When I was a kid I used to have these enormous dreams. They would span the entire night and have all kinds of crazy plot lines. I would wake up in the morning and I couldn’t wait to get downstairs to tell my family. I would get about five minutes into my epic tale before my mom would finally cave. She would sigh and sweetly ask me,
“Can you please tell us the Reader’s Digest version?”
It was always disappointing to hear that question, but it has helped hone my storytelling skills.
When I start a story now, I let that dream-filled kid take over and ramble through the epic tale. I let her take all the twists and turns she wants. As long as she makes it to the end of the story we started together, it’s a success. When she’s satisfied I reward her with ice cream (because it’s my favorite as well) and put her into the background of my brain.
While I’m still licking the ice cream off my spoon I go back and begin the process of taming the wild beast of a story on the page. All the while, I am asking the same question that shaped so many of my childhood tales: “What’s the Reader’s Digest version of this?”
Now, let’s be real: editing sucks. That’s why I’m still eating ice cream, but here are a few tips I use to help out.
When writing a picture book, it is important to focus on only one problem. Plot twists and complex characters are great for chapter books, but they clutter picture book pages. Try to keep in mind that the art will bring more to the table than can be put into words. Artwork can add the layers of emotions, twists, and other hidden layers that will bring the story to life.
Find the heart of your story before editing any words. The heart of your story should be one sentence that sums up your plot. For example, the heart of “After the Fall” by Dan Santat might read something like: Humpty Dumpty overcomes his fear of heights. It’s a very simple idea and that’s just what you need.
When you start editing, use the words to sculpt the heart of your story instead of using a machete to cut words away.
Lastly, the most important step is to show it to another pair of eyeballs! A critique group is one of the strongest tools an artist or an author can have. It is the greenhouse where seedling stories bloom. A critique group can help hone the heart of the story or help sculpt the heart of the story using words that you might not have thought of on your own.
Editing is challenging, but keeping these tips in mind will make it easier to find your Reader’s Digest version. Good luck and happy editing :).