Revision – Author’s friend or foe?

Have you ever received a manuscript back from an agent or publisher saying, “We like this, BUT…” followed by a list of things that don’t work and need fixing? Do you feel as if they are talking about your children? “Your son is a nice lad, except that he has too much sex in him and he’s too violent and he can’t romance a girl to save his soul, and he comes across as an unsympathetic person…” The list goes on. What did I do wrong in raising these kids?

After the initial Shock, Anger, Denial and Sadness routine—and these are all important for you can’t short circuit the cycle of change, and every stage needs to be respected and endured, however painful—well, as I was saying, after the SADS routine, you get down to re•writing, right? What else can you do? And this could happen (a) right away, which is a bit dicey, especially if that Anger thing is still lying around, for there could be a lot of dead bodies in your novel now, or (b) many years later, in which case it will be an entirely new and different novel, or (c) when your ego has mended enough to look objectively at the comments, whenever that is. I recommend option (c) and get to it while you can still remember the story and its characters, and most importantly, while you can still remember why you wrote this thing in the first place.

I’ve had this happen to me more than a few times and here are some of my coping mechanisms, after Hurricane SADS has passed:
1) Sort the positive from the negative feedback. Read the positive first, and read it more than a few times—that reinforces why you decided to become a writer. If there is no positive feedback, go back to writing school, find another hobby, or commit suicide.
2) Now for the negative stuff. Sort them between (i) what you agree with, (ii) what you think is negotiable, and (iii) what you think is the subjective reasoning of someone who has lived a dull life.
3) Work on (i) first. This is something that you suspected was wrong with your work all along—that little ant in the pants—but glossed over in your enthusiasm to show off your latest creation to the world. Well, that ant wiggled itself into a pretty sensitive spot in your pants while you were out bragging and finally it BIT! I find this type of feedback the best and the type we should thank the feedback provider for, for bringing us down to earth and disengaging us from our lofty daydream.
4) Work (or do not work) on (ii) next. This is where you experiment. Try the suggestions; you may never know what comes out of it. But in the end, you decide if it works or not, whether you keep the experiment or throw it out with the chemical waste at the lab.
5) The pure negative comments that don’t make any sense—hang them on the wall and throw darts at them. It might make you feel better.

I always find a revised manuscript, however painful the feedback, is better than the original. Unless you get into the other end of the spectrum by refusing to let your creation go and subject it to an endless feedback and revision loop. It’s like never letting the kids leave home. “My 40•year old son? Oh yeah, he’s still at home. I’m still working on his character and his sexual relationships and his education and his….”

Knowing when to suck it up and rework, and when to let your work go with confidence into the world is the mark of the mature writer. Easier said than done, I know….Happy revising!

A good story will be told – ultimately!

Writing gurus advise us not to despair when the rejection slips pile up, they urge us to keep going back to the well and digging deeper until a real gem pops out, for after all, “a good story must be told”. After a while, this sounds like another feel•good•ism to sooth the battered writer toiling away into insanity and an early death. It is tempting to say, “Stuff the gurus,” stash the pen, switch off the computer and take up golf. But something happened to me recently to reinforce this sage message that perhaps a good story will be told, even after 30 years.

Thirty years ago, when I was a young and callow fellow and lived in a country renowned for its beautiful beaches, hospitable people, empty coffers, and peace (yes, we had peace back then, before all the separatist struggles began), I wrote a story in anger to expose youth prostitution going on in the country, fuelled by western money. Wealthy middle•aged male tourists from the developed west were swooping down on our sunny third•world island and procuring young boys for their pleasure and taking them back home, while providing their families with money and material goods like tee shirts, bell bottoms and boom boxes to feed starved material appetites and sooth fears. I also happened to travel to Western Europe at the time and meet some of these kids who were now on the “other side,” ostensibly the side of milk and honey. Instead, they were living half•lives in dead•end jobs, some without legal immigration status and some still in bondage to their pedophile puppet•masters. So I wrote my story in anger and sent it to the national radio station to be read on “This Week’s Short Story” a very popular program, on which I’d successfully had some of my earlier stories read. This story was, as anticipated, rejected on the premise that it was “not good for tourism.”

I left the old country soon thereafter, had many adventures abroad, and lost the story in the intervening years. Three years ago, when I moved to Cobourg, Ontario, Canada, I found the original in a box of old souvenirs, a faded foolscap paper with my former cursive handwriting to remind and shame me for deteriorating to a fowl scratch after I bought a computer. I polished my lost•and•found story and included it in a novel (which also remains unpublished to this date, but I hope, will appear in print shortly) and it was cut out by the editor as “the piece did not fit.”

Every time I showed my orphan story to the literati, they liked it, but no one wanted to publish it. Then recently, I was invited to submit a non•fiction piece to a travel anthology. I submitted an account of a soft adventure trip I once took to the Arctic Circle in Finland in the month of February. In the same submission, I asked the editor, somewhat surreptitiously, whether she would consider this “other piece,” which was, ah… not quite travelogue material, but anti•tourist, in fact. To my surprise the editor not only accepted my 30 year•old story but changed its title to read “Number One” in the local vernacular. The story is to be published shortly.

So the writing gurus must be right, after all. A good story will be told, by hook or by crook. I offer this story•within•a•story as hope to my fellow scribes who toil in the dark waiting to be discovered. I also hope that the rest of my stories and novels don’t take thirty years apiece to come out; although that would leave me in royalties for the next five hundred years, I may never live long enough to enjoy a single penny. And that will be another story worth telling, perhaps!