Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Writing Short, Writing Long

Since this is the month of reruns, I thought I’d give you an update on this column that ran in December 2009. We authors are often circumspect about our books before they actually appear, and so I didn’t identify this project by name. But now, since it’s only months away from publication, I proudly introduce….

WRITE ON, MERCY! THE SECRET LIFE OF MERCY OTIS WARREN, written by me, illustrated by Alexandra Wallner, (Calkins Creek: Spring 2012)

Here is the cover art, in the process of final design. I’ve also added some further details about Mercy in brackets below.

I’ve written picture book biographies and chapter book biographies for middle grades and young adults, and the research required is virtually identical. For my middle grade biography Jeannette Rankin: Political Pioneer, I read biographies, histories, scholarly articles, and primary sources. That book weighed in at over 21,000 words.

For a forthcoming picture book biography, I did the same amount of reading. I visited my subject’s hometown [Barnstable, MA] and the town where she lived most of her married life [Plymouth.] I ordered microfilms of her papers from her state historical society [Massachusetts] and had them delivered to a nearby public library [Santa Monica, CA,] where I squinted and printed decades of her handwriting. My first draft of the book came in at 7100 words. Draft #2 was 2400 words. Draft #6, the one I sold, had slimmed down to 1232 words. Just like losing those last five pounds, the last draft was hardest to write.

What happened between 7100 words and 1232 words?

• I figured out what my story was about. [Her audacity to become the first woman to write and publish political poetry, plays, and history.]

• I decided which parts of her life illustrated what I wanted to say about her. [You’ll have to read the book to find out!]

• I ruthlessly expunged all kinds of wonderful details that didn’t enhance that story. [See below.]

• I did all that again and again, in each draft.

The advantages of writing longer is, of course, that I could include more of those wonderful details. I could bring in a larger cast of characters. I could quote the vitriolic tirade between my subject and a longtime friend. [John Adams excoriated Mercy in, count them, TEN letters for not praising him enough in her history of the American Revolution.] I could talk about her brilliant brother and how he went mad. [James Otis, called The Patriot, already mentally unstable, never recovered from a Loyalist beating.] I could discuss and quote more of her writings. I could talk more about her children and their tragedies and her grief. [Three of her five sons died before her, including her favorite, Winslow, killed in an Indian massacre.] I could discuss her friendships with women and what that showed about her era. [Intelligent women who remained offstage while their men played leading roles.]

What did I gain by choosing to write a shorter picture book? I could use a livelier voice and more colloquial language. This works better in a short form than it would in a more detailed and documented treatment of her life. And of course, I’ll have [Alexandra Wallner's delightful] pictures to help me tell the story, describe the setting, and create an atmosphere.

Writing long, writing short – each has its charms and challenges.


five nests said...

Great update, Gretchen, and I love the cover art!
Caroline Arnold

Peggy T said...

I love your explanation of what you cut in the process of finding your story. That is the hardest part for a long-winded person like me. I appreciate knowing someone else writes by whittling.

Peggy Thomas
New for 2011: For the Birds: the story of Roger Tory Peterson (Calkins Creek)

Gretchen Woelfle said...

Thanks, Peggy. You're a great whittler! I'm a big fan of your Farmer George Plants A Nation and look forward to For the Birds.