Thursday, May 29, 2008

"Sometimes you just need an incinerator, baby."

{this post title is something Jim said to me over breakfast, in reference to the crime novel he is reading just now. In the way of bloggers, I thought, "That would make a good blog title." So here it is, and fyi, it has nothing at all to do with the post.}
I got my "Emily" books the other day at Powell's. (Sigh, Powell's, how I love you.) There was a school field trip there and the whole kid's section was aswarm with kidlets. I wanted to put my book into all their hands and lead them to the cash register like a row of ducklings, but of course I did not. Aside from the Emily books, I took a detour to the folklore section, where I had not been in a little while, and added to my library of books on weird beliefs -- witchcraft, demons, superstitions, fortune-telling, faeries, that sort of thing. And now, as you see above: gargoyles, bird omens, animal spirits, plant symbolism and "the toad."

A whole book on toad lore! I've only read a few pages, but so far I have learned quite a few uses for toad venom (making zombies, for example), and a recipe for hair dye that consists of crushed tadpoles and mulberry juice. I guess that would work. Here's a good line: "Toad bile is more reliably lethal when mixed with such items as the poison of spiny fishes and a small shot of powdered glass (hidden in the victim's food.)" Uh-huh.

Oh, that reminds me of a crazy thing I read recently in a self-published and totally delightful diary of a Raj childhood (In Those Days, by Justine Dowley-Wise) -- In 1925 the author's father, who was some sort of factotum for a prince in the State of Bhopal, fell seriously ill, with violent abdominal pains and so forth. The doctor analyzed his stool (such a word. sorry.) and was horrified to discover finely ground tiger's whiskers therein which, apparently, are capable of perforating the bowel and causing death. Really??? According to the doctor, according to the book, this is a well-known means of sneaky murder, and someone had put it into his food! He survived, and moved with his young bride to Calcutta, where the author grew up. Very interesting book! I just got another Raj childhood diary in the mail, but haven't read it yet. You see here a few of my reading obsessions: weird folklore, and Raj India.

Anyway, I'm about halfway through "Emily of New Moon." I just love all her childhood mortifications. I can just feel them. And the way she consoles herself with writing, and "gets square" with people by imagining them into scenes.

And speaking of scenes . . . REVISIONS PROCEED.
Somebody asked me in comments a while back about my revision process, so I thought I'd go a little bit into the "process porn" (as Gwenda calls it). It certainly is not a matter of going chapter by chapter and fixing little things. It's way bigger and more terrifying than that, and I am using an old standby to get through the terror: a new notebook. A nice new notebook. Not one of my hardbound collaged ones, but an unprecious spiral. (Unprecious yes, crappy no. It's from Borders and has nice thick paper that doesn't bleed through.)

So, I read my book. The key is having had several months away from it. I really needed that. So, when I read it, I could really see it. It's remarkable the difference this can make. Anyway, I have a gazillion notes from my editor, and I processed those as I read through the very long manuscript, making notes to myself (and wishing my editor was a bit heavier on the gratuitous compliments, you know, the little "Nice!" and "Lovely!" thrown in here and there to fortify you for the "Cut this chapter" and the "I don't understand what's happening here." Next time I'll have to submit a formal request for compliments along with my manuscript!)

To begin the big attack, I mentally divided my book into 5 parts, beginning with "the set-up" and ending with "the aftermath," and then I took those on individually, thinking about the big issues, the internal logic, new ways to tackle problems to make the book better. I brainstormed a lot about the villain, and when and how to reveal secrets to the reader for maximum impact. I went over and over it, working on the internal logic, seeing what "threads" of the story might be cut altogether and removed from the book to simplify and streamline it. What I'm after is a "complex but elegant" plot. At its core, every book has a skeleton, the pure lines of the story, its essential elements, and though the skeleton may be fatly fleshed and then dressed in layers of velvet and silk, underneath it all, the skeleton must be sound and simple.

Mine was not. Much of my work now is simplifying the skeleton.

You might not know what your skeleton is, really and truly, until after you've written a complete draft. It might not end up being exactly what you thought it would be. I have moments where I say, "Oh! The book is really about. . . X." This is the part where you can state what your book is about in a sentence -- none of the flesh, and none of the velvet, just the skeleton. And once you know what that is, really know it, then you can go back and revise the book so it is clear to the reader too. So that it is sharp and direct, no matter how dressed up it is in fun scenes and imagination and dialogue and excitement.

It's kind of like sharpening a pencil. You're sharpening your story.

So. I've got big new plans that call for vast amounts of rewriting. My notebook is brimming with strategies and bristling with post-its:
Some words of advice:
-- BE OPEN. Cast your imagination wide. Don't be afraid to think of new things and go in whole new directions.
-- BE BRAVE. New ideas may come to you now that will require a ton of new work. This can be overwhelming, but this is your chance to make the book the best it can be. Do whatever you need to do.
-- BE EXCITED. Anything can still happen. This is marvelous. You can still dazzle yourself.
-- BE DETERMINED. You can do it, and you will do it.

Here I go, to follow my own advice!


Anonymous said...

I'm excited for you!

Thanks for sharing your "process porn":) LOL! I found you when I was looking into the Kidlitosphere Conference. I just love this post. And I might have even had an epiphany about my book after reading your skeleton analogy. I've got a blurb about my book but it's mostly about what happens and doesn't speak to what's at it's core [it's bones]. So, I'll be thinking about that this weekend. Loved the bit about the toad folklore too:)

Happy writing! And...thanks for the post:)

Anonymous said...

Nice post, and very helpful. All of your writing about writing has helped me immensely. Question: How many times do you rewrite and edit BEFORE you send it to your editor?

Thanks for all your musings!

Elise Murphy said...

Ha! I love the bones analogy. It is particularly useful as my manuscript is full of the Bonesmen! Arthur Levine talked about theme at the SCBWI-WA conference and I have found it very useful to step back and take a big picture look every once in awhile. Thanks again for sharing your process and your optimism.

I also just blogged about Powells! The wonderful romance of that place . . . deserves its own book someday.

Heather said...

I ordered the Emily books off Alibris because our local big box bookstore (Idigo/Chapters) here doesn't have all of them. By way of an aside, I have a special bookmark on my browser for them called "Stupid Ass Chapters" because they will have books on there listed as out of stock or temporarily unavailable and will not permit you to put them on your digital wishlist in the event they get them back in. Umm...take the book off your website then). Okay rant over.

Love reading about your processes and you would not belive how helpful it is!

Jone said...

I loved reading about the process of revision. I wish that I could just stay home to read the Emily books. The images, the writing, wow. And really I should be studying for my exam in two weeks.
Thanks for the great post.

Kiki Hamilton said...

Hey Laini,

Thanks for sharing your revision process. It's always interesting to know how a PA (published author) does it and reassuring to find it's not much different than how we all slog though it. (Although I'm not sure about the editor cutting the whole chapter thing....eek!)

Anyway - always fun and interesting to read your stuff - thanks! ;)

btw, I just started my own blog - check it out if you have time:

jon said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
jon said...

Great post. We're constantly harping on this point with new writers: once you've finished the first draft of your story you're not nearly done.

No doubt, the two things that separate successful authors from those who never get a whiff of a publishing contract are 1) persistence and 2) the willingness to dig through their story and revise, revise, revise. Neither are glamorous and both can be painful, but it's the only way to go.

All the best,

Jon Bard
Managing Editor
Children's Book Insider, the Newsletter for Children's Writers -
The Children's Writing Web Journal -

Stephanie Perkins said...

Yay!! I'm always so happy to see posts about your writing process. Thanks for sharing with us again! (More more more!)

Good luck -- it's going to be awesome, I know it!

(Stool. Hee hee.)

lkmadigan said...

I am just about to tackle my first editorially-directed revisions, so this post could not have come at a better time.

Wish me luck!


Masha said...

So interesting!
Ive written some thoughts about creative process in my blog,(the "what my art teacher taught me posts at but I was thinking about visual artists. But (of course) they apply equally in any creative field. Be Open, Be Brave, Be Excited, Be Determined. Excellent stuff.

Anonymous said...

Thank you so much for the process porn, I am in the middle of rewriting my book and it is crazy because I am taking it in a whole different direction. You helped a lot!

jenn said...

Thank you, Laini! I think I was the commenter who originally asked to hear more about your revision process (process porn, hee-hee) and I REALLY appreciate you giving such a detailed, informative response. So incredibly helpful. Thanks again!