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"Dear Sympathetic Critters" -- Envisioning Revision -- by Lydia Harris

The bane of my multiple decades of writing has been learning to understand and implement the process of revision (as well as learning not to take criticism personally, but that's another story). So, I have drawers, folders, binder, file cabinets (okay, I'll admit it -- A CLOSET) full of half-completed works of fiction.

Once committed to a full-time fiction writing effort, I decided to develop a revision approach I hope will help me put clothes back in that closet.

A particularly intriguing exercise for starting the revision process is offered by Cheryl Klein in her book: Second Sight: An Editor's Talks on Writing, Revising, and Publishing Books for Children and Young Adults (p. 294):

"Before you look at the manuscript again, write a letter to a sympathetic friend" about you work. So, here is my letter to you:

Dear Sympathetic Critters:

(a) "What you wanted to do with the book, and/or want the book to do"

Nearly six months have gone by since I completed my first draft. Eve though I drafted another novel in that time, my mind has strayed back to My Sister's Family (MSF) regularly and often. I have a pile of revision notes to prove it. I think that is because of what I want MSF to do, say and be.

I want my readers to entertain the idea that the definition of family has and always will be in a constant state of change; and this is not a bad thing -- it just is. Adhering to rigid boundaries and meanings of what a family is or should be can result in pain and loss for not only the individuals involved but for our ever-changing and diversifying society. I want my novel to make one person question what makes a family. Maybe even who they "really" consider family. (So much for Norman Rockwell's Thanksgiving dinner Life magazine cover.)

Oh, yeah. There is that whole get an agent, editor, publisher, and being on the New York Times bestseller list thing. Want that too.

(b) "What the story is, briefly"

When Joy Williams defies her husband, TJ, and takes their children to Florida for Spring Break to be with her sister, Anna Sanderson, she knows there will be hell to pay.

But neither sister is prepared to handle how different their lives have become.

Joy struggles to rectify her Christian and ethnicity beliefs with Anna's "perfect life": living with the man to whom she is legally married and her transgender partner. Joy believes no one else can save Anna from herself.

Anna feels guilty for having left Joy with her abusive husband. She is convinced Joy will come to understand and accept the family Anna has created, and then, maybe, she can show Joy staying with TJ is not the best for the children or her.

Each sister must face the truths about their families and their realities. Forced to make difficult decisions and take actions, Anna and Joy realize they have each other as they question what a family is. The sisters know they must do something to save not only the ones they love, but themselves.

(c) "What the book is 'about' in the larger sense"

Issues in MSF include sense of duty, loyalty, what makes a person black, gender identity, religious beliefs, defying the norm, defining success, abuse and addiction. Perhaps the main theme is what it means to feel a secure sense of belonging -- to be family. To love unconditionally without accepting unconditionally.

Maybe I need to think more about this.

(d) "What you love about it"

I love my characters first and foremost -- all of them. It was such a joy to watch them interact, grow and change. I love detailing the conflicts of sisterly love and discovering how that love survives. So much of MSF has a basis in my reality. Writing this story gave me insight and I loved that.

(e) "What you suspect needs work"

Setting and description (way too sparse); characterization (add depth); point of each scene (make sure each one has purpose); pacing and transitions (check timeline; word frequency and repetition; grammar and punctuation (check it all); and ending (definitely needs work).

Perhaps this exercise will help you, my dear sympathetic critters, in your revision process.

Thanks for listening and keep writing.


Posted by Lydia Harris 5 Feb 2015 at 03:31
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Responses to this blog

Margotg 6 Feb 2015 at 16:26  
I had the pleasure of attending an editing seminar sponsored by SCBWI and conducted by Cheryl Klein. For those who don't know, she helped edit some of the Harry Potter books. It was one of the most helpful seminars I've ever attended. She has developed a tool called a bookmap. In essence, it's a method to analyze each scene for structure, logic, continuity and completeness. It has helped me so much in identifying weaknesses in a scene. I've used the method so much it is now implanted in my brain. The structure automatically pops up while I write. My first drafts are much more cohesive.

I've also used the method outlined in the blog post to get to the heart of my story. I've tried to write the letter before I start writing a story. That method doesn't work for me. Mostly because I don't always know what the story is about at the start. For me it's best to get the story down, then use the letter writing technique to identify what is missing and adjust.

These two analysis tools have been a great help to me.
Amayfair 9 Feb 2015 at 20:54  
I really like the idea of this letter and I think i'm going to adopt it into my revision process. thanks for writing this plog post!
Luvrofinfo 10 Feb 2015 at 15:55  
Thanks for reading.
Perhaps we should start a thread on a forum.
Amayfair 10 Feb 2015 at 17:39  
To post letters, maybe get help on where the revision process can go?
Luvrofinfo 12 Feb 2015 at 06:00  
So, maybe establish the criteria about the exercise. Then maybe we can see if it helps anyone to see the larger picture. That is what it did for me.

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