The Art of Revisions

The Art of Revisions

Revision is the art of taking critical feedback and turning it into better writing. I didn't feel comfortable with revisions until at least...gosh, maybe five manuscripts into my writing journey, and it really held me back from growing creatively. I hope some of my observations are helpful to you. 

I run a critique partner matchmaking service. As such, I get exposed to hundreds of writers. One thing the successful ones have in common: they can accept critical feedback and make related revisions. 

I want to give a list of revisions issues I see writers face that have held them back from meeting their potential. Spoiler alert--I've done almost all of these myself in varying degrees of awfulness.

  • Unwillingness to outline, brainstorm, or use prewriting tools
  • Unwillingness to learn industry standard word counts and as a result create work that is much too long or short
  • Argumentativeness with critique partners and beta readers, bullying their readers into changing their opinions
  • Inability to delve into the deeper, structural issues reflected in reader feedback, making only surface-level changes
  • Lack of research and professional learning, which leads to less skill in interpreting critical feedback 
  • Crippling self-doubt and self-recrimination when confronted with criticism
  • Inability to learn lessons while writing one book and apply those lessons to the next book
  • Inability to self-examine and change their creative process as needed
  • Unwillingness to recognize other people as experts and insistence on retaining that title at all times, thus discrediting reader feedback

Here's the problem, once you've overcome all those obstacles: If four people read your book, you'll get four different sets of prescriptive notes. The question becomes: How do you know which notes to take and which to discard? Well, I can offer you this: I lived in Texas for four years, and I heard a pastor say the following: "If two people call you a jackass, it's time to get a saddle." If two different qualified people say the same thing about your manuscript, it's time to address that issue. 

If you have an anchor such as a beat sheet or another outlining tool, you can use that against the notes you're getting to get at the heart of what's bothering the reader. For example, your reader might complain that the main character is boring in the first five chapters. But if you look at your beat sheet, you might realize that you failed to hit certain key beats that drive the story forward. So the issue IS that the reader is getting bored, but the real fix is plot here, not character. 

Revision is the art of listening. It's questioning, digging deeper into someone's thoughts, squelching pride and agony as you realize how much work you'll have to undo. It's the art of investigation, into your reader's thoughts and into your own process. Are you focusing too much on plot and not enough on character development so that every reader complains about not "connecting" to your main character? This is a hard truth, and it's one I've had to face. 

Now go write stuff, and delete stuff, and buy your critique partners a drink. They deserve it! Anyone willing to brave a writer's stubbornness is worthy of sainthood. 

How to Write a Professional Synopsis

How to Write a Professional Synopsis

Ah, the synopsis. All authors love writing these joyous little gems of prose. For those who don't find them as enjoyable or intuitive, here's a handy step-by-step guide to writing a synopsis at the professional level:

Step 1: Don't. Can you get out of this in any possible way? Can you get someone else to write it for you? It's fine if that someone is not a writer; the synopsis can't possibly come out any worse than the one you would have written. See if you can outsource the synopsis to a child or a monkey with a typewriter. They'll do a better job than you.

Step 2: If you must write the synopsis (no kids or monkeys handy), accomplish everything else in your life first. Clean the bathroom, mop the floors, take your dog to the groomer, trim your toenails. Have you been wanting to follow up on that one random insurance question that will force you to sit on hold for fifteen hours? Now is a good time to do that.

Step 3: Once you've accomplished everything else in your life that needed doing, you'll be tired. It's time to sleep. You can worry about the synopsis tomorrow.

Step 4: Ignore the synopsis.

Step 5: Deadline is approaching. You only have one day to write the synopsis. No worries, you still have plenty of time. Why don't you start outlining that book you thought of as you were falling asleep a few months ago? Now is a good time for that.

Step 6: You have fourteen minutes until your deadline. It's time to write your synopsis.

Step 7: Do a really terrible job. It will teach the recipient a valuable lesson and hopefully they will no longer submit writers to this torture. 

Step 8: Well done. You're a professional writer. Why do people complain about synopses so much, you wonder. They're not that bad after all.

I wrote a book. Now what?

Because I do Critique Partner matchmaking, I meet a lot of people who are in the beginning or beginning-ish stages of their journey toward publication. That doesn't always mean someone is a 'new' writer; I was this writer after ten years. It just means someone is learning the procedure of creating work that will lead them toward a goal of publication. This means using accepted plot structure, focusing on character arcs, creating a brand for yourself with a genre in mind, etc. etc. etc.

I've compiled a list of advice and resources for people at this stage in their journey. I'm not saying this is the ONLY way to do it; I'm just giving a general overview of some things you can do at this juncture to help you forward your goals of a.) polishing your manuscript and b.) signing with an agent.

So you wrote a book or ten. Maybe you queried agents with disappointing results. Now what? 

  1. Keep the following cradled in your anxiety-filled writer's brain: The success of this one book does not make or break you. Publication is a long, winding road. You have many more stories in you than this. What makes you a writer? The fact that you are here, doing this work. 
  2. During the following steps, do not even glance at your manuscript. 
  3. Stop querying for now. You'll be sad later when you can't send a better draft out because you've already queried the known universe. 
  4. Develop relationships with at least 3 critique partners.  Use my online form as well as the #CPMatch and #pitchwars hashtags to search. Make sure to find people in your genre who are at a similar writing level. You cannot work with an agent without this. Your agent will ask you to have drafts read by CPs quite often. A lack of CPs will hurt your writing process more than almost anything else. A good CP is someone to help with brainstorming as well as revisions, and you have to reciprocate. 
  5. Study the following books: Anatomy of Story and Save the Cat. Don't skip this step! 
    • Disclaimer: Some people hate Save the Cat because they find it overly prescriptive or they hate this particular system of outlining. If you have a different book that focuses on plot structure, characterization, theme, genre, etc., then use that. And let me know! I'm always looking for new books. But something like Stephen King's On Writing is not prescriptive enough IMO for this particular exercise.
  6. Once you have notes from CPs and have read these books, take a look at your MS. You'll notice that the things bothering your CPs go back to things talked about in the books, and you'll know how to fix them! It's a great feeling. 
  7. Draft a new query letter. Use the fresh arterial blood of a virgin under the light of a full moon. (Just kidding, but get it read by your CPs a few times.) Do your research! Read agent blogs about query letters. Learn about agent pet peeves. Read successful queries. Stalk agents' websites. When you query someone, make sure to personalize the letter. I could go on about this all day. DO. YOUR. HOMEWORK. Check out what agents are saying on the #tenqueries and #askagent hashtags. You don't get a second chance to make a good first impression. There are a lot of things agents hate, loathe, and detest in queries. Don't do those things! After all this hard work, it would suck to shoot yourself in the foot. 
  8. Send out new queries to agents looking for projects just like yours. Enter Pitch Wars, Pitch Madness, Sun vs Snow, and whatever else. Send your book to small presses. Whatever you want to do, do it now. Give your book a chance to be picked up. 
  9. You've done all you can do with this book. It's time to write a new one. The next one will be better, it will be more organized, and you will love it more than the last one. 
  10. Drink, cry, and send your writing buddies direct messages filled with angst. Repeat this step as needed. 

Writing Software Poll Results

Hi all! I recently polled a bunch of people on Twitter, and here are the different tools writers are using:

Scrivener:

This is the most popular tool outside of MS Word. It offers a lot of functionality, most popularly the ability to keep your scenes in chapter folders and move them around easily. Gone are the days of cutting and pasting scenes in Word! It also has a Research area where you can keep research notes, links, unused scenes, etc. without affecting your word count. Also, and maybe most importantly, Scrivener compiles manuscripts into a variety of different formats, including novel, screenplay, ebook, and more.

YWriter:

Insert crying emoji because this only works on PC.

MS Word:

Probably the most common tool in usage and the format in which you have to send your draft to agents, MS Word proficiency is a must for modern writers. I've had my agent ask me to turn on "track changes" in my manuscript for her for revisions, something I never really paid attention to learning...Shh don't tell her I had to Google it.

MS One Note:

I don't use this, but I've heard people rave about it. Its functionality reminds me of Evernote in that it's a compilation and collaboration tool, useful for gathering documents in different formats.

Evernote:

Some people talk about this like they're spreading the Gospel. You can use its camera to take pictures of your handwritten notes, which then become searchable through its interface. Perhaps it's my handwriting, but I have found this less reliable than I'd like. That said, it's worked for my husband much better and he has the handwriting of a 90YO stroke victim. I've heard writers rave about this tool, as it works very well across devices.

Google Documents:

Who doesn't love you, Google Docs? Everyone loves you. You're simple, you work immaculately on any device, you're clean, your storage system is really comprehensible. Hey guess what, though, Google Docs? I can't get you into Standard Manuscript Format to save my freaking life! So I'm always having to save to MS Word at the end of the journey anyway. Here are some huge advantages that Google Docs has: Free, storage forever and ever, looks like you're working because everyone uses GDocs at work, and did I mention free? And works on any device?

How I Connected With My Agent

TL;DR version

I'm now 37, and I started writing my first book when I was 19. I've completed seven manuscripts. I have received about 500 rejections, 15 full manuscript requests, and 3 extensive R&Rs after which the agent declined to represent. It has been a really long road, but the truth is that my earlier writing was just not ready for publication.

Full version

I've recently been agented, and some of my writing friends have asked me to share the story of how that happened. I honestly have a hard time believing anyone is interested in my journey, but I'm being told that this is a thing people do and that it's helpful for other writers. So, all right, here's what happened.

I wrote my first book when I was 19. It was really, really bad. I tried to publish it and was immediately discouraged by the rejection machine that is the path to publication. I quit writing books for awhile.

I had to pick it up again in my late 20s. You know how it is. It pesters you. There was this teenage character named Paloma, a survivor of sexual abuse, and she haunted me. She sat on my shoulder until I agreed to write a book about her. I wrote three YA Suspense books about her, actually, each one longer-winded and more chaotically un-plotted than the last. I sent out a bunch of queries. I got a bunch of rejections.

Back to the drawing board. I thought part of my problem may be that the Paloma books were too long and that it would be too hard to sell a trilogy as a debut author. I wrote a new stand-alone Paloma book, and this time it was kind of structured, but I hadn't done any disciplined research or practice in this area.

I got a lot of interest from agents, a few full manuscript requests, and even a few R&Rs (revise and resubmit). I worked with an agent and his assistant for a while on two different drafts. Ultimately, they didn't think they could sell the book, and they ended up passing.

At this point, I had completed four books, plus the one I wrote ten years earlier. So five books, a few hundred rejections, and no agent.

 

I launched into a new project, this one an adult Dystopian novel about a suicidal woman who searches for the murderer of her infant son; another cheerful piece. Before drafting it, I did a key thing. I took all the feedback I'd gotten from agents and I put it to work. They'd all said the same thing: I had a great voice, but I needed to work on structure. I got some books (Save the Cat is my Bible) and I used a beat sheet for the outline of the novel.

The book came way faster and was much cleaner. Unfortunately, by the time I finished it, the market was flooded with Dystopian. I bathed myself in the waters of rejection.

I'll be honest. I was frustrated and full of despair. Everyone around me kept telling me to self-publish the work I already had completed. That's a good path for a lot of people, but I'm the shittiest marketer ever. I knew my stuff would just get buried alive in the archives of Amazon. It felt like a waste of my time and energy.

This next project was the darkest yet. I gave myself full license to pull off the gloves and dive into something "extra murdery" (my agent's term). This book was about a young man who, having spent a few years locked in a psychiatric prison, is released and spends all his time haunting the local theme park.

Now I had my flow. I knew just where the beats needed to fall. No rabbit trails. I finished the first draft quickly, revised it, and send it off to beta readers. It went through two beta reads and four drafts, and I entered it into Pitch Wars.

I didn't win. I began sending out queries. I got a few full requests and a lot of crickets.

Then, one day it happened. I got an email. An agent I really liked (she has a great personality, a strong editorial background and is herself a writer) asked for a phone call. She offered representation for this project and we started on a final round of revisions. [I'm actually supposed to be working on those right now...can she see me? Hi Lauren. I'm working on the last chapter! I promise!]

Signing that contract was one of the most surreal moments of my adult life. I took my daughter to McDonald's before school because I wanted her to remember the moment as a happy one, and I sat there and signed the thing. It's not a book deal and certainly isn't a guarantee, but it is forward motion, which is a wonderful feeling. I am so excited for the future and so happy with my new normal. This Saturday morning, I was stuck on a chapter in this final rewrite and my agent called to brainstorm with me. She's just the best! I feel very lucky and undeserving, and I keep waiting to wake up and find that this is somehow not real. Anyway, that's my story and I'm sticking to it!