Thursday, February 3, 2011

Don't Let Revisions Freak You Out

Yesterday I read two articles about manuscript revisions,so I decided to post about that today as it is something that I am learning a great deal about at the moment.

I'll start with revisions that my agent suggested BEFORE she became my agent. Kate had requested my full manuscript and read it, and also read it aloud to her six-year-old daughter. The daughter loved it. Kate liked it too, and took the trouble to identify all the positives: well-paced, descriptive, strong characters, good plot, etc. But then she identified an aspect of the ending that she said sounded "pat." She put a lot of thought into her responses and even suggested ideas for solving the problem. She ended with, "I'm not ready to offer representation yet, but if you want to work on some revisions and send it back to me, I'd love to see it." She fully engaged with me in a few back and forth emails in which I asked her specific questions about her feedback and ideas for fixing the pat ending.

This is what we call a "good rejection." If the agent isn't interested, they aren't going to spend this much time on a response. They don't spend time emailing with you about ways to fix the problem. And they don't invite you back unless they mean it.

I was both pleased and panicked. Pleased because I could see that the book was very close to where it needed to be. Panicked, because deep down I knew she was right about the ending, and even more so because I did not know how to fix it. We had batted around some ideas, but none of them resonated that well for me. I felt annoyed that the ending wasn't good enough, and even more so that she had caught me out on it. I wanted to pout and pretend she was wrong, but I knew she wasn't.

What happened next surprised me. A few days later, a much better ending came to me. It wasn't what Kate had suggested and it wasn't what I had suggested - it was something else entirely. I worked on it for a week, let it sit, and then came back to it. It was much, much better.

Kate thought so too, but she still wasn't ready to offer representation. She had some thoughts about a few details that I thought were really picky. But I knew we were awfully close, and I also knew that her prior feedback had made for a much better ending and therefore a much better book. So I growled and snarled and thought about her points. I went in and made some minor changes that accomodated them, without doing anything to the story that I didn't like. I'm still not sure these were necessary, but they were quite small and didn't harm the story in any way.

After this round of revisions, she offered representation. Since then, we have been going back and forth with what they call "line edits" - she works line by line and offers suggestions. (Don't worry - not every line gets changed!) Often, these seem like really small, picky things and more than once my eyes have rolled. But! I have learned a very sobering and humbling thing, and I beg you not to tell her that I said this: she is often right. Not always, but often. It's her job to call attention to those picky little things that we want to gloss over. And she's good at it.

What I made sure to do during this process was always ask myself first: "Is she right?" With the ending, I knew she was. If I had decided that she wasn't right, I wouldn't have changed it just to please her. The tricky part here is getting your ego out of the way - you have to ask yourself if you think she's wrong just because you don't want to think she's right! Or because you don't know what you'll do about it... My initial reaction is almost always, "I'm not sure she's right." But after letting it sit for a while, sometimes I've realized that she is. Sometimes.

With smaller changes, I'd still ask myself if she was right, and if I wasn't sure that she was, I'd asked myself this second question: "Does making this change do anything to the story that you really dislike and can't live with?" If the answer to that was "no," I'd work on making the change. Often, I'd be surprised that it worked nicely indeed. But there were also times when I didn't agree and I didn't make the change! In those cases, I told her why and she accepted my choice. As she told me when we met: "It's YOUR book." She also said that she likes it when an author has a point of view. So always stay true to yourself!

Does anyone else have thoughts or comments about handling this process?


  1. I actually quite enjoy revisions. Its the first draft that intimidates me. Thanks for this great advice :)

    Sarah Allen
    (my creative writing blog)

  2. I know what you mean - the first draft IS the most intimidating. I like doing my own revisions - in fact I think that's what writing really is, revision after revision until you think you have it right. But it is hard when someone else is suggesting the changes!


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