At least once a week, a writer will respond to my enthusiastic salute of “Great week for writing, isn’t it?” by saying, “I wish I were! But this week I’m editing” — which to an active writer is shorthand for saying, the latest draft is getting revised.
There’s no doubt that the exhilaration of creating a set of characters and a setting, and drawing them into action, is amazing (“awesome,” as the word of the month goes). That magical discovery that “real” characters have achieved names and personalities is one of the sweetest rewards of writing fiction … and discovering how to weave clues, red herrings, and solutions is exhilarating. We love it.
But revision is also writing — because, with very rare exceptions of geniuses, fiction doesn’t come out in its strongest form in the first draft. And as a teacher at our local middle school said to me last term, “Revision is writing.” It’s writing that’s reaching its potential.
I like to work with a handful of readers who help me confront my first drafts and see that potential. Sometimes they read chapter by chapter (I’ve done this three times, and knowing they are waiting for me has helped me prioritize writing the next set of pages). Particularly helpful, though, have been the friends and colleagues willing to sit down with a mess of two or three hundred pages and mark the bumps, inconsistencies, and questions. Two friends who do that for me are retired librarians; another is a teacher in his second round (he retired, then returned to the classroom). And of course there’s my editor, although I rarely involve that person until a later draft, maybe the third or fourth, is done.
But none of my team is a teenager.
Here are my goals of revision and rewriting for a YA mystery: (1) Discover how the protagonist — and maybe her best friends — has grown from “childish ways” to a more adult engagement with the world. Name the sacrifices and discoveries; test them against experience. What was at stake (besides safety within the mystery’s twists and turns)? What was gained — or tragically lost? Once that list is written out, I test it against what I believe is worth confronting for a reader at age 10 or 12 or 15 or (gulp) 18. Do I need to re-vision the reader? Restructure the conflict to match the clearer picture of who’s turning the pages?
(2) Make sure the details of teen life are “real.” I check teen blogs and other places where young adults are writing, and look for references to music, philosophy, and politics. I download photos. I go out to the mall and take notes. And I’m glad to ask questions of teens I know, in terms of ringtones, tattoos, you name it — but I’m not asking them about plot or character. I want those aspects to come from an interaction between my own writing skills and what I believe about the world and its readers.
(3) Examine dropped threads. Why were those particular red herrings tossed in? Should they have a chance to swim (or weave — such mixed metaphors!) further? Did they indicate something about the narrative that’s worth enhancing? YA readers are even less likely than adult ones to put up with sloppy plotting! It has to make sense in hindsight, while also seeming unpredictable and surprising along the way.
(4) Focus on the heavy decisions — around violence, murder, other crimes, the face of evil, the face of goodness — and make them more deliberate. The responsibility for placing (maybe unforgettable) images in an inexperienced mind means there has to be a good reason for each one — and a reason for the way they are described. We’re writing for young adults, and the basic definition of those readers is, they are just like us — but with less time spent noticing and enduring and celebrating and discovering. A good YA mystery makes the new discoveries good ones in the long run. Look at Shine by Lauren Myracle to see how the grim and the dire can also be the transforming and uplifting. Sure, there are plenty of mysteries that don’t aspire to go beyond the plot — but what is that plot saying? Is there room for some distance from the horrors of death and destruction, and is there enough dignity and capability to give a reader the incentive to read until the last page?
If I thought about these ideas while working on a first draft, I’d probably never finish the first chapter. It would be too daunting! But with revision, I can think harder and deeper, and write better. Revision really is writing. And it’s writing with a purpose: to be read by the young adults and by older readers enjoying stepping into those shoes again, with the benefit of hindsight. As Madeleine L’Engle often said about writing for her younger audience, the book has to be the very best. Thank goodness for revision!