Today I’m pulling back the curtain on where I am at this stage with my novel, Miraculous. The book has been pushed back to spring 2022, which means I haven’t yet gotten my first editorial letter. In preparation for its arrival, I read through my manuscript one last time and wrote a letter to myself. This is a technique I learned from editor Cheryl Klein (whose book, The Magic Words: Writing Great Books for Children and Young Adults, I can’t recommend highly enough). She calls it a “letter to a sympathetic reader” and encourages her authors to write one to themselves. The primary function of the letter is to teach a writer about her own work.
This letter is my gentle reminder to be kind toward my writing and my efforts so far.
Congratulations! You’ve really come a long way! That’s the first thing I want you to know. I want you to see that as the accomplishment it is. There is some solid stuff here. It’s the strongest first novel draft you’ve ever turned in (…even if you’ve sent updates to the originally turned in version twice!).
This letter doesn’t have any major editorial work (I’ll leave that to Stacey to figure out). But here are some thoughts as I read:
word choice and rhythm
I know you want the words to count and to have power and maybe even some rhythm like some other novelists you’ve read. But right now, in some sections the rhythm is relentless and distracting. (Perhaps this is the downside of writing poetry and picture books?) I’m not sure how to break it yet, but it does need to be shaken up and changed.
chapters and scenes
Some chapters aren’t yet pulling their weight. Make sure they are doing double duty. Even better — always aim for every scene, etc to do more than the obvious work it’s doing.
“Five Pennies”. “The Second Show”. You need to move closer into the moment and bolster it with secondary things. For example, in “Five Pennies”, what else can be going on beyond the scene in the grove? What might further deepen it, or parallel it, or contrast it to Jack’s world? “The Second Show” currently has given equal weight to Jack’s two interactions with the crowd, when the second interaction is the key one. The melodrama needs to be toned down (How? Who knows right now? Why is melodrama your natural go to??), and the second interaction could, perhaps, in real time, contrast what he’s realizing about the doctor. Of course, this can’t come across as herky-jerky but smooth and logical and natural. Easy, right?
Also, you’re not deep enough yet or as present as you need to be. Think of the books where you are THERE in the moment with the character. Find that place and stay there. Easier said than done, but for now be aware of when and where you can move closer in.
I know your critique group has encouraged you to vary and shorten sentence lengths and to remember natural dialogue doesn’t always happen in full sentences. The problem is you’ve chopped up some sentences in ways that draw attention to themselves rather than effectively communicating what’s going on. Yes, you write for children, and always using overlong sentences isn’t best. But! Think of the great middle grades you’ve read with lavish sentences that trust the reader will follow along. Think of Ursula Le Guin’s advice that each sentence should lead to the next, that as a novelist and a lover of words you can delve in and command the flow. Aim to work as a master craftswoman! Let the cutting and tightening come later!
layer and layer
Small details that aren’t there at present. Miss Moore finishing Mrs. Wells’s hat, for instance, in a later chapter when we see her again. What else? Look for places to make connections.
memory, stories, belief
Ideas the manuscript plays with (to keep in mind when story weaving): our memories inform how we see the world and ourselves, as do the stories we tell ourselves and others. These things inform our beliefs, whether we realize it or not. And memories — if they’re spoken aloud — can shed light on what’s true and what’s not. (Nana’s story of the fire; Silas’s quest to right the past.) We’ve got the statue named Memory to anchor this physically for Jack and Cora (and, hopefully, for the reader). What else? Taking the words of a child seriously. The things we can change vs. the things we can’t (and learning how to live in the middle). Promises made / promises broken / the burden of making a promise. Secrets and the burden of keeping them.
Remember, once your real letter comes, that you’ll probably feel unsure about how to proceed. Keep in mind “The Singing Bowl” — “begin the song exactly where you are.” You don’t have to have it figured out. You just have to start.
Here’s to plowing to the end of the next row.