Revising Bird

Guest post by Crystal Chan

Crystal attended a novel revision retreat a couple years ago and the result is this amazing book, her debut. Here, she talks about her revision process. –Darcy

The biggest editing challenge that I encountered my forthcoming novel, Bird (January 28, 2014, Atheneum. PREORDER NOW!) was trying to put too much “stuff” into the story. The protagonist, Jewel, is mixed race, in Iowa; her Jamaican side/grandfather believes there’s a duppy (read: ghost) roaming around the house; she was born on the same day that her brother died and there’s a load of unresolved grief in the family; a new boy comes to town with the same name as her dead brother and looks a little like how he would have looked like had he lived; and this boy is unsettling the layers of silence in the family. Enough, right?

Wrong. I really wanted to add some cool stuff with the mother’s backstory, and I wanted to do so to highlight the mixing of cultures that Jewel needed to wade through, as well as to explain why Jewel’s mom was so emotionally distant. For those who care to know, Jewel’s mother had an aunt in a small town along the Texan border, and years ago this aunt, right after she gave birth to their first child, realized her husband (the mom’s uncle) was cheating on her, and she ran out of the house in grief, and they found her, dead, along a riverbank. The baby died soon afterward. The townspeople said that her aunt had turned into the Llorona, a Mexican banshee who drowned her children, regretted it, and goes around killing adults in revenge (I’m skipping a lot of details here, bear with me).
Bird cover image
Anyway. This backstory, as interesting and pertinent to Mexican culture as it might have been (the Llorona is well, well known among Mexicans), was simply dragging down the story line, and much worse, muddling the story line entirely. I tried to make this work for at least three drafts, as I really wanted Jewel’s Mexican side to also get a showing in the story, but eventually (and with the utmost blessing of my editor) I opted to cut it out.

And I watched the story shine.

I found other, more subtle, ways to bring out Jewel’s Mexican heritage and explain her mother’s emotional distance – which was a lesson for me. There’s no one right way to make a story work. If one way is stuck, there’s always another way. But that requires being willing to backtrack, look at options, go back to the drawing board if necessary – which is scary (and humbling), since we invested so darn much in what we’ve already created. But then again, the question begs to be answered: Why are we writing? To push what we want, how we want it? Or to tell a story in the best way it needs to be told? Yes, sometimes writing that story means bearing down and slugging through the next version of the manuscript. Other times, though, it means opening our hands and letting go.

Crystal Chan
Crystal Chan

PS – and good news! Bird just sold in Romania!

One response to “Revising Bird”

  1. I am in the middle of a huge revision of my massive manuscript and know I have to cut a LOT. This is very timely for me. Thanks for posting it at just this moment in time!