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!

  1. Very timely post, Mrs. Levine. I'm in the middle of my most intense round of edits yet. Thanks for the advice!
    I have a question for you (and/or anyone else here). I'm rewriting a scene in my novel where my two MC's are in a place that causes them to behave differently than usual, more freely, I guess you could say. They are more honest and open, and they are not ashamed to say things they might not say normally. For instance, they find it easier to resolve a past conflict between them. Problem is, it's hard to know if their words and actions in this scene seem forced. Any advice?

  2. I actually like revising better than the first writing sometimes, because now I know the basic shape of the story and can have fun with it. It's like the story's a lump of clay that now looks sort of like, say, a cat, and I can have fun creating its expression and the tilt of its ears.

    I polish too much. (except for my first sale, because I found out about the market a week before deadline, so I wrote the story, slept on it, fixed the typos and mailed it out just in time.)

    A good writing group can my great at catching the stuff that you "know" in your head, like why your MC ran off into the woods, but that don't come across on paper. They can also encourage you to keep writing when you're in a slump. (The Carpe Libris gals threaten to whap my with my keyboard. :))

  3. Very interesting! It's always encouraging to think that the authors I loved were once unpublished and stumbling along like me.

    Question… how do I submit questions to this blog? I have a question about adaptations.

  4. Excellent blog, but I always say that:) I'm the kind of person who finishes my story and thinks, "What an awful bunch of garbage! I will NEVER be able to revise all of this!" Then, after a couple months, when I come back to it I think, "Wow! I wrote that?" It's amazing what a little bit of time can do!

    • writeforfun, LOL I'm the opposite way! After I finish a writing project at first I'm sure my manuscript is awesome and could compete with Harry Potter, then after a few months I'm convinced that it's so bad that it's an insult to garbage everywhere. XD

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