Week of July 29, 2012: Revise It, or Bury It?
Friday, August 3—Aimee Reid Says . . .
Picture Book Author and Freelance Editor
(And Friend and Fellow Critique Group Member)
Question 1: How do you know when a picture book manuscript needs revision or a funeral?
The funeral part of this question we'll attend to later. Let's talk about revision.
Ø . . . to yourself—at first literally. Read your piece aloud. Do the words fit together? Does the momentum of the story slow in any spot? Sometimes hearing a work aloud wakes us up to its weaknesses. Ask yourself if you genuinely like this piece well enough that you’d be happy to read it over and over again in front of those most discerning of listeners—children.
Ø . . . to others. Get a variety of people who are new to the manuscript to read it aloud. This way you can hear any glitches in the prose or maybe rejoice as your newest fans chuckle in all the right places.
By all means, solicit advice from experts in the industry. They know where your work fits within the market and recognize writing that sings with possibility.
Then lean in and listen, really listen, to what your readers have to say. Chances are good that if they have a question others will as well. Consider yourself a field researcher on a mission to ferret out people’s honest views of your work. Be open to new voices. You don’t have to follow every suggestion, but the process is invaluable.
If you are now satisfied that your manuscript has been polished to a high sheen, send it out into the world! If not, carry on.
Question 2: What strategies can revive a troublesome manuscript?
Put your manuscript under a metaphorical microscope. Think of each word as a tile that must fit in just the right place in your masterpiece. Examine every one for usefulness and beauty. Does it serve the piece? Is it (at least almost) irreplaceable?
Pull out your checklists, thesauruses, and pencils. Count words. Cut fluff. Fiddle and fuss. Sculpt your work so that it leaves room for the magic an illustrator will bring. Read, revise, repeat.
Now tuck away your manuscript and put up your feet. Really.
Lin Oliver —co-founder of the Society of Children's Book Writers and Illustrators—gives this surprising advice to conference participants: take a shower. Many attendees, she says, report having breakthroughs while sudsing up.
Research proves her right. Jonah Lehrer, in his book Imagine, digs into the brain research behind creativity. Turns out that relaxation is key to innovation. Goofing off may be just what the manuscript-doctor ordered.
If each word is like a tile, this is the time to think of your whole manuscript as a mosaic. Give your intuition time to play with patterns. Kindly—always kindly—pose questions for your busy brain to solve in the background while you get on with the work of relaxing (e.g., What would happen if . . . ? I wonder if I could . . . ?).
Ask what places in your writing give you the joyful feeling of connection—of yes! These are the sparks of your story. Are you fulfilling their promise? Does the piece convey this magic that first excited you?
Then walk away. Take a swim or a run or a nap or a bath. Swing in the hammock. Do whatever relaxes you and leaves your mind free to wander. If you feel guilty, put up a sign: Writer at Work.
Think of intuition as a perceptive but shy child who hides from the spotlight. She needs nurture and safety. In time, she just might slide up and whisper a secret in your ear. Sometimes she sees in those word-tiles startling new possibilities!
If you now love the shape your piece has taken, release it! Don’t let it languish. Send it out so others can enjoy it too.
If you feel, however, after all your introspection, consultation, and just plain hard work that you haven’t created something that’s ready for the wide world . . . well, don’t have a funeral! Set this manuscript aside with as much care and gratitude as you can muster. Cherish what it taught you. Ease it into a comfy retirement. Who knows, maybe one day that original spark will catch flame and your old friend will be brought back from its sabbatical!