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An editor friend of mine recently wrote to me and said, loosely paraphrased, “Can you please write something about why asking lots of questions in interiority to make the reader wonder those things is lazy so that I can point writers there and let YOU be the bad guy? I’m sick of giving the same note over and over again!” I love my friends. They are more than happy to let ME fall on the sword. :P No problem!

Honestly, I’m happy to write this post because it’s an extension of one of my favorite topics: WHY things like “show, don’t tell” are a writing adage. If you’re still confused about the editor’s request, let me give you an example of what my brilliant friend means. She’s referring specifically to this technique in interiority:

I stared longingly across the bleachers at Paul. For a second, it almost seemed like he was looking back. A sly, blink-and-you’ll-miss-it smile later, though, his eyes had moved on. What if he liked me? He had completely broken character earlier and talked to me during lunch. A shiver worked its way through me but ended on an icy note. I reminded myself that I had to be careful. Catelynn’s killer was still out there. The police that came to the school had reminded us that cold-blooded murderers often lurk where we’d least expect. Especially in small towns like Dalebrook. A family friend. A seemingly friendly pastor. The cute guy at school. My heart squeezed painfully. What did I know about Paul, anyway? Where had his family moved from, again? Despite that dashing smile and those soulful brown eyes, could I actually trust him?

CAN YOU SEE WHERE I’M GOING WITH THIS? ARE YOU SUSPICIOUS OF PAUL YET? Whoa, sorry. I should probably put away my Obvious Megaphone. Because that’s really the effect when you start to weave too many questions into your character’s interiority. It’s basically the same as telling, though you’d like to think you’re not telling because of that ingenious little question mark at the end of the sentence. Writers are wonderful at telling themselves they’re not telling (telling to the negative degree?). They will put things they want told into dialogue to avoid long passages of backstory. They will sneak information into letters. They will overdose on flashbacks. All of these techniques are okay within reason, but let me remind you what’s harmful about telling to begin with…

Telling takes the initiative out of the story for the reader. It depletes that sense of discovery that always accompanies working your way through a good book. These questions are meant to lead the character down a certain path. Rather than luring them with bread crumbs, this is the equivalent of clubbing an audience and dragging them back to your cave. Readers like to participate in a story, that’s what gets and keeps them engaged. We’d much rather formulate our own opinions about Paul and brew our own suspicions. Maybe as a reaction to something Paul has done that’s a little shady. Maybe because we’ve read one too many “hottie bad boy” plots. Whatever the reason, we want to be suspicious of Paul on our own, and that’s something the reader is bringing to the page, rather than the author.

It all comes down to trusting the reader. We tell because we desperately want that information out there in black and white instead of leaving it as a delicious little gray area clue for the reader to find. There’s tension in the latter, though, there’s intrigue, there are even higher stakes, because if we’re not sure about something, we are more likely to care about where it goes. My suggestion is to try and bury the obvious until it’s less so. Make it a game. Don’t give away the answer in the questions.

(BTW, the title of this post is meant to be clever rather than political!)

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Katie Van Amburg, a recent college graduate, wrote in a few weeks ago and wanted to know what she should be doing next to further herself as a writer. Should she get an MFA? Should she work at a publishing house? These are some of the “next step” questions that a lot of writers have when they’re looking around and wondering if the writing that they do in their rooms is going to be enough to speed them toward their goals.

Is taking the next step and working at a publishing house or getting an advanced degree for you? Well, as a lady who has done both…

This is a tough answer to hear but it’s necessary: There is no magic bullet. I worked as an intern at Chronicle Books in San Francisco, and it was wonderful. I learned a lot. I also got an MFA degree and wrote a thesis, which was a completed fiction manuscript. Again, I learned a lot. But working at Chronicle didn’t get me automatically to some new level as a writer, and neither did the MFA. Neither ended directly in a publishing deal. I published a book this year but it took into consideration all of my experiences in publishing. And everything I wrote for Chronicle or for the MFA certainly must’ve played a role, but at the end of the day, the sum of all my experiences came out on the page.

Writing isn’t a linear progression. There’s no “go get your medical degree, then do a residency, then…” path outlined for it anywhere. That can be liberating, but it can also be scary because there are so many variables and fewer tangible results than in other fields.

If you do any of these things, you are doing them for YOU and to grow as a writer, not to get brownie points on your resume. Remember that. If you expect to wake up the morning after your MFA thesis is accepted and somehow be changed, it’s not going to happen. (Sorry to say, but it’s sort of like publishing a book. When I got the deal, I called Andrea. The first thing she said to me was, “That’s great, but just don’t think it will change your life.” At first, I thought she was being a bummer. Now I know she’s right. That one thing will not change your life…unless it becomes a megaselling hit and makes you lots of money. Most books are all about what you got out of writing it and then all about what you do with them. Waking up on publication day is like waking up on any other day.)

However, if you think a structured, workshop-based program will help you get to the next level, apply to an MFA and get everything you can from it. If you want to see how a publisher works from the inside out, go intern at one or work for a literary magazine or read for a literary agent. But don’t expect either of them to be more than what you make of them.

Sure, good programs and good publishers will furnish you with mentors and experiences you’ve never had before. And there’s a lot of value in that. But there’s usually no benchmark with something like this. The lessons and realizations (and then the energy and courage to use those insights when you’re back at the page) mean the ball is in your court. All of these things are just individual steps, it’s up to you to put them together into a ladder a climb it.

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One of the most important notes I can give to an aspiring writer is a gentle reminder that they should start in the present moment when they begin their story. Often, a story will start with generalizations or philosophy. Maybe a description of the weather or a person’s mood. Perhaps physical details or action that hasn’t really been given a time or place. For example, take this:

First days of school were always the worst. They made Caylee feel bad. Nothing was ever exactly how she wanted it to be, and she supposed that was the point of life. But first days were the worst, because they combined a hope she should’ve probably learned to ignore by now with the eventual disappointment of growing up.

Not only is there telling about emotion (“They made Caylee feel bad”) but the writer here (me) is hitting the reader over the head with the coming of age theme of growing up and tempering expectations. Yawn. Notice that we don’t have a concrete place yet, nor do we have a specific time (it’s the first day of school but is the character at home in the early morning, on her way to homeroom, reflecting on it at night, etc. etc. etc.).

The reader is in limbo and, without any additional action that could potentially make this clunker of an opening go down more smoothly, there’s really nothing here to hold on to in any serious way.

Your beginning is Prime Real Estate, remember. Not only do you want to start strong and grabby, but you also want to get away from the vague, get away from the general, get away from the philosophy, stop writing bumper sticker expressions of your theme, and go toward the specific and the well-defined. In that vein, a reboot of the above example could be something like:

Caylee tried to close her locker but the stupid thing stuck. Only five minutes before homeroom on yet another “first day of school” that she was supposed to be so excited about. She imagined what it would be like to walk in late and have everyone staring at her. Suddenly the brand new white toes of her brand new pink Converse felt fake–like she was obviously trying way too hard. She kicked the locker door closed and scuffed her right shoe. Great. A visual reminder of how perfect-seeming days usually ended in disappointment.

A bit melodramatic, perhaps, but we know exactly when and where we are, and I’m still working with some of the same emotions and ideas. Notice how the much more specific thoughts about them really help do away with that limbo/hazy/floaty feeling inspired by vague statements like “the eventual disappointment of growing up” and “First days of school were always the worst.” These same issues have now become much more specific to the time and place, and also to the character.

Make sure that, within the first two paragraphs, the reader can always point to exactly where and when your story starts. If you need a lot of time to get to grounding your reader, you haven’t found your beginning just yet.

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If you’ve ever listened to the trailer for an action movie, you know what I’m talking about. A guy with a deep and raspy voice (think Will Arnett) is narrating as the sun rises over a wasted landscape:

In a world of destruction, the danger of explosive secrets will bring one man to the edge.

Sounds great. Really juicy. Until you think about it and realize you have no idea what the movie’s about. Well, this is the kind of thing you want to avoid in your prose and in your pitches. I see this a lot with novel openings. Writers think that they can juice up the tension by making their first few paragraphs sound like action-trailer nonsense. They often do this in queries, also, where they give me even less of an inkling as to what their book is really about.

We get a lot of talk about danger and secrets and tension and action, but nothing is actually communicated and, since it has all been telling, the reader never feels the emotions that those volatile things are supposed to be stirring.

The antidote to this is specificity. I don’t want to hear about “danger,” I want to see it, and I want to know exactly what it is and what it means for the character. I don’t want to hear about “secrets,” I want to be blown out of the water by them and see their high-stakes ramifications play out on character and relationship. And if you find yourself writing one of those filler paragraphs to open your novel, delete it and start in scene, with specific action, with specific characters.

That pretty much does it for my daily “show, don’t tell” plug. Now, I’m off on my day of intrigue, excitement, and thrills!

(Translation: My day of reading a manuscript, taking a lunch meeting, and checking out my new gym. Sure, this line-up doesn’t exactly sound as flashy as “intrigue, excitement, and thrills,” but it is specific, and now you have a much clearer sense of my day.)

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As I say, I’ve been doing a lot of Writer’s Digest webinar critiques lately, and so a lot of posts have been inspired by things I’m seeing and notes I’m giving. While there are lots of personalized notes that I give on each manuscript (which are specific to the work), there is a handful of notes that I cut and paste from a master Word document (5 pages long!) because I have to give them over and over and over again, as they apply across dozens of manuscripts. No blog post is about a single critique that I’ve given. If I’m writing about it here, that means I’m seeing it a lot. One webinar student, Barbara, wrote back to react to a note that I’d given her. This is the note:

If you have to go into a flashback or two in the first 500 words, my guess is that you haven’t found your beginning yet. A strong opening scene is one you want to stick to for a few pages without yanking the reader away.

Barbara’s was personalized slightly for the manuscript at hand, but that is the heart of the comment. I give this note when a writer establishes a present moment with their novel opening, but then they either go into a flashback or cut the scene short and dash off to another scene within the first 2 pages (or 500 words, which is also the limit for critique submissions for the novel webinars).

And this was Barbara’s reaction to it:

Just a quick note to thank you so much for your critique. I have been struggling for a long time now on my opening pages, not quite understanding why they weren’t working. Your observation that maybe I haven’t found my real beginning yet was eye-opening. I am now filled with ideas for a new first chapter, and so relieved that I can take all the pressure off my current first chapter!

I wanted to share this with you because I think it’s a very common issue that a lot of writers struggle with. Beginnings are hard. You have to accomplish a lot with them (there’s a checklist in my upcoming book that I thought long and hard about). You almost never know everything your beginning will have to do until you finish the book, and it’s often the section that you’ll have to go back to over and over again to make sure it works and pulls the reader in while introducing your character and world without too much heavy telling or backstory. Whew!

As such, most writers don’t land on their real beginning until much later in the revision process. Some don’t even land there until their book is sold and they’re deep into editing it on a more professional level. The point is, do the best you can with the beginning, learn as much as you can about how to make a good beginning work (while you’re waiting for my book, check out HOOKED by Les Edgerton, out from Writer’s Digest, and discussed on this blog already here), and then give it your best shot.

If you lock yourself (mentally) into a beginning that isn’t working, it will hurt you in the submission pile, since that’s what you’re showing off to agents and editors. Stay as open-minded and as flexible with your novel opening, and make sure you write one that you will want to sustain for a scene or two without slipping into flashback or making a scene transition. That’s one easy way to know when a writer is in their opening mojo–they grab on to a beginning and they run with it for a while. Thanks to Barbara for letting me pass on this reminder, and keep my note in mind for your own writing.

Should you want a chance to get a critique from me, I’m giving another Writer’s Digest webinar on May 10th. This is a general market overview, which I’ve given once in September 2010 and which I often give at conferences. If you haven’t taken a webinar from me before, or haven’t heard me speak, this is a great opportunity to hear a talk that I’m phasing out of my repertoire.

It covers the picture book, middle grade, and young adult marketplace and some bigger picture craft issues. Every writer will get a personalized critique of their picture book (up to 300 words), or the opening of their MG or YA novel (up to 500 words). It all happens on May 10th at 1 p.m. Eastern, but you don’t have to be present (if that time doesn’t work for you) to get the critique. Just register as a student anyway and you’ll get a recording of the webinar after the fact. You’ll also get to submit questions which are guaranteed an answer, either live or in a PDF that arrives in your inbox, and your work for some personalized feedback from me. Register here!

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Karen wrote in to me the other day to ask the following:

What is the role of the artist/writer of children’s picture books in parallel platform markets if they are to be successful? How can knowledge or experience in multiple areas be leveraged when submitting to one platform with the hopes and vision of it transcending to multiple platforms? Should something be included in the query letter?

Here’s what I wrote in response:

When someone is talented or knowledgeable in many areas, it is difficult to know how to wrap it all up in one package. However, I urge debut writers whose interest lies primarily in landing a print book deal to focus there first. If you try to pitch an idea in too many directions at once (as a magazine, app, TV show, clothing line) without first having any print titles under your belt, agents and editors will think you’re ambitious…and not in a good way.

Focus. Create the best book you can, publish it well, and let audience demand for your talents make ideas evolve across platforms. Don’t start by stretching your idea in many directions right off the bat.

This happens to me all the time in query letters. The author will write something like:

While I think SAMMY THE SKUNK would be a very strong picture book in today’s market, I am also envisioning an app with the same branding, and have turned Sammy’s story into a feature film. The script for potential theatrical release is being written as we speak.

This almost makes me think that the author isn’t in love with his idea being a book…he’s just in love with his idea and will throw it against any wall to see if it’ll stick. That’s not a focused approach when trying to enter the publishing game, because we are into books. That’s what we do. That’s what we love. And it takes a lot of passion, dedication, knowledge, and, yes, really strong ideas to be involved in the book world. You have to really want to have a book, specifically.

Lots of books do get picked up by other platforms and go online or into theatres or into toy stores. Sure. But those properties are usually leveraged when the property that started it all (be it a book or a movie or whatever) stood on its own merits and attracted and audience and made other platform gatekeepers and tastemakers seek out the creator.

I’ll say it again: Focus. Seek to make one really strong impact on one part of the entertainment/content industry, then spread out from there.

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In December, I was feverishly working on finishing my Writer’s Digest webinar critiques from the MG and YA novel presentation (if you missed it or are just joining us, I’m teaching a MG and YA craft intensive webinar again on February 9th, more info to come soon). This experience is always fascinating for me. Not just because I have no idea how it’s possible for me to do over 300 critiques in such a short period of time. It’s interesting because I get to read reams and reams of novel-openings-in-progress.

Now, a novel opening is one of the hardest things in the world to do right. In fact, there’s a whole book about why that is (and how to jump this difficult hurdle) called HOOKED by Les Edgerton (Writer’s Digest Books). I highly recommend it. Anyway. One of the issues I ran into during critiques was the promise of the novel. What do I mean by that?

As readers, we like to telescope into the future a bit when we pick up a book. After reading the first 5 or 10 pages, our imaginations start feverishly working on where the story will take us. Conflict is usually presented in the first chapter, or a world is introduced, or we meet characters, and we think, “Okay. I get it. This will be the central conflict of the plot that I’m reading here,” or, “I’m going to spend the next 350 pages with these people,” or, “I think we’re in some futuristic dystopian society, cool. Can’t wait to learn more.”

This is a natural process and readers do it almost subconsciously. The key for you — the writer — is to know that and to build the right promise into the beginning of your novel. You always want to work with your reader’s imagination, make the right promise, and then deliver it. They’re going to be telescoping forward into your story, so you might as well make them a) excited to read on, and b) at least right about where they think you’re going with your novel. The most common error I see is one of a misguided or misdirected promise.

I wish I could say this has only happened once or twice, but this scenario happens to me at almost every conference. I read a novel opening that takes place in school or with the family or during a sports game. These scenes are introductory and often info-dump-y and they don’t really do much for me, so I say that to the writer. They always look at me and say, “Oh, well, the rest of the story doesn’t even have anything to do with school/family/sports. I just thought I had to put them in a normal setting first and then go off to the good stuff.”

Not kidding. This happens all the time. And I understand it. When we talk about plot, we often talk about a character’s normal and how the inciting incident wrecks it. So, of course, for most kids, “normal” means family and school. But I also talk about prime real estate and directing your reader’s attention. This relates to the promise of the novel like so: if you start your story in school and going through all the usual suspects of introducing the bully and the Queen Bee and the crush, your reader will think (not without good reason), “Ah, I am going to be spending the next four hours reading a school story.”

And if on page 11, aliens descend and suddenly your protagonist is a long-lost space queen, well…your reader might be a bit jarred. If the story is good, they will reset their expectations and forge on, but you don’t want to give them this kind of cognitive dissonance. The same goes for genre. If something reads contemporary realistic for enough pages to make me think that it’s a contemporary realistic novel, don’t toss dragons at me on page 25. My expectations have gelled. I am settling into your tale. I don’t want to suddenly discover that I’ll be reading high fantasy.

If you have to start in a normal setting, at least drop hints. If yours is a ghost story, make your character see eerie shadows that disappear when she looks them head-on. If there are going to be dragons, you better let us know that this is a world that has dragons in it (a news report about dragon shortages playing in the background would be a cliche, but I hope you understand what I mean). If your character will be going on a long journey, drop subtle hints and foreshadowing, like briefly describing walking shoes piled by the door. Whatever. Just think about your story — the core of it, the plot, the arc — and then make sure that the beginning either starts with it or strongly suggests it.

And if any element plays a strong role in your opening, let it play a strong role throughout. No spending 10 pages focusing on a school story if school does not show up ever again. In fiction, you plant seeds from the very beginning and they grow in importance as you hurtle toward the climax. Don’t scatter pumpkin seeds at the beginning of planting season if you’re trying to grow a tomato garden.

You never want to confuse your reader by accident and leave them scratching their heads halfway through your beginning. Save the misdirection for withholding information and crafting suspense and surprise. Instead, make a solemn promise to your audience that you will tell them the story they think they’ve settled down to read. That doesn’t mean make it predictable, but it means build their expectations just so and make them excited to follow you down the path you’ve set up for them from page one.

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Every once in a while, I hear from readers who inspire me to see the bright side and feel wonderful about the creative work that we all do when we sit down to write. 13 year-old writer M wrote just such a letter. Since I know I always need a creative pick-me-up, especially as I crank on a soon to be revealed very secret project (cue mysterious music), I wanted to share the exchange between M and I, in the hopes that it will get you to care about your own craft as the New Year gets underway.

This is what M wrote to me a week or so ago:

I’m a beginning novelist (if that’s the proper term) and I’ve been writing since second grade to my current age of thirteen. I’ve always known what I wanted to be an author. Unfortunately, I’m a very nervous writer. Whenever I’m writing a “non-serious” story, the words flow so easily, but whenever I’m working on a story that I’m serious about, the words only come in short spurts. It’s so frustrating, mostly because the story and the scenes are laid out perfectly in my head, but I can’t translate them onto paper without worrying myself to death.

I’ve also read a lot of your blog, which has been an amazing source of information for me, and one of your blog posts really jumps out at me: That one about making readers care. I totally get where you’re coming from, mostly because I’ve read a few books that really have taken me on an emotional roller-coaster ride. The thing is, I’m terrified that I won’t be able to do it right. Is there such thing as a writer that just isn’t able to make the reader care about the character no matter what they try? Or is it just a matter of practice and revision? Do you have any tips for manipulating the reader’s emotions? What about making my inner editor shut up? Is there a significant difference in the quality of manuscripts written by older and younger people?

Well, thank you in advance. I just wanted the chance to ask you some questions and tell you how much I admire you. (And here I am, worrying about whether or not this email makes me seem too formal, or- God forbid- obnoxious.)

Sincerely,
M

Immediately, I could see so much of myself in M (and no, M isn’t code for “Mary,” this is a real letter, not one of those “well, my, uh, friend really wanted some writing advice” type of situations, hehe). I mean this in the most loving way possible — the girl’s neurotic. But so am I! And so is almost every other writer I know. There’s a lot to love about being up in one’s head all the time, but there’s also a downside to thinking and caring so intensely. This was the core of my answer to M, which you can read below:

M,

Thank you so much for writing in. I love hearing from writers, and young writers especially. Now, I know exactly how you feel about being creative even under pressure (a serious story vs. a non-serious one). Here’s the thing…you can’t do anything well when your brain is getting in the way. When your inner critic is telling you that you’ll never get down on the page what you have in your head. When you start worrying whether people will care about it or not. That kind of anxiety is the absolute enemy of creative work.

It’s easier said than done, but I would tell you to write something “non-serious” and then part of your “serious” work EVERY DAY. Get yourself in the mood by doing something that’s just for fun, the push through to the real stuff you want to accomplish. And as for making your readers care, I have a feeling you won’t have a problem there. You obviously care very much about your writing, that’s why you’re worried about it so much. We don’t worry about things we don’t care about.

When a writer has emotions about what they’re writing, then they’re likely to stir up a sense of caring in the reader. However, do keep in mind that the best way to make a reader care is to create a character who cares deeply about something — a goal, a person, an outcome — and then take it away from them or put obstacles in their way. Think about it like this: We don’t care about a story that goes, “They were together and happy, with no problems in the world.” We care about, “They were separated from one another by the worst luck on the planet and moved mountains to be reunited.” We like to read about struggle, we like to read about accomplishing the impossible goals, we like to read about characters who would do anything in the world to get what they want. Why? Because we all know what it feels like to yearn, to want, to hurt, to be frustrated, etc. Give your characters something they want, then get in their way. I think that’s central to making a reader care.

Nobody’s inner editor will ever shut up all the way, but you have to keep going through it. You said some very nice things in your email about my blog. You probably think I have it all together and just cruise around, inspiring people and being helpful. But you know what? I have to write it almost every day and almost every day I have those nagging voices in my head that I’m going to run out of stuff to talk about or that the article I’m doing isn’t what writers need to hear, etc. So it’s not something you can ever get rid of, but it’s something you can learn to deal with. The worst thing you can do is worry yourself so much that you become creatively paralyzed.

Finally, stop worrying about whether younger writers or older ones make better manuscripts. I’ve read wonderful things from young writers, awful things from older writers, and vice versa. When you have the right story and you tell it in a way that only you can, you will find your audience and your success. Don’t let anything else obsess you in the meantime. In a word, make it your New Year’s Resolution to quit worrying so much and focus on the writing. :)

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Sorry for the slow start to posts in 2012. There are just so many events that I need to promote as the year gets underway. Watch this space for more focus on craft…and that big announcement I promised…(mwahahahahahaha).

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Big Revision

In Big Sur this past weekend, we had a collective “lightbulb moment” in one of my workshops. A writer had come to the Friday session, gone back to the drawing board, or so she thought, and returned with a revision on Saturday. We noticed some new turns of phrase and a few things cut but, overall, the issues we’d isolated for her on Friday were still on the page.

Let me be quick to say that it’s highly unusual to expect that much change in one day of revision, let alone one month, but such dramatic manuscript evolution is the name of the game at Big Sur. It’s not unheard of to have writers pull amazing all-night feats and return to workshop with a completely fresh 10 pages, the ink still wet from the morning printer queue, for example. So while we didn’t expect a profound change in her work, per se, we were a little underwhelmed by what actually showed up.

“Help me. I keep having this same problem,” she begged after we finished Saturday workshop. The middle of the story was dragging but the end — we’d all agreed on both days — was gripping. She’d also been focusing on this piece for quite some time at home, to no avail.

A second member of the group was an author as well as an illustrator. My biggest note for him on Friday was that the middle of the story was static and, perhaps more pressingly, all of his pictures were landscape-view and eye level, like dioramas or posed vignettes in a museum. There was only one perspective and he used it on every page. That added to the draggy pace.

“Try moving ‘the camera’ here, and see if you can’t envision any of your scenes from a unique perspective. Down low. Bird’s eye. Close up. Tilted. There are so many ways to see a scene, so many vantage points. What you’re doing is fine, but it’s the first thing that comes to mind, and there’s also no variety. Stretch yourself,” I told him.

In contrast to the first writer, he came back on Saturday with his story completely reimagined. He hadn’t had time to create a new dummy, but he did describe the changes he’d make on every page, including significant cuts to the middle. He also brought in new sketches that he’d dashed off — all of them incorporating new and exciting perspective.

This isn’t a game of “which writer is better,” however. But I think seeing his transformation shuffled something loose for the first writer. She’d been doing something that I see a lot of writers do without meaning to or realizing it. I call it a “tinkering revision.” Instead of going completely back to the drawing board, she’d just been mucking around with what she’d already written and, while she was technically revising, as in, switching words around and making cuts, she was getting nowhere.

It’s extremely tempting to tinker. Those words are already on the page. You’ve already done all that work. When you revise with the existing manuscript in hand, you are that much more inclined to keep making small scale changes because, hey, it’s already there in front of you, it represents a lot of past work, and it’s probably not that bad, etc.

Let me say it here once and for all: unless you make big changes, a revision isn’t worth doing. If you go out on a submission round and get roundly rejected, you’re not going to solve your problem by going back to the page to tweak a few words here and there. I’ve said this before, but look at the word revision…it means “to see again.” To see your story in a whole new light. To make massive plot, character, and language changes. And having so much on the page already often lures us into a false complacency.

The second writer in workshop got a big idea for some big changes and ran with it. The note about new perspective is a tough one because it meant he would have to throw out every single page he’d already done, but he said “Okay, what the heck!” and tried it. When I heard the second writer beg us to finally tell her what to do, I had this to say: “Go to your computer, back up the file, highlight the entire problematic part, and hit ‘delete.’ Sure, it’s scary, but I think you’re locked into what is already on the page and you’re not seeing creative solutions as a result. Writing is all about experimenting. You should get used to generating words and then getting rid of them or changing them. They’re a renewable resource. Take a day or a week or a month to write a completely new beginning and middle, full of completely new ideas, fully free from what you had in place before. If you hate it, you can always go back to the old version. But I doubt you will, because you’ll be thinking outside of the old version, and it will be fresh and new. And if it’s a bust, nobody has to know. It’s just you and your computer.”

This seemed to communicate the second writer’s lightbulb moment to the first writer. She seemed excited to go home and try the experiment. I think what she needed was the reminder, and maybe the permission, to wipe the slate clean and play around again. The manuscript had become a dreaded tweaking project that wasn’t behaving, not the fun story that she’d set out to write. Now she could relive some inspiration and just play with it all over again.

In my experience, the best revisions are the most drastic. Whether a writer has a bolt of inspiration and rips up their manuscript on their own, fueled by the manic energy of creation, or whether they’re forced to push further by a well-meaning agent or editor and, out of spite or adrenaline or fear or all of the above, finally takes the torch to the problem parts, it’s those writers who have the guts to start over in a piece that usually reap the biggest rewards.

So if you feel like you’re just tinkering, shoveling text like a kid pushing peas around his plate, be brave and try starting over completely. You know what you want to accomplish with the section, so just take a brand new run at it. Or maybe you’ll realize that the section wasn’t working and trash it entirely, or find another, better part that fits. Change is tough, especially when you’ve been working on something for years and are eager to see it in print. But it’s once you kick the ladder out from under yourself completely, I’ve found, that you discover resources and ideas you never could’ve imagined.

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As NaNoWriMo draws to a close, you’re no doubt thinking about revision. Let me address a question about it from DHE:

Lastly, I’m wondering a bit about aspects about the revisions after getting an agent process, namely how much time is okay to spend on revisions. If someone has little free time and knows it’s going to take them awhile to get revisions done, is that troublesome or is that okay?

My answer is going to apply just as much to people who have an agent as it will to people who are still looking. Whenever I visit a conference, I always get asked questions about revision. In essence, how long is it okay to revise. Should you rush just because you want to get out on submission or because an agent/editor requested the work. Etc.

In terms of the latter question, I’ve addressed it here. In essence, I prefer a slow-cooked, gourmet meal to fast food. No writer should ever sprint on my account, and I want to reiterate that here. Just because someone asks to see more work doesn’t mean you should dash off and hurry to show them subpar, rushed work. That just doesn’t make sense. If more time will let you turn around a stellar revision, by all means, take the time.

There’s also the issue of the nature of your revision. I’m sad to say that I’ve parted ways with more clients on the issue of revision than I have on any other grounds. When an agent takes on a writer, they see the work in front of them but that’s it. They can hear the writer’s ideas for future projects, they can guesstimate the writer’s writing and revision skills based on the manuscript at hand, but those are all just guesses. In my experience, a writer’s ability to revise is usually the biggest — and most important — mystery as a writer and agent embark together in their relationship.

Some writers I’ve taken on have turned out great revisions and sharpened their editorial skills. Others have floundered, turned out hasty revisions, failed to go deeply enough into the work, etc. Sometimes, it is possible, as Ian in the comments said, to revise a manuscript to death. It happens when you stare at it too hard — or not hard enough — and cut out all the voice, the freshness, the spontaneity of the thing. This usually happens when you’re in too much of a hurry to just turn it around and get published now now now now now now now.

Here are more thoughts on the issue of quality in revision to round out these thoughts. First, an answer to the question of “How much revision is normal?” Next, a reminder about the Million Bad Words. In essence, you have to revise more than you think. Then put it away. Then come back to it in three months and revise again. I find writers often have the problem of too little revision, not too much. It is possible to become completely sick of your manuscript or hack out your frustrations on it. If that’s the case, I’d try cheating on it with a new project. That spark and excitement of working on something new could easily answer the question of whether you should go back to your old manuscript at some point for another or put the old ball and chain in the drawer for good.

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