Carole Estby Dagg debuts with THE YEAR WE WERE FAMOUS
Introduced first in 2007, debut children’s authors have formed a cooperative effort to market their books. I featured Revision Stories from the Classes of 2k8 and 2k9 and this feature returns this year with the Class of 2k11.
Guest post by Carole Estby Dagg
Big Picture Revision
The Year We Were Famous came out on April 4, 2011, fifteen years after my first rejection on it. The publishing world calls it my debut novel, but it is not my first book. I have written the same story at least a dozen different ways over those fifteen years: as non-fiction, fiction, daughter’s point of view, mother’s point of view, in third person, first person, sassy voice, restrained voice, as an episodic adventure story, as a mother-daughter story, and in various combinations of all of the preceding.
I thought I had an adventure story. After all, my main characters, Clara Estby and her mother, Helga, had walked from Washington State to New York City back in 1896. They had been caught in snow-storms, lost in the Snake River Lava Fields without food or water; they had been assaulted by a highwayman, camped out with Indians, visited president-elect William McKinley and his wife in their home…wasn’t that a tale of adventure?
Nine years into writing and rejections, one editor took the time to write a two-page rejection letter. She told me I didn’t just have an adventure story, I had a coming-of-age story. I flailed around with it for a year and got nowhere. I still had a book that was edging toward 400 pages and had no focus. Understandably, that editor rejected my resubmission.
My acquiring editor at Clarion suggested making a worksheet listing each major scene and providing columns for the external journey (where my characters were in space and time, and what happened to them) major plot points (where my characters were in the narrative arc), and the interior journey (how events affected them). If a scene didn’t advance the plot or character as well as describing what was happening to my characters, the scene had to go.
Looking at one page at a time, though, I had a hard time applying my editor’s advice. Luckily, it was during this process that I took Darcy Pattison’s novel revision class and applied a combination of her shrunken manuscript and novel inventory techniques. (See her book for details.)
On my shrunken manuscript, I marked passages with strong emotion, conflict, and action in different colors and circled passages that were the most essential for the narrative and emotional arcs. Looking at my hundreds of pages spread out on the floor, I didn’t even have to read the words; I just looked for color. Where there was only black and white, I had nothing but expendable external action. Those passages had to be ramped up to include emotion and conflict or deleted.
It still wasn’t easy. But once I’d pruned 250 pages of deadwood I had more than an episodic adventure story; I had the story of a young woman coming into her own.