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November 2, 2012
[The following is an article from a newsletter by children's writer, Sherryl Clark, author of more than 50 books for children, middle-graders, and teens. Information at the end tells how you can sign up for her newsletter--and get the free Tough Guide pictured on the left.]
THE ART OF REVISION
Writers seem to fall into two categories: those who hate the first draft and love the slow, detailed pleasure of revision, and those who love the rush and excitement of the first draft and hate revision.
Many of us balk at revision. I’ve heard writers vow that their work comes out so well the first time, they never need more than one draft. None of those writers are published, by the way!
If you’re serious about getting your work noticed by editors, the revision stage is where your work will truly reach its full potential. The problem is – how can you approach rewriting so that it becomes constructive, enhancing and problem-solving? It’s part of your craft, so it needs a coherent strategy.
1. You have to read critically – that means read other published work. Books and stories in your genre or form, books outside your genre, any book that might give you a great or bad example of writing. Any book that does a good job of something you struggle with (at the moment, I’m working on deepening character – how to do this with a character who has a very hard outer shell). Read to see how accomplished writers work with words, with character, with plot, with theme. Stop reading just to put yourself to sleep at night and start reading as a writer. Learn from it. If you can’t see what makes a great novel great, you’d better study it some more.
2. Decide on the best way to put distance between you and your writing. That might mean putting your story or novel away for a week, a month, a year, until you can look at it with a critical eye, and not fall in love with your own words again. It might mean reading it out loud to yourself, or onto a tape. It might mean psyching yourself into another mental realm and pretending that the novel wasn’t written by you. Whatever works for you, whatever leads to you being able to cut ruthlessly or see where there are gaps and shallowness.
3. Learn to separate the stages of revision. Understand that there is structural revision (the big picture stuff) and revision on a paragraph by paragraph basis. And then there is line editing, on a word by word basis. That’s where most people trim and tighten. Understand the difference between re-visioning and revision. Re-visioning means re-imagining your novel, seeing it in a new light, seeing other possibilities for it. That’s where distance helps. It’s also where mental space helps – it’s almost a re-dreaming of your story, and that’s not going to happen in half an hour, crammed into the end of the day.
4. Acknowledge to yourself, no matter how hard it might be, that fiddling around the edges and changing a few things here and there is not rewriting. True rewriting is retyping the whole thing from scratch, writing it as a new piece of work. You may refer to the original – some people don’t even do that. [NOTE FROM KRISTI HERE: I am a detailed outliner and planner ahead of time, so this very rarely is necessary in my own revisions. If you don't outline, though, re-doing from scratch is very often needed.]
5. Only give it to a trusted reader or critique partner/group when you are sure you have done everything you possibly can, or are capable of at this point, to make it the best you can. Don’t ask people to critique something that you know you can still work on, or something that is OK for plot but you haven’t done the line editing. Why should they spend their time on your punctuation and grammar? Think about what you want or need from the critique. If you want to know if the voice works, say so. Ditto for plot, character, pacing. Make the best use of your critique person’s time and energy.
6. Take your critiques seriously. Don’t say, “Oh, they weren’t good readers, they just didn’t get what I was trying to do.” If that’s the case, that’s your fault, not theirs. Take heed of all comments, consider them seriously. Some may be of no use to you. Most should at least raise the question of “Did I do that well enough? Why has that comment been made?” Don’t take any critique personally. It’s not about you, it’s about the story.
7. If you have revised and revised and revised, learn to see when enough is enough. Do you want to revise again because you’re too scared to send it out? Or do you really think another revision will help? If you are up to Draft 15, ask yourself what you are doing. Have you really done 15 drafts, or 15 “picking at the edges”? If the story isn’t working after 15 drafts, you need to work out why not. You may have to abandon the story. It has still taught you an immense amount along the way. If you have to, let it go. Don’t hang everything on one manuscript. Write more. That’s what writers do.
8. If you revised a bit, sent it out and have 20 rejections, you have to make a decision. It’s probably not publishable in its present state, but maybe only 100 rejections will convince you – how honest are you being about it? Is it fabulous? Is it a manuscript that sings? Or is it competent? Does it need another big revision? Suck it up. Do it. Or start something new.
Note: If it’s a story that just won’t leave you alone, you probably need to keep working on it. Otherwise it’ll give you nightmares, interrupt your daydreams and intrude on your other writing.
9. How do you know when your revision is finished? Obviously, when it is accepted for publication (but then your editor will want more revisions!). Often you will get to the stage where you know in your heart it is the best you can possibly make it. If you’re still not sure, put it away again for at least a month, then re-read it. How does it make you feel? Are there still bits that niggle at you, however much you try to deny it? Or do you feel totally happy with it?
Revising is a large part of the craft of writing. If you tackle it the same way you tackle learning to write better, you’ll take a huge step towards your publishing dream.
I plan to write an article very soon on the micro-revision techniques I teach in the classroom. Stay tuned!
[Sherryl Clark has been teaching writing for over 20 years, and has published more than 50 books for children, young adults and poetry readers. Her teaching website is at www.ebooks4writers.com where you can sign up for her writers' newsletter.]
October 2, 2012
Many of the writers were told to go ahead and submit their full manuscripts. Joy!
Even more, though, had flaws and mistakes pointed out in their summaries and synopses…things that needed to change before the story would be considered.
The flaws included such fixable things as:
- the manuscript was 20,000 words too short for the genre
- the manuscript was told from an unworkable POV
- the plot sagged instead of rising to a recognizable climax
- the historical setting didn’t sound authentic
Reactions and Responses
What I found most interesting were the writers’ responses to the news that their manuscripts had flaws that needed work.
They included many reactions:
- Some denied that there was any big need for revision. They decided to ignore the editor’s or agent’s comments. Every writer except one was an unpublished writer too, so I’m not sure what they were basing their denial on.
- Some writers admitted that the flaw was there–a few had already guessed it–but they took the news so personally that their self-esteem was flattened. They left the conference depressed–not a good state for revising.
- Some defended their mistake or flaw. One writer who had pitched an idea for a genre that the editor didn’t publish argued that they should! She defended her choice of publisher, claiming that they needed to think outside the box.
Yes, it’s hard to hear that your idea needs a major overhaul to be publishable. None of us enjoys hearing that. What’s the answer? Eric Maisel in Fearless Creating says this:
“What are any of us to do? Abandon the work or complete it, learn from the experience, cry, forgive ourselves, and move on…Now dry your eyes. There’s work to be done.”
Yes, it’s true that editors, agents and publishers can be wrong. We love to hear such stories of rejected manuscripts that went on to publication (with no change) and hit bestseller status–even becoming classics.
However, says Nava Atlas in The Literary Ladies Guide to the Writing Life:
“There are certainly many other instances in which writers refuse to take any constructive criticism and cling to the notion that their freshman efforts are brilliant and beyond reproach. This creates a ‘me versus them’ mindset that’s never constructive.”
What if you’re willing to fix your writing mistakes, but you don’t know how? What if you freeze or block at the revision an agent or editor has requested? These words from award-winning Elizabeth George in Write Away might point the way for you:
“Why do [writers] reach sudden dead ends? Why do they become afflicted by the dread writer’s block? I believe it’s because they … don’t have enough craft in their repertoire. Put another way, they have no toolbox to root through to repair a mistake in the house they’re trying to build.”
You may not have the right tools in your toolbox, but you can get them. (Example: if your problem is the story lacking conflict or a climax, study books on plotting until you figure out the problem.)
How About You?
I’m curious. What do YOU do when you get the “fix this” message about your fiction?
Do you have any tips or special survival strategies for this?
[Be sure to read the great tips in the comments section posted by some much-published writers!]
June 6, 2012
However, let’s not overlook one very critical factor. As one marketing guru said, “Great marketing only makes a bad product fail faster.” Don’t let this happen to you!
I’ve read some good marketing books lately. I’ve tried–like all writers these days–to make the change from publisher advertising to the much more do-it-yourself marketing that is required.
The Cart and the Horse
But remember! Writing (plus studying and practicing to write even better) comes first. That’s your horse, and it is most important. Do NOT lose sight of that fact. Marketing is your cart. It won’t go far with a lame horse. [More about that in a moment.] But while you’re learning to write better, you can begin your own marketing if you want to. There are great resources to help you do that.
Helpful books on the new marketing?
- Michael Hyatt’s Platform: Get Noticed in a Noisy World is full of practical, hands-on tips for building a platform.
- I also enjoyed Self-Promotion for Introverts: the Quiet Guide to Getting Ahead by Nancy Ancowitz.
- Another one is Networking for People Who Hate Networking: A Field Guide for Introverts, the Overwhelmed and the Underconnected by Devora Zack.
Remember from our previous discussion that an introvert gets recharged in solitude and starts to feel drained after being around people too long. It has nothing to do with your social skills. Depending on which study you read, introverts comprise 40-55% of the population.
Put on the Brakes!
With all the concentration these days on building a platform and social networking, it’s easy to overlook one critical factor. It will make you or break you as a writer.
The first 25 pages of Hyatt’s book deals with this issue. It is about creating a compelling product. In our case, that means a book or story or play. As Hyatt says, “There is no sense in wasting your valuable time and resources trying to build a buzz about a ho-hum product…The purpose of marketing is to prime the pump. But if people don’t want to use your product and–more importantly–if they won’t recommend it to their friends, you’re hosed. You can’t spend enough money or be clever enough to overcome a lack of word-of-mouth marketing. It just won’t work.”
To get noticed in today’s over-crowded publishing world, it is rarely okay to just be “good enough.”
Good enough is the kind of writing we do on a tight deadline, writing that we sense isn’t the best we can do, but it’s good enough to meet the requirement. It’s also the kind of writing we do when we get in a hurry to publish. It’s the kind of writing we do when we sense something is “off” somewhere, but we just don’t feel like making the effort to figure out what’s wrong, study and learn how to fix it, and then do one more in-depth revision. We hope no one will notice and we send it off to an agent or publisher because it’s “good enough.”
“Good enough” writing won’t get you very far, and rarely will you be able to break in to publishing and establish a career that way. Hyatt says you have one choice: to produce a “wow” experience for your reader. What’s that?
- Disappointing: the experience did not meet their expectations
- Good: the experience met their expectations
- Wow: the experience exceeded their expectations
The second category–the good category–is what we used to call mid-list authors. They weren’t the J.K. Rowlings of the world, but they had slow, steady sales over a number of years. The mid-list author has largely disappeared from many publishing lists.
That is discouraging to me too, but we need to let that spur us on to better writing instead. If we work hard, study and apply what we learn–and take our time doing it–we can go from being “good enough” writers to excellent writers.
The Bottom Line
Your platform is what generates the necessary word-of-mouth advertising for your book. It gets people talking–and recommending–your book to others. That’s what generates sales. HOWEVER, what people say about your book in all this word-of-mouth advertising has to be good. As Michael Hyatt pointed out, a good platform that creates bad word-of-mouth advertising will just kill a bad or so-so product faster.
So, yes, work on your platform. Choose methods that fit your particular personality. But don’t launch your book too soon–not submitting to an agent or editor, nor self-publishing. Be sure you have a superior book–one that has been rewritten, and critiqued, and rewritten again and again.
You want all that hard work of platform building to pay off in fabulous “you gotta buy this book” word-of-mouth advertising.
November 21, 2011
I’ve had inquiries this month about critique openings after Christmas. I’m now filling time slots in January through March. At the website page you’ll find the particulars (what and how I critique, how long it takes, cost, etc.)
This news comes with a “warning”.
What’s this about crying and throwing things???
It’s in a quote from an author/editor who was talking about being critiqued. (Editors used to have time to do the lengthy critiques I now do for writers–five or six single-spaced pages of overall concerns as well as craft problems and line edits.) Being thoroughly critiqued is hard on everyone–no matter how much you’ve been published! On the other hand, if they’re not thorough, a critique isn’t worth your money.
Curse and Cry Period
Here’s what she said–and take it to heart:
“I tell writers whose work I edit that they should allow themselves a curse-and-cry period. This is after they receive the edited manuscript back from me. You’re never truly prepared for that marked-up manuscript. You’re immediately mad and crushed when you see all the things either that you didn’t do right or that this stupid reader didn’t understand. Criticism always hurts at some level. So let it hurt. Cry and throw things–I do–and then after you’ve vented and can calm down, go back and look at every mark and ask yourself each time if there’s any merit at all to this correction or question.” (Vinita Hampton Wright in The Soul Tells a Story.)
My Goal and Yours
If you have a manuscript that you feel is ready to be critiqued, I’d be glad to hear from you. I just like to forewarn people that I’m thorough. I’m not cruel and I try not to be blunt, and I always first point out the things you do well. But my goal is to help you pull your manuscript up to a more professional level so it can compete well in the marketplace.
One of my happiest times is when I get a package in the mail that turns out to be an autographed book inscribed with “thank you so much for your help in getting this book published…” My most recent gift was a thank-you note and a hardcover copy of Chasing the Nightbird (Peachtree Publishers) by Atlanta author, Krista Russell. I don’t know if she cried or threw things when she got my critique back, but she worked hard to make changes, and it paid off in a beautiful book.
Curse…cry…throw things if you need to. Then take a deep breath, re-vision your story, and get to work! You’ll be glad you did.
August 17, 2011
One oft-repeated bit of writing advice is to read your work aloud when editing. It’s a good idea–up to a point. Beyond that point, you can be hurting your manuscript.
An example of that happened yesterday in my critique group (where we read our manuscripts aloud). Two of us totally misinterpreted a story’s ending until the author read her chapter aloud. Her voice inflection and humorous tone gave the last line in the chapter an entirely different meaning than what we had assumed.
Therein lies the problem.
More Harm Than Good?
Reading your work aloud near the end of your revision process is helpful. It can ensure that your dialogue flows well and sounds like real people speaking. It helps you catch where you’ve used a word twice in the same paragraph or sentence. But for editing’s early stages, reading your manuscript aloud can do more harm than good. Why is this?
According to editor Pat Walsh (78 REASONS why your book may never be published & 14 REASONS why it just might): “Even books with a conversational tone suffer when recitation is used as editing, because the flow needed to sound ‘right’ differs from the flow needed to read ‘right.’”
This editor dealt with a writer who constantly revised using this “read aloud” method, and his work was over-written and full of excess verbiage. He would call and read it aloud over the phone to the editor. One time Pat reversed the process to make a point:
“I read it to him [instead]–in a monotone. I left all feeling, emphasis, and cadence out. He was silent for a moment and then stammered, ‘But it doesn’t sound good when you read it like that.’ I told him that is the way it reads on the page and unless he wanted to follow every person who bought his book home and read it to them himself, he had better get to work on improving his writing.”
On Its Own Two Feet
The written word and the spoken word are related, and reading your work aloud can be beneficial during final stages of editing. But beware of using it early on and throughout the revision process. It can mask weaknesses you need to correct.
Even when you do read it aloud, force yourself to read in a monotone. You will get a much clearer picture of the quality of your writing. The words on the page need to do the work, not your vocal interpretations. As the editor said, you won’t be following your readers home and reading your work aloud to them. It has to stand on its own.
[Hopefully no one will remind this repeat post. Life and health issues have interferred.]
July 30, 2010
Over the weekend, I hope you’ll have time to check out some very helpful and thought-provoking blogs I read this week.
Kick back, relax, and enjoy these gems!
Gems of Wisdom
**Agent Wendy Lawton wrote a series called “Career Killers.” Full of wise advice! One post is on speed writing. Other “career killers” included impatience, playing “around the edges,” sloppiness, and skipping the apprenticeship. If you avoid these mistakes in your career, you’ll be miles ahead of the average writer.
**Are you trying to combine babies with bylines? Try “Writing Between Diapers: Tips for Writer Moms” for some practical tips.
**Is your writing journey out of whack because you have unrealistic expections? See literary agent Rachelle Gardner’s post “Managing Expections.”
**Critique groups are great, but you–the writer–must be your own best–and toughest–editor. See Victoria Strauss on “The Importance of Self-Editing.”
**We’re told to set goals and be specific about what success means to us. Do you have trouble with that? You might find clarity with motivational speaker Craig Harper’s “Goals and Anti-Goals.”
**And finish with Joe Konrath’s pithy statements in “A Writer’s Serenity Prayer.” You may want to print them out and tape them to your computer!
Share a Gem!
What have you read lately–online or off–that you felt was particularly insightful or helpful or thought-provoking? I’d love to have you share a link of your own!