Thursday, February 10, 2011
WRITING NONFICTION: PART THREE—How Do You Make Your Work Sellable?
Completing the first draft of your book was getting the clay out. Now you’re ready to turn your work into something special—a published book. That process is all about revision. Take that word literally as re-vision. Looking at your work with a fresh mind during each step.
For example, which of these two paragraphs is more exciting to read?
The wildebeest snort and grunt in panic. Those closest to the water kick and leap, struggling to bound away as the hunter attacks again. This time, the crocodile’s jaws clamp shut on an adult wildebeest.
The wildebeest make panic noises. Those closest to the water run away as the hunter attacks again. This time the crocodile bites an adult wildebeest.
The first paragraph, of course. It’s action is part of ANIMAL PREDATORS: CROCODILES (Lerner, 2004)
Whatever you write, remember verbs are your workhorses. They carry the action, set the mood, and take the reader into the scene. Don’t be afraid to try out different verbs and see how they effect what’s being said.
Read Your Work Aloud Like the chorus in a song, this needs to be something you do after every revision. In fact, it’s good to read your work aloud even while you’re writing the first draft. And that’s true whether your work is thirty-two pages long or over one hundred pages long. I'd hate to count how many times I read aloud the text for Little Lost Bat (Charlesbridge, 2006). My poor husband must know my books by heart because we share an office. I always warn him by announcing, "Okay, I'm going to be talking to myself now."
While you're reading, be sure to listen to what you’re saying. Anything you just naturally tend to leave out, delete. Any words you find yourself adding in, put into the text. If you stumble over a section, rework it.
Remember, your reader is going to hear the words in his or her mind. It really will be as though you're reading your book aloud to that person.
Cut Deadwood Next, go through your work again, checking that you haven’t repeated any concepts or thoughts in slightly different words. Each paragraph, each page, each spread (facing left hand and right hand page) should move the action along.
Change Old Favorites Be careful that you haven’t repeated words and phrases. For example, don’t say “also” or “too” in two or more sentences in a row. Don’t repeat “What if…” in three sentences in a row.
When I’m making this revision pass, I always think of Ernest Hemingway. It’s said that he would rise at 6 a.m. and write standing up at his typewriter until noon. I don’t stand up but I try to put the discipline that required into my revision pass for “Old Favorites”. Besides if your feet were starting to hurt, you’d want to make sure what you were typing was worth having on the page. Of course, Hemingway, it’s said, spent his afternoons in a local bar so don’t spend so long on this revision pass that you feel driven to drink.
(Recipe cited here comes from Charles Oliver's Ernest Hemingway A to Z: The Essential Reference to the Life and Work)
Reading Level Know your target audience well. Be sure the language you use expresses what you're sharing in words your readers will know. And the younger your audience the shorter and simpler your sentences need to be. This is also the pass to be sure any new words or concepts are defined or explained where they first appear.
Get An Expert’s Opinion You’re writing nonfiction so what you write must be accurate. You need to contact someone who is an expert on the subject. Ask them to, please, read through your text and make sure what you’re sharing is absolutely correct.
Working through this phase of the revision process always reminds me of the story of the swimming bat. I was working on Outside and Inside Bats (Atheneum, 1997). This was a photo essay and I wanted to include a photo I’d seen in a major magazine, showing a bat swimming. I also wanted to share the fact that bats can swim. After quite a bit of detective work, I tracked down a bat expert who was with the photographer when the photo of the swimming bat was taken. He begged me to not include that information or the photo. He explained that the bat fell into the water and, in fact, drowned after the photo was taken. So while the bat appeared to be swimming it was actually struggling for its life. So always, always check your facts as you write and have your manuscript vetted before you send it out.
Okay, do one more chorus of READ YOUR WORK ALOUD. Then you’re ready to submit your work to a publisher for consideration. Just keep in mind that publishing is a very subjective business. So be willing to revise again to make your work exactly what a publisher wants it to be. I remember an editor who sent me back one of my books for revision with the comment, “I loved page eleven. Make all of the other pages as good as that one.” Happily, I did because that book became the first book in my very successful Outside and Inside series (Atheneum and Walker Books).