When a book title goes back to the drawing board

If you’re not an author, it may surprise you to know that sometimes, the title a writer originally gives a book doesn’t always stay the title of that book.  A lot of people chime in along the way, from agents and editors, to the sales reps who will ultimately be making sure that your book is available in stores. THE BRILLIANT FALL OF GIANNA Z. for example, wasn’t always THE BRILLIANT FALL OF GIANNA Z.   First it was SWINGER OF BIRCHES.  Then it was MAPLE GIRL.  Then there was a whole lot of brainstorming before we came up with the final title, which I love.

My new book, about a figure skater from a small-town maple farm who earns a scholarship to train with the elite in Lake Placid, was originally called SUGAR ON SNOW.  Even though I like the way that sounds, there are concerns that it doesn’t make the ice skating element of the book clear enough, so we’re working on new titles right now.  Brainstorming.  I sent a list of ideas to my editor a week or so ago, but none of those seem to be sparking joy and agreement either, so we’re trying again. 

I thought I’d share the process I used last night, since regular old brainstorming wasn’t helping me get at anything new.  First, I brainstormed a list of all the skating words I could think of and jotted them down.  SKATE, ICE, RINK, SPIRAL, SPIN, BLADES…and on and on. Then I wrote down other words that are important in the book.  SUGAR, MUSIC, SEASONS, SONGS, SPARKLE…you get the idea.  Then I did this…

Cutting up the list into little pieces allowed me to literally play with the words, move them around and try combinations that my brain might not have come up with on its own.  Kind of like a magnetic poetry set, but more impromptu.  It worked well, and I’ll try this again the next time I’m feeling title challenged.  Sometimes, there is value in just seeing things in a new way.  In play.

And I did send a new list of title ideas off to New York early this morning.  I’ll keep you posted…

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.

Starting with Setting

best tracker

So I was finishing up Elise Broach’s book MASTERPIECE last night, and the author’s note at the end talked about the spark of idea that led to this brilliant book – a contact lens lost in the sink.  That led Elise to wish for some tiny creature who could crawl down and get it for her, and that led her to imagine Marvin, a friendly, talented beetle who absolutely shines as a main character.

I love hearing about the whispers that start a story churning, so I thought I’d share the stories behind my two latest works in progress, both of which started with setting. 

Right now I’m working on a middle grade mystery that grew out of my editor’s travel troubles. (She has no idea about any of this, so if you are reading this, Mary Kate, thanks for the inspiration! *waves to Mary Kate* ) When bad weather stranded her in Atlanta this spring, I got thinking about airports and how much I like them and how I’d love to set a book in one.  And then I got thinking about being stuck in airports and how I often end up meeting the most interesting people, just because we can’t get to Tulsa or wherever for three more hours, and that’s where my middle grade mystery begins…with three kids, snowed in at a Washington D.C. airport, and a stolen treasure.  I’m in the early stages of this book, just a few chapters in and stalled until I get to D.C. for a research trip later this month, so it’s too early for me to share more.  But it’s interesting to me that the story started with setting.

That was the also case with SUGAR ON SNOW, the middle grade novel I worked on much of last year.  The whispers started here…

…at a sugar house on pancake weekend, where I crunched through the spring snow with my daughter, watched the sugar steam puff into the sky,  inhaled the sweet smell of sap being boiled down to syrup, and watched the hustle and bustle of the family that owns this farm.  For the next few weeks, I toyed with the idea of a character who lives on a maple farm near the Canadian border, and that’s when Claire showed up and started whispering in my ear. 

I’d talk back to her on my morning run.  "Well, sure…you’re a great kid and you have a fascinating life up there, skating on the frozen cow pond in the winter and everything. And sure, it would be fun to write the sugaring scenes, but what are you going to do? You have to do something. You can’t really have your own book until something happens, you know?"

Claire would sigh and go away for a few days, but she kept coming back.  I liked her, but I didn’t start to write about her until summer, when I spent a weekend with my daughter at a basic skills figure skating camp in Lake Placid.  She was excited to take different kinds of skating classes at the camp, and I was excited to sit in the coffee shop across the street and work on revisions for the first book in my MARTY MCGUIRE chapter book series with Scholastic. 

But it turns out I hadn’t read the fine print on the skating camp brochure.  When I signed my daughter up for camp, I had also signed myself up for a weekend of "parent education" workshops.  So instead of drinking mocha lattes with my laptop, I found myself in the Olympic Center Hall of Fame Room with a bunch of other skating parents, learning about figure skate blades that cost more than my car is worth.  Although they weren’t what I had planned, the workshops were fascinating, particularly the one that featured a sports psychologist who works with figure skaters and talked about the stress, the pressure to commit more time and money, the competitive nature of the sport.  What if my sweet Claire from the maple farm somehow ended up training here? I pulled out my notebook and started scribbling ideas.

After that, there was a whole lot of research and writing and revising, brilliant critiques from writing friends, more revising, an editorial letter from my agent,  and more revising.  And here’s what grew out of that pancake breakfast in the March sunshine and not reading the fine print about skating camp.  From yesterday’s Publishers Marketplace…

BRILLIANT FALL OF GIANNA Z author Kate Messner’s SUGAR ON SNOW, in which a farm girl is discovered by a charismatic Russian skating coach and thrown into the uber-competitive world of elite figure skating, where she must stand up to the mean girls on ice and find the courage to follow her dreams, again to Mary Kate Castellani at Walker Children’s, for publication in Winter 2011, by Jennifer Laughran at Andrea Brown Literary Agency.

It’s Sugaring Season!

Where I live, these early April days caught between winter and spring bring a sweet gift. 

Cold nights and warm days mean the sap is running in the sugar maples, and that means old-fashioned pancake breakfasts that put the fanciest hotel brunch to shame. 

We had our annual pancake feast Saturday at Sanger’s Sugar House, where five dollars bought all the pancakes you could eat, plus homemade sausage, applesauce, milk, and coffee.  They put up a big tent attached to the sugar house. And yes…that’s hay on the ground.  It’s so you don’t get your shoes all muddy. 

I love events like this, that are so much a part of a place, and I love the details they can add to the setting of a book.  I was so wishing I’d remembered my notebook Saturday, especially since my new middle grade novel SUGAR ON SNOW is about a girl who lives on a maple farm.  The manuscript is off my desk for the moment and out on submission with one of my editors, but while I wait for news, I’m already thinking about that next round of revisions.  I scribbled down tons of notes when I got home.  The fresh summery smell of that hay. The aluminum pie plates they use to keep the pancakes warm while they go around to see who wants seconds.  How after a while, just about everything feels sticky with syrup.  And how the sweet smell of that syrup stays with you, even as you head back outside into not-quite-spring.

The Magic of YouTube

I’m working on a new middle grade novel that I absolutely love, but recently, I hit one of those rough spots.

I’ve been putting off Chapter 7 for about a week.  How come?  It involves my main character, a figure skater, trying to do something she hasn’t mastered yet — a double toe loop.  She falls a bunch.  I knew that much.  And then there’s an interaction with her coach and the other skaters that’s important to the plot.  I was fine with all that, and ready to write it. 

What I didn’t know — and can’t research properly until an appointment in Lake Placid comes through — is what it looks like when you try to land a double toe loop and miss.  How do you do one successfully?  And what might she be doing wrong?

I couldn’t bring myself to just skip that scene and keep writing, but I really wanted to move forward, so last night, I had an interesting thought.  Might there be video of someone doing a double toe loop on YouTube?  Might there even be video of someone trying one and falling?

There were, in fact, numerous videos of people landing toe loops, bobbling toe loops, and completing messing up toe loops.  This one was especially helpful.

Not only did the girl in the pink shirt attempt a double toe loop and fall in slow motion, allowing me to see what went wrong, she did it over and over again. (And the people who responded to the video clip with comments, letting her know what she was doing wrong were pretty darn helpful, too.)

Obviously, watching a video — even a bunch of videos — isn’t the same as being there.  When I take my research trip to Lake Placid, I’ll be able to ask questions, see things, hear things…even smell things about the rink that a video can’t provide.  I’ll use all that in my revision of this chapter, but last night,  I needed to keep moving forward. 

So just in case the girl in the pink shirt stumbles across this blog entry…

I know I’m not the reason you shared your skating video, but you should know that you inadvertently helped me through Chapter 7.  Even beyond the research, I have to tell you that I admire the way you kept trying over and over and over again.  (Writing is like that sometimes, too, only with fewer visible bruises.)

Anyway, I hope you’ve got that double toe loop down by now.  And thanks.