Today’s Post comes from my writing friend and soon to be published Picture Book Author Beth Ferry, who writes about the revision process she goes through for her picture books.
I can clearly remember the summer I was given a rock tumbler. It was a gift of transformation. A gift of possibility. It was THE gift of the 70s. I can remember carefully placing those dusty rocks into the chamber, knowing that very soon I would be the proud owner of sparkling, gleaming gemstones. I remember how LOUD it was and how LONG it took. I also remember being amazed by what emerged.
Many, many years later, the idea of the rock tumbler came back to me. In so many ways, writing is a lot like tumbling rocks. In addition to rocks and water, rock tumbling requires sand-sized particles of silicon carbide, also known as GRIT. Grit is tough and hard and unrelenting. It wears down the rocks, smooths them and rounds them. GRIT is a crucial part of WRITING.
There are 4 steps to Rock polishing:
1. Shaping the rock
2. Removing the scratches
3. Smoothing and polishing the rock
4. Burnishing the rock
What do these steps have to do with writing? Well, think of them this way:
1. Writing and shaping the story
2. Big picture edit
3. Small picture edit
4. Polishing edit
My first step is to unearth the story, get it down, write it! Ideas truly come from everywhere, but I mostly get my inspiration from words that I like. Some words just speak to me louder than others and an idea will often spark from that one particular word. My FIRST DRAFT is very much like a lumpy brown rock. It usually isn’t pretty, but it has potential. With a little work, I know I can expose the beauty within. During the FIRST DRAFT, I shape my story. I explore the plot, characters and conflict. I don’t worry about each word, just the essence of the story. Am I telling the story I planned to tell? Does it have an arc? Is the ending satisfying? Just the first draft alone takes many, many rewrites.
Once I’m happy with the overall shape of my story, I drop it into the tumbler. Here’s where it gets LOUD. I read the story out loud. Again and again and again. I read it inside; I read it outside; I read it to my dog and to my family. Nothing is more useful that hearing my words out in the air. This is where I hear my mistakes, the slow parts, and the beautiful parts. What goes on inside my head is very different than what goes on outside of it so it is crucial to read your story out loud.
Once my story is tumbling around in my head and in decent shape, it’s time for the BIG PICTURE EDIT. This is truly the hardest part. This is where I ask myself who will be reading this story? Who will be buying it? Is it too much like another story? It’s basically a question of worth. Will my story add to the greater good? Will it make the reader think, laugh, cry or clamor for more? Does my story belong out in the world and will it enhance not only the shelf, but the reader him/herself? Is it a gem? Hopefully I’ve answered yes to these questions and, if so, I move onto the SMALL PICTURE EDIT.
The SMALL PICTURE EDIT may be the longest process. I might rewrite a story 12 times or 83 times. When I think about how many times the rock revolves in the tumbler, I know that I might possibly make hundreds of tweaks to any one story. Tweaks that involve line editing, using my thesaurus, and more reading out loud. I check for clear, concise sentences, for matching tenses and consistent POV. I ask myself if the resolution is not only satisfying, but hopefully unexpected or fun as well. Does my story make me happy? Is my word count satisfactory? Rocks lose approximately 30% of their size during tumbling, so I am not afraid to cut, cut, cut. I try to lose as many words as I can in this step of editing. This is also when I share with my critique group. A critique group is essential. There is no better support than other committed writers writing the same genre, and no better eyes to point out not only your mistakes, but your successes as well. Whether in-person or on-line, a critique group adds a valuable layer to your editing process. Finally, when I feel that my story has a nice shine, I put it away.
Yes, indeed! It’s like walking away from that rock tumbler and letting it churn for weeks. As eager as I am to peer into that barrel and see my shining gems, I don’t. I need some distance so that I will have fresh eyes when I read it again. This is the part of the process where I work on another story. Remember, besides water and GRIT, a rock tumbler needs to be filled with other rocks or the process won’t work. I always have more that one story tumbling around. I work on those. Then after a week or two, I take the story back out and read it OUT LOUD with fresh eyes. This is the polishing step. I can usually identify the problem spots right away at this point. I work on those. Then if I love the story as much as I did before I walked away from it, I know I am done. Finished. My story is shaped, sanded and polished. It is ready to meet the world, a gleaming gem full of possibility.
Pirate’s Perfect Pet, illustrated by Matthew Myers, Candlewick Press, Fall 2016