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 was once again reminded how important a fresh look is on a manuscript. This week a writer friend asked me to look at a picture book manuscript that her agent had said was “too mean spirited.” It was a retelling of an old story–good guys against a bad guy–with a very modern twist. I thought it was hilarious. I’d seen several versions and really couldn’t see much to tone down. Then yesterday she showed it to a mutual critique partner who had not seen the story before. She pointed out areas that would soften the story. This third writer had fresh eyes and was so right in her suggestions.
I love this imagery from Arthur Polotnik: “You write to communicate to the hearts and minds of others what’s burning inside you. And we edit to let the fire show through the smoke.” When we are writing our own view is hindered by smoke. We’re excited about what we’re creating–in love with our characters, our words. Setting aside the manuscript and coming back to it later when the fire has cooled, let’s some of that smoke of infatuation clear.
When we’ve looked at a manuscript over and over and over, we get blind. It’s too easy to skim because we “know” what it says. Suzanne Paschall says it this way, “Tired eyes become blind to errors that jump out to fresh eyes…” Somehow we need a splash of water in the face to wake us up.
Right now I’m going through my own manuscript using comments from my critique group. Mine is a novel in verse and once I gave the complete manuscript to my partners, I’ve didn’t look at it until I got their feedback. (I also tried not to think about the story at all.) Their questions and comments are helping me see it afresh. It helps me see what I know but didn’t put on the page. It helps me see where I wasn’t clear or left out details that will add to the story. It challenges me. And I know it is making my story better.
Soon, I’ll reread the whole story again to get it ready to send out on submission. This time I’ll probably first change the font so it looks different to me. This trick can help fool our eyes into seeing the words afresh.
Do you have other tools you use to look at your writing with fresh eyes? If so, please share in the comments.
The Mostly True Story of Jack (Little, Brown, 2011) by Kelly Barnhill is told in multiple viewpoints. It’s good. It’s scary. And it has a great opening: “Frankie was the first to know. Frankie was the first to know most things–but since he hadn’t spoken since he was eight years old, it didn’t matter what he knew. He couldn’t tell anyone.” How could you not read that book?!
But in case you aren’t convinced, here’s a bit more about the story. 12-year-old twins, Frankie and Wendy, know that whatever happened four years ago when Frankie disappeared and came back scarred is back. So does Wendy’s best friend, Anders. Even Clayton Avery of the rich and powerful Avery family senses something–his ears are itchy and there are bell like sounds. Enter Jack. His parents are divorcing and Mom is bringing him to stay with an aunt and uncle in Iowa. Jack feels like he is growing more invisible than usual. And now his mother is abandoning him here with these strangers and in this strange house that seems to shift and waver. Then he overhears his aunt and uncle talking about the family unraveling, and a catastrophe instead of divorce. Mabel says, “I just pray that Jack won’t hate us for what we’ll need him to do.” Too late, Jack thought.
I read the book with the above cover, but am buying this cover version for a grandson. It’s spookier!
Kelly recently posted about work on her most recent novel. “On cutting, and revising, and hanging on, and letting go” is a helpful read for any writer.