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!

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