I’m happy to be posting on the #EPIC18 blog today about the revision process for my debut picture book, SCARLET’S MAGIC PAINTBRUSH (Clear Fork Publishing, August 2018). Scarlet is an ordinary girl who paints perfect pictures with a magic paintbrush, until she loses the brush, and her own extraordinary creativity emerges.
For me, the revision process is really where the story takes shape. I start revising right after my first draft, and continue until the book is almost ready for publication. Here’s a look at my three-part revision process - revisions before submission, revisions with my editor, and revisions during the illustration process:
Revisions Before Submission
I like to write in many drafts, and I consider my first draft a very basic start. As I work on the story, I edit for big picture concepts like structure, plot, story arc, voice, humor, heart, theme, language, readability, and word count. I also edit for small picture concepts such as grammar, word choice, and syntax. I work with my amazing critique partners at this stage to get their valuable input as I polish the draft until it shines. And I have to give a shout out to my mom, who is always my first reader, and to my husband and children who provide their helpful opinions along the way!
Revisions with my Editor
After Callie Metler-Smith at Clear Fork Publishing bought the manuscript, she assigned me to work with the wonderful art director and editor Mira Reisberg. I am thankful that Mira helped me tighten the manuscript and put the finishing flourishes on the story. Also, Mira paired me with the talented illustrator Sandie Sonke (www.SandieSonkeIllustration.com). I couldn’t be happier with the stunning cover and the sneak peaks of the magical page spreads Sandie has shared!
Revisions During the Illustration Process
Once I saw some initial thumbnail sketches by Sandie, I knew that I could revise just a bit to let some of Sandie’s illustrations speak for themselves. Although I had been careful when writing to leave room for the illustrator, I realized that I could do more. After consulting with Mira and Sandie, I tweaked a few words.
As SCARLET’S MAGIC PAINTBRUSH is heading toward the final stages of publication, I’m excited to see the end results. I know that all my editing and revision work will be worth it when I open the pages of the finished book for the very first time!
Thanks for reading about my revision process and good luck with all your editing projects!
SCARLET’S MAGIC PAINTBRUSH
by Melissa Stoller, illustrated by Sandie Sonke
Clear Fork Publishing, August 2018
Available for pre-order soon!
In the case of THE REMEMBER BALLOONS, I feel much of the original structure remains. This isn't a common phenomenon in my picture book writing. There's one picture book of mine that my agent and I revised so wholly different from the first version, you wouldn't recognize it.
I suppose this is something that made THE REMEMBER BALLOONS special—that I had written the fundamentals at one sitting. But how the in-between stuff has changed! And how I love these changes!
If THE REMEMBER BALLOONS was already published, I feel like I could have a lot more fun with this blog post, telling you just how specifics had changed. So, I'll have to be vague…
First, there is my boy's voice, much more developed from version number one. Then there's all that extraneous matter lost (for the better). But I think I'm going to focus on what I will call the Silver Balloon Phenomenon. It's when you are stubborn about leaving something in your manuscript alone, but in the end, changing it is best.
When I first chatted with my agent, Mike, over the phone about possible changes to THE REMEMBER BALLOONS, I said, "I don't want to change the silver balloon. We can't touch the silver balloon. I LOVE the silver balloon." He didn't touch the silver balloon.
But in the first notes I received from my acquiring editor, he basically said, "we need to talk about that silver balloon."
No! I loved the silver balloon. It was perfect as it was, and nobody was ever going to change it EVER. But when my wise editor suggested a new angle for the silver balloon, I paused. Then I thought about it. Then I realized…HE WAS RIGHT. I had a beautiful idea grow from this angle, and I love it. (NOW nobody can touch my silver balloon.)
The Silver Balloon Phenomenon is also known as Editors Are Smart People. It's painful to make changes sometimes, but necessary! The revision process is beautiful, and although that first draft is precious…it is always only a first draft. This is something I need to remind myself every time I write something new!
THE REMEMBER BALLOONS
Illustrated by Dana Wulfekotte
Simon and Schuster Books for Young Readers
August 28, 2018
Until I started writing for children, I thought revising meant fix a few sentences, change some words, strengthen the opening and conclusion. I soon learned that writing a picture book is a whole different ball game, a long and arduous process.
I looked back through my file to refresh my memory of the revision path for AN INCONVENIENT ALPHABET so I could share it with you, and I realized how much I’ve learned and how many people have helped me along the way. Hopefully, explaining my process will encourage and help others, too.
I had researched for a couple weeks and then started drafting in January 2016. Initially I brainstormed possible structures to use. My first attempt used the alphabet, a new letter on each page, to tell the story. I almost made it through the story and alphabet, and if I could have rearranged the alphabet, it might have worked.
Next, my goal became – just get the entire story on the page. In the next revision, I used a compare and contrast format, back and forth, with the two characters. Already, many of the lines that would appear in the final draft were there.
I began sharing the manuscript with critique partners, and the fact that this was nonfiction created many challenges.
At revision #12, I tried a “meta” voice (breaking the 4th wall) that talked back to Ben and Noah, responding to the text and challenging them on the practicality of their ideas. To me this was fun - the “child reader” that commented with honesty and innocence, bringing the reader directly into the story. Also at this point, I was trying out the end section where I used the sensible spellings that Ben and Noah advocated, what we now refer to as “invented” spelling.
Throughout the process, I laid out the pages and highlighted, circled, crossed out, drew arrows, marked plot points, made notes, changed words, cut it apart, and played with sticky notes to move things around.
I kept digging into more research about the problems with English as Ben and Noah saw them and the historical period. I played with using Ben’s proverbs, spelling tests for Ben and Noah, and revolutionary war slogans. (“I have not yet begun to spell!” These never made it into the final manuscript, but I still like the fun of them. I think they deserve at least a blog post…)
I added more historical context. Instead of a back and forth contrasting of characters, I created sections on each one, then brought them together. I created more conflict with the public reactions, moving the meta-voice to characters in the illustrations. Certain lines and phrases began to ring at various points, and I worked to construct parallel narrative sections. I removed the mention of Webster’s dictionary at the end and let it end with a noble attempt without success. We all have many of those, right? (As a rookie, I didn’t see that as a problem.)
At last, I shared it with my agent mid-March. More feedback, mostly on the conflict. More revisions. I spent whole days on beginnings. And middles. All the while I was getting positive feedback that pushed me forward.
In search of the emotion and child element in a story about two famous men, the meta-voice returned as “Alpha,” a character that responded to the story and added to the conflict. This was revision #22 in April. Then I began to cut and trim back to the bare bones, taking out anything that didn’t help move the story forward. I tried out different beginnings through the next revisions. Every few revisions, I asked for feedback from a critique group. At the end of April, I got more thoughts from my agent. I was trying to do too much and needed to pare it down. (This is a recurring problem. So much good stuff – such a limited word count.)
Revision #30 was submitted to Simon & Schuster editor, Sylvie Frank, for a critique at a writing retreat in July. When we met, Sylvie suggested cutting the “Alpha” character – it was distracting and wasn’t needed with the high energy text. Also she thought the climax needed reworking, for a bigger moment, and the end was flat. Why not pull some of my back matter information into the story to end with the success of Webster’s dictionary? The characters needed more personality – she suggested adding quotes. That retreat was where I learned that editors see a manuscript very differently than most authors.
Back into the research…without Alpha, I felt like some of the emotion was gone. I focused on learning more about the characters’ friendship and bringing that into the story. For another month and a half, I dissected Sylvie’s words, reworked, recrafted. Mid-September we sent the manuscript to her. She loved it! And I had my first contract!
After that there were a few minor revisions, a few words, tweaking a few awkward sentences, (you know – like I thought revision was as a student) as the editorial team and illustrator worked on each page and spread.
Now, after working on AN INCONVENIENT ALPHABET for nearly two years with Sylvie and her team, I have to say I love the story more than ever and am so glad I hung in there until we got it right. And I say WE, because it really is a team effort. Revision is so much more than changing words or rearranging sentences. It’s rethinking. Thank you Sylvie, Stephanie, Julie, Kristen, Kathryn, Ann, Kristen, Maria, Vivian, Kathleen, Heather, Kate, Michelle, Kristy, Alisha, and all who helped me through this process!
Whew! We did it!
AN INCONVENIENT ALPHABET, BEN FRANKLIN & NOAH WEBSTER’S SPELLING REVOLUTION by Beth Anderson, illustrated by Elizabeth Baddeley
Paula Wiseman Books/Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers, Sept. 25, 2018
Now available for preorder.