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Today, I thought I’d share one of my favorite blog posts by JM McDowell, where she talks about her recent revision battles. It’s an inspiring post and I hope you enjoy it!
I sent my revised manuscript to the agent on Sunday.
1000 lbs off my shoulders.
And Monday morning I faced a new unknown…
What comes next.
I still had blog posts and social media stuff to do.
But this was a week without drafting or revising. A week off from novel writing.
So I started with shaving my legs and taking out the garbage.
Things I neglected during my writing.
I walked the dog.
I called all the doctors I needed to make appointments with.
I scheduled a 4-day trip to NY to see them and my friends.
And I finally deleted all the junk in my old email account.
Then I got to work. Because I can’t not work.
I started drafting a list of editors and agents to query when I finish revising my next book, a YA fantasy.
Prep work. Groundwork for the next novel.
Because it is always good to be prepared.
And though the waiting is hard, I’m going to do what I always do: keep moving forward.
The second hardest part of revising?
Battling my inner critic, Miranda.
It’s been 10 weeks since I started on this re-vision of my manuscript. Drafting new scenes, reworking old scenes into an alternate POV.
10 weeks of hearing Miranda say I can’t do this. Or it won’t be good enough.
She swore I’d ruin the book.
Every time she said I couldn’t, every time she made me fear I’d never write another decent word, I sat down at my laptop and faced the fear.
Just work on this chapter, this scene, this sentence.
Eventually, I got so immersed in the words, my characters drowned out Miranda.
I forgot to worry about failing. I forgot about finding the right way and let the story guide me. I fell in love with my novel all over again.
And I promised my characters that I would write the absolute best book I could for them.
As I proofread the manuscript for the last time, fear seizes me. What if it’s not good enough? What if it isn’t what the agent envisioned? I swear Miranda is cackling somewhere.
It’s the best thing I’ve written. And that counts. That matters. No matter what Miranda says. No matter what happens next, I’m proud of the book I have in front of me.
Kourtney 1 Miranda 0
This is what my desk currently looks like…
Because I am in the middle of massive re-visioning of my book.
Everyone has a process for this. A plan of attack.
Here’s what works for me.
- I print out the entire manuscript.
- I read the first 100 pages and make “macro-edits” with my red pen. Macro-edits are first impressions that I jot down as I read, like “this is too mechanical” or “awkward” or “why is this here” This is not the stage where I try to fix everything. This is the stage where I try to identify problem areas. (I try to do this all in one day)
- Now that I have an idea of what happens across those 100 pages, I go chapter by chapter and do “micro-edits.” Micro-edits are where I try to clarify problem areas and attempt solutions. I also apply Margie Lawson’s Master Editing checklist.
- After the first round of edits, I re-read the entire chapter as I type the edits in. (Step 3&4 can take 1-2 days because I like to let my edits breathe and my thoughts fully percolate before I make actual changes.)
- I print a clean copy and go over it again. Yup again. Because inevitably something bothered me and I couldn’t articulate it the first two times. But usually by the third go through, I can. Sometimes I’m still feeling dissatisfied. That’s when I add a fourth round. (This can take 1-2 days too.)
- If I cannot resolve something or explain what is wrong, I write a post-it to remind me to revisit the issue later and stick it over my desk.
- Then I move on to the next chapter and go through this all over again.
- When I hit the 50 page mark or an appropriate chapter break, I stop and print out those 30-50 pages. I paper edit them once. Then I re-edit as I type in my changes. (I try to take a 4 hour break in between. That lets my mind rest and also ruminate)
- Back to chapter-by-chapter edits.
- Once I hit another 50 pages, I do #8 again.
- I print all 100 pages and go over them with a pen. (In a day)
- Then I re-edit as I type those revisions in.
- I move on to the next 100 pages and repeat steps 2-12.
- I move on to the next 100 pages and repeat steps 2-12.
- Ideally, I have my beta readers and critique partner read the manuscript and get me feedback before step 16. But in a time crunch like now, I will power ahead. Big hug to my critique partner Katrina Bender for amazing & insightful feedback on pages 1-115!
- For my final edits, I reprint the new version of the manuscript and I go through it in 100 page increments. By now, I should have caught most everything so this is more of a copy edit round. I will still clean up issues, but hopefully I’ve taken care of most of them already.
I know this sounds really intensive, but it’s what works for me. It gives me confidence that I caught most everything. Right now it has to be done in 6 weeks. Eight weeks makes this more doable.
This is what I thought my draft looked like before I started revising. I thought every work counted. That every scene was as streamlined as it could be. That the manuscript couldn’t be tightened.
This is what it actually looked like. Way too many words. Some did very little. Some nothing. Throw away words and sentences. Even scenes. Gasp. I’ve cut 2000 words and I’m only on p.140.
You are only as good as your critiquers, your writing classes and your self-editing classes. If your critiquers all say your work is good. Maybe it is. Maybe it is ready. You can query it.
But after several rejections, maybe you might want to find someone with more experience to weigh in. I’m not saying hire an editor, but maybe ask a pubbed friend to look at the first chapter. Because whatever mistakes you made there, you made throughout the whole book. And the fat you didn’t trim away there is everywhere else.
I’m guilty of it. Every time I come back to a manuscript I thought was amazing, I am slammed by new issues. *Doink* I thought this was good? *Gasps and blushes* How did I miss this?
I’ve heard people say writers never finish books, they abandon them. But I’m wondering when will I know to let it go.
How do you ever know that a manuscript is ready?
The beloved Lin Oliver and unforgettable Henry Winkler signed copies of their book. Super excited to get a pic with both of them.
Henry was a surprise guest who gave a rousing speech to us that made me want to keep trying for a dozen more years.
Lin created such a friendly caring vibe for the entire conference. Despite there being 1300 attendees, I felt very connected and like I was part of a ginormous Brady Bunch. She’s a witty and charismatic speaker and I’ve never laughed so much at a conference before.
The heart-capturing Chris Crutcher read excerpts from his soul wracking novels that have made him one of the most banned writers in America. I fell in love twice over.
He made a point of saying that when you tell tough stories you have to use tough language. “We have to tell those stories in their native tongue.”
He also pointed out that for him the best way to make life important is to shorten it. In Deadline, his main character has one year to really live.
A life lesson I took away from his speech was that “Grief is probably one of the most important things we do.” And when we don’t take time to grieve, we get sick. There is no set limit to grieving, you have to just let it run its course.
That resonated so deeply with me because in college one of my close friends was diagnosed with cancer. It sent me into a spiral and everyone around me kept saying, “Get over it. Don’t let this derail you.” I ended up with mono. I should have just ignored them and taken my time processing the grief of having my dear friend face a fatal illness.
Arianne Lewin, Executive Editor at G.P. Putnam (Penguin) gave a riveting workshop on fantasy novels. That made me think further about the first two pages of my YA. Ah revisions, my new best friend.
Her explanation of the subgenres of fantasy helped tremendously.
She passed out the first two pages of three different fantasy novels and had us examine what worked in them. Fascinating insight. A few of the key things we saw across the books was:
- Character development,
- Strong voice,
- Some idea of stakes,
- Context/setting the scene,
- Word choices revealing character,
- Intriguing without revealing everything.
Tara Weikum, Executive Editor at Harper Collins shared essential insight into the YA market.
She talked about how people said YA was dead in the 90s and they were wrong. She also talked about the evolution of YA books to the point where there is a separate NYT Bestseller list for them. She warned against chasing trends because “they are impossible to predict or plan for.”
She reminded us that teens read things that are important and relevant to them. She touched on how one book may appeal to her and not to another editor.
The third workshop I attended was on revision with Cheryl Klein, Executive Editor at Arthur A. Levine Books (Scholastic). Her workshop was so informative and useful, I bought her book, Second Sight, and I would recommend everyone check out her blog before you begin the revision process. She has some fantastic tools to help you gain distance from your novel and analyze it so that you actually “Re-vision” your book.
The cocktail party on Saturday night was a not to be missed event. I met the critique group organizer for CT, several pre-published authors, a soon to be published author. And I tried the Baked By Melissa mini-cupcakes which were delish squared. A networking night filled with delectable food stations. I <3 mashed potato martinis.
Lin Oliver and Steve Mooser and the entire SCBWI team that organized this conference deserve a standing ovation for their tireless efforts and boundless energy. And for the constant supply of coffee throughout the conference.
This is a wonderful conference to attend for all writers of children’s books.
I’ve been working on the first 500 words of my YA novel in preparation for the writer’s roundtable critique day at the Winter SCBWI conference Jan 27-29. These two pages have taken up over a week of my writing life.
I wasn’t unhappy with my beginning. It was the umpteenth version of it. And it garnered requests for the full. But no offers of representation.
No harm in trying something new since I’d have a day’s worth of captive audience at the conference.
But I really liked that beginning. It was the best beginning I’d written to date.
So I thought, let’s make it more YA-ey. Let’s talk about the clicks in high school.
I warmed to the idea and reworked the first two pages. I got deeper into my protagonist’s head. Her voice came through so much more. I didn’t say she’s an outsider, but I showed it.
I was super excited after 2 days of laboring over my words.
And then I read it to my dad.
Then he says, “I’m not connecting with it. Too kiddish.”
Okay that was what I was going for. But it gives me pause.
I read it to mom.
She says, “I hate it.”
Double pause. Maybe I did something wrong.
Wasted two days going down the wrong path.
So the next day, I thought about it. Didn’t touch the keyboard. Read a paper version.
Since the book isn’t really about high school, it was not a good idea to open with high school clicks.
But that left me with zero ideas of how to revise it.
I ruminated over it for a day. Then I decided to focus on the mystery. Play it up more. And I changed the opening again. But this time when I got stuck, I pulled stuff out of the bad revision. Because even though the concept didn’t work, the execution rocked.
There were some beautiful lines there. Cool ideas I could tweak. So I leveraged the first rewrite to get to the second.
Then I read the new one to my mom.
She says, “I love it.”
My beta reader read both and said he loved the new one best, although the first one was well written. And he could see how the first version gave birth to the second.
I kinda knew I was going down the wrong road with the clicks, but I didn’t have another idea. However, movement always feels better than inertia. Even when you’re going the wrong way. Rather than sit in my car thinking about where to go, I followed it to the end.
And it led me to a better idea. The idea I would run with and keep.
Every time you toss out an idea and lose several pages of work and lambaste yourself for wasting time, keep in mind that tossed out idea might have been the only way to get to the next idea. The one that was for keeps.
Today, I had one of those soul crushing battles with my writing. I’d been editing this book for 5 weeks. When I finished the micro edits done on a chapter by chapter basis, I felt like I had a stronger more cohesive story. I had confidence in myself.
I figured all I needed was a quick macro edit.
Until I moved onto the macro 100 pages at a time edits.
There is so much I found that required further reworking. I’m a week behind schedule because I never anticipated it could be this bad.
I started to question my editing, my intuition, my writing.
I had that moment of do I suck at this and somehow I convinced myself I’m good at it? Like the 500 lb woman who goes out in leggings and thinks they flatter her figure.
OMG, am I in deep denial?!
I stopped and did laundry. Anything to get Ms. Negativity away from my manuscript.
But I don’t have the luxury of a break. I have 130 more pages to edit before my pitch slam in 2 weeks.
And I have to prep for the conference. So I’m going to have to power through this swamp of self doubt.
Maybe they aren’t as bad as I thought. Hopefully they won’t require burning to cleanse the house of their foulness.