How collaboration – and a dose of humility – can improve a book

Author Melissa Hart shares how she grudgingly changed her memoir to a book at an editor's request, and it ultimately worked better.

Melissa Hart, author photo
For author Melissa Hart, her cat Jake often serves as her first audience.

Two years ago, I sat at my desk in my tiny home office and read my newest memoir manuscript out loud to my cat – historically a diplomatic audience for my work. Several times over 250 pages, I paused to weep into his fur. When I’d finished reading, I sent the file off to my agent with pictures of Pulitzers dancing in my head.

But doubt began to plague me.

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I’ve been writing professionally for two decades. I’ve learned that when a piece makes me cry, an editor’s bound to request revisions.

My first memoir amassed 16 single-spaced pages of editorial notes before publication, while my debut novel got a gentle overhaul from title to acknowledgments page. I’ve learned to stay open-minded and flexible, to counter an initial desire to growl at my editors with a cooling-down period and a pint of Ben & Jerry’s. In the light of day, and several pounds heavier, I can embrace their suggestions and sit down to revise.

My agent sent out my newest memoir manuscript with high hopes. I’d written a heart-wrenching story about deciding to homeschool my second-grade daughter, who suffered from extreme anxiety and depression, designing a curriculum around diverse contemporary children’s novels and inspired by studies that show correlations between reading literature and increased empathy for self and others.

One editor, a mother herself, saw the promise in the story. “We need this now,” she told me. “But the manuscript’s too personal.”

She suggested I revise it so the concept of bibliotherapy – using books to help alleviate mental turmoil – would feel more relevant and applicable to all readers. And then, she uttered the words that made me bristle like my terrier when the cat walks too close to the dog-food bowl:

“I don’t think it’s working as a memoir.”

A growl escaped me. I masked it as a cough. “I’ll get back to you,” I said.

I went on a run, as I always do when I need endorphins and mental clarity, and considered my options. I could find an editor who loved the project as it was. I could self-publish. Or I could embrace this editor’s insights and trust her professional assessment of the book she believed readers most needed right then – albeit a vastly different manuscript from the 250 pages I’d written.

My mother, herself a professional writer and one-time newspaper editor, had offered wise counsel when I was just starting out in journalism. “Be easy to work with,” she’d told me. “Editors have needs, too.” Of course, she’d also taught me to be stubborn, to stay fierce to my vision of projects that lay close to my heart. It’s a tricky tightrope, indeed, eliciting all sorts of questions about why we write in the first place, why we choose to publish, and whom we hope to reach with our work.

If I’d stayed true to my initial memoir manuscript, the story would have reached parents like me who’d decided to homeschool their kids using a curriculum based on contemporary kid lit. That demographic suddenly seemed too small for what I believed was a crucial message about the correlation between literature and empathy. I gulped down my pride and told my editor I’d revise according to how she believed the story could reach the most readers.

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I longed to write a resource for parents and other caregivers, librarians, teachers, child psychologists, and young readers themselves. My editor asked me to compile a researched list and two-sentence description of 500 diverse novels and memoirs written over the past decade for tweens and teens – stories that address issues including racism, learning challenges, physical disability, mental illness, religion, environmentalism, body image, etc. Some of my memoir material made it into the short essays that begin each chapter, interspersed with author interviews and my research into studies that examined bibliotherapy in classrooms and therapists’ office and prisons.

Some of my original manuscript became social commentary published in magazines and newspapers. I printed out a handful of paragraphs and cut them out and tacked them to my bulletin board to await inclusion in a future project. But I shredded a great many of the 250 pages. They make excellent cat litter, those wordy white strips, and mulch for the backyard garden.

The galleys of my new books arrived last month, and they were gorgeous. On the cover, a figure stands atop a tower of books, radiating power. Each novel and memoir I describe has its moment in the spotlight, showcasing how it reaches young readers grappling with particular issues. For almost an hour at the ALA Midwinter Meeting in Seattle, librarians lined up with their galleys for autographs and to thank me and talk about the book. I’m not convinced that my very personal memoir would have elicited the same excitement.

Better with Books by Melissa Hart
Better with Books by Melissa Hart

I ended up with a book I’m proud of – a project that not only incorporates my voice but also the voices of parents and teachers and therapists and librarians using novels and memoirs in all sorts of creative ways to reach our most vulnerable young people. I learned to nudge my ego aside and enter into the spirit of collaboration with other professionals in the business of bringing powerful stories to as many readers as possible.

I finished a new middle-grade novel this year, to fill a gap I observed in my research into the genre. Last week, I read the final draft to my long-suffering cat before sending it off to my agent. One scene, in particular, made me cry.

I circled it with a loving, critical eye, not unlike the way I look at my daughter – now an exuberant sixth-grader at a local middle school – and her fashion choices before she heads off to school each day. And then I readied the Ben & Jerry’s, along with my running shoes.

 

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Contributing Editor Melissa Hart is the author of Better with Books: 500 Diverse Books to Ignite Empathy and Inspire Self-Acceptance in Tweens and Teens (Sasquatch, 2019).
melissahart.com