Revision Diary: Working at the Workshop

I am back from helping out at the Highlights Foundation Whole Novel Workshop in Milanville, PA. In case you haven’t heard of this magical place, please click through the link and have a look at all of the marvelous things they offer to working children’s writers in an incredibly beautiful and supportive setting.

(That was the view out my window one soft, misty morning!)

I cannot say enough wonderful things about the faculty of the Whole Novel Workshop, headed by the incredible Sarah Aronson. If you have a completed MG or YA novel you need to revise, consider applying for a spot at this intense but supportive week-long workshop.

Every year, the atmosphere generated at this workshop is a boon to faculty as well as students. I’ve had major revelations and productive streaks. This year was a little more modest for me in terms of productivity because of where I am in this revision (still in that painstaking stuff!) But the good news is that everything still feels right. So far!

But something has been niggling at me after this week, related to a thought I’ve had all year regarding an aspect of diversity that isn’t often addressed, and that is economic diversity. Not in the work itself–that, I think, is talked about from time to time. But in the question of the people writing the stories. We don’t talk about economic barriers to publishing, and there are many. Simply having the time to write is a luxury for so many writers. Other things, such as workshops like this one, travel for research or experience, extended education, paid editing or critiques, etc., are out of reach for many writers.

So I’ve been mulling over the one little thing that I–an economically challenged writer in my own right–can offer and will make an announcement about it soon.

*Highlights Foundation does offer scholarships. Click here for info.


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Revision Diary: the Painstaking Stuff

(I hate long blog post intros, so diving right in.) After going through the entire ms and marking it up in Word as well as creating a chapter-by-chapter outline and marking THAT up, I am finally down to the actual revision.

Even though I’m making major changes in this revision, this isn’t the time to bash through and hit the major points first. For one thing, this is about the five hundredth revision. For another, I’m just not that kind of writer. I compare my revision method to combing out very long, very snarled hair. You just have to work bit by bit, with patience and you have to keep going back and combing forward, over and over. It’s painstaking but it’s my method and I’m kind of stuck with it.

So here’s where I am today. Here’s a glimpse of my outline.

I break each chapter down into scenes. This is helpful to me because if I try to go through scenes in the ms itself, I get sucked into reading and lose track of what I’m doing. The outline helps me to focus on which scenes provide opportunities to make the points the revision needs to make. “Opportunity” is my new revision word. I like it better than “fix” or “change.”

So everywhere there’s a yellow highlight, there’s an opportunity and I know that’s a scene I need to focus on.

Next to the outline are visual references. It helps me a lot to have pictures of my main characters. Every time I get into trouble in the ms, when I’m stuck, it’s ALWAYS because I’ve pushed a character to do or say something that is not organic to the character. The photos remind me that they are individuals.

I also have images of settings because I love settings and think they are as much a character as anyone else. The photos are evocative and can help pull me back into the story if I get distracted. (Yes, I know you can make bulletin boards on Scrivener* and blah blah, but I like physical copies. Pictures in particular look different printed out. And I get great satisfaction from crumpling up each page of the outline as I move forward.)

And here’s a marked up page on Word:

A lot of the notes on the ms itself are sort of clean-up items. They’re about language, tone, small points, correcting things that have been altered by other changes. The big picture items are in the yellow highlights on the outline. At this point, there are 478 comments to attend to! (I delete as I go, so there were more.) I’m not even going to look at how many yellow highlights there are. There aren’t 478 but there are a lot. And a lot of them involve rethinking, and that has always been the hardest part of revision for me: reimagining what I have already imagined.

The other challenge with this revision is that while I am adding a lot of new information, my goal is to cut this thing by 100 pages.

(Six down, ninety-four to go…)

*you can do that on Word, too

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Cold Hands, Sore Hands!

Writing historical fiction? Or read tons of it and always wondered what chilblains are? I can help you out with that! Take a look:

All four of my fingers are afflicted, but the most easily visible ones are the red welts on the middle and pinky fingers, particularly on the first joints. What happens is when the extremities are cold, the blood vessels constrict, restricting blood flow. If you warm up too quickly, the blood tries to rush into the vessels before they have a chance to expand. With nowhere to go, the blood will push through weak spots in the vessel walls and pool in the surrounding tissue, creating painful welts, swelling, itching. It takes about two weeks for the body to reabsorb the blood deposits. Until then, welts are hot, itchy, extremely painful to the touch. Surrounding tissue feels swollen and hard, sometimes tingly. Extremes in temperature in either direction increase the discomfort.

Chilblains: literally swollen from the cold. Chill blain.

On a side note, these are so uncommon in the US because of widespread central heating and modern fabrics in gloves, socks, and shoes, that it took me years to find a doctor who not only recognized what they were but who had even heard of them. But they were common before the advent of central heating. The scourge of Victorian governesses and scullery maids.

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Tragic Backstory

So like I said, I’m launching this blog mainly to keep track of the revision of a WIP, but first, a little background, some of which is hard for me to admit.

I started this WIP eight years ago. Eight years. Eight looooooong years. It took me three years to finish it. That is, to get it to the point where I felt it was ready to go out to editors. In my own defense, it was at that point over 125,000 words long, a historical fantasy that required tons of research. But anyway, it was “done” and out it went.

And back it came. Over and over. It came frustratingly close to publication a couple of times. It went to committee twice and twice was turned down. It got those maddening “positive” rejections like “I love this but historical fiction doesn’t sell,” or “I love this but it’s too long. Can you cut 200 pages?” That sort of thing.

It also drew criticism I have to admit I wasn’t ready to hear–or that didn’t make sense to me at the time. We’ll get to that later. Discouraged, I withdrew the ms from submission and reluctantly, parted ways with my agent, and then…

I quit.

Oh, it wasn’t formal. I didn’t make a public grand farewell to my art. I just stopped writing. I stopped thinking about writing. I felt like the writing part of my brain had simply shut down. And after a few years, it seemed to be a permanent state.

For awhile, I tried to write, but I couldn’t move forward on anything new. That was the frustrating part. It wasn’t that I consciously couldn’t let go of this book. After all, this book started as a bit of fluffy fun. It wasn’t important. It didn’t matter that it wasn’t published, so there should be no problem letting it go and moving on, right? Wrong. Everything I started just petered out in a sad fizzle of lack of confidence. It’s all clear NOW what the problem was, but at the time, I couldn’t figure it out and I was frustrated.

So I stopped. I got a job, the kind that pays you money regularly for the work you do. I got my kids through school. I cringed when people asked me when my next book was coming out. For years, I didn’t write. I tried. I made plans. I brainstormed with writer friends. I worked with a life coach. But I didn’t write.

Then something changed. In all that time,┬ásomething subconscious was going on. It’s a long story involving discovering the freedom of fanfiction that I won’t go into here, but it basically came down to what I say to other writer friends who are discouraged and want to quit. “The doors are never locked behind you.” That is, the gates to your writing brain are always open but also always taking things in, and eventually, I rediscovered the creative joy I had lost, and after a time, I was ready to take that joy back into my own original work.

But I still STILL could not get past this sad, abandoned ms. It was just there, in my head, refusing to budge. Okay, I thought, well, I’ll take this new energy and give it one last try. You hear that, ms? You get one more shot out of me and then we’re done. DONE, I tell you. I will move on if I can’t figure you out this time.

So I headed off to a week long retreat with a folder full of notes for three different works-in-progress, including this stubborn ms. Maybe I’d work on it. Maybe I’d work on something new, fresh, and fun.

Now there were several friends at this retreat who I had foisted this ms on before had read this ms in various stages over the years and were kind enough to overlook how whiny I’d been and talk to me about it. And this is another long story I won’t get into, but it was one of those weird, serendipitous things where one friend would tell me one thing and then another friend would say something else that just dovetailed right into it and things began to fall into place, like the tumblers in a lock when you finally get the combination just right. I swear I could hear them falling–click, click, click.

There were several revelations that week, but the biggest and most critical one was this:

Talking it through with the help of my friends, I figured out the heart of the book, the point of it, what it wanted to say. All during those eight years, I had lightly dismissed my own book as not having a point, as just being “for fun.” But the thing is, the heart had always been there. I had just been ignoring it. (A lot of this revision going forward will be about clearing away a lot of clutter that had been obscuring that heart.) My book now felt important. Not in an “I will save the world with this book, it is so important!” way, but in a “This deserves all of my care” way.

And underneath that was the reason why I had both not been able to abandon the book but also had not been able to work on it. I couldn’t abandon it because on an unacknowledged level, I knew it was important. I couldn’t work on it because consciously thinking it was unimportant made working on it feel like a bad career move. And so I was stuck between these two opposing forces in my own head. Stalemate.

Understanding what the book had wanted to be all along removed both. Click, click, click. All the tumblers fell into place. It is the most amazing feeling I’ve had in writing. Sure, the fact that it took years to get here is pretty appalling, but on the other hand, the way things came together, I believe that I just wasn’t ready for what the book was trying to tell me. There is a time for things, and the time for this book is now.


That said, now there’s a pretty substantial revision ahead of me. But the vision is more clear than in any revision I’ve attempted so far. So I thought it would be interesting–even if only to me–to chronicle what I’m doing, to see how it goes, what works and what doesn’t. I will tag all of these entries with “revision diary.” Off we go.




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New blog!

Finally figured out how to add a blog to my webpage, so now I have a convenient place to ramble. This will come in handy because I’m starting an ambitious new revision of an old, ornery ms and plan to chronicle what I’m doing because I think it might be useful to me and maybe to anyone else out there who needs some inspiration. Be sure to check back or sign up for email updates!

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