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Ready to Submit Your Manuscript to Agents? Think Again.

Better to revise your manuscript one too many times than one time too few.

By Marcela Landres
Published on LatinoLA: May 9, 2013


Ready to Submit Your Manuscript to Agents? Think Again.


In continuation of my celebration of Latinidad's tenth anniversary, I am culling the best advice and advisors from back issues to help you get published. Previously, I've discussed managing money and time, writing classes, and critique groups. This month's focus is on the revision process.

Once you have produced a draft of a manuscript you think is ready to submit, think again. Invest the time in at least one more rewrite. Better to revise one too many times than one time too few. To learn more, read this month's Q&A with Jotham Burrello, producer of the DVD "So, Is It Done?: Navigating the Revision Process."

Q&A

Jotham Burrello is a creative writing instructor at Columbia College Chicago, where he directs the Publishing Lab, a resource for emerging writers, and the Review Lab, an online forum dedicated to keeping the art of the book review alive and thriving. In 2010 he launched ERP's publishing imprint Elephant Rock Books. Jotham's writing has appeared in literary journals and the Christian Science Monitor. He is the former editor of Sport Literate, a journal of creative nonfiction. He recently completed his novel, Fall River. For more information, visit http://www.erpmedia.net/

Q: Many beginning writers don't trust their own insight or editing skills. How can "So, Is It Done?" help them develop the confidence and ability to self-edit?

A: On the DVD, writer Ron Carlson explains he just doesn't pick up a pencil and say, "I'm gonna make this story better." Writers need to develop strategies to attack a manuscript. It's what we call process--on the DVD we get specific. The DVD breaks down the revision process into five rounds that present strategies for revision. Exercises on the disc correspond to each round. After watching the program writers will be armed with strategies to reshape their stories.

For example, host Janet Burroway gives two examples of concrete significant detail. The entire close-up section in round three is devoted to it. As Burroway says on the DVD, "fiction comes alive with concrete significant detail." Writers should understand the
importance of the terms "concrete" and "significant" and strive for both. I see too much summary and general description in student manuscripts. Force yourself to "see it" as your characters see it so readers can see and experience your stories.

Recognizing the shortcomings of your own fiction or creative nonfiction is a difficult task. Even the published authors on the DVD acknowledge they struggle but what sets them apart is they have action plans or tricks to identify and "fix" the problems. This
takes many years, and we're always learning, because each story presents unique challenges. And sometimes stories don't work. For every published story a writer might have three to four that aren't published. Remember stories are never finished, simply abandoned. Of course it's nice to abandon them in magazines or books. We all want
that.

Q: Writing is a solitary and private act; writing workshops are communal and public. Why, then, are writing workshops highly recommended as part of the revision process?

A: Was it Emerson who said you can't see the field from within the field? We all need teachers and peers to create art. And I'm not talking about taking verbatim feedback and putting it into your story. Sometimes it's what's not said in a feedback session that
gets you thinking.

There are generative workshops and critique-based workshops. The former are more focused on getting it out and the latter are equipped to steer revision. I think both are necessary, but the critique needs to always remain focused on the work and not the
writer. When getting feedback writers should listen to everyone and then make decisions based on what the story needs. On the DVD I interview writer Ken Foster (and we visit his class) and discuss running a workshop, how writers should participate, read manuscripts and receive feedback. We also have a four-page guide for running a
workshop. Establishing certain ground rules helps save time and egos.

Lastly, workshops and writing groups help writers build a social community of like-minded folks that can assist one other in placing stories in magazines, or setting up readings, or discussing revisions, or books, etc. We're a nation of interest groups. Why not start your own writing group at a local caf?®? I'm attending a meeting of writers this evening. We've been at it for five years. I think it's my turn to bring the vino.

Q: What are the five most common mistakes writers make when revising their work?

A: 1. To paraphrase Faulkner, an inability to kill our darlings. Many stories start from a frenzied journal entry unleashed from a bit of overheard gossip at Starbucks, or from a dream, or a New York Times dispatch from New Orleans . . . inspiration for first drafts
is exciting. We write for ourselves or perhaps for an audience initially. But after you've completed a first draft--written a beginning, middle, and end--you must shift gears and look at the work with a lens of detachment. This is hard to do. But you must begin to
ask questions of the work and make changes based on what the work needs, and not on what you, the writer, wants to happen to your hero or what your sister will think is funny. Too many writers don't make this shift. In revision, prioritize the work, then self, and audience. As writer William Knott wrote in his book The Craft of Fiction, "anyone can write--and almost everyone you meet these days is writing. However, only the writers know how to rewrite. It is this ability alone that turns the amateur into a pro."

2. Lack of plot. I read a lot of good student stories but very few well plotted stories. And don't think of plot as simply a genre term. We all want to be entertained. I suggest once you've completed a solid draft chart the events described in your scenes and ask two
simple questions: How does the action in this scene lead to the next? Is the drama increasing?

3. Show, don't tell. [See concrete significant detail comment above.]

4. Find the Save As key in your word processing program and use it often. Stories take months, sometimes years, to evolve. And by numbering or collecting drafts you can later reflect the evolution of your story, but most importantly each time you sit down you will give yourself a fresh start. You won't be messing with your initial inspiration simply reshaping it into a plot. I'm currently on draft twenty-five of a story I am revising.

5. A teacher once told me, real life is no excuse for bad fiction. Translation: just because an event happened to you or cousin Freddy doesn't make it dramatic. Every writer uses personal or observed or told experiences to create fiction but published
writers build on real events and embellish and dramatize to create new worlds and characters. Use "real life" for inspiration, not as the entire basis for a story. As Dorothy Parker said in a 1959 interview with Studs Terkel, "You can't put down what everybody says, you'd be bored stiff."

Q: There are countless books, magazines, and web sites designed to help writers--why did you choose the DVD format, and how does it complement the other resources available to writers?

A: I have an entire bookshelf of writing texts, and I own just a tiny fraction of what book publishers are pumping out each year. We don't need another book on craft but a multimedia tool seemed like a nice alternative. The DVD format allows the mixing of video and text (PDF files) so in a sense you get the best of both worlds. (You can't do
this on VHS or CD-ROM.) Our DVD includes a 121-page book of stories from the participants. You can hear Robert Olen Butler discuss significant detail then read a story from his Pulitzer Prize winning collection. This is a huge advantage of the DVD technology. Plus there are exercises corresponding to each round of revision.

I wanted to give writers access to published writers discussing their craft "live." This very rarely happens at public panels or readings (and when it does it usually is in response to omnibus questions like "what's your writing process?" that can't be answered in thirty seconds). Plus there are hundreds of textbooks on the topic of writing but few that concentrate on revision. It's a complicated process and very personal (we all know what we do well and not so well), so by showing writers in their homes or writing retreats we can "see" their revision strategies.

I wanted to work with the renowned writer and educator Janet Burroway. I'm a big admirer of her textbook, Writing Fiction, and thought we could take on the revision chapter. But I knew of course that discussing revision involved a rehashing of setting,
characterization, POV, voice, the whole ball of wax. Janet presents material in a manner that's accessible and motivating. She's a terrific lady.

Lastly, I think folks learn in different ways. Some of us are visual beasts, others auditory, etc. I am hoping to engage younger writers who don't get psyched about textbooks but rather respond to multimedia to spark their creativity. That said, I wasn't going to do the project without examples of good writing, thus the inclusion of the e-book. I think of the video on the DVD as a gateway to reading.

Q: In addition to being a video producer, you teach creative writing and are a writer. How has your writing background inspired and influenced "So, Is It Done?"

A: Writing stories and books is the hardest thing I've ever done. But I believe if I keep after it someday I'll produce solid prose. Of course, it takes more than craft to create memorable stories but knowing strategies to revise manuscripts helps when inspiration
hits.

I've edited a literary journal, published stories, taught creative writing, and produced how-to or instructional videos for over 15 years with educators at Indiana University. So these DVDs were my first chance to merge my technical background as a video guy
with my writing interest. On this project I shot some interviews, edited the tape, as well as co-wrote the script, and conducted the interviews. Plus I wanted to provide a product for my writing students. They were my guiding light in the editing room. What I've found is that writers at all levels need reminding and strategies for revising their fiction and creative nonfiction.

Excerpted from Latinidad?« ?® 2003 by Marcela Landres

About Marcela Landres:
Marcela Landres is the author of the e-book How Editors Think. She is an Editorial Consultant who specializes in helping Latinos get published and was formerly an editor at Simon & Schuster.
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