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How this plot-challenged picture book author wrote a novel
Last month, I told you about how I had read Deep Work by Cal Newport, and it completely changed everything about how I approached writing. Here is my ebullient update: this works. Keeping track of your deep work hours works. I finished my revision two days ahead of schedule, and then when I went to read it one more time before sending it out to my critique partners, I finished that read-through ten days ahead of schedule.
Maybe you all have been working just fine. But I know I wasn't. I was distracted, irritable, and what I wrote was mediocre. I couldn't get into it. And there was only so much I could blame it on 2020. I am positively giddy to tell you, again, that this works.
I write the exact time I start a focused writing session on a post-it note, and then work as long as I can. Sometimes it's for ten minutes, but usually it's for longer. As the weeks went on, I was easily able to work for much longer. And the expected byproduct of logging longer deep work sessions is that I got a lot more work done.
The other real thrill was getting inspiration for scenes and chapters in the book I was working on. Last summer, when I worked on this book, in a distracted state of only-shallow work? I never once got a bolt of inspiration. I've come to realize that social media is a real inspiration blocker for me, and it builds a wall between me and any intuitive whisperings.
Now let's talk nuts and bolts of how I did this most recent revision, because I love process stuff.
Here is the background: I am a picture book writer, mainly. I love character-driven books. If I plot my picture books at all, I do it with Rob Sanders's picture book graphic organizer. There is plot in my Two Dogs in a Trench Coat books, but that is all thanks to my editor Matt Ringler, who will let me send him a huge book where the characters wander around being funny, and then he deletes six chapters and somehow makes the plot emerge. I don't know how he does it.
I love picture books, but also really love realistic contemporary middle grade. I have, at this writing, written three middle grades and a YA, none of which I've ever gotten to a submittable point.
So that's where we are. (I remember, when I was starting out, seeing authors talk about how "the first novel is the throwaway novel" and that terrified me. Or there was a tweet floating around many moons ago where someone showed their final real book, with sticky notes stuck around the pages in the final book that were also in the first draft, and it was maybe ten pages. That was also terrifying. But I'm here, now, telling you that each of the MGs and YAs I've worked on has been through multiple drafts, over years now, and it has been so much work and time, but that's fine. That's what it takes. It's scarier when you're looking down the long road of writing and revision than when you're already on the road.)
The book I revised last summer was one I wrote the first draft of in 2016. Every revision has changed and added in more, deepened the characters and what happened to them. The photo at the beginning of this newsletter is all of the printed-out versions of this particularly book that I have hanging around.
Finally, last summer, I wrote what I was sure was going to be The Version. My first clue as to trouble should have been that I wasn't getting any flashes of inspiration about it, that every day I sat down, wrote some words, and moved forward. My second clue was that the final version was 85,000 words. That's about twice as long as a middle grade novel should be (let's take a moment to laugh about the fact that not only did I send this version to my agent hoping she wouldn't notice how long it was, but that my agent is the person who wrote the most-referenced blog post about appropriate word counts).
So I sent it to my agent in September 2020 and she read the first third and then called me and said it was too long and there was no plot. This was not a shock. Then she said, "What does your main character want more than anything? And what's standing in her way?" Um. Right.
(Ok, ready? Here we go on what happened with my most recent revision.)
I decided that the main character wanted a friend. I ruthlessly deleted any chapter that didn't have to do with her finding a one, true friend. And then I let it sit for a few months.
I thought all I would have to do was to read through that pared-down manuscript and make sure it all made sense. In late January I started to go through it again, and within a few days, I knew it was all wrong. It was boring. And the reason was obvious: my main character's want was boring. Think about it, if I came up to you and said, "You've got to read this book! It's about a girl in middle school who wants a friend!" would that compel you to read it? Probably not even if I was wearing a sandwich board with the book's cover on it. Yes, "wanting a friend" is relatable, but it's too relatable. It's generic. I needed to make it much more specific.
Then I laid out the cards in the Fabula deck to try out various possible plot scenarios and see which ones had enough legs to sustain an entire book. (My favorite card in the Fabula deck predictably isn't a plot-related one but is the Magical Objects card. I loved thinking about what objects were important touchstones for my character and were representative of her journey.)
I'm not going to tell you what I landed on for a character want (I'm still in that space of being protective of my story). But here are some examples that are similarly specific, and much more compelling than "character wants a friend."
A girl wants to bring the mouse family that lives behind her house inside for wintertime, but one day they don't come when she brings them food, and there's a mysterious note tacked to a tree.
A boy is very, very good at dancing, and loves dancing, but lives in the middle of nowhere and has nowhere to practice, get better, or dance professionally.
A girl wants to be a television meteorologist. And she wants to be one NOW. But she's just a kid, and no one is taking her seriously.
A kid invents hover boots with stuff from their garage, and is going to enter them in the big invention show, but someone steals them and uses them to rob the bank, and everyone thinks the kid did it.
The other thing about "character wants a friend"? That is, in fact, a picture book plot. Picture books, tiny slices of life that they are, can function with that plot. Because ultimately that plot is probably "character wants a friend, gets one, the end." You can do some fun things with that in a picture book, but not in a novel. It's not enough for a novel.
The next thing I did was read Story Structure Basics: How to Write Better Books by Learning from the Movies by Alexandra Sokoloff, which was incredibly helpful for helping me map out the plot and see what scenes I needed (or didn't need). I mapped it all out in the corkboard in Scrivener, and then started writing. This new "Now with a Plot!" version was roughly 95% new scenes.
Then, as you know from last month, I got to work. I set a goal of 45,000 words, tracked my deep work hours, and kept track of it all in Pacemaker. If you're a chart person, here's what that looked like. Some days I got more done. Some days (and on weekends) I got nothing done. I worked from February 5 to March 3, which included a week when my children were all on February break, and wrote 45,723 words.
Then I read it out loud.
I always read my picture book revisions out loud, which helps me catch things that are rhythmically weird or are unintended tongue twisters. Benjamin Dreyer in Dreyer's English says, "One of the best ways to determine whether your prose is well-constructed is to read it aloud. A sentence that can't be readily voiced is a sentence that likely needs to be rewritten."
So that's what I did. I read a chapter out loud, pretending I was narrating an audiobook. I revised as needed, and then read the chapter again. I caught lots of awkward wording, flow problems, and typos. I discovered that I have a penchant for starting every line of dialog with either "Oh," or "Ha."
And now, I guess: stay tuned? This last round was the ninth total revision of this book. It's much better than it ever was, but still feels not-quite-done. It does have a plot this time, though. That much I know.
To sum up: tracked deep work plus really figuring out the unique and interesting thing my main character wants are what fixed this last round of revisions for me.
Thoughts and Links
The uptick in violence against Asian people is heartbreaking and maddening. I will confess to naively thinking such blatant acts of racism would quietly go away after Biden's inauguration. My friend Ruth Chan has been processing her feelings through comics on her Instagram page, and they're so good. Often heartbreaking, but good.
I was lucky enough to read an advance copy of my friend Victoria Coe's next book, Ezra and the Mouse: The Search for Lafayette. It's a dual-POV historical adventure, and delightfully New Englandy, plus has a huge wheel of cheese. Keep an eye out for it this fall!
I listen to any George Saunders interview I come across. He is always the exact amount of gentle encouragement I need as a writer. I loved his recent interview on Armchair Expert, where he talks about the importance of revision, and how to write real moments into stories, rather than striving for fanciful and unrelatable stories just so you'll look cool.
If you'll let me swerve briefly into fashion, I recently got a chore coat in an attempt to look like a casual artistic writerly type who always has pockets full of notebooks. I don't know why they're called chore coats. It's a silly name. Though let's imagine that rather than "writing is a chore" it's more like "I'm doing my chores!" when I'm sneaking into the basement to write in one of the notebooks stashed in the pocket of my chore coat. I got a vintage overdye one (in black) from Rawson on Etsy. Is it chic? I don't know. Sure. I like it. (If you have any clue what other things a Gen X casual artistic writerly type might wear, please tell me.)
I love Oracle Decks, and recently got poet Amanda Lovelace's new one, Believe in Your Own Magic. The cards are divided into three classic female archetypes (princess, witch, and mermaid), the illustrations are gorgeous, and the accompanying guidebook is helpful. I like pulling a daily card for myself, BUT ALSO, I'm finding it helpful to pull a card for the main character in my book. For novels, at least, I tend to write girl characters who are full of power but can't figure out what to do with that power, and thinking about their journeys in terms of, say "Library: take control of your narrative" or "Mirror: treat your body like the palace it is" is an interesting story igniter. (You can see some of the card images and some pages from the guidebook on the publisher's page, here.)
One thing that has really been helping me forget about my phone has been changing it to grayscale. My friend Matt Moore and I coped with 2020 by starting up an old-fashioned letter-writing correspondence, like we're VICTORIAN or something, and it was in one of those letters that he told me about the magic (or, specifically, the lack of magic) about grayscale. We as humans are naturally drawn to bright and shiny things, and when you switch your phone to gray, it instantly becomes boring. Trust me. You will see, the second you do it, your brain immediately says, "Oh! Huh. Ho hum to that funny little rectangle. Do you have a book or something?" And now when I switch it back (to look at a dog video) it looks outlandishly garish.
Yours in Books will be published on August 24, 2021. Preorder now! If you preorder from Print: A Bookstore, you'll receive a book signed by me (pssst: if you want any of my books signed by me, you can order them from Print at any time). You can find other buy links, and more about the book, on my website.
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