SOMETIMES REVISION MEANS REWRITING
by Talie Vance
When I set out to write my first novel in 2008, I knew I wanted to write for publication. I researched craft and learned about the industry. By the time the book was finished in 2009, I felt like I knew everything I needed to know to become published. I knew better than to query a novel that wasn’t finished. I knew that a first draft was not the same thing as a finished novel. What I didn’t know was how much I didn’t yet know. How I would keep learning and never stop.
After I finished my manuscript, I revised my draft by fleshing out the scenes and language. I polished those scenes to shine so bright I could see my reflection in them. I got some professional feedback on the opening pages through a critique I won in an online auction. I revised again after getting feedback at a conference. I cut the opening thirty pages and found the real beginning of my story.
I knew publication involved revision, and I had proved to myself I could do it. Or so I thought.
At the beginning of 2010, I queried a few agents. An agent I respected read the full and gave me feedback, but didn’t offer. She liked the writing, and loved some of the scenes, but ultimately, she thought the story wasn’t working as a whole, especially the second half.
I wasn’t ready to hear that the entire story might not be working, so I focused on the part where she said that other agents might feel differently, and I sent out a new batch of queries. One of those agents read the full and asked for a revision. The revision involved some big picture changes to parts of the story, but the basic plot structure remained. All very doable.
That revision wasn’t wasted. It resulted in several offers and ultimately, I signed with my agent, Sarah Davies. Sarah has an editorial background, and she was very upfront with me about the fact that the manuscript would need a significant revision before it would be ready for submission. I had revised for an agent before, so I felt like I was up to the challenge.
Then she said the words, “I think you need to consider rewriting the entire back half of the novel.”
There was a moment of abject panic. I’m not going to lie. But I only let myself indulge it for a few seconds. I knew in my heart that she was right. I was finally ready to hear it.
She started by asking me questions about the story and letting me work through them. As we talked, I discovered that I had gotten sidetracked with subplots and the main story arc was lost in the shuffle. As we discussed the emotional core of the story, I revealed a secret about one of the characters that I had not written into the original version, because I was saving it for a sequel.
At that point Sarah gave me some of the best advice I’ve ever gotten:
“All your best stuff has to be in this book if you want it to sell. Don’t anything hold back for another book.”
She was so right. By keeping my best stuff out, I was not just depriving the reader, I was depriving the story.
This revision was not simply a matter of tweaking a scene of changing a character’s motivation. It involved reimagining the story in a way that fulfilled the promise of the hook. As I outlined and planned, I was amazed by how far off track I had let the original story get.
I went back to the manuscript and cut out the last 40,000 words. I saved them in their own document, with a promise to work them into another story, but I never went back and looked at them again.
After several months of work, I came through the other side with a story I could be proud of, far better than what I could have done on my own. And, a few weeks later, it sold. That novel is SILVER, which debuts later this year.
Since then, I’ve written (and rewritten) another book. And, while I haven’t given up on the dream of getting the plot exactly right the first time around (a girl can dream, can’t she?), I’m open to the idea of rewriting a significant portion of a manuscript in a way I never was before.
I had thought revision was the same as polishing, but polishing is just the tip of the iceberg.
Sometimes revision means rewriting.