|Mary Ann Rodman|
What was not to love about writing?
Just as writing = grammar, revision = correction. A “corrected assignment” was perfectly spelled and punctuated, contained only complete sentences, with all the nouns and verbs agreeing.
Teachers also wanted tidy work. My papers looked like grey Swiss cheese, with streaks of partially erased words, and holes where I had erased, too hard. No one cared what I wrote. No one ever suggested revision as a way of making my writing more concise or interesting. Once I mastered the dictionary and erasing with less vigor, I was done.
My No Revision Policy continued into high school, where I won several local and national writing contests. I was a real writer, and real writers always got it right the first time.
Then I met The Famous Southern Writer.
One of my contest prizes was lunch with The Famous Southern Writer. I was fifteen and had zero Idea of who he was or how gifted. I was much more interested in the prize check he would award me at the end of the meal.
The Writer liked to talk, mostly about the Agony of Writing. Of how he tore up five pages for every one that satisfied him. “I lose track of how many revisions my current book has gone through,” he moaned over his iced tea.
Gee, I thought, he must not be that good if he keeps writing stuff over and over. So when The Writer stopped talking long enough to take a bite of salad, I chirped right up. “You know, I never write anything but once.”
The Writer put his fork down. “Is that so?” he drawled. “Only once?”
I nodded modestly, trying not to blush.
“Well, my dear,” said The Writer, “some day you will learn to re-write and re-write and after all that, the d*** thing still will sound awful to you. Then you’ll be a real writer.”
You would think such honest and direct advice would’ve been my big “Ah-ha!” moment.
It wasn’t. Fifteen-year-olds often think they are very wise.
Not until the Vermont College of Fine Arts Program did I learn the how and why of revision. Then-faculty members Phyllis Root and Ron Koertge gave me an instant lesson in my first workshop. (Workshop is the heart of the VCFA program, where students share their work in small groups, critically assessing with praise as well as questions.) I listened in awe as Phyllis made rapid-fire suggestions.
“Have you thought about making it a short story? Or a picture book? Maybe the story belongs to another character?”
Then it was my turn. I stammered that the first twenty pages of my novel didn’t seem to be working. “I don’t know what to do with it,” I said, feeling very much not a real writer.
“I can tell you exactly what to do with it,” said Ron. Carefully, he counted out fourteen pages and thunked them into the trash can. “There,” he said. “Your story really starts on page fifteen.”
I looked at page fifteen of what ultimately became Yankee Girl and heard my old friend, The Southern Writer chuckling, “Told you so, girl.”
To quote William Zinsser’s book, On Writing: “Re-writing is the essence of writing well…We all have emotional equity in our first draft; we can’t believe it wasn’t born perfect. But the odds are close to 100 per cent that it wasn’t.”
WRITER’S WORKOUT: Here are a few revision tricks I use. One is to emotionally distance yourself from the piece, especially if your characters are based on people you know. Another (a la Phyllis Root) is to change a basic element: write it in third person instead of first. Change the tense. Change the point of view. And if all else fails, put it away for awhile, then look at it again.
Keep an open mind. What you think is a picture book (which was the case with Jimmy’s Stars) might really be a novel. Or vice versa. You can’t force a story into a genre, any more than you can force size 8 feet into size 6 shoes (even if they are really cute and on sale).
Mary Ann Rodman is a VCFA grad. Her first picture book, My Best Friend, won the Ezra Jack Keats and Charlotte Zolotow Awards. Her middle grade historical fictions books: Yankee Girl and Jimmy’s Stars, have won or been nominated for over a dozen awards, both here and in the UK. She is one of the six teaching authors featured on the blog www.teachingauthors.com