The two dirtiest words in this writer’s vocabulary both start with the letter “R”. The first, and worst, is rejection. Having spent more than two years on my agent search, I have loads of experience in the rejection arena. I wrote three manuscripts and sent out over two hundred queries before I landed that first call with an agent. In May of 2008, Alyssa Eisner Henkin of Trident Media Group offered me representation for what would become my debut novel, The Tension of Opposites. During that first call, Alyssa said she loved the voice and premise of the story, but the plot was “messy” and needed a “major overhaul.” Okay, I thought to myself. No problem. Thankfully, I had no idea what lay ahead. What lay ahead was the second dirtiest word in this writer’s vocabulary: revision.
high-school English teacher who wrote
The Tension of Opposites in response to
the safe return of a child who was kidnapped
while riding his bike to a friend’s house.
The novel (her debut) was released in May
2010. See her website here.
I am a former high school English teacher, so I’m familiar with the importance of revision. For eight years, I drug my students through several drafts of each essay I assigned, harping on them to tighten and sharpen their writing. When I received my first (six page) editorial letter from my agent, I found myself on the other side of the critique for the first time in a long time.
Cut to six months, four drafts, and pounds of M&M’s later, and you’d find me on the phone with Alyssa, cringing as she tells me that the fourth draft just isn’t working. “Should you consider putting this manuscript in a drawer and focusing on something else?” she asked.
“No,” I said, scared that I might lose her brilliant guidance, hating myself that I was such a loser and couldn’t figure out the plot. “I’m giving this one more shot.”
REVISION OR RE-VISION?
After a week of wallowing in depression and scarfing a few gallons of chocolate ice cream, I started to view the manuscript from a different perspective. I had a vision. Or should I say a Re-Vision? Though it pained me, I sat at my desktop and deleted all but five chapters of my terribly messy manuscript.
Let me tell you something about doing this: The freedom I gained was inspirational. It gave me the fresh start I needed to pull the manuscript together. Within five months, Alyssa said my manuscript was ready to pitch to editors. Three weeks later, I had three offers! The Tension of Opposites went to a mini-auction, and it was my turn to dole out rejection (a difficult task, as each editor I spoke with was lovely, and I was honored by the opportunity to work with each of them).
So, how did I do it? One key factor was a book. (In my life, there’s always a book.) Hooked by Les Edgerton guided me beautifully as I started fresh on my manuscript. There were also some important things I learned during my painful almost-year of revisions:
- Try not to make things overly complicated. Alyssa once told me to take the plot out of its braid and throw it in a ponytail. Simple, but brilliant. Problem was, when I did this I had quite a mess to comb through.
- Don’t be afraid. Of anything.If I can delete nearly my entire manuscript, you can axe a chapter that doesn’t fit.
- Brainstorm several ways to reach each plot point. Choose the most unique.
- Revision should not impede on your writing time. When you write, just write. Try to keep from listening to your brain’s insults.
- When it’s time for revision, whittle away. If you can make a sentence more concise, do it.
- Question everything. I often refer to the following questions, which are tacked to a corkboard in my office:
- Does the book start with an inciting incident that will force your MC to act, and challenge your MC to grow?
- Is there is enough emotion, tension, suspense, etc.? Or too much?
- Is something too obvious? Does something come too easy because you need it to advance the plot?
- What can you do to make each scene stronger?
- How can you weed out your cliched sentences and/or ideas?
- Is there a motivation for each event? What about a purpose?
- Are you keeping your MC from attaining a goal? This is a must until the ending.
- Will your reader wonder about or hope for something pertaining to your MC as they progress through the story?
If you remain open, revision can be your friend. Revision offers you freedom to totally screw up. So, make a deal with yourself that your first draft will be a dreary mess. It’ll give you the opportunity to make progress later, and give you a much needed sense of accomplishment.
on how to start your fiction right and grab readers.