Monday, September 19, 2011

Taking Control: Revising From Agent or Editor Feedback

By Janice Hardy, @Janice_Hardy

We spend a lot of time and effort on our books, so sometimes the thought of changing a single word can be disheartening. But revisions are a part of publishing, so at some point there will be a lot of fingers in the same literary pie. This can be intimidating, and might even make you feel like you're losing control of your own work.

When an agent or editor asks you for revisions, do you have to sacrifice your vision just to get published?

The answer is a big, huge NO WAY.

Obviously I can only speak from my own experience here, but agents and editors aren't out to change your story and gut all the stuff about it that you love. Their job is to help push you to create the best story you can. The better the book, the better the chance it'll be successful and make everyone money. And since publishing is a business, money matters.

And YOU are always in control of your work. You can say no to those changes. Yes, it's true that you could wind up in a situation where an agent or editor wants changes you feel would ruin the book, and saying no means no sale. Only you can decide how you want to handle that. You might find that you can come up with a way to satisfy both sides and do something with the book you never expected. Or you might say sorry, no go, and walk away. But it's YOUR choice.

I've found the revision process to be quite enjoyable. Both my agent and my editor have seen things in the book that they thought could be developed into something better. Both made suggestions, but they never gave instructions like "Do this here and that there." They made macro suggestions on how to tie things I already had together, or deepen a thematic aspect, or raise the stakes. Then they let me figure out how to do that. My story never changed, just how I told that story did. (And that's all plot is, details that illustrate your story)

They were right every time, and what I came up with was way better than what I had first done.

It's no different from being in a critique group, really. If I took the crits from my group and mixed them in with the ones from my agent and editor, and took off the names, you wouldn't be able to tell who wrote what. The suggestions are all right in line with each other. And just like I use the advice I agree with in my crit group, I use the advice I agree with from my agent and editor. When I disagree (and I do from time to time) we talk about it. We find a way to make both sides happy. And I do say no on some things.

Writing is a solitary endeavor, and we usually fall in love with our words. It's natural, because as writers, we love words. But once we decide to become authors, our words become a product, and our book becomes a group effort. We still have control over it, but more people will make suggestions and give advice to push you to be the best you can be.

If publishing is your dream, you have to accept that revisions will be part of the deal. If the thought makes your skin crawl, start working now to find a way to work with it so you won't be miserable living that dream. The only way you can publish and not go through an editing process is to self publish. That way you have total control over every word. (or train yourself to be so perfect nobody wants to change a single word, but that's asking an awful lot of someone, and everyone's idea of perfect varies)

Revisions are not as bad as they seem. Some will be harder than others, but if you remember that it's all about making your book better, and that you're the one who has all the control on how you do that, the process will go much smoother.

What do you worry about regarding revisions? Do you worry at all?

Looking for tips on revising your novel? Check out my book Revising Your Novel: First Draft to Finished Draft, a series of self-guided workshops that help you revise your manuscript into a finished novel. Still working on your idea? Then try my just-released Planning Your Novel Workbook

A long-time fantasy reader, Janice Hardy always wondered about the darker side of healing. For her fantasy trilogy The Healing Wars, she tapped into her own dark side to create a world where healing was dangerous, and those with the best intentions often made the worst choices. Her novels include The Shifter, Blue Fire, and Darkfall from Balzer+Bray/Harper Collins. The Shifter, was chosen for the 2014 list of "Ten Books All Young Georgians Should Read" from the Georgia Center for the Book. It was also shortlisted for the Waterstones Children's Book Prize, and The Truman Award in 2011.

Janice is also the founder of Fiction University, a site dedicated to helping writers improve their craft. Her popular Foundations of Fiction series includes Planning Your Novel: Ideas and Structure, a self-guided workshop for planning or revising a novel, the companion Planning Your Novel Workbook, Revising Your Novel: First Draft to Finished Draft, and the upcoming Understanding Show Don't Tell (And Really Getting It).  

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  1. I would be very happy to revise my work to make it stronger. I've rewritten most of my early work, though I don't feel that is up to the mark even yet. I'd love to work with someone who knows more about the market.

    Revising when you know you are making the novel better is fun!

  2. I have been told to revise extensively. It hurts...badly, but I have to agree that most suggestions are well worth taking into consideration. I agree, though, I am God in my MS and I decide who lives or dies.

  3. Critiques can be rough, especially when they're telling us to change something we've slaved over. I'm not always successful (some have made me cry), but I try to look at tough crits and think "Okay, I obviously didn't quite do what I was after, so how can I make this work?" Helps me take it less personally and keep the focus on the words.

  4. Honestly, I like crits. I'm not saying I'm super-thick skinned, because it does hurt sometimes, but I like watching the book get better, and I actually like the revision process a lot. It's like the puzzle pieces are all there, I just have to make them fit. Or make them fit better.

  5. Michelle, I'm the same way. I get so excited when someone points out something I hadn't thought of or seen, and it triggers all sorts of great ideas.

  6. I agree with this 100%. I've had revision situations where an editor made a change suggestion that would completely change the audience and type of book I was writing...and I stuck to my guns and kept it for the intended market. I've also had revision feedback where a refocusing suggestion was absolutely the right call to maximize the audience and create greater appeal. It's all about listening to one's gut. :)

    Angela @ The Bookshelf Muse

  7. Yeah, it stings! But after a day of mulling it over, something pops into my head and I think, "Oh, yeah! Why didn't I think of that?"

    It's true that when we are daily in our own work, we can become myopic. An outside voice can help us see clearly what needs to be tightened, cleaned up, expanded upon and even deleted. Did I just say that?

    Wow! I've come a long way in the last year to actually admit that its good to delete. :)

  8. Good critiques help a story become the best version of itself, and that's what I want. If my writing isn't communicating well, then it's not the story I'm trying to tell anyway. I also really like maybe that's why this doesn't sound so scary.

  9. I did comment, but Blogger seems to have lost it. :-(

    I find that when I get crit back, I need to read it once then sleep on it before even thinking about how to apply it in edits. My initial reaction is usually fear that I'm going to mess everything up, so taking the time to build that distance between the comments and the work is important.

  10. Hi Janice ~ Like Paul, I'll think about the crit before I act on it. Not everything pointed out is necessarily right. And questioning that which you don't understand can help too. Great post.

  11. I wish this post was around ages ago.

    It touches on many of the reasons why I had to leave my last critique group.

    Part of it was my inability to keep up with our critique schedule like I once did.

    But also because as hard as I tried, I don't think I'm an effective critique partner, but I'm still trying to improve there.

    While it's no secret I don't always (Sometimes I do!) take criticism gracefully, at least in the moment, what's even harder for me is when I'm the one critiquing others work. In my old critique group, I always felt I was the weakest link.

    The reason is because all the things I struggle with are their strengths.

    But when I'm ready to join another group, I'm determined to sharpen these skills.

    My last group did help me a lot, especially with the support aspect of our group, and they were the first writers I'd ever clicked with who understood my niche and didn't belittle it.

    While people always say critiquing the work of others makes your work better, I haven't experienced that often, as great as my last group really was.

    But I'm a slow learner with this kind of thing.

    So I'm not final on this feeling yet.

    One thing's for sure, Janice, I wouldn't endure all the criticism and all the times I shoot myself in the foot, if I didn't love what the end result can be if I don't quit.

    I had to put my blogging on hold, but when it resumes again, I hope to have a better understanding of what I struggle with now, how to deal with it, and can share ways we can all stay centered.

    Ciao for now,

  12. So true Angela. Any time I've ever ignore my gut it's come back to bite me.

    Amelia, grats! That's a great step :)

    MK: I love crits, even when they're rough. At least then I know where I need to go to fix something. I enjoy revisions myself. But for me, they're more part of the writing process than just revising. Maybe that's why?

    Paul & Sheri, probably a good habit really. Sometimes I get excited by a comment and jump in without thinking things all the way through and then have to change what I just changed.

    Taurean, crits can be hard and one of the stepping stones if a writer's journey is to learn both how to give and take feedback. Don't beat yourself up over it if you're still working on that part. It's one of the harder steps.

    Critiquing others is a good learning tool, but if you're still learning things yourself it can indeed lead to frustration. A good group can be hard to find, but worth it when you do.

  13. Thanks for the support, Janice.

    But I just wish what you said was as straightforward to do as it is to say.

    It still wouldn't be easy, but at least it would feel less esoteric, you know?

  14. I already revise a lot so it doesn't bother me. The more specfic the suggestions the better for me. Thanks for the tips.

  15. Great advice! So many aspiring writers need to hear this-- sometimes it's difficult to keep an objective eye and see the usefulness of constructive criticism. But I'm agreed 100%--the feedback I've received on my novel has always opened my eyes as to how I can make the content better. As my grandfather once said, "When you stop getting better, you stop being good."

  16. Great quote! That's one to stick on the monitor for sure.

  17. I'm commenting WAY after the original post. ;-) I was an editor and am a lawyer, who's done lots of legal writing. My skin has toughened to being asked to rewrite something. My fear is going back to overhaul and fold in crits and finding I don't have the creative mojo to pull off the changes.

    My WIP is "done," meaning I've typed to "THE END." I finished at 92,000-ish words and have cut it down to 84,000-ish. After my dialogue edit (to remove "reader benefit" conversation and diatribes), I know the word count will drop more. If I get lucky enough to find representation, I hope to be able to pull off any overhauls I'm asked to do.

    I believe an objective editor's feedback is priceless, and I want to climb the hills s/he sends me up and finish on top. I dread, "Sorry. This isn't a good rewrite. Come back when you have talent." ;-)

    1. Late comments are good, I see them all, even if I'm late responding myself :)

      Anyone who asks you for a rewrite is never going to say that to you, so no worries there. Worst case, they'll say it's not quite right still, or it wasn't what they were thinking. If they took the time to ask for a rewrite, then they saw value in the work.