Sunday, December 7, 2008

How Many Times Can I Revise 500 Words?

When many writers are starting out, they think that picture books look easy to write.

They're not!

I will attempt to show how challenging this process can be by following the trajectory of one of my current picture book manuscripts from the initial idea stage to its current state.

Step 1-- The Idea-- I make what I think is a joke about two oddly juxtaposed ideas and my husband (wonderfully supportive man that he is) says, "That sounds like it could be a picture book!" I laugh and store the idea in the back of my mind. At the time, I have no clue how to turn this interesting sounding idea into a story.

Step 2-- Weeks (or is it months?) later, inspiration strikes. I draft a few verses about some funny characters. Each verse is scribbled on a post it note. The post its end up buried in my nightstand.

Step 3-- The projects that have filled up the majority of my time now completed, I'm looking for something new to start on. I pull out my nightstand post its and attempt to cobble together a rough draft. But I quickly realize that my main character is entirely unsympathetic. (She eats people!) Time to go back to the drawing board.

Step 4-- I attempt to leave revealing my main character for the surprise ending, keeping the beginning and middle of my story for the fun of my very quirky idea.

Step 5-- With a complete draft finally in hand, I bring my manuscript to my wonderful critique group for feedback. They are incredibly positive about my ridiculously quirky idea. Unfortunately, one member points out that while it's cute, there's not much of a plot. She's right!

Step 6-- I add a mysterious subplot (and an alternating rhyme scheme) to my manuscript. I also cut out all but my best scanning verses from my earlier draft.

Step 7-- I hear a wonderfully inspirational editor at a conference, and she likes quirky! I polish up my manuscript and send it off into the world.

Step 8-- Five months later, I receive a kind note from said editor indicating that it is a "cute story" but "hampered by the rhyme", "Ever considered writing it in prose?" I'm considering it now!

Step 9-- How to change a rhyming picture book into prose? I struggle with this challenge, eventually deciding to write out the plot of my story without worrying about how it sounds.

Step 10-- I soon decide my new prose version needs a protagonist to follow my "mystery" from beginning to end. After several attempts, I invent a character who seems to fit the bill. Then I attempt to polish up my story yet again.

Step 11-- I bring my new prose draft back to my critique group. While they still like the idea, some of the charm of earlier drafts seems to be missing. And I need to plant some more clues and clarify some points that were clearer in the rhyming version.

Step 12-- Back to the drawing board once again... to be continued (hopefully with a happy ending!)

Whew! That took even longer to do than it did to write.

So, I'm curious... What wonderful (or crazy) revision stories do you have?


  1. I have a picture book with an unsympathetic main character as well. She's a witch - in truth, she's the witch from Hansel and Gretel now living in suburbia and she has a hard time dealing with the neighborhood children until she befriends the little girl next door. Many years ago an editor was interested, but he wanted it to be a Halloween story. I tried. I really did. But I couldn't force my story into something I didn't see it becoming.

    So, my witch sits in a drawer. She's been there for a long, long time. Maybe I'll pull her out and dust her off after my current project. After all, it's not that far of a jump from Isabella of Spain to a wicked witch.

  2. Great revision story, Meg! Sounds like a cool manuscript too. I look forward to reading it some time!

    And, of course, your story does raise the question-- just because a kind editor suggests a revision, does it mean it's the right thing for your story? Like you, I think it's important to give the revision my best try... but ultimately the stories are ours.

    I'm still hoping I can make it work though. :o)

  3. Hi Brianna!

    Just wanted to let you know that this excellent post is featured in today's installment of Best Children's Lit Blog Posts of the Day!

    You can see the video at


    All the best,

    Jon Bard
    Managing Editor
    Children's Book Insider, the Newsletter for Children's Writers

  4. Hi Jon,

    I'm honored that you included this post in today's installment of Best Children's Lit Blog Posts of the Day. It's so wonderful to know that someone thought what I wrote was interesting and potentially useful. Plus the video was very cool!

    I have enjoyed reading your blog in recent months. Your post about the Kidlit Blogger's Conference was especially helpful to me as we were working to get "The Paper Wait" off the ground.

    Thanks again so much!

    Brianna :o)

  5. I've got a few picture books in the drawer waiting for revisions. The ideas might be good, but the execution -- not so much.

    Thanks, Brianna, for reminding me that it's supposed to be that hard. Maybe you'll see 500 solid words from me yet!

  6. I see revising a picture book somewhat like trying to control a billowing parachute after you've landed. You gather in one section and another part fills with air and pops out.

    Something always needs fixing, or taming, or smoothing. It's hard to gather everything into shape. And all the time, you have to be careful not to smother the life out of the story.

  7. What a valuable post! It shows (not tells :)) how hard writing a picture book is, how your critique partners play a role in the process, and that you persevere even when they say it isn't working. All of this goes into that finished pb that "looks so easy anybody could do it."

  8. Brianna,
    Thank you for your celebration of creativity, something the world, and more importantly, the world of books, needs these days.

  9. A lot of wonderful comments to respond to:

    Judy- That's exactly how I thought of it, a reminder to myself that it's supposed to be hard. And that doesn't mean we're doing something wrong!

    Gale- Love your analogy about the billowing parachute.. and I'm totally struggling with that well stated last part, trying "not to smother the life out of the story".

    Marcia- I'm so glad I managed to "show" what I was trying to! (As I was writing it, I did have my doubts that readers would simply find it the long boring history of one of my manuscripts. :o) )

    Linda- So glad you find this a celebration of creativity! I also hope it's a celebration of persistence (and one of these days I hope to have a book contract to prove it! Won't it be fun to look back at this blog post then?)

  10. If there's someone out there who has met with great success in their writing without doing revisions...I don't want to know about it.

    It's all about the revisions.


  11. Brianna: Thanks for reminding me of why I'm sticking to middle-grade mss. Compared to pbs, they're a cinch. Kidding.

  12. Brianna, great post! I also blogged about this process recently! (But not in as much detail) I think my one published picture book comes in at around 297 words and had at least 28 drafts!

  13. Hi, me again. Brianna, I just realized we are neighbors. I live in Warren, NJ and I am on the Board of Women Who Write which meets monthly in Madison!

    Please come visit my new blog. (and let me know if you might be interested in doing a manuscript swap or something.)

  14. Hey! Yes, I was at B&N in Springfield in 2006. It was my first ever Hop! Plop! event.

    I can't find an email address for you on this site, but I'd love to talk more about local writing events, kids, etc.