Tinkering vs. Big Revisionby Lori Alexander
Nutty as it sounds, I love revising my picture book texts. Revision means the heavy lifting has been done. I have characters. I have a plot and a setting. For me, coming up with a unique and catchy premise is the tough part. A promising idea is like waiting to be struck by lightning. Revision is a sure-thing.
That said, in my early days of writing, I wasn’t always executing the right type of revision. My first picture manuscript, BACKHOE JOE, told the story of a boy who wanted a real backhoe for his birthday. It was written in epistolary format, with the boy hiding notes and letters to his parents all over the house, hinting at what he most desired.
Back then, I didn’t have an agent. I subbed BACKHOE JOE directly to editors. After the long, LONG wait, responses would trickle in. “This has some great bits of humor, but it’s not quite right for us,” or “Unfortunately, this is a pass for us. Keep writing!” or plainly, “Not a fit for our list.” I knew rejection was a writer’s middle name, so I would tweak a few sentences and mail it out to the next batch of editors.
It wasn’t until an editor pointed out the rather flat ending and asked if I would consider rewriting in a more traditional format, that I knew the story wasn’t working as-is. My problem was bigger than swapping around a few verbs.
At about the same time, I happened on a blog post from Mary Kole, former literary agent and current freelance editor. If you haven’t stopped by her site, kidlit.com, run don’t walk. It’s brimming with golden nuggets of writerly advice. The post I read was called Big Revision. It struck a chord with me. This is my favorite part (but go read the whole post, it’s worth your time):
Let me say it here once and for all: unless you make big changes, a revision isn’t worth doing. If you go out on a submission round and get roundly rejected, you’re not going to solve your problem by going back to the page to tweak a few words here and there. I’ve said this before, but look at the word revision…it means “to see again.” To see your story in a whole new light. To make massive plot, character, and language changes. And having so much on the page already often lures us into a false complacency.
I went back to my manuscript with new eyes. I rewrote it in prose, taking my favorite bit from one of the boy’s letters (why a backhoe is better than a puppy) and scrapping the rest. I wrote an entirely new story. It had every bit of the humor as my first draft. And now, a much stronger (twist!) ending. It was this version that helped secure an agent. It was this version that sold in auction to HarperCollins. Yay for big revision!
If you’ve been tinkering with a text and getting the same types of comments from critique partners or the standard “Thanks, but no thanks” responses from editors, it might be time for a big revision. Easier said than done, right? Maybe revising your story from 3rd person to 1st person jogs something loose. Maybe your meandering middle can be cut down to increase the story’s pace and tension. Maybe you brainstorm a completely new and satisfying ending. There’s really no harm in tearing it down and building something new. You can always go back to your original version. But after your big revision, I bet you won’t want to. ☺
Thank you Lori!
LORI ALEXANDER writes for young children and their exhausted parents. Her debut picture book, BACKHOE JOE, rolled out in 2014 from Harper Children’s. FAMOUSLY PHOEBE will release with Sterling Children’s Books in 2017.
Lori resides in Tucson, Arizona, with her scientist husband and two book-loving kids. She runs when it’s cool (rarely) and swims when it’s hot (often). She grew up in San Diego, where she earned Bachelor’s and Master’s degrees in psychology from UCSD and SDSU, respectively. More information can be found online at www.lorialexanderbooks.com or follow her on Twitter @LoriJAlexander