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suite scarlett
girl at sea
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the key to the golden firebird
vacations from hell
let it snow

Sunday, August 19, 2007


Friends! Your responses to my last post about book banning have been fantastic and insightful. Many of you even have plans of attack to help stop book banning in your communities. It’s amazing!

There are some other things to tell you about.
First . . . Devilish is now out in paperback! Right now! And it's even more . . . goldenrod! Yes, the cover has been revamped a little. It now looks like this:

Available now!

Now, on to today's topic . . . I get a lot of e-mails asking for writing advice. I like to give this out on occasion, and now is as good a time as any.

Right now, I am revising Suite Scarlett. It seems like everyone I know is going through some kind of revision from hell right now. It must be revision season. So let’s have a look.

Here is the Writer. The Writer has finished the first (or second, or third) draft of his book. He’s feeling good. Clever. After all, he finished a book—and that counts for something. He has sent the book off to his Editor, and is now enjoying a little breakfast.

There is a certainly smugness that comes from finishing a draft.

The reason the Writer is so happy and smug while the draft is away with the Editor is because he no longer has to look at it. Naturally, though, he knows it will come back. He isn’t finished. He will have to revise.


Maybe this seems obvious—but then again, maybe not!

When I was in college, I was a staff member at the writing center. A dozen or so students, from freshman to graduate level, were assigned to me. All of them were having trouble writing and revising their papers.

And so they came. A third of them were shattered and fearful, convinced they would never be able to finish writing a paper. Another third were surly and looked like they wanted to punch me in the face simply for being alive. The final third fully expected that I would rewrite their papers for them.

Some people who had been told to revise their paper actually heard this: “You suck. Unfortunately, there are no beds open right now in the Home for the Extremely Stupid, so we will send you to the writing center instead, with the hopes that you fall into a big hole on the way over there.”

Other people felt that the professor was in the wrong—that the papers made perfect sense. They took every edit or mark as a deep personal insult. “But this is a personal essay/my story/my opinion,” they would yell/cry at me. “It can’t be wrong!”

Quite a number of people would nod away as I spoke, promising to bring back revisions. A few days later they would return with papers that were virtually identical to the ones I had just seen, with a handful of words swapped around and a few spelling errors fixed.

The angry people still looked like they wanted to punch me.

Two things finally occurred to me:

1. I wasn’t being paid nearly enough for this job. (One day, when I saw my boss floating through the library with that look on his face that said, “I am going to find Maureen and give her more students,” I hid inside a bunch of automated shelves and hit the switch, closing them in around myself. Such was my morale.)

2. People have widely varying ideas about what the word revision means.

I made my escape from the writing center with a shattered view of the meaning of revision.

There’s an adage that “writing is revision,” and I think it’s true. It marks the difference between merely writing something down and really writing something. I can’t take two very quick steps and say I was running. I have to make lots of quick steps in order to call it “running” and not just “quickly changing position.”

It’s sort of the same with writing. Books aren’t written once—they’re written five, a dozen, twenty, fifty times.

“How many times do you have to revise?” you ask. “What’s the right number?”

Who knows? There is no right amount of revision. In fact, you might say (if you are the kind of annoying person who says stuff like this) that books are never finished. When you see them in a shop or library, they are nicely bound between two hard covers and seem stable. But books are actually heaving, organic, ever-evolving messes that have more or less been beaten and tamed into a kind of submission and shoved into a document. Even classic books written by long-dead authors are often edited and tweaked or even rearranged a bit by editors. Shakespeare is a total mess, as multiple versions of the plays exist.

There is always a way to change things around. Herein lies the problem if you do this for a living.


Let’s get back to the Writer. He has been patiently waiting. He is finished his breakfast now. Let’s talk about what revision means to him.

Revision is part of his job, and he likes his job. He really does. But in order to do it, he needs his Editor.

The best editors are artists—make no mistake. They need to understand stories inside and out. They look at the shape and flow of the events, the way the characters respond, the style of the writing. (Certainly one of the most famous in literary history is Maxwell Perkins, who is repsonsible for bringing us an extrodinary amount of modern American literary classics.)

Editors are also psychologists. They have to tell the Writer all of their thoughts in a clever way that moves the Writer gently in the correct direction. They write up their views in something called an edit letter. (Or ed letter or editorial letter—whatever you prefer. It’s a letter.)

The Writer waits to hear what the Editor will have to say.

The edit letter usually begins with something like: “Dear Writer, Another job well done! This book is really shaping up nicely! I like you a lot!”

The Editor may very well mean these things, but she generally says them to keep the Writer from freaking out and taking an overdose of Scrabble tiles. This is the psychological part of their job. They have to make sure the Writer stays sane and finishes the book.

This particular Writer ignores all those bits and goes right to the part that describes what needs to be done. The Writer already has his own ideas, and maybe the ideas of some friends.

Editors never (or rarely, or shouldn’t) say: “You did this wrong. Failure, Writer! Failure!” They usually talk in terms of what’s working well and what could be done to strengthen what’s there. They will often suggest cuts or places to move material. Editors do not make you do things. They do not sneak into your house and change passages of writing while you sleep. They do not threaten to break your arms (usually). They coax.

Sometimes the edit letter expresses exactly what the Writer is already thinking. Or there may be major curve balls—things the Writer thought worked but the Editor doesn’t really understand or like. There may even also be parts the Writer hated and was planning to destroy—and yet the Editor seems to love them. This is often even more baffling.

Some writers like to have a lot of other people read their books as well. They like the chorus of voices and opinions. That’s a good approach.

However, it’s not an approach I like. The only notes I usually take are from my editor. I could show my stuff around to lots of great people, but then I would go half-insane trying to coordinate all the different notes in my head. For me, one voice is best.

Some people like having this many people looking at once, but I do not.


Generally, revisions should go big (global plot points, POV, chapter structure) to small (minor details). Think of it this way: if you were designing a house, you would have to figure out where the kitchen was going to go. Then you think about how everything will fit inside the kitchen—where does the stove go, or the sink? It’s a long time before you ever think about setting the table or sticking up hilarious fridge magnets—largely because you may not yet a table or fridge or maybe even a floor.

So it goes with your story. You need to know what happens in it. What’s the order of events? Who tells the story? These are the kinds of things decided in the first drafts. As time marches on, they’re supposed to remain more or less solid.

In theory. It doesn’t always work in practice.

It’s a good thing that the Writer doesn’t design houses—because he would move the kitchen around seventeen times, rip out all the bathrooms, add six more stories, and set fire to the roof.

Sometimes, in order to save the book, you must destroy it during revision. At least if you are me. I’m certainly not alone. Massive, last-minute rewrites are a well-known phenomenon. You can even read blogs about it! Witness the story of Scott Westerfeld getting 16,000 words into Extras, only to realize that he was writing from the wrong point of view—and then simply chopping those 16,000 words and starting again. Or Justine Larbalestier ripping out entire chapters of her new book.

Sometimes, this is the only way.

I tend to hack the book into all of its component pieces, spread them out, and then systemically (don’t ask me what kind of system that matically refers to) rearrange them and delete them. From there, I reshape the story and write it again.

Here, as an example, is what Suite Scarlett looks like right now.

I can write a rainbow.

Those are the different story events, color-coded by type, arranged into working sections. It is very pretty. I enjoy looking at it. It is behind my head right now as I type this, and it reassures me.

I started doing this because, somewhere around the third draft of 13 Little Blue Envelopes, I tore off the entire first third of the book and changed a major portion of the plot. From then on, I needed to see everything at a glance and track all the big movements. But I write every book differently. I'm really glad I'm not alone in this. Here's the frighteningly wonderful Holly Black talking about how she reinvents her style with each book.

This is one of the exciting things about writing. Everyone does it differently. Maybe the Writer's adventures will be helpful to you, maybe not. My only real, hard piece of advice about the writing process is this: if anyone tells you that there is just one method or a correct way of getting it done (few people would, but there's always someone), they're wrong. If you want to revise your book completely backwards, while hanging upside down covered in bees . . . feel free. Choose your teachers carefully. In the end, you'll teach yourself anyway.


There comes a point where either a.) the Writer decides the book is as done as it is ever going to be, or b.) it’s just due. Most people I know, including our Writer, use b. as their stopping point. At this point, the books move on to finer levels of editing—line by line and word by word. The Writer still may try to delete or sneak in a new chapter. Sometimes this is permitted, and sometimes the editor must intervene.

The only person I have ever known of to beat the revision process at its own game is the fantastic Jasper Fforde. If you go to his amazing website, you will see that he offers book upgrades—much like computer software gets updated. You just go to the site, book and pencil in hand, and make the changes he lists. And presto! Updated, never-ending book!

Frankly, the thought of that makes me a little dizzy. I may have to go rest my head.

I hope this has helped. If you have any thoughts/tips/advice on revision, the comments are open!

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Blogger JohnC said...

LOVE the "designing a house" analogy.

Set fire to the roof.


5:55 PM  
Anonymous jill said...

Who was it who said that 'No piece of writing is every finished; it is only abandoned'?

Truer words.

7:19 PM  
Anonymous jill said...

And that should be *ever* finished.

Ugh. Some writing tutor I am.

7:20 PM  
Anonymous Gabrielle said...

You know, when you were writing your first draft, you said that everyone you knew was writing a first draft. Or something like that. So it's only logic that now you're all revising. ^^
I liked the hardcover Devilish cover better. Sorry.
And on to How to Revise a Book.
I think the billboard thing idea is very nice. Justine Larbalestier wrote about something similar she does, but with a spreadsheet, on her blog.
I definitely think that I should plan out a project more before I start writing it. I suck at that. I change so much of the story. And now, the problem is, I'm stuck because I changed too much and it doesn't make any sense. Sigh.
But your wisdom has encouraged me and showed me that there is hope. You definitely helped in your satin tights! :D

7:27 PM  
Anonymous jas said...

Do you know of Eddie Izzard? He's a comedian who does this whole skit about how hard it is to be a beekeeper--your line about being covered in bees reminded me of him.
Thanks for all the advice. It's really encouraging to know what writers go through daily.

7:46 PM  
Anonymous Julie Prince said...

This post is so brilliant, I've already linked to it in three different places.

10:27 PM  
Blogger Rose Green said...

Lovely! I'm in the middle of a large structural revision, and the pictures here are definitely helping me see the funny side of it all. Thanks!

11:16 PM  
Anonymous bostonerin said...

Maureen--this is a great post (found it via Julie Prince's livejournal). I'm in the middle of my first revision letter experience, and find that I'm learning and learning and learning some more--even though I love revising and have gone through several revisions of the novel already. It really is RE-writing that makes a book stronger.

Thanks for this!

12:30 AM  
Anonymous reese said...

Writers go through a lot more than we give them credit for.

1:38 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thank you for all the advice!! It's weird how the more I learn about the writing process, the more terrified I get, but I still want to jump on in there too. This illogical part of my brain is definately inspired by your hilarious blogs so thank you again, Maureen:)


4:23 AM  
Anonymous Jessica said...

I got the book!

I would have replied sooner but a hurricane [which is no longer going to hit us hopefully] was coming, so we went to Sam's to stock up on water and Goldfish. :D

Thanks again for letting me win!

6:12 AM  
Blogger Stephanie said...


Since I'm in the process of setting my roof on fire (editorially speaking) this post could not have come at a better time. Nor could the Cary Grant pictures. Thank you.

6:05 PM  
Anonymous Meg Cabot said...

Oh my God. Brilliant post. Only you forgot this part: I HATE REVISING! I HATE REVISING! I HATE REVISING!
Thank you. -- Meg Cabot

7:57 PM  
Blogger Laursie said...

Pretty little note cards! Oh, if only I could be that organized when it comes to writing. I tend to write random scenes then somehow piece them together. Kind of like a quilt. Which is another bad writing analogy. Except instead of setting fire to the roof, I set fire to the quilt.

It's great to see how different authors write their books and that everyone choose a different way, sometimes many ways.

Looking at Jasper Fforde's website, I think I'm going to have to start reading his books.

9:11 AM  
Blogger Janette Rallison said...

Loved the blog, loved the pictures, loved your story of being a writing tutor! It's all so true. I generally have one more step in my revising process--and that is where I start referring to my editor as the devil and swear I'll give up writing and raise ponies for a living.

It might happen one day.

7:27 PM  
Blogger golfwidow said...

Thank you for knowing. I thought this was just me, all by myself. Whew.

7:40 PM  
Blogger Mac McCool said...

I love the post-its on the wall! I use post-its all the time (in dummies, graphic novel layouts, outlines!), but you win for the broadest color scheme! Great post! (pun intended!)

11:58 PM  
Anonymous hillary! said...

wow...your life is crazy, and yet i wish i could more of a writer than a reader still.

12:11 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I love the way Devilish looks as a paperback. Thanks for the tips on revising. THat is my favorite part because when I compare the drafts, they look like strangers to each other. If each draft had feelings I'm sure they wouldn't even want to think they were once related. Or if there was a draft mall, where drafts go shopping, they would pass eachother completly unaware that they were created from eachother.

4:43 AM  
Anonymous Robyn said...

Lol! This was just what I needed during a break from my revisions. That whole "some may like this many people looking but I do not" caption was hilarious! If only I could convince my editor to write a how to revise a book blog post from HER perspective. Not that my editor has a blog, but still, a girl can dream. By the way, I missed you at TADN :-(

10:38 PM  
Blogger Julie H said...

This is my first time at your blog (I was directed here from YALSA-BK). It's great! Not only am I a middle school librarian (who has all of your books in her library, thank you very much), but I am also a YA author. I'm on the second draft of my second novel, and I am definitely with you on only listening to my editor's opinion. I know for many, though, their agent likes to be the first to get their hands on a novel (which is one of the main reasons I have not pursued getting an agent yet). Is that an issue for you?

I'm glad I found your blog! I will definitely keep reading.

11:13 PM  
Anonymous Sam Enthoven said...

Hi Maureen,
Fellow Razorbill author Sam here again. I loved the piece on Revisions (hee hee hee!) but I was mostly checking in on the Bartlesville situation, which continues to fascinate and horrify me.
I want to say: don't lose heart! Don't forget, you've already struck an immensely powerful blow to undermine Ms Rader and her ilk. You did that by writing a terrific, heartfelt book that – as well as being a riveting read – truthfully portrayed experimenting with one's sexuality, and coming out, as dramatic and consequential, sure, but also /perfectly normal/. Because of that, you've got Ms Rader scared. And her attempts to put her hands over people's eyes and shout 'don't look!' – which is all her reaction and the school board's really amounts to – will only attract more curious readers. It certainly worked for me by the way: Scary Uncle Amazon delivered my copy of Bermudez to me here in the UK a couple of weeks ago, and I enjoyed the book very much.
Keep on keeping on. Very best wishes to you from rainy London,
Sam Enthoven

6:53 PM  
Blogger Snarky Writer said...

I work in a writing center right now! I'm glad my experience isn't that bad. Mostly I get overachievers who think that one misplaced comma is going to cause them to get an F. Then at the end of the semester I get a bunch of panicked students who didn't pay attention or do their work during the rest of the semester and think I have a magic wand to fix it all. It's a trip.

8:08 PM  
Anonymous Ally said...

OMG!! I love your video for John's birthday! It was hilarious!

12:01 AM  
Anonymous Steph said...

I just got Devilish in paperback today. :) I've been looking for it in hardback for AGES, but every bookstore I went to never seemed to have. It was really good! I loved it. You're an excellent author.

4:10 AM  
Anonymous Danica said...

Saw John's birthday video. AMAZING. I laughed hardest when you were spinning around on the table and were asked if you've ever been on a mechanical bull ride.

...Have you?

9:52 AM  
Blogger Little Willow said...

A few months ago, I met a woman who was in North by Northwest. I was then informed that she had seen / heard me perform last year. This gives me ONE DEGREE OF SEPARATION from Cary Grant and Hitchcock. Right? Right??

8:16 PM  
Blogger Ashley said...

This comment has been removed by the author.

9:57 AM  
Blogger Ashley said...

Ok, I got to this post in a rather round-a-bout way. First I linked in from the Westerblog to read the article of your interview with Scott 15 minutes before Extras was due. I then saw the tag at the bottom for Scott Westerfeld. Natually, I clicked and ended up at this post. I must say, that after I read the blurb of Devilish, discovered it was set in a Catholic school (I attend a Catholic school) and was banned, I decided I wanted to read it. After reading your How to Revise a Book post and seeing your writing style, I now HAVE to read Devilish lol. Hopefully I'll be able to get my hands on a copy after my HSC (if I buy another book before my exams my mum will kill me lol) Hope to read more from you soon, I will now disappear and read the rest of your blog.....

- Ashmouse

P.S. Sorry about the long post lol

9:59 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

First...went to Libba's LJ and saw the movie last night. You guys are hysterical...and a little odd, but that's supposed to be a compliment. ANYway, I finally finished Girl at Sea, that was amazing, like 13 Little Blue Envelopes. Can't wait to read Devilish. I also liked your post about revisions...ha-ha, lights the roof on fire. Oh, that one's good.

6:33 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I've always loved your blogs about writing and revision. Though I had a question...do you think its normal to rewrite the book multiple times? Completely changing every single word, and just referring back to the original (or previous draft) to check plot, character names, etc? or is that too drastic?

7:11 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Ms. Johnson, do you know what happened to Libba Bray's whole website? I tried going on, but it took me to something totally different. Do you know where her new LJ address and postings are going to be?

3:55 PM  
Blogger Phillipa said...

Fabulous advice, Maureen from a still rookie author for Headline Little Black Dress in the UK. Thank yuou so much (and Meg for flagging it up). Phillipa x

9:31 PM  
Blogger KB said...


Do you ever avoid reading your books after they are bound? If you do re-read them, does that make you want to revise them again?

5:15 PM  
Blogger shannon said...

oh, the writing process is so long and tedious, and different for everyone. thanks for sharing your process with us!

7:46 AM  
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