Sunday, June 19, 2011

A Tale of Endless Revision

The post below, written by me, originally appeared as a guest post on author Jenny Milchman's site. Jenny's novel, Cover of Snow, was acquired this past May by Ballantine, a division of Random House.

I rewrote my young adult book, Favorite, many times.

Many, many times.

It started out as an adult novel-- a sort of women’s fiction with a mystery element. The main character, Angie Favorite, was in her mid-thirties and had a father who’d disappeared when she was a child. Events in the book give clues as to what had happened to him. There was a crazy cast of characters, including her ex-husband--a rock guitarist named Elroy, her smart teenage son, Jason, and her brother Bob and his selfish wife, Carla. After I finished writing and revising it, I had several writer friends review it and make notes, then I made some changes and polished it up.

I got an agent for the book. He was new to the agenting game, but enthusiastic about the book. Under his guidance, I did two rounds of revisions. The manuscript was submitted to twenty -some editors with the title Finding Angie. Two of them liked it well enough to take it to their editorial committee, where it was promptly shot down by the marketing people. Shortly thereafter, that agent wound up taking a different job dealing with foreign rights, so we amicably parted ways.

I sent the book out on my own, but there were no takers. One editor sent me extensive notes suggesting ways to improve the story, but her ideas would have required a lot of work. By that time I was tired of the book, so I just moved on.

A few years later, I got the idea to rewrite it as a young adult novel. This required making Angie a teenager. Her ex-husband became her father, her mother became her grandmother, and her son, her brother. The missing parent was now her mother. I made other changes as well. I dug out the letter from the editor who’d given me detailed notes. She’d disliked the ambiguous ending, (which I’d thought was true to life), so I scrapped it and completely rewrote it. Following her advice, I deleted numerous clever metaphors because although they delighted me, they were distracting and unnecessary. I also eliminated the Bob and Carla subplot, because really, who cared?

I queried agents for this new YA version and one called me with interest. We talked and she said she wanted changes. Her assistant sent notes with terrific suggestions for improvement, and I wrote my heart out for three weeks. I sent the manuscript back and heard nothing for weeks. Finally, she sent back a terse email saying it wasn’t for her, but thanks anyway. I was disappointed and puzzled. About a month later, she left her agency and started her own. I like to think that maybe she was caught up in the process of starting a new business and didn’t have time, but I’ll never really know.

I started to think it was just a weird book.

Another writer friend read it and she pointed out some incidences where I’d done more telling than showing. I fixed this problem and added 4000 words in the process.

In November 2009, on the advice of my mom who said it was her favorite of all of my books, I self-published the manuscript to be available as an e-book on Kindle. I found a great image on and gave it the title, Favorite. Based on sales and reviews, it was acquired by Amazon’s publishing division, AmazonEncore, last year and rereleased on April 1st. Going with a publishing house required two rounds of editing, but this time around it was fairly painless.

I can’t wait to send a copy to the editor who was so helpful so many years ago. She may not even remember me or my manuscript, but I want to let her know that her efforts to help a new writer made a difference.

I’m happy Favorite found a publishing home with AmazonEncore, but I’m even happier that it’s now out of my hands and I can’t make any more changes.

Enough already.


Ruth Harris said...

Enough already, indeed! How many of the revisions do you think really helped the book? And how many were just busy work?

IME there's always the pitfall of "revising" the life out of a book to guard against.

Karen McQuestion said...

Honestly, Ruth? A lot of them were busy work. With agents I sometimes wonder if the requested changes have more to do with seeing how cooperative the writer is than improving the book.

The most helpful suggestions, ironically enough, came from the assistant of the agent who ultimately turned it down. The assistant had some great insights.

D. L. Marriott said...

I've never had the pleasure or should I say pain (I'd have to guess its a combination of both) of having to revise major amounts of a story for someone else. My biggest problem is to keep from endlessly revising for myself. I often feel like I would edit endlessly if I didn't consciously cut myself off.

Karen McQuestion said...

D.L., that's a problem for me too. I suspect it's a writer thing--we aim for a certain level and are always reaching for it.

Christopher Wills said...

Great post.
You are in excellent company. Tolkein rewrote Lord of the Rings every time it was republished; his publisher had to tear it out of his hands each time and say 'enough already' :) or words to that effect.
I understand your feelings, as my first book 'Call me Aphrodite' started as a girl's diary, then became a newspaper reporter's diary and ended up as a 1st person story; and although I have self published it, I still wonder 'what if I changed it to....?'

annebingham said...

Karen, as it turns out I read Favorite just yesterday while overseeing our part of the neighborhood rummage sale. Wwe're at the far end of the neighborhood on a one-way street -- there was a lot of down time!

Not enough, however; I didn't get it finished and had to stay up waaay too late last night to finish it even though (being a writer and all) you dropped enough clues that the ending was almost, but not quite, entirely unexpected (to paraphrase one of my favorite Doug Adams quotes).

Thanks for a wonderful afternoon (although I was not feeling so grateful this morning)...

kathleen shoop said...

You did so much work to get the book to be what you wanted! I too made significant changes to a book that my agent couldn't sell. I know she's fantastic--her sales record is superb--but as she turned down subsequent books for them being small and quiet, and not having a market, I decided to self-publish. From reading your blog and others, I can't say how glad I am that I did. I still get a twinge when I consider whether I've given something up, but mostly, I feel so excited and driven, and purposeful again. That's everything to me. Thanks for your support--unknowingly given, of course!

Debbi said...

That's a great story, Karen.

Was Favorite one of the first books you wrote? I know the first Sam McRae novel I wrote (which isn't Identity Crisis) has been through a few rounds of revisions. At some point, I may end up publishing it. Who knows? :)

I do think that seeking objective evaluations of your writing and revising your work is a good way to improve your skills.

I don't know how Favorite read before, but I know that I love the way it reads now. :)

Karen McQuestion said...

Christopher Wills--well then you understand about changes since your book underwent quite a metamorphosis as well. Thanks for sharing the anecdote about Tolkien. I love hearing about author quirks.

What an amazing coincidence, Anne! Thanks for reading it, and for leaving a comment. Favorite is intended for YA (and younger YA at that) so I hope you channeled your inner 12/13-year-old as you read.

Kathleen, I know what you mean when you say you get twinges when you second-guess yourself. It's hard to know what to do. I hate it when people ask me for advice about whether or not to self-publish because career decisions are so personal. I can only share my experience and hope that helps.

To answer your question, Debbi--Favorite was the second adult novel I wrote. (When I was right out of high school I wrote two kids' books that were completely awful, so I tend not to count those.)

The first book I wrote was A SCATTERED LIFE. Then the first version of FAVORITE. After that came EASILY AMUSED, and then LIFE ON HOLD. Finally I rewrote FAVORITE as a YA and made all the other changes. And then I wrote CELIA AND THE FAIRIES. And I did all of that without any assurance any of them would ever get published. I was either really optimistic or completely delusional.

J. E. Medrick said...

I'm curious, Karen... you wrote that book awhile back and it went through a number of revisions (not all yours, obviously). Do you feel like now what you write doesn't need as many revisions... like you can write "more to the point" as it were?

YA: Cheat, Liar, Coward, Thief (6-22)
Adult: Shackled

Karen McQuestion said...

J.E. Medrick--that's exactly what I think. I used to spend a lot of time untangling sentences and figuring out how to do transitions. That's not the case anymore. Story structure is becoming second nature as well.

Having said that, I have to add that I'm still grateful to my proofreaders and copyeditors for checking on things like clarity and continuity, and letting me know when I need more description. I seem to have major comma issues too.

Anonymous said...

Karen I read Favorite and loved it. It is amazing how well you write in so many genres. You are very much an inspiration to me and many. When I spoke to a school in NY last week they were amazed how many times I rewrote Breaking the Beale Code befor eit ever came out as a book. I did show them the hand written version, five legal pads, and told them most of this stuff was cut.

Sean McCartney
The Treasure Hunters Club

Karen McQuestion said...

Hi Sean! Thanks for the kind words about FAVORITE.

I think it's great that you tell students everything you did to get from idea to finished book. It's not that you want to discourage them from writing, but they should know it's a process that requires discipline and diligence.

Jon Olson said...

I had a similar experience with my book, Petoskey Stone. Worked with an editor for a year, and it got so that I was so trying to please her that I lost sight of what pleased me, in a way. Or the idea that different readers, even professional readers, will have different takes, and that's OK. Maybe this is partly what Ruth called "revising the life out of a book." Thanks for the post, Karen.
The Petoskey Stone
The Ride Home

Karen McQuestion said...

You are welcome, Jon!

J. E. Medrick said...

I <3 my proofreaders as well ;) I learned a trick a long time ago that I often find myself applying:

For paragraph structure, it is most understandable for the human mind to read short sentences first and last. So for ease of readability start and end a paragraph with a simple sentence and put all the meat in the middle with the commas and leave the end to a simple statement. It makes a difference.

I used to be super comma crazy. I think I'm getting better, though ;)

YA: Cheat, Liar, Coward, Thief (6-22)
Adult: Shackled

Pale Rambler said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Pale Rambler said...

Great topic, Karen.
As a confessed serial revisionist who spent 20 years rewriting the same three chapters, I have either managed to embrace my inner laziness or fallen head over heals into apathy. Lately, when I can get in front of the computer or notebook, I worry only about whether the story has flow and makes sense. Everything else is a technical issue that can be dealt with later on.
As always, thanks for the inspiration!

P.S. I am belly laughing right now, because I deleted my original comment due to typos and misplaced words. Guess I haven't completely shaken the revisionist bug...

Karen McQuestion said...

Pale Rambler, I thought I was the only one who stressed over my blog comments! I dash things off and then later shake my head over how poorly written they are...

A writing teacher once told me that the students who second-guess themselves and anguish over their work are generally the best writers in her class. The ones who are pleased with their first efforts are like the people on American Idol who don't know they can't sing. Usually their writing needs more work, but they just don't see it and probably never will.

PV Lundqvist said...

I've been shot down in committee. Total suck. There you are, flattered to the nostrils, and then, the terse rejection.

What I like about your post is you kept trying. There must of been something in Favorite that felt important enough (to you) to persevere.

That, I believe, is key.

Karen McQuestion said...

PV, "Total suck," says it all. I've had my hopes dashed more times than I can count, which is not uncommon for writers in the publishing game.

You're right in saying that I didn't give up. Sometimes I wonder when I would have. At the time, I felt like self-publishing on Kindle was my last ditch effort, so if that didn't work I may have quit for awhile, but I'm willing to bet that at some point I would have gotten another story idea and I'd give it another try...

We writers are a crazy bunch.

kathleen shoop said...

Hi Karen, if you don't see this comment, I'll send an email, but I was wondering if you could talk a little bit about the varied genres in which you write. I mean, in terms of reader expectations.

Did your readers expect each book to be similar? I've started with publishing historical fiction and have a second one (different historical era, though) I want to publish in January. In September I'm putting out women's fiction.

I want to capitalize on my "name," (little known as it is so far) for all my fiction, not use different names for different types of writing I do.

I trust readers will follow me (maybe one or the other will be a favorite genre) but I really want to follow in your shoes and push all my work to all my readers.

Did you do anything to let readers know you would be writing different genres or did they just follow you as you went?

Karen McQuestion said...

Hi Kathleen! You're right, I probably could do a blog post on this topic but just to answer your questions...

When I was writing my books (and not getting them published), I didn't pay much attention to genre at all, I just wrote what I wanted to. I always assumed that whatever book sold to a publisher would be the category I'd be locked into forever, because that's the way it seems to work with traditional publishing.

Oh sure, you get some authors who mix it up, but that's not usually the case. And often the authors who do publish in more than one genre use different pen names (like Nora Roberts writing as J.D. Robb).

Conventional wisdom, (from what I understand from my years of reading publishing news, industry blogs etc) is that readers will become confused or that authors won't be able to build a brand if their books are too different from each other.

When I self-published I put my whole collection out there and used my real name for all of it.

And as far as I know there was no confusion on the part of potential book buyers. In fact, I had crossover readers--they read the adult titles and then bought the YA books as well.I think as long as the book descriptions/covers/titles make clear what the book "is" you're okay.

This is not to say traditional publishing is wrong. I was able to go the unconventional route because it was risk free for me. My expense going in was nada, and I had no name to build so I wasn't worried about diluting the brand.

IMO, readers who like your writing style will cross genres to read your work. At least that's been my experience.

Kathleenshoop said...

Thanks Karen!
That's really helpful. I tend to trust that readers have a range and they'll come along if I'm clear--as u said! You've done a beautiful job!