Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Tricks of the Trade: Revision Tips from Picture Book Authors

Today TC & TF features revision tips from authors who have taught in UCLA Extension’s Writers Program. Including yours truly.

Why ? Because I’m currently tweaking a manuscript, and have been pondering the revision process itself. I wondered what tricks my comrades had up their sleeves. Here's what they had to say.

Caroline Arnold:

After I've done all the usual grammar and syntax corrections, cutting and pasting, and I think I'm getting close, I always read my manuscript aloud. Even with books for older readers that are not meant as read-alouds, this helps me hear if my text is flowing smoothly.

Merrily Kutner:

Here’s my tip: when revising, check to see if you’ve used active not passive writing. Passive writing tells rather than shows. When writing actively, the specific verb you choose is your most valuable tool and many times saves words. So, pick verbs that describe exactly how the character is acting; alternate words for “sat” carry different emotional meanings (perched, slouched, squat). The subject and verb contain the important information in each sentence so keep those elements close together toward the front of the sentence for greatest impact. Sentences that start with “there was,” “there is,” and “there are” are telling and most always passive.

Passive—The leaves were raked into piles by Mark and John.
Active—Mark and John raked the leaves.

Although the first sentence is acceptable it isn’t a strong one. If you make Mark and John the subjects and put the “rakes” directly in their hands, you’ll create a more active and vivid picture for readers. Also, if you’re stumped where to revise just try to cut each page by 30 words…it will add up and get your word count down.

Alexis O’Neill:

Make sure that at least one person in your writers' group is a ruthless chopper. When you can't find one more word to eliminate from your precious manuscript, give The Chopper a target word count and invite her to cut cut cut. This is how I got my 700-word book review down to the required 250 words. And, on that word diet, it read beautifully!

Ann Whitford Paul:

It’s been said, “An apple a day keeps the doctor away.” I say, “The willingness and ability to revise will keep rejection letters away.” Try new approaches. Imagine your story is a pippin apple. Maybe if you told it from a different viewpoint, it would turn into a macintosh or delicious apple. Share your apple with other growers. A critique group will catch things that you hadn’t considered and offer suggestions for improvement. And don’t expect everything to come together overnight. An apple tree takes years to produce an apple. You might take years to produce a story. Enjoy the process and the taste of accomplishment when you finally get an offer will be all the sweeter.

Barney Saltzberg:

First and foremost, LEAVE YOUR EGO AT HOME, Preferably in a closet with the door closed!

Practical tips: I find that since I write on the computer, it helps me to print out what I'm working on so I can read my story on paper. I read it with a pen or pencil and make my edits on the page. I will then go back, save a new draft and add the changes I have made. Since I write picture books, I do read my work out loud. It's helpful to 'hear' they rhythm of what I'm reading.

At some point in the process when I think I'm close to being finished, I might have someone else read my work out loud to see how the story works. I know how to 'read' what I've written, but someone else might emphasize different things in my story. Having them read the story without my setting it up, or explaining things, is a way to see if they understand what I'm trying to say. We tend to defend or explain what we've written. People want to 'get' our work. If it's not making sense to another person, don't think of it as an attack, think of it as an opportunity to re-examine what you have just written and find a way to make the story more compelling and clear.

April Halprin Wayland:

When I first wrote New Year at the Pier—A Rosh Hashanah Story, illustrated by St├ęphane Jorisch (Dial), the main character was a 10-year-old girl. My editor, Lauri Hornik, suggested making the main character younger, more in keeping with the picture book audience.

At first I was cranky. I liked the story just fine, thank you. But my friend Janet Wong said, Just try it. So I tried it. I made the little brother into the main character. Since he was younger, he couldn’t write a list of the things he wanted to apologize for….which sent me in a new direction and did wonders for the book.

Huh. My editor was right….imagine that!

So if you want to rewrite something but you don’t know where to begin, here’s a blog post about looking at something from a completely different point of view.

Michelle Markel:

For me, the hardest part of revision is keeping the love alive. Sometimes you go on MANY dates with your manuscript. Some of them don't end so well. How can you rekindle the spark of the first drafts? (don’t throw them out- lest you forget those magical moments!) Read some poetry or other inspired writing before looking at your own. Stimulate your imagination with regards to your main character or setting. Take field trips, go back to the library, use Google images or Youtube.

Or do the opposite. Ignore your story. You two may need some time apart. Indulge in other activities and see how long you can bear living without each other. Arrange to meet when you’re good and ready. Something mysterious may occur the next time you meet- the grace of a solution.

What works for you?

P.S. Revision is one of the topics covered in Writing the Picture Book, a six week Saturday afternoon class I'll be teaching this Spring through UCLA Extension. Catalog on-line in February.

Thanks to Kate Narita for posting cool lesson ideas for Tyrannosaurus Math, as well as an interview with me today.

Monday, January 4, 2010

Math Books Have Feelings Too

When I was in elementary school during the Mad Men era, math was drill and kill. Math was presented as a useful tool,  a way to manage money and measure yardage and lumber. By the time I was in high school, yawning through a trigonometry class,  Math seemed like its own closed off universe, one I wanted to visit as infrequently as possible.

So I'm delighted by math books that approach the subject with a sense of awe, or use math metaphorically. My hope is that children will develop an early appreciation for the subject. Our lives are filled with losses, additions, divisions  and multiplications….

 Here are five of my favorites:

Zero is the Leaves on The Tree by Betsy Franco

In this book zero means stillness, absence, silence and more:

Zero is "the sound of snowflakes landing on your mitten,"

"the ripples in the pool before the first swimmer jumps in."

(Full disclosure: contemplating nullness and emptiness and numbers, thoughts drifted to Three Dog's Night's lyrics "Cause one is the loneliest number that you'll ever do / One is the loneliest number, worse than two")

One Gorilla by Atsuko Morozumi

The narrator counts the things she loves (which are tenderly portrayed) “Here is a list of things I love. One gorilla. 2 butterflies among the flowers. And one gorilla. Three budgerigars in my house and one gorilla."  Counting as an expressive act.

Note: now that I think about it, the artwork reminds me of Henri Rousseau, painter of imaginary jungles (and subject of my upcoming book from Eerdmans).

MATHterpieces- the Art of Problem Solving by David Schwartz

Opposite a reproduction of 12 famous paintings are related items that the reader is asked to group in different ways. Dali's painting The Persistence of Memory is accompanied by the verse, "Is it a dream or is it real? / It's hard to know when art's surreal. / Dali's clocks once so precise-- / now they're melting just like ice. / Find SEVEN ways to make an 8 / group the CLOCKS, it's getting late."

Adding up melting clocks sounds like fun to me. As an advocate of exposing children to the visual arts, which rely on math (pattern, balance, repetition...) to work their charms,  I like the pairing of math and masterpiece here.

1-2-3 A Child’s First Counting Book by Alison Jay.

The gorgeous artwork conveys the emotion in this book, inviting the reader to enter a magical kingdom and count its fairy tale elements. When I opened this the first time, I sighed with happiness.

Marvelous Math, edited by Lee Bennett Hopkins.

This fancifully illustrated book will get readers thinking about the many ways math touches their lives.  It includes this lovely poem by my friend Joan Graham:

Nature Knows Its Math

         the year
         into seasons,
         the snow then
         some more
         a bud,
         a breeze,
         a whispering
         the trees,
         and here
         beneath the
         orange poppies

  --© Joan Bransfield Graham

Check out a past post from Miss Rumphius for a list of math books incorporating poetry.

With my book Tyrannosaurus Math I hope to bring cheer to the word problem genre (subject of several postings here). For more information about how that book was written please visit Cynsations Craft, Career and Cheer.   Thank you Cynthia!

P.S. Please revisit this wonderful math themed poem by Mary Cornish at Poetry 180. HAPPY NEW YEAR from TC&TF!