For the word nerds among us, I was wondering if lightbulb/light bulb is one word or two: https://sfwriter.com/2009/02/how-many-dictionaries-does-it-take-to.html#:~:text=The%20American%20Heritage%20English%20Dictionary,one%20word%3A%20%22lightbulb.%22

On December 30, 2019, Writing Ballerina wrote, Do you ever go to write, but find you can’t untangle the jumble in your head that is ideas and things you need to fix and character arcs and subplots and everything else? So then you either can’t write without getting lost and confused or you try to write and get overwhelmed and can’t go on too far because you can’t figure out what’s supposed to happen next?

An exchange followed with Melissa Mead.

Melissa Mead: Oh yes. In fact, I’m doing it now! I may have to backtrack.

Writing Ballerina: I suppose I should tack on to this: what do you do to get past it?

Melissa Mead: I wish I had a consistent solution. Mostly, I keep thinking about it and either writing around it or working on other things until things come together.

I wish I had a consistent solution too.

This is a hard question to answer, because once I get myself out of this kind of mess, a merciful amnesia falls over me, and I don’t remember how I solved it. Sadly, what I do recall is thinking repeatedly that I’d found my way, writing twenty-plus pages and then falling into a ditch.

Also, the medicine for one story may not cure another. Every project presents different challenges.

I’ve never abandoned a book, but twice I’ve written different tales than the one I set out to tell. The books were Stolen Magic and The Two Princesses of Bamarre. For both, I regret never being able to figure my original plots out because they interested me and I’d still like to discover what would have happened. In the end, though, I wrote the book I could write and let go of the one I couldn’t.

I remember with both books that I changed POV more than once. Two Princesses wound up in first person, and Stolen Magic switches among three third-person perspectives. Finding the POV helped, so that can be one strategy, to change POV and see the effect.

In Stolen Magic, I simplified and simplified to find my story. That can be another strategy. We can ask if we’ve taken too much on and complicated our plot with too many twists and turns and subplots. What can we strip away? What’s essential? Greed was at the heart of my original version, and I kept that.

We can ask ourselves lots of questions and answer them:

• What is the central problem of the story? If there is more than one, our lives will be easier if we decide which is paramount.

• Who is our MC?

• Is there more than one MC? How many? Too many? (Not that there’s a magic number. We’re asking this only because things aren’t going well.)

• Are the MCs’ goals related to each other (belong in the same story)?

• Is the time span as compressed as it can be? The plot will tighten if we can compress, and compressing may help us simplify.

• Is this world too complex? Do we have to juggle so many eggs that a few go splat?

We can make a timeline and ponder it. This may help us see what’s going on and what we need to do.

Same for chapters. We can summarize them. As I write, sometimes (often) I forget what went before. Being reminded keeps me on track.

I don’t believe that every character has to have an arc. If a character is beckoning to us, we can answer the call in another story.

Even in a late stage we can write the kind of outline I, mostly a pantser, write, a few paragraphs or a page, the broadest guide to the symphony that is our story, just the major movements.

As for things we need to fix, I think we should leave them unfixed if at all possible until we have a complete first draft, because the task will be easier then. We’ll know everything, and we’ll know what isn’t working and what is. What I do with this, is I note at the very top of my manuscript the things I want to keep in mind when I go through it later.

Let’s roll some fairytales together in these prompts:

• Your MC, a princess, is despised by her stepmother who owns a magic mirror, and she’s going to prick her finger and sleep for a hundred years. Write the story.

• Your MC loves the sultan’s daughter and is in danger from an evil magician posing as his uncle, and his sister is stuck in the castle of a Beast. Write the story.

• For extra credit, smush the two above prompts into one, combining “Snow White,” “Sleeping Beauty,” “Aladdin,” and “Beauty and the Beast.” Turn it into a coherent story, I dare you!

Have fun, and save what your write!

Repainting the Big Picture

This is Raina’s second question after my appeal for questions, written on December 4, 2019: How do you approach fixing big-picture story issues that run throughout the entire book (characterization, worldbuilding, voice, theme, etc. Especially characterization) without rewriting the whole book? To use an analogy, I’ve always thought of plot issues like working on a Lego project (everything is connected, but each scene is more or less a discrete part, and many times fixing the issue is just a matter of rearranging the blocks or adding/subtracting/”remaking” new ones), small scale, line-edits like sanding/finishing a woodworking project (you get up close and fix little things one at a time with relative ease), and big-picture issues like a single (or multiple) wrong thread in a knitting project: one bad yarn runs through the entire thing, connected to everything else, and it’s embedded so deep that it’s impossible to pull out the yarn without unraveling the entire thing. Any tips?

A few of you responded.

Erica: I don’t know. I really hate editing my stories (no idea why), and so when I have big problems like that, I usually just start over.

NerdyNiña: No, but I love your analogies.

future_famous_author: Maybe just read it over one time fixing one specific mistake? If your story is really long, though, I’m not sure how you would go about that.

I, too, am a fan of Raina’s analogies. The knitting analogy is particularly great when it comes to characterization (I’m assuming this is a major character), because character and plot are, so to speak, woven together.

Sometimes the problem is that our character isn’t by nature someone who will follow the track of our plot. When a plot turn has to happen, he’s forced to do things he wouldn’t, often things that unpleasantly go against reader expectations.

Let’s take as an example Prince Charming from Cinderella. He’s our MC. Cinderella is important, but she’s on the sidelines. We need a character who is on board with the idea of three balls that are being held expressly to find him a wife. We want readers to like him. We want to like him ourselves, so we craft a prince who has opinions, friends, challenges, whatever they are–maybe the kingdom is badly governed or he doesn’t get along with the prime minister. When we get to the balls, halfway through our book, he just isn’t cut out to care about them, much less notice Cinderella, no matter how beautiful she is, no matter how interesting and perfect for him she is.

We may have to do a lot of writing to make this work, not only revising him but also our plot. What can we add or subtract from him to make him open to the wife marketplace that the balls really are?

Naturally, we can make a list!

∙ Charming has a warm, loving relationship with his parents, which we have to build. The balls are important to them, so, against his inclinations, he takes them seriously.

∙ We make the ball especially hard for him. He has a stutter, a twitch, a bunion–something physical (another list). He doesn’t care about the ball, but he’s unwilling to fail at anything. We revise to show this quality in our story up to now. We show what happens to him when he fails.

∙ He’s a wonderful friend. Think Darcy’s friendship with Bingley in P&P. We build loyalty into him. Charming’s best friend is making a fool of herself at the ball. He gets involved to save her from years of regret, and Cinderella enters the picture.

∙ More that you can make up.

The strategy here is to look at our plot as well as the one character who’s driving us crazy. We may have to revise both for our story to work.

Often there’s a moment when the character first reveals what he’s like and starts behaving in the way that doesn’t work for our story (though we don’t recognize it at the time). When we find that moment, we can adjust him and move forward from there. Of course, as soon as we change him in that spot, there will be ripple effects. The thing that Charming said that led his friend to an action, he won’t say, so the friend is likely to do something else. And Charming himself will be dancing off in an unfamiliar direction. At that point we look at the new trajectory of our story and see what will have to change and what we can hold onto.

Sometimes what we can hold onto isn’t much. Starting with Ella Enchanted, there have been books that have forced major rewrites on me for one reason or another. I wrote two hundred pages of Ella and had to go back to page twenty and start again from there. In that case I veered down a very long plot cul-de-sac. In Fairest, I couldn’t get the POV right and rewrote it three or four times before I found my way. The Two Princesses of Bamarre was supposed to be “The Twelve Dancing Princesses,” and I had to discover an entirely new story. I still don’t know what I was originally trying to do with Stolen Magic, which I agonized over here on the blog.

On the other hand, some books have seemed to want to be written and have almost written themselves, like the first five of the six “Princess Tales,” and The Lost Kingdom of Bamarre. Others have fallen in a mid range of difficulty.

Regarding other big-picture issues, if the plot is affected in a big way, the changes that we’ll have to make are likely to be big, too. I just finished Part One of my Trojan War fantasy. My MC in the first part is Cassandra, who, according to Greek mythology, is a priestess of the god Apollo, but I don’t know much about what it meant to be a priestess in ancient Greece, based only on short passages in two books on daily life during the period, so I sketched that part in very vaguely, and my writing buddy said that’s inadequate. Through another friend, I connected with an archaeologist who’s working in that region, and she recommended an almost three-hundred-page book on the subject, which I will tackle very soon.

Depending on its contents, I’ll face a dilemma. If reflecting actual history upends my plot, what should I do? I can design a fantasy priestesshood that conforms to my plot and let readers know that what they’re reading isn’t historically accurate, or I can do a lot of rewriting. I think it will depend on two criteria: what I decide will make a better story and what seems more interesting and fun to write (as in the have fun that I end each post with).

If the worldbuilding issue isn’t earthshaking, it will be more in the Lego category. We can search our document for whatever we have to redo, make the change and move on.

But voice and POV are also big-picture issues. They may not change our plot much, but they will change its presentation, the lens through which readers view events. For example, some plot points may rise in significance and others may sink. A significant rewrite will probably be called for.

Writing isn’t for lazy people. If we wanted cushy lives, we would have chosen to be astrophysicists.

Writing also (sigh) encourages humility. And learning. We learn to be better writers our whole lives. That’s a great thing.

Here are three prompts:

∙ I’m thinking of time-travel movies like Peggy Sue Got Married and Back to the Future, when an MC gets transported to a different time. The MC is the same; some aspects of her world and some of the people in it are also the same, but a great deal is different. For this prompt, write a scene that takes place in ordinary 2020 during the sweet-sixteen party of your MC, Doneta. Introduce an element of conflict–a disagreement with a parent, an argument with a friend, a disappointment from a romantic interest, or something else–you decide. The next morning, she wakes up in a different world, and it’s again the day of her sweet-sixteen party. This world may be forty years in the past or future or may be on a planet that circles a bright blue sun. Some characters will be the same, some different. The party tradition will be slightly different–you decide how. Write the party scene in this new world and revise the conflict in some way. If you like, keep writing.

∙ Take the Prince Charming who doesn’t care a pin about the ball. Don’t change him to make him care. Write the first ball and what follows. Introduce Cinderella and her stepfamily. Cinderella is still pretty and a decent person; the stepmother and stepsisters are still horrible, each in her own way. Your story doesn’t have to follow the fairy tale, but it can wind up there if you want it to. Keep writing, and keep Charming center stage.

∙ Choose one of your stories that you’re happy with and deliberately fool with it–but first save the original. Change the personality of your MC or a major character. Rewrite at least the first five pages. If you like what’s going on, continue. At the end, you may have two distinct stories or two variants that you can choose between.

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!

The Red Pencil

On May 26, 2018, Bethany Meyer wrote, What is the best editing process? What steps do you do in what order from beginning to end in the process?

Also, how does one rewrite a part of the story without feeling like you’re not changing anything/the story has gone flat/wanting to pull your hair out?

Christie V Powell wrote back, After I finish the rough draft, I’ll put it aside for a month or two. Then I’ll read it over and make a list of all the scenes. I reorder them into chapters and figure out what scenes are still missing–for my current WIP, I’m using KM Weiland’s story structure to get the big picture–character arcs, theme, and plot–in the right places. Then I go through and get the manuscript to match the new outline. After that I’ll get feedback from beta readers, and go through it several more times, checking for character, dialogue, prose, grammar mistakes, etc. Then I’ll order a physical copy from staples and go over that to see what I missed.

I definitely do feel that I am changing things–but in a good way. The rough draft helped me to discover the themes and overall feel of the story, and then my editing will help me bring to light what I’ve discovered. For instance, I was half-way through the rough draft when I realized that the relationship between two specific characters was going to be a major focus. In editing, I went back and changed the order and added scenes so that this relationship is a bigger part of the story. I figured out that one of the themes is the dangers of extremism verses the importance of communication, so I worked in two different antagonists, each representing opposite extremes.

Wow! Christie V Powell is organized! That sounds like a great approach to revision.

Just saying, Bethany Meyer, my hair is thin to begin with, and I feel lucky to have any left!

But I’m less likely to tear mine out in revision, my favorite part of the process, than in writing my first draft, my least favorite part.

It may be helpful for everyone to think about revision as I do: the hardest work is over; I have an entire story–beginning, middle, and end; all I have to do now is make it better.

I’m such a slow writer that when I finish the first draft of a novel, I’ve pretty much forgotten the beginning, so I have to wait only a few days before I can dive back in. But I agree with Christie V Powell that at least some time has to go by. We need that time to be able to see what’s going on in an objective way, not to feel defensive about every word and every scene that we labored to produce.

The feeling that the story has gone flat may come from not waiting long enough before going back into it. Immediately after finishing we are at our most vulnerable to a doubt attack.

Every writer works differently, and I’m not as organized as Christie V Powell, so I just jump back in, and I tend to do everything at once as I go through: character development, dialogue, setting, grammar, word choice, pacing. For me: pacing, pacing, pacing.

As I’m writing my first draft, I’m often aware of aspects that aren’t working well that I will need to address in revision, so I make a note at the very top of my manuscript. For example, in my WIP, the relationship between my MC and her grandfather is super important, but I don’t think I’ve revealed it enough, and I haven’t developed the grandfather’s personality fully. So I have a note about that at the top of page 1.

Or, to take another example, at the beginning of the WIP, I made my MC a math genius. As I kept writing, I had to conclude that my own grasp of math wasn’t good enough for me to represent hers, and I confess I’m not eager to educate myself sufficiently to keep up with her (along with all the research on fifteenth century Spain). So, there’s another note at the top to tone down the math. I’m worried, though, that I may find that I can’t do without it. If that’s the case, I’ll hit the books.

Some of my notes are about tiny things that will take only a few moments. At one point I need my MC to be wearing, as usual, a lot of jewelry, but I haven’t shown her wearing jewelry at all. I have to drop a mention or two–there’s a note about that.

Also, I note at the top of the manuscripts words I suspect myself of overusing.

So on the happy day, soon after the even happier day when I typed The End, I dive back in. As I go along, I look back occasionally at my list at the top to refresh my memory and make sure I’m catching everything.

But the first thing I do is save my first draft and rename the revision. That way, if I mess up the revision, I still have the original to go back to. This gives me the confidence to move forward. Every time I start a new round of revision, I do the same.

And other things may crop up as well. If they do, I’ll add them to my list at the top, to pick up as I continue, or to fix in my second revision. I’ll also delete notes as I make the repairs.

A first revision is never enough for me. I go through the manuscript one or two or three more times before I send it to my editor, and then, naturally, I revise again and again based on her feedback.

For me it’s a process of both amplifying and cutting. I often find that I’ve glossed over moments that need more, so I go deeper.

In other places, I’ve nattered on endlessly, and then the (virtual) scissors come out. I cut a lot! Always. Usually over a hundred pages, taken in snips from here and there. Sometimes it hurts, and that’s where my Extras document comes in. When I cut something, I copy it into Extras. I know I’ve saved my original draft, but what I’ve just cut may not be in that draft, and anyway I may find it more easily in Extras if I need it, which sometimes (rarely) I do.

I pay a lot of attention in every draft to the minutiae of grammar, sentence structure, word repetition, word choice. Every sentence in a paragraph shouldn’t start with the same word. A string of paragraphs also shouldn’t start with the same word. Sentence after sentence shouldn’t be two clauses connected by and or but. I need to vary my verbs. And so on. Even though this may not seem as important as plot and character, the minutiae determine the kind of read we provide the reader, and we want it to be smooth.

Here are three prompts:

∙ Your MC gets do-overs. When she makes mistakes she can travel back in time and fix them. What could go wrong? Make the fixes go south, causing more fixes in a downward cycle. Write a scene or the whole story.

∙ Jacob Grimm writes the stories and Wilhelm revises them (I’m making this up). But, when it come to “Snow White,” Jacob feels that Wilhelm has murdered his creation. Write the story of their struggle and the way the fairy tale evolves.

∙ Your MC is the daughter in a family that has carried on a feud with another family for six generations. She wants the feud to end and takes on the job of mediator. No one cooperates. Write the story of her efforts to make peace. You decide if she succeeds or fails.

Have fun, and save what you write!

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!


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!