Think of your own questions as you take up revision.

I love to revise. It’s my favorite part of writing, because getting the story down is over, and now I’m just polishing. So don’t be hard on yourself. Congratulate yourself for the achievement of finishing and have fun.