Revision: making your story shine

Revising, with bonus dog

For the last month I’ve been deep in revisions for my new novel. I finished the latest round today, and now my story is off with the four brave souls who offered to beta read it. It’s a weird feeling getting to this point, which is pretty much as far as I can go alone without feedback from others. I’ve been living and breathing my plot and characters pretty much constantly since mid-April, and finally it’s done. Well, not done, but done for now.

I’ve been refining my revision process over the years, tweaking it a little each time. There are SO MANY ways to approach revision, and each person has their own, but I think there’s one thing that we can all agree on: no matter how fantastic a writer you are, no matter how polished your prose, or how detailed your outlines prior to starting, if you want your work to shine YOU WILL NEED TO REVISE.

The first draft is literally that: a draft. It’s a pencil drawing, bare lines on a page. It may be beautiful in its raw simplicity, but at some point, you’re going to need to ink those lines and add color to the images. In writing, even if you’re the most hardcore outliner, that first draft is always going to be a discovery journey to some extent. Characters might reveal new traits or backstories; an unforeseen plot hole might lead to an entire new facet of your world you hadn’t imagined; or you might find your pacing is a little off and suddenly you’re forced to add an unplanned side arc.

But how do you tackle revisions? And how many revisions are enough? Here’s where the water muddies. Because there is no clear answer. Contemporary middle grade and YA author Carrie Firestone, whose latest novel Dress Coded is a fantastic dive into the world of preteen body image and school power politics, is a big fan of rewriting. Her first versions of stories are always discovery drafts, and it takes her a full rewrite to flesh out the bones. Fantasy and sci fi author Brandon Sanderson uses a complex revision system for his epic Stormlight series, with an entire team of readers using shared feedback documents. There is no right way or wrong way. And the only path to finding what works for you is to try different methods until you figure out the one that best fits your work style.

For this latest novel, and the one before, this has been my approach:

— For the first ten or so chapters, I constantly revise. If something new turns up, I go back and edit. I do this because I’m still feeling my way in this new storyworld, and writing progresses slowly enough to permit this constant stop and start.

— By the time I’m nearing the halfway point, my writing pace has picked up. Now I open a revision file to keep notes on things that will need fixing/adding/changing, but I no longer go back to make those changes so as not to lose momentum. Examples of changes are: a new character trait I added along the way; the fact that one character suddenly owns a gun that needs to be mentioned before it shows up; a worldbuilding idea that emerged and now needs to be fed in throughout the story.

— Once that initial draft is done, I immediately start a first revision. I often hear the advice ‘let the story sit for a while’, but for this first pass I like to jump straight in. My mind is bubbling with the plot changes I made and alterations that need adjusting, and it’s easier to keep moving. This first revision pass includes the big picture/big issue stuff as well as smaller scene-specific changes and chapter rewrites.

— After this first pass is over, I do another, for fine-tuning and for more delicate work. If the first revision is for adding color, this one is for shading.

— We’ve reached the point I’m at right now. Getting eyes on my work. For those of you with agents and/or publishing contracts, your agent/editor might be the person who does this for you. In my case, I’ve sent it to three writer friends — two from my critique group who have seen early chapters, and another to give me ‘fresh eyes’. I’ve also sent it to a non-writer who is an avid reader, for a different perspective. This is the ‘step away’ point for me. It’s out of my hands, so that means I get to distance myself a bit from my work.

— When I eventually receive feedback from my lovely beta readers, I plan to take a little time to let the critiques and commentary sink in and make notes.

— Finally, I’ll do another full revision pass. Hopefully this will be the last one!

Of course, my story won’t be perfect. As anyone who has sold a novel knows, if this one finds a home there will be editor’s notes and more revisions ahead. With my first published novel, Heart Blade, I ended up doing a full rewrite after reading through my editor’s feedback. 

Revising your work might seem at first like a tough, heartbreaking, uphill job, but I promise that, if you persevere, you’ll carve your story into the wonderful sculpture that lies at its core. Find your own path to revision, the one that works for you, that makes your best words shine, and hang in there. It’ll be worth it in the end!

Summer 2020 Updates

I’m back after a long summer hiatus. I also took a much-needed Twitter break, only dipping in every few days for a peek. Sometimes, taking a step away from some of the things that make our life busy (however much we may enjoy them) is a breath of fresh air!

So, what have I been up to since my last update post?

First of all, as you may have noticed, I have a new website banner. The gorgeous artwork is by the talented Olívia Guidotti ­— she takes all sorts of commissions (portraits, original artwork, etc.) and can be contacted via her Instagram page. I figured my site was overdue for a new look, and nothing better than Olívia’s fun art style to show a little of who I am and what I write.

Art by Olívia

In writing news, I have a short story out called The Sugar Cane Sea. The fabulous full color special edition of the NOT ALL MONSTERS anthology (Strangehouse Books, edited by Sara Tantlinger) came out in April, and the general release edition on Amazon comes out in October. This collection of stories by ‘Women of Horror’ is so good! And it includes gorgeous artwork by Don Noble.

There’s more anthology news! The wonderful women from the SFFChronicles.com forum who banded together to bring you DISTAFF in 2019 are back. Our latest project is the fantasy anthology FEMMES FAE-TALES, with a tentative release date of February 2021. I can’t wait to share my own story, Taste of Honey, about a woman who seeks peace and refuge in the hills of northwestern Connecticut from the mess that is her personal life, but finds something dark and addictive instead. Keep an eye out for upcoming artwork, TOC, and author bios at DISTAFFanthology.wordpress.com.

As for longer work, I’ve stepped away from YA for a bit. I spent nearly a year working and reworking a YA novel that kept going in all the wrong directions. I decided to take a break and fell into an adult urban fantasy novel that I’m having all kinds of fun with. This is my first time writing a full-length novel NOT aimed at teens, and honestly, it’s been refreshing. I’m about halfway through the first draft, and really excited about it.

Outlining and plot wrangling, with puppy photobomb

The COVID-19 lockdown with all its social distancing rules has been an interesting time. No more in-person meet-ups… On the other hand, the sheer number of offerings of online events has been almost overwhelming. For writers, there have been craft webinars, author interviews, panels, readings, book launches, and everything else under the sun. A couple of highlights among the events I’ve attended have been a great conversation between Victoria Schwab and Neil Gaiman, brought by Tor, and the all-day reCONvene convention, offered by the lovely folks of NESFA who run Boskone every year.

On a personal note, we’ve now been in the USA for seven years! It’s gone by so fast… Of course we miss our friends and family back in Brazil, and São Paulo is and will always be home for us. But we love our life in green and leafy Connecticut, and this is the country that saw all of my writing milestones take place: first story publications, first novels, first event panels, and so on. They say that the number seven marks the end of first infancy, and the start of the next period of personal growth, and I hope to see that reflected in my work, and in our lives here in general!

I know these past months haven’t been easy, and that a lot of us have been finding that our creativity took a hit, especially in the first weeks after the pandemic went global. So here’s to a positive second semester for 2020: wishing you all the brightest of creative sparks, and the energy and time to follow your star.

10 Do’s and Don’ts for Writers in Lockdown

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Next week marks two months of staying at home for my family. While governments everywhere are beginning the slow process of reopening in a safe and viable manner, it’s pretty clear that the coronavirus pandemic is far from being resolved, and social distancing is here for the foreseeable future.

In some ways, time has flown by. In others, it has dragged on interminably. All of us have been forced to dig within and find balance, charting the things that make our new realities bearable. For writers and other creatives, there’s that added pressure of social media reminding us to take advantage of lockdown to, you know, create. But, as many of us are finding, it’s Not Quite That Simple.

Here’s a Top 10 of my personal do’s and don’ts as a writer in lockdown. (Emphasis on personal!)

1. DON’T read any of those posts. You know the ones. SHAKESPEARE WROTE KING LEAR DURING THE PLAGUE. Yeah, those ones. Between the general uncertainty, the incessant news updates, and the overall (very real) sense of fear, many of us are finding it hard to spark our creativity right now. Be kind to yourself. It’s perfectly fine to store ideas in your head (or a handy notebook) for now and wait until the world settles a little around you.

2. DO get a change of perspective every now and then. I’m lucky enough to live in a quiet suburban neighborhood where I can safely walk the dog AND social distance. Those moments spent outside the house help me reorder my brain. If you can’t go out, try using an unusual space instead. Sit on the stairs. Lie on the bathroom floor. Stand inside a closet in the dark for five minutes.

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3. DON’T feel pressured to ‘use your time at home in an educational manner’. Sure, there are a ton of amazing webinars and author talks aimed at writers right now, many of them graciously offered free of charge. If your mind is in that place, go for it! My mind… is not. Every now and then I feel a stab of guilt when I see some cool online event advertised. But I ruthlessly squash it down. The only new skill anyone has picked up around here lately is the dog, who learnt how to roll over. And I’m fine with that!

4. DO take some time to have fun with your imaginary worlds. Just because you’re not necessarily writing doesn’t mean you can’t let your mind soar! Create a color palette. Build an aesthetic board on Pinterest. Curate a playlist for your favorite characters or bake them a cake. Be playful.

5. DON’T judge yourself by anyone else’s standards. Don’t judge yourself by anyone else’s standards. Don’t judge yourself by anyone else’s standards. If you need to fall apart sometimes and scream into a pillow, go do it. If you need to lock your family out and hide in the bedroom for a while, go do it. Find your own coping mechanisms. If those include writing — a work-in-progress or a diary or a prompt or two — that’s fine and great, but if not, don’t feel like you should be writing just because other people are channeling their fear and frustration that way. Seriously. Don’t judge yourself by anyone else’s standards.

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Me as a Tarot cat screaming into the void

6. DO find analogies for creativity that anchor you in this difficult moment. For me, it’s plants. I’ve been expanding and repotting my small indoor jungle — I’m not much of a gardener, but container plants, I can handle. Watching my beauties grow reminds me that words, like plants, have periods of plenty and periods of rest. Yes, sometimes we do have to force ourselves to push through a block or a slow patch, but at other times it’s all right to let our work grow, well, organically.

7. DON’T feel obligated to connect. Yes, a lot of writers are moving online to get together as a community. We’ve all had to learn to use Zoom or Google Meets, among other tools. But that doesn’t mean you have to like it. Join an online meet if you want, but if it’s not for you, don’t feel pressured by social media posts or the latest Microsoft ad to jump on the meet-up bandwagon. A simple email or Facebook message to friends to let them know that you’re okay works, too. Or go old-school and send a card or a surprise treat.

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A lovely surprise from a friend!

8. DO seize the moment to break your own writing rules. The work-in-progress not doing it for you right now? Try something completely different. Pen some haikus. Dabble in fan fiction. Re-imagine your latest draft as scenes from a Regency romance. Pick the most absurd writing prompt you can find on the internet and go for it, purely for your own enjoyment!

9. DON’T forget to feed your writing brain. Put aside all your carefully crafted to-read or to-watch lists. Choose what you need right now, in this moment. Maybe it’s the comfort of reconnecting with a favorite book. Or the challenge of tackling a genre you usually ignore. Perhaps it’s the pleasure of watching the opening scenes of a dozen Netflix shows until you find one that lights you up inside. And again, don’t let anyone guilt you from enjoying what you want to be reading or watching.

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10. DO take a break from life every now and then to create moments of mindfulness. We all need some inner peace right now! Light a candle and meditate. Collect stones on your walks and write yourself reminders. Pray a rosary. Do divination with crystals. Stand barefoot on the grass and breathe. Make dandelion wishes. Anything goes!

What’s Your Vision?

I’d seen them in magazine spreads and lifestyle blogs: those glorious pin-board displays in home offices and studios, with ideas and inspiration for work in progress or projects soon to unfold. Vision boards — a beautiful and tantalizing glimpse into a writer or artist’s imagination. I’d always dismissed them for myself, though. I don’t have an office with a vast expanse of pristine cork ready to be filled; in fact, I don’t even have an office at all, or a desk (I work quite happily at the kitchen table).

Then, one day, my critique group decided to gather for a vision board exercise. We all brought magazine, glue, pens, and poster board. We flipped through countless pages, snipping and sharing, and marveling at some of the strange and wonderful things we found. It was a great afternoon. And… something interesting happened. I thought I had my writing project at the time all mapped out in my head. But a random picture of a Russian nesting doll, which had nothing to do with my novel, jumped out at me. I ended up incorporating it, making my work just that little bit richer.

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My very first story vision board

I went home and shoved the vision board in a drawer. It had been fun and illuminating, but ultimately I had no place to display a big piece of poster board, so away it went. I moved onto Pinterest — far more practical for being virtual, I thought. And yes, Pinterest is great for finding images of things already in your head: what do the cliffs in my imaginary seaside town look like? What’s the perfect shade of violet for the rivers on my alien planet? What sort of wolf would my main character transform into? I carefully crafted online boards for all of my projects. I even downloaded a vison board app (PicCollage — my daughter’s recommendation) to prettily arrange my finds and set them as my desktop.

But Pinterest had a drawback. It was fun to forage for images that fit my plot and characters, but it lacked a certain serendipity. It wasn’t quite as inspiring as I’d hoped it would be. Something was lacking.

Let’s fast-forward a couple of years. Carrie Firestone, my critique partner who had led us in the first vision board exercise, offered to give a talk on the subject to a few local writers. She had piles of magazines and set us all to searching and snipping. I felt the spark: this was it! This was what was lacking in my online image searches! That moment of connection, when you find the perfect image, the one you had no idea you were looking for! My story, which had stalled because it felt as if the plot was lacking something, suddenly looked all shiny and new. I had found the missing elements, the ones I didn’t even know were missing, and now I could visualize what I had to do to make it all work.

I didn’t paste the images onto a board this time; I’d learned my lesson. I don’t personally have the space. So the images are in my story folder, along with all my worldbuilding notes and plot documents. If you have room for it, then have fun! Pin it all up and build your tale visually around you. And if not, don’t let it stop you from a little hard copy search in magazines and other places. You can use a folder, or if you prefer found objects as inspiration, you can set them up on a windowsill or store them in a project box. Whatever works for you.

If you’ve never tried this exercise, or have never ventured outside Pinterest or a Google image search, I thoroughly recommend it. The new year is almost here, and this is the perfect time to take a moment to reflect on your work and look for some new ideas. You never know what might turn up to enrich your vision!

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Images in my writing folder for my current project

The Importance Of Non-Writing

Often, in a conversation, the quiet spots and silences are just as important as the words themselves. A conversation needs to breathe, to develop organically. Otherwise it’s just two or more people babbling frantically at each other until they run out of things to say, like old-school mechanical wind-up toys.

I find the same thing happens in my work, and that the non-writing moments, where I can let my story breathe, are crucial to my progress.

I see plenty of advice out there saying stuff like ‘just get that first draft done, you can fix it later’, or ‘power through the parts you’re unsure of, leave placeholders for things you still need to figure out’. And the one that’s everywhere: ‘writers should write every day’.

I’m sure that’s sound advice for some people. We are all different, and every writer needs to find the tools and working style that speaks to them. Personally, I find that if something just doesn’t feel right, or I can’t quite see how to get from A to B, I can’t just let it go and put it down as ‘fix later’. I need to mull it over and find a solution before I can move on. And that’s where the non-writing comes in.

Whenever I hit a bump (and don’t we all?!) it helps to step away and leave my story simmering on the back burner, on the lowest possible heat. I won’t consciously worry away at the problem, but it’s there, in the background, never quite forgotten, until the solution suddenly emerges. In the meantime, I get on with life. I work on other projects, and read, and catch up on all those TV shows.

Sometimes that ‘a-ha’ moment is only a dog walk away (I get a lot of ideas when I’m out walking the dog!). Other times it might take a week or two, or more. When, after a month of obsessive non-stop writing, my current project hit a huge plot snarl, I had to put it aside for a good couple of months before I was ready to tackle it again.

Taking a break until I figure out my way past a plot issue works for me; it might not work for you. But If you’re stuck, and find yourself guilty for stepping away for a while, don’t be: the non-writing can be every bit as important as the writing itself.

Resources For Writers

Our meeting place for April: the Beekley Community Library in New Hartford, CT

Last week, our local group of SCBWI members (Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators) got together for our monthly meet up with a very particular theme in mind: to share our favorite craft tools. Books about writing, websites, podcasts… There are so many resources available nowadays — both free and paid — that sometimes it’s hard to know where to start. Hopefully, the list we compiled will help!

Disclaimer: I’m only familiar with a few of these resources. These are not personal recommendations, but a group effort that I’m sharing because it may be of interest to other writers.

Books:

Writing Children’s Books for Dummies – Lisa Rojani Buccieri

The Anatomy of Story – John Truby

Take off your Pants – Libbie Hawker (a short CliffsNotes-style book on outlining)

Second Sight – Cheryl B. Klein

Story Engineering – Larry Brooks

Story Genius – Lisa Cron

Rules for the Dance/ A Poetry Handbook – Mary Oliver (on writing poetry)

The Ode Less Travelled – Stephen Fry (on writing poetry)

The Practice of Poetry – Robin Behn and Chase Twichell

The Artist’s Way – Julia Cameron (on creativity)

Writing Down the Bones – Natalie Goldberg (on creativity)

Also, one member recommends learning lessons directly from published books – if you want advice on characters, for instance, or chapter openings, pick up a pile of books and flip through them to see how the authors did it.

Podcasts: (many of these websites also have blog posts on writing)

Nina LaCour https://www.ninalacour.com/podcast

88 Cups of Tea https://88cupsoftea.com

Literaticast (by agent Jennifer Laughran) https://www.jenniferlaughran.com/literaticast

Writing Excuses https://writingexcuses.com

Helping Writers Become Authors https://www.helpingwritersbecomeauthors.com/podcasts/

First Draft https://www.firstdraftpod.com/sarahenni

Secret Library https://www.secretlibrarypodcast.com

The Narrative Breakdown (site was down when I was writing this post but you can find direct links to episodes online)

Websites:

Debbie Ohi http://debbieohi.com (picture book resources)   

Josh Funk https://www.joshfunkbooks.com (picture book resources)   

Tara Lazar https://taralazar.com (picture book resources)   

Writer’s Digest https://www.writersdigest.com (articles on all sorts of subjects)

Jim Butcher https://jimbutcher.livejournal.com (posts on writing – start with the oldest post at the bottom)

One Stop For Writers https://onestopforwriters.com (paid and free resources)

Janet Reid’s Queryshark https://queryshark.blogspot.com (query letters)

Mary Robinette Kowal http://maryrobinettekowal.com (debut author info and reading out loud lessons)

Publisher’s Marketplace https://www.publishersmarketplace.com (a bit pricey but good up-to-date market info on publishing deals and agents)

Reedsyhttps://reedsy.com (self-publishing tools)

Book Baby https://www.bookbaby.com (self-publishing packaging)

The Book Designer https://www.thebookdesigner.com (self-publishing)

CAPA https://www.aboutcapa.com (CT Author’s and Publishers)

Additionally, one member recommends YouTube for tutorials on self-publishing.

Events:

Most of the group recommends attending writing events for networking and inspiration. There are events of all sizes and for all prices — find one that fits your personality and bank account. Large conventions and conferences are wonderful, but can be overwhelming. But there are smaller events, like retreats, or places such as the Highlight’s Foundation which offer space to just hide out from the world and write. Alternately, many organizations such as the SCBWI often hold webinars. Webinars can be a low-cost and low-key manner to get involved.



Crossing the Streams: reaching across writing communities

Anyone who has watched Ghostbusters will remember that, although ‘crossing the streams’ was supposed to be a Terrible Thing, ultimately it vanquished the Big Bad and saved the day. Likewise, for writers, learning to cross-network between different writing communities can enrich our lives and take our work to a whole new level.

In 2012, I joined my first writing community, the SFFChronicles.com — an online science fiction and fantasy forum with an active writer’s section. At the time, I had just made the decision to get back into writing and was working on my first novel, a middle grade fantasy. While researching children’s fiction resources I found the SCBWI (Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators), but back then I lived in Brazil, and we had no regional chapters I could look into.

A year later, following my husband’s job relocation, I moved to Connecticut. As soon as I arrived, I joined the SCBWI. Six months later, I went to my first SCBWI conference in New York. I was making connections, online and in person, and my writing world was growing. At the same time, I continued to be an active participant in the sci fi and fantasy community. Both were equally important in teaching me about how publishing works, and in honing my writing skills.

From the kid lit community I learned how to craft middle grade and YA; the SF/F world taught me about genre fiction. The first was invaluable in helping me understand traditional publishing; the second showed me how to navigate anthology submission calls and other short story markets. The SCBWI brought me my wonderful local critique partners; the SF/F community gave me my first beta readers, and eventually a second online critique group. The SCBWI encouraged me to volunteer at conferences and events, and to get involved at a local level, organizing meet and greets for my area. SF/F brought participation opportunities for convention panels, my first public reading, and an opening to write interviews for a genre website. Both groups have nurtured me and cheered for my successes along the way, and expanded both my horizons and my circle of friends. I couldn’t keep moving forward without both of these communities at my side.

When I go to SCBWI events I’m always intrigued by how few members seem to even consider reaching beyond the kid lit community for connection and knowledge. The SCBWI is a wonderful place to call home, but there are many other thriving organizations out there to be explored. The Romance Writers of America is a busy and inclusive example, with many small local chapters throughout the USA. The Mystery Writers of America is another great society with active chapters in different regions. And those are only two among many. Broadening our worlds and cross-networking between communities can be a wonderful way to gain further insight in our work and widen that support web that is so crucial in the difficult world of publishing.

Whatever you chosen ‘home’ community, consider stepping outside and looking for others to connect with. Have a look around, both online and in your local area, and see what you can find. Take a chance on adding a whole new side to your network by joining additional writing organizations — either official ones, like those mentioned above, or unofficial ones such as the forum I’ve been on since 2012. Getting involved with a new community may be scary at first, but by casting that net a little wider and crossing those streams, you may find your creativity shines bigger, and brighter, and bolder than ever.

There’s a whole wide world outside that window…