An Editor's Challenge
I have some good news: I’ve sold another book! Schoolwide Inc. will be publishing my MG novel No One Needed to Know in their digital library targeted to schools and educators next year. How this all came to be is a story that fits neatly with my Write and Rewrite themed blog.
Back in 2004, a tiny little publisher called Denlinger’s Publishers took on my MG novel Special. This was a story based loosely on my experience as a girl with an older Autistic brother. The year this book was released was a hard year for me personally, as my 1st marriage dissolved and I suddenly became a single mother of a 3-year-old and had 3 jobs to make ends meet. I had little time to promote. Then a series of hurricanes hit Florida a couple years later, and they destroyed Denlinger’s facility. They went out of business, and my book went out of print. What to do with a novel that has been published and discarded?
I put it in a drawer for a while. Ten years later, I decided that it was time to pull that book out again and tinker with it. I rewrote it by changing it to first person and updating it a touch. Then I started submitting it again under a new title and my new name. I learned about Schoolwide Inc., a 20 year old company dedicated to promoting literacy in classrooms and helping reluctant readers. They were looking to start a line of original content and were open to books that had gone out of print. I sent them mine.
To my elation I heard back pretty quickly from one of the editors who told me he loved my book. He wrote glorious things like, “The world needs more books like this. It not only entertains, it educates. And it educates because you have written such an engaging story, with an authentic and sympathetic narrator.”
But he followed that with: “While I am very excited about this project and hope to continue working with you on it, I feel that in its current form it is not ready for us to accept for publication.”
Oh no! What?
“I am inviting you to revise the work and resubmit it for our consideration.” Later, he qualified that it would be a “substantial revision”. His challenge to me was that if I revised the book (mostly by attacking the 2nd half of the book), he would consider publishing it. Oh, and he needed it done by October 1st in order to make the list coming out next year.
I looked at the notes he gave me, and they all made perfect sense. I got right to work. Mostly what he wanted was for me to get away from anything that sounded like I was teaching the reader about Austism or Special Needs and stick to the immediacy of the story. I wound up discarding quite a bit, but I added so much more. I wound up tacking on 11,000 words to the book before I was done. I sent it back a couple weeks ago.
Today I signed the contract and stuck it in the mail. I’m beyond thrilled that this story gets a second life and will be read by children in schools throughout the country. They have plans to do print versions down the road as well.
A few weeks ago, I wrote this essay as a guest post on the blog by author Nancy Pennick. In case you missed it there, I thought I'd repeat it here.
“No good calls ever came at two o’clock in the morning. Only ones that wipe out any hope of having a normal day. On this particular morning, it wiped out hope of anything ever being “normal” again.” This was supposed to be the opening line of my novel Cry of the Sea. I was so proud of it. So proud! Yes, I envisioned its brilliance being quoted as one of the great opening lines of YA literature at many a writer’s conference for years to come. I loved it so much that no matter what I felt about the rest of the chapter, I was determined to keep that first line.
Why was I so sure? Or stubborn? I have attended so many writing workshops and read so many books and articles about the craft of writing novels. Several things have been drummed into my head. “Have a great opening line.” “Hook your reader from the first moment.” “Start where the action is.” “Start your novel where the protagonist’s life changes from its normal routine.” “Start on the day that is different.” And my favorite? “Get to the main point of the plot before page 30.”
So, I had this idea for a story about a girl who discovers mermaids caught in an oil spill. Based on everything I’ve learned, that meant she had to find the mermaids before page thirty. I also felt strongly that the story needed to start in the moments just before finding those mermaids. How best to do this? I thought it would be exciting to have her wake up to the alarming news of the oil spill and have her rushing out the door with her environmentalist father to get to the beach.
There were some problems with my idea. I had to somehow very quickly introduce my main character and her father, their relationship, and the reason they were going to an oil spill. There was a lot of information to share to have the story make any sense. I thought I’d be clever and get some of that out with a little flashback to the night before in order to explain a few things. Only, that flashback grew from a few paragraphs to a dozen pages before coming back to the big rush to the beach. More important writing advice haunted me: “Don’t have a big flashback in the opening chapter.” “Don’t info dump.” “Show don’t tell.”
Oh, poo on all of that. I had an awesome opening line! It had to stay this way.
Well… I sent my first chapter to a few agents and editors. No one sent me back praise for my glorious first line. No one requested more pages either. I grew frustrated. Yet, I didn’t revise. I’d already revised the book over and over, and I didn’t know how to do it again. Not without ruining my opening line. The writing advice I knew conflicted in my brain.
Bless the team at Fire and Ice, though. They stumbled past my opening chapter and read on to find the story that followed it. They offered to publish the book and sent Megan Orsini, my editor, to help me out. Her very first note to me:
“I think the flashback in the opening chapter is too long. I forgot it was a flashback. Why don’t you make that the opening chapter and put the phone call and oil spill scene in chapter two.”
But… but… That would put my opening line in chapter two. Do you hear me whining?
I knew Megan was right, and I followed her advice. I wound up completely rewriting the whole opening to my book. With her guidance, I actually revised the opening chapter six times and the first page an additional two after that. Now my opening line is: “You ready to see how the next big change in your life is going to look” as asked by June’s father. No, this won’t put me in any lists of great opening lines, but it works. The book works better too. And guess what? We still meet mermaids on page 22. Yay!
So, friends, what I’ve learned: don’t marry your words and do trust your editor. With a sly wink, however, I’m happy to announce that a woman who recently reviewed Cry of the Sea on her blog included a quote from my book. Which of my words did she use? My opening line – of Chapter Two.
Housetraing Pet Words
A wonderful guest post today from B. K. Fowler, author of the new historical novel Ken's War. She has some great insight about favorite words that authors tend to overuse.
From B. K. Fowler:
Every writer has pet words. Tabitha King's pets in The Trap are hooked and hauled, as in "She hooked off her socks," and "He hauled his boots on." Strong verbs used in unconventional ways are refreshing until they’re overworked and become annoying to readers.
Pronouns, one breed of pets, are especially vague. "I hate and mistrust pronouns, every one of them as slippery as a fly-by-night personal-injury lawyer," writes Stephen King in On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft. And in The Book Alan Watts refers to the pronoun it is a spook, as in "It's raining outside." What exactly is it?
King, Watts and other successful authors use it when it's unavoidable or natural sounding. Character dialogue, for example, sounds natural with a sprinkling of the neuter, singular pronoun.
Overusing it causes confusion, as this passage from Lewis Carroll's Alice's Adventures in Wonderland demonstrates.
"…The patriotic archbishop of Canterbury found it advisable — "
"Found what?" said the Duck.
"Found it," the Mouse replied rather crossly: "of course you know what 'it' means."
"I know what 'it' means well enough, when I find a thing," said the duck: "it's generally a frog, or a worm. The question is, what did the archbishop find?"
If it is one of your pet pronouns, replace it with the true subject of the sentence or phrase. The sentence, “It was the boss who inspected the books,” can be revised as “The boss inspected the books.” (When it disappeared so did other pets--was, who.)
Other easily housebroken pets include the rest of the pronoun menagerie: all, some, this, those, they, what, anything, everyone. Other overused words include just, only, really and very.
When editing your manuscript, pick a word you used too frequently. Look the word up in a thesaurus for suitable synonyms. Or maybe the word can be deleted. I used just too often, as in “His dad would just have to adapt to Japanese food.” I can replace just. “His dad would simply have to adapt to Japanese food.” Or I can delete just. “His dad would have to adapt to Japanese food.”
Housebreak words that piddle on your story. Remove them. Replace them. Or rewrite without them, when possible.
Ken’s War by B.K. Fowler: Army brat Ken finds himself in Japan when his hot-headed dad is deployed to a remote post there. Culture clash is one of the many sucker punches that knocks Ken’s world upside down in this coming-of-age novel for teens and young adults.
“Ken’s War is vibrant with authority … Fowler’s elegantly written novel risks exploring the full range of teenage behavior and emotion.” Nancy Springer, award- winning author of YA books.
Ken's War: When culture shock & teen rebellion collide. http://www.fireandiceya.com/authors/bkfowler/kenswar.html
Contact the author of Ken’s War & go behind the scenes at https://www.facebook.com/kenswar
Get writers tips and resources at http://writershelper.wordpress.com
Is Bigger Better?
A couple years ago I learned about a publisher looking for short stories featuring ghosts for an anthology. I whipped out a story, and as usual, it was too long. A friend of mine helped me chop it down to the required word length for submission. I'm not sure why, but I kept my original draft as well as the new one. Well, that's not true, I know why I kept it, I liked some of the extra stuff we cut. Al lot of the "voice" and "character" were in the extra parts, and I knew somewhere deep inside I might want to revisit this story someday.
I was right. My story didn't get picked up for the anthology, and it has sat in my files with all my other failed short stories. (I don't have a mind for short stories and have sold very few of them). Recently, I learned of a publisher looking for YA novellas between 15,000-20,000 words. This story seemed to fit the kind of plot they were looking for, but now it was too short. Luckily, I had kept that slightly longer story, but it was still only 7,000 words. I had to add a minimum of 8,000 words to it to make it marketable. What would that do to the plot? Could the story survive being doubled in length? Would it be better for it or bogged down with too much description and extra stuff.
I decided to attempt it. Over the past few weeks I went through my story and added bits here and there to pump the story up and add layers to the plot. In the end, I reached my word count goal. I will submit it to the publisher and keep my fingers crossed. If they say no, the story may sit around for a while again. I'm not sure I can pump it up to a full fledged novel unless I make this story just a piece of a larger plot. At any rate, wish me luck.
Here's some examples of what it looked like as a short story and now as a novella. Mark has been getting mysterious notes all morning at school that seem to be advising him as to how to write a proper love note to his girlfriend. He is beginning to wonder where the notes are coming from? See how in the original version he jumps to the conclusion that it is a ghost quickly, whereas in the new version he doesn't.
Short Story version of "Passing Notes":
Suddenly my heart began to race and painful chills rain down my arms and legs. Someone was communicating with me through those letters. Someone I couldn’t see but was able to see me. A ghost?
And more frightening still, I realized that I might lose Bethany before we even got going.
I couldn’t eat. I threw my lunch away and headed to my next class where I barely concentrated on the P.E. soccer game. All I could think about were those creepy letters and my stupid cell phone, wondering if I’d get a new message from either of them. I checked everything when I got back to the locker room before I dressed. Not so much as a smiley face from Bethany and no new notes.
Novella version of "Passing Notes":
My heart began to race and painful chills rain down my arms and legs. Two things had me terrified:
I might lose Bethany
Those notes weren’t coincidental. They were meant for me.
Whoever it was writing the notes had to be someone really stealthy to be able to slip them into strategic places for me to find and then return to make them disappear again. Also, it was someone with a keen interest in my love life and how I was conducting myself.
My friends at my table were busy with their phones or gaming devices; no one was really talking much except to say, “Look at this!” or the occasional cuss. I hadn’t even told any of them about Bethany yet. Even though I’m sure they would cheer me on, none of them had much experience with girls, certainly not enough to give me advice that would be of any value. None of them, as far as I knew, had ever written a love letter or even a poem (that wasn’t required for some English assignment). Plus, none of them were in my classes that morning. Who else would care about the quality of my texts to Bethany?
The whole thing had a stalker feel to it. That didn’t make a lick of sense to me, though. I’m not the kind of guy that a girl stalks. I shot up over the summer last year, so I’m not as short as I used to be. The five-year war I’d been fighting with pimples was finally coming to an end. Mom keeps saying that my shoulders are broad like my dad’s, but I’m not sure if that’s a good thing or not. I’ve never thought of myself as one of the good-looking guys, and the fact that Bethany even gave me a chance seemed like a minor miracle. So, who on earth would be interested in me to the point of stalking?
Or was it one of those girls like Sadie Jones, who bought all the same clothes as Bethany and tried to imitate her all the time? Girls like her creeped me out. I could believe someone like her would send me weird notes like this to get in the middle of what was going on between Bethany and me.
I almost convinced myself of that, and found myself scanning the cafeteria for Sadie to see where she was sitting when another thought hit me. Nether Sadie, nor anyone else for that matter, would have been able to read the texts I sent Bethany. I had been in the back of the room when I sent them, and odds were Bethany didn’t even have her phone out, let alone on, during class. No one could have known what I wrote, and therefore no one could tell me that I wrote the notes badly.
Everyone else in the cafeteria was busy talking, eating and cutting up with their friends. No one was looking at me as far I could tell. But I felt like there were eyes on me. Right over my shoulder. The feeling actually made my shoulder tingle, like when someone is too close, and I shrugged uncomfortably.
I couldn’t eat. I threw my lunch away and headed to my next class where I barely concentrated on the P.E. soccer game. All I could think about were those creepy letters and my stupid cell phone, wondering if I get a new message from either of them. I checked everything when I got back to the locker room before I dressed. Not so much as an emoticon from Bethany and no new notes.
So, I've finished going through my new novel and marking all the mistakes and things I want to change. What I discovered above all is that I like to use the word "actually". I use it mostly when people are talking in my book, which makes a little sense. I say "actually" a lot when I talk, and I'm trying to make my teenagers sound realistic. However, it's a little ridiculous after a while. I went through the book and deleted almost all of them.
When my editor helped me through Cry of the Sea, the words she kept circling for me were "just" and "really" and made me get rid of them. I found that I still had those words a lot in this new ms as well Once again I cut them.
I'm not sure why I like using qualifiers, but now that I'm aware of them, I see how often they are used in books with little editing (ie: self-published) verses ones that have been edited well. They stand out as if they are in bold print to me now.
I recommend that upon finished a draft, use your Find button and put in words like "just", "really", "actually", "seriously" and "very". See how many times they are showing up in your text. Delete them and see if your sentences still work. I can't say that I won't continue to put these useless words in my early drafts in the future. Habits are hard to break. I do hope to never submit a draft to an editor or agent with a manuscript filled with them, though.
What are your most commonly use pointless words?
Print to Proof
Now that I'm done with the big rewrite of my WIP, it's time to proofread. I find that I am terrible at proofreading on the computer. I read an article last week about a study that showed people are learning to skim rather than read carefully because of the way we use the Internet. This has always been the case for me with regard to reading on my computer. If I really want to concentrate on something, I do better to print it.
So, I will be printing my full ms, punching 3 holes in it, putting it in a binder and then going through it with my red pen handy. I'm looking for punctuation and spelling mistakes, grammar, and repeating words or phrases. I know I'm a big fan of the words "really" and "just" and have to work hard to get rid of almost all of them. I also hope to discover where the story is flowing well and where it might need some help. I already know that I need to change where some chapter breaks are, and that will be easier to see when it's printed as well.
Most of all, though, it's super fun to see a manuscript printed. I highly recommend it if you haven't done it. That sight of a big stack of paper filled with words from your brain is pretty cool. A feeling of satisfaction that I enjoy every single time I finish a book.
Rewriting Goal Met
Back in 2010 I entered NaNoWriMo for the first time and wrote a 50,000 word novel in one month. Over the following year I revised it and readied it for submissions. It was a contemporary adventure story for boys. I submitted it several places and never got a single request to read past my opening 25 pages. So, I decided last fall that it was time to rethink this story. As much as I liked it, it obviously was missing something. Some higher stakes, perhaps. What if? I asked myself. Instead of my mc being a just-turned 13 year old boy, I made him an almost 15 year old girl. How would that change my plot? How would that affect the other characters in the book? I made the goal of completing this rewrite by the end of March, and here I am on March 31st proudly saying that I have done it. Yes, it still needs some proofreading and tweaking, but the major changes are made. And you know what? It actually is a much better book. It's more exciting and has a lot more oomph to it.
Now I don't suggest everyone do a major change up like this when working on rewrites. However, if something's not working with your story, ask yourself "What if?" and see if a major change is needed.
Now I'm back to my WIP to clean it up and get it ready to send to publishers. Wish me luck!
Writing by hand
It's old-fashioned, I know, but another good trick for helping with rewrites is to write a first draft by hand. In this age of lap tops, iPads and other convenient mobile devices, sometimes we forget we can just carry a notepad and a pen around with us wherever we go. I wrote the first draft of my novel For a Speck of Gold completely in cursive on yellow notepads when I was working at an after school program back in the early 2000s. While the kids were doing their assignments, I jotted down my ideas. I have written a number of short stories this way while sitting in waiting rooms while my daughter was taking dance or swim lessons.
While this might seem like a waste of time to some - I mean, writing into the computer and saving it is so much easier - think of it as an exercise. I find that I don't write as much by hand as I do when typing, probably because my hand hurts after a while. So, when I go to copy what I've created into my computer, I do an automatic rewrite. I fill in the light paragraphs, fix the obvious mistakes, catch a lot of the repeating words. What this means is, the first draft to be on my computer is already a second draft.
Give it a try and see how it works for you.
Thank Goodness for Criticism
About 12 years ago I began writing my novel Cry of the Sea. I wrote it very quickly, and I thought it was pretty cool. No one wanted to read it, though. So, I took it to the SCBWI-Midsouth conference about five years ago and had an editor-critique session about the first chapter and outline. She was very nice but told me all the problems I had with it, including that the book was way too short. I was pretty broken and pushed the book aside to work on other projects. Then, 3 years ago, SCBWI offered a novel revision workship, hosted by an author I love named Helen Hemphill. I brought my pages and my notebook and got lots of great ideas. Finally, I knew what to do! You want to know what the solution was?
I scrapped the book. Yep. Except for the core idea, I pretty much let the rest fall away and started over again. I'm proud of the outcome, and it definitely got a lot more views by editors when I started submitting. Fire and Ice Young Adult Novels picked it up last year, and it will be in print and ebook in just a couple weeks!
So, I'm starting a blog about rewriting and revising manuscirpts. I'm going to start out the next couple weeks by showing you how some of my work has changed drastically from first draft to final draft. Then I hope to begin inviting other authors to show examples of their rewrites. I hope you find this fun and educational!
D. G. Driver
Award-winning author of books for teen and tween readers. Learn more about her and her writing at www.dgdriver.com
Author D. G. Driver's
Write and Rewrite Blog
“There are no bad stories, just ones that haven’t found their right words yet.”
A blog mostly about the process of revision with occasional guest posts, book reviews, and posts related to my books.