Teachers Write! 7/11 – Q and A Wednesday (and revision chat!)

Before we start Q and A today, let’s talk a little about revision. Some people hate revising. Lots of students really hate it.  But I LOVE revision. I love it so much, in fact, that I wrote a book about revision, about how to revise and how to teach students to revise using authors’ strategies.  At one point, I spent weeks revising my revision book, which felt like a very meta thing to do. But I digress.

Anyway…I believe that all great writing is re-writing, so toward the end of Teachers Write in August, we’re going to host a blog and Twitter chat all about revision. I’ll invite lots of authors to come talk about how they revise and to blog about their processes and we’ll link to all of those, too.  If you’d like, you can also treat it as a book club and read REAL REVISION (that book I wrote about revision) ahead of time so that you can ask questions and we can all talk about it.

Stenhouse, which published REAL REVISION, is offering a discount for those who would like to participate in our virtual book club this summer. If you go to the Stenhouse website and place any order that includes REAL REVISION, you’ll get 20% off the whole order, plus free shipping if you enter the discount code KATE.  (How cool is it that I have a discount code? I told my family that this really calls for more respect and chocolate, but they are unimpressed.) More info on the revision chat will be forthcoming in a few weeks, but for now, go ahead and order your book (or request it from your library!) if you’d like to be part of the book club conversation. And if you have other favorite Stenhouse books that you’d like to recommend to one another, please share titles in the comments, because you can totally take advantage of that REAL REVISION discount to get other professional books, too.

On to the questions now! Wednesday is Q and A Day at Teachers Write Virtual Summer Writing Camp, so if you have questions about writing, it’s time to fire away.

Today’s official author volunteers are Jo Knowles, Donna Gephart, Megan Miranda, Erica S. Perl, David Lubar, and Raymond Bean.  They’ve promised to be around to respond to your questions today, so please visit their websites & check out their books!

Teachers & librarians – Feel free to ask your questions in the comments.  Published author guests have volunteered to drop in and respond when they can, and I’ll be checking in from my retreat, too.

45 Replies on “Teachers Write! 7/11 – Q and A Wednesday (and revision chat!)

  1. Hi! I am currently working on a YA novel, and I am struggling with point of view. Sometimes I find myself writing in first person, but then I catch myself switching to third. I think that first person would be ideal for a YA novel, due to the audience, but is it ok to mix both throughout? If so, how can I do this without making it confusing for the reader? (And you can tell me that it’s a bad idea, too. I’ll fix it.) I’m a complete novice at this, and I appreciate all of your help!

    1. Kristin, you’ve come across one of the more challenging issues writers face. I’ve read a variety of opinions on the subject of first person vs. third person and there’s not a lot of agreement on which is better. Since you’re working on a YA novel, it’s especially important that you’re taking the time to consider the best way to tell your story.

      Some say that YA fiction is often written in the first person because teens find it more compelling to “be inside the mind” of the central protagonist; I tend to agree with that logic. Others say that unless your main character has a unique “voice” and there are specific reasons to write in the first person that you should go with third person – the idea is that third person allows you so much more latitude with the story (being able to write beyond the main character, deal with matters the main character doesn’t know about, etc.) and you don’t want to give that up unless the first person approach pays big rewards in terms of the storytelling. I see the logic there, but I tend to think that it all depends on the story and the characters. In other words, to each, his or her own.

      The only thing I’ve seen nearly everyone agree on is a point that Donna Gephart made and that is to not switch between first and third person within your story. I agree with Donna that it’s too confusing for both you and your reader – so much so that it may turn a reader off and prevent them from enjoying your story. However, there are some writers – far more capable than me – who have mastered this type of perspective switching and have used it successfully in their novels. Stephen King’s Christine and Anne Rice’s Interview With the Vampire are two that come to mind.

      Good luck and best wishes on your journey.

    2. Hi Kristin,

      Deciding on point of view can be tricky. Sometimes a voice comes to you fully formed and STRONG. But other times, it can be wishy washy. But, you will have to choose one or the other for sure. For both PEARL and LESSONS FROM A DEAD GIRL, I wrote the entire first drafts in third person before I realized that choice was limiting me. So I switched to first to see if that would help. I also switched tense from past to present tense. That combination changed everything! Good luck. You will figure it out eventually. 🙂

    3. Todd, Jo, and Donna,
      Your personal experiences and thoughts have been so helpful as I reflect on this issue I’m having. I find that my protagonist, who tends to be a more sheltered person who has put emotional walls around herself, switches from 1st to 3rd most often when I write her. My antagonist comes in loud and clear 1st every single time. I have been structuring my WIP to flip back and forth between the two MCs by chapter, so to make things more consistent, I will go back and try everything in 1st person. Thanks again for all of your help!

  2. Hi, Kristin,

    Point of view is one of those decisions you need to make about your work, along with setting, time period, etc.

    I’ve written my novels in first person so I can be completely in the heads of my main characters. It brings immediacy, but also limitations because the reader can’t know any more than the main character knows. Other writers prefer third person, so the reader is given more than one perspective.

    Think of your point of view as a video camera.

    If you choose first person, only your main character holds the camera. Everything is from his or her view/realm of experience, etc.

    If you choose third person, limited, the camera has more room to roam, but is mainly from the viewpoint of one character.

    If you choose third person, omniscient, your camera can go inside the head of any character and to any location, regardless of what’s happening with your main character.

    Think about which one would best serve your story and stick with it throughout. Switching is too confusing for you and your reader.

    Hope this helps!

    1. Donna,
      I love the idea of a camera. I may steal this to use with my students!

    2. Just wanted to plug Kate’s Real Revision. I have gleaned lots of great ideas to use in my classroom, as well as my own writing. I highly recommend it!

  3. Jo, Donna, Megan, Erica, David, and Raymond,

    Excellent websites! I had trouble linking to Raymond’s site (probably my computer), but I just googled it and found it. I see that you all write different types of books, so I need to ask this question. I have been waiting for a few weeks to ask this one.

    I have read and been using Real Revision for months. There are so many great activities to use with my students in the book. I was wondering if any of you have any other unusual revising activities (only ones you want to share – you may have a top-secret revision activity that works every time:) that you use when you are revising your work?

    Revising can be very difficult for sixth graders (actually, for all ages) so I was hoping for some activities to make revising (I can’t believe that I am going to use this word) FUN. Any feedback would be greatly appreciated (by me and my future students).

    PS – What a line up of authors! Thanks for all you do! I am already passing along books by Jo, Donna, and David to my students (and they are loving them). I look forward to reading books by Megan, Erica, and Raymond (and of course passing them along to future students).

    1. Thanks for the heads-up on the broken link, Andy! I fixed it.

      Since you’ve already heard lots from me on revision in the book, I’m going to let the others chime in here.

    2. I agree with Andy–an amazing line up of authors! It’s such a wonderful gift to have this summer camp and access to all these writers, it’s almost too good to be true. I don’t think we can thank you enough. And, I hope this exposure for all of you leads to a ton of book sales!

    3. Hi Andy,
      One of the first things I do after finishing a draft is to read back through and make a synopsis on paper from it (I know, this is kind of backwards!) – it’s fun for me because I assign every plot thread (or, in some cases, different characters) a different color and get to break out my colored pens (cheap thrills, what can I say). After I finish, I can see with a quick scan whether I’m dropping threads, if there’s too much orange in one section, if I haven’t mentioned that purple thread for 5 chapters, if I started a green thread but dropped it completely halfway through, etc. I’ve found it really helps with balance.

    4. Andy — some random ideas. Ask the kids to bring in a drawing they did in 1st or 2nd grade. After they’ve shared their art and had a good laugh, point out that, at the time they did the drawing, they probably though it was perfect. Tell them that they will feel the same way about what they are writing if they look back at it in four or five years.

      Give them an adverbial phrase, such as “talked loudly,” and then give them a minute or two to see how many action verbs they can write down to replace the phrase. See who came up wit the most. Write a list on the board.

      Have them write an essay or story at the beginning of the year. Collect their work and put it aside for a month. Hand it back and ask them to find one or two things they’d like to change or improve. (With luck, they’ll be able to view the work in a different way than if they’d tried to revise the day after writing it.)

      Tell them that working writers love revision.

    5. Hi Andy,

      I often make a storyboard for my book after I’ve finished a draft. I learned this method from Carolyn Coman so I can’t take credit. Basically, for each chapter of the book, I make one box. In the box, I draw the strongest image I see when I visualize the chapter. Above the box, I write the strongest emotion. Below the box, I write a 3-4 word phrase that encapsulates what happens in the chapter. I fit all of the chapters/boxes on one big sheet of paper. This lets me “See” the book. The flow of it, the emotional arc of it. Now, your students probably aren’t writing full-length books. But if they are writing short stories they could break them into scenes and make a storyboard from the scenes. It’s a great way for them to narrow down the most important elements of their stories.

      Hope that helps!


      1. Megan, David, and Jo,

        THANK YOU for all of the ideas! I am always trying new things in my classroom, and this summer I am learning so much that I can use in my classroom. I also teach a creative writing class after school, and I already feel prepared for teaching the class (and it’s only July 11th).

        Thanks again!

  4. I’m about to step into my writing zone, but before I do, I have a question that’s been nagging at me for a few days now. For my WIP, I listed out the major scenes of my story, so I can have some idea of where I’m going with this (and to get it out of my head and onto paper). These “scenes” will probably end up being the chapters of the novel. As I’ve been writing, though, I’ve been meeting characters I didn’t expect to meet, and they’ve been doing things I didn’t expect to happen. As an author, how do you handle this? Do you let your characters run with it, even if it may end up being a different book than you expected it to be, or do you hold fast to your original outline (if you even had an outline)? What do you think the consequences might be to each choice?

    1. Brian — first of all, I take the appearance of the unexpected as a good sign. It means your subconscious is enthusiastic about your book. I always welcome this sort of thing, and try to make good use of any characters who show up. As for plot twists, they require serious thought. An exciting idea that takes a book in a different direction can be wonderful. But an idea that seems great at first glance might not work at all on closer examination. I think of writing as similar to playing chess. When you first learnt he game, you need to carefully think through the consequences of a move. Eventually, you can see right away that a move that seems right will lead to disaster (or triumph) seven moves later. In brief, welcome the ideas that pop up, and treat them as suggestions from a trusted friend who is often brilliant but sometimes gives bad advice.

      1. I’ve found that having a clear sense of my character’s “arc”–where I want them to end up at the end of the story–has been very helpful in keeping my stories focused while giving them the freedom to go in different directions within the story or in particular scenes. I agree with David that characters going in unexpected directions is generally a good sign–my characters become more interesting because they “evolve” and mature with the organic nature of the story beeing told. My writing style (and books) are character driven, so I inevitably let them wander as long as their wanderings serve the purpose of the overall story and stay true to their arc. (In fact, in my case at least, the character’s arc is often the core of the story anyway.)
        All this said, I have let some characters change too much and go down the wrong road. This resulted in a major regrounding of the character and rewriting. Even in these cases, however, I ended up with a much better understanding of my character and how her actions serve (or don’t serve) the story. The story was stronger because I let the character wander during the drafting stages. The key was to know when the character had gone too far. Unfortunately, that is as much art as anything else. (Critique groups, outside readers, and editors can provide helpful perpsective on this.) Thus, I always go back to asking if my character is staying true to the story and their arc. If they aren’t, go back to the original concept of the character *or* recognize you have a different story (and possibly different book).

          1. Thank you all for your responses and advice! They have been helpful, and I’m sure will prove even more helpful as I continue down the road with this work.

      2. Thanks for this David. I noticed that I was losing major energy on the MG I’ve been writing. I think I took a wrong turn early on. It’s hard to chuck a giant portion of the story and go in a totally different direction, but that’s what I just did, and right now, my energy and excitement for the story is at a higher level. Hope it stays there, and I sniff out the right road!

  5. I am interested in hearing author’s talk about how you decide if an idea is best suited for a picture book or a novel. Did you start out with an intention? Do you write both? I feel like I have many seeds (of ideas) and not sure where to plant them!

    1. I kind of think of a novel as a gorgeous jewelry box and a picture book like one piece of exquisite jewelry in that box. The topic/idea can be exactly the same but it is the tighter aspect that makes it a picture book as opposed to the broader scope that makes it a novel. There are always exceptions, but picture books are smaller/tighter, not just in the obvious ways of page/word count but in focus, plot points, number of characters, etc.

      How do you decide? Your guts. Your style. Your preference.

        1. I am not sure if this answer will cause more trouble, but I regularly struggle with this. I have books that started as picture books and became novels (WHEN LIFE GIVES YOU O.J.), and I have several manuscripts that I am still wrestling with because I’m not sure what they ARE yet. Picture book? Short chapter novel? I play around with them a variety of ways, hoping they will reveal themselves to me…

          I agree with what Barb said re: format, but I want to add that it also has to do with voice. If your character has an older-kid voice, picture book may not be the best showcase, and vice versa… though these rules are not carved in stone, obviously.


  6. Having said the above post about changing directions: I now would like to know how you all come to terms with work that is going the wrong way. I knew I was losing energy in my story, but thought maybe it was just because it was the middle part, and it would right itself eventually. How do you accept or deal with having to completely wipe out a huge part of your work and start again? This is probably common place to all of you, but new to me!

    1. Diane,

      It’s so disappointing when this happens. Sorry to hear it! Sometimes, I will make a note of what I need to fix/delete, but if it’s a first draft, I keep pushing forward. I am always much less anxious when I have a completed first draft, no matter what kind of messy shape it’s in, so I force myself to keep going. Often, even if I went down the wrong road, there is something about that attempt that informs the story or my intent in some way, so I never see it as a waste of time (even though it’s frustrating). Good luck! I hope you find your way back on the path quickly.


    2. I think this is a difficult problem. Perhaps my favorite story/manuscript is still sitting in the proverbial drawer because it went down the wrong path. (A fundamentally positive character goes deep into a dark place that is also socially taboo; okay for an adult novel but not so great for a YA one.) Fixing it is going to be a big chore, but essential because the story is probably not marketable until I “right” the ship. Notably, all of my published books have had stories or characters that at some point went down the wrong road, so this I think is a common problem and one that should be embraced by writers. It’s a fundamental part of the creative process.
      The most important step is to recognize you’ve gone down the wrong road. Be aware of the warning signs–is the dialogue appropriate to the character? Is the character acting consistent with their personality? Is the plot serving the story? The second step (at least for me) is to ax the content either through major revision or literally cutting it out of the story. I make this is a little easier pschologically by cutting the offending chapters or sections and saving them in a separate file. That way, they’re there if I change my mind. Then, I refocus on my character, their arc, and the story and go at it again.
      Everyone one of my published books–fiction and nonfiction–have sections that have been cut out because they didn’t “work” in some way or the other. Some were identified by editors, but most were identified by me in the early drafting stages. I still have many “files” of these orphan words and subplots; I’m not quite ready to get rid of them even though I’ve never ended up reusing them and some of them are more than a decade old. (Do I need therapy for this?)
      The problem as writers is that we get so emotionally attached to our words and the *idea* behind our words. The key to a good book (or essay) is being able to be brutally honest about what serves the story, and saving the orphans for another day.
      Hope this helps.

    3. Diane,

      Don’t despair!

      For my first novel, AS IF BEING 12 3/4 ISN’T BAD ENOUGH, MY MOTHER IS RUNNING FOR PRESIDENT, I kept only the first two chapters of my first effort and threw the remainder of the 340 pages away. What emerged after much research/writing/revision was a tighter, stronger, faster (Wait, that’s the Six Million Dollar Man) . . . Anyway, you get the idea.

      With writing as with life, things don’t often go as planned. Books rarely come out “right” the first time, or the second, or . . .

      Even when I challenged myself to do NANOWRIMO (National Novel Writing Month) for my novel OLIVIA BEAN, TRIVIA QUEEN, I ignored their advice to plunge forward with the draft without going back. I reread and rewrite A LOT in the beginning of every novel until my feet are firmly planted. Then I feel more comfortable about moving forward.

      I also get a lot of feedback on early chapters from my critique group and from my agent. Really helps get my thoughts clear.

      Whatever your process and however challenging it might be, the result of a solid, well-written novel in the end is worth the struggle.

      Good luck!

    4. How appropriate of you to ask, I spent a bunch of time with the delete key this morning…it hurts, but if you think it’s necessary, it’s necessary (like a flu shot or ending a bad relationship or something.) If it’s not working scrap it, on the other hand (we have a lot of “other hands” have you noticed that?) make sure you’ve really written enough that you’re POSITIVE it’s for sure not working. I’d get pretty far into it (like through that first draft) before deciding. I too, never, ever, ever throw whole ideas out completely. While I’m deleting big sections, I typically open another file and name it outtakes and put all my beautiful, un-useable, deleted words there for a while until I get used to my story without them.

  7. I save everything! You never know when a false start might someday provide the basis for a completely unrelated, or a tangentially related, story or project. Basically, my approach is that when I’m writing, I write and try not to stop the flow at all even if I am aware I am going down a rabbit hole (and not because I am writing a book about rabbits). Then, when I’m editing, I chop out the stuff I feel is not working and put it in a separate file (usually titled “fragments”) and keep adding to that pile as necessary. Usually, some of it gets rescued later for this project or another one.

    On my most recent book (ACES WILD, coming out in 2013), I wrote practically another entire book that I ended up not using, which was very frustrating. However, it took writing all of that to realize where my book needed to go…. so remember that this is part of the process and try to see it as a necessary time and energy investment (rather than the giant pain in the rump that it also it).


  8. I agree with Jo, it’s so disappointing when that happens. Major rewrites are, unfortunately, a pretty common part of my process. That said, I try not to think of it as *losing* anything. Everything is still there, saved on my computer somewhere. I just… try something new in a different file 🙂
    I believe there are about four lines that made it from the version of Fracture I sent to agents and the version that was ultimately published (with two complete rewrites between signing with my agent and sending it out on submission to editors). After that process, I know that anything I cut and rewrite will become stronger the next time, and anticipating that end product is enough motivation to keep me excited. Also, I try not to measure progress in word count. I try to see cutting/rewriting as forward progress. Even though you’re losing words, you’re actually getting closer to the story….

    1. Thanks so much, everyone. It’s helpful that you all have different views on this. As much as I felt I had energy going in another direction with my story, I also started to feel pretty let down that all that work had to be redone. I may try Jo’s method of plowing ahead with the first version and then rethinking at the end. Thank you!

  9. Your own discount code is a cool thing, Kate. I will be taking advantage of it today!

    I am amazed at the generosity of time and talent being given by so many awesome authors – thanks to all of you.

    Now the question – the WIP I’ve been working on during camp is for a middle grade audience. As I worked on yesterday’s assignment one of my characters responded to the rain with profanity. How do you know when profanity will make or break a character?

    1. Hi, Ernie!

      I’m a big believer in doing what’s right for the work. But when it comes to profanity in MG fiction, I’ve learned a few things.

      1. Readers much younger than you’d imagine will pick up your book. Even though my characters deal with serious middle school issues, I’ve had many eight-year-olds tell me they are reading my books. Eight!

      2. While your audience may be a 12-year-old, the person who will get the book into that 12-year-old’s hands is often an adult — librarian, teacher, parent, grandparent. How will they feel about handing your book with profanity to a young reader?

      3. You don’t want to do anything to keep your wonderful book out of the hands of young readers. The profanity can often be suggested or substituted. The harshest word I think I’ve used, when my character was really pissed was, “Jerk!”

      All that said, it’s your book and you get to decide what makes the most sense for it, just keep your young (and not so young) readers in mind.

      1. As a library coordinator at an elementary school, I can tell you that student’s will bring a book up to me and tell me there are inappropriate words in the book if they see any profanity. And all ages in elementary have access to MGs, so I’d give this some careful thought.


  10. Hi Ernie!

    My answer is: context, context, context.

    That said, I have to be honest. Even though I am the author of a YA novel that contains “language” (multiple F-word and one veiled reference to the C-word), and even though I stand by those choices as being used in context to show the power dynamic between the characters, there’s a lot of reasons to avoid this if you can, especially in MG land. Some people, I have learned, really take exception to it and it will make them close the book and/or not choose it for their students. So I would suggest that particularly in a MG you return to that passage (later, and in the context of the book as a whole… for now, keep it because it is informing your understanding of your character’s emotions) and decide if you want/need to keep it or not.

    I hope that’s helpful.


    1. I concur with Erica.

      But here’s an interesting side note on this. I have an adult character exclaim “Damn it!” in my YA novel (my third) coming out this fall, a relatively benign use of profanity these days. But here’s the kicker: The kids in an 8th grade class reading the draft manuscript objected to the profanity, not the teacher. (They gave *great* feedback by the way; a valuable critique group of sorts.) Since the rest of the manuscript didn’t use the profanity earlier in the story (e.g., it wasn’t part of the typical dialogue), the kids found it jarring and objectionable.

      Ironically, the emotions the phrase triggered were exactly what I had hoped to elicit, but, even though it’s use was context appropriate, the readers were turned off. As an adult, I can justify its use both in terms of the analytical content of the story and artistic value. As a writer sensitive to my readers interests, the reaction forced me to rethink its use at that particular place in the story.

      I have similar relatively minor uses of profanity in my last book, “A Warrior’s Soul,” and none of the on-line reviewers and bloggers–mainly parents and teachers–have objected to it.

      It’s a big, fuzzy & furry line, I think, without clear rules. Good luck!

    2. I agree with Erica. Leave it for now, but when you go back to revise, I would only keep it in if it is absolutely the ONLY word that could possibly work for the situation. My guess is that it is not. For now, just keep going! 🙂


  11. I wanted to mention that I have a section on my site (www.donnagephart.com) for writers and illustrators.

    You’ll find interviews with industry professionals, including: Cynthia Lord, agent Tina Wexler, Cynthia Leitich Smith, April Henry, agent Erin Murphy, Audrey Vernick, Lee Wardlaw, Lauren Tarshis, Wendelin Van Draanen, Kate Messner and others.

    There is also a section on my site for young writers. It’s brimming with online resources and great books to inspire your students this fall.

    Oh, and there’s a funny, singing hamster video. But that’s not important now.

    1. Donna, thank you for mentioning this. I’m speaking to a group of young writers participating in a summer writing program tomorrow morning and I’d love to share your lists. Just as we’re all sharing and learning here with Teachers Write!, these young writers are spending part of their summer doing the same thing. It’s going to be exciting to see what they’ve been up to and I’m happy to be able to share your lists. Thanks!

      1. Todd,

        Glad the resources on my site might be useful with your work with young writers.

        I’ve been working with the campers here at the Thurber House summer writing camps. What a joy!

        Have a great time tomorrow!

        All best,

  12. I love the idea of a Real Revision chat/book club! I bought it IRA along with Jeff Anderson’s 10 Things Every Writer Needs to Know. They are both waiting for me. I have been doing my best to keep writing so I have a 1st draft. It’s hard to not go back and make changes but I feel really strongly about getting a draft done before I let myself go back and make changes.

    Do any of you put your initial drafts away to sit for a while so you can look at it with fresh eyes when you are ready to revise and work with it? That’s my plan but I am new to this! Thanks!

  13. Hi, Jen,

    Yes, putting your work away and looking at it after time has elapsed is a great way to catch things you missed the first time around.

    I also find a trusted critique group to be invaluable at spotting weak areas I miss.

    Good luck!