Tag Archive for tips on revision

Sneak Peak 2: My New Series of Scary Tales

Last month I handed in the manuscript for the first book in a new series — my first since Jigsaw Jones. Though Jigsaw is still around, with many titles still available, I haven’t consistently written new books in that series for the past six years.

In the intervening time, I’ve published hardcover books, a first for me, in picture book format (Mighty Casey, A Pirate’s Guide for First Grade) and for older readers (Six Innings, Along Came Spider, Justin Fisher Declares War, Bystander, and Before You Go).

I haven’t written specifically for what was once my core readership, the grades 2-4 crowd. I needed to step away, explore different things. But now I’m back, writing 80-page chapter books for exactly that age group. And I have to tell you, I’m absolutely in my comfort zone with this new, evolving series — my “Twilight Zone” for younger readers.

Here’s a sample page 1 from my first draft, scribbled out on a yellow legal pad (as if my usual practice):

Kind of messy, right? Not sure you can read this. Lots of interesting changes/revisions/improvements on the fly. I gave the sister an early line of dialogue, then to the side, later, asked myself: “still sleeping?” Brought “Our new home” up into the first paragraph, deleted words and phrases, etc.

Last week I received the copyedit in the mail, which I reviewed over the phone with my editor, Liz. So now that same section looks like this:

The ring, I learned as I wrote, figures large in the story. There is a power to it. So during revision I made sure to get it into that opening scene, underscoring Kelly’s relationship to it, giving it, in other words, its moment.

I was grateful to receive positive feedback from my publisher, since the first book in a new series can be tricky. You make many decisions that you’ll have to live with for the length of the series. Jean Feiwel sent me a note, “I love love love this book.” That was good day. I was not asked to make any big changes, just light revisions. In another month or so I’ve receive the galleys, with the corrected type set in a carefully-selected font, exactly as it will appear in final book form, and with it the opportunity for another round of tweaks, improvements. The artwork will come in within the next two weeks — and there will be a lot of it. That’s exciting. I can’t wait to see what the (super-talented, surprise) illustrator does with the story. All the while, I’m writing the second book of the series, which is due in another month.

The series, tentatively titled “Shivers,” will launch in the summer of 2013.

EDIT: Now called “SCARY TALES.”

Starting a new series presents many challenges, the thrill of creating something brand new. Hopefully this will be the beginning of something great. That’s always my dream going into a job, “Maybe this one will be great.” I don’t think I’ve gotten there yet, but I keep hoping.

We are not interested in creating a formulaic set of stories, stamped out by a factory. We want each book to stand alone, featuring different characters and different settings. Again, in this sense, I am inspired by Stephen King and “The Twilight Zone” (and yes, I own the complete series on DVD), which rather than one type of story, featured a comprehensive variety of sub-genre, including science fiction, horror, social satire, fantasy, ghost stories and countless variations. My hope is that across a number of books we’ll be able to accomplish something similar in terms of scope and content, while still maintaining a signature fingerprint. When a reader opens a “Shivers” book, he’ll know that he’s about to get strapped into the roller coaster, taken for a wild ride, and returned back safely again — hopefully screaming, “Again, again, again!”

For fans of process, here’s another example of how the story moved from first draft to copyedit:

The copyedited version, which arrives after many revisions by me at home before it goes to the publisher, represents the first edited response from my publisher. Again, this sample shows a light touch by the folks at Feiwel & Friends, thank goodness. Note the circles around “Liam.” We commonly refer to this as an echo. Sometimes when we use a word too many times over a few sentences, or when, in this case, the paragraphs open in the same way. Doesn’t mean it must be changed, just that it should be looked at, considered, before it is changed or not. Alert readers will also note that I changed “‘Hello,’ he called” to “‘Hello,’ he bleated.”

A little lamb, lost in the wilderness.

Have a great Memorial Weekend, everybody. And please remember why we celebrate it. Be grateful to the uniformed men and women who have served our country over the years.

Uncorrected Proofs, Living with ARCs: One Author’s Perspective

I’ve never been comfortable when people describe themselves as “perfectionists.” Especially coming from writers. It implies that, somewhere down the line, they actually do get it “perfect.”

We don’t, not ever. But many of us — though not all — try our best. And often, our best takes time.

Part of the hardcover publishing process is for publishers to send out Advance Reader’s Copies, or ARCs. These ARCs typically go out for review months in advance of publication to selected bloggers, review periodicals, and influential librarians. To be clear: In most cases, an ARC is what the reviewer reads, not the finished book.

So ARCs are not final, and not perfect. In fact, in the case of my upcoming novel, BEFORE YOU GO, I had/have two rounds of opportunities to make corrections before the book goes to print. These are mostly small details, corrections, not wholesale revisions (and this is in addition to the copyediting process that goes on in-house). So, sure, the ARC is basically a good representation of the final book.

So long as you aren’t a perfectionist.

On the back cover of every ARC I’ve ever seen, it typically reads something like this: PLEASE NOTE: This is an uncorrected proof. This edition should not be quoted without comparison with the finished book.”

I’ve been living with my ARC for about a month now. For various reasons, it came out eight months before the publication date. The ARC does not reflect what I’d estimate to be several hundred minor changes, revisions, corrections. Maybe that’s a lot, I don’t know; and maybe it was all my fault, probably so. It might be because I’m a perfectionist . . . or that I can’t let go . . . or that I should have caught all that before we got to this point. Maybe I’m an idiot. These revisions range from changing a character’s name, to eliminating a comma, to deleting or inserting a single word, to trying once again to get that sentence exactly right. Here’s some examples:

It seemed funnier, changing it to “in the food-service industry.”

I’m adding a hypenated word here, now it’s “like some kind of tree-climbing forest creature.” This revision — everything I’ll show you here, in fact, we discussed with my editor, Liz Szabla. At the bitter end, we roll up our sleeves and talk it out, comma by comma. And I absolutely love that attention to detail. Liz and I will go months without discussing a work — I like to do my own thing for long stretches — but when we do get a change to get down to it, well, for me, that’s pure joy. I don’t understand writers who don’t like revision. That’s the fun part.

Deleting an unnecessary phrase, for speed.

We talked this over and stayed with “fractures.” There’s a great danger at this point, for someone like me, to gild the lily. To over-think. ¬†Sometimes I’ll suggest a change and Liz will say, not unkindly, “I think it’s fine the way it is.” William Wordsworth, you know, rewrote many of his poems toward the end of his life. And the consensus is that he usually made them worse. There’s a point when you’ve got to put down the pen and back away.

I cut two lines, considered some new text, and cut that, too. Actually, I think I revised and inserted that revision into a different moment in the book. There was an idea that I was trying to get to, which resulted in this sentence: “He decided to believe in life.” But this particular paragraph ends, “Jude made a truce with that unknowing.”

Have you deciphered my lefty scrawl?

He forced himself to retrace his blessings, the people and things he would never wish away, yet the exercise proved small solace. Some secret part of him that he dared not confess longed only for annihilation.

The idea of death.

Just a little faster this way.

He’s a strong runner, an able runner. It was only two miles. Jude didn’t need to catch his breath, he wasn’t panting. He needed to find some pebbles to throw at Becka’s window. For dialogue, not “I’m sorry,” but just, “Sorry . . .”

Probably one of the more worked moments in the book. It now reads:

. . . And he reached back to cast that rock as far as he could.

Just to see the splash.

——

PLEASE NOTE: If you are a reviewer and you are interested in reading the flawed, imperfect ARC to BEFORE YOU GO, please shoot me an email and we’ll see what we can do. I’ve got the perfect book for you. Well, not exactly perfect.

Big Picture Revision

Essentially, revision comes in two stages: 1) What I think of as “Big Picture” Revision; and 2) All the little details, which is really better understood as “copyediting.”

I think kids groan whenever revision is discussed for many reasons, and probably the most basic is that they want to be done; revision translates into “more work.” Who wouldn’t groan at that? But also it’s the work itself, because for so many revision overwhelmingly represents the second stage, all the boring little details; the fun is definitely over. These kids want to splash bright, bold colors on a wall . . .

. . . and we’re asking them to paint the trim. Nothing wrong with that — you’ve got to paint the trim — but I sympathize with the groans.

Sometimes when I meet with students, and we talk about revision, I remind them of the root meaning of the word, re/vision. Literally to see, again.

It’s why so many writers talk about needing to step away from the work, like a painter backing from the canvas, in order to see the work from a new perspective.

How can the story be funnier? More exciting? Of course, the essential element is that you’ve got to care, you’ve got to take pride in your work. Not every student has that feeling about his writing — and I’m not at all sure you can teach that — but I’m certain that revision is a hopeless process without pride in one’s finished product. Which is equally true for house painters.

Back in the day when I was a copywriter, I’d often send out these thirty-page packets to as many as fifteen different readers. They were all invited to make comments, criticisms, suggestions. Then I’d get all those packets returned, many covered with heart-breaking scribbles, unfriendly remarks, sentences crossed out, hacked at, sometimes improved, sometimes ruined. I’d take all those comments and have to consider each one . . . and revise.

The mental trick I learned was to intentionally try to save energy for that stage, even to the point of holding something back in the first draft; because once you think it’s perfect,¬† once you think you are done, after you’ve given 100% and all the creative energy is spent, then all those comments will crush you. So it’s important to understand the process — to know from the very beginning that, toward the end, you are going to have to paint the trim.

One quick example I like to give kids, because it always generates lively discussion when I ask them to revise with me: I tell them how I once wrote a scene in a Jigsaw Jones book, where he’s in the art room and needs to search someone’s desk. I wrote the chapter and it was okay enough, though maybe a little flat. In revision, at my editor’s suggestion, I tried to think of how I could make it funnier. It was a scene set in an art room. Did I have any memories of funny things that happened in school? Did I know someone who had a funny memory? And what about an art room, anyway? There’s glue!

Glue is funny. And there’s paint — paint that can spill or splatter. The comic possibilities unfurl. The paint spills on whom? Jigsaw? Big Maloney? Maybe the teacher! See: We’ve circled back, we’re brainstorming; we’re throwing around paint again.

In the end, my revision to that scene was minor, and not really hysterical; it just added an extra beat to the rhythm. But the thinking process behind the revision was fun. I enjoyed it. How do you make a scene more scary? Or move it along faster? How do you make this thing . . . better? That’s the heart of revision, an opening up of possibilities, before that final narrow focus of copyediting.

NOTE: I’m going away for a few days to visit friends. Maybe we’ll even take pictures!