To Revise, or Not to Revise

I have PJ Parrish to thank for my present whereabouts.

My wife and I have been planning a Big Trip to celebrate our 20th anniversary, and the destination — an easy choice — was France. We’ve been researching it for a year, the itinerary growing to a three-week monster with four stops, including the final 10 days in Paris.

Then I read one of PJ’s recent posts two weeks ago, where she told us she was in the Loire Valley in France, sitting on the deck of her chateau (pretty sure that’s not what she said, but it’s what I pictured, because that’s what NY Times bestselling authors do, right?) as she wrote that day’s post.

I hadn’t heard of the Loire Valley, so I looked it up.

Immediately our itinerary changed. Out with Lucerne and Normandy, in with four days in the Loire Valley to tour some of those massive castles and — this time I’ll use it accurately — ancient Chateaus.

I’d like to say I’m sitting on a deck, too, as I write this, but it’s the day before we leave and I owe The Kill Zone at least two posts while I’m gone. So I’ve decided to excerpt my new writing book, “Story Fix: Transform Your Novel From Broken to Brilliant,” which was released in full this week (after two weeks in pre-release on Kindle).

This excerpt is from Chapter 11, “Spinning Hope From Rejection.”  It addresses the quandary we face when our work is rejected — do we simply submit it somewhere else, or do we ponder the story behind the rejection (if there is one) and do a little more work on it.

We join the book on page 168 for the following:

TO REVISE, OR NOT TO REVISE

Then again, every rejection slip does not necessarily signal the need for a major revision. Your story may be perfectly fine as is. The rejection may come from a source you do not understand, and therefore do not value. More often, though, harsh criticism and rejection may actually be the wake-up call the writer needs. And thus, it’s on the shoulders of the writer to know the difference—timing rather than a lack of sufficient craft—and to use feedback in all its forms to accurately assess the story’s strengths and weaknesses and apply that feedback to move forward accordingly. The tools and processes apply to any origin of the need for story repair, however it is conveyed—be it a rejection or simply a depressing hunch that won’t leave you alone.

Worthy stories, some of which go on to success, certainly do get rejected all the time, both by agents and publishers. These are the stuff of urban legend. Do a quick Google search and you’ll find them everywhere. I’ll mention again the quote from esteemed author William Goldman: “Nobody knows anything.”

It’s too true. But it’s also a risky way to place your bet. Because you could rationalize the rejection of your story as simply a case of timing or another agent who doesn’t get it rather than a legitimate red flag that should get your attention. We can be sure that Kathryn Stockett didn’t revise her manuscript forty-six times, one for each instance of rejection. But because she hasn’t talked about it, we can’t say for sure how those rejections colored her subsequent sequence of drafts, if at all.

Right here is where a paradox kicks in: If you don’t possess the knowledge to nail it the first time out, and are now stuck with the need to revise, how can you leverage feedback and rejection in the writing of a subsequent draft to solve those problems? You’re the same writer who wrote that flawed story. How can you suddenly, without elevating your skill set, attempt to hoist good toward greatness? That’s like asking a toddler who has just fallen off his bicycle to simply get back up and try it again, without showing him what went wrong. A lot of fathers have tried just that method over the years—“It builds character,” they say—and it’s always a recipe for further frustration and tears, as well as a few Band-Aids.

You can’t expect to take your story higher with the same skill set as before, at least to the extent that you don’t understand the feedback itself. But you’re here, you’re learning the unique tools and principles that drive successful revision, and that just might change everything about your next swing at the story.

As professional writers we are beyond the need to use our work as a means of personal character building. We require knowledge applied toward the growth of something much more amorphous and elusive: a heightened storytelling sense.

You can no longer be a suffering artist first and foremost, and a professional writer, too.

A starving professional writer, perhaps, but suffering is optional in the professional realm, because there are tools and principles to rely on. Suffering artists can, and do, create their own boundaries and standards for their craft. They can blame those chatty muses they’re always listening to, and in essence they may choose to believe they can do this thing called writing any way they choose. Because it is art. Market expectations and principles be damned. But even the most ardent followers of organic craft align with the principles that make a story work, so process really isn’t the question at all, at any level. Criteria, benchmarks, and principles are what matter, combined with passion, vision, and the perseverance that is surely part of the job description.

In the long and dark list of reasons why a story doesn’t work, why it gets rejected and requires extensive repair, the writer’s need to suffer is a common seed of dysfunction. It leads to procrastination, the claim of unfairness, and an ignorance of the options. Writers who don’t summon the context of the principles of craft as part of their story sensibility, who go about it in the belief they can invent the structures and tropes and forces that make stories work, tend to populate the roster of the rejected, and sadly, colonize the roster of the self-published, casting a shadow over the multitude of very fine self-published books right next to them.

Even when this happens to a small degree, success becomes elusive.

Your art, in this case, wrapped in the limiting paradox of your process, often becomes your excuse for not finding an agent, or not selling when you do. “They just don’t get me” is the graveside plea of the unpublished, unprofessional writer.  While, in the meantime, the professional writer stays in the trenches to learn what went wrong and how to fix it.

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About Larry Brooks

Larry Brooks writes about story craft, with three bestselling titles from Writers Digest Books. His book "Story Engineering" was recently named by Signaturereads.com to their list of the "#27 Best Books on Writing," in the #3 position. He also has released six thrillers from Penguin-Putnam and Turner Publishing. He blogs at www.storyfix.com and teaches at conferences and workshops nationally and internationally.

4 thoughts on “To Revise, or Not to Revise

  1. Hi Larry and all,
    I am sitting in the kitchen of my modest but lovely ivy-covered cottage outside of Orleans, France. Not a chateau but warmer and drier than King Francois I ever was. (Saw his mamouth castle Chambord this week…no wonder the French peasants finally revolted). I have been luxuriating in willful ignorance these past weeks — no political news, no newspapers, not even much thought about publishing and writing. (Only thing I am keeping track of is NFL news and since I am a Dolphins fan, the news is best left unreported).

    But I DO want to say — writing-wise — that this sort of total break is good for the writer’s soul. The only thing I am doing is reading good books. (Can highly recommend Station Eleven, The Last Policeman and my current read — The Ice Soldier by Welsh writer Paul Watkins. It’s an eccentric thriller about a WWII mountaineer. Didn’t think it was my cup of tea but found it on the cottage shelf and now can’t put it down. It breaks many of the rules we here at TKZ preach about too much backstory too early but I don’t care. It’s that good. Which I guess just goes to show you that as Jim often says here, rules are made to be broken — once you have mastered them.

    Off to find another fine lunch (with wine bien sur) and a little chateau devoted to the history of perfume. A bien tot.

    • Kristee – sitting in Burgundy as i read your comment and respond here, leaving in two days for the Loire (thanks for that). Going to be hitting up those massive chateaus, and Chamborg is first one the list. I’ll take your counsel regarding a long break being good for the writer’s soul… already feeling that.

  2. I’m sitting in my home office, sipping coffee trying to figure out what times 6 is 24 and looking at the morning fog in the valley and the bright blue sky above. I have an aspiring writer friend who has a lot of talent, but he’s a ‘stick to my guns’ sort. He asked me to look at editorial comments he’d received, and my response was that his editor was being gentle, and I’m not sure he’s even talking to me anymore.

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