Carol Baldwin on (Trying to) Make a Long Story Short…plus a giveaway!

Carol Baldwin is the first in my monthly series of guest bloggers talking about critiquing. Carol’s most recent book is Teaching the Story: Fiction Writing in Grades 4-8 (Maupin House, 2008). She has coordinated an SCBWI critique group for over 15 years, blogs at www.carolbaldwinblog.blogspot.com, and is writing her first young adult novel. The three Gs in her life are gardening, grandchildren, and learning how to golf.

Read through Carol’s great post to see all the steps critiques can take you along. Take the time to leave a comment on the post. As with all the posts in this series, I’ll be picking one commenter to win a copy of my book, The Writing & Critique Group Survival Guide. Enter by Monday for a chance to win. Make sure you leave contact info in the comment, so I can get hold of you!

And…here’s Carol!

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When someone asks why I decided to write about two girls in Charlotte in 1950—one white and another light-skinned black—I tell them it’s a long story. A story full of critiques, re-vision, and rewriting.

Half-Truths started as a picture book. About 15 years ago, I visited Wing Haven, a bird sanctuary in Myers Park, NC.  The garden’s history is full of stories about animals which the founder, Mrs. Clarkson, rehabilitated. When I visited I thought, Someone should write a picture book about this place! I tried, but there were too many stories to fit into (what was then the acceptable) 2000 word limit.

Elizabeth Clarkson with one of the birds she nursed back to health

Since the market wouldn’t support my original idea, I re-visioned the story.  The new book would be a fictionalized account of Mrs. Clarkson rehabilitating a baby robin. I created a young boy protagonist to make it a “boy book.” When I shared the idea with my son-in-law he scoffed, “Boys aren’t going to read a story about a bird! They want blood and guts!”

His off-the-cuff “critique” made me consider my audience. Maybe this was a girl story? I started playing with different ideas.

At that time, I met Joyce Hostetter and read BLUE. She repeated the advice that Carolyn Yoder gave her: “Look for the story in your own backyard.” Although I had moved to Charlotte, N.C. 22 years earlier, I began observing many instances of the same last name belonging to both blacks and whites. What was the connection?

As I looked at pictures of light-skinned African Americans and listened to local stories the seed of my story started to root.

Thad Tate was a prominent African American businessman from the 1890’s-1940’s. Picture courtesy of the Robinson-Spangler Carolina Room, Public Library of Charlotte and Mecklenburg County. I heard stories of his granddaughter passing.

Since I’m a transplanted Yankee writing a Southern story, I surfed the Internet hoping to figure out how my characters spoke “Southern.” The result was a disaster. A member of my SCBWI critique group, Miriam Franklin, read one of those first attempts and said, “No character in Myers Park talked like that!” Her critique was another wake-up call.  I didn’t know who my characters were or where they came from. Their diction should flow from characterization, not vice-versa.

My next significant critique intervention came from Harold Underdown, my critiquer  at the 2009 Highlights Writer’s Workshop. His most helpful question was simple, yet pivotal: “What does your character want?” I have repeatedly wrestled with that question, and have actually found not one–but layers of answers as I continued to write.

Carol Baldwin and Harold Underdown in Chautauqua, NY

I joyfully marked New Year 2011 by finishing my first draft. I read the entire manuscript and then buckled down to what I naively thought, was a chapter-by-chapter revision. I participated in Kidlit4Japan and won a critique from Ann Manheimer.  Among other helpful recommendations, she suggested that I didn’t open my story close enough to the inciting event. As a result, I revised the first five chapters.

Fast forward to September, 2011 and the SCBWI Carolinas conference. Mary Kate Castellani, an associate editor with Walker Books, read 10 pages and offered the biggest book-changing critique of all: since my story featured two main characters–one white and one black–I should write it from both girls’ points-of-view.

Total shock. Rewrite my entire book? Write as much from the black girl’s POV as the white girl’s? How could I, a white author, do that?

That is when I learned how a good critique enables you to re-vision your work.

I laid out my book using different colored note cards representing the alternating chapters. I suppose that means I’m a plotter; I had to visually see how to make the story work from both girls’ point-of-views. (picture of my dining room table)

The result? I’m thrilled that the finished product will be more accessible to a wider audience and am enjoying the new places my manuscript is taking me. But, my critiquing and re-vision hasn’t stopped.

My local SCBWI group reads each new chapter and provides helpful feedback.  I love their thoughts about my characters. “Kate wouldn’t act like that,” or, “Do you really think Lillie would say that?” Their comments make me see my characters through new eyes and help ensure that my characters are both consistent and original.

Revision happens on the small, microscopic level, as well as on the “big picture” level. Recently, to prepare an application for the SCBWI WIP grant, Joyce Hostetter went through my first ten pages and showed me how I could cut 400 words. Meanwhile, Rebecca Petruck looked at the big picture of these same pages and gave a cogent argument for opening the book with a different scene.  Re-vision time again!

Many years ago I created this graphic organizer “The Writing-Revising Cycle” for my book, Teaching the Story: Fiction Writing in Grades 4-8. Feel free to print out a copy and hang it near your workspace; it’s still a good reminder to me of the work I have ahead of me.

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53 thoughts on “Carol Baldwin on (Trying to) Make a Long Story Short…plus a giveaway!

  1. Joanie Murray says:

    Excellent. I have been wondering if I’m really done revising. I thought I was, but now, not so sure. I have sent my manuscript out to few agents and publishers. Do you think it’s okay to make revisions now or wait until I hear back from them?

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    • beckylevine says:

      Joanie, that’s always a hard call! What you might do is take some notes about what you WOULD change, spend some time thinking it through, then see what the agents and editors have to say. They might love it as is, but even if not–you might be really lucky and get a suggestion or two–and if those synch up with what you’ve been thinking, you’re that much further forward!

      Good luck, and thanks for commenting. 🙂

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  2. Carol, thank you for posting this journey of your book. It’s heartening to see how critiques can shape your final product – and one critique improves the text to the point that it is prepared for the next. I look forward to reading this MS, it sounds interesting. I’ve been the recipient of some very helpful critiques that are shaping my MS – sometimes the ideas seem challenging or not accurate, but over time, when I review them, I see the wisdom. Whole chapters have been deleted from my WIP – to make it easier, I have a deleted words document, to keep them in case I change my mind.

    Have a blessed day.
    Heather

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  3. Thanks, Heather–glad to hear that my journey has encouraged you on yours! And journey/adventure it certainly is. I think one of our challenges is to weigh the critiques we receive and know when or when not to listen and take that advice. When I know a person really “gets” my WIP or I see their own writing as really good, then I am much more likely to take their advice.
    A deleted words document is a good idea!! Carol

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  4. Wow, what a journey! I read lots of courage & persistence between the lines of this post. As an aside, I think it’d also be interesting to hear how Carol, a transplanted Yankee, went through transitions of her own while revising her story. 🙂

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  5. Carol, it sounds like you have an excellent critique group — inspiring, encouraging, and not afraid to stop you when you head in an unproductive direction. Just wondering: You’ve taken a lot of material out of your story as you re-visioned; are you finding ways to re-use those characters or plot threads in new/other stories?

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  6. This was such a good post to read on re-visioning as well as revising. Seeing how the process has changed your story so much, yet the kernel is still there, is encouraging.

    I have found critiques from various sources to be so helpful to me, as well, and look forward to the process continuing and growing.

    (And there is contact info in my signin, as well as on my blog — I’d love a copy of your book!)

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  7. I just loved hearing about this layer upon layer of critique. It is also fascinating how what one person loves another can hate in your manuscript and how it is always down to you to make that final choice. I learn so much in receiving and giving critique. Thank you Carole and Becky.

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  8. Lana H. Jackson says:

    Becky, thanks for hosting Carole on your blog.

    Carole, thank you for sharing your journey on revisioning. It has been most delightful and enlightening regarding how a WIP can change shape as it gets better and better.

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  9. To answer some questions. First of all, it does take lots of courage and persistence to write ANYTHING! So, what I’m doing is not unique. But, it also takes a bit of craziness. As I confessed to an 85+-year-old-African American interviewee who I called to verify a detail with today (Yikes–what a run-on sentence!) it also takes some craziness. I don’t think I would have begun this process if I knew how much work it would be. But then, I have learned so much about writing and myself in the process that the journey has been terrific.
    Melodye, early on I had a group of southern women wonder why I wasn’t writing about my hometown in South Jersey. That never occurred to me. My own story seemed boring compared to theirs! I bet they also felt a little defensive in the questions I was asking, but for the most part, the south fascinates me. And the more I have research Charlotte and the Jim Crow era, the more I have learned about the roots of my story and the roots of this era (which so many transplanted Yankees don’t know about!)
    Eileen, actually my critique group in Charlotte has hung in there with me, but like I said in this blog, the “big picture” critiques have often come from others who read the story for the first time.
    Beth– you are right on about the kernel. As I revisit some of my original ideas or talk about the story to others I am very aware that the things which interested me from the beginning about this story are still there–and to an even greater degree now. Hope that makes sense!
    Joanna- yes, it is our choices about our stories and ultimately, we know (or at least we hope to know!) what our story is about.
    One of the things I didn’t say in this post (and this answer can almost be another post!!) is how amazed I am at how important it was to write that first draft, and then to begin all over again with a totally new draft. I had heard people did that–in fact, I’m pretty sure Becky, you advocated that. But doing that was pivotal in strengthening this book.
    We all need to welcome re-visioning our work. As hard as it is.
    Thanks for reading the blog, for commenting, and letting me spout off more!!

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  10. Amy DeKok says:

    Hello..I JUST found you,…and writing is and has been a dream of mine for most of my life..but I have not taken that STEP…your book could help!

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    • beckylevine says:

      I really encourage you to think about a critique group, Amy. Find one with other people just starting out and be gentle with each other. It’s a huge support!

      Like

  11. Bea Edwards says:

    Thank you for this insight. The revision process is so difficult and often painful, but it is wonderful to hear that such a gifted writer/instructor as Carol Baldwin struggles just as the “rest of us learners” do.

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    • beckylevine says:

      I know, Bea–it’s always good to find out that other writers & teachers struggle. I’m sure THEY’D rather not, but it’s reassuring, isn’t it? 🙂

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  12. Janet Denk says:

    Thanks for the post, Becky and Carol. Good, useful stuff.
    I’m with Joyce H. on looking for stories in our own backyards.
    I’m with Carol B. on the notion that we often feel our OWN story isn’t interesting enough.
    Finally, I’m with all those who feel the need to write stuff down that the process is not for weenies. Amen.
    Onward and upward.

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    • beckylevine says:

      Yes, there are many days I wish I’d fallen in love with a story in Cafiornia’s history first, before I found mine in Chicago! But I’m hooked now. 🙂

      No weenies here.

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  13. It takes a lot of courage to totally rewrite a story! And a lot of grace to hear criticism and make good use of it.

    Carol, you’ve demonstrated your ability to both give and take critique. And that’s what being part of the writing community is all about!

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  14. Becky, thanks for posting the story of Carol’s expedition as a writer. I think that any story worth reading would be a journey for the author, as well as the reader. There are many point to ponder in this post. I will savor it for some time.

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  15. Anna Rodriguez says:

    This is a great demonstration of the value of a critique group. A group of us met at the SCBWI conference in Charlotte and have begun meeting regularly. Its inspiring for us newer writers to hear Carol’s perspective. I had the pleasure of attending her workshop at NCCAT last year and can’t tell you how much I enjoyed it. Thanks for posting!

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  16. Anna- Thanks for leaving this comment. I’m happy to hear that you are still continuing your writing adventure. Hopefully it won’t be quite as long as mine…but be patient! Novels (like children) grow over time!

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  17. The other thing I have to add –while I have the chance–is how much I have learned in the process. I learned about the process of writing and revising for sure. But I also have learned so much about creating characters and who my characters are. I don’t think any of that could have happened overnight.

    By the way–for those unfortunate folk who don’t win a copy of Becky’s book when she ends this contest tonight, come on over to my blog and leave a comment on mine! My contest ends on Wednesday!

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  18. Barbara Younger says:

    Your novel has taken a fascinating journey. I wish I had understood when I started writing fiction that it’s the deep digging: plot, layers, character emotions and motivation, and the deep digging for critical suggestions, that builds a novel. If I had, I probably wouldn’t have so many in the drawer. Wonderful post!

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  19. Barbara Younger says:

    Great blog and Carol’s post is wonderful. Yes, the digging took me years to figure out. (Not that I’m there yet. On round three of novel revision for my agent.)

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  20. Becky– I just stopped in to get the url to this post for another friend of mine and saw that you had more comments! Is this some sort of record? And Barbara- thanks for your comment. I hope that this means I’m doing something right at this stage of the game! I have been blessed to have so many people provide helpful critiques.

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