The Madness of Multiple Versions

by Elizabeth Rusch
Published on: March 20, 2014
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So what does the Nike swoosh have to do with writing? Well, it’s more the motto than the logo, actually.

Let me explain. As you might know from past posts, I’m working on a nonfiction picture book biography about Bartolomeo Cristofori, who invented the piano in Renaissance Italy in the late 1600s. As I mentioned in my last post, I had a draft that we submitted to one editor in the fall. She turned it down. Instead of submitting the manuscript elsewhere, I put on the brakes so I could keep working on it. So what exactly am I doing? Multiple drafts.

I don’t mean multiple drafts that follow each other, draft5, draft6, draft7. Rather I am writing starkly different versions of the same story at the same time. I’m working on:

1. A radically shortened version of a 32 page book. This one I am cutting mercilessly. I’m seeing if by dramatically shortening it, I can find a musicality and fluidity to the story. (This worked with a book I wrote on Mexican-American chemists Mario Molina, which will be published in 2016.)

2. I am revising a medium 32-page version based on feedback from the Scrivas and my other critique group. (Revising based on feedback always makes my books better.)

3. I’m rewriting the medium 32-page version into present tense, to see if it helps makes the story more lively. (I’ve never done a tense revision, but someone suggested it, and I thought I should try it.)

4. I’m expanding the story into a 48-page version where I tell everything I know and present primary source material as I go. This will help me identify all the very best, most important material so I will be sure to include it in the final version.

5. I am also dummying out a 40-page version to see if that is the right length for the book.

Why would I subject myself to the madness of writing and dummying out so many different versions? Because I’ve learned from experience that sometimes I should JUST DO IT.  I will never know for sure if present tense is the best way to tell the story unless I try it. I will never know if the book should be shorter or longer if I don’t see the 32-, 40- and 48-page versions side by side. I will never know if I should include primary source material in the main story or save it for the back matter if I don’t give each way my best shot.

This may not be the most efficient way to write a book, but I know that when I’m done, I will be satisfied that I found the best way for me to tell this story.  And if it’s true that we learn to write by writing, then banging out all these versions should make me a better writer.

So maybe there is a method to my madness.

Elizabeth Rusch

P.S. Just so you don’t think I’m completely insane, I want you to know that I’m not trying absolutely everything people suggested. Someone suggested I write a middle-grade version of the story that delves into the Renaissance and the Medici and I knew instinctively that that was not the story I wanted to tell. So that’s it. I’m limiting myself to five different versions. For now…

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