A couple of days ago, I was digging around in my nightstand drawer looking for some Chapstick. And there, pushed under some other things, scribbled on a notepad were four barely legible lines. I was amazed as I read them. It was my opening! I do not remember ever writing those lines down except to say that it was not anytime recently. I must have done it in the middle of the night or early one morning while still half-asleep, months ago. But somehow those four lines stuck in my subconscious and the rest of the story came to light under the inspiration of PiBoIdMo. Isn’t it oddly serendipitous how a writer’s brain can work? I was quite pleased with this turn of events.
I am learning so much this semester in the Vermont College writing for children program. I’ve been writing with purpose for about ten years now, so I thought I had a little bit of a handle on picture books, but I’ve realized there is so much to learn. So much more.
One of the things that I’ve found most fascinating is revision. Revisions are a part of writing; we all get that. First drafts are one thing. Revisions are another. This is where an author rolls up her sleeves, puts on her editorial hat and starts analyzing her work. She figures out what needs to be improved, shows her work to other writers for feedback, and takes out the machete to cut words and the polish to make her writing shine. Yeah, I “got” all that.
Then I started the Picture Book Intensive semester. I now see revisions not as a “one-stop” reworking attempt where I try to make my work shine in one fell swoop but instead as working my way up a series of steps. Now, each revision feels much more deliberate because I know that sometimes I have to climb up to the next step, in order for me to gain steady ground so I can climb up to the next level (eventually reaching the top).
For example, one particular piece I started with was over 800 words long. My first revision challenge was to cut it by 80%. I did that, feeling quite proud of myself; but then despite its 200-word length, I still had to cut more to eliminate places where I was doing the illustrator’s job (meaning, describing too much). Okay, that was the next draft. Once I had my story down to 100 words, my next revision challenge was to write it in rhyme. Okay, I did that, and quite happily. I’d thought about writing this piece in rhyme before, but I was so lost in my overly narrative language that I didn’t know where to begin. You see, I had to go through all of the other revisions so I could climb to a place where I could see my work in rhyme. Kind of like climbing a cloud-encased mountain until you can break through and more clearly see the view. After I wrote it in rhyme, my next challenge was to improve the format and structure. Which I’ve done. And working on.
My point is, it’s been eye-opening for me to now see revisions more as climbing to the next level, so I can see my work differently, thus allowing me to again take it to another level. Like mountain climbing.
Now, I must give credit where credit is due. My advisor acts as the rope and pitons that keeps me safely secured to the mountain. She has guided me along and given me many challenges to help me work my way through my stories, much like a climber works his way up the face of a granite dome. And my classmates are like my climbing buddies—belaying me, guiding me, letting me know I’m not alone.
It’s seeing the revisions as a series of levels, which must be reached before proceeding to the next that I find so fascinating. Not one fell-swoop, but necessary steps for the climb.
My writing pal, Tina Nichols Coury (of Rushmore Kid fame) recently asked me to share a writing tip for her blog. Wow–hard to do since there are so many bits of advice that any experienced writer could serve up. After weeks of not getting back to her because every time I thought about it my thoughts bubbled over and I couldn’t decide on just one, I finally responded to her this morning. I sent her a tip (I’ll post a link when she sets it up on her blog) but another one came to mind that I wanted to share.
It’s hard to do sometimes–especially when you’re in the groove and excited about working on something. But once you get over that initial “I’m gonna bust if I don’t work on this” phase, set it aside (and out of sight). In a drawer. On top of a cabinet. In the freezer. Whatever works for you.
After a few days (at least one week, preferably two), pull out the manuscript and viola! Fresh eyes and a clear mind will allow you to see your story more objectively. You’ll be able to spot inconsistencies and find places where clarification is needed. You’ll even discover places for improved word choices. And you might even see a spot or two where your once thought-to-be brilliance doesn’t really pan out (trust me, been there-done that!).
So be patient…let it simmer…and work on another story in the meantime.
Balzer & Bray editor Ruta Rimas discussed this at the SCBWI Picture Book Retreat in Santa Barbara last January. She gave us some solid advice from former HarperCollins editorial director Michael Stern. Last year, Michael left HarperCollins Children’s Books to become a literary agent at the Firebrand Agency. With 20+ years in the business to base this one, here are his “Ten Commandments of Children’s Literature.”
1. Thou shalt not talk down to your readers.
2. Thou shalt not sermonize to your readers.
3. Thou shalt not strain to rhyme.
4. Thou shalt not create cutsie names.
5. Thou shalt not waste words.
6. Thou shalt not indulge in self-consciously poetic writing.
7. Thou shalt not be afraid to cut your favorite lines.
8. Thou shalt love language.
9. Thou shalt not send editors and agents first drafts.
10.Thou shalt not obey any rule to the detriment of good writing.
For a detailed look at the above commandments, visit Michael Stern’s blog.
I’m working on a manuscript right now that is getting to the point where I’m losing my objectivity. You know the types—the ones you’ve revised so much that you can recite it word for word in your sleep. I know it needs more work, yet I’m starting to feel stagnant with taking it further. I hate it when this happens. It’s like riding a bike up a hill and you’re almost to the top, but quickly running out of steam. If…I…could…just…pump…my…legs…five…more…times.
What’s a writer to do when this happens? Here is where I dig deep and pull out my “bag o’ tricks” and trick myself into seeing things differently. I know it goes against common sense. If I know I’m trying to fool myself, how can I fool myself? Who knows? Who cares? All that matters is that this works–at least for me. Once I’ve dummied out my story and had it critiqued by my writer’s group until they’re sick of it, I resort to the following.
Pull out the highlighters. I go through my manuscript and highlight the adjectives and adverbs. Once I’m finished, I go back and figure out how I can eliminate them by using stronger nouns and verbs. This not only reduces word count, but it also strengthens the writing.
Pull out the tape recorder. There’s nothing quite listening to your tape-recorded story. The language “glitches” stand out like Mt. Everest. Problems with the flow and your page turns go under the microscope when you listen to them on tape. I’ll find myself saying, “How did I NOT catch that before?” I end up making corrections as I’m recording and when I listen to it play back.
Change locations. Reading my story in another location helps too. Outside works very well, if the weather cooperates. But even moving into another room, or standing while reading the story aloud helps (walking while reading a rhyming story is essential). Reading the story somewhere new somehow helps me to experience my work in a fresh way.
What do all of these things accomplish? They force you to see things in a different light, which gives you the opportunity to improve your work for the ka-zillionth time and move it one more step closer to being ready for publication. All tedious, but all worth it!
Chuck Sambuchino, editor of the Guide to Literary Agents wrote an interesting bit of advice on synopsis writing this week on his blog (scroll down a bit to get to the synopsis part, but do read the other entries too–lots of great info).
I was at a manuscript revision retreat once and before we got started, a new writer privately said to me, “I have no idea how to critique someone’s work. I’m completely new at this. I don’t know what to say!” Well, I’m heading down to another revision retreat in a few days, and this lovely person’s remarks came back to me. Which is why I want to talk about critiquing.
When I attend SCBWI “critiquenics” (what the Los Angeles chapter termed their events in the park where they brought food and did critiques—critiquenics—a cross between a critique and a picnic), we follow what we call the hamburger method (and no, not all critiquing involves food, although it does make some comments go down a little easier).
The hamburger method starts with the bottom bun—saying what we liked about the story, and naming specifics—everything from big picture items like plot, characterization, structure, dialogue, etc. to the little things like specific word choices, scene descriptions, etc.
Next comes the meat—suggestions for improvement. We talk about any specific questions or concerns we might have and offer up revision suggestions. Again, this could be big picture items like above, or specific ones (although if the big picture items are way off, there’s not much point to making small stuff suggestions because they’ll likely get changed in the big picture revisions anyway). This is the material that a writer needs to focus on to improve his work so it’s important, albeit sometimes painful, to hear.
And last comes the top bun (complete with sesame seeds!)—an overall view of the story’s best features. In other words, ending on a positive note by sharing what is working well. This is just as important as the meat of the critique, because a writer needs to know what NOT to change and as well as what to change. For example, the writer did a nice job of creating a likable character. The writer had fabulous scene descriptions that really “put us there.” The plot was intriguing and made us want to read on.
Another critique method I love to use is one I learned from Kathleen Duey when I heard her speak years ago. She said it’s as simple as remembering “B-C-D.” This works great for anyone who has never done critiques. I even use this when I read my unpublished work to students and I want their opinion. Yes, it’s so simple even a kid can do it (not to undermine kids—they’re pretty sharp when it comes to ms critiques).
Okay, B-C-D. It’s an acronym. B stands for Bored. Are there any places in the story where you’re getting bored? If so, then the plot is dragging, the action has slowed or the dialogue is going on too long. Revisions are needed.
C is for Confused. Are there any places that are confusing to you? If so, this means that the writer needs to clarify what he’s written. Maybe he’s assumed a certain knowledge on the part of his audience that isn’t there. Maybe he’s covered things too quickly and not explained what’s happening well enough. Whatever the problem, he needs to re-read with a fresh eye and revise.
And last is D, or Don’t believe it. Are there any parts of the story that you don’t believe or just don’t buy? If your readers won’t believe it, then you’ve lost their trust. This means back to the keyboard. Now, it’s understood that with certain genres (fantasy, sci-fi, amongst others) there will be certain aspects that will be out of the realm of reality, but even with these, the story reality still has to be believable. For example, you can’t have a story about a unicorn that at the end of the story suddenly bites people and sucks their blood (okay, bad example, but you get the idea). Or have a reality-based story about a cat that halfway through the story begins to talk. The writer must lay the groundwork for these things to happen—otherwise, it’s not believable.
Regardless of how long you’ve been writing, you’re still a reader and have reactions to someone’s work. And as far as reading children’s stories, we were all children at one time. So, don’t be afraid to dive into a manuscript and offer up your opinion! You never know what that one little bit of advice or opinion will do for another writer’s work.
Book dummy. Kids laugh when I say this. New writers might think I’m insulting their story. What exactly is a dummy? And where, I wonder, did the flattering term come from? In the publishing world, it’s a manuscript that’s laid out in book form, with one or two pieces of finished art. It’s an important tool for author/illustrators who want to show their story with some of the art. But dummies can help us non-artistic, picture book and easy reader writers as well.
I think dummying out a manuscript is one of the best tools at a writer’s disposal. I frequently dummy out my stories after that initial feeling that it’s finished (usually around the third or fourth draft). Once the story has gelled and I have a strong sense of the plot, I know I need to work even harder on word choice, pacing, flow and finding those defining page turning moments. And that’s where a dummy can help.
How do you make your manuscript a dummy? Don’t send it to school! (ha-ha). Okay, seriously… It’s simple. All you need are eight sheets of blank paper, a stapler, your manuscript, scissors and removable tape (sounds like art class, huh?).
1. Collect the 8 pieces of paper (doesn’t really matter what size, but I use 11 x 14” legal size).
2. Cut them in half (midway down the long side).
3. Staple them together. You know have a mock-up for a 32-page picture book (standard length for most picture books–the exception being 48-page books for older readers).
Now comes the fun part. Take a hard look at your manuscript. Try to envision it in scenes. Remember, a picture book has 13-15 page spreads, so you’ll have to have at least this number of scenes in your story. Okay, back to envisioning… You can either play around with where the scenes fall by marking it with a pencil, or you can start cutting.
On your dummy…
4. The “cover” of your dummy is where the title page of the actual book would go, so cut your title out and tape it there.
5. The next page is where the copyright info and dedication usually go (on the left-hand side of the page spread), so I just note © on that page.
6. Then, depending on how you envision your story beginning, you can begin cutting and taping your manuscript. If you have a short, snappier start, you can start it right there on page 3. If you see it as a scene that requires a full-page spread, then go to page 4-5.
7. Continue cutting and taping, playing with it until you’ve worked it into the full dummy. I guarantee you’ll find spots that scream they need more revision, and others that will fit perfectly. Wordy scenes will stand out, sparse scenes will too. You’ll discover some great page turning places that will carry the suspense and add to the tension.
8. Once you’ve make changes to the dummy, add the changes to your manuscript.
Okay, now here’s the hard part. As much as you now looooove your dummy, DO NOT send it to an editor. This is a learning tool for your eyes only (or your critique group). Editors do not want to see our cut and tape efforts (unless they specifically ask for it). Really. Cross my heart.
After I’ve made the changes to mymanuscript, I put it away for a few days. Then I go back and start over (read, make changes, dummy it out again). I usually end up with 3-5 dummies per story I write.
I hope you find this as useful of a tool as I have. Happy dummying!