You always want to get the phone call from a publisher, not the letter.
The letter says, “We liked your novel, but . . .” and then you can pick one of a thousand different reasons they aren’t going to buy your book.
The phone call, on the other hand, says, “We liked your novel, AND . . . we want to buy it.”
I went through a few rounds of letter rejections on Samurai Shortstop until I finally got that phone call from Dial, a great imprint at Penguin Putnam. After we hammered out a contract, I got a letter from Dial that said “We love the novel we just bought from you, but . . . we’d like you to change a few things.”
It was a three page letter, single-spaced, working through the book section by section. Mostly these were questions, from general things like, “What if we made Toyo [the main character] a little older?” or “Can we see more tension with the father?” to smaller issues like, “Why is there a girls’ bathroom at an all boys boarding school?” (That was a good question.)
More Research Required
For the most part though, they were things that could be fixed with a little revision.
But then there was the doozy: “Can we see more of the day-to-day life at the high school?”
Well, the reason I hadn’t included more about the day-to-day life at Ichiko was because I had no idea what the day-to-day life at a Japanese high school in 1890 was like! Nowhere in my research had I found word one that talked about school days in Imperial Japan, and I had no idea what to do. I didn’t want to transpose my own high school experiences into the book, because besides the fact that I grew up a hundred years later, there was the cultural factor; high school for me and high school for Toyo were probably as different as pizza and sushi.
But then I found it. My holy grail.
There was actually a book called “Schooldays in Imperial Japan.” And it wasn’t just about schooldays in Meiji Japan, it was about schooldays at Ichiko, the very same school where my novel was set! I found so much incredible stuff in that book. Like how one time the cafeteria food got so bad the students rioted, and to resolve the situation, the headmaster fired the kitchen staff and made the students run the cafeteria themselves. I mean, they were in there every morning chopping vegetables to make miso soup for breakfast, they were serving each other, they were doing their own dishes.
There was a quote in there from a boy who said, “All we do is chop vegetables all day!” and I knew I had to use that. I also learned that at one point the boys decided to stop bathing, shaving, or changing their clothes. As you can imagine, things got pretty raw in the dormitory.
But there was more serious stuff, too. Like the lengths the students went to police themselves, including a secret society they set up to punish anyone who expressed too much individualism. They made their own rules in the dormitory, and the faculty let them govern themselves. There were also some pretty intense hazing rituals first-year students had to undergo before they could become “Ichiko men,” including surviving the “storms.” (I’ll leave that to the readers’ imaginations until they read the book.)
Integrating New Material
So, after I found all this great new stuff, it was back to the drawing board. I mean, I already had a finished novel. So where was all this new stuff going to go? I couldn’t exactly slap it on the beginning or end of the book. It had to be woven throughout.
That meant a revision of the entire book. To figure out where the new scenes were going to go, I broke my original novel back down into an outline, then broke the outline in to separate, discrete scenes, printed them out, and cut them into little slips of paper. Then I typed up all the new scenes I had from my second round of research, and started rearranging them until they began making sense as a story.
Once I had one big, cohesive story, I sat back down at the computer and created a new and improved outline, and then a new and improved book. (It sounds easy, but it wasn’t.) When I was finished, I had added one hundred new pages to a book that was had been 150 pages to begin with.
What can I say? They asked for more about school life, and I gave it to them. I had no idea how long my editor wanted the book to be, and as I hit send on the manuscript I wondered if her response was going to be something like, “We like this revision, but can you cut a hundred pages now?”
Thankfully my editor loved everything. There was still trimming to do, and the book went through another few rounds of revisions, but the story was pretty much set. And the rest, as they say, is historical fiction. (Ha.)