An interesting (and timely!) article on revision and keeping the faith

Hey, campers, I am planning to post another revision-minded discussion of editorial pet peeves later today, but I wanted to give you a heads-up about a really interesting new article by soon-to-be-published debut novelist Julie Wu. It’s focused upon — wait for it — the revision process and bringing a first novel to publication.

Yes, this is a fairly common source of discussion amongst writers, but this article is unusually honest. Stunningly so, on a subject that so often reduces the agented to embarrassed murmurs. Although we writers tend to vent amongst ourselves about how difficult and counter-intuitive the process of tweaking a manuscript to appeal to agents can be– “You want me to change what, First Reader? But that’s the emotional center of my book!” — agented and freshly-published authors seldom talk about how the revision process extends and often intensifies after signing with the agent of one’s dreams. (Frequently engendering the exclamation, “You want me to change what, Agent? But that’s the emotional center of my book!”) In my experience, there is no part of the road to publication that’s easy for the writer.

Which is to say: if, prior to reading that last paragraph, were one of the vast majority of aspiring writers who assumed working with an agent was like tag — once she reads your manuscript and says you’re it, then your phase of running around like all of the other players is over — you might find this article enlightening.

Those of you who would get a kick out of hearing how a hardworking aspiring writer persevering in the face of some pretty discouraging feedback might find it interesting, too. It can be done, people, so keep up the good work!

7 Replies to “An interesting (and timely!) article on revision and keeping the faith”

  1. This is a very inspiring and exhausting account of novel writing, and confirms the faith I cling to that the only way to get my novel published is to pay attention to anything that makes the novel better rather than gets it to draft number x (ie. the “final” one) and keep writing.

    Once I got used to the idea that anything that isn’t working has to go, or that yes, I can make radical changes to a story and it will still be “mine,” rewriting became a lot less painful. Not easier, just less painful. And way, way more fun than a further round of “revising” (read: tinkering) because I have the freedom to do what the story needs.

    1. That’s such an important set of realizations, David — and an indispensable step in becoming a professional writer. That’s why the pros tend to become so impatient when aspiring writers talk about inspiration: because so many writers are so touchy about the idea, much less the realities, of revision, many professional readers are wary of anything that seems like a first draft. They know that the learning curve is going to be steep, and frankly, it’s time-consuming to banter about what is and is not marketable. Especially if the writer responds as if s/he is being asked to abandon her/his entire vision for the story, rather than make changes to it.

      As an editor who often walks good writers through this particular transition, I’ve seen incredible amounts of energy expended in resenting the revision process. Once that energy can be focused on improving the manuscript, revision becomes hundreds of times easier.

      1. It’s also very, very hard to understand editorial feedback and direction without learning the nuts and bolts of fiction — I am no expert and look forward to working with an agent and (more) editors at some point on my WIP, but it was only after reading five to 10 books on it that I started getting what I had been doing wrong. I’ve learned a ton of things here too! But all that analysis of literature you learn in high school and university doesn’t necessarily help much when you are creating it.

        I agree with Elizabeth on taking editing notes — and finding a person whose judgment you can trust is hard. I think too often when I started out I wanted feedback from everyone, and the problem is, everyone has an opinion, whether you can filter their feedback into something concrete or not.

        1. That’s so true, David — and a lesson so many aspiring writers learn the hard way. At first, it’s so thrilling that anyone wants to read one’s manuscript that it can be hard to say, “That’s so flattering — I’ll let you know when the book comes out,” rather than, “Here, read it.” One wants one’s baby to show off, after all. For the same reason, it can also be very difficult not to hear a lukewarm, “Oh, I’d like to read it,” as “I want to drop everything else in my life to pay attention to it, and I’m going to give you volumes of usable feedback.” In reality, people often just think they are being nice.

          But committing to giving feedback is a major endeavor, not to be embarked upon lightly. And unless the feedback-giver is intimately familiar with the conventions of one’s book category, even good writing feedback may not be applicable to the manuscript at hand.

      2. P.S. I loved the part in Jay Kristoff’s story about the auction for his novel Stormdancer that you posted, Anne, in which he responds to a bidding editor’s inquiry whether he would make a fundamental change to a character’s age with a view to placing the novel in a particular market. The Pope is indeed still Catholic.

  2. I love revision; it’s getting the first draft out that I hate. Of course, it’s scary to have other people suggest changes because you don’t know what will happen if you make them, or if you can adjust things afterward. I like to think if the person is an editor, they probably know what they’re doing for the most part. If it’s my dear Aunt Sadie, I tend not to listen too much.

    1. Not having the pleasure of being acquainted with your Aunt Sadie and her reading habits, I can only bow to your judgment on that.

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