Question Grab Bag

On February 13, 2020, Samantha Pixley wrote, What do you do when you feel like your story is all over the map? My current WIP is a lot of great ideas that aren’t coming together well – 100 pages in, I’m daunted by the idea that my story isn’t capturing the right feeling that I’m after and I might have to scrap it and start over. I feel almost like I’m losing the essence of my story. Any thoughts on what I should do?

How do you deal with wordiness? I’m 100 pages into my WIP and not even halfway through the plot. Besides this, I keep getting lost in the words instead of letting the story GUIDE the words. I’m floundering in a swamp of words! I’m talking too much and saying nothing!

You said “Curiosity helps me. If I don’t keep writing, I won’t know what I’ll come up with next. If I give up on a story, I won’t find out what it will become. Same for if I stop revising–I won’t discover how it will be after the umpty-ump draft.” Do you ever have the problem where you daydream about your stories instead of writing them and does it help or hinder your story? On that note; as a published, well established author, do you ever find yourself missing the characters or the world of an already completed story and getting the craving to go back and write more? Is that what happened with The Lost Kingdom of Bamarre (one of my favorite books of yours)!

Do you ever go back to a story you wrote a while ago or already published and go “Igth, that isn’t nearly as good as I remembered!”? I do that all the time! I think part of this is because I’m guilty of never really editing that much and so my stories just aren’t that pristine. Another reason might be because I am very much a new writer – I’ve only really been writing for about four years, so I don’t consider myself all that ‘seasoned’ in the process. Is this something that only I do, or do other people go back to their already finished works and say “Igth!”?

Several of you offered help.

Katie W.: I’ve been writing for about the same amount of time as you have, but I can take a shot at your third and fifth questions. First off, I totally daydream about my stories. Sometimes I even sleep-dream about them. (Although, given how nonsensical my dreams are, this doesn’t help as much as you might think.) And what I’ve found is that sometimes it’s helpful and sometimes it’s just annoying. For example, I am totally obsessed with my current MC, and spend a probably ridiculous amount of time figuring out her backstory and random scenes from her life. Sometimes it’s useful, like the sudden realization that her teacher’s motivations made a lot more sense if they were related, and sometimes it’s not, like the fifty bogillion ideas for a scene I might never write. So, I would say there’s nothing wrong with daydreaming, so long as you start writing eventually.

As to the fifth question, I know EXACTLY what you’re talking about. I edit something to within an inch of its life, feel really happy, and come back to it a year later and absolutely loathe it. Two stories have been so utterly unusable that I ended up rewriting them without even a glance at the original. Others I’ve just given up on because I don’t want to go to the time and effort to fix them. The only good thing I can see about this is that at least I recognize that they’re terrible, and the fact that I recognize that is a sign that I have grown as a writer. Or, at any rate, that’s the way I choose to think about it, even if it’s not entirely true.

Melissa Mead: I’ll take a shot at “How do you deal with wordiness?”, and maybe a little “What do you do when you feel like your story is all over the map?” too.

The first place I sold stories to was a magazine with a maximum word limit of 600 words. I’d write stories of about 1,000 words, and then cut, and tighten, and distill, until the story fit. It usually got more intense and focused in the process.

So for your first draft: Go ahead! Write anything that strikes your fancy. Let it ramble all over the place. If a new character or side quest pops up, roll out the welcome wagon.

Once you’ve got a finished draft, put it away for a while, maybe a week, while you do something else. Then go back to it with an editorial X-acto knife in hand.

Re-read the story. If something’s boring, or distracting, or just not right for that story, cut it out. (I keep a “cut file” for books and long stories. That way you can tell yourself that you can always put it back if you really want to.)
Then cut, and polish, and cut, and polish, until your gem shines the way you want it to.

Song4myKing: About daydreaming, I do it all the time. I don’t have a lot of time to actually sit down and write, but I can still think about my stories and write the fun scenes in my head. I often figure out details this way, and get a sense of where I’m going in the story, and get excited about upcoming scenes. Often, there are scenes that I’ve written out in my head many times over. It probably doesn’t work this way for everyone, but I love writing those scenes. It’s almost like finally performing a well-rehearsed play or piece of music. I also daydream a lot about things that I know won’t make it into the story. I don’t see this as a waste; it’s fun and it’s helpful for world building and character background.

Raina: Story all over the map–I’ve struggled with this too, and it’s one of the main reasons why I lose momentum on a project. What’s helped me is to spend some time thinking about and writing down the “heart” of my story. I like to think of this concept as how I would answer “what is your story about?” It can be a theme, a character, a feeling you want to capture, anything. For example: “My story is about an Unchosen girl who chooses herself. My story is about finding adventure even when it’s not handed to you. My story is about the side characters who get left behind, who aren’t special enough to be the Hero but say screw that and make their own story anyways.” Whatever the heart of your story is, write it down and keep it close. Whenever you feel like you’re losing direction, look back to it. Remembering what you first loved about your story, why you’re passionate about it, and what you want it to be is a fantastic motivator to make it a reality on the page.

Daydreaming–I do this a lot too, but I think it’s a GOOD thing as long as it doesn’t take the place of actual writing. Daydreaming is an awesome place to develop new ideas, test new directions, and flesh out your story more. If you want to feel more productive, it can help to write all of that stuff down. An idea for a character, a snippet of dialogue, anything. That’s what I do. Every single story-related idea I have that’s worth remembering/expanding upon, I write down so I’ll have a reference later. (I use an app called Trello, but you can use a notebook, post it notes, anything.) And for me, at least, that stuff really comes in handy later when I’m going to actually write the story.

Looking back at old stories–I sometimes look back at old stories, and a lot of the time the quality is worse than I remember/what I have now. Sometimes I’m surprised, sometimes I’m not. But I see that as a GOOD thing. The fact that I can now see problems means that I’ve learned as a writer. The quality gap between my old work and my new work is how much I’ve improved as a writer since then, and to me, at least, it feels pretty nice to see the difference. I try not to judge my old work; I’ll either leave it be as a memory of my state at the time, or use everything I’ve learned since then to polish it up into something I’m proud of now. Occasionally I’ll even see something that’s actually pretty decent–a line, a turn of phrase–that I’ll feel proud of myself for thinking of at the time.

I love Raina’s idea about finding the heart of our story. Out of sad experience of getting lost more than once, these days I write a lot of notes before I start my manuscript itself–character notes, plot notes, fictional world notes. As I’ve said here, I have to know my ending in order to write a book. Not everyone does, but for me, knowing my destination keeps me focused.

We don’t have to do this work at the beginning. A hundred pages in is a great place to stop and look around. It’s certainly not too late. We can ask ourselves Raina’s question about the heart of our story. If we’re really all over the map, we may have a bunch of possible hearts. What an abundance!

We can see what we’ve put in that supports this heart or that one. Which thread seems to dominate? Which one interests us the most? What endings are suggested by the threads? Do some of them interlock so they can be pulled together?

It’s hard to remember this, but there is no rush. My favorite and best writing teacher used to say that a story takes as long to write as it takes.

And, published or not, the only person we have to satisfy is ourself.

Joy, if we love more than one idea, even if they don’t all fit the story as it’s shaping up. The others are fodder for more stories. Save them!

Once we’ve found the thread that interests us the most and seems to have the most possibilities, we can ask Raina’s heart question. We can ask my ending question. As we write, we keep the answers in mind. We can write them on a Post-it and stick them on our laptop. Or more than one Post-it and stick them on the fridge, our mirror, our pillow. If we start meandering, we can ask if we’re going off track or if there’s a connection to our main story road.

As for wordiness, I’m entirely with Melissa Mead. I agree about first-draft freedom and the revision X-acto knife. About the first: We’re word people. If we run on, it’s out of exuberance and love of language. Writing is hard! We don’t want to take the fun out of it!

About the second: I wrote a blog post called “Down With Length, Up With Thrills,” which I posted on August 26th of last year. It may be worth rereading.

I don’t daydream enough about my stories. I love when my mind spontaneously visits what I’m working on when I’m not actually working. The daydreaming is more relaxed than writing the book itself or even than writing notes. It comes from the back of my brain, puttering along, puffing out charming figments that are often useful. The only bad thing is if I forget before I write down the conjuring.

The Lost Kingdom of Bamarre came from long-simmering ideas about “Rapunzel.” I finally saw a way to use the fairy tale and end it in a more satisfying way than I think the original does–by combining it with a fantasy version of Exodus from the Bible. Then I wondered if it could find a home in one of the worlds I’d already created, and Bamarre came to mind.

I don’t have the Igth! experience you describe. Ordinarily, I don’t reread my books, and I don’t suggest rereading old work unless we plan to celebrate our growth, as Katie W. and Raina say they have. Otherwise, we’re just making ourselves unhappy.

Lately, though, I have been reading my books on Facebook. I’m doing it as my bit in offering some respite to people suffering stress from the pandemic and the economic downturn. I hope that the routine can help. I give the same intro and wear my little fairy pendant, and it’s always my same old face and, lately, my disordered hair, plus a chapter or two of an adventure story that may be nostalgic for some and new to others. When I started, I had no idea how many books I’d get through.

So I am rereading. I’m glad to say I like my books. I’ve even been surprised at how moving parts of some of them are. I don’t know if anyone has noticed that a few times I’ve been close to tears or laughter.

On the downside, I’ve noticed some sentences that I’d recast if I were writing them now. I pick up word repetitions that I don’t like. Since I’ve studied poetry, I even spot sound repetition, like unintentional rhymes, that I’m not happy about. Ah, well.

Here are three prompts, all inspired by the movie, The Wizard of Oz:

• The farm Dorothy returns to isn’t the same as the one she left. Maybe a stranger has come to live with Aunt Em and Uncle Henry. Maybe the house now has an attic when it didn’t before. List the possibilities of what may have changed. Think about what could result. Write the first scene of a sequel. If you like, write the whole thing. Consider what could be the heart of the new story and how it might end.

• The wizard leaves Emerald City to be administered by the Scarecrow, assisted by the Tin Man and the Lion. What could go wrong? Write the story.

• On the way back to Kansas, the wizard’s balloon malfunctions and he and Dorothy make an emergency landing. Where? What happens? Write the story.

Have fun, and save what you write!

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!

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!