Behind the Scenes: “The Path to the Perfect Editor” by Lindsay Metcalf

Rejections never feel good, but sometimes, they actually serve us well. And Lindsay Metcalf’s post here is a great example. I hope you’ll take a few moments to read this outstanding post that proves that “breaking the rules” and defying traditional book categories can work with the right editor. Thank you, Lindsay for sharing your path to the perfect editor for your story! 

Lindsay is offering a signed copy to one lucky person who comments below! 

Congratulations to Jolene Gutierrez! You won a copy of Sadie’s Shabbat Stories!

The Path to the Perfect Editor By Lindsay H. Metcalf

Making a great book involves so many elements. An important one that sometimes goes overlooked is finding the right editor.

Holbert_WashingtonDCorBUSTed
Dean Holbert, Concordia, Kan., fires up the tractor he drove to Washington, DC, in 1979 as part of the American Agriculture Movement protests.

From the moment I first saw a local farmer’s antique tractor with a “Washington D.C. or BUSTed” sign, the spark of curiosity gripped me. This tractor drove to Washington, DC, from Kansas? Tractors drive, like, 30 miles per hour, tops. A little research revealed that in fact thousands of farmers had accompanied this tractor, and with every new detail I uncovered, the story grew more and more colorful.

The elements of a great picture book were coming together. As someone raised on a third-generation Kansas farm, I knew I could do the story justice.

The reactions I received from kidlit professionals were solidly mixed.

My first problem was a big one. Who was the main character? For the first few drafts, I envisioned the main character as a composite — the tractors themselves. I amped up the focus on the farmers’ implements to give the story a throughline I thought kids could relate to. But this chilled the heart of the story – the emotions that drove the farmers to act.

In a harsh rejection, an agent suggested I focus the story on one person. The problem was, the farmers’ movement truly was grassroots. Sure, leaders emerged in each state, but the farmers of the American Agriculture Movement pointedly said that they had no leader.

What to do?

I used FARMERS UNITE! to apply for and win a mentorship with author Megan E. Bryant through Tara Luebbe’s Writing with the Stars contest. Yay! Around that time I signed with my agent, Emily Mitchell of Wernick & Pratt. Double yayyy!!

Megan also suggested I focus on one person, so given this repeated feedback, I tried a draft using a different composite character, this time a human called The Farmer. It was OK, but it didn’t feel authentic. I had strayed into fiction, when my intent was to stick to the facts.

In a conference critique, one astute editor gave me tips on how to tighten and increase tension. Again, she wanted a main character. Someone who embodied the movement. So I asked for suggestions from some farmers who had been involved and found a man who had been part of the movement from the beginning and stayed active through the years. And he was willing to be interviewed. This was the version! I was sure of it.

Another conference critique from another excellent editor showed that this version was not it. She didn’t think it was absolutely clear I had chosen THE person to feature. But I had a scene that involved a nameless child on a toy tractor. Could I focus in on him, she wondered?

I was deflated. This child was nameless because I hadn’t been able to find him. I had no idea who he was, and in nonfiction, you can’t make things up.

My agent wasn’t sure how the book would be shelved in a bookstore. What category did it fit? Ag protest picture books didn’t take up much real estate on bookstore shelves. She wondered if I should try writing it as a middle-grade book.

I still believed in the story of these farmers who had risked everything to make their voices heard. And I still believed that a picture-book audience would relish the images of all the tractors. So I took my own risk. The story now included Farm Aid, which had featured a rousing moment with Johnny Cash and June Carter singing an irreverent parody of “Old MacDonald.” On a whim I wrote my own “Old MacDonald” parody and threaded it into the narrative.

With a protest here and a protest there, here a shout, there a shout, everywhere they called out . . .

“Washington, DC, or bust!” E-I-E-I-O!

It made me giggle. I knew the song read younger than my audience of elementary schoolers, but if Johnny Cash could do it and get a standing ovation from adults, why not try it for a picture book?

Metcalf_FARMERS UNITE coverAround the same time, I attended the Master Class in Nonfiction at the Highlights Foundation. One evening, I spotted legendary Calkins Creek editor Carolyn Yoder. I had to meet her.

She asked what I was working on, so I told her my farm protest story. She said she remembered the protests! Her eyes glimmered as we talked about the farmers camping on the National Mall for a month, and winning back the favor of average Americans as they dug out the Capital from a record snow that shut down Washington, DC, even more than the tractors had.

After some more revision and the blessing of my agent, we sent the story to Carolyn, and she acquired it! I couldn’t believe that she liked the Old MacDonald version.

Except she didn’t.

She said she loved the story of the farmers but wanted a total rewrite. She asked me to scrap the song (wahhhh), and she wanted to know more about the motivation driving the main character I’d identified. She wanted to be inside his head. To know why HE was THE person to frame the story around.

Welp. In two minutes she had found a gaping hole in the story I’d been struggling with for two years. Her books have won oodles of national awards for a reason, y’all.

So I confessed. I told her about all the versions the story had gone through, and shared my original vision. She agreed that it sounded more natural to frame the story around a movement and wanted me to lean in and include quotes from multiple farmers.

YES! But wait — you can do that in a picture book? Wasn’t there a rule about too many characters, introducing them late in the story, blah, blah, blah?

Most of the time, yes, but by using multiple farmers in a collective, they embody the movement as their voices unify through the course of the narrative. Carolyn defied categories even more by proposing that we illustrate the story with photographs. I would be the one to curate them and secure permissions. The idea intimidated the heck out of me, but I agreed to it because Carolyn believed in the story, and she believed in me.

In the end, I love what we made together. I love the grit and passion that emanates through the black-and-white photos as well as the in-the-moment quotes from multiple farmers, pulled from various newspapers of the day. I love that Carolyn was willing to make the book that was meant to be, rather than shoehorning it into some formula.LM

Officially, FARMERS UNITE! Planting a Protest for Fair Prices is a photo-illustrated picture book for readers ages 8-12. I wrote it for 32 pages, and it’s expanded into 64, including twelve pages of back matter. It’s a cross between narrative nonfiction and coffee-table art book for children. Is that how I had pictured the final product? No. Except it is. My editor envisioned its shape all along, and it was exactly the story I never knew it needed to be.

Leave a comment below for a chance to win a signed copy! (continental US addresses only, please)

Lindsay H. Metcalf is a journalist and author of nonfiction picture books: Beatrix Potter, Scientist, illustrated by Junyi Wu (Albert Whitman & Company, September 2020); Farmers Unite! Planting a Protest for Fair Prices (Calkins Creek, November 10, 2020); and No Voice Too Small: Fourteen Young Americans Making History, a poetry anthology co-edited by Lindsay H. Metcalf, Keila V. Dawson, and Jeanette Bradley, illustrated by Bradley (Charlesbridge, September 2020). Lindsay lives in north-central Kansas, not far from the farm where she grew up, with her husband, two sons, and a variety of pets. You can reach her at lindsayhmetcalf.com or follow @lindsayhmetcalf on Twitter and Instagram.


8 thoughts on “Behind the Scenes: “The Path to the Perfect Editor” by Lindsay Metcalf

  1. Wow! What a fascinating story behind the story that Lindsay wrote! I don’t remember the protest, but found it captivating. And, how lucky to find an editor like Carolyn to help steer the story to make it truly shine. Enjoyed all of the details about their work together. She is lucky to find someone who is willing to think outside the box. Love the cover. Congratulations on your two book releases this fall!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Love Lindsay’s details behind the writing of this book! So interesting to see that an editor will buy a book based on the subject matter and then ask for a total rewrite. It’s clear that if an editor loves the heart of a story, they’re willing to work with an author to make it jive with their vision. I’ve got my review of it scheduled for next week on PPBF! yay!

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Lindsey, what a terrific story! It must have taken lots of courage to get out there and obtain the facts and quotes for this story. You really got into it, and I’ll bet that’s what made the difference, your enthusiasm. I’d love to read your story, The Farmers Unite.

    Liked by 1 person

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