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.

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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

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Editor’s Pitch

I file into the ballroom with six other conference attendees for an appointment with an editor from St. Martin’s Press. It’s only my second  Pacific Northwest Writers Association’s summer conference. Over the next two days I have private appointments to pitch my novel to two New York literary agents. I hope this editor’s meeting will be a simple formality, something to build my confidence for my two appointments with the agents.

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I’d attended one of these editor’s meetings last year and this is how it works: You sit around a ballroom table with an editor and five or six of your fellow writers. The editor introduces herself, explains what she’s looking for, and passes out her business card. “Send me your first chapter,” she says, “and mention that we spoke at this conference.” The meetings last a half-hour to give everyone time to pitch their work, but no one actually talks about their manuscripts.

That’s how this year will go too, right?

We settle around the circular table. The editor, Erin Brown (who will later become a columnist for Author Magazine), steeples her hands in front of her. She has long, delicate fingers. A piano player’s fingers. “So, how does this work? I’ve never done this format before.”

Uh oh, I think. She’s not going to make us actually pitch, is she?

Erin spends a good deal of time talking about herself and the kind of projects for which she’s searching. I settle down, waiting for the customary moment when she asks us each to send her a chapter.

“Okay,” she says, “let’s go around the table and hear your pitches.”

Only fifteen minutes remain. There are six attendees sitting at the table with me. I do the math. That doesn’t leave each of us much time. Only one person separates me from Erin, but Erin choses to start from the opposite side of the circle. I’d written and rewritten my pitch for weeks. I have it down to a cool ninety seconds. If everyone keeps theirs to a few minutes, I might still be okay.

The attendees begin. They ramble on and on. Not only are none of them rehearsed, the writers seem to be figuring out what their stories are really about right here at the table. I groan inwardly, calculating and recalculating the remaining time.

“It’s like about this girl who, you know, is like trying to find herself after 9/11.” Erin: Send it! “I was a truck driver for forty-eight years and it’s about all my experiences.” Erin: Send it! “It’s an English translation of my novel that was published in Nicaragua.” Send it!

I relax a little. No matter what they have, she wants it.

Finally, it’s my turn. Three minute are left for me and the woman to my right, so I start. Unlike the others, I sound polished. Mine has a beginning, a middle, and end. I have props. A soundtrack. Toward the end, I light off a few sparklers.

When it’s over, the whole table is staring at me like I’m crazy. Erin’s expression suggests that she’s contemplating calling hotel security. “Well, you know, that’s really not what I’m looking for…”

On the way out the door, the old trucker who prattled on and on about the women he’d seen during his years on the road offers to give me pointers on how to pitch. I emerge from the ballroom destroyed, embarrassed, my confidence in flames.

There, on business of his own, is Bill Kenower, editor of Author Magazine (we’d just started publishing the magazine a few months before). I relate what happened. How can I possibly meet with the agents after that disaster?

His expression is intent and confident. “Cancel all this. Success, it’s coming! Know it. Feel it. This is just a step in the journey. It’s not the journey.”

I go on to meet with both agents. Both want to see my manuscript. I begin to understand the power of perception. Viewpoint is everything when it comes to perceiving a no.

It serves as a beginning.

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

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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

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