Revision: Churning Spilled Milk into Ice Cream

“I love revisions. Where else in life can spilled milk
be transformed into ice cream?”
~ Katherine Paterson
Gates of Excellence: On Reading and Writing Books for Children (1982) p. 63

I ♥ revision too. Katherine Paterson’s great quote freed me to splash that story across the page and then search for the sweetness inside. My debut novel Something to Hold and I are nearing the end of a years-long revision journey. The longer it has taken, the more I’ve learned about revision, especially how to embrace the unknown of a dark writing trail and build my craft along the way.

If you are a writer – or a teacher of young writers – hopelessly lost in a woods of words, perhaps one or two of the revision strategies that worked for me will help you too. A few of the ideas in this post are the inspirations of fellow writers; others spring from my own desperate experience. I hope you’ll add your revision strategies in the comments section below.

For me, revision is a process that evolves over time. The more I write, the better I get to know my story and characters, and certainly the more I learn about myself as a writer. Some strategies helped me early on; others, much later. I’ve divided the strategies into three stages of revision: Getting my head around “revision,” visioning (early), and visioning again (later).

Getting My Head Around “Revision”
Writers need to understand the role that revision plays in our work. I didn’t truly get it until I had a draft of my novel and received encouraging-but-non-committal feedback from the editor who would eventually take me on. She sent a detailed letter that basically said, “It shows promise, but you need to learn to write a novel.” I had no idea how to do that (obviously) – and there began my learning process about revision.

Here’s the image that eventually made revision concrete for me. In basketry, the weaver holds what looks like a mass of disconnected strings in her hands. Through careful, deliberate, thoughtful – and sometimes mostly magical – twisting and turning,the beautiful, intricate design of a bag emerges. I had to figure out how to twine the threads of my plot and characters into a story. With that image locked in my head, I took my first steps.

Visioning Strategies (early)
In order to revise, I knew that I needed a clear vision for a middle grade novel. Two things I needed to know: How middle grade novels are structured and what grabs a reader right off the bat.

1. Novel dissection
I selected 10 of my favorite middle grade novels and analyzed them “by the numbers” (e.g., words per page, length in words and pages, number of chapters, and average pages per chapter).

You’ll see from the photo that I even devised equations to do the calculations. I was pretty proud of myself until someone pointed out how much easier this would have been if I’d done it in Excel!

To find out what grabs a reader, I simply read the first chapters and noted everything that grabbed me. I considered chapter titles, first lines, first page, and what I knew about the characters and the plot after reading Chapter 1. I also read the last chapter to see if and how it connected to the first.

Analyzing a book through dissection turned out to be one of the most concrete and most helpful revision strategies I tried. [However – note to self – next time, find an easier way to analyze than counting words by hand!]

What I learned

  • Short chapters are more important than short books
  • Several big events lead to the BIG event
  • Anything important needs to be threaded throughout the book
  • Anything introduced in Ch. 1 needs to be important
  • Bookends: The end comes full circle back to the beginning

I had heard many of these bits of wisdom from other writers – but the power of the dissection process was that I came to these same conclusions on my own by analyzing how writers I admire created books that I love.

Visioning Again Strategies (ongoing and later)
The following strategies helped me later in the process, as the revised story gradually took shape and I became more familiar with my characters, their challenges and issues, and the plot.

2. Hearing the story “in its own words”
When I was typing and my story was flowing through my fingers and onto the page, I found myself concentrating only on what I could see as it unfolded before my eyes. I had a hard time keeping track of the big picture. So I tried reading my work aloud to see if that helped me to experience it in a new way. Two of my favorite ways to use read aloud as a revision strategy:

  • Record in Garage Band, listen on iPod: I recorded a day’s work in GarageBand, saved it as an mp3 file, downloaded it to my iPod, and then listened to it while walking (which helped me meet a fitness goal, too!).
  • My husband Russ reads aloud the final revision before I send it off to my editor.

    Recruit a willing reader: I also took the advice that I’ve been giving my own students as they learn to write in new ways: You all have people who love you or owe you something – get one of them to read your work aloud to you. My husband’s that guy for me. He read aloud every sentence in my book (multiple times!)

What I learned: I discovered that listening to my writing allowed me to hear the story “in its own words,” to understand how it flows, spot the bumpy places (where Russ or I stumbled on the language or where he’d shake his head), identify inconsistencies – and sometimes realize that it’s better (or worse) than I thought.

3. Track changes
I am a very visual, concrete thinker; I often have to see something to grasp it. Using the “track changes” tool in Word has helped in many ways. Initially, I would write with the tool turned on so that I could immediately see all of the changes I was making. At the next writing session, I’d begin by reviewing the tracked changes, accepting or revising them even further. In each session, this helped me get my head back in the story, remember what I was thinking and where I wanted to go.

I also discovered a highly motivating though unanticipated side benefit: I got to begin each writing session with a concrete task that took very little effort or creativity!

What I learned: Using “track changes” was the clearest way for me to see what my ever-patient editor-to-be was trying to explain to me through the years of revisions (that I had too much detail about day-to-day trivia and not enough plot or character growth!).

4. Sticky Note Plotting
Lots of writers use sticky notes in the plotting process, so I thought I should too. I soon learned that when I use sticky notes made a huge difference in how much they helped. The photo on the right shows my dining room table given over to sticky notes early in my revision process. I didn’t get any farther than this because it was too early – I didn’t know my characters and their hopes, dreams, and challenges well enough. The sticky notes didn’t help.

A year later, though – what a difference! I wrote each key scene on a sticky note, then laid them out in order (attached to notebook paper so that we could eat dinner at the table again!). By this time, I was learning so much about my characters, and I captured that knowledge (and the aha’s that went with it) on and around the sticky notes. This became a clear road map for my writing.

What I learned: First, plotting worked only when I was ready for it. Second, I had to make any strategy fit the way I think and the way my story works. I suspect this is true for all writers. It took me a long time, but I couldn’t rush the process. I had to learn for myself. Everything I needed in order to be an effective writer came to me at the point that I truly needed it – and not one second before!

5. Character Tweets
This strategy appeared as a thunderous aha one day while I was sticky note plotting. I was poring over the notes, immersed in the trials and tribulations of my four main characters, when suddenly a sentence about each one popped into my head. These “tweets,” as I call them, captured the essence of each character, things that I had subconsciously learned about my characters without being aware of it. I quickly wrote them on sticky notes:

• Raymond lashes out and hurts people, but he has reason to be angry.
• Jewel has a hard time trusting, but she respects fairness.
• Pinky is open and generous with everyone; she is the friend that Jewell and Kitty both want – and want to be.
• Kitty feels rootless; she wants to belong and fit in; she is scared of the things she doesn’t know, but she wants to find the courage to do what’s right.

From that point on, I only had to refer to a character’s tweet to help me get going again when I got stuck on a question like, What would Kitty do here? Would Raymond say it that way? How would Jewel respond to this?

What I learned: I had to know a character really well before I could fully flesh them out in the story. I had to be patient – and willing to listen to them – in order to learn about them. But once I had the tweets, I had a much clearer sense of where they, and the story, needed to go.

6. Feedback from readers
Many writers don’t let others read their work in the revision stages; I’m not one of them. Feedback from others is crucial for me. I sought out willing readers at every point in the process, and I tried to listen to what they had to say with more gratitude than defensiveness. It’s scary to open yourself up to feedback from readers, because they’ll often tell you exactly what they think, and it may not be what you want to hear. There are many great ways to elicit feedback that writers can use well – that go beyond “I like it” or “It sucks.” Here are two that have been especially useful for me:

  • What do you notice/remember? This question focuses the reader (or listener) on details that stand out or that they’re still thinking about after they read or hear the piece. Responses to this question invariably included some surprises – things I wasn’t aware of doing consciously.
  • After reading, what do you know about this character (or setting, difficult choice, climax, etc.)? Many thanks to Mixed-Up Files colleague, Rosanne Parry, for this question. It, too, steers the reader/listener away from good/bad and onto key details and insights that have been very useful in my writing.

7. “Shrunken manuscript” by Darcy Pattison
A monster shout out to writer, teacher, and tireless blogger, Darcy Pattison, for the many ways she supports writers! I recommend her book, Novel Metamorphosis for writers of all skill levels. In particular, her
“shrunken manuscript” strategy made a huge difference to me in the later revisions that continued for three more years after my editor took me on. By then, I was solving focused problems, like my narrator cried too much, minor characters were introduced and then dropped and the reader wonders where in the heck they went, and how many times did I really have to use the word “plop”?

You’ll find great information about the “shrunken manuscript” on Darcy’s Fiction Notes website. Basically, you shrink your font size way down so that you can’t see the words but you can see what you’re looking for. Then print out the pages. For example, here’s how I solved Kitty’s very annoying habit of crying all the time. I went through my manuscript and used Word to highlight every scene in which she teared up. In the photo, you can see how the shrinking lets you see whole chunks at once. You don’t need to be able to read it; you just need to be able to see what you’re looking for. The yellow highlighting helped enormously here.

This strategy helped me revise to “toughen her up” so that she saved her tears for times when real crying made sense. As a result, she became a stronger, more engaging character.

8. Listen to others, but listen hardest to your own heart
In the end, it’s your story. Each revision step I took led to the next, and I gradually learned that I could feel my way along one step at a time. But I had to find faith in my story. In the foggy days of wandering around in a woods of words, I wrote this and stuck it to my computer: “You don’t have to believe in yourself as much as you need to believe in the story.” And that keeps me going.

For additional amazing revision strategies, I highly recommend Kate Messner‘s new book for teachers and writers, Real Revision (Stenhouse, 2011)!

Katherine Schlick Noe teaches beginning and experienced teachers at Seattle University. She is webmaster of the Literature Circles Resource Center and co-author of four books for teachers on literature circles. Her debut novel, Something to Hold, will be published by Clarion Books in December 2011. Visit Katherine at her author website or at Seattle University.


Katherine Schlick Noe