Lisa Graff on writing and revising

Day five in my reports from the Austin SCBWI conference, and there’s still more to come after this one! Also, although I’m giving lots of great information from these speakers in these posts, I’m only giving a condensed version of their presentations. Reading about conferences is great, but going to them, even single-day conferences like this one, is so valuable for inspiration, networking and learning. I highly recommend going to as many as you can afford in time and money if the lineup of speakers are half as good as this one.

Quick recap of my other reports from the conference: agent Mark McVeigh on publishing, agent Andrea Cascardi on getting and working with an agent, editor Cheryl Klein on writing a great book and agent Nathan Bransford on finding the right agent for you.

Lisa Graff, author

Lisa Graff

And now onto Lisa Graff. Lisa has an interesting background. She sold her first two books around the same time as she got her job as an editor, so, as she said, she has spent the last five years learning how to be a professional writer and editor at the same time. As of the Thursday before the conference, Lisa stopped working as an editor for Farrar, Strauss and Giroux Books for Young Readers to focus on her writing full time. Her last book, Umbrella Summer, came out last June.

As someone who has been on both sides of a book, Lisa said both are equally important. She said an editor is in charge of finding the true story a writer is trying to tell, because writers are so in their head, it’s often hard for them to see the story for the words. But, she pointed out, editors can’t do their best work until writers have done theirs.

And, writers don’t do their best work until they’ve revised and revised until their best work is out. For Umbrella Summer, Lisa said she wrote 14 complete drafts, including eight different endings. It took four years from the first draft to publication. WOW!

She said she starts out with a brief outline of her story, but the book almost never ends up the same.

Here’s her writing strategy:

  1. Write the first full draft.
  2. Read draft on paper and write notes.
  3. Open a new document and write a completely new draft from scratch or pasting in what she wants to save from the original draft.
  4. Repeat 2 and 3 as many times as it takes to get her best work.

A writer, she said, is

  • creative,
  • inspired,
  • uninhibited,
  • free to experiment.

An editor is

  • aware of rules of storytelling,
  • aware that the first draft is never the best,
  • mean when necessary.

To be an author, a writer must be all of these but at different times.

For the first draft, Lisa said it’s ok to write garbage. Writers can’t get to their genius until they’ve written the garbage, she said. The editor part of the writer takes out the garbage after the  genius has come through.

Here’s her other advice:

  • Read what your audience is reading, especially for picture books because markets change. And read like an editor, questioning everything, every decision that went into that book.
  • Know the rules (such as POV) as an editor, but be willing to experiment with them as a writer. It’s ok to break the rules when it’s essential for storytelling.
  • Write for yourself not for trends, because you won’t be happy.
  • Enjoy your own writing as a writer, but be prepared to kill your darlings as an editor. Do what’s right for the book.
  • Make sure that everything in your book is there for a reason.
  • As a writer, believe in yourself, but as an editor, push yourself to do better.
  • Don’t be a writer and editor at the same time, because it will make you overly critical, stop your creativity and lead you to writer’s block.
  • And, never try to appease an agent or editor. Be willing to stand up for yourself.

Finally, Lisa gave an idea of page counts for varies types of books. Although publishing houses vary, she said these are the general guidelines based on what the reader age groups will read and cost.

  • Picture book: 32 pages, including title pages, copyright, etc.
  • Chapter books: 90 manuscript pages, double-spaced
  • Middle-grade: 150-200 pages, double-spaced
  • Young adult: 200-240 pages, double spaced


Check back tomorrow for advice from the many other great writers at the conference.

Write On!

7 Responses

  1. Andrea says:

    Samantha, thanks so much for your reports about the conference! This one is especially valuable to me, since I’ve just finished a first draft and am thinking about where to begin with my revisions.

  2. You’re welcome, Andrea. I’m glad they’re helping you. Going to these conferences is far better than reading these reports, but at least I can offer some of what was said.

    Yeah, Lisa was really amazing. I couldn’t believe she did 18 completes drafts of Umbrella Summer. That shows true dedication to making her work great.

    Good luck with your revision. I’m just about to begin what I think (hope) will be my final revision of my novel. I’ve been through it a few times already since finishing the first draft. Now I’m going through it with notes from my beta readers.

  3. writingonthesidewalk says:

    Samantha, thanks for the updates, I will be sharing some of your insights on my blog. Great Job.

  4. Thanks, WritingOnTheSidewalk (great name, BTW). Glad you’re finding these posts useful. Lisa will be coming back to the blog for an interview or guest post, so stay tuned for that.

  5. As someone who knew Lisa from the editorial side of her life, I know how missed she’ll be there. But very exciting for readers. Those eighteen drafts must have been hard to fit in on nights and weekends!

  6. I know, Jeannine! It’s hard to fit in writing around a full-time job, family and everything else in life. But Lisa obviously made it work well.

    And yes, I’m sure her readers are excited to hear she’s authoring full time now.

  7. I can vouch for Lisa’s expertise. She was absolutely critical to pulling The Last Best Days Of Summer together when the timeline had gone haywire. She’s is a multi-talented woman. Ask her about cheese! Chocolate!

What do you think?