First Drafts vs. Final Drafts

In the last four years I’ve drafted (and revised and rewritten and revised again…and again) two middle grade manuscripts. I love the revising stage because every decision and change improves the story in some way (thank goodness). Drafting? Less of a delight. The product is such a hot mess and such a far cry from what I’m hoping to achieve that I cringe opening up the document. I spend more time questioning my writing skills (do I have any? Why is each sentence more terrible than the last? Why is this scene boring and undeniably the worst thing I’ve ever written? Even worse than that English paper from 9th grade that I purposely reread just for comparison sake [not procrastination, no of course not]?! Am I getting WORSE at writing? Is that possible? What am I even doing?! 😂) than getting words on the page so the process is slowwwwww and excruciatingly drawn out. Also, my characters are usually completely mute in my head during the first draft, I have absolutely no idea what their voice is like or what they’d even say in a situation, they’re resistant to all of my pleas to just “tell me what you want and why and oh for the love of brownies why won’t you reveal anything about yourself why are you giving me the cold shoulder I don’t understand can’t we just be BFFs–”

(Yes, it’s dramatic. But they’re my real and true feelings. For months!)

While the secret to finally (finally!) getting a full manuscript down on the page was very different for each project (I will never tell those secrets, I promised the troll I traded with for my first and second borne) (jk) (but sort of not), they did both involve months of bribery (of myself: chocolate, wine, caffeine, Netflix, whatever it took), craft books, crying into my coffee with writing friends, and hair pulling.

And they always end with a messy first draft that I sort of side-eye with fear and mild loathing.

But I’m starting to notice a pattern in my first and final drafts. Which I actually find very reassuring as I start thinking ahead to the next story idea and drafting in general. Instead of hating drafting/considering it a failure, maybe I can just appreciate it as a very predictable first step towards a polished manuscript I love.

First draft is ALWAYS:

  1. Bare bone/short word count (like, really short! Think 35-40,000 words). Woe is me, I think. There’s nothing else to say. That’s all she wrote, folks. There’s no hope.
  2. 95% descriptions, 5% dialogue. Argh!
  3. Cluttered with lonely scenes where the main character is totally alone with their thoughts, while participating in completely solitary activities (hence contributing to the 95/5% ratio referenced above). This also often leads to very melodramatic main characters. Stop whining! I want to shout and shake them by the shoulders. I’m so tired of your repetitive complaints and worries!

Then there’s some of this in-between. Rinse and repeat until the book makes sense. Throw in some critique partner reads and opinions.

So much purple! Always so much purple 😭

To my great and utter relief, I’ve now twice been able to replicate that the final draft is ALWAYS:

  1. So much longer! After layering in more and more with each revision, manuscripts start clocking in at the much more standard/acceptable 60-70,000 word range. Can it be true? I sniff the air, refresh the Word word-counter half a dozen times, just to be sure. It lives! It grows!
  2. Sooooo much more dialogue! I don’t know the exact ratio, but a chapter never goes by without someone talking to someone. Hurray! They speak!!
  3. Except for maybe in the dark night of the soul, very little totally solitary scenes. New side characters and relationships have been layered in and the main character now has a PERSONALITY (hallelujah!) so he/she actually has things they want to say and people who want to listen/talk back! Slow down! I want to shout, but don’t, to avoid jinxing it, fingers flying across the keyboard to catch everything they’re yammering so fast and loud in my head before I lose it. As a result, the melodrama dial is turned wayyyyy down and while it takes two to tango, it also takes two to joke! So there are actual jokes and humor in final drafts which make the stories so much more fun to reread! (And reread…and reread again.)

Thank goodness for revisions. Maybe (just maybe) I’m willing to admit my writing has improved since 9th grade. 😂

–Hannah

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New Year, Not So New Project

Ah, 2017. For me, it was personally excellent, full of major changes. A new manuscript. A new job. Getting engaged. Buying our first house. A new niece to dote on. This year was exhausting and nerve wracking in so many ways, but with a lot (!) of elbow grease, there were also so many rewarding moments. So much to be thankful for.

Looking forward to next year, I’m hoping I can snuggle down and settle into all these things. Also, now that most of the boxes are unpacked and we’ve set up a life routine of sorts, I’d love to participate more in the local KidLit community. Being a PitchWars mentor this year was definitely a highlight–I loved joining the crowds to cheer on the mentees and helping one awesome writer in particular in a meaningful way–I hope to do it again next year, but also, I’d love to stretch that seasonal PitchWars community feeling into a year-round experience!

On the writing front, after a glorious year romping around with a new cast of characters and a totally new world in the HM manuscript, 2018 is going to involve returning to an old manuscript and revising, yet again.

Writing is rewriting is rewriting is rewriting, a lesson this TPOPF manuscript seems specially designed to torture remind me of year after year. Someday, someday I’ll get this book right! As of this month I’m diving into what probably amounts to the fourth complete rewrite of this novel since 2013, not counting the more half-step revisions in-between that involved rearranging scenes and scrapping and replacing a handful of chapters. (Mere child play compared to a rewrite! ha-haha…)

What does a rewrite entail? Well, for TPOPF, at this point I think I’m keeping a grand total of 500 words—a handful of sentences from one scene—from the last 50,000 word version. [bites nails] Only 500! This is simultaneously terrifying, frustrating, and a relief. (Wouldn’t it be nice to write the story the right way the first time? Do other people do that? Don’t tell me.) On the bright side, instead of feeling like I’m rehashing the same story again (again!) after four years of tapping out those same dance steps, it instead feels like I’m taking these characters I adore and have had so much fun with and sending them on an entirely new and exciting adventure that even I am going to be surprised by. Beyond those 500 words, the only other things remaining are a subset of the cast of characters and their relationships to each other, though their motivations are completely reimagined and every step they take in this new draft will take them down a completely new, never-before tread path.

In 2017, I wrote HM. Then I completely rewrote it, preserving maybe more like 12K from one draft to the next. It wasn’t easy, because each one of those carryover sentences was massaged and tweaked as I changed tenses and also aged the book from YA to MG. But it feels good walking into 2018, knowing I’ve done this sort of work before and I can do it again.

PitchWars: Send Me Your Middle Grade!

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Folks, I am SO EXCITED for PitchWars this year! I am thrilled and honored to have been chosen to serve as a mentor. While it’s my first year officially part of the community, I’ve been totally swept up in the excitement of PitchWars season for years. I’ve cheered friends from the sidelines and was a mentee hopeful myself a few years ago, so I’ve been on your side of the desk! While I didn’t get in, the feedback busy mentors so graciously offered helped get my revisions on track. That manuscript went on to attract the attention of my now agent! Bottom line, this is a community of amazing, supportive, dedicated writers and I’m so happy to have the chance to dive in with a mentee.

Me, you, and your manuscript? We’re going to take over the world and have an absolute blast doing it!

*ahem*

WHAT I’M LIKE IN REAL LIFE

Born and bred in the Philadelphia suburbs, I’ve been living in the Princeton, New Jersey area for the last five years. (FYI, just this weekend, we bought our very first house, an adorable 100+ year old brick home, in a little river-side town in Pennsylvania!!!! It feels so so good to be back on this side of the Delaware, though I’m counting boxes in my sleep at this point.) I double majored in English/Creative Writing and History with a minor in Professional Writing at Bloomsbury University of Pennsylvania. After graduation, I went on to the NYU Summer Publishing Institute and my publishing career has included copy editing for Entangled Publishing, serving as an editor at a small scholarly press, working on eBooks and the interior pages of books as a content manager at HarperCollins for 3+ years, and, as of a few months ago, I’m pleased as punch to now be the Managing Editor at Running Press in Philadelphia!

While my day job is process-based (a nice overview of what a managing editor is, exactly, here) broadly it means I like to dig into the mechanics, get up to my elbows figuring out what makes something tick, and tool around until the best potential version of a thing is revealed. This, methinks, translates well when tackling plot and structure and messy bits.

Also, since Addie is the absolute best and I have a high opinion of her opinion, I’ll just bring this to your attention:

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As for my writing, I have a few published short stories and  memoir pieces out in the world and a pictorial history book, BYBERRY STATE HOSPITAL (Arcadia Publishing, 2013). I signed with my fabulous agent, the one and only Kira Watson at the Emma Sweeney Agency, last summer. We’re on sub with a MG novel and I’m hard at work on revising another one.

In my free time not spent writing, I swim and nap by pools. I listen to First Draft, 88 Cups of Tea, Stuff You Missed in History, and Writing Excuses podcasts. I binge watch (and rewatch) MISS FISHER’S MURDER MYSTERIES and PARKS AND REC. I like to experiment with new recipes and cocktails. I like dark chocolate, exclusively, and Pinot Noir and rosé, particularly. I spend a great deal of time cuddling my Welsh terrier and attempting to cuddle my little black cat. I have a Stephen and he and I can often be found at flea markets and used bookstores.

WHAT I’M LOOKING FOR

I LOVE MIDDLE GRADE. I love it so much. It is, in my humble opinion, pretty much one of the best forms of storytelling available. A major contributing factor of that is VOICE. Give me your particular, your quirky, your charm.

Yes Please: straight contemporary, contemporary settings with a magical twist (literary or contemporary fantasy), historical or historical fantasy (as a history major my interests were broad–Joan of Arc to the Ottoman Empire to Vaudeville–though I have a particular fondness of the Guilded Age and Progressive Era, but am eager for any obscure sliver of history that is less than well-tred. Surprise me!), mysteries (see MISS FISHER’S obsession above, also, I looooove SHERLOCK), diary format (loooooooooved Dear America series growing up), retellings (the more obscure the better), sister stories, multi-generation casts (grandparents, elderly aunts, be they sweet or crochety, love ’em!), summer settings (I was a lifeguard for years and love being whisked back to that special schools-out season!), diverse stories of all kinds, curses, sci-fi set entirely on Earth (think X-Files, “Darkness Falls” episode)

No Thank You: horror, second-world or high fantasy, sports-centric stories (excepting swimming–I was on the high school team), fairies or angels or vampires (I have tried and tried and tried and just never appreciated them the way other readers do), bullying or mean-girl plot lines, personification (chatting animals have rarely captured my attention, aside a long ago middle-school love of REDWALL), sci-fi featuring aliens or robots or set in outer space

Some of my favorite authors include: Neil Gaiman, Meg Cabot, Cornelia Funke, Eva Ibbotson, Victoria (V.E.) Schwab, Markus Zusack, Maggie Stievalter, Louis Sachar, Ann Rinaldi, Roald Dahl

Great examples of stories that have charmed me in the past:

ONCE WAS A TIME by Lelia Sales

YORK by Laura Ruby

THE DETECTIVE’S ASSISTANT by Kate Hannigan

MY DIARY FROM THE EDGE OF THE WORLD by Jodi Lynn Anderson

FLUNKED by Jen Calonita

DOLDRUMS by Nicholas Gannon

SNICKER OF MAGIC by Natalie Lloyd

DOLL BONES by Holly Black

THE GRAVEYARD BOOK by Neil Gaiman

THE YEAR OF SHADOWS by Claire Legrand

HOUR OF THE BEES by Lindsay Eagar

THREE TIMES LUCKY by Shelia Turnage

DEAD END IN NORVELT by Jack Gantos

GHOST KNIGHT by Cornelia Funke

WHAT TO EXPECT WHEN WORKING TOGETHER

I’m looking for a writer who isn’t faint of heart, someone familiar with critical feedback. Someone who’s ready to jump into thoughtful and possibly extensive revisions with energy and enthusiasm. You’re going to need a tank of that (and maybe a tank of your beverage of choice, too) to power through this process. Revision is hard, as you well know, but it’s totally worth it!

Though of course this is YOUR story and you know what’s best and you should only integrate the suggestions that resonate with you, I’m obviously going to pick a story that needs revision of some sort. So don’t expect a one-line revision letter stating that the story is perfect and nothing should change. I give detailed, thorough, big-picture feedback. I poke, poke, poke at plot holes and things that confuse me as a reader. But I also do not hold back when something completely delights me. There will be praise and all feedback will be constructive.

To those of you who have read to the end of this post, squealed with joy at my favorite book list, and are squirming in your chair because you’re so excited that YOUR manuscript might be MY thing–I can’t wait to meet you and your awesome characters! Looking forward to your submission :]

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Revision Retreat

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Cabin #17, I love you


My annual trek up to the Highlights Foundation for a little solitary cabin-in-the-woods time usually falls in April, when the trees are beginning to green and the creek water is warm enough during soggy hikes to dip your toes into. 

This year, due to the driving desire to finally finish this darn revision and dedicate the 24/7 brain space to the story that was really necessary to weave together the elusive closing threads, I came a bit earlier.

There were snow flurries nearly every day and unlike past years, I wasn’t tempted by beautiful weather to leave the cabin and explore beyond walks to the barn for meals and short afternoon walks to stretch and combat mental fatigue. It was lovely to snuggle inside and watch the snow fall through all the giant picture windows.

Some writers listen to soundtracks while drafting and revising but I need complete and total silence in order to focus, so Highlights is a perfect place for me. It’s so quiet at night that–no exaggeration–there were moments where the only sounds were my own heartbeat and the heat kicking on. It’s so different from home. Even though we live in a neighborhood with “whispering” in its cutesy name and I would generally call it a quiet place, we share all four walls and, even if faint, there’s always the muffled sound of televisions and arguments and clarinet lessons and the highway and doors slamming. Then there’s the pets, of course, always circling, begging for attention.

I’m happy to report that the retreat was a sucsess: the revision is (finally) done. It’s an email attachment in other people’s inboxes now and I can take a few weeks off to read and relax and binge watch Netflix and forget about how to solve these characters problems. 

It’s funny the difference a year makes, though. Last year on this retreat, I finished a very rough first draft of this story and sent out query letters in the late night hours. This year, I finished up a major revision, making it officially draft #3, and favorited my delightful agent’s tweets while sipping coffee. I wonder what next year’s retreat will mark.

You HAVE to Read This One!

I’ll tell you a secret… There is not an author in the world who can make a living selling books. Authors make a living by having other people sell their books. So you need to get into a position where you’re good enough, you know your craft well enough, you tell good enough stories with enough interest in them, that people will not only read it and go, “That’s pretty good, I’ll read another one,” but they grab their friend and go, “Holy crap, you’ve got to read this book. It’s amazing.” That’s what’s going to get you a living as a writer. —Brandon Sanderson, Writing Excuses podcast, S11.E11

This holiday season, I got more than a few text and emails from people asking for book recommendations for various loved ones of all age groups and I was more than happy to oblige. I love gushing about books I loved, love the puzzle of pairing someone with a new story well-fitted to their tastes, love giving books as gifts! A few of my favorites this year that I think everyone should consider sitting down and reading:

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THE WEIGHT OF FEATHERS by Anna-Marie McLemore

YA. Contemporary Romeo and Juliet, with mermaid-nomad performers vs. tree-hopping acrobats. Dark family secrets and grudges and magical realism and so many pretty pretty sentences. Read this in one sitting–which never happens–and I cried. And cuddled the book. I might actually reread this one–which also never happens.

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OPEN ROAD SUMMER by Emery Lord

YA. Summer. Taylor-Swift-esque music sensation BFF roadtrip. Swoony.

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CONSTABLE & TOOP by Gareth P. Jones

MG. Ghosts. England. Absolutely charming heroes and villains.

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HOUR OF THE BEES by Lindsay Eager

MG. Summer vacation. Stuck on a desert ranch with her family (including a bratty older sister and a grandpa suffering from dementia she just met). Family folklore. Magical realism at it’s absolute finest. Yes, I cried.

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SIX OF CROWS and CROOKED KINGDOM by Leigh Bardugo

YA. Duology. Fantasy. Magic. A dirty slum of a city. A heist. A crew of thieves and witches and soldiers and tight-rope walkers. Absolutely some of the best writing I’ve ever experienced.

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A GATHERING OF SHADOWS by V.E. Schwab

Adult! Book #2 in an amazing fantasy series. Pirates and London pubs and royal Olympic-like games of magical talents.

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A STUDY IN CHARLOTTE by Brittany Cavallaro

YA. (Charlotte) Holmes, meet (Jamie) Watson. In boarding school. In New England. All the spit and fire and sass you love from Sherlock dialogue.

 

 

 

First Draft

Summed up in one word, 2016 was exhausting. It came at me from all angles–professionally, personally, physically–all twelve months of the year without reprieve. I lost more than one person I loved. I got other sorts of bad news. I failed at a lot at things I tried and built up hope for (though none of those “things” were submission-related, the philosophy of why you should aim for 1,000 rejections a year and be happy about that tally has helped me reframe my feelings a bit).

When looking over the gold stars (one star per hour of butt-in-chair writing time) on my monthly calendar, the way I track out my writing year, I was even more put-out. I kept scolding myself: You didn’t write every day, or even every week! You have to do better this year!

Even though a few wonderful things happened–I became a godmother to an absolute charmer of a cute baby, I signed with a literary agent who is encouraging and supportive and lovely–I’m the kind of lady who is thrilled by gold stars and checking things off lists and other trackable accomplishments, and it felt like 2016 had beat me 10-2.

I snuggled in the last two days of the year reading the first draft of a YA project I started and finished in 2016. I was kind of dreading it. Though I struggle with the drafting process, period–I moan, groan, and whine, my confidence is low the entire time (revision really is much more my cup of tea)–I had this persistent impression that the premise of this story was great and the execution on the page was, at best, an incredibly rough zero draft that would require a rough slog of a revision in the new year.

You can imagine my surprise and delight when the manuscript actually turned out to be…good. My best first draft ever, I’d be willing to say. Oh, there are rough patches and pacing issues and one of the main characters definitely falls a little flat, and I’ve already sliced out 20,000 words that weren’t doing any good, but even despite that, the word “wow” came to mind more than once as I read the pages. It’s no literary masterpiece by any stretch of the imagination–and it still is a draft after all–but it is without question a huge jump in craft for me.

After reading the draft, I’m looking back at the calendar with significantly more pride: Wow, I was really dedicated this year. I found time despite everything, even during the crap storms. I kept at it. And it really paid off. Quietly, so quietly I didn’t even recognize it while it was happening, I was a more dedicated writer than I’ve been in any year previously. I wrote a full draft faster than I’ve ever managed. And this draft, these characters, this plot–it is doing so many things right. In a year where so much was out of my control, looking at these pages where I managed to wrangle stubborn characters and interweave multiple complicated plot lines during scraps and starts of free time makes me feel a little better prepared to step into January. 

Here’s to 2017 and the revsision cave, folks. 

How I Learned to Write

Totally triggered by the most recent PubCrawl Podcast episode about author career qualifications, I got thinking about what’s helped me develop into the writer I am today. Writing is so much more than sentences and grammar (though that’s obviously a pair of critical variables) and learning how to write requires so much more than a creative writing degree (though it helped kickstart me in the right direction).

I learned how to give constructive feedback and absorb criticism thanks to creative writing workshops in undergrad.

I learned about story in those same workshops. 

I learned how to write powerful sentences and build logical paragraphs writing dozens of research papers as a history major. It’s also where I kicked my purple prose habit.

I learned how to accept rejection from rounds of literary magazine submissions.

I learned how to finish a book in NaNoWriMo. 

I learned about pacing and voice by reading reading reading. 

I learned about dialogue from Girlmore Girls.

I learned how to be succinct when writing my pictorial history. (Word count restrictions!) And Twitter, maybe. And my flash-fiction phase. 

I learned about scene structure from a SCBWI conference workshop led by the superb Laurie Calkhoven.

I learned about plotting and structure and beats at a writing conference talk by the fabulous Chris Grabenstein. And by reading craft books.

I discovered revision tactics by reading the blogs of authors I admire.

I learned how to revise on book #4. By pulling the story apart and refashioning it back together, over and over. And by following my critique partners’ advice.

I’m excited to see what the next writing break through might be. :]