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Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Revisions: Not Just Plug and Play

Please welcome guest blogger Cathy Pegau

Last year, I received my very first revise and resubmit letter. The editor made it clear that it was not a guarantee of an offer. They would look at my manuscript again should I decide to address the items listed. She saw potential in my story, but it needed cleaning up. Clarifying characters and their motivations, plot points and world building were at the heart of the R&R. Tighten these chapters here, explain this bit there.

So how to go about revisions without merely marking off each point like a checklist, adding a sentence here, cutting a scene (or chapter!) there that didn’t come up to snuff?

The technique that worked for me involved a couple of steps. First, I read through the letter and made sure I understood exactly what was cause for concern by the editor. If I wasn’t sure, I asked. An editor would rather explain what they mean than have you miss the point. Really. I wanted to make the story stronger, but I also wanted to make sure it was my story, so I didn’t just follow the list of revisions. I considered which ones worked “as is” and which ones could be modified. Not ignored, because if the editor noticed something enough to remark on it, I’d better find some way to explain myself if I didn’t address her comment directly.

Next, I re-read the entire manuscript and highlighted anything specifically mentioned. (Yes, that included an entire chapter!) Then I color-coded areas of general concern: world-building blue, relationship pink, plot green. That helped give a visual idea of balance as well as a quick reference when I changed something in one part of the manuscript; I knew I would need to find that same thread later and follow through.

Then the fun began. I worked on the manuscript for four weeks, sent it to my critique partners, and let it sit for another four. Let me repeat that: I let it sit for four weeks. Now, I will admit my ability to resist going back in to tweak the tweaks did not stem from iron will power. Not at all. I was out of the country for that time without my computer. Did that mean I never thought about what I’d done, or that I didn’t come up with ideas about how I might re-re-address the items of concern? Oh, heck no! I thought about it all the time. I jotted notes while on trains or during rare lulls in activity. But it was important that I not look at it. I also started writing the next story (spiral-bound notebooks and pens fit nicely in carry-on luggage and don’t need charging). That helped tremendously in keeping my writerly brain engaged but not dwelling on the one manuscript.

As soon as I could, however, I opened the file and re-read what I’d done before my trip. I gathered my crit partners’ notes. I sat at my computer, cracked my knuckles and began the next three weeks of revisions. That was more of a careful reading for consistency, ensuring the changes I’d made earlier made sense, that the plot was logical and the dialogue still flowed and reflected the action. I incorporated the little (and one or two not so little) ideas that came to me while I was supposedly not working on the manuscript, as well as those of my critique partners.

All in all, I took nearly three months to get the revised manuscript back to the editor. The hardest part was waiting for the response. Had I addressed everything properly? Had I clearly explained why I did some things and not others in my cover letter? Would any of that be a deal breaker? Apparently not. After two months of nervous hand wringing, an offer was made for what would become Rulebreaker.

A revision request is not just a matter of plugging in bits and pieces here and there and sending it right back out again. It requires reviewing the entire manuscript, noting how threads might be drawn tighter or, if necessary, snipped altogether. It might mean tearing out and re-weaving elements and details without puking up an info dump that will make a reader’s eyes glaze. It is not a fast fix. It takes time, and it can be frustrating, but well worth the effort.

And remember to let the manuscript sit untouched for a while, even if that means leaving the country. Hey, after the hard work you’ve done, and in preparation for more to come (because even if your story is accepted, there will be more edits) you probably deserve a vacation!

Happy revising!

Cathy has been a school bus driver, an office assistant for an assisted living facility, and a wildlife biology researcher. These endeavors have allowed her to parallel park large vehicles, gain insight and wisdom from her elders, and hoot for spotted owls (and get lost in the woods overnight, but that’s another story). She has lived in New York and Oregon, and now resides in Alaska with her husband, kids, pets, and the occasional black bear roaming the yard. Everything Cathy writes tends toward speculative fiction because she likes to make things up as she goes along. Her debut novel Rulebreaker, a F/F science fiction romance, is out now. Track her down on her blog, website, Facebook page, or on Twitter.


Liv Braxton's Felon Rule #1: Don't get emotionally involved.

Smash-and-grab thieving doesn't lend itself to getting chummy with the victims, and Liv hasn't met anyone on the mining colony of Nevarro worth knowing, anyway. So it's easy to follow her Rules.

Until her ex, Tonio, shows up with an invitation to join him on the job of a lifetime.

Until Zia Talbot, the woman she's supposed to deceive, turns Liv's expectations upside down in a way no woman ever has.

Until corporate secrets turn deadly.

But to make things work with Zia, Liv has to do more than break her Rules, and the stakes are higher than just a broken heart…


Pamala Knight said...

OMG, THANK YOU for this post! I'm revising my manuscript because of requests for full (no revision letter yet) and taking a great editing workshop but THIS is what I needed to hear about the revisions process. Because I think that sometimes we can't figure out how to fit OUR story to what someone else (crit partners) thinks it should be.

Cathy in AK said...

Happy to help, Pamala, even if it's just to assure you on some small level : ) Good luck with the revisions and requests!

Rachel Firasek said...

Great post. It's the weaving that makes it special and extra hard. lol. If revisions were easy, it might mean they weren't done right. lol.

Cathy in AK said...

Agreed, Rachel! And you can't beat the satisfaction/relief of a postitive response after all that hard work : )

Jeanette said...

Great insights here. Some days when I feel unproductive, I have to remind myself just how much of the work of writing and revising happens when we're "not working" on a project - our brains are still going, and if we don't step away, we can't get the distance we need to see the flaws in our own work.

Thanks for sharing!

Cathy in AK said...

Exactly, Jeanette. I don't think you can completely ignore a WiP, but giving it some distance is a huge help. Or having a beta reader you trust. Recently, I rec'd notes on my current WiP from my agent's boss, who hadn't read the first book. She made all kinds of comments about the world and such that I took for granted. Frustrating to delve into the work AGAIN, but well worth the effort : )

Bella Street said...

Great advice, Cathy!

JM Cartwright said...

Great breakdown of the system that works for you, and could work for others.

I find myself re-reading and re-reading my MS, when I change things. That can slow down the process, but it forces me to check to see if what I'm doing makes sense with the story flow.

I am deeply grateful to my editor for her teachings. I've learned that if an editor calls something out, nine times out of ten, it's because I haven't explained myself properly to the reader.

Thanks, Cathy - and congrats again on Rulebreaker.

Janni Nell said...

So great that you ended up with a contract. :-) Good on you for doing the hard yards.

Jenny Schwartz said...

I remember Deb Nemeth (my Carina Press editor) and someone else (was it Rhonda?) having a discussion about revise and resubmit letters to authors and how many people don't follow up the opportunity. Was it 80%? It was something startling.

Cathy, your system sounds so organised. I start by handwriting the key changes the editor has asked for -- not the changes themselves, I rewrite the requests. I don't know why that works for me, but having them scribbled down as dot points clarifies things for me -- plus I get to cross them off one by one, giving me a sense of getting things done.

So glad Rulebreaker got published!

Cathy in AK said...

*Thanks, Bella!

*JM, I re-read the MS a lot too, to the point where I'm almost sick of it by the time I'm ready to hand it in : ) But slowing it down helps.

*Thanks, Janni, and so am I ; )

*Jenny, it amazes me how many people don't follow up an R&R. It's a golden opportunity to get input from an editor or agent! And I'm not nearly as organized as it sounds : ) I like your method of rewriting the comments. That's a great way to see if they make sense! and thanks, I'm glad Rulebreaker is out there too : )

Hillary Jacques said...

I would *have* to cross a border without my manuscript to leave it alone for that long!

I love seeing how other people triage their edit letters and respond.

What an awesome journey you've been on with this story. Can't wait to read it!

Writer and Cat said...

I'm always better at revisions if I've had some distance from the manuscript too....but I never had to go a whole ocean away! *heh*

Cathy in AK said...

Hillary (hey, aren't you...?) and W&C, it has been a heck of a journey, full of lots of twists, turns and double backs :) But all good in the end! Yes, the ocean away without electrons helped, as did fab crit partners ; )

Maria Zannini said...

A Revise & Resubmit should stir the juices of every red-blooded author.

It's an opportunity and a second chance.

Any time an editor sends me a note, I get giddy with the possibilities.

Cathy in AK said...

That's what I think too, Maria. Not only is an R&R a chance to show your stuff to someone who might buy your book, but the enlightenment of "OMG, I can totally do this and take that idea and run with it!" makes me feel like Wonder Woman : )

Louisa Bacio said...

So interesting to read about your journey, Cathy. I like the idea of color coordination. I'm very much like that myself. Also, when I'm going through final revisions, I like having a full print-out of the book.

I swear I posted earlier today, but I don't see it ... so here I am again!

Cathy in AK said...

Louisa, the color coding idea is a relatively new "ah ha!" for me. I like hard copy too, but my printer has been on the fritz for a while, so I've learned to deal with it : P

Thanks for coming back to check on things ; )

Shawna Thomas said...

So far I've had two R&Rs and both have been published. I know writers who don't like them, but I think they give an insight to what editors are looking for.

Thanks for sharing your story and good luck with the revisions.

Cathy in AK said...

Shawna, I've only had the one R&R but I totally agree about it being an insight into the editor's idea of what will be mareketable. Who else would know better, right? And why would you pass up the opportunity to make your story more marketable? I can see not wanting to write *to* the market, or to lose your voice or story, but giving edits a shot never killed anyone. So far. I think :)

Thanks for stopping by : )