Every time I sit down to revise a new picture book (aka vomit draft), I can’t remember how to do it. How can I turn something terrible into something better? How do I make things actually happen in my story? How can I create characters that readers will care about? I have no idea! And then I remember my improv classes and the things I learned. Oh, improv, is there anything you can’t do? Oh right, find me a husband.
Plus, being single leaves so much time for writing, but I digress! We’re talking about WRITING here! Now, in a perfect world, you’ve set aside your vomit draft for a good three months so that you can get some distance from it. And trust me, you’re going to need a lot of distance from your vomit draft in order for you to see what’s wrong with it. You know how you think your farts don’t smell all that bad? I think it’s kind of the same thing with stinky writing you’re too close to—only others can smell how bad it is. (Also, during those three months when you set aside your vomit draft, you should have been churning out other vomit drafts. Just sayin’.)
Without further ado, here are some tips for revising vomit drafts!
START IN THE MIDDLE
Read your first sentence or your first paragraph. Is it super explanatory? Did you painstakingly take the time to set the scene? Or do you throw the reader right into your story? If you’re trying to write a novel, they always tell you to ditch your first and/or second chapters because your third chapter is really your first chapter. Same thing with picture books. Ditch the preamble! I don’t want you to set the scene—the illustrations will help do that. For the love of God, just make your story start by cutting out those first several sentences.
Case Study: Did we start Ira Crumb Makes a Pretty Good Friend with a bunch of details about how Ira came to move to a new town? What kind of boxes his toys were packed in? No, we never learn these things because Ira Crumb isn’t a story about moving; it’s a story about friendship. We don’t even know the name of the town Ira moved to! We just say he moved “here.” And then we dive into telling the reader about Ira.
CONNECT WITH YOUR MAIN CHARACTER
Another thing to look at: your main character is probably half-baked at this stage. Or maybe just parboiled. How do you make your character real? How do you make a really character-driven storyline? Well, to start, think about how your character would react in specific, random situations. That’s all.
I’ve read recommendations that you should know your character’s backstory, know their favourite type of ice cream and what their mother’s maiden name is. I mean, maybe? I don’t know. Personally, I don’t have the patience for that type of blibberblabber. I’d rather think about the unique ways in which my character will respond to words said to them, or react to situations they’re put in.
If you put your character in a grimy bowling alley right now, how would your character react? Would they be happy about being there? Would they be angry? Or sad? Would they immediately start bowling, or would they go see what is on the menu at the gross bar right next to the smelly shoe counter?
If you can’t answer these questions, then you might want to consider who your character is like. Is your character like you? Is your character like one of your friends or family members? How would you or your friend/family member react if you put them in a bowling alley? If I put Ira in a smelly bowling alley, you can bet your life he’d make friends with The Stink and end up glow-in-the-dark bowling with it for HOURS. It’s a fun exercise to put your character into scenarios that they wouldn’t actually face in the context of your story—you’ll really get to know them that way! After all, your actual storyline is basically just a series of events that your character is responding to. Whoa. I think I just blew my own mind.
OK! That’s enough learning (and yelling) for one post! I hope that some of these tips are somewhat helpful. Until next time …
The views expressed in the Writer-in-Residence blogs are those held by the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Open Book.
Naseem Hrab is a writer, a storyteller and a pretty good friend. Her comedy writing has appeared on McSweeney's Internet Tendency and The Rumpus. Naseem worked as a librarian for a time and now works in children's publishing. She lives in Toronto, Ontario.