Revision tip from James Frey Part III: Be a Poet

Today we have part three of our three-part revision series based on tips from How to Write a Damn Good Novel by James Frey. Our first tip was be specific. Nate wrote a great entry for that, which we used as a starting point for our next tip: appeal to all the senses. As a reminder, here is Nate’s paragraph.

Sarah arrived at school eager for the afternoon's Halloween party. As she sat down at her desk, she looked inside her backpack for her costume. She found the box, plastic piping, and gloves, all spray-painted a metallic silver, but couldn't find the robot's helmet. She searched through both closets and in every cabinet at the back of the classroom, but didn't see it anywhere. Mrs. Brannigan hadn't noticed it, either.

By noon, when the rest of her class headed out to recess, Sarah was very worried indeed. What would she do? She couldn't possibly be Bender without his head. Finally, she had an idea. She found Mr. Hossburn, the school janitor, and begged him to unlock the supply closet. Beneath a stack of paper plates and a folded plastic tablecloth, she found what she was looking for: an old gray bucket that fit perfectly on her head. Her costume was saved!

There were a lot of nicerevisions in the comment section of the last post. This time, I will feature Peta’s. Remember, Peta's task was to revise it to appeal to all the senses.

Sarah arrived at school eager for the afternoon's Halloween party. Long, thin streamers ringed the room, bright orange and spooky black. As she sat down at her desk, the thick scent of cotton candy tickled her nose. Digging around in her backpack for her costume, Sarah’s fingers brushed against the box and stinky plastic piping. When she touched the gloves, she pulled a face--the silver metallic paint had dried easily enough on the box and piping, but her gloves were still tacky, like frosting that hadn’t set properly.

Wiping her hands on her jeans, Sarah tried not to worry. Had she let the best part--the most important part!--of her costume at home? Tugging at her bottom lip, she searched both closets, made the class hamsters squee as she looked under their cage, and even poked her head under all the kids‘ desks. When she asked her teacher, a sweet old lady who loved sunflower hats and had pieces of liquorice stuck in her teeth, Mrs. Brannigan could only shake her head, and offer a condoling twizzler.

Come recess, Sarah was frantic. She had to have a head! Bender had a head, the Tin Man had a head...the Tin Man! Pounding down the hall, Sarah found Mr. Hossburn, the school janitor, and begged him to unlock the supply closet. There, hiding beneath an old checked plastic tablecloth (still spotted with grease and Coke) and a stack of paper plates, she found it: a slightly rusted, slightly damp-smelling grey bucket that fit perfectly on her head. Her costume was saved!

Peta has some great imagery here -- the tacky feel of paint on the gloves, the damp smell of the bucket, the bright orange and spooky black of the streamers. I especially like how Sarah pulls a face when she touches the tacky gloves. Here the psychologist in me comes out again. Our facial expressions are very tightly tied to our feelings. In fact, people who assume facial expressions often report their emotions shifting to match the expression. Forcing yourself to smile might actually make you feel happier. So I love how this expression of disgust works with the description of sticky paint to give us this “eww” feeling. Great job!

So the final revision tip of the series is “be a poet.” Now this one is a lot of fun for writers, but be careful not to overdo it. Frey says that the corollary to this rule is “don't be too much of a poet,” but a few figures of speech here and there can really liven things up.

Some categories of figures of speech:

1. Personification -- giving human traits to nonhuman objects. “My bed, mournful and empty, begged me to return for just one more hour.”

2. Hyperbole -- exaggeration. “The bean burrito and my digestive tract conspired to make a significant contribution to global warming today.” (Apologies. My husband is in town this week and I blame him for any juvenile references.)

3. Metaphor - Describing one thing in terms of another. “My husband is a five-year-old.” (Okay, I'm done with all the husband digs for now. I love him dearly, not least because he lets me make fun of him.)

4. Simile - Describing one thing in terms of another, using the words “like” or “as”.  An example from Peta's paragraph:  “Her gloves were still tacky, like frosting that hadn’t set properly.”

Frey brings up another point, that a good figure speech applies in more than one way. For example, Peta’s comparison of the gloves to frosting not only provides a texture comparison, but also conjures  associations with cupcakes -- a apt association for a story about a party.

It occurs to me that if we rewrite the entire passage using figures of speech, we might end up with some really purple prose. So instead of rewriting the entire story, let's just brainstorm some phrases that we can use in the story.  Share your gems in the comment section!


  1. Great job Nate and Peta! Those revisions are fabulous. And that book looks hilarious. Here's my entry:


  2. Love, love, love the Vordak cover, and I write middle grade! I enjoyed your post on revision, and posted a link in twitter @:
    Good post on revision from Blackburne: