~Guest blog by Janet Costa Bates
I call myself a writer, but I’m not sure why. I should call myself a ‘reviser,’ since, like most writers, I spend much more time revising manuscripts than I do writing the first draft. Writing the first draft is exciting, but the real magic happens during the revision process.
My first step in the revision process is to do absolutely nothing. I figuratively put the manuscript into a drawer and then work on something else. When it’s time to look back at it, I can do so with fresh eyes. Are there plot holes and how can they best be fixed? Are the characters true and consistent? If not, does something happen in the story to drive the change in their behavior? Is there fluff to be cut? Cuts can be as small as individual words or as big as characters, sub-plots, or description. I often pick a random number and make myself cut that number of words from a manuscript. There’s safety in knowing I can put any of the words back in, but I rarely do.
I also go through the manuscript for grammar - NOT my favorite part. After all, my rule for commas is ‘random.’ Although I try to get the manuscript into decent shape, I’ve learned not to obsess too much. I now know there are magical people called copy editors who have much more grammatical talent than I do.
Some revisions are routine and fairly quick. Other revisions are not at all routine, not at all quick, but totally worth it. Let me share a few examples with you.
Years ago, I started a manuscript as a picture book, but eventually realized, not only was it too long, it didn't have the visuals a picture book required. After revising, I tried it as a magazine story. It received some interest from a major children’s magazine but, even though I’m pretty good at accepting editorial suggestions, I couldn’t quite wrap my head around some of the changes they were requesting.
At a retreat, someone suggested it would be better as a middle grade, so I stretched it into a novel. With that story, I got an agent. My agent spent years - yes, years - trying to sell it. The phrase ‘raving rejections’ started to make sense to me. Editors gushed over the characters, expressed their love for the voice, but ultimately, they all said no to the story.
At a Whispering Pines Retreat, I had a critique with Christian Trimmer, then a Simon and Schuster editor. Similar to the others who had rejected the manuscript, he said the story had great characters, great voice, but the plot wasn’t working. He followed that up with ‘but you have a great set-up for a chapter book series.’ My then agent still wanted to try it as a middle grade, but eventually, after a friendly parting of the ways with that agent, I went with Christian’s advice. LLAMAS, IGUANAS, AND MY VERY BEST FRIEND, illustrated by Gladys Jose, is the first in the Rica Baptista chapter book series. It will be released by Candlewick Press on October 25 and is a Junior Library Guild Gold Standard Selection. I’m looking forward to its November 9th launch at An Unlikely Story.
A process that took even longer was a picture book manuscript I started in 1999. I went to my first NESCBWI Conference, met an editor, and submitted the manuscript. She gently turned it down with a helpful note explaining why. That was the first of many rejections it received.
I spent a few more years revising it. Again. And again. More rejections. Finally, I put it in a drawer – for about ten years. (I don’t recommend putting a manuscript in a drawer for ten years, but, well, sometimes life happens and you don’t get a chance to open up that drawer for a while.) Eventually, I took that manuscript out, greatly revised it, and sent it to Andrea Tompa of Candlewick, whom I had met with at a conference. She said yes!
TIME FOR BED, OLD HOUSE, illustrated by AG Ford, was released in 2021 and has received several honors. It was well worth the wait and the revisions. (Side note: That first editor to whom I sent a very early version of TIME FOR BED, OLD HOUSE, was Mary Lee Donovan of Candlewick. As Andrea’s boss, she gave her the nod to acquire it. Publishing is a small world, my friends.)
So, look at your manuscript with fresh eyes. Find the plot holes, strengthen the characters, and cut the fluff. Putting time and effort into your revisions will make the magic happen.
Janet Costa Bates is the author of LLAMAS, IGUANAS, AND MY VERY BEST FRIEND (Candlewick), the first book in the Rica Baptista chapter book series and a Junior Library Guild selection. TIME FOR BED, OLD HOUSE (Candlewick), received four starred reviews, was listed on several 2021 best books lists, and was an NAACP Image Award nominee. SEASIDE DREAM (Lee and Low), received a Lee and Low New Voices Honor Award. Find her at janetcostabates.com or on Twitter/IG @jcostabates.
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