REAL REVISION has a cover!

As many of you know, my first teacher resource book, REAL REVISION: AUTHORS’ STRATEGIES TO SHARE WITH STUDENT WRITERS, comes out this May. It’s a book designed to help teachers – and anyone who teaches writing, really – share strategies for revision that go beyond quick proofreading and spell-checking.  What I love most about this project was that I got to interview dozens of my favorite middle grade authors about how they revise their books and then translate those strategies into activities that teachers can use in the classroom. Of course, the book is loaded with stories, tips, and tricks from my own writing desk and my classroom, too.

Here’s what the cover will look like!

Word is that Stenhouse will be offering a sneak preview of this book online in May – I’ll be sure to share a link later on!

Dystopian World Building Worksheet: Part I

My revision letter and first line edits just arrived for EYE OF THE STORM, my upper-MG dystopian novel coming out with Walker/Bloomsbury in 2012.  I’ve been dying to get back to this book, but before I touch the manuscript to make a single change, I’m going to be writing many, many pages of world-building thoughts. While I did a lot of this during the planning process, I can already tell that this revision is going to be easier — and just plain better — if I take even more time to write explicitly about this world my character inhabits, its rules and challenges, and how it got to be the way it is.

For those who aren’t familiar with the term, world-building is the process of coming up with all that information — the history, rules, and everyday realities of the world in which a fantasy or science fiction novel is set.  In historical fiction, we simply call this research, because the world already existed in a past time, and the writer’s job is to ferret out all the details about what it was like.  But when a story is set in an imaginary world or in the future, there’s no real-life past to explore.  It all has to be made up, but made up in a way that makes sense, in a way that the circumstances of the world are believable, given the history that created it, and in a way that’s logical, given the rules you’ve established for the world.

Even imaginary worlds need rules.  Consider Hogwarts. The incantation "Expelliarmus!" always results in an opponent being disarmed, if it’s done right. As readers, we wouldn’t be on board if a character used "Expelliarmus!" to disarm an enemy in one scene and then cried "DroppusWandus!" five pages later. Things need to be consistent.

So what do writers need to consider when creating a world?  I actually spent some time looking around online this week, hoping to find a magical worksheet that would guide me through everything I’d want to consider.  I found some excellent resources at the League of Extraordinary Writers blog, written by a group of debut dystopian writers.  I also liked this post, called "The Importance of Worldbuilding."  But despite searching all over online and even asking for resources on my beloved Twitter, I couldn’t come up with a world-builiding worksheet that felt like it would work for me.

So I made one.  It’s six pages long, and it explores just about every aspect of my future society that I could come up with.  Here’s how it starts:

Geographic Location ___________________________________________________

In the year _______________

In this dystopian society… (Write one sentence that expresses the heart of the story, the conflict as it relates to the dystopia.)

What current issue/problem is at the heart of this dystopia?  From what spark of our modern reality was this world born?

How does the setting of this story impact the main character?

I’m going to get back to writing now, but I’ll share more of this worksheet in the revision-days ahead, in case it’s helpful. If you’re interested in this kind of thing, watch for Part II in a few days.

Friday Five: Things I cut out of my novel this week

I’ve spent my afternoons this week at a great little coffee shop in Boston, doing another revision pass on my upper-MG dystopian novel.  Early in the week, I made a plot map showing where things move along nicely and where they slow down, and I decided that cutting some fat would really help the book’s pacing.  Here’s what got the axe:

1. Dr. William Noyes.  He was a secondary character whose job was already being done by another, more interesting secondary character. Goodbye, Dr. Noyes.

2. A whole bunch of getting-from-one-place to another scenes. When I’m drafting, I often feel the need to take every step of a journey with my characters. If they’re having a picnic in the woods, for example, I need to step over every pine cone with them, hold back every branch, feel every squish of every sneaker. I think that helps me get mentally to the place where the action is going to happen, but my readers don’t need (or want) to take so long getting there, so many of these scenes are shortened a lot or deleted when I revise.

3. The word "actually" — about a thousand instances of overuse.

4. The phrase "what looked like" — ditto. While I’m a frequent abuser of "actually," this was a new one for me.  Reading through the manuscript, I’d find myself writing things like this:  She had what looked like jam all over her fingers.  Really?  If she’s sitting there with toast, can’t we just make the leap and call it jam?  Delete.

5. Most of Chapter 5 and half of Chapter 9. Don’t worry. You’ll never miss them.

I’d love to hear from some of my writer friends in the comments. What kinds of things do you find yourself cutting out of your works-in-progress during the revision stage?

Celebrating the National Day on Writing: A Revision Gallery

A couple weeks ago, a school principal & teacher in California asked me where she could find pictures of real manuscripts from real authors going through the revision process to share with her students so they’d be more excited about revising. I didn’t know of such a resource, but as a teacher, I absolutely loved the idea.  As an author, I knew I probably had some writer friends who would be more than willing to help teachers by sharing a photo or two. 

The result is here… a Revision Gallery with a collection of authors’ notes and photos of their marked-up manuscripts.  I thought today, NCTE’s National Day on Writing would be the perfect day to share our stories.

The PowerPoint slides are below (as jpegs) for teachers who would like to save them & use them in the classroom, and the full presentation is also on SlideShare (though the conversion process distorted a couple of the images).

Revision Process: Tackling character and balance in SUGAR ON SNOW

I’ll tell you right up front…this is going to be one of those long rambling posts about the writing process, photos included.  If you don’t want to be mired in a tour of my messy revision-mind, you should probably just move on now.  Nothing to see here…

Still  hanging around?  Okay… here’s the revision story.  Last Friday, the UPS guy came with one of those big, thick, daunting envelopes.  My editor at Walker had already emailed to let me know the second round of revisions for my December 2010 middle grade novel SUGAR ON SNOW were on the way.  I love revision, but opening that envelope this time threw me for a bit of a loop at first. This revision feels bigger than the first one, and I have less than a month to turn it around if we’re to make copy edits on time.  But the more I read over the letter and thought about it, the more excited I got.  What editor MK is suggesting is exactly what this book needs to get to the next level…to get ME to where I want to be as a writer.

The revisions fall into two main categories — making relationships between characters deeper and stronger (and there are a lot of characters in this book!) and establishing a better balance between the main character’s home/school life and her ice skating world.  Here’s what my revision process has been looking like so far.

There’s the usual green tea, notebook, laptop, manuscript, & revision letter.  That paper up on the envelope is actual a plot diagram that editor MK created showing the book’s main plot points leading up to the climax.  I’m not showing a closeup because it’s kind of spoilery, but I’ll tell you what it looks like. So I could better understand the balance issue, MK put the plot points that relate to ice skating under the timeline and the home/school stuff over the line.  It’s about an 80/20 division right now, heavy on the skating, and I agree with her that it would be stronger if it were more like 60/40.

This second editorial letter is four pages long, almost all focusing on individual character development and relationships. Good stuff.

I’m doing most of that work off the computer…right here.


This is one of those pricey notebooks with a thick cover that I bought for 80% off at a little paper goods store in SoHo on one of my authory trips to NY.  I saved it for a time when I needed a special notebook that made me extra excited to write, and when I first felt overwhelmed reading that editorial letter,  I knew that it was time to pull it out.  I’ve been doing everything I can to develop the main character, Claire, more as a student and friend.  I just finished character sketches of every one of her 7th and 8th grade teachers.  I’m not sure yet which of those will make it into the new draft, but I know them now.

When I went back to the actual novel to start working on the computer again, the first thing I did was bring it scene by scene into Scrivener, the new writing software I started using after I finished this book. 

See the colored index cards on my virtual bulletin board?  The green ones represent scenes that focus on Claire’s family & home life. The orange ones represent skating scenes in Lake Placid and the lavender ones are competition scenes.  (The red ones are important but are sort of a secret – sorry.) And the turquoise ones are school scenes. But here’s the thing… When I first set this up, there were only two turquoise cards.  The others are blank scenes that I’ve added over the past few days – placeholders for the new school scenes that I’m going to write to help with the balance issue.  I love that Scrivener lets you "see" the whole manuscript in such a conceptual way – it really helps me at times like this.

Interestingly enough, it was in thinking through one of those new school scenes that I came up with a way to build on one aspect of my main character that I’d sort of alluded to but didn’t really develop fully in the earlier drafts.  It’s going to be really, really fun, so I’m saving the work on that thread for after I’ve tackled some of the new scenes that are going to be a little tougher to muddle through.  I’ll do that sometimes – use the fun stuff as a reward for sticking it out through the hard stuff.

I don’t save the easy stuff, though, interestingly enough.  The little line edits and quick fixes? I do those first for a couple reasons.  If I wait too long and have made major changes, it’s harder to find those line edits to make the changes.  And also, accomplishing some small jobs helps me to ease back into a manuscript and feel competent in that world again, so that when I tackle the bigger issues, I’m able to do so with more confidence.

You may not hear a whole lot from me, blog-wise, until this revision is done, so I’ll leave you to continue the conversation.  What works for you when you’re tackling a big revision?  How do you break up the job so it doesn’t feel overwhelming?  Any unusual strategies that have led to breakthroughs?  Go ahead….talk amongst yourselves… I’ll try to stop by with some tea later on.

Knowing your Secondary Characters

So I’m knee-deep in my revision of SUGAR ON SNOW right now.  I’m sitting on the sun porch with my coffee and a nice breeze from the lake, merrily checking off all the little revision jobs my editor asked me to consider in her editorial letter.  I’ve been moving right along, which is a good thing because the publication date for this book is likely being moved up to Fall 2010.  And I’ve been getting lots done this week and feeling good about the revision.  But I’ve just come to a screeching halt.  Because editor MK says:

Claire’s Mom – I wanted to see more of her. Claire spends a lot of time away from home, but I think the addition of a scene between them would help us get a better idea of who Claire is and where she comes from…..  What does her mother really think of all the skating?  What would her mom say about how Claire has changed?

And so I started adding a new scene with Claire and her mom together in the kitchen of their farmhouse.  They are sewing sequins onto Claire’s skating dress, and Claire’s mom looks at her and says….

I don’t know.

Because I’ve just realized that I don’t know Claire’s mom the way I need to know her to make this scene real.  I know the "Mom-of-the-moment" and how she spends her days, but I’m not entirely sure who Mom used to be. That feels important now, before I can move forward.

So I’ll be here on page 109 for a while.  I thought I’d do a little thinking-aloud on the blog, for process fans. Here are the questions I’m considering:

Right now, Mom’s whole life seems to be Claire and the boys and the maple farm. Who was she before?  When she was 16, before she met Claire’s dad, what did she want to be when she grew up?

She loves the maple farm, loves the work her family does there.  Why?

What does Mom think about while Claire is skating in Lake Placid?  What are her worries?  What is she hoping for Claire?

What was Mom’s relationship with her own parents like?

What makes Mom feel talented and special? What used to make her feel that way when she was a teenager?

Did Mom have a dream she didn’t get to follow or chose not to follow? 

What changes has Mom noticed in Claire since she started training in Lake Placid?

Mom is a listener, but Claire hasn’t had time to talk much about all this.  What has Mom heard from her? And what is she wondering about?

Where did Mom learn how to sew?  (And does Claire already know, or is Mom teaching her during this conversation, too?)

Time to shut down the laptop for a bit… This part of the process is a pen and notebook thing for me. 

What about you?  What are your favorite strategies for making secondary characters ring true?

Making the Leap: Time to Change Manuscripts

My plan all summer long has been to get as far as I can on my new middle grade mystery and then set it aside when my editorial letter arrived for SUGAR ON SNOW, the figure skating novel that will be my second book with Walker Books for Young Readers.  I knew I’d need to make the switch this week, but it didn’t go exactly as I’d planned. 

My editor actually emailed me the editorial letter on Monday with a note saying that line edits would arrive on Tuesday.  I  wanted both before I started revising, so I was going to work one last morning on the middle grade mystery before the UPS guy arrived.  But when I sat down at my computer yesterday, I realized that something had happened — a switch had flipped from right to left in my brain Monday night when I read that emailed editorial letter.  It had transported me out of the world of the middle grade mystery, out of the world of stolen treasures and busy city airports and back to the maple farms and ice skating rinks of SUGAR ON SNOW.  I actually went and stood out front for a little while, willing the UPS guy to come early.  But he didn’t.

So I went for a long run instead.  About a mile from my house, there’s a community college in a big old building at the top of a hill overlooking Lake Champlain.  It is a very big hill, one that I hadn’t tackled on my morning run in well over a year, and I wasn’t sure I’d make it all the way to the top without stopping.  But somehow, trying seemed like a good idea yesterday.  All through the run, I thought about the issues that my editor had raised in her letter, the scenes she’d asked me to consider adding.  I came up with a perfect setting for one of those scenes, a conversation between my main character and her best friend from home.  And before I knew it, the ground leveled, and I was at the top of the hill.  I’d made it.  Because I kept my head down and kept moving, one step at a time.  Not a bad lesson at all to begin a revision day.

I stretched against the stone wall overlooking the lake, ran home, did some yoga on the deck, jumped into the lake in my running clothes, dried off, and picked the girl up from her art camp for lunch.  I was picking Japanese beetles off the aster plants out front when the UPS guy pulled up in his big brown truck. 

And I was ready for him.

Last night, during E’s skating lesson, I sat in the chilly sound booth and made my to-do list, marking the manuscript with ideas next to my editor’s comments, sticking Post-It notes where I could add those scenes she’d requested (I do love my Post-It notes), and making a list of little bits of research that I need to do.  Today, I’ll start on page one.  I promise a process-post later on for those who enjoy nitty-gritty revision details. But mostly…I’ll just be keeping my head down for the next few weeks, taking it one step at a time.

To outline or not to outline…?

Consider this a combination writing-process-post and request for help.  There’s always a debate about whether it’s better to plunge right into writing a new draft or to craft a meticulous outline first.  I know of hugely successful authors who do both, and I think a lot of it comes down to what works for the individual writer.  But what if you’re a plunger…working on a project that wants an outline?

I’ve never really been an outline person.  More often than not, I start a new book with a bare-bones premise and a fairly clear sense of who the characters are, and then I let them guide the story.  I write every night but usually go to bed without a clue as to what will happen next.  Then I sit down the next night, read over what I’ve written, close my eyes for a few minutes, and watch and listen until the characters do or say something.  Then I write it down.   I keep doing this over and over until eventually I can see the end. 

It’s the driving-at-night approach, where the headlights illuminate things bit by bit, but only as you move forward.  In THE BRILLIANT FALL OF GIANNA Z, for example, I was writing about Gianna’s grandmother for months, following her around, thinking, "Why does she keep doing things like this?" before I could see that she was showing real signs of dementia and that was what was really upsetting the family apple cart.

All of this plowing ahead and figuring things out as I write leaves me many, many messes and dangly bits to clean up in revision, but I’m good with that.  I like revision, and the whole process has worked pretty well for me.  Until now. 

Enter the  middle grade mystery project…the one that makes me bounce up and down in my chair with excitement.  The one that sent me off to Washington D.C. a couple weeks ago for research, certain that completing said research would throw open the doors and make the process work for this book, too.  The research trip was wonderful and illuminating and really, really fun.  But I have started writing this book five times now, and I’m ready to face the truth.  It wants…no…needs an outline.

So here’s the request for help part… If you are an outliner, what do your outlines actually look like?  Are they formal outlines?  Or  just summaries of each chapter, written out in a synopsis?  Do you use some fancy-schmancy outlining software that stores only sell to organized people?  Index cards? 

And are there any "plungers" out there who have needed to outline for a particular project?  I’d love to hear how it all worked out. 

Revision at the National Archives

Last weekend, aside from researching my new book in Washington, D.C. I got to visit someplace I’ve always wanted to go.

The National Archives is home to the Charters of Freedom exhibit, including the original Declaration of Independence, Constitution, and Bill of Rights.  They were breathtaking, but it was this document set off to the side, rather than one of the "big three" that  captured my imagination the most.

This is a rough draft of the Constitution.  In 1787, they printed up one of these for each delegate to the Constitutional Convention, and each man marked up his copy with revisions & suggestions.  This one is believed to have belonged to David Brearly of New Jersey, and you can see how he changed phrases, crossed out parts he didn’t like, and added lines here and there.

Now imagine 55 of these marked-up documents in the same room, along with all the folks who did the adding and the crossing out, arguing for their ideas…

I would have loved to see each delegate’s revised version side by side with the final draft, to see whose ideas were included, whose were ignored, and how the compromises happened.  And while I’m wishing… oh, what I wouldn’t give to go back in time and listen at an open window of Independence Hall in Philadelphia, even for a moment.  It must have been an amazing, amazing process.

The truth about evil editors

I’ve noticed that when I talk about writing with people who aren’t writers, many ask about the role of editors in the book-making process.

“Doesn’t it upset you when an editor wants you to change something in your book?”

Sometimes, when I say no, people say, “Hmph.”  Like I’m lying, afraid the evil editors will find out if I tell the truth.  I think they’re picturing editors as power-hungry monsters, waiting for unsuspecting manuscripts with red eyes and red pens.  But I haven’t met any editors like that.

This weekend, I’ve been revising two picture books with feedback from two really smart editors.  One is my picture book that’s under contract with Chronicle, OVER AND UNDER THE SNOW.  The other is a new book that’s out on submission now, and an editor has suggested some revisions so she can decide if she’d like to move forward with it.

In both cases, I’ve been amazed at the depth of the feedback in those editorial letters – feedback designed to strengthen the heart of the story rather than change it.  This weekend, I’ll be:

  • Cutting bits of dialogue – and a handful of proposed spreads – that aren’t absolutely essential to the heart of the story.
  • Streamlining a plot so it doesn’t meander.
  • Adding more evocative, sensory language to one particularly vivid scene.
  • Switching two spreads to better foreshadow a coming event.
  • Researching some more to add new details.
  • Changing an ending to make it more organic to the story.
  • Looking for a new title. (It probably seems like I’m always looking for a new title, but that’s a post for another day.)

Interestingly enough, both editors appreciated connections in the text that I made subconsciously while writing but hadn’t thought to develop . I love it when that happens, and I’ll be building on those connections, too. 

So does it upset me when an editor wants to change something in my book?

Nope. It thrills me that someone cares about it enough to want to make it stronger. And while a book may start out as mine, by the time it’s been helped along the way by a village of loving literary aunts and uncles like writer friends and agents and editors, it’s not just my book any more.  It’s our book.

The editors I’ve been fortunate enough to work with don’t have red eyes, and they use email attachments more often than red pens.  They don’t say, “What you’ve done here is all wrong.”  They say, “Look what you’ve done here that’s so right.  Build upon it.  Finish it.  Make it shine.”