by Carolyn Crimi
Spalding MFA Faculty, Writing for Children and Young Adults
I am in a stellar critique group. It is so stellar that I often feel like a kid sitting at the grown-up’s table on Thanksgiving. These are seasoned writers with all kinds of award winning books. They have taught me a lot, but probably the greatest thing I’ve learned from them is how to revise. Really revise. And yet I am embarrassed to say that I have often resisted their advice.
There have been many times when I have sent a story to this group thinking that it was pretty damn spectacular. I’d think, “They won’t find anything wrong with this masterpiece! How can they?”
Most writers dream of creating something so perfect it doesn’t even need a comma, but it’s just that—a dream. That rush of adrenaline that goes into a first draft leaves you with an infatuated notion of your story. You remember how you smiled when you wrote about that kiss, or how your heart pounded when you spat out that angry dialogue. The joy, the fear, the love you experienced while you wrote the story were palpable. You felt every damn keystroke. Of course your reader will, too.
But then they don’t. Not always. And so you drive home from critique group with all kinds of dark and angry thoughts about these so-called writer friends. You wonder if they were hung-over or hungry or mad at their husbands when they read your story. You might even think unkind thoughts about their choice in shoes. You begin to wonder if you even like them at all. How could they not understand your brilliant story?
When you get home you might try to do one or two dumb things they asked for. Okay, you think, I’ll change the main character’s name to Lucy. They want more tension? Fine. Here’s a line of dialogue that adds both conflict and tension. Are you happy now, you critical little critique group?
And so you get out your writer’s shoehorn and you pry in a few sentences that you think might appease them. You don’t, of course, touch that thinly disguised description of your high school boyfriend, the one who made out with your best friend at your graduation party and who you are hoping will recognize himself after reading your National Book Award winning novel and publicly beg for your forgiveness on Facebook. Nope, those five pages stay, by golly. But you are willing to change the main character’s pet from a dog to a cat. You graciously delete four exclamation points and replace them with periods.
If that describes your revision process, I get it. I really do. I have learned from my critique group, though, that there is a better way to revise. It only takes one click of your mouse, and it can be summed up in three words.
New Blank Document.
That’s right. Start fresh. Begin again. Put that shoehorn away and let the blinking cursor take you on a new adventure.
I have watched the women in my group change their manuscripts from first person to third person and back again. They change settings, characters, subplots, plots. Their stories are lumps of clay that they smash into pancakes, roll up into balls, and shape into entirely new objects. Their fearlessness stuns me.
One woman in my critique group deletes her first draft so that she won’t be tempted to peek at it again. To be honest, I had to go lie down after typing that out, but it’s a process that’s yielded amazing results for her. Nothing–nothing— is sacred.
If you are a little bit chicken, like me, and you choose to simply open up a new document, be comforted by the fact that you will always have that first draft. The five-page description of your high school boyfriend will be safely tucked away, waiting for another story. You are still the same writer who wrote that first draft, except now you’re a little wiser.
But please, please, resist the three words that can throw off this part of the process—cut and paste. You’re not ready for that quite yet. Instead, take one sparkly thing from your first draft, whether it’s a character flaw or an unusual setting, and write about it again. All the good stuff will find its way into your second draft, but this time it will be even better. In your first draft you were still learning about your story. Now it’s time to play with that information.
I know you’ve put in a lot of time into that first draft. But you might even save time with your second draft if you just begin again rather than jamming your old document into the new one, which is about as pretty as trying to shimmy into your jeans from high school.
Relax. Be playful. Mess around. Open up that new document with fresh eyes and an open heart.
And if that doesn’t work, blame my critique group.
Carolyn Crimi received her MFA from Vermont College in 2000. She has published over thirteen books, including Don’t Need Friends (Random House, 1999), Boris and Bella (Harcourt, 2004), Henry and the Buccaneer Bunnies (Candlewick, 2005), Where’s My Mummy? (Candlewick, 2008), Principal Fred Won’t Go To Bed (Marshall Cavendish, 2011), Dear Tabby (Harper, 2012), Rock and Roll Mole (Dial, 2011), and Pugs in a Bug (Dial, 2012). Carolyn was quite pleased to be awarded The 2012 Prairie State Award for her body of work. Her books have garnered over 30 state awards and award nominations, including The Kentucky Bluegrass Award, The Arkansas Diamond Primary Book Award and The Patricia Gallagher Picture Book Award. Carolyn enjoys giving Author Talks to elementary schools all over the country. Her website, www.carolyncrimi.com, gives more details about her books and her background.