Monday, August 29, 2016

Susan Says: Summer Camp at Highlights Part IV

Today I'm pleased to bring you a distillation of Susan Campbell Bartoletti's excellent key note, "The DIY Home Guide to Repair for Your Story." Her lecture was rich and I can only touch on some of her presentation--but look for a future book review that will use additional material from her talk. In preparing for this blog Susan acknowledged that her lecture was the result of what she has learned--from her own experience as well as from the wonderful people she has met in her own journey as an author. Susan cautions that these are not rules, but rather suggestions. "Writers often find their own way, once they have a map."

Rough Draft:  Your rough draft is your “get words on the page” stage. It’s not a first draft. 

You won’t know what your book is about until you have written your story from beginning to end. So write it through. Trust that your ending will inform your beginning. Once you’ve written it through, you will be ready for a true first draft.

TIP: Once you’ve written it through, read it from beginning to end without pens and pencils. Otherwise you’re tempted to tinker. Don’t. As Dennis Foley says, “You can’t tinker a novel into working.” 

After reading through this preliminary draft, consider the following questions: 
  1. What was the story you wanted to write?
  2. What was the story you actually wrote? 
If you wrote the story you intended to write, great. You’re ready to roll up your sleeves and begin the work on the first draft.  If you didn’t, decide which is the better story and what you have to do to fix it. 

First Draft:  This is the fix-the-storyline draft. 

Determine which scenes have to be added, deleted, rearranged, or revise.  (Carol’s note: I wrote several “first drafts" before I was happy with the storyline for Half-Truths.) 

Ask yourself: Did you begin your story at the best possible time? What do you have to kill off?  

Your first idea is often clich├ęd and has to be thrown out.  A first draft often needs bold changes. 

  • Play with the order of your narrative. 
  • Figure out what’s missing.
  • Write missing scenes. 
  • Add them into your manuscript. Susan does not do this on her computer. She uses a yellow legal pad and writes out the new scenes and inserts them into printed manuscript. Why? Because of the next tip.

TIP: Big changes require retyping.  Retyping will smooth out an uneven voice.

TIP: Every book should have a story problem. This problem can often be articulated as a Major Dramatic Question (MDQ) that can be answered yes or no.  For example In Sarah Plain and Tall, Anna wants a mother. This is a concrete goal, more than “she wants love” which is abstract. MDQ: Will she get a mother? In the climax, this question is raised: Will Anna get Sarah as a mother?
Susan with Kathy Erskine and Mitali Perkins
at Summer Camp

The MDQ is raised in the inciting incident and then trumpeted - raised again with more at stake - in the climax. It's the resolution that answers the MDQ. In the climax to Sarah, Plain and Tall, Sarah rides off in the wagon. We don't know if she's going to come back. We don't know if Anna will get the mother she so badly needs and wants. Our hearts are about to break, just as Anna's heart is about to break.  The resolution begins when Sarah returns. Our hearts are still thumping a bit because the falling action of the story doesn't mean that every battle is over, but then she stays and all is well and we have the final answer to the MDQ. 

TIP: To figure out what’s missing, outline your rough draft. This will help you find track your narrative action. It will help you find plotting holes and scenes that don’t turn. 


Sequence of events, which constitute your character’s attempt to solve a problem or attain a goal. 

Consider PACING

How quickly do events unfold?
  • This is about tension and how quickly the story moves through the plot. How the story unfolds.
  • The breath of the book, the breath of the story.
  • Reflected in the length of the sentences.

Consider STAKES:

  • What’s at stake if your main character fails to achieve his goal?
  • What’s your main character’s biggest fear if he or she doesn’t achieve this goal?
  • What are the consequences?

Goals and consequences create dramatic tension in your story.  (Don’t let your character get to her goal too easily. Then the story is over.)

In each key scene, the character should be at a crossroads. He or she must make a decision and risk something that is against his or her moral fiber. 

Summarize the story from the antagonist’s POV. The stronger the antagonist, the stronger the protagonist will become.


If you place too many in the beginning, then you’re not starting at the right moment. See if you can insert them within the text. 

Second and Third Drafts and Beyond:  

The polishing stage. You revise your story with an eye toward scenes, character and characterization, narration, dialogue.

TIP: Change line space. 1.5. or 2 inch margins. Print it out and it’ll look like a real book. That will help with the next revision. 

TIP: Revise for dialogue. Make sure dialogue does what it has to do.

TIP:  The best language grows out of the emotional and physical landscapes of your characters.

Susan uses a writing notebook for each book she writes. She jots down scenes and characters as well as what she’ll write the next day. At night she reviews what she’s going to write the next day. Then she lets the “sleep committee” (as John Steinbeck called it) take over. She stops in the middle of scenes so she can pick up there.

Susan Campbell Bartoletti is an award-winning author of picture books, novels, and nonfiction for children, including the Newbery Honor book Hitler Youth: Growing Up in Hitler’s Shadow, the Sibert Medal winning Black Potatoes, and the acclaimed The Boy Who Dared. Her work has received dozens of awards and honors, including the NCTE Orbis Pictus Award for Nonfiction, the SCBWI Golden Kite Award for Nonfiction, and the Jane Addams Children’s Book Award. She also teaches in the low- residency Writing for Children MFA program at Spalding University. For more information, contact her at

For the previous posts about Highlights Summer Camp please go to:

Gems from Jan- Part III


Anonymous said...

Great post!
You made me feel like I'm right there listening to her keynote again. =)


Linda Phillips said...

Thanks for this refresher. I know all this (sure!) but it's such a good thing to go over it again, and again, and again, especially if you are in the middle of that rough draft, which I am. And here I'd been calling it "the first draft." See, I really don't know as much as I thought I did, ha!

Carol Baldwin said...

Thanks Liz & LInda. Good things are worth repeating and relearning!

Clara Gillow Clark said...

What a truly stellar workshop presentation! Thanks, Carol, for taking notes and sharing with your readers.

Carol Baldwin said...

Thanks, Clara. And thanks for the RT!

Anonymous said...

Great synopsis, Carol! I'll add these to my own notes. Thanks for the recap!

Carol Baldwin said...

Thanks, Jilanne! Glad it was helpful.

Vijaya said...

These are such wonderful tips for revision. I esp. liked that the first writing is really an exploratory draft. Sometimes I still feel in that stage with my historical.

Carol Baldwin said...

I wish I had known these points when I first started Half-Truths, Vijaya. I tweaked that exploratory draft rather than look at the big picture. Writing is HARD work! Thanks for stopping by.

Anonymous said...

Well done, Carol. People often comment to me that they'd like to write a book but don't have the time. Now, we all know that is and isn't true. It's all about making the time. But there's a lot to share in this speech with people wanting to talk about writing. May I reprint this in the Carteret Writers newsletter, "The Write Stuff?" Thanks, Sarah

Carol Baldwin said...

Thanks, Sarah. Susan and I would be glad to have republish this as long as you include all of the attributions.

Rosi said...

I have been to a Highlights Workshop led by Susan and have seen her notebooks. They are something. Thanks for sharing this.

Carol Baldwin said...

Rosi- You have availed yourself of Highlights' resources many times. Good for you!

sheri levy said...

Great post! It was super to rethink plots and scenes. It does take many revisions to get to the real story! And then you rewrite again! Thanks, Carol.

Carol Baldwin said...

Glad it was helpful, Sheri. And yes... then you rewrite again!

Linda A. said...

So good of you and Susan to share these tips! Thanks! I hope my sleep committee will help me remember these when I need them. If not, I'll refer to your blog. ;)

Carol Baldwin said...

That's cute, Linda. I agree!!

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