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.
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
11. START TRUE/DEEP REVISIONS.
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.
DONNA IS THE AUTHOR OF:
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
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
THAT’S A WRAP!
Follow-up #1: TIPS
Follow-up #2: 9 Ways to Tighten Your Story
Prize Announcement: Winner! Winner! Chicken Dinner!