Years ago a magazine editor responded to my initial submission with a letter requesting me to make changes and to resubmit the story on spec. Excited about her interest, I made the changes, cutting the manuscript from over 700 words to less than 500.
The editor wrote again: “You’ve done a great job on this
revision! However…” and she went on to say how part of the story wasn’t
realistic. I politely wrote back expressing why I thought it was realistic, but
also offering to revise it.
The editor’s next letter began: “Sometimes the simplest
stories are the trickiest to get right! We like this a lot, but…” She then
pointed out a problem that made me say “OUCH!—I should have seen that.” I fixed
it and sent the story again. This time my reply was an acceptance!
Of course, the editor could have sent a letter saying, “No,
it still doesn’t work for us.” If that had happened, I’d have been disappointed,
but still would have sent the improved manuscript off to another market.
Here are ten tips to help you with your next revision:
- Refresh. Set
your manuscript aside for several weeks.Don’t look at it or even think about it. When you return to the manuscript,
your goal is to read it as if you’ve never seen it before.
Change the font size or style, before rereading. Even simply changing
margins will help you see the manuscript differently.
someone else read it aloud. It’s amazing the mistakes I hear in a
manuscript despite having silently read it over and over again. I also hear
where the reader stumbles or doesn’t give my desired emphasis—both hints that I
need to work on those sections. I may even realize I can’t decide who is talking
without the visual cues of new paragraphs.
- Get your
writing reviewed by other writers and listen to their critique with an open
mind. Don’t automatically shut out ideas and suggestions. Even if they don’t
work for you, looking through another’s eyes can stimulate your mind. However,
if several point out a problem, you know you haven’t reached your target yet.
stifle your own reactions. I don’t know how many times my inner voice
responds to someone else’s comment with, “You knew that wasn’t quite right,
didn’t you!” I also like asking myself if my story came full circle. If I can’t
give myself an honest yes, I have more work to do.
help. Sometimes, I know something isn’t working, but don’t know where to go
next. Another writer may make a simple suggestion that turns the light on for me.
Ask others what they think the theme or premise is. If you’re writing is
working, their answer should be close to what you envision. Tell them what
emotion you’re hoping to evoke in a scene and ask if you accomplished it. Ask
them to state your story problem. If your reaction is “Wow, they didn’t get
it,” it probably means you didn’t give it clearly.
with viewpoint. Not just from 3rd to 1st person,
although that can make a difference, too, but change who is telling the story. Make
that boy a girl. Or see it through her best friend’s eyes instead of her own.
- Reshape. Changing
the form sometimes purges the dross. Try writing poetry instead of prose, diary
entries, or a newspaper report of the events. You may discover the story takes
off on its own in another format.
- Rewrite. All
the thought stirring usually motivates me to get to rewriting. Sometimes it’s
with excitement; sometimes with frustration at how I’ve fallen short.
Whenever I feel like giving up, I remember how revision took my manuscript to published short story in Highlights for Children (April 2000). That makes it much easier for me to revise.
I’ve seen writers propose the 5-draft novel writing process. Others talk about how many drafts they’ve been through before the book goes to their agent/editor. What draft am I on? I never know because I revise as I go. Some writers will tell you this is wrong, but I’m not alone in my process. Jared Reck says, “I write a few scenes by hand, then go back and type and revise, then back to hand-writing — the first finished draft of A Short History of the Girl Next Door was pretty polished; it just took me four years to get to that point.”
Revising During the Writing Process – How it Works for Me
When I get ready to write a new scene or chapter after a break in writing, I read the previous one or ones. This gets me back into the story, and yes, I will make changes and additions. Typos, misspellings, or wrong words annoy me, so if I notice any, those are fixed. (I write on a computer.) Then I move forward with the story. My break could be stopping for lunch, quitting for the day and coming back the next, the weekend off, or even longer depending on what else is going on in my life.
After I’ve made some progress on a novel (more than a couple chapters), I create a novel timeline or story ladder that is unique for each novel. You can read about that process here. This helps me have a quick overview of the story anytime I need one.
I also begin to share a chapter at a time with my critique group. This reading aloud helps me spot more typos or awkward phrasings. My critique partners are good at pointing out where I need more, have confusing areas, etc. Of course, this causes more revisions. Sometimes what they say means I create a whole new scene. If that new scene requires changes elsewhere, I’ll do that during this time, too.
Then I move forward with the story again, repeating these processes until I reach the end.
Meanwhile, I am always learning. I learn by attending workshops, conferences, retreats and other writing events, by reading blogs, newsletters, and articles, and by reading novels in and out of my genre. These often make me think about my story and I go back with new insights which most likely mean I need to add to my story. (I have a tendency to underwrite.)
I also learn from what my critique partners are working on. It may be what they are doing well. Or it may be something not working that I or someone else notices which makes me wonder if I’m doing the same thing.
Revisions Once the Story Is Complete
After some time away, I try to read the whole novel quickly with the purpose of thinking about the big picture of the story. I make notes on the major problem areas to work on. I also note bumps (where I stopped reading, felt something wasn’t quite right, etc.) When I’ve read the whole manuscript through, I attack the areas I’ve noted. When done, I wait a few days and reread the revisions to see if they are working.
I may ask myself questions. Sometimes, I ask my critique group the same questions about my story. E.g. Is the ending satisfying? Was the problem solved too easily? Did this scene feel realistic? Are the beginning and ending as strong?
I have several stages in polishing. Some add to the text, such as making sure I’m using sensory details in scenes (post here). Others take words away, which includes tightening, cutting overused words, getting rid of passive verbs, etc. (my post here). But whether adding or subtracting, these methods are meant to make the writing itself stronger.
I also revise after feedback from agents I’m querying.
In the End
Is my method the best? Probably not. But it works for me. Writing a novel is not a one-size-fits-all process, so please don’t let anyone try to convince you it is.
“Hi, my name is…”
I just went through a student assignment where most character names ended in the E sound. Some were spelled with a Y; others with IE. Not only does it get confusing with the same endings, but Gracie, Vicky, Lorie, Murphy, Bobby are also the same number of syllables. At least they started with different letters.
Varying your character names will help your reader keep track of who’s who.
But don’t just think about beginnings and endings, or number of syllables.
Think about different cultures and ethnicities.
Look at this fact: “The proportion of non-Hispanic white children in the U.S. has declined from 61 percent of all children in 2000 to 51 percent in 2016.” More from the same source here.
What about where you live? Or where you are setting your story? Who are the people there? When my daughter’s family moved to southern Georgia, my white grandchildren were the minority among a sea of black children. Where we raised our girls there was a significant Asian population. We spent a year in a town in New Jersey that had a large Jewish population. Where we live now there many people from the former Soviet Union and eastern Europe.
I’m not suggesting you appropriate anyone’s culture, but surely in your main character’s classroom or among his/her friends, not everyone will look/be just like your character.
Don’t forget religious influences.
Names may be inspired by parents’ faith or customs. Biblical names are often popular in our country. Although the US has often been called a Christian nation, that has changed too. Read some of the statistics here from 2016. And again it varies state by state. As the above link states: “No state is less religiously diverse than Mississippi.”
Popular culture can contribute to unusual names.
This site has 100 unusual or surprising baby names of 2018. Some come from TV; while others are from history; and others are names of fruit. Those children may be off to school in four or five years.
Here’s a fun resource: popular baby names by birth year.
Place names are popular.
I’ve met both boy and girl Londons. There’s Paris and Brooklyn. Austin and Hudson. Here’s a list of over 100 place names.
Consider the meaning of names.
This can be helpful in creating character traits or the ironic opposite. My name means graceful lily. I’ve never felt particularly graceful or flowerlike, but I learned the meaning when I was a kid. Your child/teen main character probably knows the meaning of his/her name, too.
Scifi and fantasy often have made-up names.
And some authors seem to go overboard into making them hard to pronounce. Sometimes names just have unique spellings. Here’s an article about fantasy name generators. Science fiction writers don’t have to feel left out–here’s one for scifi character names.
Names that almost weren’t.
Some names become household words. For fun and inspiration look at these twelve who almost were something less.
I know the holiday season is over, but I’m sure you remember this story. Santa’s reindeer won’t let poor Rudolph play any reindeer games. “Then one foggy Christmas eve…” those hypocrite reindeer suddenly liked Rudolph because he was useful. (Summary my own.)
I often see this theme in bully short stories in my student lessons. The picked upon main character saves the bullies, saves the day, or does something so great that now the bullies like him. Have you had that happen in real life? Me? Not so much. Neither have children. What’s that phrase? Haters will hate.
Bullies usually pick on isolated kids–the new kid, the different kid, the loner. Why is that? Because those isolated kids don’t have others to stand up for them. No support group in this situation. It’s like a pack of wolves against a lone rabbit. Scary! And because those bullies have issues of their own. Though sometimes mob mentality is in play too.
Good bully stories focus on how the main character deals with being bullied. (Without immediately going to parents or teachers. Even though we tell kids to go for help, we also know that bullies often plan retribution.)
-Some are tough and don’t react no matter what.
-Others fight back.
And what else?
New bully stories need to have something fresh about them.
There are lots of bully stories out there. Look at this one library’s Pinterest board of titles for young readers. Here’s a list aimed at tween and teen girls from a mighty girl. I’m sure we could find tons more.
Resources for writing about bullies:
“Advice & Tips On Creating & Writing Bullies”
“How do I write a believable, violent, and manipulative school bully?”
“Avoiding the avoid the cliched bully”
“Character Type: Bully”
Do you have other thoughts on this issue? Share them in the comments section.
Writing nonfiction for magazines is a good way to break into print. Editors get less article submissions than they do fiction.
Often editors tell you what they are looking for. For example, Highlights for Children posts their current needs on submittable. Their info was updated in November. Jack and Jill submission guidelines state: “We are especially interested in features or Q&As with regular kids (or groups of kids) in the Jack and Jill age group who are engaged in unusual, challenging, or interesting activities.” Root and Star is looking for nonfiction about water for their July/August 2019 issue (deadline end of March).
You may be familiar with big name magazines, but how do you find the smaller or lesser known ones? Via online sources such as Evelyn B. Christensen’s site. Or this resource, Magazine Markets for Children’s Writers that comes out annually. Check out libraries and bookstores to see physical copies of print magazines as well. Then you can search online for these magazines’ submission guidelines.
You’ve chosen a market, and even a topic, now what? Research. Here are some things to keep in mind:
- Don’t solely use internet sources. Editors will appreciate that you’ve used books, magazines, interviews, etc.
- Wikipedia is only useful in giving you an overview that may or may not be accurate, and when you use it to follow up with the sources listed at the bottom of an article.
- As you take notes, record where you got the information. You’ll send the bibliography of your sources with your article. There are now apps and software that can keep track of this information for you. This site lists some options.
- Using quotes in an article can really bring it to life. Copy these verbatim as you research.
- Be prepared that your research might take you in a different direction from your plan.
- Go deep with research and you may find some fascinating facts that will make your article pop.
Here’s a great resource on finding credible sources.
Before you write your article, ask yourself, “What is the main point I want to get across to my reader?” With that in mind you will create a more focused piece.
Next, get organized. Create a simple outline. It can be as basic as:
• Section one (be specific to your topic!)
• Section two
• Section three
Now write your first draft.
When finished, make sure each paragraph (or two) fits the topic of the outlined section. (It’s okay to adjust your outline, but paragraphs should have a mini-theme. Some magazines even use headers for sections and your simple outline can become those headers.)
Check the beginning. Is your title intriguing in some way? Does the opening draw a reader in? It could ask a question, be a short anecdote, make a provocative statement, etc.
Is the middle meaty? Full of good details? Interesting? More than what is general public knowledge.
Check the end. Does your article have a satisfying conclusion or just dribble to a stop? Sometimes, articles conclude with a statement that makes the piece feel it has come full circle–or in other words, the end ties back to the beginning.
Prepare your bibliography. There are many online resources on how to write one, but this website has links to how to include almost anything.
After setting your article aside for a week or two, come back and revise. If you have a critique group or beta readers, share and revise again.
Prepare to send…
Double check that:
• your article fits the required word count of the magazine.
• the accuracy of your quotes.
• the magazine’s deadline hasn’t passed.
• how to submit (electronically, through a form, via postal mail).
• write a query or cover letter, if necessary, and proofread carefully.
• read your article through one more time, checking for grammar and spelling errors.
• proof your bibliography.
Send. And make up a list of possible other places to send the article to if you get a rejection. (This may require further revisions or slanting.)
If you get an acceptance, celebrate! You’re a soon-to-be published (or republished) author.