ARE YOU WRITING LETTERS OF AUTHORIAL INTENT? (NO, THEY’RE NOT QUERIES)

Piggybacking on last week’s post on retyping revisions, I wanted to share another technique I’ve found to be particularly powerful during the revision process: the letter of authorial intent.

Sometimes, it’s hard to know where to get started with a revision. And while it’s true that consulting beta readers or critique groups can offer authors some great guidance, it’s also unfortunately true that conflicting advice (or advice you don’t 100% agree with) can leave you feeling more confused or lost than ever…in the darkest of times, you can even wonder if your project’s hit a dead-end.

At this point, I’d recommend writing what I’ve come to refer to as a letter of authorial intent.

WHAT THE HECK IS THIS THING, ANYWAY?

It is in no way a query. A query is short and it’s jacket copy. It tries to entice someone else to read your book. This is a letter to yourself. In it, you’re literally describing what you intended, as the author, for this book to be. The important thing to remember is that this letter has nothing to do with the book you actually wrote. Not at this point. This letter is describing the book you dreamed of. The book you intended to write. Reconnect with your just-inspired self. What got you excited in the first place? What was the initial spark?

Spiral out from there. Let yourself go. Don’t worry if your thoughts hop around. Just get them down at this point. This is a total brain-dump, a stream-of-consciousness freewrite. What themes did you want to include? What about the characters? Who did you imagine they would be?

Get every last thing you wanted this book to be down on paper. Write it in longhand, type it, dictate it. Whatever it takes to let all the ideas flow naturally.

REVISE YOUR LETTER

Now that you’ve got it all down, organize it. Remember, this is a letter for you, so there really are no hard-and-fast rules. It’s all about what works best for you—and for this project! I do shuffle all my thoughts by topic (Character, Theme, etc.) Really, this step is more of a logical reordering than it’s technically a revision. You don’t care how the letter is phrased; you’re actually creating a kind of checklist.

Once I’ve gotten my own letter of authorial intent organized, I usually:

WRITE A ONE-SENTENCE PITCH

And the pitch is based solely on the letter, not the manuscript. If the book you described in your own letter actually existed, how would you pitch it in one sentence?

COMPARE YOUR LETTER WITH YOUR BOOK

This is the fun part (at least, I think it’s fun). Put your authorial letter of intent (and that one-sentence pitch) next to your manuscript. Does the manuscript live up to the pitch? Does the manuscript accomplish what you originally set out to do? Do not go easy on yourself! Identify the areas where you feel you didn’t hit the mark. Why? What separates the current WIP’s main character from the character you originally imagined? Are the themes and messages present in this WIP? Are they present but perhaps not in the way or to the extent you planned? Why?

By comparing your original goals to the current manuscript, you can begin to identify holes or weaknesses. From there, you can begin to brainstorm ideas on how to fix those weaknesses.

A FANTASTIC SIDE-BONUS

I’ve found that by reconnecting with what originally inspired me, I often find myself reinfected with that original excitement and the high of the initial spark of inspiration. The kind of excitement that can help a writer power through a tough revision…

WHY YOU SHOULD RETYPE YOUR REVISION (YES, THE WHOLE THING)

We’ve all got manuscripts we’ve had forever. Perhaps they haven’t sold, or we just don’t feel they’ve ever really found their way. We’ve written and rewritten them again.

At this point, one of the best things you can do for your manuscript is retype it.

I’ve offered this suggestion before to fellow writers. As soon as I do, they gasp with utter, complete, total horror.

But I’m serious. I’ve done it before, many times. Print your current manuscript, put it on the desk or table next to you, and start retyping.

WHY, you ask, WOULD I DO SUCH A TIME-WASTING, RIDICULOUS THING?????

Because by trying to save time with a quickie cutting and pasting job, we can wind up spending (or wasting, depending on your point of view) far more time (multiple rewrites + multiple submissions + multiple wait times). We can often get to the best manuscript in a shorter period of time by just giving a manuscript a fresh re-type.

Here’s what I mean:

TYPING MAKES YOU RETHINK EVERY SINGLE WORD

The speed of reading is fast. Without realizing it, our eyes zip through sentences, paragraphs, whole chapters when we re-examine our manuscripts. Often, they zip too quickly for us to fully reconsider if that’s what we want to say.

The speed of writing is slow. And even though I’m a fast typist, I’ll admit, retyping is just plain not fun. You don’t want to type anything that’s not the highest quality. We’re far more willing to delete during this process. We’re far more anxious to get to the good stuff. To cut to the chase. It leads to a far tighter story.

TYPING MAKES YOUR MANUSCRIPT FEEL MORE COHESIVE

By now, you know that “retyping” doesn’t literally mean just doing secretarial work. When you retype, you shouldn’t be mindlessly copying text. You should be rethinking every line in your book.

When we cut and paste and “spot-revise” (tackle specific scenes or chapters, leaving the rest of the manuscript in place), the voice of the book stops feeling cohesive, especially if those revisions took place over several months—maybe even years. An author is in a different mindset every single time he or she sits down to work on a manuscript. If you’re retyping—and rethinking every single word, tweaking and revising along the way—the voice of the book begins to tighten. It’s being told by a person in the same mindset from front to back.

RETYPING CREATES SPACE FOR AH-HA! MOMENTS

This goes back to the slow pace of writing. Retyping and rethinking along the way means that you’re now rethinking literally everything about your book. Two or three chapters in, you often get hit with new revelations—not just about phrasing or line edits, but about structure and plot. And because you’re already retyping, you won’t think twice about an overhaul. The chapter in the middle suddenly becomes the opening scene. It doesn’t matter—you’re already committed to retyping every single word, so you’re actually less worried about the implications of making such sweeping changes.

YES, RETYPING OFTEN LEADS TO WRITING

New scenes, new chapters. Fresh characters. New plot twists. A more satisfying ending. You can wind up writing large swaths of the book. It can, occasionally, become a completely different project. A better one. A more cohesive, tighter one. All because you simply sat down to retype.

 

BOOK RECOMMENDATION: SUPERFAIL

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I’m officially in love with this book!

SUPERFAIL:

Laser vision isn’t so hot when you’re cross-eyed, and supersonic flight’s a real downer when motion sickness keeps you grounded.

Twelve-year-old Marshall Preston is a Defective–a person with superhuman abilities that are restricted by some very human setbacks. While other kids are recruited to superhero teams, Marshall’s stuck in seventh grade with a kid who can run at super speed but can’t turn a corner, another with a radioactive peanut allergy that turns him into a swollen Hulk, and a telepath who reads everyone’s thoughts out loud.

Defectives like Marshall aren’t exactly superhero material, but when he uncovers a plot to destroy one of the greatest superhero teams of all time, Marshall and his less-than-super friends set out to prove that just because you’re defective doesn’t mean you can’t save the day.
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Illustrated by a Disney animator, SUPERFAIL has such great visual appeal. It’ll immediately suck in any comic book reader. I couldn’t resist snapping a pic of one of my favorite spreads (love his Vans):

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Also, I love the fact that SUPERFAIL isn’t purely a graphic novel; rather than relying only on conversation bubbles, the book includes paragraphs of text, making it perfect for the reader you’d like to edge closer to non-illustrated books:

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This pic’s a little dark, because I might still read under the covers. 😉

And it comes with an uplifting, feel-good story to boot! Highly recommended for those looking for gift books for young readers. Grab your own copy of SUPERFAIL.

BOOK RECOMMENDATION: THE GREAT CAT NAP

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Humor and intrigue aside, A.M. Bostwick’s penchant for literary description is spectacular.

My favorite passage opens chapter one:

“Outside the double pane window, leaves grew crispy and dry in the cold autumn wind. Their pigment was fading, transforming to crimson, copper, and gold. The wind shook the leaves loose and they fell below the barren branches. It was a beautiful way to die.”

What a tale! What a detective! What a cat! (Yes, cat. I’m a total sucker for animal narrators.)

Grab a copy of Bostwick’s THE GREAT CAT NAP.

TAKING A CHANCE

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I took a few chances on my latest picture book, NOBODY SANG LIKE KATY DID. The book is blend of things that, at first blush, shouldn’t go together:

  1. Poetry and rock ‘n roll: The book itself is a story in verse, and the main character is a singer in her own rock band.
  1. Katydids and singing: Of all the creatures on this earth, katydids are not exactly what you’d consider great singers. To me, their voices sound like creaky screen doors opening over and over! And yet, the main character of NOBODY SANG LIKE KATY DID is, in fact, a katydid.
  1. Kids and formal poetry: Poetry, some think, is stuffy. Or hard. And formal poetry? For young readers? And yet, the book is itself a villanelle, a form most readers don’t encounter until later school years, when they read Thomas’s “Do not go gently into that good night,” arguably the most famous villanelle written.
  1. Photos and illustration: Each page of the book contains watercolor illustrations merged with photographic elements.


The thing is, though, mixing up pieces that seem like they belong to two different worlds is, I think, where absolute magic happens. We see things in a new way. We realize some of the best rock songs are really like three-minute poems (and the repeating lines of the villanelle is like the repeating chorus of a rock song). We realize that for kids who are MG readers, straddling the line between grown-up ideas and younger interests, photos and illustrations can make the perfect combination. We realize that the best singing voices are like Katy’s—not technically perfect, but full of soul. And, most importantly, we realize that finding new ways to make poetry (even formal poetry!) accessible to young readers means that they won’t be intimidated by it as adults. We help foster a lifelong love and appreciation of poetry.

Take a chance—find a new “odd-couple” pairing to put in your own WIP! And check out more about NOBODY SANG LIKE KATY DID at my #SCBWIBookStop page.