By Cynthia Leitich Smith
JoAnne Stewart Wetzel is the first-time novelist of Playing Juliet (Sky Pony, 2015). From the promotional copy:
Beth Sondquist, 12 1/2, secretly dreams of playing William Shakespeare’s Juliet.
When she learns the children’s theatre in her town is threatened with closure, she and her best friend, Zandy Russell, do everything they can to save it.
But since Beth keeps breaking one theatre superstition after another in the process, she may never get onstage again.
Quotes from Shakespeare bookmark each chapter and foreshadow the next plot twist as a multicultural cast of kids fights to keep their theatre open.
Could you describe both your pre-and-post contract revision process? What did you learn along the way? How did you feel at each stage? What advice do you have for other writers on the subject of revision?
I love to revise. When I started my first novel, Playing Juliet, I worked on the first chapter for months. It was polished and perfect before I went on to the second chapter.
But by the time I had finished the first draft, the characters had changed, the plot had changed and I had to throw the whole first chapter out.
When the draft was finished, a New York editor read the first ten pages at a SCBWI conference. Of course I was expecting her to offer to buy it on the spot (don’t we all) or at least to ask to see the full. Instead, she said she didn’t find my main character, Beth, charming.
Charming? A 12-and-a-half-year-old narrator focused on getting onstage while her costume was falling apart had other things to worry about besides being charming. But I read over the chapter carefully. While Beth’s focus was appropriate, was she a little self-centered? What if I had her do something for someone else?
|Inspiration! Just So Stories, Palo Alto (CA) Children’s Theater
I added exactly six sentences to an early scene that showed the cast waiting in the wings to go on. Beth notices that a younger actor playing a mouse is nervous, remembers that it’s the Mouse’s first play and that she’d seen her reapply her make-up in the dressing room at least four times.
Though they have to be very quiet backstage, Beth whispers, “Great nose.” and outlines a circle on her own.
Sometimes it only takes six sentences. When the book was published, the review in the School Library Journal began “In this charming story featuring a relatable narrator and action-driven plot…” A blurb by the author Miriam Spitzer Franklin ended by saying the book “introduces a protagonist who will steal your heart as she chases after her dreams.”
Another reader pointed out that while Playing Juliet started with lots of references to the superstitions around MacBeth and ended with a production of Romeo and Juliet, a few of the earlier chapters had almost no reference to Shakespeare. Was there a way to weave him into the rest of the book?
There was no room to introduce another play into this middle-grade story but I’d always loved reading books with epigraphs. Could I find enough quotes from Shakespeare’s writings to serve as appropriate epigraphs before each chapter?
I used the Open Source Shakespeare search engine, typed in a word like “jewel” or “duchess” and got a list of all the appearances of these words in his works. The perfect epigraph kept jumping out at me.
For the chapter in which the kids are looking for a lost diamond bracelet, I quoted “Search for a jewel that too casually Hath left mine arm” from “Cymbeline.”
“What think you of a duchess? have you limbs to bear that load of title?” from “Henry VIII” made the perfect epigraph for the chapter in which Beth is asked if she can cover the part of a Duchess for an actor down with the flu during the run of “Cinderella!”
|Joanne & daughter seeing Royal Shakespeare Co.
I was excited when an editor told me she’d brought the manuscript to committee, even when she added that they’d like to see a rewrite. They were uncomfortable with a scene in which Beth and two of her friends sneak out at night to break into the Children’s Theatre.
I loved that scene. It was scary and exciting and the kids had the best of intentions. But I could make the plot work without it, so I took it out.
That editor didn’t take the book. The next two editors it was sent to both commented that they felt the story was too quiet.
I put the scene back in. It wasn’t necessary to the plot but it was vital to the development of the characters, for it showed what they would sacrifice to save their theater. The book sold right after that scene was restored.
I’ve brought all of the lessons I learned writing my first novel to the next one I’m currently working on. I’m going to finish the whole manuscript before I start to revise.
I will honor each critique I get, and find a way to solve any problem that’s been identified. It could lead to a much richer book and may only take six sentences. But I will also evaluate how the changes have affected the story and if they don’t help, I’ll change it back.
Post-contract Revision Process
|Sis-in-law, Elephant Cafe, Edinburgh
When Julie Matysic at Sky Pony Press acquired the manuscript, she sent her editorial comments to me in a Word document. I had the chance to approve, change or comment on the suggested changes. Most of the revision was copy edits and most of the time I couldn’t believe I’d let such a glaring grammatical error slip through.
But one set of edits I disagreed with. I had capitalized the names of all the characters in the two plays that are performed in the book. The copy editor kept all the proper names—Juliet, Romeo, Cinderella— as I wrote them, but changed all the animal characters—the cat, horse, mice—to lower case.
I decided to email Julie to ask if I could change them back. She said yes, and suggested that since many of the parts were names that would not normally be capitalized, I make up a list of all the characters for the copy editor to work with. I’m so glad I asked for clarification.
Remember that you and your editor are working toward the same goal: to make your manuscript great. And you know she has impeccable taste: she picked your manuscript to publish.
Julie suggested I do a mood board for the cover. I’d never heard of this but she explained that all I had to do was open a PowerPoint file and create a collage using the covers of books that I like then include a second page with a written explanation of why I had chosen the images. It might be the font, the color, the mood or a combination of all three. When it was done, she would send the collage to the artist creating the design to use for inspiration.
It was so much fun to search through online bookstores to find covers I liked. Beth, my 12-year-old heroine, is threatened with losing the children’s theater she has been performing in for years, but I didn’t want the cover to be sad.
I wanted it to be a reminder of what Beth loves about theater, about being on stage and what she will lose if her theater closes.
The mood I wanted was joy, the joy of acting, of being onstage. The covers that showed images of flying, fairies, a figure with fantastically long fingers, captured the unlimited world the stage offers.
Because so much of the story takes place in a theater, I was drawn to covers that featured theater curtains opening. Three of the twelve covers I chose had a frame of red theater curtains and two others repeated that shape and color in the clothing of the women depicted: a partially open red coat, billowing red bell bottoms. That rich red set the color pallet that dominated my collage.
When Julie sent me the final cover, I opened the attachment with some trepidation. Up popped a design with a frame of rich red curtains opening onto a dark background that showcased the title of the book. And my name was in lights, just like on a Broadway marquee.
I loved my cover. And the Children’s Books manager at Keplers, my local independent bookstore, told me the cover was so effective, the book was jumping off the shelves. My mood board had worked.
How have you approached the task of promoting your debut book? What online or real-space efforts are you making? Where did you get your ideas? To whom did you turn for support? Are you enjoying the process, or does it feel like a chore? What advice do you have on this front for your fellow debut authors and for those in the years to come?
|Shakespeare puppets & stamp for JoAnne’s signing
When the Royal Shakespeare Company announced it was devoting 2016, the year of the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death, to celebrating him and his work, I knew I had a great tie-in with Playing Juliet.
When I was in Stratford-upon-Avon last summer, I took a lot of pictures of the buildings that were standing when Shakespeare lived there to use on my web site and in my talks.
I also bought three Shakespeare puppets: a regular hand-puppet for most of my presentations, an elegant figure in a cloth-of-gold costume to use with a sophisticated audience and a finger puppet, because sometimes a smaller figure will just work better.
When I got home, I ordered a Shakespeare stamp to use at my book signings. After all, the Bard wrote all of my epigraphs.
I’ve struggled to get my web pages up. I have now checked off a web page for myself, with all of my books on it, and a web page for Playing Juliet with links to 13 Superstitions Every Theater Kid Should Know as well as links to photos of Shakespearian sites at Stratford-upon-Avon.
I’ve got an author’s page on Amazon and Goodreads and SCBWI. I did a Launch Page on the new SCBWI web program. This all took a very long time.
|Author/illustrator guest book, New York Public Library
Kepler’s Bookstore, has been a great help. They invited me to have my book launch party there, which, on their advice, was held a week after the pub date because every now and then, books are delayed. The copies of Playing Juliet arrived on time but I was happy to have the extra week to prepare for the talk.
Kepler’s is still supporting me. Want a signed or inscribed copy of my book? Just order it online from them.
I worked with my publicist at Sky Pony Press to have her send copies of the books to the winner of the giveaways I ran on Goodreads and to my alumni connections.
This resulted in a featured review, with a color picture of the cover of the book, in the ASU magazine, which is sent to 340,000 people.
So far I’ve spoken at an event at our local library, at my grandsons’ school in Ghana, and sold copies at our regional SCBWI conference. I’ll be talking at other schools in the fall. When I was in New York City recently, I introduced myself to the librarians at the Children’s Room at the New York Public Library, and was invited to sign the guest book they keep for visiting authors and illustrators.
And online I’ve been invited to do an interview on Library Lions and Cynsations.
I’ve been enjoying the process, but it takes a lot of time and I’m impatient to dive into my next middle grade.
|the Lincoln Community School in Accra, Ghana
What advice do you have on this front for your fellow debut authors and for those in the years to come?
Start early. Well before your pub date, get your author’s pages up on SCBWI, Amazon and Goodreads. Figure out how the book giveaways on Goodreads work, and think about posting one before your book is out. Don’t wait until your book comes out to publicize any good news about it.
Jane Yolen wrote the most incredible blurb for Playing Juliet, saying “I couldn’t stop reading,” but I waited until the book came out to share it with everyone. I’m not making that mistake again.
My next book, My First Day at Mermaid School, is a picture book that will be coming out from Knopf in the summer of 2018 and Julianna Swaney is bringing her amazing talent to the illustrations.
|Waylon, writer cat
JoAnne’s other publications include:
- Onstage/Backstage, with Caryn Huberman (Carolrhoda, 1987);
- The Christmas Box (Alfred A. Knopf, 1992);
- and My First Day at Mermaid School, illustrated by Julianna Swaney, (Alfred A. Knopf, Summer, 2018).
In Playing Juliet, Beth continually quotes the web page, “13
Superstitions Every Theater Kid Should Know,” which can be found on www.playingjuliet.com.
This site also includes photos of Shakespearian sites in
Stratford-upon-Avon (see below).
View more research photos from JoAnne.
|Shakespeare’s Childhood Home
|Shakespeare’s Childhood Bedroom