Friday, January 9, 2009

Lessons from dead matter

When Lisa Graff at FSG asked me if I wanted the dead matter for Greetings from Nowhere, I said yes.

Then I wondered why.

Why did I want more paper to add to all the boxes of other paper in my office?

(And don't you just hate that term "dead matter" anyway? It sounds so, well, um, dead.)

But after I received it, I sat down and took a look at it and realized that it's kind of a learning experience -

to read through past revisions and notes -

to see what a big difference little changes make -

and to wonder "what was I thinking?".

Here are some of the changes found in that dead matter:

1. Aggie shook her head. Harold would have fixed that old spotlight. He would have opened up his rusty toolbox [out back in the shed] and found just the right tool and gone straight out there and fixed it.

[We took out the phrase "out back in the shed." It wasn't necessary and it tightened the sentence. Fewer words = tighter sentence]

2. rose-covered envelope changed to rose-bordered envelope

[Just made more sense, really...]

3. her mother squinted her eyes and tilted her chin up ...was changed to... her mother narrowed her eyes

[Squinted? Eeeeyew. What was I thinking?]

4. a heart-shaped box lined with red velvet...was changed to... a heart-shaped box made of red velvet

[I have no earthly idea why I made that change. I think maybe it was because the character hadn't opened the box yet, so wouldn't know it was lined with red velvet. ??]

5. Now, this seems to be my personal writing boogie-man - the use of the word "of" following the word "off." [Geez, those copyeditors are so irritating.]

  • she couldn't take her eyes off [of] all those things.
  • couldn't take her eyes off [of] the photograph [on same page!]- This was changed to She stared down at the photograph.
  • took the lid off [of] the heart-shaped box
  • Burla's box off [of] the floor
  • wiped mud off [of] it

6. Willow looked down at her shoes. The pink plastic sandals that Dorothy had bought. They were getting too small. They were starting to hurt her feet [a little]. But Willow didn't care. She loved wearing them, anyway.

Then a little further down on the same page:

Her father turned the radio on. That little vein twitched again.

[So I had two "littles" too close together. But I really didn't even need the first one. I mean, her shoes hurt. It doesn't really matter if they hurt "a little," right? So I took out the first "little."]

7. Now here's an example of one of those changes suggested by a copyeditor that is right, but that loses the rhythm of the writing for me - so I had to figure out a compromise:

Original version: Willow stared glumly out the window. She was a long, long way from Hailey, North Carolina.

The copyeditor pointed out that the characters are still in North Carolina, so we should delete "North Carolina." She's right, of course. (She's always right. SO irritating.) That would leave us with She was a long, long way from Hailey, which didn't have the rhythm I wanted.

Revised version: She was a long, long way from her little brick house in Hailey.

That seems like a picky thing, but those are the kinds of phrases and wording that is important to me.

8. Another one of my writing boogie men is the use of the phrase "every now and then".

I had to come up with various alternatives, such as "every few minutes" and "every once in a while."

9. On p. 91: Willow looked down at Aggie's canvas sneakers. They were wet and muddy. One of them had a frayed hole in the side and Aggie's little toe poked out.

The copyeditor wrote in the margin: See p. 189

On p. 189: Then she put on her canvas sneakers with the holes in the side and grabbed a hat.

The copyeditor wrote in the margin: See p 91; only one hole

She catches that little thang NINETY-EIGHT pages later!!!

I told you she was irritating, um, I mean amazing.

By the way, I changed the second one to " Then she put on her old canvas sneakers and grabbed a hat."

10. Changed dingy white wall to dingy gray wall - because can there be such a thing as dingy white?

11. "Echoes" drive me nuts. An "echo" is the repetition of words and/or words that sound alike):

He watched his mother march across the parking lot and disappear up the side of the road. When he went outside, the sun was just appearing over the top of the mountains. The air was cool and damp. He could hear the eighteen wheelers roaring up the interstate on the other side of the ridge behind the motel.

The echoes here are disappear and appearing; and side of; outside; and side

The copyeditor puts a little red check mark over those words.

This was changed to: He watched his mother march across the parking lot and disappear up the road. When he went outside, the sun was just peeking over the top of the mountains. The air was cool and damp. He could hear the eighteen wheelers roaring up the interstate on the other side of the ridge behind the motel.

12. I include this last one just because it seemed funny to me looking back at it:

For "Shut your trap" in pig Latin, I originally had rap-tay for "trap." The copyeditor corrected it to ap-tray.

And so, there you have it.

Lessons from dead matter.

Little things mean a lot, don't they?

P.S. I just realized that the subject heading of this post is similar to Lessons from a Dead Girl by Jo Knowles - so I'm sending her a shout-out.


Megan Germano said...

Copy, Paste, make overhead. Perfect lesson for Revision right here in my inbox!!!! Hope that is okay with you. Nothing like a real author's revision notes!

Sarah Miller said...

Isn't there a university in the midwest somewhere that collects this stuff? I know the CCBC has the manuscript of THE WESTING GAME, but seems to me there's a large collection of children's authors' manuscripts somewhere...

(I'll keep Googling.)

Kirby Larson said...

My writing boogey-man is the word "just." I cut nearly 180 "justs" from Hattie Big Sky. I also find I adopt pet words for each book.

But I am squinting at the computer screen right now trying to figure out what's wrong with the word "squinted"?

Thanks for this oh-so-helpful post!

Barbara O'Connor said...

Sarah: I think you're right - but probably not for peons (sp?) like me. :-) They'll be sorry...I'll be selling my on eBay some day.

Megan: Be my guest! Sounds kinda fun!

Kirby: Interesting comment because my first reaction was "What IS wrong with squinting?" Then when I went back and read my original version, notice that I had written "squinted her eyes." Well, squinting is squinting - I don't need to add "her eyes." I think that's what made it sound so icky to me.

Karen said...

This is great analysis of your writing, and so clearly makes me understand why I could never be an editor. You truly are blessed with a talented (or annoying) editor!

I may borrow Megan's idea to use this in some revision mini-lessons -- like having the author with us (almost) :)!!

Jo Knowles said...

I love this stuff! I hope you hang onto it. But I'm married to an archivist. :-)

Thanks for the shout out.



La Prof said...

i think your copy editor must have a photographic memory. there is no other explanation.

Augusta Scattergood said...

Wow. Fascinating. But that #5 is just pure southern. We all take our eyes off OF stuff. All the time. G.

Kirby Larson said...

Ah. . . I was so focused on the verb that I didn't even register the "her eyes" part.

Love this kind of stuff!