New Voice: Caroline Carlson on The Very Nearly Honorable League of Pirates: Magic Marks the Spot

By Cynthia Leitich Smith

Caroline Carlson is The Very Nearly Honorable League of Pirates: Magic Marks the Spot (HarperCollins, 2013). From the promotional copy:

Hilary Westfield has always dreamed of being a pirate. She can tread water for thirty-seven minutes. She can tie a knot faster than a fleet of sailors, and she already owns a rather pointy sword. 

There’s only one problem: The Very Nearly Honorable League of Pirates refuses to let any girl join their ranks of scourges and scallywags.

But Hilary is not the kind of girl to take no for answer. To escape a life of petticoats and politeness at her stuffy finishing school, Hilary sets out in search of her own seaworthy adventure, where she gets swept up in a madcap quest involving a map without an X, a magical treasure that likely doesn’t exist, a talking gargoyle, a crew of misfit scallywags, and the most treacherous—and unexpected—villain on the High Seas.

Magic Marks the Spot is the first installment in the Very Nearly Honorable League of Pirates trilogy. Books 2 and 3 are forthcoming in 2014 and 2015.

Could you describe both your pre-and-post contract revision process? What did you learn along the way? How did you feel at each stage? What advice do you have for other writers on the subject of revision?

I am sort of embarrassed to admit this to the internet at large, but before I wrote Magic Marks the Spot, I was not much of a reviser. In fact, I had never gone through a thorough, large-scale novel revision from start to finish.

For me, revising meant line editing—choosing the perfect words and sounds, and making sure each sentence read smoothly. If a manuscript had large-scale problems (and what early draft doesn’t?), I’d either try to rewrite the whole book from scratch or, more likely, I’d stuff it in a drawer and move on to something new. Something fresh. Something that would be absolutely perfect the first time out, so I’d never have to do any actual revision.

Revision meant hard work; it meant looking at my writing and acknowledging that it could be better, and I wasn’t particularly excited about acknowledging anything of the sort.

I wrote the first draft of Magic Marks the Spot during my final semester in the MFA program at Vermont College of Fine Arts. Since I wanted to complete an entire draft during those last five months of the program, I didn’t stop to revise too frequently, and when I reached the end, I knew I had a story that was worth pursuing. There was no way I was going to abandon this one in a drawer.

And besides, it wasn’t too messy, was it? Asking for other writers’ feedback wouldn’t be like dropping a goldfish into a pool full of hungry sharks—or, at least, I desperately hoped it wouldn’t be like that. So I sent my manuscript off to a wonderful group of writer friends and asked them what I could do to improve the story before I submitted it to agents.

I was sort of hoping that all my writer friends would say everything in the story was absolutely brilliant, and that any revision would be a blemish on a work of greatness—but, because my friends are smart writers and honest people, they didn’t say any such thing. They pointed out the places where they were confused and the characters they wanted to know more about.

Caroline’s bulletin board with bookmarks & cards

My advisor at VCFA, Martine Leavitt, had also sent me revision notes during our semester together. As I read over all of these comments, I realized that the hungry sharks were not in residence. Instead, I’d been given the gift of thoughtful feedback that was actually going to make my book stronger.

For the first time ever, I was excited to revise, because I could see that revision didn’t have to make me feel bad about my existing story; it could make me feel hopeful about how that story could grow in the future.

I spent a couple of months revising my draft with this first round of feedback in hand. I addressed most of my friends’ comments, but there were several good suggestions that I simply didn’t know how to tackle. Even though I knew I needed to make those changes to my book, I didn’t have any idea where to begin.

I eventually submitted the manuscript to agents when it was as strong as I could possibly make it on my own, though I knew by then that it could still be stronger.

My first letter from my editor was six single-spaced pages long—long enough to induce panic in a few other writers who caught a glimpse of it later. But I loved every word of it (really!) because it showed me that my editor could see my book’s potential; she looked at the manuscript in front of her and saw what it could become with some hard work. And she asked questions that helped me to see the entire book in a clearer light.

Once I’d spent a few weeks considering my editor’s notes, I realized that I was actually capable of making those impossible-sounding changes my friends had suggested earlier—but I’d have to be willing to revise more deeply than I’d ever attempted to before.

To revise for my editor, I printed out my manuscript and marked it up with a red pen, noting all the large and small changes I wanted to make. I drew big red Xs across entire scenes.

Then I opened a new, blank document on my computer and began to retype the book, transcribing the printed manuscript and diverging from it whenever it seemed necessary.

Drafts of Magic Marks the Spot and its sequel.

A lot of people I talk to are slightly horrified by my revision strategy—retyping a 300-page novel is not exactly a small proposition—but for me, it’s the easiest way to make big changes to a story. If I’m confined by the words in the existing document, I won’t feel free to make sweeping changes; the existing words will affect the new words I come up with.

If I don’t have anything in front of me except blank whiteness, though, I can write entirely new scenes that don’t automatically inherit the problems of earlier drafts. And I always have my printed manuscript to fall back on if I decide that I don’t want to make a sweeping change after all. As I retyped Magic Marks the Spot, I ended up rewriting about a third of it from scratch.

After that, I did a round of line edits for my editor, though those changes were small enough that I didn’t need to retype the entire manuscript again.

So, yes, revision does mean hard work. But it also means looking at the result of that hard work and realizing that the story on the page finally matches the story in your head, or at least it comes close. There’s not much that beats the feeling of finally nailing a scene you’ve been writing and rewriting for months. The prospect of revising a manuscript still intimidates me because I know exactly how much work it will require, but I also look forward to revision because I know it will bring my book much closer to being the story I wanted to tell in the first place.

As someone with a MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults, how did your education help you advance in your craft? What advice do you have for other MFA students/graduates in making the transition between school and publishing as a business?

It’s no exaggeration to say that attending Vermont College of Fine Arts was the best thing I’ve done for my writing. It’s not that I think an MFA is a prerequisite for publication—it certainly isn’t, and it shouldn’t be. But for the right person in the program that’s right for her, an MFA can be life-changing. And (I know this is going to sound crazy) it can even be a little bit practical.

Marked page from a very early draft of Magic Marks the Spot.

I learned a lot about the craft of writing during my time at VCFA, of course, and I could write a whole new blog post about the ways in which my writing grew stronger over my two years at Vermont. But what I really want to talk about are the skills I gained during those years that have continued to serve me well as a working writer.

First of all, I learned discipline. I learned how to sit down at my desk every day and write, even if I wasn’t feeling inspired. I had an almost-full-time day job, but I still had to meet my writing deadlines. Those deadlines taught me that I was capable of making writing a priority in my life, and that the work I produced during those times when I felt uninspired was actually pretty good.

I learned that once you show up at your computer and type the first word on the page, you are basically 95% of the way there.

I also learned a lot about receiving and responding to feedback. Remember that six-page letter my editor sent me in response to Magic Marks the Spot? It didn’t shake my confidence because I had received 20 similar letters from my advisors over the course of my MFA program. (And several of those 20 letters were much longer than six pages.)

At school, I got familiar with my emotional responses whenever an editorial letter arrived: first I’d freak out a little bit, then I’d give myself a few days to process the letter, and then I’d figure out how to move forward in response to the feedback I’d gotten.

Caroline’s writing space

During my time at VCFA, the “freakout” period got a lot shorter, and I’m now reasonably sure that nothing in an editorial letter will cause me to keel over and die on the spot.

I learned to trust myself as a writer. Although I’m pretty much guaranteed to make mistakes, I know now that I’m capable of fixing them, too. I learned that sometimes, you work really hard on a piece of writing only to have someone tell you that you need to start over.

And I know that when that happens to me again, I’ll be able to handle it because I’ve handled it before. I mean, it still won’t be fun, but at least I’ll know how much ice cream to buy to soothe my spirit. (Lots.)

The most important thing I learned is that the writing life is a thousand times more enjoyable with good friends by your side. The small world of children’s literature is full of some of the kindest, most generous people I’ve met, and I’m so glad we’re all in this together.

Caroline’s graduating class at VCFA, the League of Extraordinary Cheese Sandwiches

5 thoughts on “New Voice: Caroline Carlson on The Very Nearly Honorable League of Pirates: Magic Marks the Spot

  1. Ah, Caroline, we're so much alike! I used to feel exactly the same way about revising. Hopefully, at this point, I'm getting better at it. Can't wait to read your book. 🙂

  2. I love hearing about your revision process, Caroline! One of the reasons I didn't commit to writing professionally when I was younger was that I didn't want to hear that something I'd written wasn't quite good enough. By the time I went to Vermont, not only was I ready to hear what I needed to hear, but was hungry for it. "Bring it on!" was my mantra, and what a difference it made in helping me learn to polish a manuscript! A great post here. Thanks, Caroline and Cyn.

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