“It’s not our job as writers to craft a perfect story. It’s our job to create the raw materials with enough shape and shiny bits to capture the hearts and minds of other human beings, especially small ones.”
Author Alexandra Page describes the ups and downs of publishing her debut children’s book, and how she’s learnt to embrace imperfection and collaboration
Winning the WriteMentor’s Children’s Novel Award in 2019 felt incredible. Fortunately for everyone else it wasn’t recorded live or my scream might have shattered a few screens. A few months later I was shortlisted for the Times/Chicken House prize and two years on, my authorship dream has been realised as Wishyouwas leapt onto bookshelves in the UK on 30th September.
The publication journey might seem swift in my case, but actually spanned a lot of years and involved more rewrites than I care to count. Even after the prize listings, the process of changing Wishyouwas into something submission-ready for publishers was long, hard and plunged me into my own personal writing Hell. I don’t write this to discourage anyone, or to suggest this is what always happens, but only to share my discovery that what made it so difficult for me was trying to be perfect. Stories aren’t perfect. Even after they receive a listing, a win, an agent, or a deal, they will almost certainly need work – and lots of it. Expecting perfection is counter-productive, damaging and pointless.
In the summer of 2019 I received feedback from the competition readers and judges that there was lots to like, but far from having written a publication-ready book, Wishyouwas needed significant work. The pacing was off in the second half, there wasn’t enough peril and the protagonist’s emotional arc was a flat line. Stuart White came to my rescue and mentored me during the summer WriteMentor programme.
We made a plan and I began ploughing through changes, confident I could find the perfect solutions to fix the story. I then got stuck halfway and couldn’t budge, despite all Stuart’s patience, help and encouragement. The showcase loomed, but I was nowhere near done. I have enormous admiration for all the WM mentees who make it to the showcase, it really is an astounding achievement. Then, in the autumn Christabel McKinley at David Higham offered to represent me after we’d connected over a different novel still in its early stages. Starting that winter, we worked out a fresh plan for Wishyouwas, keen to capitalise on the competition momentum before it ran out. I began again, promising it would only take me a few weeks to complete. I was certain I could now go away and perfect the story.
Reaching breaking point
I followed each promising trail towards what I thought was the right answer, until I had paths going everywhere: different back stories for my protagonist, reimagined antagonists with different motives and methods. Weeks turned into months and months into a year as I kept quiet about how lost I was, avoiding asking for help as that surely meant I was a failure as a writer.
Until one day I cracked. I was exhausted from months of changes and still didn’t have a submission-ready story despite dozens of versions on file. I was ready to throw my poor suffering laptop in the nearby river. Instead, I ran away to the park, sat down beside an old oak tree and demanded it give me the answers, because I was done. Instead of a plot fix, these words popped into my head: “Believe in yourself”. Now I don’t know whether that was the tree or not, but I remember replying out loud: “Thanks, a whole lot of good that is!” Strangely though, it was the right answer. What I’d lost wasn’t the ability to write a good story, as I feared, but by trying and failing to reach perfection, I’d demolished my self-belief. I needed help.
Rewriting and reworking
I came clean with Christabel who offered unwavering support and helped me reform a plan. I also asked my sister, just out of uni and with time on her hands, to read Wishyouwas with fresh eyes and make me keep within the guardrails. I kept up a constant dialogue with them both, playing back any ideas rather than going it alone, and over a few weeks managed to get over the halfway hump and reach the end of my edits, eighteen months after starting out. Christabel then pronounced it a submission-ready first draft. How could it only be a FIRST draft after all that! I wanted to know. Because, she explained, it isn’t perfect, and doesn’t need to be. Any editor worth their ink will want me to make further changes.
Wishyouwas went on submission in December 2020, only just making it into editor’s inboxes before Christmas, and I signed with Bloomsbury Children’s Books a few weeks later. True to Christabel’s word, four editorial stages with three amazing editors swiftly followed over the next few months: a broad-brush structural edit, a line-by-line edit, a copy edit and a proof edit. Each stage polished the story more and more, until finally we felt it was as perfect as it needed to be to go to print.
Recognising perfection in imperfection
I learnt a big lesson that year. It’s not our job as writers to craft a perfect story. It’s our job to create the raw materials with enough shape and shiny bits to capture the hearts and minds of other human beings, especially small ones. When we receive feedback that our stories need work, it isn’t a criticism of our ability to write, but an essential part of the process. Believe me, you’ll still be working on your story until the moment you hold it in physical form, and even afterwards reviews will roll in, offering feedback on your carefully spun words. If we can just learn to accept imperfection in our stories, seek and allow help from others and be prepared for inevitable rework, then that’s perfect enough as it is.
Read more from Alex…
Ready to follow the adventures of the tiny guardian of lost letters?