Saturday, November 8, 2008

Reviled Revisions

I guess I'm the exception when it comes to revisions, because I don't like them. When I have completed a story and have handed in my final draft, I have a hard time cutting and rearranging things, because it feels like I'm losing some of the content that I feel is vital to the story. That is not to say of course that I think my writing is perfect, far from it. I have always appreciated the discerning eye of my editor, and I usually happily accept all of his suggestions and make the necessary changes no questions asked. There have been times though, when he has questioned the tone or content of the story, and I have had to firmly stand my ground.

For example, here is one of those situations. The excerpt is from my new book, "How to Ruin Your Life and Other Lessons from the Fourth Grade" and what follows is an exchange between myself and my editor.

Even though I didn’t want to admit it, it was true . . . Katie was faster than me! She had beaten me during gym practice and she had even beaten me the next day at lunch. Though I probably could have beaten her, if Mr. Shepherd’s butt hadn’t got in the way. The whole thing was making me feel terribly sick. So sick, that I didn’t even feel like eating dinner. Instead, I went straight to my room and crawled into my bed. Mom came in to see if I was feeling okay. I told her that I was nervous about the race on Tuesday. She told me that I would do just fine and that her and dad would be proud of me no matter what. Mom is always telling me dumb stuff like that. I bet if I told her the whole world was going to explode she’d still say, “That’s okay P.J., things will be better tomorrow!”

Mom had only been gone a few minutes when Dad came into my room.

“Your mom tells me you’re nervous about the race on Tuesday,” he said. “Do you want to talk about it?”

“Not really!” I said, pulling my blankets up over my head.

“You know it’s normal to be a little nervous. Everyone feels like that from time to time.”

Why does my dad always ask me questions like “Do you want to talk?” or “Do you think I’m made of money?” or “Do I look like I was born yesterday?” and then when I answer him he ignores me, kind of like I never said anything at all. It’s weird.

“You’re not still upset about Katie?”

I didn’t answer him, because I thought it was better to be silent than to lie.

“You apologized didn’t you?”

I closed my eyes.

“P.J!” he snapped.

I looked out from beneath my blankets long enough to shake my head.

“Why didn’t you say you were sorry?” he asked.

“I was going to, but then Katie turned the whole class against me!”

“No one cares whether you win the race or not!” Dad said in his most serious voice. “I don’t know why you won’t believe me. Your mother and I have both told you that. We would be proud of you whether you win a medal or not."

Email from my Editor

Dad's orders to PJ to apologize to Katie (when PJ's parents first
hear of the dustup over the race) are still imperatives - we're telling you
to do this, and did you do what you were told. Are you sure you want to
leave them like this? It makes Dad seem a little hard-nosed.

My Response

I completely understand your feelings about the tone of Dad's response to Katie. I think what I am trying to get across is that PJ is a stubborn young girl. She is head strong and does things without thinking sometimes and her parents are very accustomed to her habits. I based much of PJ's family life on my own as a child. My mother was gentle, while my father just cut to the quick and told you what to do, but not in a harsh way. When I read the exchange between PJ and her father I don't think he comes across as rough. I think he appears realistic. As a parent there have been many times where I have told the children what to do, not asked them or encouraged them to sort it out themselves. If they have done something they know is wrong and are too stubborn to fix it, then there have been times where I have had to be firm with them. I don't think his being firm comes across as being hard-nosed.

That's an example of one of those times where I have had to disagree with my editor, though I must admit it's not too often that I do. Most of the time I take his suggestions and go with them. Who the heck am I to disagree with a man who has won literary awards and his been in the "business" almost as long as I've been alive.

Friday, November 7, 2008

"It's alive!" It's ALIVE!!"

"Er... yes... but it could really use a makeover before you let it out of the lab..."

Ah, the joys of revisions.
And like my fellow Girls, I really do mean that.

Remember back when I described my somewhat chaotic first draft process?

Yeah... see... my so-called first draft is anything but. On some pages, at least. On some pages, it is my forty-first draft. On others, my second or third. For the sake of clarity and ease, I call the completed creature that I hand in to my editor and agent for the very first time my "First Draft". But because I am constantly revising as I write, I don't refer to anything as "Revisions" until I get that puppy back in the mail, all zebra-striped with pencil marks and accompanied by that most marvellous of things, the "Editorial Letter".

Ahhh. My Revisions.

I'm just past that point with book 2 right now. The point in the process when I consider my revisions to truly begin and - oh mighty editrix! - all the heavy lifting has essentially been done for me.

When I sent the thing out, the story was complete. The bones and muscles and connective tissues in place, but I recognized that my creation would perhaps appear a bit... Frankenstinian. A monster with potential, if you will. Lumpy in places, a bit shambling, a few jagged seams showing, bad hair...

Laura and Jessica (editor and agent respectively) are like top-notch plastic surgeons in this case: they come in and do an in-depth consultation with me on where best to nip/tuck/clear-cut/hack/set-fire-to/rebuild-entirely...

Because, at this stage, they can see the entire shape of the creature whereas I am still zooming in on component parts. But once I have their notes, I am able to step back, gauge the body as a whole and get to work. Moulding, shaping, refining what's already there. I love this part. Love it. Love. It's the point where the Mad Scientist becomes the Artiste (sheesh... how far d'you think I can stretch this metaphor?).

The funny thing is that I almost always reconize, when I get to an edit, that I was aware when I was writing the thing that I would be making that edit. ("Right. I knew it was a bad idea to use the brain of an insane criminal...") I just needed someone to point it out.

Now granted, this is really only the second time I've gone through this process with the kind of heavyweight input that I get from Wunderteam L/J, but it sure beats the heck out of doing it by myself!

The end result is far more pleasing to the eye.
And less likely to be chased out of town by a pitchfork-and-torch-weilding mob.

Thursday, November 6, 2008

A Collaborative Process

The first time I ever really thought about revision, I was a sophomore in college. I’d signed up to be a peer tutor at the writing center, and in order to do so, I had to take a semester long class called “Peer Tutoring in Writing.” I thought it would be an easy class, and it got me out of taking the junior year general education writing course. I didn’t necessarily expect to learn anything about myself or my writing, but the truth is, this ended up being one of the most important classes I ever took because it, in essence, taught me how to revise.

It was 10 years ago at this point (Yikes! I feel a little old.), so I can’t tell you everything I learned in the class. But I remember being assigned to write different types of short papers and then spending weeks revising each one. We learned about looking at higher order concerns, such as focus and organization, before lower ones like style and grammar. And everything was about writing being a collaborative process – a phrase that I heard so much over the course of the semester that it may as well have been tattooed on my brain. I can still recall an hour I spent in the professor/writing center director’s office looking at a paper I wrote, where we literally discussed the wording of one paragraph the entire time. I know it sounds tedious, but surprisingly, it wasn’t. It was, in a word, enlightening. I’d never really thought to dissect my own writing in this way before or to discuss it in such detail with another person. I found it fascinating: the idea of envisioning and re-envisioning a piece of writing until it became the best possible piece it could be.

By the end of the semester, the revision switch had completely clicked in my head, and I haven’t been able to turn it off since. I could no longer write an essay or a short story (or a blog post, for that matter!) without later going back to mull over each paragraph, each sentence, each word. It is both a blessing and curse, if you pause to consider the many hours I have spent in the last 10 years obsessing over the way my words sound.

But the biggest way my English 250 knowledge has helped me, has been in my career as a writer. I can’t tell you the number of times I revised The September Sisters. Literally, I can’t, because I revised so many times, that somewhere along the way, I lost track. I revised it several times on my own before I ever sent it to agents. And then several times again after getting rejected by agents. And then again after a friend from graduate school read the manuscript. And then again after my agent offered to represent me. And then again after some editors rejected me. And then again when my eventual editor expressed some interest. (Remember my call story?!)

Admittedly, I got a little sick of the book. At a certain point, I wasn’t sure if I could ever even look at it, much less revise it, again. I joked to my husband (well, half-joked), that I could add a lovely Shakespearian twist and kill off all my characters in the last chapter. But the truth was, even at the height of my frustration I still completely understood that each revision had made the book stronger.

This post comes at an appropriate time for me, because just this week I am finishing up a revision of my second YA novel (which will be out in winter 2010 from HarperCollins). This time around, though, I’ve been lucky enough to have gotten wonderfully sage feedback from both my agent and my editor – something which has made the revision process a whole lot faster, easier, and more enjoyable for me.

A collaborative process indeed!

Tuesday, November 4, 2008

I'm a Revision Geek

Having just gone through an intense revising process on my third book, the concept of “revisions” is hot on my mind these days. And you know what?

I think I, like Tracy, really love revisions!

See, I’m a “pantser” kind of writer. I start off with a general idea (sometimes VERY general—like, this book should be about a girl in high school and she meets some people and does some stuff) of where I’m going when I start to write. And it’s through the actual writing process that I uncover subplots, character quirks and neat plot twists. But, my goal is just to write the damn thing already.

I often chant, “Everything can be fixed in revisions,” while I’m struggling through the first draft. And, my first drafts also include things like, “Find way to make boyfriend laugh in this scene.” Because sometimes my brain is just so fried toward the end that some things are better left for the second stage.

After a celebratory drink or two when my MS is compete, I roll my sleeves up and try to make it sound like an actual book. I do a complete re-read, making notes on a pad of paper about subplots, consistencies and overall big-picture kind of stuff. I also find it really helpful to make a timeline of my book. Just basic bullet points of what happens in each scene.

Next, I start hacking away. The first thing I usually do is move scenes around, tighten up chapters and push as much action as possible into the first few chapters. I rely on my trusty timeline to be my guide. As in, “Hmm…there seems to be quite a lull in action in between bullet points 12-17.”

I also love to use index cards. Again, just another visual representation of the book. I write down each scene and lay them out in chronological order. Then, I place different colored dots for different subplots and plotlines on the cards. I stand up, take two steps back, and can see the holes once again.

So, I tinker some more. Then, I go back and do another complete re-read and fix the smaller stuff, like spelling, grammar and check on details like consistency with eye color and such.

Now, I could continue this post on-and-on, and talk about all of the cool office supply gadgets to assist in revisions, but I fear I’ll be exposing my Revision Geek a little too much. So, I’ll just suggest that everyone head out to their local Office Max, Office Depot and Container Store and see for themselves!

Oh, and try not to jump with glee when you see those whiteboards like, ahem, "someone" once did…

Monday, November 3, 2008

Why I Love Revisions

There are a lot of portions about writing a book that can be scary, overwhelming, and, well--just really, really hard. For me, revisions are not one of those portions, because I love them.

You read that right: I love revisions.

Which might sound a little crazy to some people, but I'm betting there are other writers out there that love them just as much as I do. For me, when I first begin writing, I become so close to the story--to my characters--that I can't really see the big picture. This is when I completely rely on my critique partners to help me narrow in on what is making the story work and what might need some more fine tuning--or heck, even a major overhaul.

And then, I take their opinions with what I know about my characters and my story, and I figure out what works. Even so, I'm still too close to the book at that point to really see it clearly. I go through moments of despair (Oh my God, this book is HORRIBLE, what I have done???), all the way to awe (Wow! I wrote that! I love this!). Normally, though, at this stage I'm in the "I have no idea what I'm writing, what's happening, and how it's all fitting together" mindset.

So I trust my instincts and keep moving forward.

But then the glorious day comes I finish the book. Yay! It's done! I can breathe/eat/sleep/talk again. And then some time passes, and it's time to do revisions.

By this point, enough time has (hopefully) elapsed for me to read my book somewhat clean, so I can see the entire story, i.e. the big picture, I couldn't see when I was writing it. That, along with my editor's suggestions, means I can then do all the things I need to do to make the story really shine. I tend to catch problems I didn't see before, threads that might need strengthening, or a character that at some point I lost sight of.

At any rate, revisions allow me to put the exact right amount of polish to my story, to my characters, at a time when I've gained enough distance to do those changes justice.

And that's why I love revisions!

Sunday, November 2, 2008

Hello All!

Thanks so much for inviting me here to chat with you today. If you’d like to read a bit more about me or my books, you can check out my website at or my blog at leftwriter. Carolyn suggested I write a post about my experiences first getting published as a novelist, so I thought I would tell you about just one part of the journey towards getting a book published.
The toughest thing about writing a book is the writing, of course. That is – until you finish the book. Then, after many drafts and redrafts, polishes and parings, when you finally have a product in your hands that you can be proud of, you find out the truth. The writing, and yes even the editing and re-writing, is the wonderful, creative part – but not the hard part. That part is waiting for you…right now, right around the corner of satisfaction that you turn when the last edit is complete.

Oh, I can hear what you’re saying. How hard can submitting be? Slap together a query letter, drop it into the mailbox and wait for the acceptance. Right?
Uh, sorry. Writing a query letter is hard work, and has to be done right. Wait a minute…I can hear you again! But for someone experienced in writing a whole novel, for Pete’s sake, it should be a piece of cake, right? And once its done, you just sit back and wait for the offers to publish to roll in.
Maybe. Maybe not. There’s a little word that stands in the way. A word that separates the curds from the whey, the wheat from the chaff and the weak of stomach from their breakfasts. And that word is:

Some people pin their rejection letters to the wall. Others turn them into toilet paper. Let me tell you a bit about my own experience with the dreaded word…
It took me a year to write my first book, SEEDS OF TIME. I wrote it mostly after midnight, because my kids were pretty small and it was a peaceful time after they went to bed.

Once I had finished the book, cleaned it up to the best of my ability and started sending it out. After wasting a whole year on sending the actual ms out on exclusives, I got smart and began to send query letters. At that time (and still to this day) I was a member of the CompuServe Writers’ Forum (now called Books & Writers, I believe). This is an on-line forum where writers gather to share info and research work and to commiserate over all the things that we need to whine about.
About that time, a friend of mine on the forum had also finished her story – a romance – and she was looking to find an agent. And so, to make the process less painful, we decided to have a Rejection Queen contest. We agreed to race to 100 rejections – a nice round number that another writer friend of ours claimed she had achieved before publishing.
And so we did. Every time I’d collect my mail and find an envelope addressed in my own handwriting (the dreaded return of the SASE) I would cry a little, and then go on line.

“You are not fit to clean my boots,” I would proclaim to my friend, “because you have a mere 15 rejections, and I have a full 17!”
I have to add that this contest took place in full view of the many hundreds of other forumites, and they all chimed in with words of encouragement and (again) commiseration.
This went on for several months, until one day my friend logged onto the forum, and made a huge show of passing me the scepter and crown, and the assorted accoutrements of office. After some 27 rejections, her story had been picked up by an agent.

There was much jubilation on the forum, and we were all thrilled for her. Over the next couple of days, we had a lot of speculation who would step into her regal shoes, and continue the race with me, because I was only up to 26 rejections or so. We were still hashing this out when…
…my novel was accepted for publication. I’ve never looked back.
Five novels later I have to say that I am so happy I took this route with my on-line (and occasionally in-person buddy). It helped take the horrid sting out of rejection, and let me focus on listening to what the editors and agents said about my work. It allowed me to tighten my manuscript and make a better book, and that’s what eventually sold it.
It’s all a question of getting your story in front of the right eyes at the right time.

I wish you well in your own pursuit of rejection…for it is only those who tread that path all the way through the muck and mire, passed the cliffs of insanity and over the foothills of despair who will find their way to publication.
It’s a trip worth taking.

~kc dyer
blogging as leftwriter