No-More-Tears Revisions

They hammer it into you: The first chapter has to be perfect. The first page has to seize the reader’s attention. The first paragraph has to hook you. That first sentence has to compel you to read more.

Whole books on writing are devoted to beginnings. Entire workshops are dedicated to putting together a captivating first sentence.

How many times have you read your first chapter? How many times have you read your first page? We read our work again and again, until pathways are formed in our brains, until it is committed to memory and our eyes aren’t even reading the words anymore.

image

Once we get to the point where we’re showing our work to another live soul, our writing–especially that first chapter–has become as familiar as the last mile of road before arriving home. Revising it, changing even a word, at some point just seems wrong. You’ve read it so many times, it is just the way it is supposed to be.

We give our work to friends, beta readers, book doctors, people in our critique group. Yes, we want feedback. Yes, we want advice on how to make the story better. But let’s face it, what we truly want to hear is, “This is wonderful! Exquisite! Don’t change a word!” Anything less is disappointing. (Admit it. It’s just the two of us. No one else has to know.)

So, what mental state must you get in to hear and react to feedback? Some would say, the more you do it, the easier it gets. It’s the whole develop-a-thick-skin thing. (Is it just me or does the image of someone with thick skin sound disgusting?)

I would say, sure, practice does help. More exactly, the more you write, the less any one page becomes sacred, because you know what, baby, there’s always more where that came from.

What helped me look at revisions differently was watching a documentary on one of the Friends DVDs. Season 4, I think. The documentary is a behind-the-scenes look at creating an episode of Friends, from writing to post-production.

One of the things that struck me about the process in particular is how mutable the script was. There would be a live reading with the actors around a table. Adjustments were made. In rehearsal, Matt Perry might ad lib a new line. The script was altered again. The cast perform in front of an audience and discovered what moments were getting laughs, what moments fell flat. Yet more revisions. The script was an organic thing. Something that grew and evolved.  In the end, it made for a better script.

In your writing career, you are going to hear criticism. Some of it will instantly make sense to you. Some you’ll resist.

Here are some suggestions: First, sit with the advice for a while. Let your brain absorb it. Unless you completely agree with the new ideas, it helps to sleep on it for a few days. Let your unconscious marinate in someone else’s way of thinking. Avoid trying out changes when you are in that mode of Resistance. If you don’t, whatever you produce, you’re going to hate.

You’ll know when you’re ready to take a stab at changes. You still might not agree with the advice, but the emotion behind it will have worn off a little. Then, give it a try. Challenge yourself to write something awesome, just to see if you can do it. What is the worst that can happen? You’ll lose a little time. The new material falls flat and you go back to the way it was.

More likely, you’ll end up with something new, something that works better. It might be roughly the way you had it before, but tweaked in such a way that addresses the issue in a way that you or your critiquer hadn’t anticipated.

And if the new stuff doesn’t work, it doesn’t work. It’ll be a valuable exercise. You’ll have gained experience as a writer.

Check out that Friends documentary. It may change your perspective the way it changed mine.

This blog entry was originally published for Author Magazine’s Author Blog.

_________________________________________________________ Author Photo 2 Square - Copy copy 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.  URL: www.brianmercerbooks.com tumblr_inline_msw15rad8T1qz4rgp

Making Changes

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.

524782536_9920554fbb_bIn 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.

This blog entry was originally published for Author Magazine‘s Author Blog.

_________________________________________________________

Author Photo 2 Square - Copy copy

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.

 URL: www.brianmercerbooks.com

tumblr_inline_msw15rad8T1qz4rgp