Over the weekend, I read an article by author Matthew Salesses about revising, and how to know when a piece is done. In “Take the Horn Out of Your Mouth,” Salesses recommends that young writers submit to their best chances first (read: those with the lowest standards)–because once its out the door, they will keep revising and–quelle surprise (not his words)–it will get better.
He’s right. At least in my case.
A few days after I read the article, I faced a deadline for a local SCBWI (Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators) conference registration. I filled out the forms, and then the manuscript evaluation forms, wrote the requisite checks, and confidently pulled “Magnolia Squeakyface and the Gloppy Bloppo” up on my screen to print two copies of the 780-word manuscript to include. I had not planned to revise it. It had been finished six weeks before.
I’d already sent it to eight carefully chosen agents, behind a carefully crafted query letter. I’d already gone through a months-long writing process: write, revise. Feel good. Let sit. Read aloud. Feel bad. Revise. Revise. Feel good. Let sit. Read aloud. Feel bad. Revise. Repeat. Etc., etc.
But rereading over the weekend, after a six-week roosting period and four polite rejections (I love how quickly agents respond these days), I found myself asking a few questions about my characters’ knowledge and motives. 1. How does the dad know what a gloppy bloppo is? 2. Why does Magnolia’s brother, Newton, call his baby sister “Squeakyface?” 3. And why does he play with her at the end, instead of try to kill her?
It turns out, the answer to all three questions can be answered in one question about my own motives: it was convenient.
Don’t get me wrong: the story worked. I’d already run the manuscript not only by the bots, but by several writers/mothers/friends, and it had gotten thumbs-up all ’round. But it wasn’t perfect. There were these pesky small issues that kept it from being 100% believable, 100% satisfying. And so I attacked each issue one at a time, eliminating anything that was present mostly because it was convenient.
The process was like–as I’ve found fiction writing always is like for me–putting together a puzzle, but a puzzle in which I was simultaneously creating the pieces and fitting them together, consulting the picture on the top of the box, an image I could not quite see clearly even when squinting.
By the time I printed it out in the coffee shop on the day of the deadline, it had slimmed down by fifty words. It had lost the word “Squeakyface.” It had gained another fun-to-say nonsense word. The dad didn’t, in fact, know what a gloppy bloppo was, and Newton had more incentive to play with his baby sister instead of kill her. Assonance, alliteration, internal rhyme, and rhythm had risen–and I have found, in many rereadings of many picture book classics–that these characteristics contribute to the magnetic force of a story–the invisible, often unpin-downable reason a set of seven hundred words isn’t just entertaining, but unforgettable.
I sent it out the door on Monday, feeling that if it wasn’t perfect, it was at least one degree of magnitude better than it had been three days before.
Incidentally, the same day, I found myself talking with another mother who was lamenting the fact that she hadn’t had her oldest, now in high school, repeat kindergarten. Not for the scholastic performance factor, but for all the other ones.
The answer, of course, is no.
That afternoon, after a long day of revising, actually mailing, and momming, I received an email from a writer friend, which included a ridiculously timely quote from Kurt Vonnegut:
Artists are people who say I can’t fix my country or my state or my city, or even my marriage. But by golly, I can make this square of canvas, or this eight and a half by eleven piece of paper, or this lump of clay or these twelve bars of music, exactly what they ought to be.
I’m still not sure Magnolia’s exactly what she ought to be. But I’m sure I’ll get a second chance to make her that way. And a third, and a fourth, and a fifth, if that’s what it takes. That’s one reason I love her and need her. Because I can’t revise my children once I’ve sent them out the door.