Thursday, July 30, 2015

Revision: How Many Crititiquers Spoil the Book?

I'm emerging from an intensive round of revisions on my middle-grade-novel-in-progress. I truly don't think I've ever worked harder in my life, though admittedly, as an hour-a-day writer, it doesn't take much for me to exceed my usual self-imposed limits. But for the past several weeks, I've been working five hours a day, frantically, obsessively, wanting nothing more in my life than to FIX THIS BOOK.

This is the third round of revisions on this particular title. I did the first last December in response to extremely thoughtful comments from my new Boulder writing group, who dazzled me in the thoroughness of the amassed comments from the six of them. I sent it to my editor on New Year's Day and received comments from her in April, via a lengthy phone conversation. They were . . . sobering. The thing she liked least about the book was the thing I consider my greatest strength: characterizations. I moped, I sulked, I pouted, and then I sat myself down and revised.

As I was waiting for her response to the new, deeper, richer characterizations, I had two other writer friends read the manuscript; we had formed a little critique group last summer when we taught together in the graduate program in children's literature at Hollins and decided to reconvene in virtual form this summer. They had plenty to say. Plenty. As I was moping, sulking, and pouting again, I heard from my editor. The characterizations were so much better this time! Whew! But . . . the book still wasn't working. The three different story lines didn't connect. It didn't build to one clear climax. Readers wouldn't be able to know what the book was about. In other words, the problem with the book lay with what I consider my greatest strength of all: structure.

In despair, I forwarded her comments to my two Hollins friends and got back MORE critical feedback from them. One of them even told me kindly that she had experienced similar problems in one of her "early books" (this is my 57th!!!).

I considered asking another writer friend to read it. I considered hiring the brilliant Plot Doctors to give me their consultation.

But then I decided: I had already had TOO MUCH CRITICISM.

For better or worse, now I needed to fix the book MYSELF. I poured myself a glass of orange juice, with a generous shot of vodka. I barricaded myself in my bedroom with a pad of paper on my knees, and then and there I made a plan to provide the structure the book currently lacked. As soon as I made the plan, I knew it was a good one. I sent it to my editor, and she agreed.

So all I had to do was toil mightily for weeks to implement the plan. Which I did.

And, oh, the improvement! That is why I was able to work so long and so hard, because I could see before my eyes dazzling improvement in every deleted scene, every added scene, and most of all, every rearranged scene. I was ashamed I had ever let anybody read it in its previous incarnations. I was a writer on fire!!

I sent the book off two days ago, with the conservative estimate that it is now a million times better. In the revisions, I made use of comments from every single critiquer who read it along the way. Each one contributed something of genuine value to the revision.

So: how many critics are too many? How many critics are just the right number? I do believe that every good, smart, thoughtful reader has some insight worth having. And yet. . . .it's so easy for a writer to feel despair at the volume of negative comments on one little book (even, or especially, extremely valid negative comments).

I've tentatively decided, now, after the fact, that the only limit to the number of critiques that is helpful is the mental fortitude of the writer: how much she can stand hearing. In this case, I was done after getting comments from two editors (Margaret and her assistant, Susan, twice), and eight other writers. That was all I could take: stick a fork in me, I'm done!

But I have to admit the book is better for every single one. After all the moping, sulking, and pouting comes gratitude. Thank you, dear critics, for every line of criticism, even if at some point I needed to stuff my ears and move on.

Thank you.

Tuesday, July 14, 2015

Authors Just Want to Have Fun

I used to decide whether or not to accept an author invitation by asking myself how much this or that appearance or event would advance my career. Well, actually, I mainly said yes to everything. There is a lot to be said for making YES your default setting - for  being what I call "a yay-sayer to the universe." And I still pretty much say yes to everything. But insofar as I pick and choose, my new criterion for picking and choosing is: will this be FUN?

Last weekend I had the most glorious fun ever at Denver's new children's bookstore, Second Star to the Right. Even its name makes me happy. (For those who may not remember: Peter Pan gives his address to Wendy as "second star to the right and straight on till morning.) The warm, friendly introductory email from Dea, the store owner, made me happy. The thought of getting to explore the Tennyson Street art district (which also boasts Denver's new cat cafe, the Denver Cat Company, where you can cuddle cats as you sip your tea) made me happy.

Then the event itself exceeded my happy expectations. The store is adorable. Dea and her husband, Mark, are off-the-charts gracious as hosts. Their assistant, Jordan, who in the rest of her life is a third grade teacher, was my best customer of the day.

Here is how adorable the store is:

Could anything be more adorable? Correct answer: no.

Did I sell a ton of books? No, but I sold some. Did I greet a throng of fans? No, but I had a delightful conversation with some wonderful kids and their parents, and a favorite former grad student surprised me by showing up with his wife and mega-huggable baby. Afterward I visited some kitties and bought myself a glass of sangria at the Book Bar across the street, another most pleasing establishment.

I had a wonderful afternoon of nonstop fun.

So: if anybody need an author to do anything fun, please give me a call!

Friday, July 3, 2015

Procrastination Tip: The Illusion of Autonomy

I'm back home in Colorado, after a delightful two-day drive along Route 36, which I greatly prefer over I-70. I passed through Springfield, IL (site of the Lincoln home and law office), Hannibal, MO (where I strolled by the Mississippi and helped to whitewash a fence), St. Joseph, MO (jumping-off point for the Pony Express), and many tiny towns across the northern edge of Kansas, where I listened to radio stations announcing hog futures for July and soybean futures for August.

After a weekend of easing myself back into my Colorado life by attending the Juan Miro exhibit at the Denver Art Museum, opening night of Othello in the Colorado Shakespeare Festival, and Singin' in the Rain at the Candlelight Dinner Theater (directed by my church friend Don Berlin), it was time for me to face my long to-do list for July.

I decided to wait until July 1 to tackle the month's tasks. How eager I was at the prospect of waking up extra early on that Wednesday morning ready to leap into a new life of dazzling productivity! And yet, as so often happens, when that morning actually arrived, my keenness to toil was suddenly . . . less keen. I felt more like beginning my new life of dazzling productivity on July 2. Or July 3.

This could not be allowed to happen! So here is what I did.

I made a list of the fifteen main projects I have to do in July, ranging from writing guest blog posts to revising two books, from reading manuscripts for mentees and critique partners to preparing for my work on the Children's Literature Association Phoenix Award Committee. Then I gave this order to myself: every day I have to work for two hours on two of these things - that is to say, one hour on each one - but . . .and this is the key . . . I get to pick which two.

If any of you have raised toddlers, you will remember how important it is to give them the illusion of autonomy. You don't say, "Brush your teeth!" You say, "Would you like to brush your teeth with the red toothbrush or the green one?" You don't say, "You have to wear your jacket!" You say, "Would you like to put on your jacket yourself or would you like Mommy to do it for you?"

Now, for better or worse, I have to be my own mommy, and I've given my balking self not two options, but a full fifteen from which to choose. I can pick anything from the list - anything! - but I have to pick something, in fact, two somethings, ever single day.

On July 1, I picked writing one  blog post, and then writing another. Inspired by this promising start, I actually did a third thing and read a friend's manuscript and sent her comments.

On July 2, I did part of another blog post (clearly I prefer writing blog posts over any other option on my list) and faced the Phoenix Award work (which was huge, as the hardest part of any task, always, is just facing it for the first time).

Today is July 3. I'm writing this blog post, natch, but that doesn't count as one of the possibilities. So I have to do two other things, but I can pick which two. Okay. I'll make more progress on yesterday's blog post (it's an extra challenging one), and then do one more stint of Phoenix work. Or maybe start reviewing possible readings for a course I'm scheduled to teach.

I get to pick! So I will pick! And I will do my two things! And little by little, day by day, the whole list will be crossed off, or at least most of it will be. So I'll go start now. Well, after I brush my teeth with the purple toothbrush.

Wednesday, June 24, 2015

Healthy Hump Day

Today is my last day at the Prindle Institute for Ethics, my last day at DePauw University, my last day in sweet Greencastle, Indiana. . . for now.

It has been a very happy day. Every day in Indiana is a very happy day for me.

I puttered at my desk in my office at the beautiful Prindle Institute.

There is no place I've ever found to work that is so peaceful, so serene, so perfect for immersion in a creative or scholarly task. Well, maybe this one, the adjacent Bartlett Reflection Center:
I come to the Reflection Center when I want to write, or think about writing, or get inspired to write. But I would never do other work in the Reflection Center. It would be a sacrilege to grade papers there. I do only work that seems to me in some way holy.

But the Prindle is perfect for all other work, from reading for class, to writing an essay, to paying bills.

This summer, Linda Clute, our assistant director, has declared Wednesday of each week to be a "Healthy Hump Day," with the lunch hour dedicated to some activity to bolster physical, mental, emotional, or spiritual health, preceding or following a healthy communal lunch.Today is our fifth Wednesday of the summer. I had to miss the intervening three Wednesdays, off in Boulder with my family and at ChLA in Richmond, but these were the activities so far:

1. Yoga and smoothies (I went to that one: yay and yum!)
2. Walk on a trail in the nature park
3. Guided meditation
4. Discussion of essays from Small Wonder by Barbara Kingsolver
5. TODAY: potluck salad bar and drawing mandelas

Until today I didn't know what mandelas were, exactly. They're defined and presented in various ways. We thought of them as geometric patterns that reflect the relation of the self to the universe, or, in other words, an excuse to get out art supplies and spend a  happy half hour coloring. Colored pencils! Crayons! The smell of Crayola in the air!

Here are mandela creations from the five of us:

Which one do you think was mine? Hint: the busy, happy-looking one in front center, souvenir of this busy, happy day.

Oh, Prindle, how I will miss you! Oh, Indiana, farewell for now . . . .

Monday, June 22, 2015

"The High Stakes and Dark Sides of Children's Literature"

I'm back from four blissful days at the annual Children's Literature Association (ChLA) conference. ChLA is an 800-member organization of children's literature scholars, chiefly English professors who specialize in children's lit, or at least who teach it and write about it every chance they get. This year the conference was hosted by Longwood University and held in Richmond, VA. The theme was the site-appropriate rallying cry of Patrick Henry: "Give me liberty or give me death!", with the subtitle, "The High Stakes and Dark Sides of Children's Literature."

Last year I was president of the organization, which was thrilling but also stressful. This year I was past president, and now I'm not any kind of president at all, as the new ChLA administrative year begins at the conference. (Well, I'm still a past president, and always will be, but that is no longer my official title and slot on the board of directors). So I spent much of the conference reveling in how I was NOT running an all-day board meeting, or presiding over the general membership meeting, or delivering a presidential address, or serving as mistress of ceremonies for the awards banquet. I was just there as a happy, eager scholar in a world of other happy, eager scholars. 

My paper, fortunately, was in the second session of the first day (I love to go first and be done right away). This year my paper was called "The Dark Side of Goodness: The Woodbegoods, Betsy-Tacy and Tib, and Ivy and Bean: Bound to Be Bad." The three texts I look at, published over the span of a full century, all feature children who are trying very hard to be unusually good - and who as a result of their very efforts end up being unusually bad. My project was to try to figure out what it is about "aspirational goodness" that tends to backfire: what misunderstandings about the moral life do these three texts wryly expose?

My paper was paired on a panel with two others. Sometimes the conference organizers manage to achieve brilliance in their panel matchmaking; sometimes they end up with a few sessions that are a mixed-up mishmash. Ours was one of the brilliant ones. My paper resonated particularly well with the one immediately preceding it, by Prof. Sarah Winters of Nipissing University in Canada, who spoke on "The Dark Side of the Light: The Conflict between Love and Goodness in The Dark Is Rising and Harry Potter." I now have a new friend for life.

I came away from the conference wild to redesign the children's literature course I'm going to teach at DePauw next spring, wild to revise and publish my two most recent papers on Eleanor Estes (one on Pinky Pye and one on Rufus M.) following the archival research I'm going to do at the University of Connecticut this fall, wild to think of something stunning to offer at next year's conference (to be held in Columbia, hosted by Ohio State) where I've been invited to join in a panel on "the family story" in the 21st century, and wild to read the long list of books I discovered at the conference.

Give me children's literature, or give me death! Well, give me a few sweet days at this particular children's literature conference, and I will have little to complain about in my life for a long, long time.

Sunday, June 14, 2015

"Me Party"

One thing I love about having so many children's book author and children's literature scholar friends is that communications from them are infused with whimsy and delight. Case in point: this coming week is the annual conference of the scholarly Children's Literature Association, held this year in Richmond, Virginia. Emails have been flying back and forth to arrange various get-togethers, including our "midnight feast" where a few of us gather in somebody's hotel room to huddle on the beds, eat candy, and read aloud bits from favorite children's books. One person is bringing her mother, husband, and daughter to the dinner before the midnight feast: "So we'll be a party of four." That prompted another to report that she was just bringing herself, and so would be a "party of one." And then she gave us a link to the song about being a "party of one" - Me Party - from the Muppets movie.

I had never seen this clip before, where the always adorable Amy Adams joins Miss Piggy in singing about the pleasures of having a grand old time all by oneself.

Last night I had a lovely Me Party. Gregory was playing with a little combo at the posh St. Julien Hotel here in Boulder. All of my possible dates canceled on me for various reasons. So I headed out alone, using my beloved Ecopass to ride for free on my beloved Skip bus, and arriving at the hotel's beautiful patio just as the band was beginning to play. I ordered a glass of their house Merlot. I entertained myself with some people watching and then started to read a fabulous proposal for a new handbook on research in children's literature that I'm reviewing for a press. Gregory had an exquisite solo on tenor sax. The wine was delicious. Yay for a Me Party!

Then my friends Gretchen and Doug, who had thought they couldn't come, arrived after all, and my Me Party became a Three Party. They are both avid and excellent swing dancers, so they couldn't resist getting up to twirl each other around for "Fly Me to the Moon" and other jazz standards. I didn't feel left out. I had already been having the time of my life at my Me Party. So I could go back to being Happy Me as they danced. And then be Happy Three when they rejoined me at the table.

The sun set, reddening the Flatirons with its glow. Hotel guests came out on their balconies to take pictures of it with their cellphones, and hear the music, and savor the Colorado evening. Now my Me Party was a big party, with guests galore.

And so the evening continued. How lucky I am to know how fun a Me Party can be, or a Three Party, or any party at all. Thank you, Amy Adams. Thank you, Miss Piggy. 

Saturday, June 6, 2015

How to Revise a Book

I'm in the throes of major revisions on my novel-in-progress for Farrar, Straus, & Giroux, tentatively titled Write This Down. As always happens with me, I've gone from thinking of the revision prospects for this book as hopeless to having the first round of major revisions done - and easily done. So I'm trying to distill my own guidelines for myself in making the revision journey in the hope that these may be helpful for some of you.

These guidelines work only in the situation when you already have feedback from a trusted editor, trusted writing group, or other trusted first reader. For me, feedback from others is absolutely essential. How do I know if what I've written is funny if I don't know if a reader laughs? How do I know if what I've written is touching if I don't know if a reader gets tears in her eyes? The chief issue I'm wrestling with in this book is that my editor thought my protagonist - whom I adored - was "unlikeable." How can I know how others respond to my main character unless I ask them? So this leads to the first step in the list I'm making for myself now.

1. Get feedback from a trusted editor/writing group/reader.

2. Wait to revise until you truly accept that feedback. This may mean letting some time pass. (Luckily, when you are dealing with editorial feedback, you're all but guaranteed that lots of time will have passed). For me, this usually means having additional conversations with my editor/readers to make sure I really get what isn't working for them about the manuscript as it stands. (They themselves may not even have distilled this fully until probed by your thoughtful questions.) Even though I trust my editor completely, I can't revise on blind trust alone. I have to get it myself: get exactly why the book isn't working now.

2. Save the old manuscript in a different file and create a new file for the revised one. This is also key for me. The new file is where I'm merely trying out revision ideas. The old file remains safely preserved should I change my mind and like it better, after all. This has never ever happened for me in my entire career. But knowing that first draft remains untouched allows me more freedom to experiment.

3. Just start. Yes, right now you have no idea how to proceed, but just start anywhere. I have two approaches to this. Sometimes I start with low-hanging fruit: I pick the one problem with the manuscript that I know I can fix easily. This tends to be inefficient, because it may mean fixing small cosmetic things that may not even survive the final revision; it's been likened to "wallpapering a wall that's just going to be knocked down." But I thrive on seeing progress, on gathering any forward momentum. In my current manuscript, my editor (and one writing group friend) disliked the name of Autumn's brother's band. I changed that in five minutes, or less. Yay!

Usually, though, it just means starting in the first chapter and going on from there. Here I had to add two new chapters before the previous first chapter, as it was important to establish Autumn as a writer and show in real time, not offstage as I had it before, the crucial incident with her brother that sets the story in motion. (Yes, I actually had this mentioned only in passing the first time around. Terrible! Horrible! But I couldn't see this until I got outside feedback.)

So: just START.

4. Each revision session, read over the revisions you've made so far before going on. This also allows me to pat myself on the back for what I've already accomplished: "Look how much better it is already!" It also allows me to tinker and wordsmith as I go, which I like at this stage, as I want to feel that each chapter is building a sound foundation for the new structure and shape of the book. But others may disagree on this point and urge you just to keep going, which is good advice, too. Chiefly, though, rereading the first revised portion in this way every day plunges me directly into the altered world of this new draft.

5. When you have enough confidence in how the revisions are going, read through the rest of the entire manuscript on the screen and make notes for yourself about what else needs to be done. I make my notes right on the manuscript all in caps so they are easy to see. ADD NEW SCENE BETWEEN AUTUMN AND HER FATHER HERE. Or: MAKE DAD LESS MEAN. Or: TONE DOWN AUTUMN'S SNARKINESS RE HUNTER. Or: ADD REFERENCE TO KYLEE'S KNITTING. Oh, the bliss of knowing that I have a plan, a real honest-to-goodness plan!

6. Keep going.

7. Keep going.

8. Don't change things that don't need changing! This is the single biggest way that I see writer friends go wrong. In their zeal to overhaul a manuscript, they change stuff that WAS working, stuff the reader liked BEST. Don't do this! In order to avoid doing this, make sure you know ahead of time what readers did like about the book. If it's nothing at all, maybe you should set this aside and write a different book. But if there are a lot of strengths in the story already, don't mess with them. You are NOT writing a new book; you are revising THIS one. I try to revise surgically and fix only what needs to be fixed. This is the single biggest reason why I am faster than most of my writer friends at revising.

9. When you are all the way through with this round of revisions, and you've done all you can do at this point, send the book back to your editor/writing group/reader for their reactions. Hope that they are not assessing this as the "after" to the previous "before," but in its own right. It really doesn't matter if the book is better than it was. What matters is if it's good enough, measured against literary standards that have nothing to do with comparing how it is now to how it was then. But don't agonize any more. Send it off!!! Let others do your agonizing for you. That I am willing to do this is the second biggest reason why I am faster than most of my writer friends at revising.

10. When you get their comments back, repeat this process again (and again, and again) as needed.

See? Revision isn't hard. It really isn't!