The Beast That Is Revision

Last year, when Katie and I attended the SCBWI NYC Winter Conference, we both attended sessions with Cheryl Klein, an editor with Arthur A. Levine Books (a Scholastic imprint). Ms. Klein guided each session through the steps of re-visioning your manuscript. Afterwards, Katie and I commented that this session was especially helpful because it was so specific — we left armed with a to-do lists of exercises that would help us evaluate our stories, find their essences, and move forward towards making them shine. I came home from New York energized and ready to edit.

To be honest, it’s taken me some time to get to some of Ms. Klein’s list. You know, life happened. I wrote a new manuscript (who needs revision when you’re finding the words for the first time?). My son stopped daycare for the summer (bye-bye writing days). We were on the road for four weeks (why don’t we live in Canada?).

But now I’ve picked up Ms. Klein’s book, and I’m raring to go. Her book, Second Sight: An Editor’s Guide to Writing, Revisions, & Publishing Books for Children and Young Adults, is a collection of talks and reflections. After first skimming the book and now starting it from the beginning, I know there will be some great kernels of advice — some repeats from the conference, and others new.

My favorite tidbit from the first chapter is about emotion. A good book, Klein says, “creates a deliberate emotion.” This, I think, is something that gets developed mostly in revision. Deliberate emotionWhen I’m writing a first draft, I just plow through, to get something workable onto the page. Then, in revision, I can question what emotion I’m striving for, look at each sentence or word (if I’m having a good day) to see if it works.

The biggest challenge for me will be figuring out where to start and how to follow through with her suggestions. With three manuscripts in revision, it can be difficult to give each one enough time before my mind wanders into plot development of another. Yes, that can help keep each story fresh, but sometimes I can let one burn, so to speak, while stirring another.  And at this point, I’m very good at making a beast of a to-do list of plot holes to develop, characters to strengthen, and new chapters to write. It’s finding a methodical way to take down said beast that tricks me.

What about you? Have you found resources for revision that inspire you? How do you keep revision on track and in hand?

You can find more information about Cheryl Klein and her book here.


Stories Revisited

Do you know the Stinky Cheese Man? The Stinky Cheese Man? The Stinky Cheese Man? (okay, that tune really belongs to the Muffin Man, but you get the picture.)

I don’t know how we missed each other over these last ten years, but I recently met the Stinky Cheese Man. He and some of his friends pop by for a visit in The Stinky Cheese Man and Other Fairly Stupid Tales, by Jon Scieszka.

I had previously read some of Jon Scieszka’s Trucktown stories (which honestly, I’m not that fond of), and was pleased to discover this book. On full display here is Mr. Scieszka’s sharp wit and humor. Combined with Lane Smith’s oddball illustrations, there is much to read and look at in this book.

Personally, I would be hard pressed to attempt to retell a well-known fable or fairy tale. One of my critique group partners is working on a retelling of Rumpelstiltskin. I applaud her for taking on this challenge. She is braver than I.

I borrowed The Stinky Cheese Man from the library to read with my son. We both loved it, and have read it nightly. Unfortunately, now it has to go back.

The tales are creative (Cinderumpelstiltskin, the Other Frog Prince, and The Princess and the Bowling Ball for example), and some are so wrapped up in Jack’s attempt at putting together of the book (another interesting feature) that they never really get told (Little Red Running Shorts, Chicken Licken).

What was amazing about this book was that not only did I enjoy reading it repeatedly (and honing my many story voices, I might add), but both my son and I thought it was very funny. Mr. Scieszka uses wit and child humor without being gross or morally questionable. As a bonus, my son now knows the components of a book with certainty, because Jack takes us along as he assembles the book. The fact that the Table of Contents falls on some of the characters helps as well.

In looking at the Scieszka book list on Amazon, I apparently have missed quite a few other books that my son and I might enjoy. We’ll have to try The True Story of the 3 Little Pigs or Squids Will Be Squids.

Do you read Jon Scieszka books? Which are your favorites?

To MFA or not to MFA

How many of you have considered this question?

Graduate school has been circling the depths of my mind for close to thirteen years. Back then, I was trying to decide between studying geology or entomology. What a different ride it would have been had I chosen either of those subjects. But I didn’t, nor did I choose to go to divinity school or get my teaching certificate a few years later. No doubt, any of those paths would have proven exciting, inspiring, and enriching, but it’s water under the bridge now.

After two years of serious writing, graduate school has surfaced again. Should I get an MFA in writing? Specifically, writing for children and young adults?

So I’ve asked myself what I would get out of an MFA, and if I could get those same skills through a less expensive route. Probably the most important aspect of an MFA program – for me anyway – is the mentorship. My critique group (do we need a fancy name?) is an invaluable resource to me, and in no way am I going to let that go. But having a mentor whose sole purpose (among having many other sole purposes!) is to teach me the craft of writing sounds amazing. Reading and analyzing the books I’m already reading to improve my understanding of what makes a good story – yea! And the residencies – ten full days of workshops and readings followed by painfully short nights – well, they sound great, too. At least, they do right now…

Well, as of 10:13 this morning, I officially put my name in. Hence the delay in this post – I spent the better part of this past week writing and rewriting my personal and critical essays. Now they’re off. And of course, now I have to get in.

What’s been your experience with To MFA or Not to MFA? Why or why not? After deciding, yes or no, what’s your opinion now?


The Thrill of Achievement

I am utterly and completely engrossed in the Olympics right now. I was thrilled to discover that I can watch the events live on my computer and iPad during the day. Even though I watch most of the events I am interested in each day, I still try to turn on the coverage in the evening to see the condensed version, just to hear the commentary.

My favorite Olympic sports to watch are swimming, gymnastics, and beach volleyball. When those are done, I will catch track and field.

So given that I watch very little television on a regular basis, what is it about the Olympics that captivates me?

I find success very appealing. In particular, I enjoy watching athletic success. No offense to those who are at the top of their games in the finance, business, or other arenas. Talented people who can push their bodies beyond what we think is possible is amazing to watch.

The Olympics coverage allows us to almost be there with them as they compete. As they win or lose. As they begin their athletic careers, continue them, or conclude them. Perhaps in comparison to “reality TV”, I prefer to see people who are “famous” because they are actually talented. They have taken a gift (mental and physical) and advanced it. Pushed it. Stretched it. Soared with it.

Some athletes are very interesting to follow for their personal stories. I feel invested in their competitions. I cry with them, and celebrate along with them as they reach this high point in their careers. My son was watching swimming with me yesterday, and he commented, “You know they can’t hear you, right, Mom?” I laughed, and told him that I cheered them on hoping it helped them in some little way. Maybe I could contribute something to their achievement, since I gave up any dreams of athletic competition long ago.

We as a nation have followed these athletes, soaking up their stories and feeling connected to them as Americans. I hope the wonderful stories they have shared with us pale in comparison to the parts of the story that they have kept for themselves. The secret dreams. The dashed hopes. The overwhelming desire to try for just one more medal. The thrill of beating their own personal best time. The contentment and satisfaction of being among the top in their field.

Congratulations to all of the Team USA Olympic athletes who are competing in London. I hope your personal stories will give you many happy memories for years to come.