Monthly Archives: October 2011

The Long and Winding Road

I just finished a draft of an historical novel with no title.  This project has been around for a very long time, certainly longer than Andy has been alive but only a blink of an eye in Carol-years.

Here’s the story:

It began as an historical nonfiction account, and it was a project I was really excited about.  Of course, the downside of writing historical fiction or nonfiction is the research—before the draft has any momentum, it’s easier and more interesting to do research and more research.  And that’s what I did for at least a year.  I collected images, maps, and prints from the 19th century, and I read everything I could find that was even tangentially related to my topic.  I poked around in archives.  And then I did it all over again.  And again.  So what’s the downside, you ask?  Research ain’t writing.  It’s part of the writing process, to be sure, but it’s also a pseudo-legitimate excuse to avoid writing.

And that’s what I did.

By the time I had a nonfiction draft finished and all the potential illustrative materials gathered, my original editor had retired.  Fortunately, her assistant inherited me and this project, so the project didn’t slip away into orphan oblivion.  Unfortunately, my manuscript still needed some work, so back to work I went.

In the meantime, I wrote two other books, co-edited another, and rewrote and updated yet another.  All those books made it to bookshelves—a very few bookshelves, but at least they saw the light of published day.

This nonfiction book got revised and sent back to my editor, and she sent it back to me for more revision.  Then she quit.

Her replacement (editor number three, if you’re keeping score at home) inherited me and that nonfiction project, and she sent me a letter asking to see what I had done so far.  I sent her the manuscript along with all the illustrative material.  Then we met in New York to discuss it.  Over a very nice lunch in a swanky Italian restaurant on the West Side, we talked about the book.  I was waxing eloquent about all the historical stuff, showing off my accumulated knowledge about my subject when she asked, “Have you thought about recasting it as historical fiction?”


“Would you like to recast it as historical fiction?”


“Why not?”

“It was conceived as nonfiction, so I can’t imagine it any other way.”

“But fictionalizing it would solve some problems.  There are some pretty big gaps in the historical record, gaps readers of a nonfiction book would expect you to fill.  I really think you should take a crack at turning this into a novel.”

“But it’s not a novel.  It was never envisioned as a novel.  It’s a terrific historical event, and I’m sure I can make it work as nonfiction.”

“Let me see a new revision, then.”  She picked up the tab and then moved on to become the editorial director at another publisher.

I was adopted by another editor (number 4, if you’re still keeping score), and by then I was working on a new project, a short biography of an African American baseball player.  This editor was quite the baseball fan, and she encouraged me to pursue this new project, which I did.  After reading several drafts of the biography, she encouraged me to turn it into a story, a story that would work as a children’s book.  Of course, that was not what I had envisioned, and I resisted the change for a while before finally tinkering around with a dramatic recasting of my original idea.  And I liked how it worked.  And I worked on it and reworked on it for several months.  After the 25th revision, I sent it to my editor and didn’t hear anything for about a year.  Finally word came: “We’re going to pass on this.”  Wow!  My agent and I talked about this manuscript’s future, and she sent it to another publisher.  Four weeks later it was sold.  It’ll be out in January.

But back to that historical nonfiction project that had been orphaned.  I decided that it couldn’t hurt to try transforming the nonfiction into fiction and spent a few months on it.  I liked it.  I liked it quite a lot.  So I pushed ahead with it, dumping all the trappings of nonfiction and reworking the nonfictional manuscript into a novel.  When I had half a draft, I sent it editor number 4.  A few months later, we met at a convention in Philadelphia and discussed it over lunch.  She had some excellent suggestions and encouraged me to rewrite and then finish the project.  I picked up the tab and she stayed with the same publisher.

A year later, I finished that novel and sent it to her again.  Months passed.  An editorial letter came.  Mainly she asked questions about the novel, questions that had needed asking.  Really good, thoughtful questions.  That letter arrived in May 2011.  I started rewriting the novel but didn’t like what I was doing.  I studied the editorial letter, wrote long responses to each question, and decided to start over.  Yes, start over.  This time the first-person historical novel would be written in third person.  I didn’t like the first page.  Or the second.  But by the third page, something happened.  The story showed some signs of life.  I forged ahead in third person and finished the draft at the end of September.  Then I started revision, cutting, adding, polishing.  I finished that at 10:00pm Monday night (and missed Game 5 of the World Series).  Now it’s in the hands of my best first-reader, and she’ll tell me what’s wrong with it.

So what I have learned from all this?

I’m not sure.


Filed under Chris

Rewriting and NaNoWriMo

First–thanks Ann Dee for taking yesterday for me.
Carolina turned 14. (She’s so great.)
We had no Internet for several days. But it’s back now.
I cannot blame the dogs just because I don’t like them. I must blame Comcast. They shut the power off. Who knows why?

After reading the past few posts (Chris’ Wednesday post last week that Ann Dee got credit for and then Ann Dee’s post this week that I may have gotten credit for, I hope), I’ve been thinking about this business we’re in.
I’m always thinking about this business we’re in, actually. And in fact, I whine a great deal here to YOU ALL.
(You’re welcome.)

I’m still wondering about the amazing Marilynne Robinson and wishing I hadn’t been sick so I could have gone to her reading.
I’m thinking of her comment that she doesn’t revise.
I’m thinking of this statement pulled from yesterday’s blog: She said, I never leave a sentence until I feel like it’s done.

And I know I shouldn’t argue with a Pulitzer prize winner, but isn’t that rewriting?
That working on a sentence until it’s completed–until it’s ‘done,’ perfect, exactly as it should be?
Isn’t that revising?
Perhaps I misunderstand. Maybe not one word goes on the page until it’s completely thought through.
Maybe there are years of thinking about the plot, the lay of the land where the book will take place, the characters and who they are before they step onto the page.

There are all kinds of rewriting.
Louise Plummer does her writing kind of like Marilynne. Each word must pay off and she goes sentence by sentence. Read A DANCE FOR THREE to see what I mean.
And I usually, before the DD, spend more time IN the novel, chopping and writing and weighing each word as I go. It certainly makes for less edits at the end of a completed draft. I’m no writing genius like Marilynne Robinson (or Louise) and after a work is completed I MUST continue to hone and rewrite and listen to comments from others and talk with my agent and editor and change this and that.
Every year, I want the best book possible for me.
Every year.

As writers for children and young adults, we can’t afford to allow twenty four years between books.
We lose our audience quickly.
They grow up.

This next month as we venture into the NaNoWriMo competition that ends with us at Olive Garden partaking of Olive Garden-y schtuff, we will not be able to weigh each word so carefully as there won’t be tons of time. But we can still write strong (ummm, keep reading) prose–even if the work isn’t as clean as we’d like–and yes, this creation will need lots of work at the end and may even need to be thrown away when we’re done


If you remember a few things as you go along, you can write better during this NaNoWriMo adventure. Think fewer adjectives, little to no adverbs, slow down a bit when the cliche starts to leak out your fingertips and think of a new way to say what you want to say, remember that each page or so needs sense of place to ground your reader and you can add that as you go. We’ve talked about tags being he said, she said so don’t put other kinds in your work the first time through. Plan a little before hand. Talk to your characters–all of them–now. What is your main character’s goal? What does she want? Who will you keep her from getting it? Do you have a general idea of what the climax of the novel will be? Plan a little here and that will make the ideas a little easier to put to paper in November–just a few days from now–like less than a week!

The DD knocked me around. I’ve never had a novel kick at me that way THAT one did. In fact, even though it’s finished, and even though it has gone on to my amazing editor, I realize that guess what? I wasn’t done and there are changes still to be made and I will have to rewrite the ending and what if my editor has forgotten about me? I very nearly took twenty four years to finish THAT book after signing the contract.

“We don’t want Hope to forget you,” Steve said a few months ago.
I went out and yelled at the dogs.

During this writing experience–and I will admit this was an awful time working that book over–I began to think that I’d forgotten how to write.
“Just get it on the page,” I told myself. “Who cares how many ‘ly’ words there are? Who cares if this word is stoopid or that thought is cliche. You signed a contract! Finish!”
And so, as I worried over and thought about and wrote on the DD, I rewrote another novel (that needs one more revision) and wrote another book that comes out in the Spring (WAITING, Paula Wiseman Imprint, 2012).
And still I kept feeling like a failure.
Until I realized I what I had done. Written a book from scratch and sold it and rewritten another book that another editor is really interested in.

I’m not bragging. I was surviving. And anyway, look what Ann Dee did. SHE had a baby.

The end to this VERY long blog piece is that we all write in different ways. And we all revise in different ways.
And as long as it gets done–no matter the time–no matter the number of pubbed books–if we are pleased with what we’ve done–we’re successful.


Filed under CLW


There are some spooky things happening.

First of all, my little sweet three year old peed on the sidewalk. I said, why? He said, to make our house haunted.

Our house is SOOOOOOOOOOO haunted.

Second of all, my brother who reads this blog and it always shocks me when he says, so you’re depressed about adverbs? because I never expect anyone in my family to read this and actually feel very very self conscious when I find out they do, he said, you complain a lot about your novel on your blog.

I said, i do? I complain?

And he said, sort of.

Then he said, I  liked that post about paying your mortgage is motivation to write.

I said, Oh you did? It was pretty easy to write.

And he said, yeah. that was one of my favorite entries you’ve done.

And I said, thanks so much.*

Third of all, Marilynne Robinson came and spoke at BYU. I have written about her before on this blog. Mainly to give myself comfort because she has twenty four years between two of her books and that made me feel happy. Anyway, she was at BYU and she did a beautiful reading and then she answered questions.

One of the questions was, how many times do you revise your books?

And she said, i never revise.

The room fell silent.

She said, I never leave a sentence until I feel like it’s done.

Now I have read about this. I have read that this pulitzer prize winning author doesn’t revise. I just didn’t think it was really true. And since I heard her say this from her own mouth, I’ve been thinking about it a lot.

The writing process has three steps:

1. Prewriting.

2. Drafting.

3. Revision.

We always talk about how most serious writers spend the majority of their time in the revision phase. That’s when you take the bones of the book and make them fleshy. that’s when you refine your characters and make them  real. It’s when you turn your crappy draft into a real book. It’s  a magical time in a lot of ways.

But then you have Ms. Robinson.

My thoughts are these: she only does one draft. But she must must must spend so much time in prewriting. Like a crazy amount of time. Even if she’s a genius, she’d have to have the big picture mapped out in her head before she starts if she’s going to be able to lay the sentences down on the paper and never come back to them, right? To write and then be done with the book? What do you think?

Fourth of all, Ally Condie came and spoke to my class. I have much to say about Ally and how much I love her. I won’t do it here right now because she deserves a post on her own but I do love her. After she spoke, my students said how inspired they were. How she made them feel like maybe they could really do it. Maybe they could finish a book and get published. Ally juggles so much and still maintains this incredible sense of calm.  She also knows big words and uses them flawlessly in sentences which means they are part of her everyday vocabulary which means she is smart and I’m not so smart. Her first book MATCHED was named one of YALSA’S Teens Top Ten Books and her second book CROSSED just got a beautiful starred review from Kirkus and comes out November 1st. Yay.

Fifth of all, I have some other things I wanted to talk about in relation to Susan Campbell Bartoletti’s discussion but I’ll save it for next week. Until then, here’s an assignment: every day, before you go to bed, do an accounting of your hours. how much time did you spend writing? How much time did you spend playing with your kids? How much time did you spend cleaning? how much time did you spend at your day job? How much time on TV? How much time exercising, etc. Keep track for just a week .

Sixth of all, I’m reading Carol’s DD. It’s scary. It’s scary good. that’s all I’ll say for now.

And finally, seventh of all, it’s two thirty in the morning. I feel so writerly.

Sorry so long.

The end.

*Thanks Chris Crowe.


Filed under Ann Dee

Painful Writing Rules and Advice

Decades ago—yes I am old enough to use a phrase “decades ago”—when I was just getting started in figuring out how to be a writer, I read everything I could find about the business of writing. I subscribed to Writer’s Digest and The Writer, I bought the annual Writer’s Market book and the occasional volumes of The Writer’s Handbook. I attended workshops, took classes, and, of course, I wrote, wrote, wrote. During those dark days of rejection (I earned over 100 one year), I read and heard plenty of advice, and during those days of my naiveté and inexperience much of the advice was stuff I didn’t want to hear.

As a desperate and dumb beginning writer, what I wanted to hear was, “Congratulations, we’re going to publish your manuscript!” or “This is the most brilliant writing we have ever read, and we’re honored to have the privilege to publish your work.”

Instead, what I received was a pretty standard rejection letter: “We are returning your manuscript. It does not meet our current needs.”

Some of the advice and writerly rules I read in those days rubbed me as wrong as the rejection letters did because that advice didn’t provide the validation I was starving for. Well, that and because the advice and rules recommended things I wasn’t willing or able to do.

1. “Nobody under 40 ever wrote anything worth reading.”

At the time I was well under 40, and I was convinced that I had plenty of material that the world would beat a path to my door to read. And I was impatient. I didn’t want to wait for publication, I didn’t want to pay my dues. I wanted to get published!

2. “Write a million pages and throw them all away. Then you’re ready to start writing.”

I started as a two-fingered typist, and it took me hours just to hunt and peck my way through a 2,000 word article. No way was I going to invest a ton of time in writing for nothing.

3. “Murder your darlings.”

Even as a green writer, I knew this didn’t mean I was supposed to smother my children. I knew that it meant that I had to be willing to cut precious paragraphs, scintillating scenes, and clever characters if they weren’t pulling their weight. I still clung to my stupid student habit of finding a way of keeping everything I wrote, regardless of how much feedback, revision, and re-reading told me it should go. Yep, I was loyal to every lousy word.

4. “At least 50% of your time should be spent in revision.”

This, I could not believe. First drafts took longer than growing a wisdom tooth, and after investing that much time in pounding out a blasted manuscript, I wanted to be done with it. Spending an equal amount of time on revision not only sounded ludicrous, it sounded downright dumb.

5. “Find a trusted and talented reader who will tell you the truth about your writing. Then believe what they tell you.”

As a freakishly fragile writer, burdened with doubt, I didn’t want honest critics forcing feedback down my throat; I wanted obsequious sycophants who would willingly tell me that my pig’s ears were really silk purses. I wanted my family and friends to tell me I was wonderful and that I would soon hit the Big Time. At this stage of my career, I hadn’t yet realized that any writer worth his salt has to want to be told what’s not working in a manuscript.

6. “The best cure for writer’s block is a big mortgage.”

What a load of baloney, I thought. Whoever said this did not appreciate that agony of art, the writhing of writing, the cramps of composition. Writer’s block was something, I believed, that afflicted sensitive artistic types, something like atmospheric interference that fuzzed up Muse signals. Artist/writers didn’t need to degrade themselves with deadlines; they had to allow time for their Muses to fertilize their fields of imagination, and sometimes, frankly, those fields needed to be fallow.

7. “Finish it. Throw it in the fireplace. Start over.”

This bit really burned me. I heard learned in school, during the days when I was a stupid student, that the writing process began the night before something was due. After pounding out a paper in a white heat of inspiration and desperation, it was finished. Done. Complete. No way was I going to throw it all away and start over. When I started writing longer things, I couldn’t even conceive of ditching an entire manuscript as a mere warm up for the real writing.

So now that I’m ancient, what have I learned? Well, I’ve learned that most of the advice I received was good and true and that I was too inexperienced, too impatient, too dumb to figure out how to use it to improve my writing. I’ve learned that writing is a long apprenticeship, often an extremely long apprenticeship and that even though there are always examples of rookie writers who smash grand slams in their first at bats (S.E. Hinton, J.K. Rowling, Christopher Paolini, Stephenie Meyer), there are many, many more workaday writers who have labored through long apprenticeships to earn their way onto bookshelves. I’ve learned that writing well is hard work and that the only way to get hard work done is to work hard.


Filed under Chris