The Painful Process of Revision

"Heather Hummingbird Makes a New Friend" by Kaye Lynne Booth

Illustrations by Aidana Willowraven

The good news is that I may finally have a publisher that is interested in my children’s book, Heather Hummingbird Makes a New Friend. The bad news, well I guess maybe it’s not that bad, is that the publisher liked the story and the concept, but she requested a rewrite. She sent me a set of general guidelines for children’s writing, that was basically grammar and punctuation rules, with the advice to “make every word count”, and a section that cautioned against using talking animals in your stories.
The My Backyard Friends series, of which Heather Hummingbird is only the first, is based on animals, mostly birds, but these are the characters. Was I supposed to rewrite the whole story and change all the characters into people? That would undermine the whole story concept of My Backyard Friends. I mean, the series is about the birds that are in my backyard, not the people that hang out there. Without the birds, there really are no stories. I pondered this, but finally decided they must be referring to animals that talk to people, which isn’t realistic and might be hard for kids, who are really smart, to buy. In my stories, all of the characters are animals, so this warning didn’t apply to my stories at all. Okay, that problem was taken care of, but I still wasn’t sure what I should change in my rewrite.
The next problem that I could see was one that I am sure a lot of writers are faced with. Here is this story that I wrote, edited and rewrote before ever sending it out anywhere. I thought it was already as perfect as it could get. How could I improve on perfection? The publisher wasn’t very specific about what she was looking for in the rewrite either. Hmmm….. Okay, so I sat down and gave the whole story a re-read. It had been awhile since I went over this one, so maybe I could get a fresh perspective on it. I found a few places where the wording could be changed a little, and I corrected a few spelling and grammar errors, and changed the punctuation in a couple places. It was only what you would call minor corrections, not enough to even be considered a rewrite.
A friend of mine, who is a writing coach looked at it, and made a few suggestions. She thought that it should be about 500-700 words for a picture book. We’re talking about a story that was running around 1,700 words! Shouldn’t be too hard to drop 1000 words or so, right? Ha! I went over it, and over it, and then over it again. This story had originally been written with a poet’s heart. Poets love to play with the sound of the words. “Heather Hummingbird was busily flitting from flower to flower, when she came upon Ethan Eagle, perched in the top of a very tall tree.” You can hear the sing-song quality that is pleasing to the ear and sort of rolls off the palette . Eventually, this opening phrase became, “Heather Hummingbird zipped from flower to flower. She came upon Ethan Eagle, perched in the top of a tall tree.” It’s much tighter writing, to be sure, but that lilting, poetic quality just isn’t there anymore. This really did hurt, because one of the things that I had really liked about the story was the way it sounded as I read it. I took the whole story went through this same basic process, with essentially the same results throughout. I still had 1, 269 words.
So, I took it to an editor friend, who helped me make some more cuts. She too, hated to cut any of it, because most cuts at this point would take away from the story. I mean, this thing was down to the nitty gritty. It was the same thing that I had been thinking, but she expressed it for me. So we tried to find ways that the story could be cut without losing vital pieces. We got it down to 1,242 after much painful deliberation.
I feared that I would cut so much that my illustrator would have to redo some of the illustrations that were already completed. I mean, she had even had mugs and magnets designed with that original opening line, which I thought was a very clever marketing device. Were the changes I was making going to mess up the illustrations? Would it cost me more if she had to redo some of them? I didn’t think that I had changed it so much that they would all have to be redone, but it worried me none the less.
My friend asked about my audience that I was aiming at. I was stumped. I didn’t set out to write for any one particular age group. I got an idea and just sat down and wrote the story. I hadn’t thought about how old the kids who read it would be. I know they tell you in all the writing courses and workshops to take the audience into consideration, but that just wasn’t how it had worked for me. She suggested that perhaps I was aiming for a higher age group, and this wasn’t a picture book at all. She pointed out some of the words that I had used that might be above the preschool/kindergarten age comprehension. Her point was a valid one. Would a kindergartener know what a mountain “crag” was? She suggested that if I were writing for a slightly higher age group, the word count wouldn’t have to be so low. 1,242 words is not bad for a book aimed at this age group, and some of the vocabulary suggested that the book would be more appropriate for a first or second grader. She was brilliant!
So, that is how I resolved my revision dilemmas. I took it home and did one last rewrite. It was still a very painful process, although I am sure that it is a better story for all the changes. I sent it back to the publisher, hoping that I had been able to do what she wanted, but still unsure. Now I wait to hear back and find out if she accepts it. Am I happy with what I ended up with? Is it still the story that I had intended? I suppose that it is, basically. I don’t think that it is as fun to read anymore, but perhaps it is better writing, even so. I learned some valuable lessons from the experience. Now I know why authors dread the revision process. I can’t even imagine doing what I did to this little story, with a full length book. It is a time consuming and heart wrenching process. On the other hand, I am a writer, so I hope with all my heart that someday I will have the chance to be faced with that chore. So, cross your fingers and wish me luck. The waiting is almost harder than the cutting was. Almost…, but not quite. I think I’ll wait awhile before I take another look at the other books in the series. The next book in the series,Charlie Chickadee Finds a New Home is about twice as long as Heather was. Ugh!

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