Larry Dane Brimner began to focus on writing for young people during his twenty-year teaching career. His books have garnered awards and the praise of reviewers, teachers, and readers. The Editor is privileged to talk researching, writing, and revising with Larry over tacos every few months and is thrilled to be able to share his revision process with DearEditor.com readers.
*After Larry’s interview are instructions for entering today’s Free Partial Edit Giveaway.
When you write a picture book, how many drafts does it typically take before you feel confident about the character and story choices you made?
I’ve found that the number of drafts it takes to get any manuscript “right” is directly related to the amount of time I’ve spent thinking about a project before I stand in front of my computer station to compose. On one occasion, it took me one draft, or about 45 minutes, to write an early reader; such an experience hasn’t duplicated itself. Looking back over my manuscripts, I’d say it usually takes at least a dozen drafts and, often, as many as thirty. These aren’t full revisions, however, since I always begin a writing session—whether writing a picture book, a chapter book, or nonfiction—by reading the manuscript aloud from the top. As I go along, I tweak words and phrases, I eliminate sentences or passages that don’t seem to work after sleeping on the story for a night, I add words and passages that I think are missing. I number and save each writing session/draft at the end of the day so if I need to retrieve something I’ll still have it. This “process” isn’t the one writing teachers typically teach; that is, I don’t rush to get words on the page so I’ll have a draft to revise. I plod. There’s no other way to describe it because some days I only get a sentence or two written. And I revise as I go, knowing full well that there will come a time when the entire finished manuscript—“finished” in my eyes, at least—will come under the microscope. Perhaps this is the result of a slightly OCD personality that won’t allow me to comfortably move forward until what’s already on the page (or screen) is at least satisfactory for the moment. What it does allow is for me to become familiar with my characters and their quirks; it allows me to “find” the story I think I’m telling.
Which draft typically gets shown to your editor?
My editors see nothing until I’m satisfied that I can’t do anything else with the story being told. Quite honestly, sometimes I’ve been in such a rush to get something out to an editor that I haven’t allowed enough time between that final review and the post office (or send key). Many times I’ll sit down to look at a story a week after it has been sent to an editor, and I think, Oh, cripes! Of course, then it’s too late. So I now force myself to put a project away for at least a week and often longer before sharing it with an editor. If you’re looking for a number, I can point out that my nonfiction editor didn’t see Birmingham Sunday until the forty-ninth draft/version (and then there were edits and revisions after that—too many to count).
How much revising happens after the editor sees that draft?
I touched on this above. I recall that with my picture book Merry Christmas, Old Armadillo, I wasn’t as specific and detailed as I thought I’d been. My editor asked me what kind of wreath was on the door and what kind of door it was. Details. This was conveyed to me in an editorial letter that was as long as the manuscript itself (or longer). After giving thought to my editor’s suggestions, questions, and comments, I came up with the following: “Roadrunner shook his head and helped Peccary hang her piney wreath on the ancient door.” This conveys everything I thought had been evident but wasn’t. I mean, in my mind, wreaths are always piney but, of course, they’re not, and doors on old adobe casitas are always ancient. With my picture book The Littlest Wolf, that editor (who did not write editorial letters) and I spent three or four marathon sessions on the phone revising line by line. It was truly the most frustrating experience I’ve ever had. (I can say this because the editor is no longer in the business. I like to mull things over, consider options, look at it on the page before I commit to something.) Having been in this business for thirty years, I can say that editors today expect things to come to them in a more or less finished state; many don’t have the time to work with a writer to refine and polish a story. And I understand this, but it sure was nice when an editor would see a glimmer of an idea in a story and work with the author to uncover it. To answer your question, though, I would say that after an editor sees my work, I can look forward to three or four more complete drafts of a text before it is ready for publication. (With nonfiction, it may be more!)
How does your revision process change when you write nonfiction?
Gosh, that’s a good question. I would say that with fiction, I want to make sure the story has been completely told and that I’ve wrapped up all the loose ends. If there was an event in chapter three or four, I want to make sure that if it needs a conclusion that conclusion has been provided. In a picture book, I want to make sure that the single concept I’m addressing in the story is conveyed as simply and with as few words as possible, yet that it is done in an artful way. I tend to write longer nonfiction, so when I revise my nonfiction I want to make sure that factual information has been included about each concept I’ve touched on. Sometimes I can do this with a simple in-line explanation, but other times I feel that a sidebar is more appropriate. In Black & White, for example I made reference to Autherine Lucy and her attempt to integrate the University of Alabama. I knew kids/readers wouldn’t know who she was or how she came to the university, so I expanded on her story in a sidebar. At other times, something doesn’t work in the main text because it would tend to pull a reader away from the story I’m telling and yet, it’s interesting enough (to me, at least) to be included somewhere. So I’ll use a sidebar just to give the reader a bit more information. I did this again in Black & White when I provided a sidebar about the South’s “Declaration of Constitutional Principals,” which has been in the news recently with regard to state’s rights.
Do you use critique partners?
No. I read everything aloud. Over and over and over. Having said that, I sometimes will use an editorial service, but I’ve only done that twice when I’ve been uncertain about a project. (Neither of those projects was ever placed, by the way.) I tend to trust my own judgment and, of course, I work with some amazing editors whose guidance I trust implicitly. One of the reasons I don’t rely on critique partners is because early on in my career when I was focusing on early readers and picture books, I went to one (the only one I could find) and the advice I got was to “use more contractions.” Well, the publishers whose doors I was trying to break down didn’t allow contractions. So that was my last visit to a critique group. I know many successful writers who do use their critique partners to refine their work, but it’s not for me.
Do you ever read your picture book manuscripts (fiction or nonfiction) to kids to test them out?
Never. Kids typically will like almost anything an adult writes simply because they’re happy that someone is spending time with them.
Can you share an experience of having a story problem you didn’t think you could solve but eventually did?
Absolutely. With Trick or Treat, Old Armadillo, I needed to figure out how an established character (established in Merry Christmas, Old Armadillo) could turn the tables on his friends and actually surprise them when he is historically the one surprised. I also needed to do it in a way that would not reveal the surprise too soon because I didn’t want readers/listeners to know the surprise before the story characters. I noodled with this one section—near the end of the story—for two solid months. Finally, one night at two a.m. (which is when I do a lot of thinking) I figured out what the surprise, or trick, would be. Then all I had to do was noodle with the language or telling of the story (another month or so) so kids (and the illustrator) would understand what just happened. I wrote:
Outside . . . feet scuffed upon flagstones.
Inside . . . Old Armadillo slowly pulled a blanket over his head.
Outside . . . (page turn) A paw pounded thrice against the door.
Inside . . . Old Armadillo shifted and squirmed beneath the blanket.
Outside . . . a chilling voice called, “It is time!”
Inside . . . under the blanket, Old Armadillo grew as still and silent as stone.
So what I’ve accomplished with this passage is to (I hope) put the scare into what is about to happen when the characters outside Old Armadillo’s casita finally enter. I’ve also accomplished Old Armadillo’s change of costume without revealing what he’s doing under the blanket to the reader/listener. Then, after another brief passage to further set the tone/mood of the story and another page turn, Old Armadillo reveals himself when, “Suddenly, Old Armadillo flung the blanket aside,” and his voice thunders out from a jack-o’-lantern, “Quiero Halloween!” It is a very simple passage that took months to settle on and get right.
What’s the most drastic thing you’ve done to a text while revising?
The most drastic thing I’ve ever done is to lose an entire finished manuscript when my disk crashed. (Who knew that thumb drives weren’t forever!) It could not be recovered and all I had were bits and pieces of notes on my computer and a deadline one month away. Literally, after crying for half an hour, I told myself to buck up and start over. It turned out that the new, revised-from-scratch manuscript was much tighter than the original and I delivered it on time. The dumbest thing I’ve ever done was to hear an editor say, “The revision should be easy. It’s just a little thing in the last chapter. Can you have it to me by the end of the month?” I waited until a week before the revision was due to even look at the editorial comments and when I did, it hit me: If you make a little change in the last chapter, it has to be set up in each preceding chapter. I’ve made that mistake only once. This was a chapter book, but it applies to picture books as well: If you make a change to the last scene, chances are good that you’re going to have to set it up in each preceding scene. As I think about it, though, perhaps the most drastic thing I’ve done is to put a text away in my “Stinky Story Drawer” and give up on it.
How do you know you’ve got the final draft?
This is difficult for me to answer because I don’t think I ever really know. But there’s usually a gut feeling or instinct I get that tells me that this is the final draft and I can’t do anything to make it any better. It tells me that this draft is worthy of publication (even when I can’t find an editor who agrees with me). And this brings to mind a note of encouragement. I once had a picture book rejected. The editor sent a letter pointing out all the story’s flaws and wished me better luck next time. I filed that story in my Stinky Story Drawer for two years. Then one day when I was looking for something to revise (rather than start), I pulled that story out, read it, and said to myself. “You know, this is good.” I sent the story to the very same editor with a note that said, “I’ve had two years to consider your comments. Will you look at it again?” This time she called and said, “The changes you made are brilliant. It sparkles now. I want to offer a contract.” Of course, I’d made no changes; I didn’t even print out a fresh copy. So there is always hope for a story, even one that has been rejected and landed in the Stinky Story Drawer.
The Editor is celebrating Revision Week by giving away a FREE PARTIAL EDIT of your manuscript. Note that the winner of today’s giveaway IS eligible for Saturday’s grand prize Full Manuscript Edit Giveaway. Here are the rules:
- Your manuscript can be of ANY GENRE or CATEGORY (for adults or children, fiction or non-fiction), including picture books.
- The partial edit will cover the FIRST TEN PAGES of your manuscript. In the case of a picture book entry, the edit will cover the entire manuscript—but the manuscript cannot exceed 7 double-spaced, 12-pt font pages.
- Deadline: MIDNIGHT tonight, March 25, 2013, PST.
- Winner will be randomly selected using Randomizer.org and announced on March 26, 2013, in the DearEditor.com comments section and on the DearEditor.com Facebook page, and the winner will be notified directly via email.
One entry – SEND EMAIL to DearEditor.com using the “Write to The Editor” button at the top of the blog or by clicking here. Type “Free Picture Book Edit Giveaway” in the subject line. In the body of the email, include the TITLE of your manuscript and YOUR FULL NAME. DO NOT send your manuscript or any portion of it. (If you have any difficulty with the contact button, send an email entry directly to firstname.lastname@example.org.) *If you do not want your title announced, please use an alternate working title.*
Bonus entry – SUBSCRIBE. DearEditor.com subscribers get a bonus entry by sending a second email with “Subscriber’s Bonus Giveaway Entry” in the subject line and your title and full name in the body. (Note: the Editor will verify!) Not a subscriber yet? Then subscribe now by clicking on the “Subscribe” button at the top of DearEditor.com and then email your second entry.
Extra bonus entries – SPREAD THE WORD. Blog, tweet, or otherwise electronically tell others about this giveaway to get additional entries. Send an email to DearEditor.com with “I Spread the Word!” in the subject line, and in the body include a link to your blog post or your Twitter address or your Facebook wall or whatever social media you used to spread the word. Don’t send screen-shots; attachments won’t be accepted. Include your title and full name in the body. Spread the word more than once? Then send an “I Spread the Word!” email for each one!
Anyone who doesn’t follow these rules will be disqualified, at the Editor’s discretion.
Disclaimer: The Editor does not share or in any other way use your contact information; it’s collected solely for winner contact purposes at the end of the giveaway.
Great insight from master storyteller, Larry Dane Brimner. So true that stories need time to rest. The best ideas aren’t always our first ideas.
Thanks Deborah! Love the perspective Larry Dane Brimner gives.
I love getting to see inside a brilliant authors mind! Thank you!
Thank you, Dear Editor, and thank you, Larry, for such a helpful interview. I was intrigued by your account of the “piney wreath on the ancient door” revision, Larry. We keep hearing, as pb writers, not to include anything that can be shown in the illustrations, and this seems to contradict that advice. Have you had other instances where editors have wanted this sort of detail in the text?
I suspect that in today’s world of almost wordless picture book texts that this sort of detail might not be necessary or requested. Yet, and this is something to keep in mind, several school librarians have complained to me about minimal texts, saying they’re not worth an investment given current budget constraints. They seem to be looking for “story,” even as many editors have moved in the other direction. My philosophy with picture books is to give enough detail so the illustrator will have a clue, but to leave enough to the imagination to allow that illustrator freedom to work his/her magic. It’s a balancing act, to be sure!
Thank you for your response, Larry. I can appreciate the need for at least some low-word-count books when I have to choose a book to fill a few minutes at the day care where I volunteer in the 4-year-old room. But as a former K-2 teacher, I agree with the librarians that we need more books with longer word count stories.
Interesting interview. I also let stories percolate in my brain for quite awhile, just jotting down notes and key phrases until I’m ready to put them together in the computer. Your revision process is more refined than mine is, although I go through many drafts before I’m happy with the results.
I was most surprised about your not using a critique group. I’m part of two: one for PB and one for MG. Perhaps I rely on them too much, but I’m not as experienced a writer, so I find them helpful.
Thanks for sharing your process. I always like to see how other writers approach their craft.
Beth: It’s interesting indeed to find out how much outside feedback each writer wants. I’m one who can’t seem to find a critique group format that works for me. What I ended up doing is establishing an informal manuscript exchange with a writer friend of mine. If we have something we want feedback on, we send it for a quickie knee-jerk reaction. It’s worked for the smaller projects we’ve each been developing. We haven’t tried it for novels yet, although that’s about to start happening. And, like a doctor who doesn’t treat herself and a lawyer who doesn’t represent herself, I hire trusted editorial consultant friends for formal edits of full manuscripts.
Great, helpful interview! Thanks for posting it.
Loved reading all of this wonderful advice. Please enter me in the revision contest. Thanks!
Janet: Can you please send your entry using the instructions at the bottom of the post? I keep them all organized that way. Thanks, and good luck!
Don’t Miss this Great Edit Giveaway on Dear Editor…
There are a week of giveaways and great articles for writers on Dear Editor this week. This is a fabulous…
Thanks for all the info on drafting and revising, Larry! I’m always surprised pubbed authors don’t use CPs. I can’t imagine not using mine even if I had many novels pubbed already. (I love my CPs!)
I look forward to learning a lot about revision this week!
Thanks for the interview! I especially loved the story about Larry sending his ms again and the editor thought he had revised it and loved it. Very funny!
I love learning how other writers work.
Thanks for doing this.
Lovely knowing that I am not alone 🙂
Great answers, thank you.
You have developed and interesting process sir. Some of these insights will be helpful for writing adult fiction too.
I love the Stinky Story Drawer! Mine is a Stinky Story file on my computer.
First, thanks for bringing revision week back, we need more things like this to keep us grounded, yet not feel alone in our issues. Just because we know we NEED to revise, doesn’t mean we always know WHAT to revise, and sometimes frustration is misread for being “stuck up.”
Larry, don’t think for a minute you’re a hack. You’re so right about contractions not being welcome in easy reader land, but trust me, for novelists, they’re impossible to avoid completely.
With so much outcry for non-novel stories to be shorter and simpler it’s nice to know not everyone is nuts for minimalism in non-novel length books.
I WISH I could meet those librarians.
I’m not an visual artist (i.e. Illustrator) but more and more I wish I was. I would be so much freer if I had more than words to show off my world in a way words alone can’t always do, and the younger the audience, the harder that is for lots of writers, including me.
All my writer friends say I’d be great at writing chapter books (I don’t think easy readers are in my grasp. I care about story too much, when those readers need simple and short more), but I still don’t find them all that accessible.
Every word, sentence, concept still has to be so controlled and calculating, I don’t know authors find so much room to play.
I’ve been trying to learn to tell stories in fewer words, less detail, for BOTH personal and professional reasons, I can’t turn every story in my head into a novel, but short stories always felt to confining, and it’s getting harder for non-illustrator writers to sell picture books, even if they’re brilliant at writing short, which I’m not.
As much as I want to be open to this brave new world, it’s hard, because some of us are just “complex” by nature, and it doesn’t mean we don’t understand that all kids are in love words as we are as writers, or even when we were young readers ourselves.
The best writers for pre-readers are those who somehow find so much majesty in simplicity. I hope all editors who follow this blog can understand if nothing else, many of us respect simplicity. We simply struggle to make it our own.
We care so much about character and story, comprehension gets lost in the shuffle, and I apologize to those wise teachers I know who I frustrated because I didn’t think enough about mechanics of reading. I took for granted that reading wasn’t my weakness, but it is for so many.
We all start with “ABCs” and “See Spot Run” when we learn to read. It’s just harder for some of us to STAY there when we ourselves don’t need it anymore.
That said, I owe so much gratitude to my writer’s group, it’s hard to open up yourself to feedback, no matter if it’s an editor or a fellow writer who may or may not have had more success than you, but respects your work, sees the FUN despite the flaws we hope to diminish before publication day.
I would NOT have sold my first MG novel had I relied SOLELY on my , and trust me, anyone from my old critique group would tell you I often push myself too hard when I self-edit, and I do think there’s a limit, no matter how long you break between edits.
Anyway, thanks for sharing some of your journey with us today, and for being honest, as much as we tell each other not to stress about perfection we can never have, with the market so competitive and fewer options for writers who either can’t conform to magazine length (500 and lower), writes nonfiction, or afford to publish yourself, the more trapped you feel.
I really feel things need to be far tighter than . I know it was probably no easier for them, but the culture was just so different than now, and no amount of hearing “Enjoy where you are now” really makes that difference less frustrating. Period.
It’s reassuring (or alarming…LOL!) to know that even professional writers don’t know when a draft is a final one. :}
Well, the alternatives are either never trying, or we’d be overrun by egomaniacs who are blind to the illusion of perfection, but it’s also true that fierce competition just to be READ never mind published, it gets to the best of us, even they don’t admit it to others or themselves.
I think it’s honorable when even pros admit they feel like us newcomers, yet they still found a way to break through, that eventual success, however long it took. That said, the mere fact that we won’t live forever has something to do with that urgency a lot of us feel, even though I get impatience can be the enemy of quality work, I’d like to think it has at least ONE upside, it shows we know we want this, that we’re not just pretending.
Thanks for the interesting post and great opportunity of the giveaway.
Thanks so much! I write picture books, and this was both reassuring and helpful.
Thanks so much for sharing, Larry!
You bet! Thanks for asking me to participate. I hope my comments are useful (and encouraging) to others.