Teachers Write 7/31/14 – Thursday Quick-Write

Good morning!  We’ve been writing together four weeks now, and maybe you’re looking back at some of your earlier pieces, thinking, “You know…I’d like to work on that some more.” Today’s Thursday Quick-Write is about revision, and it’s courtesy of guest author Kim Norman.

Kim has ten picture books in print, include TEN ON THE SLED, I KNOW A WEE PIGGY, and CROCODADDY.  In addition to writing, she maintains a website listing authors who visit schools, “Author School Visits by State.”

REVVED UP REVISION

As a picture book writer, I have to make every word count. Sometimes it comes down to cutting individual words, one at a time, until the manuscript is as tight as New Year’s Spanx. One way to eliminate extra words is to give my verbs multiple tasks. Choosing strong, specific verbs means I don’t have to prop them up with manuscript-bloating adverbs.

Actually, “choosing” isn’t the right word, because that implies I choose perfect verbs for my first draft. I don’t. Any verb will do in a first draft, as long as I get the story down. But as I begin the revision process, one of the first things I look at is the verbs in my sentences. During school visits, I tell students, “I think of a verb as the engine of the sentence.” Like a powerful engine, a strong verb will take you a lot farther a lot faster. On that first revision, I’m looking for “hot rod” verbs to rev up my story.

To illustrate the power of hot rod verbs, I share a passage of text from Toni Buzzeo’s book, DAWDLE DUCKLING. (Used with Toni’s permission, of course!) The first line of Toni’s passage reads, “Past the marsh with cattails waving.” On the first PowerPoint slide, I offer a slight variation. I have replaced Toni’s hot rod verb with a bland, first-drafty sort of verb: “Past the marsh with cattails growing.” There’s nothing much happening with the word “growing.” And it’s a very poor word to ask an illustrator to show. You cannot SEE a plant growing. On the next slide, I have students choose from a list of alternative verbs: waving, blowing, nodding or whipping. I call on someone to choose one.

Regardless of which verb the student chooses, it’s already a better sentence, because each of those alternative verbs is capable of double-duty. Not only does “whipping” (for instance) add movement to the image–giving your illustrator something more dynamic to show–it also gives us a clue about the WEATHER. By changing ONE WORD we now know more about our setting.

In the second line, (where I have replaced Toni’s hot rod verb “paddles” with the less specific “swims”), students choose from this list of verbs: paddles, floats, glides, drifts or thrashes. If a student chooses “glides,” I ask: “When Mama Duck was ‘swimming,’ did we know how she was FEELING?” Nope. “But if Mama Duck is GLIDING… she’s just GLI-I-I-DING (I’m comically acting this out) how is she feeling?” Students realize that again, by swapping one verb for another, we have now given more information about Mama Duck’s calm state of mine. If “thrashing” was the chosen word, students comment that she is perhaps frightened by an approaching bear.

 So today, I’ll ask you to choose a passage of text from your own work. Take a look at your verbs and see if you can select stronger words capable of double-duty. Do you have a character “walking slowly?” Search for a word that not only allows you to strike out that extraneous adverb “slowly;” see if, instead, you can rev the engine of the sentence to hot rod status by choosing a single verb that tells us your character’s state of mind as he wanders/stomps/rambles. In other sections, tell us more about setting with double-duty verbs in descriptive sentences.

If you need inspiration, think of my husband’s 1970 Chevelle.

 Chevelle

It’s noisy, but man, it’ll get you there FAST. The nice thing about revving up your writing? No worries about speeding tickets!

Note from Kate: If you’d like, share a bit of your revised text in the comments!

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20 Comments

  1. Leigh Zika
    Posted July 31, 2014 at 6:44 am | Permalink

    Great lesson and examples, Kim! Thank you!

    • Posted July 31, 2014 at 7:34 am | Permalink

      Thanks, Leigh! I hope you find it useful!

  2. Posted July 31, 2014 at 7:54 am | Permalink

    Exactly what I needed! And, I took a break from the WIP I’ve been working on to just free write and research….went back to an old/different WIP and sharpened it. I’m pleased with the little work out. Thanks so much.

    Alice May Thatcher
    (Youngest and newest domestic at the Guilder Estate 1934)

    I’m slipping out back
    to the ivy,
    tea steaming
    in my cup to embrace
    July’s breaking before
    today’s rush.

    Mrs. Guilder’s garden brims
    a palette shrugging off dew.
    Iris and Gladiolas
    en pointe in hopes of
    taking the center stage
    of her rosewood table
    late this afternoon.

    Past all the fuss
    down on the flat, brown Hudson
    tiger lilies, Queen Anne’s lace
    and black-eyed susans
    tangle wild against
    the current.
    Unemployed and unpaid
    they carry me home to
    you

    • Posted July 31, 2014 at 11:08 am | Permalink

      Just lovely, Linda! I\’m a sucker for gardening metaphors. And it\’s clear you are a gardener — or an astute observer, at least — since you have so carefully chosen flowers we really do see together along the roadside. (I once critiqued a story that had roses and tulips growing side by side. I suggested the writer might want to read up a little bit on bloom times. Ha!)

      But more on our subject, your verbs are delicious! One thing I didn\’t even get into was making sure our verbs recall our five senses. You\’ve done that, too!

      • Posted July 31, 2014 at 11:09 am | Permalink

        Not sure what’s up with all those funky slash marks. Must be an HTML glitch.

    • Jennifer
      Posted July 31, 2014 at 6:56 pm | Permalink

      I love “a palette shrugging off dew” and “tangle wild against the current.” Your words painted a picture in my mind as I read. Thank you for sharing this work:)

  3. Maureen Johnson
    Posted July 31, 2014 at 7:54 am | Permalink

    Excellent advice! I will pay particular attention to the verbs from now on!

    • Posted July 31, 2014 at 11:10 am | Permalink

      Thanks, Maureen. I’ve had teachers tell me that it makes a first revision so much easier for students, just concentrating on that one thing. Deciding where to start on a revision can make you feel lost in a huge sea. Honing your focus to just the verbs surely makes things a little easier.

  4. Posted July 31, 2014 at 8:01 am | Permalink

    Thank you for this lesson, Kim.
    This gave me a chance to review a scene I haven’t looked at in a while. Here are a couple sentences I revised, which I’m sure still need work:

    Smoke was quickly spreading to this end of the orphanage.

    REVISED: Smoke was rushing to this end of the orphanage.

    Lily took one last look back from where they had come and sobbed.

    REVISED: Lily glanced back from where they had come. —-> (She had already sobbed earlier in the scene, so this was repetitious).

    • Posted July 31, 2014 at 11:12 am | Permalink

      Excellent, Wendy! And I’m tickled that you also noticed a redundancy while you were at it. But also glad that you didn’t WORRY about the redundancy in your first draft. That’s always a big struggle for me — worrying too much about perfection on my first draft. Good for you!

  5. Cindy Melcher
    Posted July 31, 2014 at 8:28 am | Permalink

    LOVE the phrase “like New Year’s Spanx”! 🙂

  6. Brian Rozinsky
    Posted July 31, 2014 at 8:30 am | Permalink

    Thanks for sharing this targeted revision idea, Kim. With my students, we scavenge for forms of the verb ‘to be’ in our initial drafts, then try to weed them out in favor of action verbs. Your lesson offers a productive next step, to up the impact of those action verbs. Plus, I like the fun hot-rod image 🙂 I’m also intrigued by the mini-lesson possibilities of taking mentor texts already full of hot-rod verbs, pulling those proverbial spark plugs and replacing them with duds, then having students discuss the alternatives.

    Today, I took this innocuous sentence from a previous draft: Todd’s friends drink wine or beer around the kitchen island as he begins pulling vegetables from the fridge.

    And replaced both verbs to get: Todd’s friends sip wine or beer around the kitchen island as he selects vegetables from the fridge.

    The end result: cut out one word I didn’t need and added flashes of characterization. Hooray!

    • Posted July 31, 2014 at 12:07 pm | Permalink

      Love your spark plug metaphor, Brian! If your students are young enough, perhaps you could use actual spark plug graphics with the words on them, for kids to select from. I’d let you borrow my husband’s Chevelle as a prop, but it’s kind of large to transport. 😉

      Excellent two-fer edit on your beer passage. (I’m guessin’ it’s not children’s fiction?) Ha!

  7. Posted July 31, 2014 at 10:32 am | Permalink

    What an excellent post! This will do tremendous things for my writing. As a newbie to the writing world, I say thanks for such concrete examples to get me going!!

    • Posted July 31, 2014 at 12:09 pm | Permalink

      I’m with you, Kristi! I appreciate poetic encouragement but when it comes to actual craft, give me nuts and bolts examples.

  8. Posted July 31, 2014 at 11:52 am | Permalink

    This is a great exercise, and fitting for the revisions I am working on this morning. I’d been revising full chunks of my novel draft, but today took a “break” with a form of revision using find/replace. So far I focused on seeking out some overused words (dark, soft, black..) and correcting two characters’ names. Now I’m going to work on the verbs for awhile. One trick for verb revision on a full novel is to run a search for “is,” “were” or “ing”. Word will jump you, one at a time, to each passive verb, and you can consider revision one at a time, then move on. (It’s great warm-up exercise when you’re dragging feet about getting to work on revisions.) Thanks for the quick write inspiration — and I love the line tight as New Year’s Spanx. 🙂

    • Terry
      Posted July 31, 2014 at 7:13 pm | Permalink

      I like this trick! (The flaw with searching for ing in my WIP is a character with the last name Redding. Takes a while to weed through those!)

  9. Posted July 31, 2014 at 1:00 pm | Permalink

    I am internationally famous for dragging my feet, so I love your search & replace suggestion, Elissa. And — ha! — yes, if only my Spanx were tight ONLY around New Year\’s!

    ;-D

  10. Terry
    Posted July 31, 2014 at 7:12 pm | Permalink

    Trying two for a little more depth.

    Original:
    Hugo lowered his head again and nudged it into her armpit. Trapped between Hugo and the gate, Mrs. Redding placed her hand on the dog.
    Revised:
    Hugo lowered his head again and nudged it into her armpit. Trapped between Hugo and the gate, Mrs. Redding braced her hand against the dog.

    Original:
    The microphone was cold and heavy. Owen swallowed. The lines he had rehearsed were tangled in his mouth. He spotted Miss Amelia, Miss Reina, and Franny, front and center in the row of lawn chairs. Christopher’s last words came to him: Time to fight. A metaphor.

    Revised:
    The microphone was cold and heavy. Owen gulped. The lines he had rehearsed were tangled in his mouth. He spotted Miss Amelia, Miss Reina, and Franny, front and center in the row of lawn chairs. Christopher’s last words flashed in his mind: Time to fight.

  11. Posted August 7, 2014 at 3:55 pm | Permalink

    Kim:

    Such an excellent post with many useful tips to revve it up! Sharing my attempt at doing so.

    The heavy metal latch on the back door clicked shut securing both doors, as Dad batten down the solid, hinged doors, using as much strength as he could muster up. The combination pad lock was attached and it too, made a loud clacking sound. There was no more room in the moving van for anything else; not even an inch to add a sweet, special keepsake. No more memories would fit inside the U Haul truck.

    Thank you.

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