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[A note on something I mentioned yesterday: Another way of saying what my editor did about humor is that you can’t make something funny simply by making your characters laugh. Nor something sad by making them cry. Or scary by making them tremble. Gardner refers to this as “sentimentality” – an attempt to get some effect without providing due cause. Or an emotion or feeling that rings false. Beware sentimentality. This is easy to do while in hot pursuit of your plot, and important to keep an eye out for during revision. You'll lose your reader's trust.]

Ego and fear are two of revision's biggest enemies. As someone who has critiqued many manuscripts written by new writers at events such as SCBWI conferences, I would have said that the biggest hurdle I’ve seen is that many a writer really doesn’t understand what she or he has written. There’s a huge gap between what they’ll tell me they wanted to "say," and what I read. I attribute part of it to inexperience. Much in the same way a fond parent can’t see their children’s glaring faults.

After talking to two seasoned (experienced, not old) teachers and authors about it, I’ve come to appreciate how much ego and fear come into play. To say nothing of reluctance. Margaret Bechard, author of HANGING ON TO MAX, SPACER AND RAT, IF IT DOESN’T KILL YOU, is on the faculty at Vermont College. Ron Koertge, a poet and YA author of such books as STRAYS, STONER & SPAZ, and BOY GIRL BOY, is on the faculty of Hamline University. I asked them both what the biggest, single mistake they saw writers make during revision.

Margaret said:  “Certainly one of the biggest problems I see is that writers are unwilling to really change anything. Small things, sure. But they don’t want to cut scenes because they get hung up on some kind of “vision” of the story that they can’t let go of, even though the story has clearly changed.

            "Often, writers aren’t willing to step back from the story and look at what it really is becoming. They aren’t willing to change their ideas. Some of that is ego. And some of that is fear. But I think they have to stop and really think about the story at some point and about its effect on a reader.      

        "Also, so many writers refuse to see that revision is creative. It’s another chance to enter the story

world and think about it and adjust it to think up new ideas and try them out.”

 I love that idea of looking at revision as being creative, and especially Margaret’s calling it a “story world.” It sounds exciting when put that way; as if the chance to reenter such a magical place should be anticipated and that the writer should hope for revelations in a manuscript they thought they knew intimately: entirely new thoughts that will open the story in new ways, even take it in new directions.

Ron had the thought along the same lines. He said, “ … clinging to what he/she imagines he/she ‘wanted to say.’ I don’t think books are like pets, to be trained and ordered around and made to perform. The germ of an idea-for-a-book may be both the author’s and the book’s but in the writing human needs often get in the way.”

The idea that the germ of the idea might be the book’s was startling. I asked him what he meant by “human needs.”

“I’m talking about ego,” Ron said, “and ‘Look at me, Ma!’ It happens to every body and to me all the time. I want to be rich and famous and I want to publish a book a year etc. etc. All that noise gets in the way of the melody, the tune the novel is humming if anybody will put down his mirror and listen.”

When I asked him what he looks for in his own revision, Ron said harmony. To him, that means, “It’s when all the parts fit together in an harmonious whole. It’s probably easier to see in a good poem or a dandy picture book. But the principle is the same.”

(Ron admits that he’s hard to please - right now, he has a copy-edited manuscript on his desk - that means it’s been bought and was on its way to production - which is “in about its 9th revision.” He took it back. He’s still not satisfied with it.)

I asked Margaret if she had any advice to offer. She said, “Sometimes, you need to let a manuscript sit a bit so you can come back to it with some kind of enthusiasm. It’s a good idea to take a break and let your subconscious mull on it.” She also said, “Be brave. Print the thing out. Take it somewhere you don’t usually work. Read it out loud with a pen in your hand. Take the whole thing in one gulp, yes, even a 200-page novel. Look for things to change, but also look for the places where you really feel, deep down, that you got it right.”

She ended by saying, “Maybe it does come down to that idea of fear. Revision takes courage and it’s hard to be that brave.”

I want to add one thing to that idea of looking for places where you think a manuscript works. Robert Olen Butler calls it "thrumming." The dictionary definition says thrumming is a "monotonous" sound. But not to a writer. Once you get into the habit of looking for it, you'll understand that it's a sound of contentment; that of an engine that's running smoothly, humming away on an empty road on a beautiful day, surrounded by corn fields. It means that whatever you wrote works. You'll know when it doesn't - that's an abrupt "THUNK" sound. Not nearly as pleasant. It means you hit a pot hole. Look to see why.

My thanks to Margaret and Ron. Tomorrow, I’ll tell you what I learned from E. B. White and how it might help you.



( 6 comments — Leave a comment )
Dec. 5th, 2007 01:19 pm (UTC)
Lovely post, Stephanie. I like the idea of thrumming.
Dec. 5th, 2007 02:00 pm (UTC)
big thank yous!
These interviews and ideas are really inspiring! Can't wait to hear from you and E.B. White!
Dec. 5th, 2007 05:34 pm (UTC)
So good. Thank you for sharing this. I'm just now finishing up some revisions and I couldn't agree more that it's hard to be brave. I can only be brave a few words at a time. Fortunately, that's all it takes.
Dec. 12th, 2007 04:39 pm (UTC)
This makes me wish I'd spent more time listening for the thrum--but I'll now for the next go-round! Great thing to have in mind.
Dec. 12th, 2007 08:16 pm (UTC)
As a writer friend of mine said when we were talking about revision, all too often writers go into that process looking for the things they did wrong. We'd anticipate it with less fear if we decide to look for those things we did right.
Dec. 12th, 2007 08:25 pm (UTC)
An excellent thought. Thank you!
( 6 comments — Leave a comment )