In January, 2015, I started researching and working on the story of Elizabeth Jennings’ rejection from the streetcar in 1854. I’d found my niche in narrative nonfiction and historical fiction picture books, but, a little more than a year into this writing journey, this story was a long hard road with lots of learning—my very own angst-filled revision workshop. Thank goodness for the encouragement Rate Your Story provided along the way!
In the midst of rejections and revisions, it’s easy to wonder why you keep at it. But later, reflections can reveal valuable lessons…
I was new to researching, experimenting with various ways of organizing information. Picture the building materials for a story in heaps, tools buried, a vague plan.
Lesson learned as I dug through piles of notes and copies, scrolled through computer files, sorting and searching with revision after revision. (And again as I prepare for presentations and blog posts.) Yep, after working on Lizzie, I mended my ways and worked out my system.
My revisions were baby steps toward the end goal. Like patching nail holes in the wall, or rearranging the furniture. Thus, I have over 90 revisions of this manuscript.
Critique groups offer immensely valuable lessons—not only from the feedback you get, but what you learn in providing feedback to others. Often it’s easier to identify issues in someone else’s writing than your own. Once you do that, you can bring that insight to your own writing. Learning how to revise takes time and practice. Now I generally have 30-40 revisions before submission. I make many more changes with each revision after analyzing a range of elements such as characterization, conflict, arc, context, transitions, voice, and word choice. I cover pages with notes and thoughts and then decide how to approach an issue. Now a revision might take a week instead of a day. We’re talking major renovation!
In March 2015, I began to submit the story to agents…and receive rejections.
STOP! Too soon! It’s hard to recognize “ready.”
I kept revising. In June 2015, I submitted the story to the RYS contest and received an honorable mention! Possibility appeared on the horizon.
That shot of encouragement helped me keep on submitting. (I still wasn’t close, still only working on the surface, but I didn’t know that. Oh, blissful ignorance!)
An interested agent! Elation! I revised per her feedback, resubmitted, and then… she quit the business. More rejections arrived.
Lizzie was teaching me to persist. 21 versions tried out variations of a set of three “before…” clauses. (Yes, that’s basically moving the furniture. And I ended up moving it out. But it was good exercise!)
Rejections fueled further experimentation. “Hope” narrated 9 revisions of the story.
Research revealed Feb. 22, Lizzie’s court date, was Rosa Park’s second arrest. This coincidence inspired me to play with structure. A story within a story—6 revisions used a Rosa Parks frame, more included Rosa and an “old woman” narrator.
Finally, I was learning to do REAL revision, past the surface, breaking down walls—structural, scope, and perspective changes. I was moving toward a unique telling and connections. Although the book contains none of these formats, this was a huge breakthrough. Wider research—beyond the character focus to “a full 360 degrees around an event” broadened my understanding and deepened characters.
I needed to expand the court scene, let the reader experience it. Many attempts to get court records failed, presenting a huge challenge.
More lessons on wider research—finding sources and experts. Understanding the time allowed me to revise with information that would bring the reader into the scene.
After a year of revisions, I sent the new and improved version to RYS for a rating. Yay! A 2!
When I look at the revisions up to this point, I can see that all those dives back into the times helped me get deeper into the character and begin to see the world through her eyes.
At a July 2016 retreat, at a roundtable with an editor, I received positive feedback along with a contact for a Chester Arthur expert! I heard Barb Rosenstock talk about the “so what?” and focused on that with more revisions.
I finally understood what was missing and began my quest to learn how to nail down this essential element. These days I focus on the “so what?” as I research and brainstorm on it before writing.
I kept working on Lizzie’s story with feedback from my agent (signed Feb 2016), Stephanie Fretwell-Hill, and eight months later, after more rejections, we had an offer. The learning continued as I worked with the amazing Carolyn Yoder on Lizzie Demands a Seat.
Through 90+ revisions, the story’s lessons taught me to hone my writing skills, tuck context into story, and experiment with structure. But I also learned that real revision involves more than words and sentences. Research and introspection are key to RE-VISION. Building a deeper understanding helped me get to know Lizzie, push myself inside her world, find my special thread and pull it tight. Lizzie taught me patience and perseverance with lessons in every revision. Lessons I needed. Lessons I’m grateful for, and made more special when Lizzie Demands a Seat received a starred review from Kirkus saying the “text allows readers under Lizzie’s skin…”
RE-VISION your manuscripts. See possibility. And don’t be afraid to tear down a few walls.
About the author:
Beth Anderson has always been fascinated with words and language – from sound and meaning, to figurative language and point of view, to cultural and scientific aspects of language. After earning a B.A. in linguistics and a M. Ed. in reading, she taught English as a second language for more than 20 years. Surrounded by young people from all over the world, with literature as her favorite tool, Beth was fascinated by the power of books to teach, connect, and inspire. When she’s not writing, she might be weaving, gardening, exploring nature, or playing with her grandkids. Born and raised in Illinois, she now lives near the mountains in Colorado. Beth believes in laughter, learning, and investing in young minds. And…that truth really is stranger than fiction. For more, visit Beth online at: www.bethandersonwriter.com