Ronnie's Awesome List presents a guest article by Amy Novesky, children’s book editor and author. Join her at her children's writing workshop, "On-The-Spot Children's Writing," at Book Passage in Corte Madera on Saturday, March 21, 10am-2pm.
It took Maurice Sendak eight years to write Where the Wild Things Are. The original version didn’t feature Wild Things at all, but horses; it was called, Where the Wild Horses Are. Can you imagine? But the story wasn’t working, and Sendak almost abandoned it. Luckily for us, a few days later, he went back to it. He ditched the original draft—he decided he couldn’t draw horses very well—but he could draw wild things or wild beasts or something. The working title of his revison was, Where the Wild Things Are (Or Wild Beasts) (or Something).
- Writing and rewriting, or revision, is hard work. But it is also fun. The hardest part – getting words down on paper – is done. Now comes the problem-solving and polishing, making a story shine.
- Be ready, willing and able to revise your story – not once but many times. Even the most seemingly polished story will need work before it is even considered and certainly before it is acquired and most likely before it is published. Editors are looking for manuscripts in near-perfect condition.
- Revision is not simply changing a word here and there (although it is about considering every single word); it is re-envisioning the entire story to make it stronger. Sometimes that means scrapping a beloved first draft and starting over.
- Revision is about “murdering your darlings,” as one famous writer once infamously stated (or as my writing teacher used to say “Drowning your kittens” – you can supply your own cutting variation). In other words, it’s about letting go of what you love, which is life.
- It’s the writer who knows how to and has the endurance to revise who will be published.
Some ideas for how to rework a picturebook:
- Read your story aloud, if you haven’t already. Listen to how it sounds. Mark what doesn’t sound right and refine it. Better yet, have someone else read it aloud.
- Set your story aside for at least a few days, like Maurice, if not a few weeks. Give yourself some distance from it so that you can see it with fresh eyes.
- Workshop your story. Start or join a writing group, find a class. Be open to critical feedback – to what works and what doesn’t.
Some picturebook reworking exercises:
- Most picturebook stories are way too long. Cut your story by at least a third of its length (e.g. if your story is 6 double-spaced manuscript pages, cut it to 4), especially if it is over 1000 words.
- Try a simple (but not simplistic), spare and lyrical (“sparical”) approach. Try near-rhyme and internal rhyme instead of sing-songy end-rhyme.
- What does your character want? Begin the story with a declarative first sentence.
- Writers tend to overwrite beginning and endings because they are so important. Begin the story one paragraph later. End the story one paragraph earlier. Chances are you’ve already written just the right beginning/ending.
- If in verse, rewrite in narrative; if in narrative, rewrite in verse.
- Play with point-of-view: try 1st person if in 3rd; 3rd person if in 1st
- Play with tense: If in past, try present; If present, try past.
- Choose another narrator to tell the story – the family dog?
- Anticipate the “so what?”; “too quiet”; “too slight” response. Your story needs to move and be moving.
- Write a two-line summary of your story. Do you know what your story’s about?
- Resist illustrating your story—literally and figuratively—unless you are a brilliant artist, that is. Write a story that inspires, not dictates, images: the writer reduces, the illustrator expands.
- And if you can’t draw horses (write in rhyme, etc.), don’t draw them! Do what you do best. Write the story only you can write.
Amy Novesky is an independent children’s book editor and author. Her award-winning picturebooks include ME, FRIDA; GEORGIA IN HAWAII; IMOGEN; MISTER AND LADY DAY; and the forthcoming CLOTH LULLABY. Register for her children's writing workshop, "On-The-Spot Children's Writing," at Book Passage in Corte Madera on Saturday, March 21, 10am-2pm. You can also connect with her at amynovesky.com or email firstname.lastname@example.org.