The author/editor relationship at work…

I really like my editor at M Press. She and I have gone back and forth on revisions for When Grandpa had a Stroke four times over the last ten days or so, and I can see the book getting stronger with each revision.

The hardest section to get right is the definition of what a stroke is. This is how I originally wrote that section:

“What’s a stroke?” I ask.
“It’s like a heart attack only it happens in the brain instead of the heart,” Dad explains. “A blood clot blocked one of the arteries in Grandpa’s brain. Now Grandpa can’t move the left side of his body.”
“Why not?” I ask.
“Because the part of his brain that tells him to move his left arm or his left leg isn’t working,” Dad says. “Sometimes people who have strokes can’t talk. Sometimes they can’t think like they used to. Grandpa’s still sleeping, so we don’t know what he can or cannot do yet.”

The book is aimed at 4-7 year olds (ideally to be read with a parent after a loved one has had a stroke), so my editor’s response to this section was: “We need to define ‘stroke’ in a more helpful, age-appropriate way. To say it’s like a heart attack won’t mean much to our audience (‘what’s a heart attack?’)”

So she suggested this revision:

“A stroke is something that happens in a part of the brain, usually to people Grandpa’s age,” Dad explains. “After a stroke, that part of the brain can’t work the way it’s supposed to. Now Grandpa can’t move the left side of his body.”
“Why not?” I ask.
“Because the part of his brain that tells him to move his left arm or his left leg isn’t working,” Dad says. “Sometimes people who have strokes can’t talk, because their stroke happened in the talking part of the brain. Sometimes they can’t think like they used to. Grandpa’s still sleeping, so we don’t know what he can or cannot do yet.”

Note the addition of “because their stroke happened in the talking part of the brain.” Wow! I really liked that…but I didn’t like how she changed the first line. I thought it sounded like EVERYONE has a stroke eventually. I also noticed that we said “Grandpa can’t move the left side of his body,” but then after that we go on to say “Grandpa’s been sleeping, so we don’t know what he can or cannot do yet.” That didn’t make sense. So I rewrote the whole section again:

“It’s something that can happen inside a person’s brain, but usually it only happens to people Grandpa’s age,” Dad says. “Part of the brain gets blocked off, and then the brain doesn’t work the way it’s supposed to.”
“What do you mean?”
“Well, in Grandpa’s case, because of where the stroke happened, he can’t move the left side of his body.”
“Why not?” I ask.
“Because the part of his brain that tells him to move his left arm or his left leg isn’t working,” Dad says. “Sometimes people who have strokes can’t talk, because their stroke happened in the talking part of the brain. Sometimes they can’t think like they used to. Grandpa’s been sleeping since the stroke happened, so we don’t know everything he can and cannot do yet.”

I still wasn’t entirely happy with this (and I told my editor so), but I wasn’t sure what it was I didn’t like. I knew it was getting longer (and wordier). I wondered if the part about stroke patients sometimes not being able to think like they used to should be there. I don’t know…It just didn’t seem to flow. So I wasn’t surprised when she didn’t like it, either. Here are her concrete reasons why the above didn’t work:

1. “Part of the brain gets blocked off” raises questions that don’t need to be asked at this age level (how does it get blocked off? what blocks it off? oh, blood blocks it off? why is there blood in the brain? and so on. It opens up a big door that we don’t need to go through. Let’s go back to something more simple.

2. The reviewer suggested adding the part about the body in the very beginning of the explanation. (See revision below) I agree that it works well, makes the concept clearer to the reader.

3. The text was getting a little loose and wordy.

4. “What do you mean?” is an older child’s question/wording. It’s even a popular phrase right now among teens, so I’d prefer to avoid it. “Is Grandpa going to be okay?” is a likely question for Ryan to ask, and it nicely sets the stage for what Dad says next.

5. In response to your question, I would keep the sentence about “thinking.” The reviewer comment that it’s a good idea to mention several disability possibilities to make it clear that so many different systems can be affected, and it’s especially a good idea to prepare kids for this disturbing “thinking” one.

So here’s her next revision:

“It’s something that can happen inside a person’s brain,” says Dad. “A stroke makes part of the brain and part of the body stop working the way they are supposed to. Usually a stroke only happens to an older person, like Grandpa.”
“Is Grandpa going to be okay?”
“Grandpa’s stroke happened in the part of the brain that tells him to move the left side of his body. Now he can’t move his left arm or his left leg. Sometimes people who have strokes can’t talk, because their stroke happened in the talking part of the brain. Sometimes they can’t think like they used to, because it happened in the thinking part of the brain. Grandpa’s been sleeping since the stroke happened, so we don’t know everything he can and cannot do yet.”

It’s getting better, isn’t it? But I’m still not entirely happy with it. I don’t like the “part of the brain and part of the body” section. I spent hours on this one section over the weekend. This is what I came up with:

“It’s something that can happen inside a person’s brain,” says Dad. “Usually it only happens to an older person, like Grandpa. What happens is part of the brain stops working the way it’s supposed to. Then the person can’t do things the way he could before.”
“Did part of Grandpa’s brain stop working?” I ask.
“Yes. Grandpa’s stroke happened in the part of the brain that tells him to move the left side of his body. So now he can’t move his left arm or his left leg. Sometimes people who have strokes can’t talk, because their stroke happened in the talking part of the brain. Sometimes they can’t think like they used to, because it happened in the thinking part of the brain. Grandpa’s been sleeping since the stroke happened, so we don’t know everything he can and cannot do yet.”

I’m still not sure it’s there…and I haven’t heard back from my editor yet, so I don’t know what she thinks…but we’re getting closer. This is one of the most important sections of the book, so it’s got to be exactly right. I’m grateful to my editor for helping me get it right. Imagine if the book had gotten published with that original definition?! This seems like a true partnership…she says what she thinks, then I say what I think…neither of us has to just accept what the other says. But instead we’re working together to get it right. It’s wonderful to work with an editor like that. (And I’ve been lucky in that every one of my editors is wonderful to work with.)

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