Home    |     Bio    |     Books    |     DBAW Tour    |     News    |     Press    |     Events    |     Contact

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Summer Revision Tip: Janet Lee Carey

Welcome to another Wednesday Whip Tip, Smackdowners - this one from dear friend and mentor Janet Lee Carey!

I have learned much about writing and being from Janet, who has written a number of gorgeous, award-winning fantasies (which I get to hear every week in our writing group!) and thoughtful middle grade novels, among them DRAGON'S KEEP, WENNY HAS WINGS (made into a movie in Japan!), and STEALING DEATH, which will be on Egmont USA's debut list this fall. Visit Janet's website, her blog, and follow her on twitter. I promise you'll be hooked on her language and insight.

Janet pours her heart and soul into everything she does, including her revision tips for us today:

First I have to step back a little and think about the writing process as a whole. Writing is a mysterious balance between keen vision and blind man’s bluff - between careful planning and wild plundering.

It’s about connecting the conscious with the subconscious. The Dream Mind with Day Mind.

As I see it part of an artist’s challenge is to keep the bridge from subconscious to conscious mind open so stories and dreams can traverse the bridge, cross over free and Not Pay Toll.

The subconscious Dream Mind is not tidy or tame, not well socialized (not even potty trained really!). She speaks in images and cares nothing for rules.

In the first draft I enter a scene knowing something about the core work that needs to be done within the scene, and something about the way my character is feeling at that point. For example in Stealing Death there is a strange scene with the Sanuu Witch. In the first draft I knew Kipp had to give up something he truly valued to wrest a magic potion from the witch. I was going with her cutting off Kipp’s finger, but found I didn’t have the stomach for it, so cutting his braid came to mind – the braid being a mark of his manhood and the braid bead, a symbol of his courage.

So I had that in mind before sitting down to write. After that I just entered the hut with Kipp not knowing what I’d see. Coming through the door I saw her fire burned green, I also spotted shelves full of jars with creatures --insects and flowers -- floating in them, all of them suspended and slowly spinning. I had no idea why they were in the hut. I just saw it along with Kipp so I wrote it.

It wasn’t until the very end of the book that Kipp and I discovered the importance of those jars – they were a clue to something about the Sanuu Witch suspending things in time and space. Who knew? I didn’t – not until I reached that point of the story.

So what does that have to do with revision? I do gentle revisions in my first draft – emphasis on gentle. At a certain point the conscious, realistic, rational Day Mind (the mind that does revision) wants to “know” everything about the book, wants to know, for instance, what those weird jars are doing there and why. The Day Mind, having no understanding of the jars' “purpose,” decides to inquire and find out. And if there is no rational reason to keep those jars, the Day Mind thinks it’s best to cut them out of the book.

The thing is if the Day Mind insists on a “rational explanation,” the Dream Mind often rolls over like a possum and plays dead. At that point the Day Mind cannot wheedle, wrangle or throttle answers out of the Dream Mind. The Dream Mind will tell the rational mind what the object (or character) is doing in the scene when it’s good and ready. And if the Day Mind is too peevishly insistent, the Dream Mind is content never to give a reason at all.

So this is my warning to all of us in the revision process. Wait a bit. Don’t cut out things you don’t understand. Keep certain oddities until you’ve reached the end and discovered the hidden treasures in your tale. Yes, we have to revise, and yes the novels do have to make sense (some kind of sense anyway!). But oh let the Dream Mind continue to dream. Stories don’t have to be about making sense – speeches work perfectly well for that.

Thank you, Janet!


  1. I've been acused of my Dream Mind being on way longer than it should. Brilliant post, thank you, Janet!

  2. This is the best description I've ever read of my own writing process...(and I didn't even write it....I never could have been so eloquent or coherent!)

    Thank you, Janet. You've really captured the essence of the creative process.


  3. Thanks Holly and Janet. Good insight and tip. Pretty cool revision tips from someone who's being more chill. i guess we just can't hold The Extraordinary Whipped Jones down when it comes to dolling out revision tips.

    secret word verification below: submi
    Still not able to decode any word verifications Holly, err, Jones but will keep trying.

  4. good revisions tips - especially about not cutting too soon.

  5. Love this point about discovering things you don't understand and keeping them (and those jars are eerily beautiful). It shall be writ large on a Post-It beside my monitor! Thank you, Holly and Janet.

  6. Thank you, Janet! So true! I think my Dream Mind is much smarter than my Day Mind. I actually have the best ideas from dreams.