Whether it is an agent who wants you to make changes to your manuscript before she will represent you, an editor who requires cuts before your book is published, or just one of your beta readers strongly suggesting you tweak a few things in your first chapter, making changes to your writing — most likely changes with which you will not agree — is almost inevitable. Sure, you might decide to self-publish and, as Frank Sinatra did before you, do it your way, but chances are even then you’ll run into someone who recommends making alterations that don’t make sense to you.
In the beginning, when you’re just starting out, it’s easier. When you get feedback from a trusted friend or respected member of your critique group, you have the luxury of listening to the feedback, intuiting if it makes sense to you, and making changes or not. But when it’s an agent or editor demanding changes, and you need to make them in order to move forward, that can be more difficult.
You might be thinking, Yeah, but if an agent or editor is asking me to do it, I’d do it. I’m not going to let a few changes stand in my way of getting published! I thought so, too. For years I’d heard friends and colleagues whining about making changes to their manuscripts in response to agent and editor feedback and I couldn’t fathom what the big deal was. Not until it happened to me.
It was a few years ago and my young adult novel, Aftersight, had just made the first round through the big New York publishing houses. By then I’d already made a few significant changes to the manuscript that had made me nervous, specifically a chapter rearrangement that I feared would confuse readers. My agent is amazing, so I’d followed her advice, but no luck. Editors weren’t biting.
Then my agent made the request: Most young adult novels were written in first person, but mine was in third person. Would I consider rewriting it in first person?
“Sure,” I said lackadaisically. “Why not give it a shot?” But I spent the next few days in a fetal position underneath my desk. My book had multiple points of view, so I would have to rewrite it in several voices, something akin to The Time Travelers Wife. Even though I’d written it in third person, every chapter had the flavor of the character who was the center of the action. Still, rewriting it in first person would mean a great deal more than substituting “she” with “I” and “they” with “we.” I’d have to cede my voice to my characters’ voices and lose my own natural rhyme and rhythm. I’d essentially be creating an entirely new book.
The heartbreak of making changes prompted by an agent or editor, I realized now, is that by the time you get this far in the process, you are accustomed to your story the way it is. By that point, the way the story is feels like the right way. By that point the writing feels sacred. Everything else seems like misguided advice.
What ultimately made me feel better was watching some of the behind-the-scenes material from one of the Friends DVDs. The commentary is done by the writers and creators of the show. The more you learn about the television writing process, especially when the show is performed in front of an audience, the more you understand that they are constantly editing and revising, creating new stuff that works, canning what doesn’t. The words on the page are something organic, something alive, something that grows and evolves.
In the end I concluded that there was no harm in at least trying to rewrite it. I took it as a personal challenge. What was the worst that could happen? I’d lose some time. If I didn’t like it, I could simply cast the new version aside and call it a failed experiment. Who knows, maybe I’d learn something in the process.
It was the new version, the first-person version, that my agent ended up selling several months later.
Brian Mercer is the author of the supernatural YA novel, Aftersight (Astraea Press, 2013). He is also co-author with Robert Bruce of Mastering Astral Projection: 90-Day Guide to Out-of-body (Llewellyn, 2004) and The Mastering Astral Projection CD Companion (Llewellyn, 2007). A board member of the Pacific Northwest Writers Association and senior editor at Author Magazine, he lives in Seattle with his wife, Sara, and their three cats.