Monday, January 30, 2012

Thoughts from Ann Whitford Paul

As I have told you all before, I have become a huge fan of Ann Whitford Paul and her book, Writing Picture Books.  I have found her teachings to be very helpful to me in my execution of  my story ideas.  

Recently I asked Ann, "How does an author know when a manuscript is ready to submit?"  Here is what she said:

That’s a very interesting question and one that I’ve been grappling with in regards to a novel I just sent off to my agent. 
Thomas Mann said, “A writer is someone for whom writing is more difficult than for other people.”  We know that it takes work to structure a story and find the right words.  A lot of work—months, years.  We think of the story constantly—when we take a walk, bake a cake, clean out the closets.  It’s always with us.  We polish, we share it with other writers, we put it away.  We bring it back out.  So when to let go?
I think the problem comes from our insecurity recognizing that a manuscript rarely lives up to the image of the story we have in our head.  We want perfection and there is no such animal.  There is always something more a writer can do with a story.  That’s a given.  I love this quote by the writer Gene Fowler, “A book is never finished.  It’s abandoned.” 
With my latest manuscript, I found I was going over and over and over it again, shifting chapters, revising language, upping the tension, bringing out the characters until I thought I’d go punchy.  Everyone in my writing group told me to send it off, but I couldn’t let go until I realized I could spend the rest of my life revising and still have more to go.  I’d done it all—even reading the 50,000 word manuscript out loud.  Each change sends ripple effects through the manuscript, but at some point one has to stop.
       So what made me stop?  Number one, the basic story flowed.  I had three acts, the drama came at the end and the ending was satisfying but not perfectly wrapped up.  The big issues had been handled to the best of my ability. 
Number two—I had checked and re-checked my research.  Facts I knew in my gut were correct, I still persisted in going back to the research just to be sure—a huge waste of time.
Number three—because my novel was based during the revolutionary war, I made many visits to my trusty Oxford Dictionary (the kind you have to read with a magnifying glass) and verifying words more than once.
And Number four, I realized that I was down to nit-picky revisions . . . working on word choice and punctuation and this was the killer I was changing some words only to return at a latter time and changing the words back to the original. 
In summary, I had gone as far as I could go with the story.  It was time for a fresh eye.  That’s when to send your manuscript out.

Ann Whitford Paul writes picture books, poetry, and early readers.  She was won a large variety of awards for her work including the New York Times Notable Books, and the Carl Sandbug Award for Children's Literature.  In addition to her writing, she teaches workshops and does school visit on both writing and quilting.  


  1. Thanks for this post! I live Ann's book. It was my first non- fiction book that I bought to improve my knowledge of the kid lit industry and craft.

    1. I am glad you enjoyed the post. I keep the book with me in my purse, on my night stand, and at my desk. You never know when you might need it!

  2. Ann Paul is fabulous. I have her two books. They are like the Bible or the Koran to writers.

  3. I'm reading Writing Picture Books and am finding it very helpful! Thanks for the post!

  4. This is so helpful, Sandi! I too have been working through Writing Picture Books, and finding it so, so good (and meaty, giving me so much to do and think about).