Biographies, biographers, and interesting people

Posts tagged ‘rewriting’

Editorial Feedback

feedbackI just registered for a writers’ conference coming up in a few weeks. One thing I like about conferences is they offer opportunities to get feedback from an editor on a manuscript. As I mentioned in an earlier post, it’s hard to get that kind of attention these days. There was a time when editors sometimes made comments on a manuscript before returning it. At least that’s what I’m told. But those days are long gone.

Today, publishers are more likely to have a policy of contacting the author about a submission only if interested. Otherwise, nothing. So I seek out conferences where I can have a manuscript critiqued by an editor or agent who is speaking at that event. Critiques cost extra, but I consider it a good investment.

At the last conference I attended I got a critique of my first picture book biography, which I’ve been working on for a while. The editor noted a couple of main problems with it. One was the ending. The editor called it “anticlimactic.” No surprise there. I knew the ending wasn’t strong enough, but I had run out of ideas to try. The editor also said it was hard to connect with the subject of my story.

Another good thing about conferences is that attendees are often allowed to submit to editors and agents who speak at that event, at least for a limited time. That invitation includes editors from publishing houses that don’t normally accept unsolicited submissions. Because of that, I was also able to submit my picture book to an agent who spoke at a conference, and I soon heard back from her. She said basically the same things about my manuscript as the editor. I sensed a pattern.

Unfortunately, even though I knew what the manuscript needed, I wasn’t sure about how to get there. So I let it sit on the back burner for months while I tried to figure out the next step. Sometimes that’s the best thing to do with an unruly manuscript.

During those months, I worked on a variety of other projects, but the picture book was always at the back of my mind. Finally, the answer to what to do about the ending came to me in the form of an image of what I imagined would be a great final illustration. It gave me an idea of how I could end the manuscript on a high note. Anything I want to add about the subject’s life after that can go into an Author’s Note at the end of the book.

As for helping readers connect with my subject, I’m going back to the research to find additional details to show more of her personality. My new goal is to have the rewrite done in time for the upcoming writers’ conference.

“Move It Or Lose It” for Tighter Writing

In my previous post, I wrote about workshopping my first picture book biography at a writing retreat. Since then, I’ve rewritten the book so many times I’ve lost count.

There are many things I think about when I’m revising. Do I have a strong start? Is the ending satisfying? Have I weaved in sensory details that will make readers feel like they are right there with the subject of my biography? Have I included anecdotes to make the writing entertaining and used strong action verbs?

I had worked on all those things over and over again, but it wasn’t enough. When I read the manuscript out loud, I stumbled over the words in two paragraphs that weren’t working. In a picture book where every word is so important, two paragraphs is a lot. In one paragraph, it was a problem with transition. There was something missing, a question that needed answering. But answering it required too much explaining, telling instead of showing. I couldn’t pinpoint the problem with the other paragraph. I just knew it wasn’t right.

I set the manuscript aside for a few days and worked on other things. When I went back to it, I made minor changes, but those two paragraphs continued to taunt me. Then, as I was pouring yet another cup of coffee, my own good writing advice popped into my head – move it or lose it.

Time and again I’ve discovered that if something isn’t working in a manuscript, it’s for one of two reasons. Either the information is not in the right place or it needs to be deleted.

In the case of my picture book, it was one of each. The paragraph where the transition wasn’t working was easily fixed by moving one sentence up to an earlier paragraph. It fit much better there and it made a smooth transition into the next paragraph. As for the other troublesome paragraph, I simply deleted it.

Move it or lose it. It’s writing advice I’ve come back to many times. So why does it take me so long to realize it’s what I need to do? That’s something I can’t explain. I suspect that stubbornness plays a role, at least in the losing it part. I always think that the section I need to delete is the cleverest thing I’ve ever written. Of course, that’s not the case. I don’t miss the paragraph I deleted from my picture book at all. In fact, I hardly remember it was ever there.

I’m ready to submit my picture book to publishers now. I know that because even though I continue to pick at the manuscript, I realize that I’m making changes but not improvements. I’m satisfied that at this point I’ve done the best I can do. So I’m sending it off. Fingers crossed.

The Writing-Go-Round

It’s been only a few days since I sent the manuscript for my latest book off to my editors. That means I’m still adjusting to the loss. It’s what always happens. It’s a good feeling to finally finish a book, but there’s also a letdown. After working so intently on a book, when it’s gone, it feels like I’ve lost a dear friend.

Of course, I’m not completely done with the book yet. The editors will be sending it back with suggestions for rewriting. There will be more changes when the book gets to layout. That’s because of the unique features of the leveled readers I’ve been writing the last few years.

The first goal with every book is to tell an interesting story. For biographies that means presenting the facts in a way that holds the readers’ attention. With leveled readers, there’s the added challenge of making sure the writing fits on the page the way it should. Each two-page spread needs a certain number of lines. So the manuscript will bounce back and forth between my editors, the book designer, and me several times in the next few months while we work out the details. Even so there will be days and even weeks during that time when I don’t have anything to do on that book. That means I suddenly have time on my hands.

That down time is just part of the writing-go-round, the stages I go through with each book. The only way past the letdown of a finished book is to start the process all over again with a new project. Beginning is the most delicious of the writing stages. First, there’s the excitement of a new idea. That excitement only builds with the research. As I discover fascinating details about the subject of my new book, I’m certain that it’s going to be my best book ever.

That bubble bursts when it comes to the next stage – writing the first draft. I’ve learned to accept that my first draft is going to be crap. That’s okay because I can pull it all together with the rewrite. There’s just one problem: I can’t rewrite until I actually write something and that does not come easily. My head may be overflowing with good ideas, but my brain does not allow them to tumble out in complete sentences. Fortunately, I have a couple of first draft tricks.

The first trick actually starts with the research. Sentences and sometimes complete paragraphs come to me as I research. I jot them down in a notebook that I always have nearby. That way when I start the first draft, I don’t need to be terrified of a blank computer screen. I already have a few sentences and paragraphs that I can type in to begin.

I also set a goal to write a certain number of words each day. The first few days are stressful and I make a lot of trips to the refrigerator before I reach the day’s goal. At the end of each day, I print out what I wrote. Then I begin the next day by heading out to the coffee shop. There I rewrite what I wrote the day before and begin adding to it in longhand. By the time I get home to the computer, I’ve already made some good headway towards reaching the number of words for that day. Eventually, I get into a flow with the writing, and after several days or weeks depending on the length of the project, I have a first draft.

Then I’m ready to rewrite. That’s the part I love because I can begin to see the book coming together. I call it a rewrite, but actually it’s many rewrites and can cover a long period of time. I cut sections and rearrange paragraphs. I see holes in the writing, places that need more detail, and go back to the research to get the information I need to fill those holes. I submit the manuscript to my writers’ group. They are great at pointing out places that don’t make sense. I need that input. Sometimes an idea is so clear in my head that I don’t realize I haven’t given readers enough information to understand what I’m talking about.

I also think about something a middle school teacher taught me when I spoke to her English classes many years ago. She had a checklist she gave to her students to help them with the rewriting process. One tip on that list stuck with me because it was something I had never heard. It said to look at what was good in the manuscript and think about how to make it even better. So I work on the good parts too. I read the manuscript out loud. If I stumble over the words of a sentence, I know it isn’t quite right. So I do more polishing until I like the way it sounds.

Although rewriting is fun for me, it’s also intense. I get so absorbed in the writing that I forget everything else. I guess that’s why it feels like such a loss when the book is finished. So I take a few days to adjust. I clean my much neglected house and spend time with my equally neglected friends and family. But after a few days off, I can’t wait to start all over again with the excitement of beginning a new project.

Tag Cloud