Writers are Revisers
~Guest blog by Janet Costa Bates
I call myself a writer, but I’m not sure why. I should call myself a ‘reviser,’ since, like most writers, I spend much more time revising manuscripts than I do writing the first draft. Writing the first draft is exciting, but the real magic happens during the revision process.
My first step in the revision process is to do absolutely nothing. I figuratively put the manuscript into a drawer and then work on something else. When it’s time to look back at it, I can do so with fresh eyes. Are there plot holes and how can they best be fixed? Are the characters true and consistent? If not, does something happen in the story to drive the change in their behavior? Is there fluff to be cut? Cuts can be as small as individual words or as big as characters, sub-plots, or description. I often pick a random number and make myself cut that number of words from a manuscript. There’s safety in knowing I can put any of the words back in, but I rarely do.
I also go through the manuscript for grammar - NOT my favorite part. After all, my rule for commas is ‘random.’ Although I try to get the manuscript into decent shape, I’ve learned not to obsess too much. I now know there are magical people called copy editors who have much more grammatical talent than I do.
Some revisions are routine and fairly quick. Other revisions are not at all routine, not at all quick, but totally worth it. Let me share a few examples with you.
Years ago, I started a manuscript as a picture book, but eventually realized, not only was it too long, it didn't have the visuals a picture book required. After revising, I tried it as a magazine story. It received some interest from a major children’s magazine but, even though I’m pretty good at accepting editorial suggestions, I couldn’t quite wrap my head around some of the changes they were requesting.
At a retreat, someone suggested it would be better as a middle grade, so I stretched it into a novel. With that story, I got an agent. My agent spent years - yes, years - trying to sell it. The phrase ‘raving rejections’ started to make sense to me. Editors gushed over the characters, expressed their love for the voice, but ultimately, they all said no to the story.
At a Whispering Pines Retreat, I had a critique with Christian Trimmer, then a Simon and Schuster editor. Similar to the others who had rejected the manuscript, he said the story had great characters, great voice, but the plot wasn’t working. He followed that up with ‘but you have a great set-up for a chapter book series.’ My then agent still wanted to try it as a middle grade, but eventually, after a friendly parting of the ways with that agent, I went with Christian’s advice. LLAMAS, IGUANAS, AND MY VERY BEST FRIEND, illustrated by Gladys Jose, is the first in the Rica Baptista chapter book series. It will be released by Candlewick Press on October 25 and is a Junior Library Guild Gold Standard Selection. I’m looking forward to its November 9th launch at An Unlikely Story.
A process that took even longer was a picture book manuscript I started in 1999. I went to my first NESCBWI Conference, met an editor, and submitted the manuscript. She gently turned it down with a helpful note explaining why. That was the first of many rejections it received.
I spent a few more years revising it. Again. And again. More rejections. Finally, I put it in a drawer – for about ten years. (I don’t recommend putting a manuscript in a drawer for ten years, but, well, sometimes life happens and you don’t get a chance to open up that drawer for a while.) Eventually, I took that manuscript out, greatly revised it, and sent it to Andrea Tompa of Candlewick, whom I had met with at a conference. She said yes!
TIME FOR BED, OLD HOUSE, illustrated by AG Ford, was released in 2021 and has received several honors. It was well worth the wait and the revisions. (Side note: That first editor to whom I sent a very early version of TIME FOR BED, OLD HOUSE, was Mary Lee Donovan of Candlewick. As Andrea’s boss, she gave her the nod to acquire it. Publishing is a small world, my friends.)
So, look at your manuscript with fresh eyes. Find the plot holes, strengthen the characters, and cut the fluff. Putting time and effort into your revisions will make the magic happen.
Janet Costa Bates is the author of LLAMAS, IGUANAS, AND MY VERY BEST FRIEND (Candlewick), the first book in the Rica Baptista chapter book series and a Junior Library Guild selection. TIME FOR BED, OLD HOUSE (Candlewick), received four starred reviews, was listed on several 2021 best books lists, and was an NAACP Image Award nominee. SEASIDE DREAM (Lee and Low), received a Lee and Low New Voices Honor Award. Find her at janetcostabates.com or on Twitter/IG @jcostabates.
~ By Amanda Smith
Earlier this month, I found myself again as substitute teacher in the art room, but this time with middle school students. They were in the process of painting an impressionist landscape. What I encountered, though, was hesitancy. They were so afraid that they were going to mess up their pictures by experimenting with this new style, that even after explaining and demonstrating multiple times, most students still opted to mix solid colors on their palettes and apply flat, texture-less paint to their canvasses.
I recognized that anxiety of “messing up a picture.” I felt that many times as an art student myself and have vivid memories of an art teacher dipping my brush in the bright red and yellow paint of my neighbor’s palette and brushing thick globs of primary colors on my super-careful shades-of-blue painting. I was crushed, and furious, and traumatized by the experience for years. But now, I can see that she tried to push me, in the true spirit of the Impressionists, towards experimenting. To stop resisting change. To be brave. To play.
Often, we act like middle school students with our manuscripts. We settle into a specific form or idea and stubbornly hold onto it, despite external input and internal nagging urging us to reexamine.
This year I’m learning to experiment. A picture book manuscript I had been working on since 2013 got rejected after an R&R. This is a manuscript that had already been through multiple revisions in two languages, and had changed tense and point of view more than once. It had been seen by multiple critique partners multiple times. It was a well-worked manuscript.
And yet, it got rejected.
The response from the editor, along with her feedback, prompted me to consider all the comments of all my other readers over all the years – those deeper questions and concerns I had been too afraid to address, even as I had spent years fidgeting with the surface: Almost like my sixteen-year old self faced with a ruined all-blue painting.
So, I opened a new document on my computer and typed the “what-if” sentence that had been lingering in the back of my mind for years. I shook up the entire structure, lost the main character, broadened my scope, and threw all caution to the wind. And it was much better. In fact, I thought I was there.
Ha! Enter critique partners. But, this time around I was much quicker to kill the darlings and embrace the change. Now, six years after I’d first started this story, I can say I have a manuscript in which I truly believe. Yet, I am not so precious about it that I am not willing to shake it up again, should it be required.
Sometimes I get mad at myself for wasting all that time. But, upon reflection, I realize I learned a myriad of things about my story, about the industry, and about myself through this process. The biggest lesson was to stop resisting change. To be brave. To play.
Fast forward to later this year. I was working on a rhyming picture book manuscript, focusing on perfecting the rhythm, putting story first, and finding smart rhymes without forcing them.
Except, every critique partner ever commented with “It’s good, but does it have to be in rhyme?” My initial response was, “You have got to be kidding me? I have sheets and sheets with column upon column of hard and soft syllables. I have clapped rhythms ad infinitum. I have rhymed four-syllable words.”
But wait. What if?
In March my family and I visited the Worcester Art Museum which hosted an exhibit of Claude Monet’s Waterloo Bridge. The exhibit featured nine of the Waterloo Bridge paintings. Monet painted the bridge forty-one times during the winters of 1899 - 1901. He’d line up fifteen canvasses and move between them, literally seeing the bridge in different light, and capturing what he saw. Then he went back to his studio and kept working on those paintings. The painting that now belongs to the Davis Museum at Wellesley College, was still in his studio, likely unfinished, when he passed away in 1926. Forty-one times, about this particular subject, Monet asked “What if?” and decided to be brave and see where it would take him.
My rhyming manuscript is no longer in rhyme. Inspired by Monet, I will keep looking at my work in different light. How about you? Do you have a manuscript that would benefit from a new perspective? Will you dare to ask “what -if?” And be brave? And play?
by Francine Puckly
As the Summer Solstice approaches, my mind is churning with a multitude of thoughts and emotions about growth, new beginnings, and the constructive criticism that can derail or redirect our endeavors. I’m excited about the idea that in ancient times the Summer Solstice was once considered the New Year and was both an opportunity to break out of one’s normal routine and a time of merriment and celebration. In present time, the Solstice is roughly the halfway point of the year. A marking of time. A marking of our goals. And for a few of my colleagues, it’s a marking of delayed projects as a result of rejection or requested revisions by industry professionals and critique partners. How we deal with these requests and setbacks will determine how well we stay on track to meet our goals this year.
A few years ago, my daughter ran for office in a student organization she had been part of for several years. In the days leading up to the election results, she had convinced herself that she had lost the election and mentally prepared for the deep and complete humiliation that would inevitably come when her loss was revealed. The morning the election results were to be announced, I asked her how she was feeling. She shrugged. “You know? I’m gonna be okay.” As it turned out, she didn’t lose the election for that particular officer position. But another classmate lost in a different race. This classmate was not prepared to lose and was ill-equipped to gracefully handle the results. Lifelong friendships ended that day. The student resigned from the organization. What had once been a source of great joy for the student quickly turned to poison. Someone needed to tell her, "You know? It's gonna be okay."
Which brings us to publishing and the art of critique and rejection, dear writers. How many times have we received hurtful, soul-wrenching rejections of our work or unanticipated requests for manuscript changes and were tempted to throw it all away? Or we hear of another artist’s success and fume at the injustice? In some cases, if we can be objective, we can see that the artist’s manuscript or project had more potential than what we had offered. Sometimes the other person’s idea is more unique, more fully developed, more polished. Other times we feel cheated. We can burn bridges and claim the world is out to get us. Or if we’re smart, we learn what to do differently so that next time we can win. Sometimes, for whatever reason, it just isn’t our time.
With all this summering and raining and shining, the growing season is upon us. And all gardeners know that momentous growth springs forth after a significant pruning. And we can respond by pruning words and tightening our manuscripts and possibly even pruning our egos as we realize we have more to learn. At this time of great light and idleness, try to approach your projects with enlightenment and consciousness with respect to what needs to be done to move forward. If you’re reeling from the pain of rejection or harsh criticism, look for ways to celebrate the joys of the creative life. Hone your craft with the help of how-to books while you dig your toes in the freshly mown lawn. Attend workshops and free lectures. Stop by book launches to support your fellow artists and learn how authors and illustrators interact with their audiences. Read blog posts and memoirs written by authors who were “elected” this year and try to figure out how to apply their successes to your own words and journey.
Regardless of the origination of Summer Solstice celebrations, a plethora of fire and sun rituals across ancient cultures celebrated light. And in noting lightness, we will be able to release burdens, doubts, and fears. Oh, and rejection.
Now go. Be happy. Bask and grow in the warmth of the sun.
~by Amanda Smith
Over the last two weeks we have looked at linear and circular story structures, and ways in which we can jazz up these basic structures. In some books, though, structure transcends itself. It becomes more that the skeleton on which the story hangs. Structure becomes meaning.
In these kinds of books, the author adds an extra layer that lies, like some magical being, just beneath the surface of the story. It piques the curiosity in advanced readers to dig deeper. And once it is uncovered, it contributes to a deeper understanding of the text and a more exciting read.
This “form has meaning” internal structure is most evident in novels in verse, such as Solo by Kwame Alexander or The Poet X by Elizabeth Acevedo. The Poet X is written in three parts that distinctly highlights sections of the main character's struggle to find her voice. Xiomara’s way to her voice takes on an internal journey (circular) structure, but each part is titled by a quote from scripture that applies to Xiomara’s experiences, awareness, and growth within that part, thus structure equals meaning. Examples where form echoes meaning are the poems in which she argues with her mother, where the two voices are in two languages, or where her mother argues with biblical quotes that she answers with her poetry, as well as the assignment pieces Xiomara writes for her English class. She writes “What I wanted to say” – her true voice – in poetry. But “What I actually said” is in prose, an symbol of her constricted voice.
Structure as meaning is not exclusively reserved for novels in verse. In Still a Work in Progress, by Jo Knowles, the chapter headings are requests found in the school’s suggestion box. They provide comic relief, shines a light on the setting and characters, and acts as the backbone of the story. Initially the headings are silly and lighthearted, but towards the end of the novel, they become sincere and encouraging, telling their own story of growth and development within the student body, and also highlighting the emotional arc of the main character. Two chapters do not have headings. These chapters take place when the main character is not at school, and therefore wouldn’t have known the suggestions placed in the box. This detailed attention to structure lets the reader know that the headings are not just there, but should be further inspected to find the underlying treasure.
Gary Schmidt builds Wednesday’s Wars around the plays of Shakespeare, and Okay for Now around Audubon’s Book of Birds. Neither one of these topics are at the core of the story, but the plays and the bird images help reveal character growth, add levels of symbolism, and provide a solid structure around which the plot is shaped.
In Okay for Now the metaphor of Audubon’s birds is used as an organizing thematic pattern. Not only does the reader have images of the birds at the beginning of each chapter that create a circle structure beginning and ending with the Arctic Tern, but also the book is saturated with imagery. The author uses the bird imagery in structure and story arc. The main character recognizes the imagery in the bird pictures and keeps drawing metaphors from his study of these paintings. Thus, the reader enjoys layers of metaphors, created both by narrative and structure, which leads to multiple levels of understanding and immense depth of meaning.
Mary’s Monster, Lita Judge’s biography of Mary Shelley, is one of those books where, at first glance, the structure seems like a purely practical choice, but once a reader looks deeper, the structure adds meaning to the content. Using three distinct voices in three different fonts, Judge mirrored the three voices in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein’s Monster. Judge’s book is also presented in nine parts, echoing the nine months it took Shelley to write her novel. At the beginning of each part, Judge uses quotes that is relevant to that section, and her artwork at the end of each of the nine parts acts as a full stop. It is a snapshot of that moment in Shelley’s life, a moment for the reader to take a breath, and an indication that something is about to change. Lita Judge’s novel invites curious readers to investigate, and they will not be disappointed at the layers of meaning and symbolism buried in the structure.
The structure of The Inquisitor’s Tale (Or Three Children and Their Holy Dog) by Adam Gidwitz mirrors medieval texts, such as Canterbury Tales. In this book the structure supports the medieval setting, educates readers about medieval texts, but also provides opportunity for multiple narrators in a way that is accessible to young children.
Meaning in structure is also attainable in picture books. In 2015 Caldecott Medal winner Beekle, author-illustrator Dan Santat uses the whole book’s physical structure to deliver the full message. On the front end-papers the reader sees many children with their imaginary friends. Each child-imaginary friend duo has their thing they do together – their purpose. But Beekle, centered on the right-hand page, stands alone. When we get to the last full-spread of the book, we find Alice and Beekle surrounded by drawings of their adventures. These drawings are images from the book we are holding in our hands. On the back end-papers, Beekle and Alice appear together in the center between all the other children and their imaginary friends, holding the book Beekle. Making this book was their purpose. The structure of the book echoes the meaning of the book that is about the making of this book.
2018 Caldecott winner Wolf in the Snow by Matthew Cordell has a mirroring circular structure. The wolves’ journey mirrors the girl’s. This mirroring reflects the theme that we are the same, and have the same basic needs, regardless our appearance. The story structure is echoed in the circle motif of some of the illustrations.
In Drawn Together, written by Minh Lê and illustrated by Dan Santat, structure contributes to the readers understanding of the relationship between grandfather and grandson. Initially the illustrations are in frames, like a comic book, alluding to the boxed-in, restricted relationship between the two characters.
As they find common ground, the frames disappear and the images are full of detail, color and movement. When the distance between them resurfaces, they are back in the frames, until they use their new tools to break out together in spectacular fashion, revealing the spread with the most movement and color.
As a graphic memoir, Hey Kiddo, by Jarrett J. Krosoczka, has a chronological, linear structure. The art is the simple line drawings we’ve come to love in books like Lunch Lady or Jedi Academy, but the muted color palette communicates to the reader that the subject matter is not light. Each chapter kicks off with a spread that uses Jarrett’s grandmother’s kitchen wallpaper as a background. Collaged on this pineapple wallpaper are mementos from his youth: letters from his mother, invitations, photographs and artwork from his childhood. The juxtaposition between the comic-style drawings and the real-life artifacts is a powerful reminder that what the reader encounters, really happened, and that one can overcome hardship with perseverance, humor and love.
When I encounter books like these, I often wonder about the author’s process. At what point in the writing did structure become meaning? I have had the privilege to ask both Kate Messner and Gary Schmidt this question. For both of them, the focus on meaningful structure happens after the first draft. Gary said that once he has the story on paper, he looks for the recurring themes, or objects, and then delves deep into that to make the most of it. Kate said, “ Mostly, those kinds of threads appear as I’m writing, and then I go back and strengthen them during the revision process.”
As you read mentor texts for research, pay attention to the internal structure. Is it simply a skeleton? Or does the structure contribute to meaning? And as you plot your own work, take some time to consider the backbone of your story, and whether your structure can be purposeful in more than one way. What suits your story best? What can you tease out or build upon to give your WIP an additional layer of meaning for those analytical readers?
In books with a circular structure, the characters find themselves in the same space, whether externally or internally, in the end of the story as in the beginning. Circular structure is satisfying to readers. It offers complete closure and provides opportunity for the reader to compare, contrast, and consider the growth and change that happened within the full circle.
A picture book example of circular structure is The Dot by Peter Reynolds. When Vashti’s own words are spoken back to her, her response drives home her growth. In A Mango Shaped Space by Wendy Mass (MG), the circular structure is evident in the main character’s synesthesia being present, being lost, being regained; the coming and going of cats; and a full-circle moment with her grandfather’s painting. I like to think of circular structure as a book hug. All the story elements are gathered together and complete, leaving the reader feeling fulfilled and loved.
Quest or journey books traditionally have circular structures. Characters are home, they voyage, they return home. Jessie Sima’s charming picture book Love, Z, is an excellent introduction to a quest book, where the main character undergoes both a physical and internal quest. Series such as Beyonders by Brandon Mull and Brotherband by John Flannigan, and stand-alones such as The Emperor’s Ostrich by Julie Berry are examples of MG and YA quest books.
Circular structure comes in many variations, preventing these types of books from becoming predictable.
In Be Kind by Pat Zietlow Miller the circle expands to the universal, but contracts back to the main character in end.
Sometimes the circle is ascending, almost like a loop-de-loop on a roller coaster. The character meets his full circle face on, and shoots past it, in a display of tremendous character growth and victory. After the Fall by Dan Santat and Drawn Together by Minh Lê are examples of this kind of uplifting, feel-good structure.
Mystery or suspense novels have a spiral structure where each clue or fact circles the main character closer to the solution.
A book can also contain multiple smaller circles within a bigger linear or circular structure, where subplots form mini-circles, or the main character has several circle-moments.
Ways to enhance simple structures:
Other structural elements can be added to basic linear and circular structures to provide interest.
Younger readers, and picture book audiences, find comfort in repetition. Repetition gives readers some control over the text, the ability to make informed predictions, and a sense of what is important. Repetition can be bold, like an echoing phrase, a similar pattern repeated, or in dialogue. But it can also be subtle, hidden within the way a series of actions repeat, or within lists that progress in similar fashion, or even within the rhythm of words. All these known elements in different circumstances, are familiar, comfortable places for young readers - places to rest and gather thoughts before the next intense moment.
Before You Sleep by Annie Cronin Romano, walks through the five senses in a linear way (and the illustrations show the four seasons), but the chorus repeating at the end of each sense’s section gives readers and listeners a clue that they are transitioning.
In picture books, repetition can also be present in the illustrations. In But the Bear Came Back by Tammi Sauer, images of and allusions to the bear are present throughout the book, even when the bear is absent.
In longer works repetition can appear in the form of themes, objects, or games, and sometimes a character has a saying or mantra that repeats. Even though the structure in The Seventh Wish (MG) is linear, Messner enhances the structure, and builds tension, with the Serenity Prayer repeatedly appearing in snippets and in full throughout the novel. It acts like a little red flag to readers, saying, “Pay attention!” and contributes to the main character’s development.
Cumulative structure, where the narrative builds upon itself, adds silliness or tension. Classic examples of stories with cumulative structure are There was an Old Lady who Swallowed a Fly or The House that Jack Built, and more current examples are You must Bring a Hat by Simon Phillip, Stuck by Oliver Jeffreys and The Red Sled by Lita Judge. Cause and effect books (If you give a Mouse a Cookie by Laura Numeroff) also fall under this umbrella.
The Epic Adventures of Huggie and Stick (PB) by Drew Daywalt is a parallel journey, told by two narrators with very different points of view, creating two parallel circles. With parallel linear structure, like in Dear Dragon by Josh Funk, the same timeline is followed independently by two characters.
Both the above-mentioned picture books also employ different types of text. Dear Dragon is epistolary, while The Epic Adventures of Huggie and Stick is conveyed through diary entries. Unconventional texts such as letters, sticky notes and emails (Everything, Everything (YA) by Nicola Yoon), text messages, letters, newspaper articles, and poems (Breakout (MG) by Kate Messner), are all ways to jazz up basic linear or circular structures.
Bodies need strong frameworks to function properly. In the same way an author has to construct a story around a solid structure to keep readers anchored. Once the structure is sound, the other elements do not distract, but rather contribute to the structure.
What type of basic structure suits your WIP the best? Once you have settled on a basic structure, can you use one or more of the other elements to add texture?
Be sure to come back next week when we will look at books where structure also denotes meaning.
~ by Amanda Smith
When I taught elementary and middle school science there would always be a place in the school-year where I would ask something like this: What is the function of the skeletal system? What would you look like if you had no bones? Inevitably, there would always be one student who said, “Like a blob.” Just as our skeletal system provides structural support for the entire body, and, along with muscles, enables movement, stories also need bones in order to not be “blobs” of words.
Over the next three weeks we will take a deep delve into story structure. We’ll look at basic story structures, ways to use structure to add interest, and ways in which structure itself can create meaning. In The Magic Words, Cheryl B. Klein states, “Plot is simply the selection of events and structure in which these events unfold to create the desired emotional effects.” My hope is that by the end of this series, we will all have a better understanding of structure, and will give our story skeletons as much thought as we give plot development or character building.
Basic story structures include linear and circular. There are elements that can be incorporated to both these structures to add depth, teach concepts, or reassure readers. As those who write for emerging readers, we should also be aware that internal structure provides “coat hooks” or place markers for students to gather their thoughts and make necessary connections. When our stories have well-built structures, they offer support for young readers to navigate a text.
Let’s take a look at linear structure. Linear structure is the most common internal structure used by story tellers. It is how we teach young writers to write. A story must have a beginning, middle, and end; and as writers mature, we teach them the story arc.
Usually linear structure is connected to a timeline. The passage of time in a story can be brief, like in most picture books. However, a short timeline doesn’t necessarily imply a short text. The action in the middle grade novel Miss Bixby’s Last Day by John David Anderson mostly takes place over the course of one day. Periodic time stamps and other time references help establish the structure. The YA novel Read Between the Lines by Jo Knowles is also set in a single day, with time stamps at the start of each chapter.
The internal structure of Wonder by R.J. Palacio is stretched over the school year. References to holidays and typical school calendar activities provide the skeleton for the story. Books with a linear structure can also be built around specific holidays, sporting events, competitions, or life-events. The autobiographical graphic novel Smile by Reina Telgemeier takes place over many years, yet its linear structure follows the author’s childhood dental injury and recovery.
Sequence of events or lists are also ways to create linear internal structure. In The Seventh Wish by Kate Messner (MG) the title reveals that the reader can expect a series of wishes and consequences. In a novel that deals with heavy subject matter, as well as multiple subplots, the rhythm of the seven wishes creates order. The BFF Bucket List by Dee Romito (MG) is another book where a list is provided early on in the narration. The reader has the expectation that everything on the list will be covered in the novel, and that structure helps the reader make predictions and eases the reader through the story.
Romance novels also typically follow a linear structure. There is the introduction of the main characters and growing friendship, the fall-out, and the happily ever after (or not).
In concept books, linear structure often helps to teach the reader something specific. Alphabet books such as Z is for Moose by Kelly Bingham, number books like There’s a Dinosaur on the Thirteenth Floor by Wade Bradford, days of the week books like The Very Hungry Caterpillar by Eric Carle and season books, like Goodbye Summer, Hello Autumn by Kenard Pak are linear by nature of their subject.
Retellings, fractured fairy tales and nursery rhymes typically have linear structure. As the new story is based on the structure of the old, familiarity with the original texts help readers navigate the new. Interstellar Cinderella by Deborah Underwood (PB) and Well, That Was Awkward by Rachel Vail (MG, based on Cyrano De Bergerac) are examples.
Linear structure is helpful, especially to emerging readers, because it connects text with familiar timelines and provides them road markers as they experience a story. In picture books, linear structure can also help reinforce concepts under the cover of a fun story.
Next week we will look at circular structure as well as ways in which linear and circular structures can be made more interesting. As you read this week, consider the internal structure of your reading material. What provides shape under the surface to help you make sense of the story, characters and emotions?
by Francine Puckly
For years I have been revising and polishing one of my manuscripts in order to get it ready for an agent or editor. It’s been a struggle, a journey sprinkled with pockets of both excitement and disillusionment. I’ve had it critiqued numerous times by my critique group members and various other beta readers. I’ve also paid for 10-page critiques, first page critiques, query critiques, more 10-page critiques and back around again. This past weekend I attended a regional conference and had two more industry professionals weigh in on the manuscript. They were in violent agreement. I continue to miss the mark.
I read over their feedback several times. I had a two-hour “therapy session” with a writing colleague who is familiar with the manuscript. Then just this morning I pulled out two files of notes from past workshops and conferences—one on Beginnings, the other on Character Development. The file on Beginnings was a slap in the face. There, dated four years earlier, was feedback about my opening chapters—almost verbatim to the feedback I received a few days ago. Nothing had changed.
So I either A) hadn’t learned a thing in four years, B) don’t possess the skill to fix it, or C) am locked into what has already been written and can’t break out of the word trap to fix the problems with the novel. I’m going with option C.
I’m fiddling, not fixing. I’m tweaking, not writing fresh new prose. I’m trying to force stale, overworked characters to fit a pre-determined plot instead of creating fresh, fabulous characters and then sending them (and the reader) on an exciting journey that incorporates character, voice, and setting.
So I’m following Lynda Mullaly Hunt’s lead. I deleted all of the drafts of that manuscript from my hard drive. (Confession: I’m not crazy. Unlike Lynda, I do have them saved to an external drive. But the drive is packed away in the deep recesses of my office closet and not easily accessed.)
How do I feel after deleting five years of work? I’m scared to death! I’ve consumed every piece of chocolate in the house and thought about opening a bottle of wine at 8:30 this morning. (I opted for a decaf earl grey latte…) But I also know deep in my bones that this was the right move. I won't go back to those drafts on the external drive.
I have work to do. An editor I greatly respect suggested a list of novels to study on character and beginnings. I will. I am. I will go back to the drawing board on creating, sketching and really getting to know my characters. And only after I complete those tasks will I sit down and rewrite the story. With renewed vigor. With soulful characters. From scratch.
by Annie Cronin Romano
When I finish a book, I usually pop onto Goodreads to jot down a few brief notes and mark the book as "read" on my shelf. I have been using Goodreads for several years. It’s a great tool for saving your “must read” list and tracking and organizing books you’ve already finished (See Kelly’s post: Use Goodreads to Build Your Virtual Library). I usually rate the books I read, primarily for my own reference, and I write brief comments in the “private notes” section to use to when looking for comp titles or mentor texts (i.e., rhyming PB, theme of overcoming fears, etc.).
Until recently, I rarely wrote any reviews. But during the past few weeks, I’ve started writing down more detailed thoughts and observations about the books I’ve read, and some of those have morphed into reviews. In doing this, I discovered something interesting: reviewing a book--writing down the specific reasons why a book appeals to me (or doesn’t)--helps me examine my own writing in a more critically constructive manner. By delving beyond basic notations on style or theme, I often hit on the core of what may or may not be working in my own manuscripts. Simply reading books and making a few quick annotations about style, POV, or theme didn’t give me that same insight. It wasn’t until I started writing down more reflective thoughts on the books themselves that I began to consider how those opinions carried over to my own work and could help me in strengthening my craft.
The comments may include my thoughts on plot development (Is there a strong hook? Sufficient tension? An effective plot twist?), character (Are the characters relatable? Well-developed?), and use of language (Did the writer effectively use language to evoke mood? Was the dialogue effective?). My review may also refer to how I felt after reading the story. Would I want to read it again? Would I recommend it? Why or why not? Writing down specifically what I think a story’s strengths are and what didn’t work for me helps me apply those strategies and techniques to my own writing.
The takeaway? When you finish reading a book, be it a picture book or young adult novel, write a constructive review. You can share it on Goodreads if you'd like or simply write it for your own benefit. Then keep your eyes open for what you can learn from your own observations.
COME PLAY A LITTLE
~ by Amanda Smith
Encore is a yearly event where some speakers from the NESCBWI Spring conference are invited to present their workshops. Two Encore events are offered to provide opportunity for more writers to learn from these excellent teachers. This year’s Encore II was held at Devens on Saturday, October 21. Because of the nature of Encore, the event is not themed, yet, somehow, every year, in the subtext of what the presenters are saying, a theme emerges. This year the common thread was PLAY.
Dana Meachan Rau, author of over 300 books, including Robot, Go Bot! and books in the Who Was? series, presented a workshop about injecting emotion in characters to encourage empathy from readers. She led us through writing exercises where we played around with writing a character’s emotion through a setting or an object. When we play to explore emotions, we connect deeper with our character’s emotion. “First we feel, then they [the readers] feel,” she said.
Molly Burnham, author of the Teddy Mars series and 2016 Sid Fleishman Humor Award winner, talked to us about humor and writing funny. She implored us to play for a minute, to horse around with ideas, to do seemingly silly three-minute writing exercises, like matching different animals with human actions, and finding the funny in it. Sometimes we get so bogged down in the work of it all. The deadlines, the goals, the next chapter. Playing is freeing for the exact reason that it is not a work in progress. And yet, playing accesses a different part of our brains, which sometimes leads to breakthroughs in our current work. She said, “It’s great just to play, we are artists after all.”
Under the direction of sticky-note queen and author AC Gaughen (Scarlet, Lady Thief, and Lion Heart) we played around with character traits. We scribbled pieces of identity on sticky notes. She then urged us to discarding the go-to traits, the comfort zone, and go with the unexpected, which leads to the development of more interesting characters. AC also had us play around with our character’s central traits. Through play we discovered how changing what is central to our character changes the conflict.
Chris Tebbetts, whose books include the Middle School series and Public School Superhero with James Patterson, as well as the Stranded series with Jeff Probst, presented on Improv and Play. He reminded us that “purpose should not be more important than play” and encouraged us to sometimes throw out the rules and just write. Write without thinking, don’t get logical, and see where it leads. “Improv helps limber up one’s creativity.” He also challenged us to sometimes “play with a limited set of tools.” Setting our own rules and staying within those rules help us think outside the box. Play off-screen, with visual techniques such as story-boarding and maps.
Erin Dionne (Models Don’t Eat Chocolate Cookies, Moxie and the Art of Rule Breaking, Ollie and Science of Treasure Hunting and more) rounded the day off with quirky revision techniques. Revision lends itself to play, as not one technique works for every project. The revising writer needs to play around with a variety of hands-on techniques including story-boarding, spiderwebs, grids, calendars and maps, until they find what works for that particular project. “Problem solving is an act of creativity,” she said.
The presenters reminded us that every activity connected to our characters and story is considered work. So even when you are playing, you are still working. Playing is just more fun! We are writing for children after all.
By Annie Cronin Romano
Two weekends ago, I went on a writing retreat with three of the four members of my writing group. It had been 20 months since our last one, and planning this one had been a challenge. From nailing down a weekend when all four of us could go (obviously we didn’t succeed there) to finding an affordable, comfortable place to work distraction-free, there were several obstacles to overcome. But it was important to us, as a group, to do this. Why do this? You ask. Good question.
1. There are no “home life” distractions. No one feels compelled to do the laundry, or clean the bathrooms, or rake the yard. Your kids can’t suddenly ask for a ride to the movies. It’s just you and your writing.
2. There are no (or far fewer) time constraints. You don’t have to stop writing in fifteen minutes to prepare dinner for the family or do the grocery shopping. This unrestricted time can free up your creativity and get the ideas flowing.
3. You’re not alone. There’s a group mentality to help maintain focus. You’re all there together for one purpose. I’m a fairly disciplined person, but even I admit that I would be tempted to lounge around, sleep late, read a book, or surf the web if it was just me on a writing weekend. Sure, I’d write. Just maybe not as intensely as I do with others around me who are focused on their work. Having fellow writers with you creates an accountability you might not have if you’re alone.
4. Even the breaks are productive. When we get up to make tea, grab a snack, or just stretch for a few minutes, we often use that time to bounce ideas off each other. We ask each other questions about plot, word choice, and characterization. When writing alone, that’s not possible. But when you’re with fellow writers, you can tap into each other’s writing strengths and knowledge.
All the members of my writing group write fairly consistently at home. But we recognize that doing this intense write-in retreat really helps us get a significant amount of writing accomplished. A group writing retreat can rejuvenate your writing, whether you use it to brainstorm story ideas, plot a novel, revise a story, or free write to move your creativity into high gear. So round up some writing colleagues and organize a retreat of your own. And let 24 Carrot Writing know how it goes!
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