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: Harold, whom I count as a friend, is the person behind the informative website, The Purple Crayon, 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!

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!