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.