How to Bake a Story, or, the Big Ol’ Revision Post

It seems that at some point in every writer/blogger’s life, there come a time when they need to share their process. Maybe it’s to justify all that time sitting at a computer. (See? I really WAS doing something!) But anyway, having turned in one manuscript and in starting another, it appears to be my turn…

Be warned, however. I’ve been through 8 drafts of MALCOLM AT MIDNIGHT (M@M). Each draft presented new challenges. So this is long. Also, Colonel Mustard’s upcoming birthday party (tomorrow–another thing I am procrastinating from by writing this post!) has got me thinking about how revising a story is a lot like…baking a cake. So, fair warning: extended metaphor ahead.

Still with me? Well, then. Let us begin…

 

Drafts #1-3 were me trying to figure out what kind of cake I wanted to bake. Chocolate? Lemon? Pound? Sheet? Bundt? From a mix? From scratch? So many decisions. I experimented with voice, with plot, with characters and their personalities. Most of them were messy and tasted awful. But there were bits—ingredients, if you will—that I made note of to include in the next batch.

Draft #4 was different. It was the first draft that I mixed all the way up. I’ll admit, draft #4 only came about because I got a lovely call telling me that M@M was an SCBWI WIP grant runner-up. The recognition drew me back to the mixing bowl—could it be that someone would actually want to eat my cake? But I kept getting stuck in this draft. So I posted a reminder on my desktop: It’s not what HAPPENS next. What will Malcolm DO next? Eventually, I finished the draft and when I was done, the kitchen was a disaster, with batter slopped everywhere, dishes stacked in the sink, flour on my nose and in my hair…but as I tasted it, I thought, hmm…maybe…

 

At this point, an editor asked to see it, lumpy batter and all. But I wasn’t ready to share just yet. How can you serve something that’s still raw? So I went back into the kitchen, mixed up a fresh batch, and put it in the oven for the first time. Out came something I was willing to allow someone to taste. It wasn’t the cake I knew it could be, but it was edible. That was draft #5.

You know how, if you eat too much of one thing, you lose your appetite for it? Sometimes it’s hard to know if something truly tastes good or not. So, while the editor was reading, I took a little break from baking. After about a month off, I went back to draft #5, printed it out, and read through the whole thing.

And this is where the revising truly began. Because I realized something. The characters, the premise, the setting?–they all tasted great. But overall, my cake wasn’t the cake I wanted. It was too dark and had too many ingredients.

It was after this draft that I finally figured out what kind of cake I really wanted. How I wanted people to feel after eating it. And I wrote that up in a handy sentence. A theme, if you will. And I posted THAT on my desktop so I saw it every time I worked.

Then I took out my notecards and started planning. I made a card for each scene and spread them out on a huge bulletin board. I looked for ways I could combine plotlines, simplify story lines, and make things lighter. I shifted and moved things around, made new notecards, tossed old ones. I played around with a few recipes, from Jean Reidy’s Novel Analysis Spreadsheet and from Writing the Breakout Novel Workbook by Donald Maass (I especially devoured the Plot Layers, Weaving a Story, and Character Turnabouts and Surprises sections), and Arthur Levine editor Cheryl Klein’s The Art of Detection: One Editor’s Techniques for Analyzing and Revising Your Novel.

When I thought (again!) I knew how to go about baking my cake, I started draft #6. About this time, I heard back from the editor. She liked it, but she also agreed that it needed some remixing. Luckily, we were on the same page in the recipe book. I agreed to keep working and send her my next cake.

When draft #6 was baked, I needed a fresh set of tastebuds, so I sent M@M off to two critique buddies who hadn’t tasted any previous versions. I wanted to know if I was getting closer before I send it off to the editor again. I knew that a second piece of cake was probably all she was going to eat. My readers had great suggestions that went into draft #7.

Draft #7 was the first cake I frosted. After I addressed my critique partners concerns and questions, I went through it, chapter by chapter, reading it aloud, making it “sing” with word choice and phrasing. (I know, I’m mixing metaphors now, but that is the word I think about when I do this.) And when the cake looked as good on the outside as it tasted on the inside, I sent it back to the editor…and out to some agents.

And they liked it! I found a delightful agent with which to work. The editor also liked it.

However, she wanted dainty pink cupcakes with sprinkles. Could I change it?

Meanwhile, the sentence on my desktop–my theme?–was all about chocolate bundt with cherries.

It was a hard decision. But my new agent agreed: let’s see if anyone else likes chocolate with cherries before we start over again.

But first, she had a few suggestions…

Draft #8, this last draft (but not the Last Draft, hopefully), was shoring up ingredients so their flavors exploded. I took my agent’s detailed list of suggestions, a fistful of highlighters, a printed-out version of my story, and I locked myself in my kitchen. I read through the whole manuscript in one sitting, highlighting things accordingly. I made notes, I stared out the window, I crafted charts, I brainstormed. It was messy and I was sweaty and the kitchen was a disaster when I came out. (None of her suggestions were major, but one thing I’ve learned—learned, not perfected, mind you—in my fledgling baking career is that sometimes one little change in the recipe, means other ingredients need to be altered…which then sets off other adjustments to the recipe.)

Then I sat back down and carefully mixed up my latest version of M@M. When it came out of the oven, I let it cool for a while. Then I painstakingly frosted it one more time.

And that’s where I am today. I’m not saying that this is How to Bake a Cake. I’m not saying I even know how to bake a cake.

But I do know that my cake is the prettiest, best-tasting one I’ve ever made.

And so now I wait. Will anyone else want to try a bite? Will they like it enough to bring it to the Big Party? I hope so. But if not, I’ve already headed back into the kitchen.

There’s this new recipe I’ve been dying to try…

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Continued with “The Icing on the Cake, or, the Conclusion to the Big Ol’ Revision Post”