The third Wednesday of each month, writer Jeff Bowles offers practical tips for improving, sharpening, and selling your writing. Welcome to your monthly discussion on Craft and Practice.
The Revision Process
So I’m in the middle of a fairly lengthy revision process for my latest novel, and it brings to mind a piece of advice a mentor once gave me. When I began writing short stories, I joined an online critique forum that in retrospect helped shape me in some crucial ways. It was a pretty tough, competitive space when it came down to it, and the other writers there didn’t mind (lovingly) tearing stories to shreds if it meant giving enough feedback to fix what wasn’t working.
There was a guy there called Gary, older than most everyone else who frequented the group, and I tended to see him as an authority, a friend, and a bit of a task master. Gary was fond of quick little rules and guidelines, notepad-like pieces of wisdom that could really set a young writer up for growth.
“Expect the revision process for any given story to last two to three times longer than it took to write in the first place.”
In other words, by Gary’s estimation, if you were to write a quick story in an afternoon, you’d expect to spend an additional two to three afternoons revising and sharpening it to an appropriate level. I’m sure I don’t have to explain to you how in-depth the revision process can be. Sometimes it’s pretty easy-going, but for the most part, if you’re not doing some cutting here, expansion there, general tightening of language on all levels, and if you’re not willing to kill your darlings, as the saying goes, odds are you may be doing it wrong.
So what if we’ve written a whole book? Does Gary’s piece of advice still hold up? In my experience, it does. Due to sudden and unforeseen circumstances in my life, my novel took about a year to write. So does that mean it’ll take me two to three years to finish it? Not precisely. I worked on it for a year, but in fact, I only wrote about 300 words a day for a grand total of maybe fifteen hours of actual writing per month. Fifteen hours times twelve months equals 180 hours, and 180 times two is 360. Bare minimum, that is the equivalent of fifteen full twenty-four hour days of revision. Maybe more like a month and a half if I plan on sleeping, eating, or ever seeing my wife ever again.
Now remember, that’s only the initial revision cycle. More work will likely need to be done in order to bring that book up to production quality. Realistically, once you add in the services of an actual editor, you’re looking at several additional weeks or months of back and forth nitpickery. It’s the nitpicks that save us, by the way. Make sure you get plenty of them at breakfast time. They’re like daily bowls of Wheaties. Nitpicks make writer big and strong!
It’s part of the overall level of dedication it takes to turn out a good piece of writing, right? And we all expect to have to work a little more after we’ve initially told a story, or at least we should. I’m not big on hard and fast rules. Really, I’m not. I think “rules” in writing can and should be broken now and then. Generally speaking, these kinds of prescriptions are for writers, not for readers. Inside baseball, not meant for actual spectators, you know what I mean?
Even so, there are some commonalities to this process I believe every writer can and should keep an eye on. First of all, get comfortable removing chunks of flesh from your manuscript. Just straight-up cutting large sections that may have had stuff in it you liked. Also, get comfortable rewriting everything you just took out. Only better. Hopefully. If parts of your story slow the narrative down, add unusual or unnecessary complications, or otherwise just don’t fit in with what you’re trying to achieve, that stuff’s dead weight, detritus. It’s got to go. Gird your loins, fellow word-wielder. Things are about to get messy at the slaughterhouse.
A good piece of meat isn’t born precooked, and neither is a good book. You can always resurrect some of that cut material and insert it elsewhere, but the same idea applies: if the words don’t fit, you must acquit.
Man, I’m on a roll today.
Another important thing to consider is if you want to make focused passes or not, keying in on just one element at a time, starting with larger issues like pacing and character development. This is a good idea if you’re new to the process or just like to stay organized, and it’ll probably save you some time in the long run. By making several focused and element-specific passes, you’ve got the opportunity to hone in without distracting yourself with other stuff that may change in the long run. My only suggestion for this type of revision process is to keep notes along the way. Ideas may spring to mind, better concepts for how to handle any given character or scene or larger story element, and you’re going to want to keep track of everything you intend to change for your next pass.
Admittedly so, I’m much too erratic and scatterbrained for this method, which means I tend to just charge in like a bull in a china shop and really tear the place up until its “redecorated” just how I like it. Mine is a messy process in this way, but it’s also just how my mind tends to work. Not everyone has the equivalent of sixteen trained chimpanzees careening around their heads, doing their level best to run the ship. If I don’t feed them at a regular time every day, Bingo—he’s the captain, see—he orders the rest of the chimps on strike, and then I’m in a real chimp ship pickle. Nobody wants that.
Where was I? Ah yes, serious discussion of the revision process.
A lot of what you’re going to be doing is in fact that more minute stuff, especially when you’re really getting down to it and most of your broader strokes have been made. Changing the language of the piece, the flow, tightening your syntax, all of that is important as finishing maneuvers. Just make sure you’re not revising so much you’re only shifting elements around and not necessarily improving anything. That can happen easily, which is why it’s also important during the revision process to take breaks when you need them. And I don’t just mean a break of a few minutes or hours. Sometimes you’ve got to let your manuscript go for days or even weeks just so you can come back at it with fresh eyes. The ability to forget what we’ve written is a great asset, so use it.
The annoyance and pain of all this is temporary. You have to keep that in mind. However, once they’re released to the general public, your words are forever. So now is your opportunity to line them up exactly as you want them. In the end, all you can do as a writer, as a creative individual of any kind, is your honest best. Will all your extra hard work pay off? That’s an eternal question, always in motion, and anyway, what’s your definition of success? I mean really?
I’ll have another Craft and Practice topic for you guys next month. Until then, cut a little, cut a lot, but don’t cut to the quick. The chimps in your brain may not like losing any of the good stuff. See you in June!
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My friend and cohort, author Jeff Bowles wrote a post Choosing to Become a Better Writer vs. the God Complex, where he offers advice on what to do when your novel hasn’t been picked up by a literary agent as soon as you’d hoped, as is currently the situation with his thesis novel. I had to chuckle when I read this, not because the post was meant to be funny, (it wasn’t), but because of the timeliness of the post, as I find myself in the same situation and I have been pondering what to do with my own thesis novel, Playground for the Gods: Book 1: The Great Primordial Battle.
Jeff’s advice is sound. Revise. Submit. Repeat. And he’s right in saying that to achieve success in writing, as in most things in life, you must persist in your efforts and endeavor to persevere. In fact, I’d decided on the same course of action for my novel, with a slight twist and a lot of determination. So, my first 2017 New Year’s writing resolution is to get my thesis novel published in the coming year.
Since completing my thesis novel, the first novel in my science fantasy Playground for the Gods series, I’ve submitted it to seven publishers and four literary agents. It was rejected by two agents and four publishers, and is still waiting for word on three publishing houses and two agents. I don’t hold out hope of hearing from the agents, many don’t even bother to respond unless they’re interested, but the publisher who has had my submission the longest has had my submission for six months. There may still be hope there, but I have to wonder.
I’ve been feeling a bit discouraged with these results, so I started thinking about why my novel wasn’t catching the interest of publishers or agents. e first thing I looked at were my query letters. So, the first thing I looked at were my query letters. As I said, I’ve sent out multiple queries for the first book and been rejected multiple times. I looked at all my queries to see if the problem might be in my presentation.
The query letter is an author’s introduction and it is very important. It’s the first thing an agent or publisher sees, and it determines whether they chose to get to know you and your work better. A query should look professional, and it should tell the publisher or agent about the work you want them to buy into and about the author. It raises their interests and gets them to ask for more than just the excerpt you sent with it. A request for a complete manuscript is the ultimate goal.
Some of you may know the story behind this novel, but for those who don’t I’ll relate it briefly. The summer I presented the proposal packet for my thesis novel was the worst summer of my college career. I had this great idea for a story about a species from a different planet, who come to Earth and present themselves as deities. It was to be a science fantasy novel with a strong female protagonist, Inanna. I presented my idea to my cohorts and nobody got it, (this was partly because I was trying to cram way too much into one book, but at the time it just felt to me like the idea wasn’t well received and I was crushed). So, maybe publishers and agents weren’t getting it now, the same way my cohorts and instructors didn’t get it then?
This led me to take a hard look at the audience which I thought I was writing for and the types of agents and publishers I’ve been pitching to. I’ve sent out my queries for my science fantasy novel to publishers and agents who handle both science fiction and fantasy. Something I had overlooked was that the biggest audience for science fiction and fantasy are young adult readers.Epiphany! I’ve been pitching to the wrong audience!
Because of the summer from hell, mentioned above, my thesis novel has turned into a four book science fantasy series, Playground for the Gods. Book 1: The Great Primordial Battle shows the destruction of the Atlan home planet, which explains the reason they are searching for a new home and chose Earth, and how it was almost destroyed before they could make it their home. Book 2: In the Beginning tells the story of how the Atlans made Earth their home and cohabited with humans, and how Inanna becomes the goddess of war and love, forcing her to deal with the dualities within herself. The hero’s journey that Inanna takes in my original story will now be the Book 3: Inanna’s Song. In Book 4: Enki’s Folly, Enki, (the sort-of anti-hero), tries to fix his past mistakes by traveling through time.
By the end of my courses, I had Book 1 and it’s complete submission packet, Book 2‘s chapter outline, synopsis and partial first draft, along with the outline, synopsis and a few chapters of Book 3 completed. If I could do that major transformation in less than a year’s time, I’m thinking I should be able to transform my books into a YA series with minimal revision.
Next, I took another look at the story itself, and I realized that aside from a few instances of harsh language, this book almost reads like a YA novel. Most of the characters are teens, although Atlans don’t experience time the way humans do, (what passes for a year for us is comparable to a millennia for them), and still, some are more mature than others. The series has many of the YA tropes already: a young female protagonist who is idealistic, (Inanna); a perfectly perfect Mary sue character in Inanna’s BFF, (Ki); missing, or at least distant parents (Atlan familial units are pretty messed up); plenty of half-human/half-something else characters – mermen and Minotaurs, the characters are diverse; and there’s a rebellion against the existing power structure, (in reverse).
The one thing that might prevent Playground for the Gods from becoming a successful YA science fantasy novel is the degree of sexual content, which is actually vital to the story line. We’re not talking about unnecessary sex here. We are talking about the story doesn’t work without it. Although it could be toned down some, I imagine I would have several parents who were hot, should I try to market this series as YA, even though it has a lot of the expected tropes. So, I had to look once more at audience, where I took an in-depth look at a market called New Adult.
New Adult has protagonists aged 18-24, and is aimed at audiences aged 18-30, but may appeal to readers of 30 or more. Just as some YA may appeal to adult readers, so New Adult may appeal to older readers, as well. It carries steamier sexual content, that you probably wouldn’t want your thirteen year old reading, but is perfectly acceptable for older readers. In a 2014 article on Book List Online, YA or NA?, by Michael Cart, Harliquinn Senior Editor Margo Lipschultz points out that “NA rose to popularity as a subgenre that bridged the gap between contemporary YA and contemporary romance, it’s gradually expanding… ” NA is not just a romance market any more, and I’m thinking that the steamier scenes in the PfG series could find a home there.
Another 2014 Book List feature article, What is New Adult Fiction?, by Gillian Engberg, Donna Seaman and others quotes Neil Hollands, adult services librarian at the Williamsburg (VA) Regional Library as stating,
“…librarians talking about NA are often thinking of books that appeal to “both male and female readers, in their late 20s and 30s. The books we’re looking for try to capture the feel of a generation, including integrating technology’s effects on communication and relationships, new outlooks on a range of political and social issues, and more recognition and blending of the genres that younger readers are most familiar with.”
Now that sounds like my series. While it still has some of the YA tropes and qualities, it also has more mature content and deals with social and relationship issues, the value of technology for better or for worse, and characters in the right age bracket basically, (give or take a few million years), and would appeal to an older audience of new adults.
From my very first M.F.A. class it was drilled into us the important of knowing your audience and doing the research. And I did do my research in the adult market, and now I’ve done my research in the YA market. But, after discovering that it’s a little too steamy for YA, I’ve gone back to research the NA markets, and I’m currently revising The Great Primordial Battle for an NA audience. When I’m done, I plan to promote to the NA markets with high expectations, while I get busy on Books 2 and 3.
Leave a comment to let me know if you think I’m on the right track with PfG: Book 1: The Great Primordial Battle.
You can find updates on the Playground for the Gods series on its Facebook page, here.
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The good news is that I may finally have a publisher that is interested in my children’s book, Heather Hummingbird Makes a New Friend. The bad news, well I guess maybe it’s not that bad, is that the publisher liked the story and the concept, but she requested a rewrite. She sent me a set of general guidelines for children’s writing, that was basically grammar and punctuation rules, with the advice to “make every word count”, and a section that cautioned against using talking animals in your stories.
The My Backyard Friends series, of which Heather Hummingbird is only the first, is based on animals, mostly birds, but these are the characters. Was I supposed to rewrite the whole story and change all the characters into people? That would undermine the whole story concept of My Backyard Friends. I mean, the series is about the birds that are in my backyard, not the people that hang out there. Without the birds, there really are no stories. I pondered this, but finally decided they must be referring to animals that talk to people, which isn’t realistic and might be hard for kids, who are really smart, to buy. In my stories, all of the characters are animals, so this warning didn’t apply to my stories at all. Okay, that problem was taken care of, but I still wasn’t sure what I should change in my rewrite.
The next problem that I could see was one that I am sure a lot of writers are faced with. Here is this story that I wrote, edited and rewrote before ever sending it out anywhere. I thought it was already as perfect as it could get. How could I improve on perfection? The publisher wasn’t very specific about what she was looking for in the rewrite either. Hmmm….. Okay, so I sat down and gave the whole story a re-read. It had been awhile since I went over this one, so maybe I could get a fresh perspective on it. I found a few places where the wording could be changed a little, and I corrected a few spelling and grammar errors, and changed the punctuation in a couple places. It was only what you would call minor corrections, not enough to even be considered a rewrite.
A friend of mine, who is a writing coach looked at it, and made a few suggestions. She thought that it should be about 500-700 words for a picture book. We’re talking about a story that was running around 1,700 words! Shouldn’t be too hard to drop 1000 words or so, right? Ha! I went over it, and over it, and then over it again. This story had originally been written with a poet’s heart. Poets love to play with the sound of the words. “Heather Hummingbird was busily flitting from flower to flower, when she came upon Ethan Eagle, perched in the top of a very tall tree.” You can hear the sing-song quality that is pleasing to the ear and sort of rolls off the palette . Eventually, this opening phrase became, “Heather Hummingbird zipped from flower to flower. She came upon Ethan Eagle, perched in the top of a tall tree.” It’s much tighter writing, to be sure, but that lilting, poetic quality just isn’t there anymore. This really did hurt, because one of the things that I had really liked about the story was the way it sounded as I read it. I took the whole story went through this same basic process, with essentially the same results throughout. I still had 1, 269 words.
So, I took it to an editor friend, who helped me make some more cuts. She too, hated to cut any of it, because most cuts at this point would take away from the story. I mean, this thing was down to the nitty gritty. It was the same thing that I had been thinking, but she expressed it for me. So we tried to find ways that the story could be cut without losing vital pieces. We got it down to 1,242 after much painful deliberation.
I feared that I would cut so much that my illustrator would have to redo some of the illustrations that were already completed. I mean, she had even had mugs and magnets designed with that original opening line, which I thought was a very clever marketing device. Were the changes I was making going to mess up the illustrations? Would it cost me more if she had to redo some of them? I didn’t think that I had changed it so much that they would all have to be redone, but it worried me none the less.
My friend asked about my audience that I was aiming at. I was stumped. I didn’t set out to write for any one particular age group. I got an idea and just sat down and wrote the story. I hadn’t thought about how old the kids who read it would be. I know they tell you in all the writing courses and workshops to take the audience into consideration, but that just wasn’t how it had worked for me. She suggested that perhaps I was aiming for a higher age group, and this wasn’t a picture book at all. She pointed out some of the words that I had used that might be above the preschool/kindergarten age comprehension. Her point was a valid one. Would a kindergartener know what a mountain “crag” was? She suggested that if I were writing for a slightly higher age group, the word count wouldn’t have to be so low. 1,242 words is not bad for a book aimed at this age group, and some of the vocabulary suggested that the book would be more appropriate for a first or second grader. She was brilliant!
So, that is how I resolved my revision dilemmas. I took it home and did one last rewrite. It was still a very painful process, although I am sure that it is a better story for all the changes. I sent it back to the publisher, hoping that I had been able to do what she wanted, but still unsure. Now I wait to hear back and find out if she accepts it. Am I happy with what I ended up with? Is it still the story that I had intended? I suppose that it is, basically. I don’t think that it is as fun to read anymore, but perhaps it is better writing, even so. I learned some valuable lessons from the experience. Now I know why authors dread the revision process. I can’t even imagine doing what I did to this little story, with a full length book. It is a time consuming and heart wrenching process. On the other hand, I am a writer, so I hope with all my heart that someday I will have the chance to be faced with that chore. So, cross your fingers and wish me luck. The waiting is almost harder than the cutting was. Almost…, but not quite. I think I’ll wait awhile before I take another look at the other books in the series. The next book in the series,Charlie Chickadee Finds a New Home is about twice as long as Heather was. Ugh!