Tag Archives: revision

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

We’re Done with the 50 Hints (After Today, I Mean!)

So here’s what I want to know–Are you writing like crazy people? How is that NaNoWriMo thing going? I hope well, huh? I think I wrote ten words last week, so I have some real catching up to do. I’m in the murky middles and beginning to see that I have way more–WAY MORE–to do to make this novel work.

We’re on our last ten questions to help with revision (after this 50,000 word novel you all are working on is done). I have no idea what I will write next week! Perhaps nothing.

Here they are–

41. Are the names you’re using so unusual that reader will have a hard time keeping characters separated? Watch making all names weird, don’t start each with the same letter, or have them rhyme or etc because you may confuse your reader. You don’t want the reader turning back in the book trying to remember who is who (or is that whom?).

42. Are characters distinct—or do they all sound, act and talk the same? Do make sure each character is distinct. Wonder what I’m talking about? Read BELLE PRATER’S BOY.

43. Do you listen to the advice of others, or argue? We’ve talked about how too many cooks can spoil the broth–but so can not listening to anyone’s advice. If you hear the same criticism over and over, people may be seeing a flaw in your work. A good reader really can help you as a writer.

44. Do sentences flow or do you stumble when you (or better yet, others) read them? Strong writing has a rhythm. When you read your work out loud, it should flow. If you stumble or have to reread something you’ve written trying to make the sentence more clear on the next reading, you’ve done something wrong. If a reader stumbles they fall out of the story and you don’t want that.

45. Have you gone through the steps of self-critique I gave you a few posts back? It goes like this: Self-Critique
1. read silently on computer screen
2. read out loud from screen
3. print and read silently, making comments on the paper as you go
4. print and read out loud, continue to make comments to yourself
5. have someone else read this out loud where you can hear them when they make mistakes (Why are they stumbling? Why is the read not going smoothly? Watch and take note of this. It’s important.)
6. get final comments by another individual you trust to do a good job

46. Are you writing stereotypes? Not all princesses are blond, not are Southerners are rednecks and not all poor people are drug abusers. Remember, good writing surprises us.

47. Do you respect your reader? Our readers are smart. Never, ever forget that. You should never dumb anything down so a mid-grade or teen reader will ‘get it.’ They will ‘get it’ all right and set your book aside.

48. Do you show, not tell? You hear this all the time, but why is it important? If you tell me something, I’ll forget it sure (especially as I get older!). But if you show me, I’ll remember. I’ll be a part of whatever it is. I’ll have a picture in my brain to refer back to. Instead of telling me that your character is lazy, show me–with words that paint a picture.

49. Are you waiting for the muse? Don’t. Work hard. Really hard. Even if you get stuck in something you can write yourself free. Throw in an obstacle, make it harder on your character–or back up (the way I have heard some writers do) to where the problem started. But don’t sit around waiting to be inspired. If I did that, I’d write one or two words a day.

50. During rewrite are you choosing the strongest words you can? Make each word count, watch out for those ‘ly’ words, watch out for cliche. Remember, this is your world and you want it at beautiful (or as ugly, or as just right) as you can get it. Handle words properly and you will succeed.

Rewriting is hard but important. If you’re dedicated,  you’ll have a well-written story that has a nice, strong plot, too.
Says Anne Enright (THE GATHERING), “Only bad writers think that their work is really good.” Says Carol Lynch Williams, “They think this or that is the editor’s job when this and that and all the rest is the author’s job. Write your best story possible. Don’t leave anything for an editor to do.”
Says Neil Gaiman (THE GRAVEYARD BOOK) “Fix it.” Says Carol Lynch Williams, “See, I told ya.”
Says Esther Freud (LUCKY BREAK), “Editing is everything. Cut until you can cut no more. What is left often springs into life.” Says Carol Lynch Williams, “I agree!”


Filed under Uncategorized

And So We Continue–Questions to Ask Yourself as You Revise (11-20)

Our revision discussion was interrupted last week with a Note to My Girls Because I Knew There Would be Many Tears of Sadness and There Were. We’ll pick up where we left off the week before. 🙂

11. Is every word moving you toward the end of the novel? My mom used to ask her creative writing students “Would you use so many words if you had to pay a dollar for each one?” It’s a good question. What words can you do without? Do any slow the story down? Do you need all the adjectives? All the adverbs?

12. Is your punctuation right? Yes, this is something that a line editor will help you with, but don’t forget that I just read a book (I mean it! Don’t forget that *I* read a book) where there were tense problems all over the book. So you want to get your novel the best it can be. And whatever you do, do NOT think that this is what an editor is for and send in a manuscript with typos all over the place. Said editor will just dismiss you with a vote of thanks.

13. Can your “ly” words be replaced with stronger verbs? Adverbs mean a weak verb. So think of words (in revision–otherwise you will slow yourself down) that you can use that will replace your adverbs. “He walked slowly” can become “He meandered.” And let me tell you what–I ALWAYS have characters meandering.

14. Do you have a plot? We character driven novelists are always wondering this! Hahaha! “Do I have a plot? Ann Dee, what do you think? Do I have a plot in this one?”  “I don’t know, Carol. I like your characters. Ally? What do you think?” Ally (too kind to say anything negative) avoids eye contact.

15. Can your “was –ing words” be replaced with one word? I was walking becomes I walked. This makes the story more immediate and you lose extra words, and that’s always good because it means  you save a buck.

16. Does the reader feel the main character’s emotion? If you want to connect to your reader you can do so through emotion. Let us feel what the character feels and we will care. That’s the way it goes, mister. Be careful, though, to not tell the reader how the character was feeling. Man, was he scared! And when you show, make sure that you are not using cliched writing. She was so embarrassed her face was as red as a tomato. Be original and your story will be remembered. (If you don’t think so just remember back to that scene from Throw Momma from the Train that Kyra posted on Friday. His guts oozed nice like a melted malted . . . )

17. Are you giving too many points of view? When you change voices or points of view you need to keep each strong and distinct. Each character must sound different. Each must sound real. The more points of view you have to deal with, the more you have to create, keep original and individual. Whenever I write from a boy’s point of view the boy sounds like a girl. Why? I know girls. And I think boys have cooties. So I always have to be very careful when writing the male voice.

18. Are you consistent with your POV character or are you getting into the heads of too many people? Please, I’m begging you. Your main character–unless she can read minds–can only feel her own emotions. She might be able to see a look of sadness on another’s face and interpret it as such, but she doesn’t know how the other person feels. Period.

19. Is there good sense of place? One way to connect with your readers is to make a scene feel real. This happens by writing a strong sense of place. Use all five senses when you are creating place. Some think that only fantasy or dysptopian novels need world building, but the truth is all books should make the reader feel grounded in place. My first letter from editor Mary Cash told me I needed to develop more of a sense of place for KELLY AND ME. I wasn’t sure how to do that and went to other books to see how the authors created their worlds. I loved Bill and Vera Cleaver (WHERE THE LILIES BLOOM) who told beautiful stories where the place was almost a character itself. Place is quite strong in Ally Condie’s novel MATCHED.

20. How is your pacing? A book that moves too fast or too slow will leave the reader feeling gypped, bored or both. Make sure you pace your novel so that you’re not giving too many details (details that don’t move the story forward) and to make sure that you aren’t leaping over important parts of your book.

Remember that everyone has their own way of revising–but if you never complete a manuscript, you’ll never have anything to revise. So get a draft done so you can start the fun part of writing. Well, I think revision is fun. What about the rest of you?

Also, and I mean this, books–well-written and otherwise–can you teach you so much. In fact, books were my first creative writing teachers. So what am I saying? READ! READREADREAD!


Filed under Uncategorized