Last week I sniffled from a stupid cold. And it was cold out—some sort of vortex, which I think means “end of the world.”
My calendar read “Rebecca Stead—Lesley—7pm.”
A half hour before I was due to leave, I felt like the best friend, Cameron, in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off.
“I’m gonna go.”
“I’m not gonna go.”
“I’m too sick to go.”
“I can suffer through it.”
“I need rest.”
One of my favorite books is When You Reach Me by Rebecca Stead. It’s a book I’ll often mention when people think they’re too high brow to read middle grade.
And she would be only 20 minutes down the road.
Just like Cameron, I eventually went. I just hoped I didn’t wind up wrecking a Ferrari in the end. Because I drive an Outback, I had a 50% chance of not destroying a Ferrari. (I think that’s how probability works.)
My car GPS sent me to the wrong building. No matter. I used my phone. The cold made my phone die in two seconds. No problem—I’d ask the one person walking down the street on this frigid night.
She didn’t know where it was either.
Undaunted, I continued on. I found it! And they were selling books, so I could buy more copies to have autographed.
I'm lumpy under 3 layers next to Rebecca.
Rebecca Stead was lovely. After she read from her book, she took questions. She was honest about what she sees as her writing weaknesses and she was happy to share her journey.
1) She takes a long time to complete a rough draft. It’s a process she’s learned to come to terms with. Forcing herself to write everyday doesn’t work for her. Sometimes she takes time off in between chapters. She handwrites during the day and types at night, so she’s not tempted to keep revising what she’s already written.
2) She’d worked in law. Then she had kids and changed the job she had at the firm. It wasn’t a good fit for her. So she quit, thinking she’d find something else in a few months. Since she liked to write in the past, she decided to pick it up again. Her favorite books had been her childhood ones. She reread them and then asked a bookstore employee for new book recommendations.
3) While working full time, she’d taken a class at the 92nd Street Y. A woman whose day job was editor took the class too. Rebecca and the woman hit it off.
4) When Rebecca finished her first draft a year after reading those books, she sent it to the editor. The woman advised her to find other writers to learn how to structure a book.
5) Rebecca made this very challenging at first. She and a few writers traveled through states once in a while to critique each other’s manuscripts. The process took her two years.
6) She sent the manuscript back to the editor.
Good news: she loved it.
Bad news: it needed another year of revision with the editor.
That was First Light.
That was First Light.
7) After that, she wrote When You Reach Me, which one a Newbury. Then she wrote Liar and Spy. Now she’s working on her fourth novel.
I had an epiphany when I heard Rebecca speak. She knows it was luck that started that relationship between her and this editor. But the rest of it—the two years revising—was her hard work.
I’m going to confess: I’ve never spent 2 years revising a manuscript. I write it. I revise it. I hand it to people. I revise it more. I give it to more people. When the comments seem to be few and far between, I polish and query. This usually takes 1 year or less.
When I’ve queried it some number of times (which includes making changes based on rejections), I put the manuscript away and move on.
Maybe that’s not enough.
Part of me knew this already. I’ve found a few writers who have started critiquing something newer. They’ve given me more thorough critiques than I’m used to. Now they have my middle grade. A few months ago, I queried it sort of by accident. I hadn’t planned on querying it yet, but I stuck in on a forum to get feedback and an agent requested it. Then I pitched it for a contest. That got more agent interest. I received some nice comments, but they passed.
This manuscript had great meaning for me. It’s more than just an interesting premise. I want to give it every opportunity to succeed. So I’m bracing myself for the hard feedback to find out what’s wrong with it.
So I can make it better.
If I revise based on my group’s suggestions and I still don’t land an agent, then I’ll plan another course of action. Maybe that means hiring an independent editor—something I’ve been reluctant to do.
If I don’t believe in my story enough to make it the best it can possibly be, who else is going to believe in it?
I’m glad I braved a vortex, address issues, a dead phone battery, and a stuffy nose to meet Rebecca Stead. I got to tell her how much I loved her book. I didn’t expect to walk away with an epiphany, but you can’t really plan for those, can you?
What writing epiphany have you had?
What did you do about it?