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 StĂ©phane 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.


  1. This was great! I adore the idea of putting your WIP on a "word diet." I also read my manuscript out loud - I actually record it, and then I listen back to it like it's an iaudio book. It helps me catch things like using the same word to describe something on two different pages.
    Great post!

  2. Thank you for this post Michelle! I heard you speak at Writer's Day and love your books. So do my kids.

    I write mainly YA and MG but the advice here is true for that as well.
    Along the lines of what the instructors have said here, I find that having others look at it with fresh eyes is always helpful. Sometimes it's just below the surface for me and when someone else says it, it's like a lightbulb going off and I go "oh yeah, I agree."

  3. These are all great tips. I'll add another one for us picture book writers. I make a writer's dummy using the technique Sue Alexander taught me. Cut the manuscript apart, sentence by sentence. Then make the dummy. I dragged my heels, begging Sue to let me leave the sentences in the paragraphs together as I had many one word sentences. Sue sweetly but adamantly told me to get back to snipping. She was right, of course. I found extraneous sentences, sentences to move to another place, and plain, old boring text.

    And I make dummies throughout the writing process, as taught to me by Ann Whitford Paul. It may be when I’m stuck. Or it may be when I think I’m finished. But no matter when or how I make the dummy, the manuscript always improves.

  4. This is a great post, Michelle. I'm going to link to it for my UCLA picture book class...for my students...but also for ME!

  5. Excellent post! I read my manuscripts aloud, too. Also, I ask my friends to read them aloud to ME. It's a must with rhyming manuscripts, to ensure there are no bumps in the rhythm. But it's just as helpful with non-rhyming stories. I want to hear flowing cadence in my prose as well.

  6. These are great. Another one, that I got from Lisa Yee in a workshop she gave at the SCBWI Conference, is to print the ms out in a different font from the one you've been using. It makes you see it differently -- and you also catch a LOT more typos.

  7. The different font, the different voices, the taped voice reading the story all provide that necessary "detachment." In order to improve the story we have to look at it as an "object" and not our flesh and blood. The dummying is a great tool for assessing plot and pacing and making sure the story has enough illustratable moments. Thanks for sharing!

  8. Thank you so much. I also love the different fort idea. It is so easy to skip over things when you are always seeing it in exactly the same way. I love all of these ideas. (Must find out who "the Chopper" is in my group. My critique group and I have a blog
    Lupe Fernandez posted a hilarious list of successful ingredients for a contemporary YA novel. I am currently blogging great first lines/paragraphs. I find searching for them fuels my writing.

  9. Michelle, I just realized you are the author of Dreamtown. I love that book! I found it in my search for great first lines. I read the beginning and then I finished the book. I purchased two copies: One to give away and one to keep. Thank you!!!