#summersparks DAY 11: Burning Down the House by Donna Earnhardt


Burning Down the House (aka Revision)
By Donna Earnhardt


In 1958, George Plimpton interviewed Ernest Hemingway and asked about his rewriting process. This is part of that interaction:

INTERVIEWER: How much rewriting do you do?


HEMINGWAY:  It depends. I rewrote the ending to Farewell to Arms, the last page of it, thirty-nine times before I was satisfied.


INTERVIEWER: Was there some technical problem there? What was it that had stumped you?


HEMINGWAY: Getting the words right.

— The Art of Fiction No. 21,

Paris Review, Spring 1958, No. 18


It is my opinion that revision can be just as hard as writing the original story. And sometimes, even harder.


The Process

There’s this thing I do that drives my kids batty enough to grow wings and hang upside down in caves.

I don’t make them dissect Hemingway’s work or memorize Shakespeare over the summer. I don’t make them scrub the bathroom floor with a toothbrush or wash their clothes by hand in the creek.

So what is the terrible, horrible, no good thing that I do?

I ask my kids to listen to all manuscript revisions. It’s part of my process. And they usually indulge me. I pay them in chocolate, so it’s a win-win. But does it really help? Yes… and no.

My early process looks something like this:

1. Write part of the manuscript, reworking it as I go.

2. Finally finish it. Then shuffle a few more things around.

3. Read it aloud to my kids.

4. Watch their faces, then have them give feedback

5. Rewrite parts that were not received as they should have been. Rearranging what I can.

6. Reread it to the kids.

7. Note their giggles… and their silence.

8. Feed them chocolate.

9. Promise I won’t read it but a couple more times.

10. Tweak again, then read it aloud one last time


Notice that my true revisions don’t start until after the early revision. And if I’m being honest with myself, my early revision is more like rearrangement.

Rearrangement of my manuscript is the equivalent of moving around my couch, lamp and table in my house. Same stuff, different place. Maybe I get rid of the junk on top of the entertainment center. It feels a lot cleaner. But it’s the same ol’, same ol’.  In my manuscript, (just like in my house), moving stuff around happens all the time. So that can be part of the process of revision. But it is NOT true revision.

My true revisions don’t start until after I’ve already written a rough draft, read it aloud a few times and rearranged some stuff. True revision looks like more like a new couch, newly painted walls and new rugs. (And maybe a few demolished walls!)

Truly, there are days that my revision looks like gutting the whole house. I might salvage the beginning, middle and end. But even those are subject to the recycling pile. I’ve even considered burning the whole thing down and starting from scratch. Unless, of course, I have a perfect first draft.

But let me be honest… that’s never happened.

So while I’m gutting my masterpiece, what are some things that help me work through the process without banging my head against a newly painted wall?

· I ask my critique buddies for honest (and sometimes brutal) critiques. They can see things that I am temporarily blind to. I get a type of “see-sickness”. They help bring my vision back in focus.

· I am willing to hear with my head AND my heart that my story has parts that stink. If my characters are shallow, I need to know. If my plot is weak, I need to strengthen it. If my premise is tired, it’s my job to fix it. I don’t need to waste precious time trying to defend my manuscript. Either it works, or it doesn’t. And if it doesn’t, I need to make it work.

· I read my work backwards. Yes, it sounds weird. But reading the storyline backwards helps me see things that might be out of whack. Reading backwards also helps visualize timeline issues and plot holes.

· If I’m writing a picture book in rhyme, I try to rewrite it in prose. I might end up sticking with the rhyming version, but putting it in prose helps me see where plot issues might be. It also helps me determine if rhyming or non-rhyming is the best vehicle for the story.

· I get rid of characters that don’t move the story along. Even if I love a character, he (or she) might serve only one purpose – such as comedic relief. I can attribute that one characteristic to a more important character, especially if I find out one of my characters is shallow. This could help give that character depth.

· I make sure the beginning, middle and end are solid. If the first page of a book doesn’t grab a reader, the rest of the book might not get the chance to redeem itself. The beginning needs to be unforgettable. The ending needs to make me sad the book is over, but still be satisfying. The middle of the story? It’s like the kitchen. It supplies the reader with the “meat”. Without it, the readers are hungry and angry — hangry. And we know that never ends well.

· I get rid of situations that aren’t appropriate for the story. For instance, in Being Frank, the “carnival scene” was once a school dance. But as my wonderful editor pointed out, this book was aimed at 3-7 year olds. They don’t have to deal with school dances for at least a few more years.

· I make sure my big girl panties are on. This business is tough. We can’t settle for “okay”. We can’t settle for “it’s better than what’s on the bookshelves now”. That is a slippery slope that leads to mediocrity. And mediocrity is not what agents or editors are looking for. I am not suggesting losing your vision in exchange for someone else’s. But we need to be willing to re-vision our story to make the vision come to life.

Some great go-to resources for help with revision:

1. Revision & Self-Editing: Techniques for Transforming Your First Draft Into a Finished Novel by James Scott Bell

2. 9-1-1 help for Revising your Picture book by Cynthea Liu http://www.writingforchildrenandteens.com/revision/revision-9-1-1-for-fiction-picture-books/

3. Second Sight — General Help for all writers of children’s books by Cheryl Klein http://cherylklein.com/second-sight/


One last thing… I ran across an interview that Kelly Barnhill gave on John Brown’s blog. She makes a good point that is worth printing and pasting on our computers…

“That’s the magic of revisions – every cut is necessary, and every cut hurts, but something new always grows.”  — Kelly Barnhill

(for more of her interview, check it out here: http://johndbrown.com/2011/02/interview-with-author-kelly-barnhill/)


p.s. And if you’re wondering, I read this post aloud to my oldest kiddo. She’s now demanding chocolate.


Bio: Donna Earnhardt is the author of Being Frank, illustrated by Andrea Castellani (Flashlight press, 2012). When Donna isn’t homeschooling her three children, chauffeuring them from place to place, or battling the laundry, she’s writing children’s stories, poetry, songs, and mysteries. You might find her fishing the Pee Dee River, hiking in the mountains with her family (while simultaneously keeping an eye out for Bigfoot) or visiting her hometown of Cordova, NC. She lives in Concord, NC, and Being Frank is her first picture book.


Twitter: @Donna_Earnhardt

Writing Prompt:
Hi everyone. Tracey here.
One writing exercise I like to do is called scenes from the hat. I gather different characters in one pile, different problems in another one, and setting in a third pile. Place your character pile into a hat, swish around, and pull one. Remove the pile and do the same with the problem and setting piles. Now look at your character, his or her problem, and their setting… Now GO!


Heir to thorn
Broken ?



Missed a SUMMER SPARK? Don’t worry, you can find them here:

Day 1: In Celebration of Summer Magic  by Kelly Milner Halls
Day 2:  The Power of Doodling  by Alison K. Hertz
Day 3: Cause & Effect  by Alayne Kay Christian
Day 4: How to be a Marketing Ninja  by Corey Rosen Schwartz
Day 5: A Visual Writing Prompt: Begin at the End  by Julie Gribble
Day 6: The Final Word  by Jodi Moore
Day 7: Inspiration Station  by Susanna Hill
Day 8: Voice and Word Choice in Picture Books by Tara Lazar
Day 9: Platform Building Can You Build It? Yes, You Can!  by Tracey M. Cox
Day 10: 5 Ways to Hook Your Reader with Your Very First Line  by Kirsti Call
Day 11: Burning Down the House aka Revision by Donna Earnhardt
Day 12: Persistence  by Donna M. McDine
Day 13: Writing Your Way to a Spark  by Kris Dinnison
Day 14: Hope In Your Heart  by Carol Gordon Ekster
BONUS: What Songs Rock Your World?  by Claire Rudolf Murphy
Follow-up #1: TIPS
Follow-up #2: 9 Ways to Tighten Your Story
Prize Announcement: Winner! Winner! Chicken Dinner!

45 thoughts on “#summersparks DAY 11: Burning Down the House by Donna Earnhardt

  1. I well and truly struggle with revisions so this post was particularly useful for me. Thank you, Donna! Also, thank you for the prompt Tracey! It’s similar to one I do on my school visits in writing workshops. Great stuff!

  2. I write, revising as I go but when I am finished I Need to let it sit for about 3 weeks before going further. When I read it once again, I make more revisions. After having this bit of distance, I see it with different eyes and am able to work on it again. But revision is always hard.

  3. Haha, I used to work with a group of ladies and we used a cup with lunch suggestions on where to go that day. I like the prompt for story ideas.

  4. Great tools here! I’m going to try the reading it backwards today on one of my drafts. Thanks!

  5. Revision IS hard! But this post is fabulous. And your story starter idea is fun too! Instead of writing the stuff out and putting it in a hat, I used my childhood area code to pick the topics – so my chimpunks are at the beach, heirs to the throne. 🙂 Off to see what trouble they get into!

  6. Talk about lighting a fire in the revision wheelhouse. Great post and thanks for the links. I also have a ‘reorganization’ process with my writing. Didn’t know it was called that but recognized right away with the reference to eye rolls and chocolate. Thanks Donna and Tracey.

  7. Hi Donna! Your title got me singing…Talking Heads, isn’t it? I love the visualization of rearranging furniture during revision! I make my kids listen to my revisions, too. (Sometimes they are just so sweet ‘cuz they love mama so much. On those days, I don’t always get the feedback I hoped I would, but then other times they strike gold with their comments! I love the golden days!) Thanks for this post, and the writing prompt is great, Tracey! It’s inspiring me to write a prompt of my own. 🙂

  8. Thanks for the great post, Donna! I can always use a post on revision.

    We love Being Frank at our house (and I just made the super huge decision to homeschool my 3 oldest children 12, 11, and 8 years old… ) I didn’t want to feel overwhelmed with my first year of homeschooling, so my 6 year old is going to first grade and my four year old is staying, well four years old 🙂

  9. Donna: Your many tips and ideas for revising are so helpful. How fantastic that your kids listen to you read your ms revisions. I too, am willing to listen for a dark piece of chocolate or two! Tracey: I created my three piles: character, problem, setting and selected one from each . . . Farmer/Scared/City. Here I go. Time to write. ~Suzy

  10. Pingback: #summersparks DAY 14: Hope In Your Heart by Carol Gordon Ekster | a writers blog by: Tracey M. Cox

  11. Pingback: #summersparks DAY 1: In Celebration of Summer Magic by: Kelly Halls | a writers blog by: Tracey M. Cox

  12. Pingback: #summersparks DAY 2: The Power of Doodling by Alison Hertz | a writers blog by: Tracey M. Cox

  13. Pingback: #summersparks Day 3: Cause and Effect by Alayne Kay Christian | a writers blog by: Tracey M. Cox

  14. Pingback: #summersparks DAY 4: How to be a Marketing Ninja by Corey Rosen Schwartz | a writers blog by: Tracey M. Cox

  15. Pingback: #summersparks DAY 5: A Visual Writing Prompt: Begin at the End by Julie Gribble | a writers blog by: Tracey M. Cox

  16. Pingback: #summersparks DAY 6: The Final Word by Jodi Moore | a writers blog by: Tracey M. Cox

  17. Pingback: #summersparks DAY 7: Inspiration Station by Susanna Hill | a writers blog by: Tracey M. Cox

  18. Pingback: #summersparks. DAY 8: Voice and Word Choice in Picture Books by Tara Lazar | a writers blog by: Tracey M. Cox

  19. Pingback: #summersparks DAY 9: Building a Platform by: Tracey M. Cox | a writers blog by: Tracey M. Cox

  20. Pingback: #summersparks DAY 10: 5 Ways to Hook Your Reader with Your Very First Line by Kirsti Call | a writers blog by: Tracey M. Cox

  21. Pingback: #summersparks 12: Persistence by Donna McDine | a writers blog by: Tracey M. Cox

  22. Pingback: #summersparks DAY 13: Writing Your Way To A Spark by: Kris Dinnison | a writers blog by: Tracey M. Cox

  23. Pingback: #summersparks DAY 15 BONUS POST: What Songs Rock Your World? by Claire Rudolf Murphy | a writers blog by: Tracey M. Cox

  24. Great post, Donna, and thank you for the links. Actually, my problem is that I never know when to stop tinkering with a story. I loved the writing prompt… it’s going to take a bit of thinking on my part as I got Chipmunks/Broken/Moon : )

  25. Pingback: #summersparks and that’s a wrap! | a writers blog by: Tracey M. Cox

  26. Some people say that writing a 500 word picture book is easy peasy…they don’t know about the revisions, now do they?!?!? Great post, Donna.
    Almost caught up, Tracey. (reading posts and jotting exercises)

  27. Pingback: BURNING DOWN THE HOUSE | New York Media Works

  28. Pingback: #summersparks Follow-Up: TIPS | a writers blog by: Tracey M. Cox

  29. Pingback: #summersparks: Winner! Winner! Chicken Dinner | a writers blog by: Tracey M. Cox

  30. Pingback: BURNING DOWN THE HOUSE | My great WordPress blog

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