The Making of The Real Riley Mayes: Feedback and Revision

the making of "The Real Riley Mayes"

Hello! This is the third of four blog posts about the making of THE REAL RILEY MAYES, a graphic novel for kids. The first post focuses on inventing a character, the second post on research, and all three touch on revision- this post is all about it!

All writers revise their writing, whether it’s a novel, a comic, song lyrics, or a joke. If you think about the word: RE-VISION, it means “to look over again.” When you look at something you wrote from a new perspective, you might decide to make big changes. So how DO see your writing from a new perspective?

In The Real Riley Mayes, Riley struggles to write a letter to her favorite comedian, Joy Powers. Riley isn’t great with words. She has no idea what to say. She wanders around the classroom, peeking at other kids’ letters, and copying, er, getting inspired, and jotting down her favorite parts.

Cate’s words written for her fave musician J.J. Maddox capture the feeling that Riley wants in her letter. Riley figures she can just swap out the names, trade some of Cate’s words for synonyms, and -TADA!! Her letter will get the same feeling across. Right? Not exactly…

Riley shows the letter to Aaron to get his feedback. Trading the words “special” and “strong” for “unusual” and “muscular” gave it a different vibe. Plus, Riley threw in a reference to one of Joy Powers’s skits: “sharpen my dagger pencil for a secret operation.” Taken out of context, it sounds like she’s planning a stealth attack or some very misguided surgery.

Later in the book, Cate tries to write Riley’s letter for her. Cate asks Riley questions about Joy Powers, and writes down her answers. That way, Riley’s putting her thoughts into her own words. Should work great, right? Not exactly…

When Riley reads back the words and phrases Cate wrote down, it sounds like hate mail! Cate looks over it again, and sees that Riley’s answers to the questions don’t make much sense when the questions are missing. It doesn’t help that one of Riley’s favorite skits involves Joy Powers’ pretending to choke.

Writing (and drawing, and comic-making) is very mysterious. I can never assume that someone else’s brain will understand what I tried to put into words. When I write words down, they make complete sense to me…because I live with my brain twenty four hours a day, seven days a week. I usually understand what my brain is thinking pretty clearly (usually!) But other people live with their own equally quirky brains, each different from our own.

Something that I intended as a friendly compliment might sound like a snarky putdown to someone else’s brain. Something that I meant to be funny might sound serious and worrying. That’s why it’s so important to get feedback on anything you write. Show it to a friend and see how they respond. Ask your friend to point to the exact words that make them understand– or misunderstand– the feeling or story you’re trying to tell.

I shared drafts of The Real Riley Mayes with a group of writer and illustrator friends. We meet via videochat to swap our drafts of stories and comics. Above is a draft of a page from The Real Riley Mayes with comments from my friend Scout on the right. In this scene, Riley is imagining that she’s in the audience of the Joy Powers Comedy Hour, and Joy Powers has walked into the audience to talk to her. (Psst… in earlier versions of the book, Riley was named Robin, and Aaron was named Ralph.) Riley tells Joy Powers that she’s sixteen. When my friend Scout read this page, it was confusing. They thought Riley was eleven. Why is she saying she’s sixteen? I explain what I was trying to get across: Riley is imagining herself as a teenager. Scout didn’t understand that, so it’s my job to fix it.

In the panels above, you can see how I changed the words. When Joy Powers asks how old Riley is, Riley answers “uh… eleventeen.” It’s an imaginary age, eleventeen doesn’t exist. She’s an imaginary teenager. A small change made the scene much clearer, and I wouldn’t have known to make this change without seeing the page from Scout’s point of view.

I got feedback from this group of friends, my literary agent Susan Hawk, and my editor Donna Bray. They all pointed to specific panels where they misunderstood something, or thought I could tell the story better. Usually, I got feedback via email. I wrote down how I might fix each problem on a post-it note. (You can see them sticking out of this stack of pages!) Then, I took scissors and tape and literally cut and pasted a new graph-paper version of the book.

In the fourth and final “making of” post, I’ll show you how I turned the revised story into final art for the book.

THE REAL RILEY MAYES is a graphic novel for readers 8-12. Funny and full of heart, it’s a story about friendship, identity, and embracing all the parts of yourself that make you special. Click here to order from your local indie bookstore 🙂

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