Making My Story Matter: A Second Look at Revision

A few posts ago, I wrote about revisioning my novel, a la Cheryl Klein. Now I’m back at it, with another book – Writing A Book That Makes A Difference by Philip Gerard.

I admit it – I’ve had this book for well over a year and haven’t even cracked it open enough to skim more than a page or two. At first glance, it’s dense – altogether different from Cheryl Klein’s light, but informative transcribed speeches. But on closer inspection, this is a winner. I suppose it’s important to know why I even picked the book back up, after many failed attempts. Last winter, an agent requested a full manuscript read of a YA novel I’m working on. She liked some bits, but overall said the book wasn’t about much. Those are my words (she was very polite) but it got me thinking. I knew the book was about more, but after the teeniest bit of scrutiny, I had to agree with her. But what to do?

I underwent a big revision, after a random and fortuitous email sparked an idea, an idea that raised the stakes in the book. At this point, I knew I wanted the book to *be* something, at least in my eyes. Not just a bittersweet coming of age story (which it still is). I wanted my book to make a difference. Or at least read like it did. So I picked up Gerard’s book.

Yes, I’ve skimmed a bit, but the book isn’t as dense as I’d first thought. And there’ve been lots of great tidbits including:

– Have each character “present different facets [of an issue] in their actions and words”. Gerard is referring to novels affected by didacticism. Using characters in this way helps alleviate preachiness. Though my story isn’t driven directly by an “issue,” this approach has helped me flesh out the sidekicks in such a way that they now (hopefully) aid my protagonist in reflecting on what’s challenging her. Duh, right?

-A quote from John Steinbeck, included in the book: “A chapter should be a perfect cell in the whole book and should almost be able to stand alone. If this is done then the breaks we call chapters are not arbitrary but rather articulations which allow free movement of the story.” Wow. For some reason, this struck me something fierce. Mostly in that I’ve never quite reached that level of revision, and I mean that in the best of ways. Yes, I’ve reworded and rearranged and cut and inserted and and and, but this one quote raised my goals to heavenly heights. Could each chapter in my novel almost stand alone? Not yet.

Perhaps the most striking thing about reading Gerard’s book was realizing how I just hadn’t been ready to approach my novel in this way. I knew the people, but only vaguely. But my last revision helped me get to the place that I was even ready to delve into a book like Gerard’s, a book about meaning, a literary book (egads!). Now that I know why my characters matter (at least in my head), about why they as individuals will each make a specific difference in the story, my mental revision feels like it’s been expanded exponentially. Of course, now I have to actually do the revision.

With a big thank you to Philip Gerard.  His book made a difference.

Cut Away!

I’ve recently had some major aha moments during the revision process of a manuscript I first wrote two years ago. After a round of rejections, including one that gave me the smallest smidgen of feedback, I couldn’t quite figure out what the story needed. I knew the stakes needed to be raised – that the story needed to be about more than just the romance. And while it was hard to hear the agent’s feedback, I think I’d always known that the story was about more. But maybe this awareness was just on some majorly deep, subconscious level. 🙂 In order to move forward with the manuscript, I needed to figure out what that “more” was.

I struggled with this for a while, until I received a mass email from a non-profit group I’ve supported a few times over the years. My mouth fell open. Just like that I’d found my “more”. I knew what the story needed, and my next wave of revisions was off.

Now I’m finding that so much of what had seemed so critical to the first draft of this story – and even to the second and third drafts – really didn’t matter so much in this new revision. Cut. Cut. Cut. I don’t think I would’ve seen these scenes for what they were – superfluous, fat, filler – without this new vision of what the story was really about. It felt so freeing to drop these scenes, which I am still in love with, into my “graveyard” file. Maybe they’ll find life again in another story someday. (On that note, if I end up pulling them out the graveyard someday, does that mean they’ll have to be in a zombie novel? Hope not…)

I’d always heard about people dropping major scenes, really rewriting, but I guess I’d never truly experienced it before. I suppose I’m lucky the trimming was voluntary and self-driven. Without those scenes, the manuscript will come together in a way I expect to be fresh. I’ll let you know.

You never know what will inspire re-visioning or a major trim session. But my wish is that, if you’re stuck, that you find your “more” to help you on your way.


Organizing My Thoughts

Last week, Joanna talked about revision, and how to manage the process with multiple projects in the works. Where do you begin?

I have a new novel outlined, a novel in revision, and several picture books straining to get out of my head. However, this last month of warm weather has taken me away from my writing. For good reasons: swimming, nature walks, bike riding, discovering dinosaurs, and drawing with chalk on the driveway. All of these activities and adventures brought precious moments of laughter, joy, and sweetness. They actively took up the conscious part of my brain, relegating my writing thoughts to the back of the line.

This week school began again. My house is quieter, and my time is freer. So how do I get my writing to again demand its place at the front? It’s hard to know where to begin when you have a head full of different projects in different stages.

Perhaps my son’s LEGO collection can shed some light (bear with me). He has a large collection of pieces, some similar, some specialized. It includes large airplane wings and car frames. There are medium-sized long pieces perfect for creating apartment buildings or shopping centers. There are tiny pieces that make great headlights, and those that sparkle when made into flashlights.

My son prefers to build his own creations, rather than build a kit once and put it on a shelf. He has many ideas in his head, and some days he can’t build fast enough to keep up with all of them.  So with this large diverse collection, how do we keep him organized so that he can build most effectively and efficiently?

We assessed the types and quantities of his pieces, and bought some storage boxes and bins. We spent a Saturday taking his two large bins of pieces and sorting them. And sorting them. And sorting them some more. His collection went from this:

Photo by Katie Cullinan

To this:

Photo by Katie Cullinan

So what does this have to do with my writing? Right now I have many pieces, projects, and writing tasks in the works.  I have outlined a new novel to be written, which means more research along the way. I have a novel in revision, which is in need of reframing and simplifying. I have three newer picture book manuscripts that have been made into dummy books. These need prioritization, and then new query letters readied for agents. In a few months, November will be upon us and I need to decide whether to participate this year in PiBoIdMo (Picture Book Idea Month) or NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month), and then get prepared.

So perhaps the best way to get started is to get organized. My files are organized. My notes are organized. What are not organized are my thoughts. Which item should take priority? Is one more important?

Writing out what I have in the works (above) has at least helped me assess the pieces.  Now on to one project at a time.  My new novel’s characters are screaming the loudest, so I’ll dedicate this upcoming week to them. Maybe I’ll take a break mid-week and send out some query letters.

Hopefully I’ll be writing a post next month about the first draft I’ve completed on my new novel. And then on to the next project.

The challenge (as it is with my son) is to keep all the pieces organized and in their places.  Let’s hope we can meet the challenge. He and I feel so much happier when the pieces of our creative processes are organized.

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.