Revision letters sometimes take over your life

I’m sure you’re all fascinated by the revision process, right?


Well, I know some of you are writers or know writers or want to be writers, and I thought you might be interested in some real specifics about the revision process. My revision process, anyway.

Besides, it’s the other main thing taking over my life for the rest of this month. In fact, I should be working on this revision right now, obviously, rather than doing internet stuff. But! Soon! It’ll just take a minute to write this post!

So, anyway: what I have here is a five-page letter from my agent. This is not this manuscript’s first revision, either: this is the second. I can’t remember how long the first revision letter was. The only thing I remember specifically from the first letter is that Caitlin (my agent) said: “I feel like this story doesn’t really start till Chapter 7.” I also remember that I wound up cutting Chapters 5 and 6 entirely during the first revision. That’s just as dramatic as it sounds. I thought maybe I’d work bits of those deleted chapters back into the manuscript, but basically didn’t wind up using anything from them.

Anyway, after THIS revision, the manuscript will FINALLY go to my editor, who will take a look at it for the first time. She is quite the perfectionist, which is something I like AFTER she accepts a manuscript of mine, but it means both Caitlin and I think it’s REALLY IMPORTANT that the manuscript be just as perfect as possible before she sees it. Luckily Caitlin used to be an editor and has excellent editorial chops, so her comments are usually super-helpful. All I give her to work with is vague questions like “Does the romance between Him and Her work for you?” What she gives me back is a chapter-by-chapter analysis of what doesn’t work and specific suggestions for fixing things.

It’s not that she expects me to take every single detailed suggestion, btw. Sometimes I do something she didn’t suggest that I think will work better to fix the identified problem. Occasionally (rarely) I think over a suggestion and wind up not changing the manuscript at all because I think it works fine the way it is.

So! Here we go: “The opening scene is better, but it still feels too slow and lacks emotional or plot urgency. . . . It would help to give them a mission in the first chapter, they shouldn’t just be sight-seeing. Your protagonist should feel more about [her love-interest] in this scene, plus we need to see more about her difficulties adjusting to her new life. And this other boy has become a more important character; maybe he’s romantically interested in your protagonist too?” [All of this is paraphrased, I just summarized four paragraphs, but it’s pretty true to the meaning.]

“Can your protagonist be more active in defending her choices and defying everyone else to do what she believes is right? If she goes to [this place], there needs to be a reason for it — can she have a specific plan for something she needs to do there, but she is prevented? Can your protagonist be a little more verbal and defend her ideas more to everyone? She needs to be more passionate and intense about her feelings. When she can’t explain and is rebuked, then she can relapse into self-doubt. Right now she comes across as wishy-washy.”

“Could [the protagonist’s love interest] be more torn? He wants to support her but he can’t go against everyone else? This mistake could be what gives him strength and determination to follow his own beliefs later. Also, make your protagonist’s feelings about the way he doesn’t support her stronger and more explicit. She should be angry with him and hurt that he didn’t support her, even though she understands with her head why he didn’t.”

“Somehow in the events of Chapter 7, this big crisis gets lost. Then in Chapter 9, it gets lost again. It’s a nice bit of writing in Chapter 9, lots of info conveyed via dialogue, but I’d like to see more of your protagonist’s feelings as well. Also, maybe your protagonist could be the one to discover this particular crisis, which might happen a little later, thus providing action and hightened tension during what is otherwise a lull.” [She suggests a specific place where that might happen.]

“Chapters 12, 13, and 14 are excellent.” [These little comments are nice, you bet.]

“In Chapter 15, your protagonist should show more emotion, thinking about herself and [her love interest] and also worrying about her skills and whether she can do things she needs to do.”

“Chapter 16 is elegant and beautiful but lacks suspense. You don’t need to change what happens, but the tone should be different.” [Specific suggestions follow.]

Chapter 17: “Do we have to have your protagonist sulking in her rooms again? Also, we suddenly have a lot of secondary characters in this scene. Either use them earlier in the book or trim them down here.” [Caitlin’s tone is not quite this dictatorial, though.]

Chapter 21: “More romance, please! Let’s have a kiss at least! The lack of romance here is very disappointing!”

Okay, I’ve left a LOT out, obviously, but that should give you an idea. I hope I gave a reasonable impression about how specific Caitlin can be? This chapter-by-chapter analysis is extraordinarily helpful. I see that she has made specific comments about 11 out of 21 chapters, or roughly half the chapters. Many of the other chapters will need to be tweaked just because I’ll be changing stuff in the rest of the manuscript, but some will be barely touched compared to others. It does give me a nice sense of progress to skip ahead seventy pages now and then.

Q: So how does it feel to get a critique letter like this, with blunt comments like: This chapter lacks suspense or Your protagonist needs to quit sulking in her room or This lack of romance is very disappointing?

A: You hear so much about how an author feels outraged and furious at editorial comments and has to fight to be civil until she cools off and can think about things rationally. Well, maybe. I have a hard time even believing that (though multiple authors have specifically mentioned feeling that way).

IN GENERAL, I feel like whapping my forehead and exclaiming: Of course! How could I have missed that?

EVERY NOW AND THEN, I say to myself: Well, that specific suggestion won’t work, what else can I do that would fix this lull in the action?

VERY RARELY, I think: Ouch.

Caitlin balances the Ouch moments by saying things like This Chapter is excellent as is.

And I am ALWAYS grateful that Caitlin is there to tell me that something doesn’t work, rather than leaving a problem sitting in the story to be spotted by the editor — or worse, by the readers. This is particularly important with later drafts, where overfamiliarity generally makes it really hard for me to tell whether something works or doesn’t work.

Okay! Writing this post took AN HOUR. Back to the revision!

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