ROAD TO TATER HILL by Edith Hemingway
Introduced first in 2007, debut children’s authors have formed a cooperative effort to market their books. Last year, I featured many of the Class of 2k8 on Revision Notes, as they told the stories of how 2k8 Novels Were Revised.
Today, I’m glad to continue the 2k9 Series of novel revision stories.
Class of 2k9
“When your editor says your character isn’t stepping up to the plate…” by Edith M. Hemingway, author of ROAD TO TATER HILL (Delacorte Press, September 8, 2009)
I consider the process of revision to be the true meat of writing. In fact, I revised my middle grade novel, ROAD TO TATER HILL, for three years before I decided it was finished and polished enough to submit to an editor. So, when I heard from Michelle Poploff, VP and Executive Editor of Delacorte Press, that she was interested in talking to me about my manuscript, I was confident that if she wanted it, there would of course be changes, but surely not major structural revisions.
She was interested and wanted to set up a telephone conversation a week later. I asked if there was something I should be thinking about in terms of revision before we talked. She said, “My assistant and I think your character, Drew, isn’t stepping up to the plate. We’d like you to consider removing him entirely from the story.”
I was thankful this was communicated through email and not face to face or over the telephone because there would have been a groan, a gasp, or a fleeting look of panic. My immediate reaction was, “How on earth could I take my brother out of my book?”
What I neglected to say earlier is that the seed for ROAD TO TATER HILL was my own childhood experience of the premature birth and death of my baby sister. Since I started writing it as a memory of an emotional childhood incident for a creative writing assignment, of course I included my older brother in the story. He was a significant part of the whole experience within our family. As the story evolved into fiction and took on more characters and an actual plot and story arc, the brother in the story tagged along, too. We had always been close, and I could not imagine life without him for either my character, Annie Winters, or me. However, the student in me that constantly strives to improve my writing urged me to be open to all suggestions—especially those from an experienced editor.
Yes, to Editor’s Suggestions
By the time our telephone conversation rolled around, I had come to terms with the change and realized the loss of a longed-for baby sister would be all the more poignant if Annie were an only child. I had even taken the necessary steps to mark every point in the story where Drew had appeared physically, through dialogue with other characters, or by reference in Annie’s thoughts and memory—especially those scenes where he played a significant role in driving plot points. Drew had appeared in 81 pages out of the then 154 total. I had also figured out the perfect character to beef up and take over the plot points that Drew could no longer control—Bobby Miller, the neighbor boy, who not only now became Annie’s best friend, but also added an interesting boy/girl dimension to the story.
Michelle and I talked for nearly two hours—going over those ideas in addition to many other lesser points and clarifications she needed. She ended the conversation by saying she would mail back my manuscript with all her written comments and suggested I think it over for a couple of weeks to decide if I wanted to move forward with these revisions. I did not tell her then that I had already decided—of course I would make those changes and even take them a step further!
Taking Time to Plan Revision
Once I received the manuscript, I spent several days reading through and taking meticulous notes. Then I put together a 4-page revision strategy list which included 9 detailed character improvements, 17 other considerations based on Michelle’s questions, a clarification of the time span of the entire story, and a plan for resequencing some of the major scenes.
Before scheduling our next telephone conversation, I emailed this detailed revision plan to Michelle, so she had time to look it over first. When we talked, her first words were, “You’ve really stepped up to the plate.” I had demonstrated that I was ready, willing, and able to make the revisions they wanted, and they were ready to offer me a contract, even before I completed the revisions.
Yes, there were more revisions required after I finished the first round and even before we reached the copy-editing stage. I even rewrote the entire novel in the first person point of view in order to dig deeper into the emotional core. It sounds as if I made every single change my editor suggested, but no, I didn’t. There were a few ideas that just didn’t ring true to my characters, even though I tried. In those cases, I came up with alternative plans that worked as well or better. I also learned that revisions often need to be done in layers, rather than all at once. One change perhaps leads to another change, which in turn reveals another problem that must be fixed, and so on. The hardest thing for me is to know when to finally stop revising.
I firmly believe, however, that my willingness to trust my editor, listen to her suggestions, and follow through with revisions was critical in landing my first “solo” contract!