How to Revise a Manuscript That’s Been Eating You Alive [Guest Post by Sarah Heaton, co-host of #KidLitZombieWeek]

My critique group, 6 Ladies and a MANuscript, and I are hosting the first #KidLitZombieWeek June 22 – 26.  This post is written by my super critique partner, lovely & lyrical writer Sarah Heaton.

I wish that I could say that my zombie manuscripts are locked safely in a drawer, but in fact, they’re everywhere I turn. In notebooks, on scraps of paper, filed on my computer, in conference totebags and nibbling at my brain. I swear they’re multiplying, because I can’t turn to a blank page in my notebook without being confronted with an eerie line, a snippet of conversation, or a disjointed description.

Sound familiar? If you’re like me, you have a wealth of zombie manuscripts to choose from. It’s time to get organized! Stack up those notebooks, air out those files, and gather your cocktail napkins. As you read through, your most viable stories will leap out at you. You’ll be surprised at what catches your eye, for better or for worse. Don’t be afraid to pull out your oldest, most cringe-worthy story. That’s what I did recently, in preparation for zombie week!

As I paged through my stories and ideas, I felt a little like Moldilocks –this one was too tired, that one was overdone. I remembered the advice that author Katelyn Aronson shared for zombie week: “HOW to choose which undead MS to bring back first? Answer: The one with the most angles/layers/hooks. People call them different things, but they amount to selling points, or things that might recommend your MS to an audience.” Of course, this isn’t the only way to choose a manuscript, but if you already have one with lots of layers, why not try it out? Otherwise, think about it: Which manuscript is literally gnawing at your brain? You can’t stop thinking about it, even though you’ve put it aside for a time. 

I decided to revisit the first story that I ever wrote as an “author.” At the time, I was a newly minted SCBWI member, attending my first local conference. I was so confident about my story that I was sure that the paid critiques that I received would be nothing short of glowing. I would probably sign an agent that day. My first reviewer was Harold Underdown. I had read his book, and even though I was nervous about meeting him in person, I was pretty sure that my story would wow him.

It didn’t.

But, my writer self now knows what my writer self then didn’t know. This story is saccharine, too long, has an adult teaching a lesson, has a forgettable character, and is overly wordy. But, it has a funny premise, and even though it was sweet instead of humorous to begin with, it’s ready to be reborn as a funny story. As my critique partner, Donna Barba Higuera, said, “It’s okay to delete and start over. Those words aren’t precious. What IS precious are the ideas in your mind. The ideas and nuggets of goodness that matter won’t disappear. The most important things will find their way back into your work surrounded by new life.” I still have a nugget of an idea, and now it’s time to rewrite.

 Here are a few tips for rewriting and revision, based on my experience:

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  1. Don’t be afraid to feel pain. 

Seek out critique partners, beta readers (kids) and paid critics that will give you honest feedback. Honest doesn’t always mean nice, although hearing nice things about your work feels great (and is also necessary in the critique process). Real growth comes from getting truthful feedback about your work. And make sure that you are giving honest (kind, but honest) feedback to others. This will help you grow as a writer.

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  1. Roll up your sleeves and get to work. 

Correcting grammatical errors in your work is not the end of revision. True revision can come in many different forms: changing the point of view of your story, adding beautiful turns of phrase, rewriting characters, or increasing the tension of your plot. A must-read for every new picture book writer is Writing Picture Books by Ann Whitford Paul. Recently updated and re-released, this book will walk even the most experienced writers through prewriting, revision, and even… rhyme. Once you’ve walked yourself through the exercises in Writing Picture Books, check out  #reVISIONweek co-creator Lauren Kerstein’s picture book revision template. You can gleefully check off the boxes that you’ve aced, but you’re sure to find several that need a second look. And that’s ok. Your job is to build the most beautiful, but complicated, but layered, but simple story that you can. Easy, right?  

Norene Paulson said, “The path to publication is littered with dead manuscripts. They are how you know you’re growing as a writer.” Even though my story has been revised to death, what’s going to make it come to life (zombie style!) is a fresh start. I love this advice from Kristen Schroeder:“If you like the story idea or concept, keep playing with it. Start with a blank page instead of tweaking around the edges of an old draft.” 

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  1. Trust your gut(s)

Have you ever burned a batch of cookies? Have you ever over-revised a manuscript? I’ve done both! Neither is fun, but unlike burnt cookies, an overdone manuscript is salvageable. Over-revision often happens because we’re trying to please too many readers, we’re too immersed in the story, or we don’t have a clear idea of what the truth of the story really is. If you’re unclear on what your story is really about, you can try the “X and” strategy taught to me by my critique partner, Jessica Reardon. What is your story about? That’s the X. Keep adding “and” to the end of your description until you know, solidly, what your story is really about.

And, if all else fails, it’s okay to put your story back in a drawer for a little sleep. Author Candice Marley Conner advises, “Give yourself grace to put a manuscript down for a bit if something just isn’t working. Maybe there’s something you need to learn or do or be before the story is complete. No writing is ever a waste of time or energy. [You’re] not giving up on it if you switch gears to work on something else.” There’s always another zombie waiting to be born.

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Find Sarah Heaton online.

Thanks, Sarah!

And thanks, #KidLitZombieWeek friends for joining us for this new event!

Check out the inspiration for #KidLitZombieWeek here.

Head over to Twitter for lively discussion.

At the end of the week you can win prizes through two different events: the pitch event and the pledge event. Find out more about those here.

Published by Sarah Meade

Children's Writer

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38 Comments

  1. Lovely post, Sarah. This has me rethinking the zombie manuscript I thought I might work on, and instead of pulling one for sentimental value, perhaps pull it out based on potential. I need to dig a little deeper in my drawer to see what has that “salvageable feeling” and perhaps leave other precious words alone a while longer. Thanks!

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Great idea! Just something that pulls at your heartstrings. Or nibbles at your brain? 🙂

      Like

    1. Thanks! I think we all get caught up in not wanting to give up our work that we’ve already done. I love the idea of previous work as a building block for future work, though. It’s all working together to make a great whole.

      Like

  2. Thanks for this! I think what struck me was that the words aren’t precious..it’s the idea that is! Oooo, i love that. Now to weed through things and find the one.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Oh yeah, my critique partner, Donna Barba Higuera turned me on to that idea and it’s so true.

      Like

    1. That’s a great template! I have a love/hate relationship with it (hate because I want to be right the first time, love because it gets met out of my head!)

      Liked by 1 person

  3. I think I will just read this post all day long over and over again! Really really FABULOUS, Sarah & Kaitlyn-host!!! Thank you both!

    Liked by 1 person

  4. I liked the part that mentioned choosing a manuscript with lots of layers. Another way that I choose a dead manuscript to work on is by figuring out which one I’m most excited to work on again. 🙂 Thanks for the post, Sarah!

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Thanks for the informative post! It’s so important that you point out getting honest feedback. It’s great to hear how much someone likes what you’ve written, but it’s so helpful to hear where it falls short.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. I love this post, so many important aspects to work on. I think I need to be really brave and start with a blank page so my dead manuscript can be resurrected, instead of trying to stick a plaster on it to make it better!

    Liked by 1 person

  7. I like the idea of picking the story with the most layers too. I definitely can find something in my drawers and find a different angle. Thanks for the post!

    Liked by 1 person

  8. “But, my writer self now knows what my writer self then didn’t know”- yes! I tend to forget how much we change on the writing journey. Going back to something with new eyes, perspectives, and mindsets is great advice. Thank you for sharing these great revision tips!

    Liked by 1 person

  9. Thanks, Sarah. I feel like I over revise to the point I lose the story, nothing is right, the voice, the pace. As to critiques, I appreciate the honest, truthful critique, even if it hurts. If I want to improve my writing, I need to accept it’s not always good. Thanks for sharing your thoughts.

    Liked by 1 person

  10. Thank you, Sarah! I too have lots of discarded ideas and manuscripts, some on scraps, scattered in bits and in files. I love the idea of choosing the one with the most hooks. I’ve also over-revised. When I pared that manuscript back down, it recently earned kind remarks from an agent. We never know what will happen when we pick those ideas and manuscripts back up with fresh eyes!

    Liked by 2 people

  11. Great post! I definitely could start my own mini museum of zombie manuscripts! I like how you said to look for the zombie manuscripts with the most angles/layers/hooks. And thank you for the revision checklist!!! All of your suggestions in this post are super helpful. Can’t wait to revive my zombies now.

    Liked by 1 person

  12. Great post, Sarah. Thanks for all the advice.
    I, too, am guilty of having over-revised a manuscript. I’ve had to go back to an earlier draft, let it sit a while, and tackle it again.

    Liked by 1 person

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