The Revision Process

(Originally published at The Lucky 13s.)

This week on the Lucky 13s blog, we’re talking about revision—a topic I’ve become awfully familiar with over the past few months. I’m just finishing up a round of revisions to my middle grade pirate fantasy novel, Magic Marks the Spot, and I thought this would be a good opportunity to show you what revision looks like from a writer’s perspective.

From a non-writer’s perspective, I imagine revision must look sort of alarming. Over the past few months, I have not paid much attention to what I think of as “normal person behavior”: eating at regular times, cleaning the house, cleaning myself, getting dressed, brushing my hair, talking to other human beings, etc. Instead, I have been staring into space and then saying to my husband, “You know, the admiral really does love his daughter in his own warped way, even if she is a pirate.”

And thank goodness, my husband nods and agrees with me, because he knows that revision has eaten my brain, and he is hopeful that despite this, I will someday be able to carry on a conversation that’s not about my book. (Ha!)

From my perspective, though, my revision process is (mostly) orderly and (almost completely) sane. It starts when I receive a letter from my brilliant editor at HarperCollins, letting me know what she loves about the book already and what still needs to be changed. I read that letter many, many times; I take notes on it; I figure out how I’ll address each of my editor’s concerns—and then I put the letter away.

Next, I print out a copy of the existing manuscript. I like to get this done at the FedEx Office down the street. It’s a little pricey, but I get it spiral-bound so it feels more like a real book, which helps me get a better idea of how the manuscript will read in its final form. I take a few days to read through it, taking notes with my red pen along the way. I mark places my editor has questions about, places where I have questions of my own, and places that I particularly love (because it’s always nice to come across an encouraging smiley face on a rough day of revising). Sometimes my comments are marginally helpful: “Add the scene about Philomena and the fish sticks here.” Sometimes they are less so: “Change this!!!” Sometimes I just draw a big red X over an entire paragraph, or page, or scene.

Once the hard copy of the manuscript is all marked up, I start to make changes. When I’m working on a big revision like the one I’m wrapping up now, I actually prefer to type the whole book from scratch, rather than editing an existing version or copying and pasting. When I copy and paste, my brain feels like it’s making a big patchwork quilt, and while the individual squares may be pretty, they don’t really fit together seamlessly. When I type everything onto a new, fresh page, editing as I go, old and new scenes come together more easily. I feel less like a quilter and more like a writer. Which is good, because I know nothing about quilting.

Some writers like to tackle the smaller edits first and then work on the major changes; some do it the other way around. I, however, work chronologically: I start at page 1 and go straight ahead until I reach the end, making each change when I get to it. I set a goal for myself; for this revision, it was 5 pages a day. Sometimes these 5 pages are ridiculously easy because all I have to do is tweak a few words here and there. Sometimes these 5 pages are a completely new scene that takes hours to write. Usually, though, my 5 pages are a mix of small tweaks and medium-sized changes that look simple but aren’t. (It turns out that adding a character to a scene is slightly more complicated than saying, “Oh, and Charlie was there, too.”)

Once I’ve finally reached the end of the draft, I go back through the manuscript and tidy up loose ends. In this current revision, I made a decision about one of my characters but changed my mind about him halfway through; now I have to go back to Chapter 1 and rewrite a few paragraphs to make the character consistent. Then I’ll print the whole thing out again and read through it once more with my red pen, just to see how the whole book flows in its newly revised form. I’ll also dig out my editorial letter again and make sure I’ve addressed each of my editor’s concerns.

And finally, when the book is safely in my editor’s hands once more, I will take a few minutes to brush my hair.

The Story of the Penguin Hat

I am still revising the pirate book. I think it gets longer every day: No matter how much I write, I never seem to get much closer to the end. Leave it to me to have a magically expanding novel. That’s the sort of thing that’s lots of fun to read about, but less fun to deal with when it pops up in your actual life.

In case you’d like to read something new from me while I’m locked away in my office, though, my agency has just posted an interview with me on their website. You can read the whole thing here, but to thank you for being so patient while I utterly neglect my blog, here’s a small excerpt, along with an extremely embarrassing photo just for you:

When the most exciting moment of my writing career arrived, I was dressed as a penguin.

It was Halloween, and because I’m a fan of penguins, I’d decided to dress as one. I have a crocheted penguin hat, complete with eyes and a beak, and I was feeling very sophisticated and professional in my costume as I sat in my living room in front of a giant bowl of candy, waiting for trick-or-treaters to arrive.

Then the phone rang. It was Sarah, calling to tell me that HarperCollins wanted to buy my first book. At least, I think that’s what she said—it was a little hard to hear through the penguin hat’s earflaps. I clasped my hands to my beak, said a few incomprehensible things (like, ‘I’m dressed as a penguin!’), hung up, and danced around a little in the living room. Then I ate several fun-sized Butterfingers from the trick-or-treat bowl to celebrate.

Are you ready for the extremely embarrassing photo? Are you ready to see the first picture taken of me as a Serious, Professional Author? Here I am, moments after I sold my first book:

I have to say, this is not exactly how I imagined life as a Serious, Professional Author. It is, however, a fairly accurate representation of my life, so I have no one to blame but myself. (I also blame my lovely and talented agents, Sarah and Julia, for allegedly circulating this photo among the UK editors who read my manuscript. Now everyone in London thinks I am a penguin. Oh, misery.)

All right. Now that I’ve thoroughly embarrassed myself in front of the entire internet for no good reason, I will lock myself back in my office and return–hopefully in a couple of weeks–when I’ve wrangled this book into shape. Please don’t make too much fun of me while I’m away; I would hate to miss that.

Inside the Revision Cave

About a month ago, I got one of the nicest (and simultaneously most terrifying) gifts a writer can receive: my editorial letter.

An editorial letter is usually the first thorough response a writer gets from her editor about her book-in-progress. In my case, my editor at HarperCollins and I had chatted a few months ago about some of the changes she’d like to see, so I had a good general idea of what my tasks would be during the revision process. The editorial letter, though, is more than a casual chat. It’s the 7-page-single-spaced email your editor has been working on for weeks, full of suggestions and questions about your book.

My editorial letter arrived a few days before the winter holidays. I read it many, many times. I thought fondly about my editor: how smart she is, how much she must care about my book. I wondered, in a vague sort of way, what sort of superhero would swoop onto the scene to transform my editor’s ideas into reality. I ate several tons of Christmas cookies and waited for the superhero to arrive.

Apparently, with the economy the way it is, you’ve got to be your own superhero these days.

So now I’m deep inside the revision cave, a cozy and only slightly scary place where I spend lots of time with my new best friends: my manuscript and my red pen. (While I usually write and revise on my computer, I like to have a printed-out copy of the manuscript to scribble notes on, too.) Here’s what a couple pages of my manuscript looked like after they’d hung out with the red pen for a bit:

These are a couple of pages from Chapter 2, which I’ll be revising toward the end of this week. If your eyes are good enough, you’ll see that on the left-hand page, I’m adding a character to this scene. On the right-hand page… well… I’ll let the giant red X speak for itself. The entire second half of this chapter will be replaced by something newer and better, something more functional and more exciting. I can’t wait to see what the superhero comes up with.

When you spend a lot of time in the revision cave, you might find yourself asking all sorts of unusual questions, like, “What pirate-related word would make a good street name?” or, “Did people have fishing rods in the 1800s?” (If you are a writer, you’ll find that half your life is spent searching for answers to questions like these, and the other half is spent being inspired by weird bits of trivia that you can stack on top of each other to create a story.) Luckily, the revision cave often has handy reference materials to help you answer these questions:

The most important thing about the revision cave, though–and the reason why I don’t have many pictures of it–is that it’s a private place. It’s a place for you, your words, and your imagination. It often doesn’t have internet (unless you have a really pesky question about pirates or fishing rods that your reference books can’t answer). It’s not available to rent out for parties. It does occasionally have food, as long as you promise not to get cookie crumbs lodged in your computer keyboard. And whether you enjoy being in the revision cave or not, you’re not going to be able to leave until you finish your revisions–particularly if you’re on deadline.

So if you don’t see a lot of me here on the blog between now and April 1, you’ll know exactly where I am: here in the revision cave, brushing away the cookie crumbs, and revising the heck out of this manuscript. At least until a real superhero shows up.

…and Three Cheers for the UK!

So far, it’s been an excellent week for books. I’m expecting a package of new reads on my doorstep any minute now, and I polished off an entire stack of library books this weekend. (I’m trying to reach my Goodreads goal of reading 100 books in 2011; I’m up to 96 read with 18 more days to go.) And of course there was that really good news from Brazil.

Today, though, I can finally share some more really good news that’s been in the works for a few weeks now: MAGIC MARKS THE SPOT and its sequels will be published in the UK by Simon & Schuster! The books will be published simultaneously in the US and the UK, but the UK editions will have a different design and a different illustrator. Which is ridiculously cool if you ask me.

I grew up reading children’s books by British authors and expats like Diana Wynne Jones, Philip Pullman, Susan Cooper, and (later) Neil Gaiman. When I was older and able to travel to the places I’d read about in stories, my love of British children’s books led to other loves: for rolling landscapes, for ancient history, for mint Aero bars. I spent a summer in Oxford, which became the setting for my first (very unpublished) novel; Oxford and London were also the inspirations for a couple of the imaginary cities in MAGIC MARKS THE SPOT. So I think it’s particularly fitting–and particularly thrilling–that my books have found a home in a country that’s given me so many great stories, great real-life adventures, and great chocolate.

Hurrah for Brazil

I’ve been running around a lot this holiday season in a mad quest to bake as much food as possible. This weekend I baked the Betty Crocker Cookbook sugar cookies I grew up with every Christmas, and today I’m making a new recipe for saffron buns. If they’re good enough, maybe they’ll get to be a full-fledged Christmas tradition in our house someday. (I’ve already, um, sampled the batter, and I’m giving it two sticky thumbs up so far.)

Anyway, I’m taking a quick break from all that to sit down at my flour-coated keyboard and let you know that the wonderful people at Brazilian publisher Companhia das Letras will be publishing my pirate books in Brazil! I hope Brazilian kids will like spending time with Hilary and her gargoyle as much as I do.

(If you’re wondering, like I was, the Portuguese word for gargoyle is gárgula. And I’m not sure what the Portuguese translation of arr! is, but as soon as I find out, I’ll be sure to let you know.)