From the Hat Box Files

Maria Antonia blog KidLitZombieWeek

Let me start with a story. (Hey, we’re storytellers, aren’t we?)

It takes place in the past—over 100 years ago, back when both men and women wore hats. And those hats were often stored away in hat boxes. (Note: The hat box doesn’t come into the story quite yet. But just wait, it will.)

writing and a hat box

The protagonist of this story is a writer. A lady writer. She had written a book—a novel—but every single publisher she sent her manuscript to returned it with a printed slip: NO THANK YOU. Nobody wanted her book! So, she took the manuscript and tossed it into one of her hat boxes. She shoved the box into the back of a closet. Enough! On with her life.

Two years later …

Our protagonist was cleaning. She pulled the hat box from the closet and … What’s this? Her abandoned manuscript! Well, enough time had passed to take away the sting of those rejections. She took the manuscript out of the box, sat down, and started to read it.

That’s when she realized … this book was GOOD!

After making a few tweaks to the story, our protagonist put the manuscript in the mail (snail mail … remember, it’s 100 years ago) and sent it to one more publisher. And that’s the time when a publisher finally said …


The Hat Box Files …

I love this story. Not just because it tells about how one of my favorite books came to be published, but it’s a reminder to me that, sometimes, a story may need a hat box. And that’s why I created a file on my computer called “The Hat Box Files.” (No, I don’t use a physical hat box!) It’s a place where I put stories I’m working on that need something, but I don’t quite know what that something is.

I do think that giving a manuscript time away really helps you with your writing. It gives you that distance to come back with a critical eye. Does this story still resonate with me? Every so often, I go through my hat box file folder and pull out a story. It’s time to revise and breathe some new life into the story.

One of My Personal Hat Box Stories

Tia Raquel's Hair

A few years ago, I had an idea for a story that involved a photo of a man and a woman with shaved heads due to cancer. I wrote the story about Aunt Holly and her hair. In the story, Aunt Holly always comes to visit her niece Leesa. Then one day, she comes wearing all these funny wigs, only to reveal that she lost her hair due to chemo. I wrote it. My critique partners read it. It was ready to send off to magazines. I was certain this one would be snatched up. But … it wasn’t.

Three rejections in a row was enough for me to file this one away.

Then a few months later, I revisited the story. It WAS good. But maybe it needed some tweaks. I decided that maybe it’d be easier to have the person with cancer be one step removed from the characters in the story. On giving this new story life, I switched up the names. Aunt Holly became Tia Raquel. Leesa became Bianca. After another round with my critique partners, I sent it off one more time. This time I got my YES! The editor loved it.

So … How do you give new life to a dead manuscript. Let me share some ways that I found helpful. And I hope you’re able to use them in your own writing.

hot box gif

My Tips for Revising a Dead Manuscript …

1) Critique partners are critical. Usually, a story becomes a hat box story only after other eyes have first critiqued it. Review what they’ve said about the story in its current form. Write down (on a piece of paper or in a notebook) what seems to be the main problem with the story and why you think it isn’t quite working. (I find writing in long-hand better for this type of thing.)

2) Try writing or re-writing a pitch. What are the stakes? What is the main character (MC) trying to accomplish? Why does it matter?

3) Put away your old draft. Now, try writing the story from memory. Compare the before and after. What elements made both versions? (Hint: those are usually what you need to keep!)

4) Try changing your characters’ names to give your story a fresh start. (Remember, you can always go back to the old names later.)

5) You can also try switching up the verb tense. Are you writing in past tense? Try present tense. Writing in third person? Try first person. If you’re working on a novel, just do this for a few chapters.  (Again, you can always go back. The key is to try something a little different.)

6) Hold a BRAINstorming session. You can do this by yourself or with your critique partners. Downloadable Resource >>> Here’s a PDF of some questions and prompts that I use to help me when I brainstorm.


20200605ma_0683This post was written for #KidLitZombieWeek, hosted by @6and_MANuscript on Twitter. All the best to everyone who is bravely taking out stories from their own Hat Box Files … breathing some new life into their stories.

Now, I have to go and do some re-writing. What about you?



43 thoughts on “From the Hat Box Files

  1. That’s a great story – I had never heard that before, and I loved Anne of Green Gables as a child! I agree, giving a story distance can be very beneficial. Also timing of your submission is a factor – and that is just luck! It’s always encouraging to hear of successful authors getting rejections too! Thanks for sharing your own hat box story! And congratulations on its success!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Thanks for all the tips and tricks. I especially liked #3 rewrite from memory. When I attended the Europolitan conference in Zurich, my MS was critiqued and she also suggested to not rewrite from the feedback that I had received from my critique partners, but to totally rewrite the story from memory, as you mentioned.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I use a mix and match approach to revisions. Sometimes, I know CPs are spot on, so I take those notes very seriously. Other times, I’m not sure, so I’ll use the write-from-memory or start-with-a-pitch method. Whatever gets the revision juices flowing!

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Thank you for your post. These are great tips to help during my revision process. I had never thought about changing names of characters to make it feel like a new story. And thank you for the brainstorming sheet.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Thanks for the great tips. I enjoyed your post and got new ideas from it as I read. Critique partners are so helpful when reviving a story. I shared one last night at our meeting and received some great input. Also, I worked on a dead manuscript yesterday and found new ways to improve it, including adding backmatter. Yay!

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Love the Hat Box Files! I wish I had a hat box, but my old computer is mired down in the dead. You’ve given me incentive to be more mindful of the zombies in my life. Maria, thank you for the insightful tips and the PDF! I’ve not done #6 so I have another path into my cemetery!

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Love these ideas, Maria! I really liked how you changed your characters’ names and then it got published. How encouraging! Sounds like an easy change to make!

    Liked by 1 person

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s