Wednesday, March 13, 2013

3 WOW Wednesday: S.T. Underdahl on Revising When Your Head and Your Heart Agree

The word for this WOW Wednesday is REVISIONS. Everyone say it with me: “(gagging sound)”

Anyone who has written anything knows that one of the toughest parts of the process is sharing your finished product. It can be truly frightening to allow merciless eyes access to the words that you chose so carefully, the sentences you tirelessly crafted, the story you painstakingly plotted and told. Even worse, in my estimation, is the pain of receiving feedback, suggestions as to what might make your work better (wait…it’s not perfect already?) Getting that feedback and revising your story to make it stronger are, however, an essential and necessary part of the journey to the final destination of a publishable work.

I started writing when I turned 40 and never expect my writing to amount to anything, much less four published novels. When I first began, I had some confidence in my writing, but knew very little about the world of publishers, editors, agents, etc. My first book, THE OTHER SISTER, went to print with almost no revisions, which I now realize is insanely unusual. I was understandably surprise, therefore, when the same editor (Andrew Karre) told me that my next book, REMEMBER THIS, lacked contemporary elements and needed serious revising. (In my defense, the last YA book I’d read was written in the 1970’s!) At his suggestion, I read an excellent list of contemporary YA novels he provided, and learned that teens today are a much savvier and more sophisticated bunch than the original REMEMBER THIS gave them credit for being. Besides that, their world runs on technology; believe it or not, the first version of my book included nothing about cellphones, computers, ipods, etc.! This all changed in the second (and final) version of REMEMBER THIS, in which a key plot element was a text message.

When I wrote a third book, SUMMER ON LAKE TULABY, I decided to seek the support of an agent because it wasn’t a YA book and I knew I’d have to find a new publisher for it. The agent (let’s call him Michael) who expressed interest was from a well-respected NYC agency, and I was shocked and thrilled that he’d be interested in representing my book. Consequently, when Michael told me that he liked the story but thought the main characters were too old and that I needed to include a younger woman character, I felt he must know what he was talking about. I spent months exhaustively rewriting the entire manuscript to include the new character before laying it once again at his feet. Upon reading it, however, Michael told me he thought that the new character should be brought even more into the forefront of the story, and one of my other characters (a favorite of mine) should be given a less prominent piece of the action. Following more months of rewriting the entire manuscript yet again, I once more sent it to Michael, hoping for a shout of ‘Eureka! It’s perfect!” Unfortunately, it seemed as if he’d barely laid down the newly revised manuscript before he began imagining even more changes that would take the story down yet another new path. I listened dispiritedly and told Michael I would think over his suggestions and get back to him.

By this point, the mere thought of rewriting the entire manuscript for a fourth time made me physically ill. The truth was, I barely recognized the book any longer, and I felt disconnected from the story I’d once loved. I realized I was faced with a tough choice: continue to write and rewrite the story at the bidding of someone who clearly had a different vision for my book than I, or walk away from a potential relationship with an agent I greatly respected. In the end, I thanked Michael very much and moved on. I rewrote the book back to closer to my original version (although I kept some of the changes he had suggested) and decided to simply self-publish the book in order to put some closure on it. I just couldn’t imagine going through more rounds of revisions with another agent or publisher. Happily, SUMMER ON LAKE TULABY sold very well, despite its older-than-average male characters. In fact, another royalties check just arrived in the mail yesterday.

As difficult as that experience was, I learned something important from it. In the course of becoming a writer, you must learn to trust yourself. Michael’s feedback was valuable, but it took me awhile to realize what he was actually telling me: that his vision for the story was different from mine. I think my heart registered that early in the process, but my head kept insisting: “Michael’s a very well-respected agent from a big name literary agency…he MUST know more about your story than you do!”

Now the message here is not that it’s good to listen ONLY to your heart, because hearing ‘this needs to be rewritten’ or ‘this character doesn’t make sense’ hurts, and the heart reacts accordingly, sending the ‘dig in!’ signal to a writer’s heels or even ‘cue waterworks!’ to a writer’s tear ducts. What I’m saying is that there’s an important contrast between how I felt in response to Michael’s feedback and how I felt in response to the feedback given by Andrew Karre on REMEMBER THIS, in which both my head and my heart agreed, “That makes sense. It will make my story better.”

That’s when you know it will be worth the work.

About the Author

Susan Thompson Underdahl (S.T. Underdahl) is the author of three young adult novels: THE OTHER SISTER, REMEMBER THIS, and NO MAN'S LAND, and one commercial fiction novel, SUMMER ON LAKE TULABY. Susan lives in Grand Forks, ND where she works as a clinical neuropsychologist, a career that has been the inspiration for much of her writing. She has one daughter, two sons, and three stepdaughters, ages 13-20 as well as a husband, an unfriendly cat, and four overly-friendly dogs.

Susan’s YA books are represented by Quinlan Lee of Adams Literary Agency.
Check out Susan's website

About the Book

Dov Howard is 16 years old and perfectly comfortable in his role as "family failure," the kid who doesn’t stand a chance of living up to his older brother, Brian. As if being a straight-A student and football star aren't enough, Brian has also become a military hero after his National Guard troop gets deployed to Afghanistan. When the family receives word that Brian has been seriously injured, and a mysterious new girl, Scarlett, joins Dov's not-so-merry band of misfits, life as Dov knows it changes forever.

When it becomes clear that Scarlett’s wounds are much more than superficial, and a broken version of Brian arrives back on the home front, Dov finds himself suddenly and deeply immersed in the pain of others. As things go spiraling out of control, will Dov take the easy way out, as he’d always done in the past, or will he be able to step up to the plate and truly be there for the people who need him most?

Buy NO MAN'S LAND on Amazon
Find NO MAN'S LAND on Goodreads


  1. This is so true! I tend to jump into revisions with both feet, and it's critical that I take the time to think about whether the changes resonate first. Editor Cheryl Klein has a great suggestion as part of her bookmap process (which I HIGHLY recommend for revision) that we consider the "core" of the book first. Not just the core in general, but the core that made us want to write the book in the first place--the one thing that we will not change in the story. That's helpful in that it will not only keep us from revising away what matters most to us, but it will also help to nail down the pitch for the thing that resonates strongest in the story.

    Thanks for a great post!

  2. I had an editor do that to a short story once. I was new and uncertain, so I let her change a lot more of it than I would have liked. I think eventually I'll revise the story and make it closer to my original vision.

    Anyway, I know what you mean about following your gut. I've come through a year of intense writing-education, learning deep POV and all kinds of editing tricks. I've had a couple of short stories published and learned loads.

    I've also learned that the way I used to write--alternating between shallow and deep POV as the scenes needed--is a totally permissible form of storytelling. In fact, it's recommended. I feel like I've been blown in every direction for the past year, and I'm only beginning to find my center again.

  3. Thanks for sharing the wisdom you learned from this journey, Susan, and for the courage of your convictions regarding your story. When it stops being your story, it's time to put the skids on.


Tell us what you think. We'd love to hear from you! :)