25 Years of Scribbling – My Journey So Far

Twenty-five years ago, September 7, 1992, my youngest kid went to first grade. While I was a little sad to see her get on the bus, I was excited that she would be out of the house all day, like her older sister. I’d been working as a freelance journalist for years, mostly working nights for newspapers and whatever magazine or trade journal that didn’t write rubber checks. Suddenly I had a few more kidless hours a day.

The dream I had been harboring for years demanded that I pay attention.

I wrote an oath in my journal: I would focus on writing for children in the hours before the kids woke up and when they were at school. I gave myself five years, until September 1997, to get a children’s book published. If I couldn’t make the goal, I swore I would go to nursing school, which my mom had been bugging me about since forever.

I should have given myself 10 years.

I had no idea what I was setting out to do. I didn’t know how tough it was to get published. I didn’t even know how to get published. And I certainly did not know how to write. But I knew that I wanted to try.

If you’ve ever heard me present at a conference, you’ve heard about my years of failure. The fact that I honestly thought I was supposed to send in a first draft instead of revising. That I wrote the world’s worst 7000-word picture book manuscript. I made every mistake possible and invented a couple of new ones just for fun. Rejections piled up for years.

The point is not that I screwed up. Everyone does that. The point is not that I almost quit many, many times. The point is that I kept trying. I had an audacious dream – to write books that kids might like – and it (mostly) made me happy to pursue that dream. So that’s what I did.

And a funny thing happened. I learned.

I attended SCBWI conferences and found a critique group. I started analyzing what worked and didn’t work in books. I found that revision was even more fun than writing first drafts.

I got better. I worked harder. I dreamed bigger.

I had huge plans for today. I was going to write poetry at dawn, write a letter than I could open on September 7, 2042. Thought about sipping champagne.

Instead, I worked. I’ll be on the road for most of the next 8 months, so today was a Dealing With Travel Email day. I walked to my local indie and picked up a copy of Ibram X. Kendi’s Stamped from the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America. I treated myself to Tandoori chicken and saag paneer, with blueberries for dessert.  I made a cup of chamomile tea, instead of opening champagne.

My first book (a picture book now long out of print) was published in 1996, one year before my deadline. Since then I’ve published 35 books that have collectively sold millions of copies. More importantly, I’ve been blessed with the chance to meet readers, their families, and their teachers and librarians across America and around the world. I’ve worked with incredibly talented people, become friends with my heroes, and had the chance to give voice to the causes that I care about.

I am a very lucky and grateful girl.

I decided that the best way to celebrate the last 25 years was to do the work that got me here – some creative writing, some book tour preparation, too many email, and a nice walk to the bookstore.

Tomorrow morning I shall write a paragraph or two in my journal with a couple of goals for the next twenty-five years.

Who knows what adventures they’ll bring?


WFMAD Day 18 – Revision Roadmap

The process of Boiling Down The Bones (aka Revision) is the hardest part of the writing process to teach, but I'll give a shot.

I'm starting with one massive assumption – you understand that nobody writes a publishable first draft and everyone's work can be made better with revision. For the record, my novels usually go through eight drafts. 


I always work with two levels of revision: LOGIC and POLISH. Today is LOGIC day.

The goal of the LOGIC edit is simple: make sure each scene flows smoothly and inevitably to the next.

I start with the biggest piece of paper I can find. On this I list all of the scenes of the book, summarizing them in as few words as possible (bullies corner Yoda, Tyler confronts bullies, bullies run off, etc.). You will likely have several different scenes within each chapter.

To the left of the summary line that I make a note of the date and time of day when each action takes place. To the right of each one I place an up arrow or a down arrow, indicating if the scene ends on a negative or positive emotional note for the main character. For a few books, I've noted the location of each scene as well.

Note: if the significant action in a scene is an important bit of dialog, add CONVO to the summary line.

What you end up with is a roadmap of sorts; an overview of your story all on the same page or two, depending on the size of your handwriting. (Some people prefer to use index cards – one card per scene – which they either pin to a line strung across a room, or lay out on the floor after they've penned up the children and pets. Do what makes you happy.)

Now the fun begins.


Forget about what you know about your story. Forget the backstory that you didn't put on the page, or the real-life situation that inspired a scene or the whole book. The goal is to see only what is on the page in front of you. 

1. Which scenes can be removed without causing any major effect on your story? (I always find a bunch of these.) If a scene is not vital – if it doesn't further our understanding of a character or move the action forward – get rid of it. It's useless fluff. If the thought of cutting it causes your gallbladder to flare up, reconsider the scene itself: what changes can you make that will either further our understanding of a character or move the action forward (or both!)?

Draw a line thru the scenes you want to cut.

Sometimes a scene seems out of place, or you realize that the scene is important, but you haven't set it up properly. Make a quick note (on a stickie if you're out of room) about where the scene should go and what you're missing.

2. Now read through your road map, paying attention this time to pacing. Are there sections that drag on, with scene after scene hitting the same emotional point without either adding to or dispersing tension? Are your sub-plots properly extended through the major narrative? Make a note of what needs to move where to tighten your pacing. I do this by drawing a lot of arrows. By the time I'm done, it looks like a battalion of drunken ants has staggered all over my roadmap.

3. Read through again, this time paying attention to your location notes. If all of the action in your book only happens in a small handful of locations, ponder this awhile. Is that really the right approach, or is there more you can do with the story by introducing new locations? In my new book (The Impossible Knife of Memory, comes out in Jan 2014), there are many scenes at the main character's house. Most of them have to be there, but a couple became much more powerful when I changed the location because the new setting allowed my characters to engage in actions that strengthened the narrative.

4. Go back to the scenes that you maked CONVO. Are they actual scenes, with action, or do you have two or more talking heads? Maybe you want talking heads, but be advised that too much of that reads like a screenplay. 

Here is a real life roadmap from earlier this year showing my dissection of the last two-thirds of my new book (we abbreviate it to TIKOM around here) back when it was Draft 3 and very far away from being complete. (No one saw the manuscript until Draft 5.)


Once your road map is complete, you dive back into the manuscript, slicing, dicing, shredding, adding, and, believe it or not, enjoying yourself because making your story stronger always feels great.

Next post: How to POLISH.

Non-fiction prompt – Make a roadmap of your manuscript, or of the first ten chapters of a favorite book. 

Fiction prompt – Take a scene from your book and flip it into an unexpected location. Instead of at school, move everyone to the zoo. (Where in the zoo? Specificity is everything!) Instead of the mall, put them in a subway car, or at a county fair where the rides are all run by creepy-looking carnies.

Fifteen minutes spent writing today could change your life.

scribble… scribble… scribble…

WFMAD Day 17 – The Bones of Writing – Part 2


People sometimes ask me to quantify how much time I spend in the different stages of the writing process. That’s a tough question.

If you held my favorite teddy bear hostage and forced me to answer, I’d say roughly 5% goes to Pondering and Mucking Around, 15% is spent Scribbling, 70% is Boiling Down The Bones, and 10% is figure out how to Craft Chords and Singing.




Let me explain that last 80%. It’s rather important. Other people call it Revision. I'm using more interesting language to prevent that awful allergic reaction some of you have when faced with the concept. This is how it works for me.




Boiling Down The Bones – After scribbling that hideous, but somehow lovable first draft, I usually have 300-400 pages of chaos. Sometimes it’s obvious what’s not working. I often have two minor characters who serve the same purpose in the story and thus can be melded into one, or I have set every scene in one of three locations and that is completely boring.

Sometimes I'm still uncovering my main character and the true, deep story of her life on the fourth or fifth draft. I know I'm getting close when I've thrown out a couple of hundred pages. That seems to be the amount of dreck that I must clear away before I can really get to work.

There is a simple trick for maintaining your focus through the months (or years) that books demand. Just ask "How can I make this better?" If the answer is that you cannot, that the book is perfection itself, put it aside for a few weeks and ask again, "How can I make it better?"

Starting that question with "How" is what forces you to examine the strengths and weaknesses of your story and be honest with yourself. 




Crafting Chords – If you think of the scenes and conflicts in a book as musical notes, then you can imagine arranging and rearranging the notes into patterns and riffs until they make a song. That’s the most basic level of storytelling.

Your goal in revision is to find the layers within your story, the image systems that will unite subtext with text and give your story depth and richness

(HT to Robert McKee for the phrase “image systems” which I have borrowed from his book Story and the workshop of his that I attended with some writer buddies about 15 years ago.)

Singing – You’ve got chords now so you can sing! With your imagery in place, with your plot and character development in place, now you can really plunge into the vast ocean of language and come up with precisely the right words to elevate your prose to a new level.

Storytelling – Look at you! You wrote a book, or a short story or a poem! Put it away again, maybe for a month. No, even better, put it away for a full cycle of the moon and start working on your next project.




When the moon again reaches the fullness that it has that night, take out your manuscript again. Record yourself reading it out loud – every single word. A few days after that, carve out a day of uninterrupted time and listen to the recording while you follow along with the text version either printed out or on your computer screen. Take your time and listen to the book. Your ears will hear clunky passages and dialog that your eyes didn't pick up. Every time you hear something that doesn’t sound right, make a note on the manuscript. The next day, go through and fix all those tiny problem areas you found.




Tomorrow and Thursday I'll post more tried-and-true revision techniques.


Non-fiction prompt – Describe the absolute best thing that you want to have happen after you publish your book. 

Fiction prompt – Your main character picks up a boy who is walking down the road during a snowstorm, not wearing a coat. When he gets in the car, your MC realizes that he's older than a boy, and there is something unsettling about his eyes…


Fifteen minutes spent writing today could change your life.

scribble… scribble… scribble…


WFMAD Day 16 – The Bones of the Writing Process – Part 1

We suck at teaching writing.

We use beige, dust-covered words and arrange them in well-balanced, useless diagrams like this….


… and then we roll our eyes when students say they hate writing. We are idiots.

It’s time to rename the stages of writing. We’re writers, right? (Try saying that fast three times!) It’s our job to bring words to life.

These are the stages of my writing process:

  • Pondering
  • Mucking Around
  • Scribbling
  • Abandonment
  • Boiling Down The Bones
  • Chords
  • Singing
  • Storytelling

A little more interesting, don’t you think?


Pondering – You know how you can smell smoke before you realize that it’s smoke? There’s that moment when your nose twitches, before you are fully aware what's going on, then you lift your head, face into the wind and there it is – something is burning.

That’s what it feels like when I’m pondering an idea for a new book. I begin to notice things – articles, new songs, a hairstyle or a pair of decorated sneakers – and I find myself jotting them down. I might have a book idea or I might not. If I jump in too early and try to force a description of the characters or the major plot points, everything vanishes. I ponder until my ponderer is sore.

Mucking Around – When the idea takes solid shape – I know a bit about the character and I think I know a couple of the book’s important moments of conflict – I start jotting things down. I play a lot of “What if” games and start exploring the relationships my main character has with the other characters who have popped onto the page and are refusing to leave.

Scribbling – Other people would call this a “first draft.” It always starts out being so much fun, but after seventy pages or so it often bogs down because I don’t know enough about the characters yet. Some people take a sideways step at this point and make outlines. I’ve tried that. I always throw them out. I have to put my head down and plow my way to the end of the book. The only way out of the Deep Dark First Draft Forest is to write myself a path.

Abandonment – Yep, you read that write right. I abandon the book. I put it away for a couple of weeks and work on other projects. My subconscious needs time to process all the scribbling and sort through it. By the time I get to the end of that first draft I'm finally beginning to understand the world of the story. And that’s when the real fun begins… REVISION!!!

Which I’ll discuss tomorrow.


Non-fiction prompt – What are your favorite and most-hated parts of the writing process? Be specific and honest about what it feels like to be in your most-hated part.

Fiction prompt – Look at the grinning dog above. Why is she smiling like that? Who is she with? What is the setting? How old is she, what's her backstory? What happens next?

Fifteen minutes spent writing today could change your life.

scribble… scribble… scribble…

David Milch on writing and God

“When you are not writing, you’re going to be sad. You are going to feel inadequate. You are going to feel untalented. You are going to feel incompetent. It’s crucially important to understand that the impulse to write is a reaching out to God.”

—David Milch, creator of Deadwood and so much more, in a presentation at the WGA Theater, 2001