Revision

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Estee came up with a really interesting question, inspired by Wednesday’s post:

I’m curious if you remember the slush. I mean, if someone submits something that isn’t good enough, revises it and re-submits it at least six months later, do you recognize them?

Other comments joked about agents and their all-remembering powers. Since we see thousands of submissions a year, it’s a funny idea that we’d remember them, right? Well, I have news for you. I remember submissions pretty well, considering the circumstances! I can’t really remember what I had for dinner a few days ago or to pick up the one thing I really need at the grocery store, but I do start to get submission deja vu when reading something I’ve seen before.

For me, and I don’t know about other agents out there, it’s always a turn of phrase or a description that triggers my memory. In cases where the query or submission had a really focused premise, the premise will jog my memory if I see it again. The same goes for other random tidbits: funny character names, strange author names, jokes, exotic locations that the author is writing from, random connections we have that they might have brought up in their queries, etc. There are a million different things that catch my attention, of course. And I probably wouldn’t recognize everything I’ve ever seen if it was presented to me again, but my memory has been pretty accurate so far.

If the question was asked in the context of whether to mention a resubmission in the query, I say you should always mention it. Don’t count on the agent to forget that you’ve submitted before. Most of us who use email can search for your previous correspondence. And it’s not a bad thing to resubmit something. We all know that writing is a craft and that writers end up revising, sometimes days after they send their first query, sometimes months or years.

What do you say if you’re resubmitting something? How about something simple along the lines of:

Dear Mary,

You saw this query and passed with some really insightful feedback (Ha! My fake letter is laying it on a bit thick, but if you did get a response from the agent the first time around, don’t be afraid to mention something about it…). I’ve since revised the project and am hoping you’ll be interested in taking a second look. To refresh your memory, the story goes like this:

And then you launch into the meat of your query again because, as good as my memory may sometimes be, I’ll always appreciate another pitch to remind me of the key points of your project.

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I just spent an amazing weekend at Big Sur with my colleagues, some great editor and writer friends, and a whole gaggle of talented, hardworking writers. How refreshing and invigorating (and, of course, exhausting, but so worth it)! I was especially proud of my workshop groups at this Big Sur because my writers became so close that they were eating together and hanging out long after our scheduled sessions were over. There was even talk of extending the conference connection and forming a critique group after the weekend ended.

This made me think, as I frequently do, about the glory of critique groups and readers. All writers need them, no matter if you’ve never thought so or had unsuccessful situations in the past. Good critique partners and readers are worth their weight in gold, truly. Seeing critique in action made me think of reader Melissa’s question:

What’s the best time to start submitting work to a critique group? Should you wait until it’s finished or submit chapters as they’re written? Also, are beta readers the same as a critique group?

The point of critique of any kind is to get other eyes (ideally, eyes that belong to writers who know what they’re talking about) on your work. How do you do that? First, there are critique partners or critique groups (the name isn’t important). These are other writers who you exchange work and commentary with, ideally on a regular basis. Some writers love working with local groups, but you don’t have to know your crit partners in person…these groups work well over the Internet or the phone, too.

Critique partners or groups work best when writers convene regularly and are committed to one another, so that a core group can stay together over the course of many projects. Critique partners become intimately familiar with your writing, your stories, your strengths, weaknesses, and goals. This kind of continuity lets you get down to business and really get into the nitty gritty of the writing (ideally…you can read more about what makes a great critique partner or group here).

Some groups all want a writer to have a completed manuscript, others will be open to seeing work in progress…sometimes literally as it comes hot off the press (or printer). You should talk this over with your critique partners and make a decision that appeals to everyone.

It can be useful and exciting to get feedback on a project while you’re still creating it. It is even more useful, I think, to finish something, revise it on your own for a few passes, and then bring in your critique partners. A novel changes so much during the writing process, that it may be more helpful for you to work it out and get it written first, before even thinking about feedback and revision.

There is a small distinction, in my mind, between critique groups (or partners…I’ve used both terms interchangeably here) and beta readers. When I think of critique partners, I think of a group that meets regularly, will read whatever you give them, and really drill into it. That could mean reading an entire manuscript, or it could mean reading twenty versions of one chapter as you try to get it right. Critique groups should be very hands on and intense. Beta readers are people who read the whole manuscript and give feedback, but who may not give as much writing/revision/craft advice as your regular critique group. Beta readers are great if you want new eyes on a project, or if you want to hear from someone who doesn’t already know the story (like if you’re writing a murder mystery and really want to see if your red herrings work, but you’re worried whether your critique partners, who already know the whole story, will be able to judge after a few revisions).

Most of the professional writers I know have a regular critique group and then a few beta readers who they reach out to after the manuscript has been revised and polished, just for some quick feedback and a last minute read before it goes to their agent or editor, just to make sure the book is working.

But if you’re just starting out, don’t worry about having a pocketful of beta readers and a five-person bi-monthly, dedicated critique group. Maybe find a partner online (through the Verla Kay Blueboards, or the SCBWI) or at a writer’s conference. If that partner doesn’t work, find another one. I just did a Critique Connection post a few weeks ago, so that might be a place to search. The point is, start finding some critique opportunities and getting comfortable with the practice of giving, receiving, and incorporating feedback from a supportive community of writers. Hone your revision skills. Take it one step at a time. You’ll find the right mix that works for you.

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Today’s guest post comes from the fantastic Chuck Sambuchino of Writer’s Digest and Guide to Literary Agents blog and book fame. He’s celebrating the recent release of this fabulous book, HOW TO SURVIVE A GARDEN GNOME ATTACK: DEFEND YOURSELF WHEN THE LAWN WARRIORS STRIKE (AND THEY WILL). Here, he shares the reason that your sample pages are getting rejected by agents, and I wholeheartedly agree. While I have posted on this topic a few times, maybe Chuck’s take will finally make folks listen. :)

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When agents review pages of your manuscript, they may reject you for one of three reasons. First, they may realize that the story they’re reading is in a genre or category outside of what they handle. Form rejection. The second reason they say no is because of poor writing skills: grammar, punctuation, sentence structure, etc. Form rejection. The third and most common reason that good writers get rejected is that their story just plain isn’t ready yet. In other words, it’s good—but simply being good doesn’t cut it. A piece of fiction has to be great to catch an agent’s eye.

Writers are constantly rejected because they’ve turned in work too early. As a writer myself, this is a problem I sympathize with. We work on a story for what seems like an eternity and then you get to a point where you just say, “If I read this darn thing one more cotton-pickin’ time, I will KILL SOMEBODY. I am so sick of looking at this thing that my eyeballs hurt. I am going to send it out and take my chances.”

So you’ve decided to send it out. But is it ready?

When is your work really ready? By that, I mean: When is your manuscript edited enough and polished to the point where you can confidently submit it to agents? I used to think there was no answer to this question, and that each project was so vastly different that it would be misleading to address the subject. But I was wrong.

The best answer I can give on the subject is this: If you think the story has a problem, it does—and any story with a problem is not ready. When I have edited full-length manuscripts (some for SCBWI friends and others on a freelance editor basis) and then met with the writers personally to discuss my thoughts, a strange thing happens. When I address a concern in the book, the writer will nod before I even finish the sentence. What this means is that they knew about the problem and suspected it was a weak point in the story. I have simply confirmed that which they already knew.

For example, some typical concerns were stuff like this:

  • “This part where he gets beat up—it doesn’t seem believable that so many kids just took off school like that.”
  • “If the main character is so stealth, then how come he gets caught by the bad guys here?”
  • “The story starts too slow. We need more action.”

In my experience, writers all seem to know many of their problematic issues before anyone even tells them. So all this brings me back to my main point: If you think your work has a problem, then it more than likely does—and any manuscript with a problem is not ready for agent eyes. If you find yourself saying, “Hmmm. I think the map just being there in the attic is kind of too lucky for the kids,” other readers will likely agree with you—and that is a great example of a typical problem. And every problem needs to be fixed before you submit to agents.

This shows the importance of beta readers—friends who will review the work once it’s written. They will come back to you with concerns, both big and small. You address the concerns in your next revision and send the work to more readers. Once readers stop coming back with concerns, you’re starting to get somewhere. If you think you have issues, or multiple critiquers agree on a problem, then you’re not ready for Querytime. When you and your readers can look at a book and say that all concerns are adequately addressed (and it therefore lacks any major problems), then and only then will you be ready.

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Something an agent (Scott Tremeil) said at the NJ SCBWI agent panel really put a point on something I’d been thinking for a long time and hadn’t quite gotten around to articulating. We were asked to give listeners one parting piece of advice. Mine, perhaps selfishly, was about the wonderful benefits of revision and getting a good critique group (since I want to see very, very polished manuscripts, of course).

Scott said that, sometimes, if he hears that a writer has been working on a manuscript for 10 years or so, that’s a red flag for him. I have to completely agree. Writers who are emotionally tied up in their story to an extreme degree are also a red flag. These issues make me worry: Is the writer too close to the manuscript to be able to see it objectively and revise it accordingly? Is it too precious for them? Are they so emotionally involved with the piece that getting it rejected by a publisher will be damaging? Are they so invested in a particular story or can they  move on from it to write something else? Will it also take them 10 years to craft the next book?

Writers who belabor something for years are problematic. I know some mad geniuses like Harper Lee only have one great book in them. In today’s market, though, the ideal writer (to an agent or publisher, that is) can turn out consistent, quality manuscripts about once a year. This way you can always have a next book coming out and you can start building your readership. You’ll have a brand and, twice a year, readers can look for you on shelves — once in hardcover for this year’s book, once in paperback for last year’s.

Writers who are writing about a personal subject that is very close to their hearts make me anxious, too. If you are writing a story, for example, about the death of a character’s sister to, Heaven forbid, work through that tragedy happening in your own life, how will you deal with an editor rejecting that story? Or with an editor coming in and wanting you to make changes? Is your subject matter too close to home? Is an experience in the novel too precious and too reflective of your own life?

In no way am I saying “Don’t write about something painful or personal.” Do. That way, your story will have great emotional resonance. And it will be cathartic for you. But do realize which part of that story is yours and which part of that story is fiction. Which part belongs to you, privately, and which part belongs to readers, publicly.

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: writing is extremely personal, but publishing is a business. If you don’t think you can walk this fine line with a manuscript that’s on your plate — whether it’s because you’ve been working on the manuscript for so long or because you’re dealing with deeply personal subject matter — it may be better not to pursue publication with it.

The point I wish I’d made, after hearing Scott’s advice, is this: there are many times in a writer’s journey where a manuscript is just a manuscript. Every single thing you write is a learning experience…but, sometimes, that’s all it is. Glean what you can from a manuscript or an essay or a paragraph, and move on. Start something new. You’ll be better and stronger and wiser for it. I like hearing that a writer has a lot of drawer novels, actually, because it tells me one very important thing: they know how to learn from an experience and move on.

This advice obviously doesn’t apply to everyone. Some people love mining their emotional past an others take longer to write a manuscript. But if these things are starting to feel like obstacles to you, the best solution may be putting that particular manuscript aside and starting something else.

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An issue came up in the comments about my recent catch-22 post. Christine asked about “closed” house editors (those who do not accept unsolicited or unagented submissions) who go to conferences and request materials or open up submissions to conference attendees only.

Editors do not rely solely on agents to bring them fantastic material. They are always on the hunt. Just like agents, they love the possibilities of the search, the thrill of discovering something brand new and phenomenal. I know plenty of editors who read blogs and websites, scout literary magazines and otherwise keep their antennae up. This includes going to conferences and picking up potentially talented writers. When agents and editors are at conferences, our role is very much the same: hone in on the cream of the crop and get their submissions. There’s even a similarity to how editors and agents treat submissions from conference attendees. Sometimes we reject outright, sometimes we reject the particular project but leave the door open to receive future work, and sometimes we take that writer on and develop them.

The key difference, though, is that agents are, inherently, more free to gamble. We have more time and resources (and incentive…a lot of agents work on commission, while editors get a salary…both go above and beyond the call of duty all the time, but agents do have an extra hunger) to develop raw talent into something saleable. Editors have bandwidth for this as well but they have all sorts of other things to do, projects already on their list to edit and lots of internal office duties that most writers don’t even lend a thought to. So they will sometimes pass on something that needs work (or pass it along to an agent friend), whereas an agent might dig in and really shape it into a great book.

Here’s what I said to Christine in the comments:

Yes, editors who attend conferences will sometimes tell attendees to send them submissions (usually a query or ten pages, sometimes for a limited time window like 3 months). Sometimes editors will also requests manuscripts based on a meeting or consultation with a writer. So yes, there are ways to get into closed houses by meeting editors at conferences.

However, as an agent (and as an agent, obviously, I would argue the merits of agents), it is my job to help writers get their manuscripts to an “editor ready” level. Sometimes these conference connections result in a direct offer from an editor. More often than not, though, they don’t. I’d much rather have a writer come to me and say “I met with So and So at a conference and want to get my manuscript in shape before s/he sees it,” than, “I met So and So at a conference and they passed on this already.” An unagented writer has less idea of what “editor ready” means, is all.

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For a lot of unagented writers, meeting an editor at a conference seems like the Golden Ticket. If you do have this opportunity, though, I strongly urge you to query some agents as well. If you keep getting form rejections or no response, or if any of your requests come back with the same general feedback…do go back to the manuscript and give it some more elbow grease.

Agents have one goal: selling a book to an editor. So if agents keep rejecting your book, it’s a really good sign that an editor will probably reject it as well. Your chance with an editor (as with an agent) is sometimes a one-time opportunity, so you really do want to make sure your work is in fantastic shape. An agent, obviously, would be a great asset in determining whether or not you’re going to compete with everything else that editor has in his or her inbox. At least think about trying for an agent, even if you do have an invitation to submit from a conference or another opportunity.

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There’s something I want to say, just in case there’s anyone out there waiting to hear it from a professional: it’s okay to play around with your manuscript and try stuff, even if it doesn’t work.

You’d be surprised by how many people write or type something and think they’ve created a permanent thing. Ideally, your words will be permanent in the form of a printed book someday. However, until you get to that stage, every single word you write is very malleable, deletable, inflatable, and very much alive.

I get questions along these lines ALL THE TIME:

Should I write in present or past tense?
Should I write in first or third person?
Should I include a flashback about my character’s dead mother/father/sister/goldfish?
Should I have more dialogue or description in this scene?
Should I work in one POV or in multiple?
Should I start my chapters with song lyrics?
Should my character go to the abandoned mine or the abandoned warehouse to encounter the flesh-eating zombies?
Should I write a prologue? (Hot topic. I’ll have to post exclusively on this at some point.)

Lots of these questions get sent my way. Lots of questions I can’t answer. Lots of questions you probably shouldn’t be asking anybody but yourself, since it’s your story and only you know the best way to tell it.

The liberating thing is, you don’t always have to know the best way to tell it from the very beginning. If you tell it one way–in present tense, say–and figure out that it’s not working…switch tenses. Yeah, it’s a pain in the butt. Yeah, it’ll take work on every single page and in every single sentence. Yeah, there’s the possibility that you’ll hate past tense even more than  you hate present tense.

But at least you you tried. At least you went into the lab and found out firsthand. You played around. You experimented. You really shouldn’t be afraid of burning through some words (a million bad words, in fact), even if it doesn’t work out. It’s true that you could spend months trying something–another POV character, for example–that totally bombs. And you have nothing to show for all that work you did. And your manuscript is still not right. And all the Ben & Jerry’s has gone missing from your freezer and you still haven’t caught the dastardly thief who broke into your house and stole it.

The only way you’ll know whether something works or not is by sitting down and doing it. You may, per the above nightmare scenarios, figure out that your idea was a pretty lame one. Or you may stumble upon something that makes your book richer, better, more like the perfect book that’s shimmering in your imagination.

The worst thing you can do is write words once and think you’re done writing them for good. Those words could be great words, sure. But there could be other words that are even better. The only way you can find the exact right words is by trying things, playing, letting loose.

Whenever you’re shopping for something really important, you have to try a lot of losers to find the winner. It’s no different with all the parts that make your novel come together (characterization, description, plot points, scenes, POV, voice, tense, etc.). So this is your invitation, in case you were waiting for it. Take the fear out of it and try the thing that’s been nagging at you, the thing your gut is curious about. Go ahead.

Remember, despite all the rejection, the creative upheaval, the ice cream binges, the end-of-publishing-as-we-know-it news…writing is supposed to be fun (at least most of the time). If it’s not, you might not be experimenting and playing enough.

It’s like people who don’t cook without tasting. Is my mole sauce spicy enough? Does it have enough chocolate? Does it go well with the chicken? Don’t just stand over the pot asking yourself these questions…get a spoon and dig in. If it’s not working, adjust or throw it out and try again. I don’t trust a cook who doesn’t taste as they’re creating, nor do I trust a writer who won’t experiment.

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In light of my recent Critique Connection post, where I’ve let readers who want critique partners climb out of the woodwork and introduce themselves, I wanted to focus on what it means to be a great critique partner today, which was a great suggestion from MY critique partner, Martha, in the comments for my last post. (Thanks for keeping me on my toes, Martha.)

So, if you’ve followed the blog long enough, you know that I can’t put enough emphasis on critique and revision. That’s where writing truly grows. First, because nobody can have a perfect (or anywhere-near-publishable) novel in one draft. At least not when you’re starting out and learning about writing. Second, because you cannot be anywhere near objective about your own work. Even if you’ve had many, many books published, you’ll still get feedback from beta readers. All of the published writers I know do this for their first, their second, their tenth books. And I honestly believe that you learn so much from critiquing the work of others that it should be a required exercise for anyone hoping to get published.

What does it mean to be a great critique partner? You give more than you get. Lots of people go into a workshop or critique situation and sit there until the group gets to their submission. This is a waste of everybody’s time. If you’re going to get valuable critique on your own work, don’t miss out on the valuable learning experience of being able to critique the work of another person and do it well.

What else does it mean to be a great critique partner? You don’t just focus on the what, you focus on the why. Sure, any idiot can say, “This part doesn’t work for me.” But when you articulate why something works or doesn’t work, you’re putting your finger on the writing craft and taking its pulse. Does a section seem clunky because there is too much description? Is there too much telling in a writer’s characterization of someone and you don’t actually get a clear sense of who they are? Is a writer’s dialogue clunky because they use a lot of adverbs and physical choreography in their dialogue tags? These are getting to be more concrete than just saying, “It’s slow” or, worse, “It sucks.”

Great critique partners don’t pass judgment and they aren’t prescriptive. Everyone who sits down at the page has got to start somewhere. Everyone writing today is on a different part of their writing and learning journey than the writer next to them. Good critique partners can see and understand the strengths and weaknesses of a particular piece and a particular writer in the moment, and work with that. They give constructive feedback, don’t judge the overall merit of the work (because you’re all there to improve, right?) and they don’t tell you how to fix whatever issue they’ve identified. A writer friend of mine says, “If they tell you what’s wrong, they’re probably right. If they tell you how to fix it, they’re probably wrong.” Critique groups can be sounding boards for the writers’ ideas, sure, but they should never tell the writer what to do or what to try. That kind of playing around and imaginative work is how the writer learns, on their own, to make their story stronger.

Balance is important in critique groups. You want one or two really amateur writers, but none more than that. You’ll also want one or two people on the other end of the spectrum, and a few in the middle, depending on size. Be careful of getting into a group of people who are all the same level. You need different abilities, strengths and weaknesses, or you won’t grow as much.

Personality is also important. If you don’t like your critique group or trust them, you’ll stop getting any benefits from the exercise very quickly and you’ll start to resent the whole process, which could leave a permanent block on your writing path. It’s okay to try several groups or several people… you want to find a good fit, not just the first person who’ll read your stuff.

Finally, the worst thing your critique group can say is, “It’s fine” or “It’s good.” Even if it’s good, your critique group should always be pushing you to new horizons in your writing. All my published writer friends who are in critique groups get feedback, tons of it, and it helps them take their work to the next level. And those are published authors, even bestsellers! Sure, they could probably get their first drafts published, some of them, but why would they want to?

It’s all about growing and learning and evolving in the writing business. It’s up to you to find partners who are like-minded and who understand that. And once you get their feedback, it’s up to you to use it in your work and do the revisions. I may write a post sometime about processing feedback and using it in a constructive way, but I think I’ve given you some food for thought to start.

And again, everyone, go to my previous post and cruise the comments to see if any critique partners catch your eye. If their email isn’t listed, post a comment. If you want to write your own “Critique Partner Wanted” ad there, make sure to post your email so people can get in touch with you.

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Beth asked a question in the comments on Friday that I’d love to address. Here’s what she said:

My burning question: Is a week–or two too long to wait to get back to an agent requesting a partial? Based on a different agent’s feedback, I’d decided to do a huge revision of the beginning of my manuscript. Recently another agent (queried *before* my decision to revise) asked to see the beginning. Obviously I want it to be perfect before sending it, but I don’t want to lose the agent’s interest or have them think I queried them prematurely (which is actually the case, but it was an honest mistake).

Honey, every writer I’ve ever known has made this honest mistake. OF COURSE you queried prematurely. Why? Because, even though I’ve been saying not to f-o-r-e-v-e-r, you didn’t believe me. That’s fine. I don’t take it personally. I know it’s not fun advice, so I know most people ignore it (or think they’re the exception). The only way to really learn this is to be in the situation and to have that light bulb go off in your head. Even with things you’ve been told a million, billion times, it never resonates until you’re staring at the manuscript you just queried around and seeing all the flaws and you have that sinking feeling in your gut.

I won’t scold you any more about it, though. :)

But now I will give you some advice that I really hope you (translation: everybody reading this who will be querying at any point in their future, and not just querying me) take to heart. If you’ve already made this mistake — to be clear, the mistake is rushing out a manuscript that wasn’t as fully revised as it needs to be — once, don’t make it twice. DO NOT rush to complete this next revision just so you can rush it out to agents again. How can you POSSIBLY do a “huge revision” in two weeks and have it fully percolate and marinate and settle?

This just happened to me, for example. I usually don’t talk about things where the writer will most likely be able to identify him or herself on the blog, but this is harmless. I asked for a full manuscript in, oh, October. I never ended up getting it. And I’m selective about the fulls I request, so I did remember that I’d asked for it, and every few months, I’d randomly think, “Hey, I wonder what happened with that one.” Well, an email with a completely revised full showed up this week (April), with a note that the writer had done a serious revision and didn’t want to bug me before it was ready. You know what? Not only did I not forget this manuscript (a), but I now respect that writer, because they got a full request and were about to press the “send” button in their excitement, but they pulled back and really took their time on a revision (b).

I tell people at conferences the same exact things (are y’all listening out there from Dallas?!). If I ask to see something, or I am even remotely interested in what you’re doing, you will not lose my interest. They probably got some ideas at the conference. They will probably go home and do revisions. They should take their time and query me whenever, because I’d rather see something good than something unpolished that comes quickly. Let’s just say I prefer slow, gourmet food to fast food, because it takes a lot of time and care and craft to cook really delicious fare.

So, Beth, take your time. Don’t rush AGAIN. I know I’ll end up begging and pleading this particular point for the rest of my career, so here’s yet another entry into the Don’t Rush Out Your Submission Hall of Fame.

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This came from brilliant YA author Laurie Halse Anderson’s Twitter yesterday, and I agree wholeheartedly:

Revision means throwing out the boring crap and making what’s left sound natural.

Let’s all mediate on that today!

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Today, the Revision-o-Rama series of posts draws to a gentle close. I hope you’ve gotten some new ideas and the food for thought has been fruitful for you. Of course, I will keep posting about revision topics on the blog and, of course, you will keep revising into the new year (right?). Now it’s time for me to take a breather, reset back to my “regular programming” and give you all a few ideas for how to proceed from here, as well as recommend some books on revision that I’ve read and found helpful in my study on the subject.

I have to say that the biggest revision weapon in a writer’s toolkit is… other readers. It’s that simple. Writing is most definitely not a solitary pursuit, at least it shouldn’t be. With writing, the following thing tends to happen: the more we write, the more we revise, the more we muck around in the same material over and over, the more blind we grow to it. The most obvious example is missing typos. Our eyes just tend to gloss over the words if we read them too much. Or we know our manuscript has problems but we leave them in because a) we love that part, b) we’re too lazy to really fix it, c) we’re waiting for someone to call us on it, d) we figure that’s what an editor is for.

No, no. As editors tighten their belts and only take on the most polished projects, it has become even more important to revise to perfection before you even seek an agent. (Who will then tell you to — you guessed it! — revise yet again, if they’re the kind of agent who places a  lot of emphasis on editorial work, which I do.) So, since you’re effectively blind to your own work, you have to bring in qualified readers as soon as you’re feeling strong enough to hear their feedback.

Join a critique group if you’re not in one already… there are plenty of writers on message boards and various websites who are just dying to get together and are maybe too shy to ask. Whether you do one online and email manuscripts back and forth or whether you find a group in your area through a writing or arts center, the Internet, Craigslist, etc., make sure the group you’ve got is quality. If they don’t write kidlit, they should at least respect it and want to learn more about it from you. If they’re not published, their work should at least be damn close. The best groups have at least one published or agented writer in the mix. Strive to join those that feel slightly more advanced than your level, so that you can really trust and enjoy their expert advice.

The other great thing about a critique group is that you learn a whole lot about writing just by looking at someone else’s work. If you see a mistake or something that jumps out at you in another manuscript, and you get good about analyzing what works and what doesn’ t — guess what? — soon you’ll be turning that same sharp and critical eye on your own work. (It usually takes a while to translate… anyone can be a critic but actually implementing the same advice toward oneself is the real challenge.)

Even if it’s not a traditional critique group with regular meetings, you should at least hook up with one or two writing friends or take a writing class. Maybe you can make some bonds that’ll extend past the last day. Or go to local or national conferences. There are plenty of writers there that you can befriend and keep in touch with. But the key is getting eyes on your manuscript, and getting eyes that know what they’re talking about (now that, my friends, is a mixed metaphor). Teach yourself to hear their wisdom but take it with a grain of salt. You’ll learn a lot, you’ll also discard a lot, but I can tell you one thing for sure: the more feedback you get on a manuscript, the more it’ll inspire you, the more it’ll spark your own imagination and the stronger it will be.

If you want to do more independent study on writing and revision in general, I can recommend the following books on revision, specifically, and the writing process in general:

BIRD BY BIRD by Anne Lamott
REVISION AND SELF-EDITING by James Scott Bell
WRITING THE BREAKOUT NOVEL by Donald Maass
STORY by Robert McKee
THE SUCCESSFUL NOVELIST by David Morrell
ON WRITING by Stephen King
FINDING YOUR WRITER’S VOICE by Thaisa Frank
NO PLOT? NO PROBLEM by Chris Baty
FINDING YOUR VOICE by Les Edgerton
TIME TO WRITE by Kelly L. Stone

Books on grammar and punctuation:

EATS, SHOOTS & LEAVES: THE ZERO TOLERANCE APPROACH TO PUNCTUATION by Lynne Truss (hilarious!)
THE ELEMENTS OF STYLE ILLUSTRATED by William Strunk Jr. and E.B. White (stylish!)

Books on writing for children:

DEAR GENIUS: THE LETTERS OF URSULA NORDSTROM ed. by Leonard S. Marcus (highly recommended!)
THE SPYING HEART by Katherine Paterson
THE WRITER’S GUIDE TO CRAFTING STORIES FOR CHILDREN by Nancy Lamb

Books on reading:

READING LIKE A WRITER by Francine Prose

Finally, Maggie Stiefvater did this on her blog with great success, so I just wanted to open it up to you all in case anyone is looking for a critique buddy. You can use the comments for this post as a personal ad to find fellow writers who might be looking for the same. Maybe talk briefly about what you write (What age group is it for? What genre is it? Is it complete?) and what you’re looking for, and we’ll see if we can’t match anybody up so you guys can go off and work together.

As for me, I’m going to take January 1st off, again and drink in the last little bit of holiday time before publishing comes back in earnest (as will I) on January 4th.

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