Tags: revision

A Tense Surprise

by Elizabeth Rusch
Published on: May 20, 2014
Comments: No Comments

In an earlier post about how I sometimes do multiple simultaneous drafts of the same manuscript, I mentioned how a critiquer had suggested trying to rewrite my picture book biography of piano inventor Bartolomeo Cristofori in present tense. PRESENT TENSE? A biography from 1700s, late Renaissance Italy, in PRESENT TENSE? Sounds crazy. I balked, as did the rest of my fellow critiquers.

But I have a little rule for myself to at least give most suggestions, even the ones I don’t agree with, a try. Especially if its something I can do easily or test out with a small section. So I did it. I rewrote the whole thing in present tense.

I didn’t really look at the manuscript again until reading the two versions aloud at a critique group meeting. Wonder of wonder, miracle of miracles, the present tense version of the story came to life. It jumped off the page. It sang. I knew it as I read it and the comments were unanimous: “I didn’t think the present tense would work, but I love it.”

So there you have it. Two lessons for me from this experience: Even if you don’t agree with a suggestion, consider giving it a try. And play around with tense. You never what how it could transform your manuscript.

Elizabeth Rusch



Gas and Brakes

How long does it take you to write a book? How fast do you work? I get asked these questions a lot, especially the first one by school-aged kids.  The answer is that it varies – dramatically.

My fastest book was a school library title on tennis (draft in a month, final in a few months) because that was how long the publisher gave me.  Next fastest was The Planet Hunter: The Story behind What Happened to Pluto which went from proposal to final approved manuscript ready to be illustrated in a handful of months. (My editor and I wanted to get that book out as fast as possible to explain the fascinating story behind why Pluto was no longer considered a planet.)

Typically, my books take much longer. I am working on a book now called Mario and the Hole in the Sky that will be published by Charlesbridge in 2016. I started working on it in 2007. That’s nine years for a picture book.  My graphic novel Muddy Max: The Mystery of Marsh Creek which comes out this year (YAY!) began as a middle grade novel in 2006. That’s eight years. My book The Mighty Mars Rovers took a similar amount of time. I’m working on picture book now that I literally started a decade ago.

The reasons for these long periods of time can vary. Many times, I am writing multiple, completely different drafts of the same book – and that takes a long time. (Thank you Scrivas, for reading version after version after version!) Other times I get discouraged after submitting something that doesn’t sell and I put it aside for a while.

In fact, it would be misleading to suggest that I was working on all these projects all the time in those years. What is much more typical is that there are times in the life of project when I put on the gas and other times I put on the brakes.

A current project in development on the inventor of the piano is a good example. When I got the idea in 2010, I start researching furiously (gas). I worked on it off and on through summer of 2012 (little pumps of gas), when I took a research trip to Florence, Italy (gas, gas, gas). When I got back, I did some writing and thinking (gas). Then I got stuck and I got busy with some other deadlines (SCREEECH! Brakes).

I have to be careful because brakes are easier to sustain than gas (things at rest like to stay at rest.) I didn’t touch this project for almost a year. And that really bothered me because I really loved the idea. So I started to put on the gas – writing, rewriting, problem-solving, polishing. I heard that an editor I wanted to share it with would be going on maternity leave. So I put on the gas big time, getting the book ready to submit.

Alas, she turned it down.

I was disappointed but also a little relieved. I just felt like I need a little more time with the project – to do a few more drafts and try to get it just right. So instead of submitting it elsewhere, I put on the brakes. But only gently. I want to slow down but not stop.

In driving you’re not supposed to put your foot on the gas and brakes at the same time. But for writing, I’m going to try it. I need the gas to keep momentum. But I need the brakes, too, to give me time to get it right.

Elizabeth Rusch

Let the Lady Scream: Showing vs. Telling Part III

by Amber Keyser
Published on: February 13, 2014
Categories: Craft, Other Topics
Comments: No Comments

Meet Kristi Wallace Knight, our lovely contributor to this occasional series (Part I, Part II) on how we can use revision to activate our writing.  Take it away, Kristi…

My own writing process is one of fits and starts.  I may go days or weeks without writing more than a sentence or two, and I can really struggle to get back into a story when I finally have time to sit down and write again. My preferred process is to grab a pen and a cheap spiral notebook (I buy them at Target at the beginning of the school year when they’re ten for a dollar), set a timer, and make myself write for 12-15 minutes. Nothing is off-limits, anything goes, and I have to keep my hand moving the whole time. After two or three sessions like this I’m usually on a roll and don’t need the timer anymore, I’m just going, telling myself the story, and the good and the bad are all swirled up together.

My next step is to type my pages into the computer. This is usually re-drafting, teasing apart the story from the places I’m telling myself the story. Sometimes the difference between the two is obvious, but sometimes subsequent read-throughs reveal more places to increase the action on the page and decrease the distance between the character and the reader.


Stella opened the door to the office her dad was in. He was writing furiously at his desk. He glanced up, nodded to her and stuck his left index finger in the air, then looked back down to finish his writing. When he was done he looked up and said, “hello, dear. How have your studies been?”

“Mrs. Bennett is seeing to my studies, why are you asking me something she can answer?”

Mr. Blackwood gazed over his glasses at his daughter, “my dear,” he began, “I had nearly forgotten who I was speaking to.”

“And just where have you been, anyway? You were due back three days ago.”

Mr. Blackwood got up and closed the door to his office. “I had an unexpected meeting in Pennsylvania, and was advised to have another in New York. So I extended my travel.”

This is boring.

Stella leaves her friend, Lana, and goes to her father’s office. The door is mostly closed. A frosted glass window keeps her from seeing who is inside, but the conversation she hears is heated. She approaches the door and hears: “two, three days at the most,” her father’s voice.

“You’ve already overextended your leave, Blackwood.”

“And more than doubled our success by doing so. The legend around this other piece…” the other man cut him off

“The piece itself is legendary, we can’t put a legend in the museum. These artifacts are spectacular, I’ll grant you, but will be years of study before they go on public display. Now I need you here, teaching and writing up your finds. Publish or perish, Blackwood.”

The conversation seemed to be over, and the door opened to reveal _________, the President of the University.

“Miss Blackwood, I presume.” Stella was acutely aware that she was one of few thirteen-year-olds seen on campus. “Do us a favor and try to keep your father in town through the semester, would you?”


And here is how I typed up the scene later:


            Dr. Blackwood’s office door was slightly ajar. As Stella approached she heard her father and another man having a heated discussion inside.

            “…a week, ten days at the most,” her father said.

            “You’ve already overextended your leave, Blackwood,” the other voice said.

            “And more than doubled our success by doing so. This piece is exactly as the legends describe, and the companion piece…”

            “The companion piece is legendary. The research is firm that legend was added hundreds of years later with the intent of creating a wild goose chase. We can’t put a legend in a museum, Gunter. The pieces you have are spectacular, but they’ll be two years of study at least before we can display them. I need you here for the rest of the year, teaching and putting your work in writing. Publish or perish, Blackwood.”

The door opened and the president of the university passed Stella and headed down the hall.

In his office, Gunter Blackwood was staring at a collection of objects spread out on a black museum cloth on his desk.

“You’re three weeks late,” Stella said to the top of his head.

Her father looked up. His face was deeply brown, but his eyebrows had more white in them than Stella remembered. He had been away more than five months, on expedition with a small group of students in Mesopotamia, collecting artifacts.

            “My dear Stella,” he said, “how you’ve grown.” He stood and quickly embraced Stella. His shirt smelled of cloves and sunlight, she thought.

            “I will not be left behind again,” she said. Her father met her gaze, and Stella felt an uncomfortable lightness in her chest. She was glad to see him, and afraid she might cry.  Stella blinked. She looked at the objects on his desk. “What are those?” she asked.

            There appeared to be several rocks scattered about with two gold rings, a gold coin, a black box, and a statue that looked like the torso of a woman, without limbs or a head. The gold objects were beautiful but the statue was freakish and bizarre. Stella reached for one of the stones and picked it up.


So, what did I change? Most obviously, I moved the conflict between Gunter and the University president to the front. I cut down the description of Gunter at his desk, because it doesn’t move the story. I got bored writing it, so I know you’ll be bored reading it. As I read over this, though, I still see verbs that I’ll revisit in future revisions in order to bring Stella and her experience closer to the reader. For example, I expect to delete “she thought” after “cloves and sunlight,” because without “she thought” we’re just there in Stella’s experience of smelling the shirt, and that is where, as the writer, I want the reader to be. I make a habit of looking for what I think of as “distancing verbs” – “thought,” “noticed,” “observed,” “saw,” “heard,” and verb phrases like “could see,” “could hear,” — in my work, and I cut, cut, cut them to the best of my ability.  I also notice three adverbs in the typed version above – “slightly,” “deeply,” and “quickly,”  two of them preceded by “was.”  Adverbs are a sort of shorthand that is effective for moving the story along in a first draft, but usually can be eliminated or unpacked into more specific description in later drafts.

I skipped the description of the door – all we need to know is that Stella can hear what’s happening on the other side, we don’t need to know what the door looks like. But I had to write it that way at first because I was visualizing it and writing that down helped me into the story.  At the time that I’m finding it, details like the color of the hallway walls, the glass in the door, and the hardware are part of the story. Knowing when to keep those details in to inform the reader, and when to get them out of the way because the story is actually elsewhere – in this case, in the relationships between Gunter and the University president, and Gunter and his daughter – is an ongoing part of my process. The objects on Gunter’s desk, that Stella is about to pick up and hear the stories of, are objects that Stella and Gunter’s story will be built around, so they stay in. The brass door handles and frosted glass window can go.

Already I’m looking at places where I can further tighten the scene. The second sentence – “As Stella approached she heard her father and another man having a heated discussion inside,” contains two verbs: approached, heard; and a gerund: having.  Are they all necessary? Maybe. Or will the same information be conveyed even if they aren’t there?  Maybe. Here are other options:

A)    “Dr. Blackwood’s office door was slightly ajar. Stella heard her father and another man having a heated discussion inside.”

B)   “Dr. Blackwood’s office door was slightly ajar. Stella’s father and another man were having a heated discussion inside.”

What’s the difference?   In (A), Stella is the one the verb refers to, and (B), the verb phrase “were having” refers to Stella’s father, and is a weak verb form at that. I want my reader to experience the story from Stella’s point of view, and I want the verbs to keep the story moving, so I’m going to choose (A). The reader is still aware that Stella is approaching her father’s office door, but that approach is happening invisibly by moving with Stella, and thus the reader, through the experience.

In my fiction, letting the lady scream is all about getting the right verbs in the right places, but even more so it’s about getting the wrong verbs out of the way of the action.


Kristi Wallace Knight has been writing Dangerously in Portland, Oregon since 2000. She has been published in Stealing Time Magazine, where she was the founding Fiction Editor in 2012. She is currently writing a Young Adult adventure series and does freelance editing. She has been a member of SCBWI since 2011 and can be found online at https://www.facebook.com/KWallaceKnightEditor

The ULTIMATE Story Checklist

by Elizabeth Rusch
Published on: December 20, 2013
Comments: 1 Comment

I’m going to keep this short because I don’t want you to waste your time reading this when you could be reading Matt Bird’s AMAZING ULTIMATE STORY CHECKLIST:


Screenwriter Matt Bird has written a list of questions to ask yourself about the story you are writing. Read them. Print them. Post them near your desk. Let them rock your story and your world.  — Elizabeth Rusch

Let the Lady Scream: Showing vs. Telling PART I

by Amber Keyser
Published on: December 12, 2013
Categories: Craft
Comments: 7 Comments

mark-twain-author-dont-say-the-old-lady-screamed-bring-her-on-and-let-herIn the past few weeks, I’ve been doing a lot of YA manuscript critiques.  Multiple times in the margin of each manuscript I’ve scrawled, “Stay in the scene” or “Show me.”

Showing is hard.  It is so much easier to just tell the reader what you want him to know.  Both beginning and seasoned writers fall into the telling not showing trap.  Those with more experience fix it during revision.

But what does “showing not telling” really mean?

To me, it means staying in the scene.  Characters need to be doing and saying things that convey what the writer wants the reader to know.  Examples show this better than me blah, blah, blah-ing at you, so today I’m beginning an occasional series of posts that demonstrate showing vs. telling.  I’ve asked some writer friends to pony up before and after paragraphs over the next few months.

I’ll start with this example that one of the authors for whom I recently critiqued was kind enough to proffer before my revision knife.  (You know who you are.  THANK YOU!)

First, the original paragraph.  It is perfectly serviceable.  The writing is tight.  It tells the reader a lot about Tom and his dad.  I love the phrase “strict no-go territory,” which gives us some of Tom’s voice.

Dad was nothing if he wasn’t private.  From as soon as Tom was old enough to be held accountable for his actions, his dad made it clear that he was not to go poking around in his stuff.  Dad’s desk, his papers, and especially his briefcase were always off limits—a strict no-go territory Tom and never violated.

Now consider a rewrite that has turned this into a scene, which puts the reader smack-dab in the center of the action and Tom’s emotional state.

From the hallway, Tom saw the briefcase on top of Dad’s desk.  There might as well have been flashing neon arrows floating in the air.  The papers were there.  He knew it.  It would be so easy to walk across the office, to run his hands along the slick leather, to snap open the brass latches on the case.  

Tom shifted his weight from one foot to the other like a boxer getting ready to fight.  

A few seconds, that’s all he needed.  The papers could be swishing down the toilet before Dad got home.  Problem solved.  He flexed his fingers, balling his hands into fists.

Tom had been three years old the first time he’d gone into Dad’s office—his first spanking.  He’d risked it again at five and could still feel the belt.  The last time, he’d been ten, and Mom had sent him to Grandma’s for a week after.

Sweat soaked through the armpits of his Metallica t-shirt.  Tom smelled his own stink rising.  The desk was so close.  Like Antarctica close.  Which meant absolutely un-freaking-reachable.  God, I’m a pussy, Tom thought, turning away from the papers he needed to save his own life.

The rewrite still communicates the basic message that Tom knows better than to mess with his Dad’s stuff, but to explain why, I had to bring in backstory (his dad borders on abusive) and hint at the current conflict (Tom needs those papers).  I also added sensory details like the feel of leather and the smell of sweat and kept absolutely everything from Tom’s perspective.  The fringe benefit of the “showing” version is that you know more about Tom—a lot more.

Until the next installment of “Let the Lady Scream,” may we all stay in the scene.





Dedicate Your Writing to Someone

by Elizabeth Rusch
Published on: November 20, 2013
Comments: 2 Comments
Sheila Schmid of NW Yoga in Portland, Oregon

Sheila Schmid of NW Yoga in Portland, Oregon

O.K., so I’m on a little yoga/writing roll, so I thought I’d share something else from a yoga class that I have applied to writing.

At the beginning of several recent yoga classes at Yoga NW, my teacher Sheila said:

“Take a moment to think about why you are here. Consider dedicating your yoga practice today to someone.”

Cool idea, I thought. I pictured several people in my head and tried to keep them in my heart as I practiced. The class, though challenging, was a joy. I didn’t do anything differently in class – the class just felt more meaningful and more joyful.

After a shower and breakfast, I headed off for a day of writing at the library. I liked Sheila’s idea so much that I decided to dedicate my writing day to someone. Since I write for children, I picked a child I know and tried to keep that child in my heart as I wrote.

That writing day felt more meaningful and joyful.

I am trying to make this a regular practice. Sometime I pick a family member or a friend. Sometimes I choose a child I know. Sometimes I pick a fellow writer, like one of my beloved Scrivas. Sometimes I choose a group such as kids who are passionate about science, or kids who live in poverty, or kids who read books to escape something horrible in their lives, or kids who love the ocean, or kids who have never been to the ocean. Sometimes I hold in my heart other people important to our world or somehow connected to the book such librarians, English teachers, science teachers, pianists or historians.

Dedicating a writing session to someone is like sending a prayer for them out into the world. I will never know if my writing, my dedication to them, my prayer for them made any difference in their lives. But I know it makes a difference in mine.

Elizabeth Rusch

Revision Gurus

by Amber Keyser
Published on: November 12, 2013
Comments: 1 Comment

Revision is hard for me.

I worry myself in circles about the right way to reorganize plot points.  My stomach knots as I scissor my manuscript to pieces and tape it back together.

Voice haunts me.  I will stare at a sentence for many minutes, knowing it is not right but clueless about how to make it right.

I agonize over every sentence, rearranging words, substituting images, deleting.  The word count hardly changes, but slowly, subtly, change is coming.

I am learning to embrace revision because of the way it makes the work better.  Today is my paean in praise of Revision Gurus–because that’s what the Scrivas are to me.

I just finished reading Scriva Ruth‘s newest novel, THE NINTH DAY (Ooligan Press, 2013).  Now let me clarify, I have read this story before multiple times, but today I read it within a glossy cover.  Published.  Complete.  And…

Wow!  I kept chuckling to myself that I couldn’t put the book down even though I already knew what was going to happen thanks to my many reads of early drafts.

I already loved this book, but what I could appreciate this time through was the absolute mastery of Ruth’s revision.  I could see the delicate way she’d laid the groundwork for each storyline so that every action and reaction seemed “real.”  She brought me along on a journey of self-discovery that was both surprising and utterly believable.  Like a Cirque du Soleil performer, Ruth never lost her balance or let me, her reader, fall.

As much as I might dread revision, I want to be Ruth’s padawan.  I want to learn at her feet. I want to make my story sing like Hope’s does!


The Ninth Day

Berkeley, California, 1964. While the Free Speech Movement rages, Hope, a shy, stuttering, teen scarred by an accidental LSD trip, plans to keep a low profile. Risk compounds reticence when she meets a time-traveler who claims that Hope must find a way to stop a father from killing his newborn son in 11th century Paris.

“The story is riveting… and, speaking as someone who was arrested in the Free Speech Movement, the Berkeley sections feel true and authentic.”

—Margot Adler, NPR correspondent

“Reading this book… [reveals] constellations rich with story, myth, and magic.”

—Jen Violi, author of Putting Makeup on Dead People


Can you kill a book?

by Amber Keyser
Published on: September 12, 2013
Categories: Challenges
Comments: No Comments

Tom Riddle’s Diary


Currently, I’m deep into revisions for a contemporary, realistic novel, and I’m also deep in anxiety that I am going to kill this book.

Large scale revisions which require me to adjust characterization or radically reconstruct my plot, make me feel like a puppet-master.

“Ah, my pretty!  You thought you liked boys?  Surprise!  I’ve decided you’re going to be hot and bothered for the girl next door.”

“What? Your showdown with the ax murderer happened at night in a convenience store?  Not any more.  Try the art museum in front of a tour group of little old ladies!”

Boggart Goes Poof

I’m confident that both my characters and my plot can withstand this sort of earth-shaking revision a few times, but can you go too far?  What if I force my character to try on so many things (Shy or more assertive?  Close to mom or distant?  Soccer or ballet?) that she implodes like the boggart in Lupin’s Defense Against the Dark Arts class?

What if I revise the life out of my story?

I don’t know the answer.

What do you think?

Have you ever killed a book?

Giving blood then removing the self

by Amber Keyser
Published on: August 14, 2013
Categories: Craft
Comments: No Comments

Recently, I read an article (which sadly I can’t put my fingers on again) about realistic, multi-dimensional character building.  The author suggested “giving blood.”  In other words, if we bring our own deeply-held and often painful experiences into our characters, they become well-rounded.

My friends know I’m a “method” writer, which means there is a lot of blood-letting on my pages, but during the revision process, I find it necessary to reverse the process and remove myself from the work.  When one of the Scrivas observed that the mom’s narrative was over-whelming that of my main character, it’s because too much of me remains.

The good thing is that the characters have taken on a life of their own during the process so when I strip the authorial voice and experience out of the manuscript, something good and true remains.

Take a minute to think through where your own experiences motivate the action in the manuscript and where they overshadow it.  Perhaps like me, you need to both give and take during revision.

Embarrassing but true, I cut 5,000 words of fluff

by Amber Keyser
Published on: June 12, 2013
Categories: Craft, Other Topics
Comments: 1 Comment

word count massacreRevision comes in many shapes and sizes, and to be honest, I find most of them quite painful.  I love what happens as a result of revision.  My manuscripts are better, cleaner, truer and more alive because of the process, but it hurts.  That’s okay.  I eat chocolate at 10:00 am and swig coffee and play with silly putty and I get it done.

And sometimes (because I am a little crazy), I graph it!  The Scrivas have blogged about how we use graphs to identify strengths and weaknesses (Graphs and Charts, Oh My), but I’m not sure we’ve used them as progress reports before.

So here’s the deal…

I have written a YA novel called THE HUNT FOR MARA LAYIL under contract for Relium Media.  It is part of a broader transmedia property called ANGEL PUNK that has multiple storytelling platforms–comics, gaming, fan engagement, and film.

I’ve been working on the book for about two years.  It has been through the wringer of many Scriva critiques.  It has also been professionally edited by the divine Emma Dryden of drydenbks.  I did several major developmental edits as well as the more precision-targeted line-by-line edits.  I went through the thing MANY times.  It was in GOOD shape (I thought).

90,000 words of well-crafted, explosive prose.  (Right?)

Then Relium Media brought agent, Kirsten Neuhaus from Foundry Literary, onto the team.  Kirsten is smart, dynamic, and best of all she gets the transmedia aspect of the ANGEL PUNK property.  She loved the book (see, it was in good shape), but she wanted me to cut 5,000 words.

*jaw drops to floor*

What was I going to cut?  Seriously, I’ve been through that thing.  I need all 5 points-of-view.  I need all those scenes.  I have subplots!

Kirsten was pretty specific in her guidance.  “Don’t cut anything big.  Just cut the fluff.”

The task at hand was to tighten the prose.  I figured out my goal: sixteen words a page.  Before I got to work, I decided (since I’m a dork that way) to graph my progress as a way to both track the goal and to encourage myself along.  I entitled the file Word Count Massacre.

And you know what?  I did it, and it wasn’t even hard.

When I read with an eye for words that weren’t doing sufficient heavy-lifting, I found them.  I learned I have a habit of saying things twice in different ways as if I couldn’t decide which was better and so doubled-up.  I learned that I state things that can be infered from the text.  (For example: She picked up her fork and ate a piece of cheesecake.  Smart readers know that She ate a piece of cheesecake probably means with a fork.)  I sometimes use complicated language such as she was in the process of looking back when she looked back is fine.

It was crazy and good.  Now I know that I will NEVER send a manuscript out without doing a read through for the fluff.  Thanks, Kirsten!  That was damn good advice (and yet another reason agents rock)!

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