Sunday 8 May 2011

SCBWI Revision Masterclass: Sara Grant is Born Again

On Saturday I attended a SCBWI Masterclass: Sara Grant's Revision Game. Sara is a writer and senior commissioning editor at Working Partners. Her first YA novel Dark Parties will be published in the US (Little, Brown), UK (Orion) and Germany (Droemer) in 2011. At Working Partners she has helped plot, write and revise more than fifty books for children of all ages, and she is a founder and editor of the amazing Undiscovered Voices.

So there I was: all set for a nice relaxing lunch, a pub, a little learning and conversation, right? I was feeling a bit fragile after a legendary garden party with the neighbours the previous evening, but it isn't like I've never revised a novel before - though my answer to problems has generally been to write the next novel better, rather than go over and over and over the same ground. And I'd even done my homework, so figured I should coast through the day quite okay.

Wrong! This was boldly revising where I have never revised before.

Sara set us straight right from the beginning:

'I'm a born again revisionist, and I'm here to convert: so watch out!' - Sara Grant.

I stuck with one of my Slushpile resolutions: I took a camera, and actually used it. But although I tried to photograph Sara many times, most came out like one of those cartoons where the superhero zooms so fast all you see are an outline and a vapour trail.

A Born Again Revisionist: Sara in Motion

Hard at work!

Revising can be colourful

My top five take-away points for the day:
  • revision is all about knowing the difference between what you thought you've put on the page, and what is actually on the page;
  • don't do micro-editing to avoid macro-editing! Fix the big stuff - plot, POV, tense, characters - before you worry about the picky details;
  • I love word cloud: you can paste your whole novel in, and see your most used words; you can display them in lots of colours and patterns and fonts! Pretty, but it also lets you see if the things you think are important are there, and if the things that aren't, are (I am embarrassed to admit how prominent the word 'just' is in all of my novels. Not that I've been compulsively checking them. All day. I just can't help myself....);
  • read Robert McKee's Story! It has been sitting on my shelf, beckoning, for quite some time, but I have resolved to dust it off very soon;
  • finally, for me, the thing that resonated the most was the homework Sara set. I'll go into this in some detail, below.
When Sara sent the email with our homework around in advance of the masterclass, I must confess: I GROANED when I saw what we were asked to do. I protested; I wailed; I procrastinated. Then, I did it.

I'll paraphrase what we were to do to my own understanding, with a little help from Robert McKee. We were asked to look at our novel, and come up with the following. The heart of our story: why we were writing it, why it is important to us, why it is our story. Then, the story's premise: the 'what if', the idea that inspired the story. Next, the controlling idea: a concept from McKee's Story: 'the story's ultimate meaning expressed through the action and aesthetic emotion of the last act's climax.' Finally, the pitches: a one line pitch, a paragraph pitch, and movie style pitch.

For me this was a seriously valuable exercise. Even though it was painful, I felt I had a much clearer vision of my story, where it was going, and why it should reach that destination.

Thanks, Sara!

Sara slows to normal human speed at the pub afterwards,
her superhero tasks done for the day

We all survived! Me and Mo


  1. I really, really, really, really, really, really, really, really, really wish I'd been there :(

    Does Sara ever travel to the frozen North I wonder?

  2. Yes - this is one workshop I would have loved to have done! Can we get Sara for Winchester?????
    Mind you - your round up has been great Teri - am off to do my homework asap.....

  3. Thanks for this. I'm going to cut and paste this blog - it's a keeper.

  4. Thanks for the write-up, Teri. I'm off to apply it to my novels now. And 'just' is my overly-used word too!

  5. Brilliant post, Teri, really so useful - as Wendy says, this one's a keeper. Off to cut and paste it. Thanks so much for sharing!

  6. Thanks for all the comments.
    You know, the thing I found really interesting about the day was comparing notes with other attendees, and finding we all picked a different thing that resonated with us. Which just shows you how much Sara packed in to just a few hours - she went over so many different ideas and approaches to revision, that there was something in there for everyone.

  7. My words are JUST, LOOKED and LIKE, I was sure AS and IF would be in there too but maybe being aware of them makes me use them less. Better get the editing pen out!

  8. Oh my, this sounds like an incredible workshop. I so wish I was there but thank you very much for this useful rundown, Terri,,

  9. This was a great workshop. I took so much away with me. I wonder if we can bottle Sara's enthusiasm and uncork it when the self-doubt and uglies niggle when we knuckle down on the edits?

    A great write-up too. I considered doing one, but realised I was more slackjawed than most times and probably didn't make half enough notes!

    *prints off this article*

  10. This is so useful, Teri! I carry 'Story' with me most places - it is inspirational.

    Maureen - I think we need to get Sara oop north!

  11. Another vote for Story - it's brilliant and so packed with information that I think everyone takes something different from it. I was showing Candy the character diagrams I'd drawn, based on the examples in the book - she said that she never looked at the diagrams! But she still managed to write an amazing novel based on McKee's ideas. So you can take as little or as much of what he suggests as you like.

    I believe structure is the next frontier of children's writing. Thanks to organisations like SCBWI, the craft of unpublished writers has improved exponentially. Now, we need to make sure that structure is given the same attention.


  12. i'm a great fan of mckee. if you start with understanding story structure all your ideas go to good places. like addy, i carry it around with me. this is why i ought to get an e-reader. it is a fat book.

    fab report, teri. perhaps people who came out with other ideas from the talk would care to bullet point them here!

  13. Thanks for posting on this event. I really wanted to attend. Great tips here! I'm going to nose through my copy of Story again...

  14. Thank you for useful post, Terri.
    What an incredibly valuable workshop. I wish I had been there. It sounds like I need to find a copy of McKee's "Story" or buy one - probably both quicker and cheaper ;)


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