Rewriting: Sometimes It Means Starting Anew

starting anewIf you’ve been writing for any length of time at all, you’ve probably realized that 95% of any writing project is rewriting.  When I say rewriting, I don’t mean copy-editing, such as fixing commas and checking spelling.  I mean rewriting — shifting paragraphs, deleting pages, coming up with concrete verbs and more.

Most often I can see forward progress as I rewrite, but every once in a while the project just gets clunkier.  Instead of flowing more smoothly, the words seem to bog down and stagnate.  When that happens, the best solution is to start again.


You heard me.  Start again.

You mean go back to an older draft, right?

No, I mean start again.  Fresh.  In a blank document.  The thing is that by now I know what I need to do.  I know where the piece begins.  I know where it ends. I have a good feeling for the stops in between.  Rather than try to manipulate an awkward document into this shape, it is simply easier to start anew.

And the funny thing is, when I do this, things come together quickly.  Really.  It’s leaner, it’s meaner and it lacks those blasted sidetrips that made the original manuscript so cumbersome.

This is the same technique that I use when I have to drastically cut a manuscript.  Drastically means when I have to cut a manuscript in half.  When I have to cut a piece drastically but I try to cut a word or phrase or sentence at a time, the whole often feels disjointed. When I start anew and rewrite it focused on the end goal, smooth, sleek text results.

The next time you find yourself hung up on a rewrite, give this technique a try.  Open a new document.  Start on a clean sheet of paper.  Then write.  You may be surprised at how quickly it all comes together.


Brainstorming with Blippar

coffee blippartI have to admit that I was really excited when I read Lee Wind’s post on brainstorming with the Blippar ap.  In short, you open the app and point your phone at whatever.  As soon as Blippar “recognizes” what the object is it will pull in a labeled photo which goes into a menu bar at the bottom of the screen.  Click on that menu item and you will get a grouping of words associated with this image.  See the photo with “coffee” in the center and related words around it.

This would be great if Blippar had recognized my coffee cup, but it didn’t.  It was determined to call it tea.  From tea, I was able to select “caffeine” and from “caffeine” I could select “coffee.”

Yes, yes, this might be somewhat useful because it would take me places I hadn’t considered but coffee was the best of a goofy lot.

A large framed beetle was “container.”

The skull on my bookshelf was “mask.”

My knitting was “indoors,”  but that was also what it called my Chinese dragon and the skeleton sitting in the corner of the room.

The vest I’m crocheting actually got “shawl” which was pretty darn close.  The crochet hook and a skein of yarn were unrecognizable.  So was a snowman, a horse, a book, and a cross.  I didn’t even have the nerve to try the okapi or Groot.

I love brainstorming and I really wanted this to work but maybe things that I am surrounded by simply aren’t typical enough.  If if works for you, let me know and I may give it another go.  I’m beginning to suspect that my super power has something to do with nullifying technology.



Sidebars: Formatting and Voice

Ancient Maya sidebar.

Those of us who write nonfiction often use sidebars to include information that isn’t “on topic” enough to go into the main text but can still provide insight into the topic.  In Ancient Maya, my chapter on Maya society includes sidebars on murals that show life in the marketplace and jade.  In The Attack on Pearl Harbor, the chapter on US intelligence efforts has sidebars on Japanese censorship, how the US gathered information on Japanese cryptanalysis, the US military belief that an attack was impossible and how long it took the US to decrypt Japanese messages.

Coming up with these sidebar topics can be a lot of fun but sidebars intimidate new nonfiction writers.  The most common question?  “How do I format them? Where do I include them in the manuscript?”  When a book has chapters, I simply include them at the end of the chapter. The sidebars are double spaced and otherwise formatted just like the other text.
The voice of your sidebar is most often the same as the voice in your main manuscript.  If, in the book design, the sidebars are printed on the page as inserts from academic notes, newspaper stories or something similar, the tone and voice would be consistent with whatever they were supposed to be.  This might mean that the voice would be more academic or, in the case of “yellow” journalism, skewed in that direction.
When it comes to the word count, follow the publisher’s guidelines.  For Red Line and ABDO, I include the word count of the sidebars in the count for the chapter.  Other publishers may have other requirements.
Sidebars are a great way to give your reader just a bit more information.  As I research, I keep track of things that are interesting but are just a bit off topic.  Eventually, many of these things end up becoming sidebars.

Researching Setting: Walk It When You Can

trees around feed plotMy middle grade science fiction novel is set on an Earth-like world.  The area where the main character lives is very like an area I frequented as a child and still visit as an adult.  That said, my mom and grandmother never encouraged off-road strolling.  There were too many snakes and ticks and chiggers.

Lucky for me, I now live in male dominated household I lovingly call “Man Land.”  Paths and roads are mere suggestions.  Before you go down, you spray your clothes with Sawyers (tick repellant) and you use the video feature on your cell phone to self check for ticks in hard to see areas.

This weekend, I took the time to stroll through several feed plots and up a rarely used road or two.  I discovered that walking an overgrown gravel road is actually much easier than walking a well-maintained gravel road because the gravel is anchored in place with weeds.  When you walk past a stand of short leaf pine (at least I think that’s what it was).  The bark looks a lot like shag bark hickory and you can smell that glorious piney smell when you stroll past.  I was surprised how closely together the trees were growing.  Not even a tween could easily pass between the trunks.  Certainly not a teen in a hurry.

Not far from that was a stand of cedar.  Pines have long needles.  Cedar have scaly needles/leaves.

There were clusters of multiflora rosas growing amid clusters of blackberries.  I had forgotten how small wild blackberries could be, not finger-tip sized like the ones in my yard.

The sweet smell of honey-suckle stood out but I didn’t notice any scent what-so-ever from the trumpet vines.  The flowers were beautiful and easy to see but scent?  Nothing I could detect no matter how much the humming birds love them — and I actually saw a humming-bird alight on a branch and rest there for a time.

I had already roughed out the scenes in which my character moved through this landscape at about this time of year.  I’ll definitely be reworking them now that I’ve done it on a humidity drenched evening as the sun was pushing the horizon.  I know it isn’t always possible but this experience helped me see that your character’s sensory perceptions will be much sharper if, before you pen that scene, you take the time to walk the path.



How do editors decide what to publish?

wish listsI’ve been wondering a lot lately about how editors decide what to publish. Wondering and discussing it with my fellow writers.  Here are a list of theories I’ve compiled in a non-scientific (these are the ones I remember) way.

  • Editors are influenced by the “wish lists” produced by teachers and librarians.
  • They are out to create the books that they couldn’t find as children.
  • They look at market data — this kind of book is successful while this one isn’t.
  • They create child-friendly versions of their favorite adult books.

When I saw “Are Publishers Influenced by Teacher and Librarian Feedback,” I clicked through to the full story on Publisher’s Weekly.  Here is a smattering of the responses.  For more complete information, see the full article (link above).

Katie Hall, Abordale Associate Editor
Hall goes to trade shows at least once a year so that the can mingle with teachers and librarians.  “If I have a manuscript that I might be on the fence about, but it’s a subject that a teacher has mentioned to me, that can tip it over into the yes pile.”

Carolyn Yoder, senior editor, Boyds Mills/Calkins Creek
Her authors often come up with ideas after talking to a librarian but Yoder does her own research.  “I also check several librarian websites—Kid Lit Frenzy, the Uncommon Corps, Unleashing Readers—where they discuss what’s new and what’s coming up and sometimes what they would like to see more of.”

Alvina Ling, Little, Brown Editor-in-Chief
Feedback during conferences and library-previews.

David Levithan, Scholastic publisher and editorial director
Because of school connections, they get constant feedback from teachers and librarians.  This is part of the reason that they were so happy to aquire George by Alex Gino, teachers and librarians had told Scholastic that they were having to give YA books to children who really weren’t ready for YA content.

Mary Lee Donovan, Candlewick editorial director

“Candlewick is very much a creatively led publishing house. ‘Creatively led’ . . . means that the majority of the books we publish are products of the creator’s particular pursuit or passion.”

Justin Chanda, Simon & Schuster  v-p and publisher

“. . .  part of our editorial-meeting agenda within each of my imprints is to discuss what the editors have been hearing from those on the front lines—teachers and librarians who are sharing books and working with kids. We often hear comments at librarian previews, at conferences, on social media, and on listserves. We hear things directly from folks we have relationships for years, and who will email editors or me directly. Authors will hear feedback when they are going into schools on tour and will bring comments back. It is all very much a part of our discussions. Editorial’s job is to know as much about the market as possible, and educators and librarians are the conduit to one of the largest pieces of that market.”

I’m sure that the information from this article is skewed — they specifically wanted to know how much impact the opinions of teachers and librarians had — but I think it also shows that this market knowledge plays a big part in the selection process at many houses.  Maybe not all, but many.


Plot: Essential for your Biography

nonfiction plotOne of my students this semester is writing a biography of two well-known historic figures.  When you write about someone who is already the topic if numerous books, one of the trickiest things can be finding something to write about that isn’t the focus of anyone else’s book.  Fortunately, my student has done that because the friendship between these two people hasn’t been covered in writing for children.

You might think that writing her book would now be easy peasy, but you’d be wrong.  She still has to find a plot, or theme, to shape the book as a whole.  What do I mean?  This will be a story about their friendship but what about it? Possibilities might include:

  • How one of them taught the other person a valuable lesson
  • How together they overcame a problem that neither could conquer alone
  • Something surprising that they pulled off
  • Something they did that was secret

Come up with a plot (or some might call it the theme) and it will help you shape the story as a whole.  With it, you know which facts and events to include and what to leave out.  You also create something that is more engaging for the reader because it is represents a cohesive whole.   because there is never ever room for every fantastic fact that you find.  The theme will also shape the story that her piece of nonfiction tells.

Biography isn’t the only type of nonfiction that you need to shape.  You also need to do this with memoire and just about anything that isn’t an encyclopedia.  But even a manuscript about a topic that is broadly defined will leave some information out.  A book about how the city of St. Louis was founded, in part, by a fourteen year old won’t include information on the battles between Catholics and Protestants.  It will focus on how someone so young was put in charge of chosing a site and exactly what part he played in chosing the site and afterwards.

The beauty of nonfiction for children and teens is that it is lean and mean.  That’s what makes is so engaging and fun to read.



Story beginnings

startOne of the things that Taylor Norman kept mentioning at the Missouri SCBWI Advanced Writer’s Retreat was the need for a strong start to your story.  Surprisingly enough a strong start Taylor-Norman-style did not start with a bang.  It wasn’t necessarilly a high-action scene.  It wasn’t the moment that the character’s life started forever.


Instead, she asked us to let her meet the character first.  Let us see a bit of this character’s day-t0-day life.  That way should would learn who this character thinks she is and what she cares about before everything broke loose.  Pretty much the opposite of a John Wick beginning.

If you haven’t seen it, we meet John Wick immediately after he topples, gunshot, out of an SUV he just crashed.  Climax plus 1 minute.  Then the movie goes back to the beginning.

What Taylor wants authors to lead with is voice.  Who is this character?  How does she talk?  What’s  her attiitude like?  This isn’t to say that the character has to break the fourth wall and speak directly to the reader (ala Lemony Snicket).  But Taylor wants to see the character being herself.  She wants to be intrigued and care before everything goes ka-phooey.

Taylor didn’t read my Iron Mountain and I’m kind of wondering what she’d think of the beginning.  My character is on her way to get bad news.  She doesn’t know that’s what this trip is all about but you only get one brief scene of hopeful anticipation before ka-phooey.  I’m not sure that it’s enough so now I’m noodling over my beginning . . .

Get to know the character then yank the world out from under her . . .


Extra, Extra: Including photographs, artifacts and more to help sell your manuscript

photo-256888_960_720Recently I read a blog post by agent Janet Reid about a would-be client who wanted to know if she sould include a historic, handwritten resume and a photograph as part of her manuscript.  Wouldn’t these awesome items help the manuscript sell?

Reid’s answer was short and simple.  No.

Her advice to authors was this — create a manuscript that will dazzle your potential editor or agent. Sell your manuscript. Artifacts can become a part of your web site. And she’s right.  These are the kinds of things that I love finding on an author’s web site.  Want to hook me fast — include a photo of a relevent grave stone.  INclude pictures of a recreated village or histori re-enactors.

Maps, timelines and author’s notes can be created after the manuscript does the hard work of hooking the agent. The only time that I include things like this (backmatter) with the original manuscript is when I finish a project for ABDO and they are discussed in the contract.

I have to admit that I really wanted to argue with Reid’s response.  I wanted to . . . but I just can’t quite bring myself to do it.  Why?  Because I’ve seen way too many manuscripts and talked to way too many authors who want to create the flash before they create the manuscript.  What do I mean by creating flash? Paper engineering that will be part of the book.  A website.  A blog with posts by the main character.  The list could go on and on.

Yes, editors and agents want to know that you are willing to help market your work, but a lot of people can come up with marketing ideas and gimmicks. Writers are, after all, idea people.  The reality is that all of the marketing ideas in the world aren’t going to do you any good if you cannot finish a manuscript.

Finish your manuscript.  Hook an editor or agent.  Then worry about adding flash to the finished project.  They will want your help but only after you show them a top- notch manuscript.




Coming up with a Top Notch Title

Disgusting, Man, Sick, Spew, VomitEvery now and again I come up with the perfect title for my manuscript.  It is catchy, alluring, and just revealing enough.

Then there are those times that I think I’ve pulled that off but  — no.  I have not.  That was the case with What’s Up, Chuck?  I mean, what could be better for a book on vomit?  Apparently, something that tells the reader what the book covers.  And it has to do it without sounding like an academic title.

I smiled when Taylor Norman (Chronicle Books) told me this at the retreat, because really she was super helpful.  But inside I was crying.  I hate coming up with titles.  Hate it.  Really.

More often than not I can’t come up with anything decent but I’m lucky because I do a lot of online writing.  State the obvious and do it briefly.  Or work for hire.  The contract comes with a title.

But this time I have to do it myself.  The only word I have so far is “Vomitology.”  I’m leaning towards “Vomitology – The Science of Puke,” but I haven’t allowed myself to fall in love.  It is far too early for that.

That said, I did test the title out.  How?  I Googled it.  Hmm.  This probably won’t work.  It seems to be the name of a Death Metal band.  It is also an entry in the Urban Dictionary.  The example sentence contains the name of a male body part that rhymes with Venus.  Yeah, not really the sort of thing I’d want my 8 year-old reader to find.  So I’m back to square 1.

When you think you have a spiffy title for your book, Google it.  You may not come up with a Venus or a death metal reference.  But you may find 15 other books with the same title.  What happened when I was looking for Whoosh by Chris Barton.  It is a picture book biography about the NASA scientist who invented the super soaker.  There was probably a full-page of titles — some spelled Whoosh, others Woosh.

Pukology is also a no-go.  Don’t Google it.  Just don’t.  It was disgusting and this is from the woman writing a book about barf.

Vomitus scientificus?

Ugh.  I hate coming up with titles.


Twitter Pitch

twitter pitchI’ve written short pitches for my book ideas — three sentences, one sentence — but I hadn’t considered limiting myself to 140 characters until I heard two writers discussing twitter pitches.  I suspect this was at the Missouri SCBWI retreat but don’t actually remember who or where.  Yeah, when it’s overloaded my brain is just like that.  Sorry.

140 characters may seem generous but it is considerably less than some sentences.  The first sentence in this post contains 195 characters.

Just for fun I decided to try this with some of my ongoing projects:

Prayer and Praise Around the World:  A picture book about prayer as a universal phenomenon expressed through song, dance and ritual.  (132 characters)

Vomitology:  The science of puke, both human and animal, as well as a bucket full of fascinating facts.  (103 characters)

Fearless Felicity:  Felicity seeks the spotlight, failing at the trapeze, the cannon and lion taming, discovering her place only when she turns the spotlight on someone else. (174 characters)

Rat Race:  When Isaiah Alexander curses his sister, the spell results not in one huge rat but countless regular rats that he must find to bring her back. (153 characters)

I have to admit — I expected this to be really difficult.  Nigh impossible even so when I quickly created two nonfiction summaries that were well within the character count I felt a little smug.  “Easy peasy.”  That lasted until I tried writing pitches for fiction.  Coincidence?  I think not.  I’m much more comfortable with nonfiction.  I think that impacts my confidence in leaving large chunks of information out of these super short summaries.  With fiction I’m still trying to squeeze it all in.

Would I try to write twitter pitches again?  You bet.  I think you have to know your project inside out and backwards and be really confident in it before you can pull this off.  And that should definitely be the case before you let an editor or agent read your work.