Tag Archives: revision

Wide Open

Credit: Moonlightway | morguefile.com

When I first began attempting to write children’s books, I didn’t know another person in the world who wanted to write anything, let alone know anyone who was publishing in the juvenile field.  I started in complete isolation.

It didn’t matter so much that I didn’t have contacts to let me in on the “tricks of the trade.”  The tricks are highly overrated.  What did matter, though, was that I had great difficulty finding readers who could give me meaningful feedback.  A reader who loves everything in sight is no help at all.  And that’s the way untutored readers tend to react, especially if you are writing for children.  They seem to assume everything, anything is good enough for the young.  Particularly if you write sweet.

One of the joys of a long career is that now I have many people in my life, most of them fellow writers for young people, who know better.  They are solid, experienced critics, and they have the generosity to read my manuscripts when I’m struggling.  Even multiple times.

I can think of few greater gifts.

I have recently finished a picture-book manuscript that I have been working on for many weeks.  Not just the research, which took its own long time, but the writing of it, which took even longer.  And from the beginning I knew that what I was trying to do was challenging and that I didn’t quite have hold of it yet.  So I turned to three writer friends, wide open.

They each responded, carefully, thoughtfully, and their responses were more valuable than I have words to say.  But they rarely agreed about what they wanted from the manuscript.

I took their varying suggestions and sorted them, revised and since I knew I still wasn’t quite there, I asked them each to read once more.  With new responses—and new contradictions to ponder—I revised and asked again. And again.  And again.  I’ve lost track of the number of times I returned to my friends.  I’m sure they have too.  Revisions beyond counting.

To their credit, no one said, “I can’t read this again.  I can no longer see what’s in front of me,” which they could legitimately have done.  They just kept reading and they kept parsing and they kept trying to understand my vision and share theirs.

Eventually, though, I began to realize that because I was adrift myself, I was leaning too heavily.  Not too heavily for friendship to tolerate—bless them, they held firm—but too heavily for my own good.  I was beginning to rely on their minds instead of my own.

I had a student once who did that.  She was young and new to VCFA’s MFA program, and she was so impressed with my critique of her first packet that she began checking in with me every few days with questions, showing me the newly minted work.  I reminded her gently that she needed to think for herself, that she was the authority on her manuscript, not me.  And to think for herself she had to keep the manuscript to herself, at least for a time.

By the last round of critiques on my recalcitrant picture book, two of my readers thought my ending was “perfect.”  The third wanted me to take out the line the others loved.  And I laughed, remembered the student I had sent gently away, and sat for a while with the piece on my own desk, in my own heart.

Then I decided what worked and sent it on its way.

My agent liked the piece, but came back with a question, still about the ending.  I considered his question long and hard, revised again, then sent the piece to another friend, one who had never seen it before.  She, from her fresh perspective, came back with a totally different idea about what the ending needed, and I knew, instantly, that she was right.  Once more I revised and returned the manuscript to my agent, who sent it right on to the editor we both had in mind.

Next, I hope, will be the eye of the one who has the capacity and the desire to midwife this small piece into the world.  When I hear from her . . . once more I will be wide open.


Point of Re-Entry

Two weeks ago I wrote about a picture book I have been working on for months, both researching and writing.

Since it’s not a text that has come easily I have shown it repeatedly to three of my fellow writers as I worked.  They each responded to my multiple requests with thoughtful and candid critiques.  “This is what’s working.  This is what isn’t.”

My friends were not consulting one another and didn’t always agree about what they saw, what they wanted from the piece, but that didn’t matter.  In fact, the places where one loved something that another thought I should take out became easy reentry points for me.  Clearly I had to find my own place to stand in what was, after all, my manuscript.

Finally I felt close enough to completion to show the manuscript to my agent.  But that was the best I could say.  It was close.

While he and I were discussing strategy, a delayed comment came in from one of my critics.  For her, the new ending didn’t work.  If the ending of any piece doesn’t work, the whole thing collapses.  But that is especially true for the delicate construction of a picture book

“Put it on hold,” I told my agent, and I went back to considering the ending.  That it worked for only two out of three readers wasn’t good enough.

I went back to the ending and back to pounding my head against my keyboard . . . or at least that’s what I felt like doing.

And then this morning on a walk with my dog—that’s when I often get my best ideas, when walking my dog—I remembered something I hadn’t thought about for a long time.  When I first began writing, I had no critics to turn to for help.  I had never met an editor, and I knew no other writers either.  I knew no one even interested in writing for children.  So needing some perspective beyond my own too-close one, I turned to Mary, a friend and a longtime teacher.

From time to time, Mary would stop by my house on her way home from school, settle on the couch in my study and read the pages I handed her.  I sat a few feet away, watching, waiting, holding my breath. Mary wasn’t an experienced critic, but she was a thoughtful reader and willing.  She would read and read until suddenly she would look up and said, “I don’t know why exactly, but at this point I’m beginning to itch.”

I would take the manuscript back, look to see where she was, and ponder.  After some time, I began to realize that Mary’s “itch” developed because my story was getting too talky, too teachy.  I soon discovered, too, however, that the problem didn’t begin at the point her discomfort surfaced.  It began earlier and became cumulative.  So instead of fixing the text where she named the problem, I learned to go back to find the place where the problem began and to rework from that point on.

“Ah!” I said to myself on this morning’s dog walk, suddenly remembering Mary and those long-ago reading sessions.  “Maybe it’s not just the ending.  Maybe the problem begins farther back.”

So here I am, ready to revise again, this time examining language that feels so solidly in place as to be untouchable, looking for a point of reentry, the point of reentry where the direction for my ending is set.

Credit: kakisky | morguefile.com

This is where I allow myself a bit of a sigh.  Which is what you’re reading today, a bit of  a sigh.

When I’m through sighing I’ll go back to work.

The Hazard of Too Much, Too Soon

do overEvery writer, no matter how brilliant, needs editing. First she needs her own intense editing process, and then she needs an informed and objective eye to see beyond her own, too-close-in vision.

That statement is so obvious as to hardly be worth saying. There is, however, a more complex question to raise about this editing process. At what point is criticism of any kind, self-criticism or criticism from an outsider, useful?

I was one of the founding faculty and the first Faculty Chair for Vermont College of Fine Art’s MFA program in Writing for Children and Young Adults. Though I’m retired now, I am still passionate about that program. The intense, critical, supportive process generated the most amazing growth I had ever seen in the participating writers’ work. Nonetheless, I was aware every step of the way that MFA programs—writers’ workshops, too, for that matter—come with a built-in hazard. Sometimes writers get too much input too soon.

When I taught at VCFA, I never knew how to get around that too-much too-soon problem. If I let my students submit their manuscripts in packet after packet and handed out nothing more than “good work, keep going,” their energy would probably remain high, but they certainly weren’t getting what they were paying for. They needed my editorial insight, the critical as well as the laudatory. But a question always remained that was sometimes difficult to answer. At what point is it productive for a writer to begin to question a manuscript? How can she edit—or receive edits—as she works without slowing or even stopping her momentum? Obviously, the answer varies from writer to writer and manuscript to manuscript.

I once mentored a writer independently who lost the novel she had brought to me because I kept sending her back to the beginning to try to set a solid foundation. I was right. Her foundation wasn’t solid. But I realize now that getting it that way probably wasn’t what she needed to be doing at that stage. After she had set the novel aside in frustration, I realized that she might have discovered that foundation if she had simply kept writing until she’d discovered what the novel was supposed to be about. I’d mentored her into oblivion.

One of the pieces of advice most often given to developing writers is this: Don’t take out your editor-brain too soon. Start out by throwing the words at the page, galloping through a first draft, ignoring all matters of grammar, spelling, punctuation. Don’t ask any question that will slow you down. Only after you have a rich mishmash of words on the page, should you begin asking questions about your story, deal with matters of punctuation, grammar, spelling, style, allow yourself or anyone else to offer suggestions.

That is, no doubt, good advice for some, especially for writers whose editor voice seems primarily to say, “Stop! You can’t do this! You’re not good enough, smart enough, anything enough to do what you are attempting here.” Then you probably need to blast your way past that voice with a torrent of words. It is not, however, good advice for me. My editor-brain works with me, word by word, paragraph by paragraph, chapter by chapter. I write, go back over what I have written to edit and then move forward. Every time I sit down I go back to revise as a way of building momentum to move on. Because I work with my own editor-brain fully engaged, if I lose my footing along the way, I know it, and then, even in the midst of my first draft, an outside editor is enormously helpful.

Does that mean writing workshops and MFA programs are a bad idea for some? No, I think they are one of the best ideas out there for developing writers. It does mean, though, that receiving criticism, our own or a fellow writer’s or a mentor’s, always requires a balancing act. We have to critique the critique, and that is never more true than when a manuscript is still in a fluid state.

If we’re sharing our work at a workshop or working with a teacher, we need to establish an understanding with ourselves and those outside editors: How much momentum will I lose if I stop to revise now? Am I setting a stronger foundation by going back to revise or merely avoiding writing my way into unknown material?

No one can recognize the problem of too much too soon except we writers ourselves, and that’s true whether the advice comes from our own brain or from another.

First Draft, Second Draft, Third . . .

ripples in a pondI wrote last time about revision, and I’ll return to revision here. It’s one of my favorite topics, because revision is one of my favorite activities.

Yes, of course, the doing over can be frustrating. My first drafts have a way, initially, of seeming . . . well, not perfect—I always assume the need to polish—but pretty darned good. And then there is the discovery, made new each time, that each small change is like dropping a pebble into a pond, that chasing those widening ripples through the entire manuscript can be maddening.

Once I get past defending my first effort, though, or resisting the consequences of change, I love returning to a piece I’m deeply committed to and making it sing. That process—and its result—is one of the most satisfying in all my working life.

The revision of the memoir I’m working on right now, however, has evolved as a rather different process than any I’ve experienced before. The manuscript has truly required a re-vision, a new vision, and a rather different way of working. I like discovering new and different ways to do my work. Challenges keep me fresh.

I wrote the memoir the first time in verse. Using verse wasn’t just an experiment. Doing it that way seemed to give me the permission I needed to approach my own story safely. The quick-in, quick-out that verse provides allowed me to leave out all I didn’t choose to reveal, especially about other people. Eventually I discovered that it allowed me to leave out whatever I didn’t want to touch about myself, too, and that was the problem. I’ve already written here about the choice to start over in prose—April 21st, “The Letting Go,” and May 5th, “And Again!”—so I’ll move on.

I began my careful way through a new draft. I’m inclined to call what I was doing slogging, because sometimes it felt that way, but it was a slog that was taking me where I needed to go. I found a new form that retains some of the verse but rewrites far more into prose, prose that demands I go deep, and the whole evolved into a shape I liked.

Taking what I have already created in verse and reworking it in prose was an interesting and challenging process, though. Sometimes the movement from verse to prose seemed to be working so brilliantly that I found myself thinking, “I should do this every time, write all my manuscripts first in verse to find their essence and then in prose to expand.” Because the individual stories have already been told but in a highly condensed, powerfully felt way, I could relax into the material, explore it for nuance, extend it into worlds I’d leaped over the first time through. My work grew stronger.

Sometimes, though, a topic played out in verse recast as a prose story seemed flat, even tedious. I’d go back to the verse, examine the two versions side by side, and create a third, trying to retain the best of both tellings. And wonder if I was beating a dead horse.

In the midst of this work I spent time on an island with two alumni of the Vermont College of Fine Arts MFA Program in Writing for Children and Young Adults where I used to teach. We were there to plan a north woods writers’ retreat—more about that another time—but as we planned we also exchanged manuscripts.

One of the women pointed out that two of the five sections I had completed still didn’t go deeply enough, and I had already guessed that and was grateful to have the work I knew lay ahead affirmed.

The other, both a writer and a librarian, pointed to a deeper concern. She said she didn’t find enough of a hook, enough reason for the people who came into her library to ask for my story. She talked about the memoirs folks did ask for, again and again. And I knew instantly that she was right. That’s also something I’d known from the beginning, but I’d put my knowing on a shelf, and I’d had no plans for dealing with it. Again, I was grateful, though a bit scared, too.

So I came home and started again at the beginning, seeking to find a way in that would serve both my personal story and the readers I must draw if this manuscript is going to be published.

Third draft. Third and final? I always think this one is going to be final, hope it’s going to be final.

So today once more I sit down to write. Good work. Work that I love to do.

And the love . . . that’s what matters.

When the Fun Begins

playgroundI sold a book yesterday. Well, not yesterday-yesterday. I’m writing this in August, trying to clear uncluttered space for the longer project I’m working on, so I sold the book in my yesterday, not yours.

Not sold-sold, either. No contract. That will be months away. Certainly no advance. More months. But an e-mail to my agent saying the editor “LOVES” what we’ve sent.

And that followed by the remark, “I do have a couple of editorial comments.”

My heart quickened.

Not because I have sold another book. Selling a book pleases me enormously, as it should. A sale doesn’t just mean future income. It means that someone values my work, the first someone living outside my skull to value this particular work. And this sale was an especially happy one because I knew exactly what this publisher was looking for, had tried twice before to produce just that and each time had missed the mark. So I was delighted to be on target this time.

What made my heart quicken, though, wasn’t the sale. It was the promise of “editorial comments.”

Sometimes small pieces such as this one—a baby board book—move from submission to contract to publication without a word being changed. In fact, the manuscript may leave my hands and not reappear again until it’s nearly a book. And that’s fine. I work my manuscripts closely before I show them. Sometimes nothing more is needed. But how pleased I am when an editor out there, someone I usually haven’t even met, LOVES this closely worked manuscript, enters into it, and discovers possibilities I hadn’t seen myself.

That’s when the fun begins.

I’ve said it here before. Revision can be the best part. When I’m writing anything for the first time I have nothing before me except a blank screen and nothing to write out of except the swirl of my own brain. I’ve never been of the writing-is-easy-all-I-have-to-do-is-sit-down-at-the-typewriter-and-open-a-vein school. I enjoy writing. If I didn’t I wouldn’t be doing it, certainly not at this time of life when my days are so precious by being more clearly limited.

But the fun only grows—what does it grow . . . deeper, larger, funner?—when I get to climb back inside what I already love and play there again.

I haven’t worked with this particular editor before, so I don’t know what our process will be like. But from the comments she made on the two pieces she turned down, I know she has a clear vision, and I’m confident my small manuscript will grow stronger in meeting it.

Editors aren’t always right. We all know that. I have just been through an editing process with another picture book in which the editor, while being confident and competent and making many good calls, also asked that I pull back some language in a way that would have diminished the work. The solution? I agreed, agreed, agreed, following his lead to a stronger, cleaner manuscript, and stood my ground on the language I knew would enrich my readers. I don’t know that I convinced him, but he let me have my way.

In forty years of working with editors, though, I have found that most of them are right most of the time. They not only approach my manuscript with insight learned from wide-ranging practice, but they approach it with something I can never have, no matter how hard I work . . . objectivity. They are like vocal coaches who have the clear advantage of standing apart from me to hear my song.

And to have someone else there with me in the playground of my creation, someone who cares as much as I do about the choice of each word, the flow of the language, the intent of the piece . . . well, fun doesn’t get much better than that!

I can hardly wait.