This week three of my clients are rewriting their entire manuscripts, each at the behest of a publishing house editor who has expressed serious interest in the project. That means three of my clients faced the dilemma: To rewrite or not to rewrite.
To put this into perspective, this isn’t the first rewrite for any of these manuscripts. I’ve already directed each one of the writers to do at least one major rewrite. So it’s not like they cranked out a manuscript, I sent it to an editor, and then the editor came back with a rewrite request. No, these writers already have demonstrated rewriting resiliency.
Diving in Again
But there’s something about being asked to go another round. It’s not as easy to agree as one might think.
Maybe you’ve faced the same dilemma. Perhaps your critique group keeps finding flaws and suggests you take on yet another makeover of your baby. Or your agent reads over your revision and then comes back with more ideas on how to strengthen the manuscript–and the suggestions are major.
How do you decide if you’re going to dive in once again?
Do the Suggestions Resonate?
The first question to ask yourself is whether the suggestions make sense. Often a writer instinctively knows the manuscript will be stronger when the changes are made. That’s the moment to ignore the gut-wrenching thought of plowing through all those pages once again. Instead, give in to the reality that you’re not through with the manuscript yet. Lean into the part of you that wants to do your very best, even when the price to get there feels steep.
Can You See What Needs to Be Done?
Sometimes, when asked to do a rewrite, the author’s first response is, “Huh?” The changes being suggested sound foreign and how to make them a mystery. That’s a good time to take a deep breath, ponder how you would begin to make the changes, and envision a way forward. If you still feel lost, talk over the situation with your agent or with your closest critiquer. This isn’t a moment to complain or whine but instead to seek advice.
For one of my clients, when I explained what the editor needed to see before taking the project to the publishing committee, we went over the book chapter by chapter, talking about what changes she could make. And I offered to brainstorm with her at any point in the rewriting process. That sort of concrete help gave her the impetus to start to rewrite.
Will the Manuscript Stay True to Your Vision for It?
One of my clients facing a rewrite was asked to add a significant element to the manuscript. The benefit of doing so would be to add a layer of meaning to the original concept. It also would be easy for sales reps to talk about when presenting the project to book buyers.
The potential downside was that it could overshadow the book’s theme, become the dominant aspect of the manuscript, and isolate the author into a brand he would never choose for himself.
As he talked to trusted friends, weighed the pros and cons, and started playing around with the idea, he began to see how to use the element to sharpen the focus of his project and make the theme even clearer.
Knowing this could be a win-win, he’s working on not only the manuscript but also figuring out how to create a series of books using the concept and building online ways to market the book that hadn’t existed before this change.
Will You Obtain a Contract if You Make the Changes?
Unfortunately, an editor asking for a rewrite can’t deliver a promise that the book will be published should be changes be made. The decision to publish isn’t in the editor’s hands alone. All the editor can do is put together as compelling a case as possible to the publishing committee. And sometimes that means asking writers to give a manuscript a different slant, to start a novel in a place the writer never considered, or to remove sections of a book that the author loved but that kept the manuscript’s theme from shining through in a bright and consistent way.
To Rewrite or Not to Rewrite?
Sometimes an editor wants a book that would be a kissing cousin to the one you created. Sometimes an editor sees one aspect of your manuscript that could be a book in itself–and that happens to be the book the editor wants. And sometimes an editor wants a book that bears so little relation to what you’ve written that both your agent and you are wide-eyed at the prospect.
You don’t need to agree to a rewrite in such situations.
The Publishing Process
Every writer must face the rewrite question over and over again. I describe getting to a contract as a process. Rewriting is part of the process. Just some of us are asked to do it more often than we ever thought possible.
What’s the most challenging rewrite you’ve ever undertaken? Did it end well?
When asked to do a manuscript rewrite, how do you know if you should? Click to tweet.
What questions should you weigh in deciding whether to rewrite your manuscript? Click to tweet.
That I should rewrite this
is really a no-brainer,
for the story became circus
and the lions ate the trainer.
The plot did wander far afield,
lit by a strange and sallow sun,
where milquetoasts found they would not yield
when staring own a gun,
and the tall intended heroes
turned their tails and fled,
pricked by life’s oft-thorny rose,
shocked that, in truth, they bled.
I should rewrite, but here’s the deal:
this is life, and this is real.
Andrew, this cracked me up! Thanks for the laugh after a sobering read.
Susan, I’m so glad you enjoyed it!
Such insight into the process. Thank you, as always, for pulling back the curtain and letting us see more of the writing life, publishing process, and agent client relationship.
You’re so welcome, Lisa. Yup, this is just another part of the journey your agent can walk through with you. We agents generally can tell if an editor’s suggestions add to the project or sidetrack it.
Kristen Joy Wilks
I once cut 33,000 words that I loved out of a YA manuscript and added about 20,000 totally new ones. It made for a far stronger story, which has still not found a home though.
That IS a major rewrite. The good news is that you know the work strengthened the manuscript.
I am on the second do-over on my book-in-progress. The first came when a couple early readers suggested the concept I intended for women could be tweaked to appeal to men too (thanks, Andrew, for your great advice). In the intervening years, God nudged me to keep my writing simple to include Christians who don’t read well. Now I’m in the middle of a second do-over to restate my earlier thoughts using my current voice.
When those first suggestions rolled in, I felt an immediate confirmation from the Spirit. To use your word, Janet, it resonated. The second change evolved slowly, as God brought a couple spiritually-hungry poor readers to our church’s Celebrate Recovery program’. I repeatedly found myself putting concepts into simpler words as part of the CR discussions. What started as short teaching moments became my new signature style.
Love this, Shirlee. Being mold-able feels so much more rewarding than being resistant.
Oh my, I doubt very much I could ever do a complete rewrite of a book. I doubt even more that I would if there was still no guarantee that it would be published. The stories I’ve written have been edited and critiqued as each chapter is written, set aside, re-read, tweaked, re-read and tweaked some more. When I finish that story, it’s finished. Not to say that, if one were actually accepted for publication, I would not consider some editing – that would be foolish and conceited – but rewriting the entire manuscript merely on the hope that it would be accepted? No way. If it needs that much work, it’s obviously not what the publisher (or agent) is looking for.
Star, the scenario you portray is one in which you’re being asked to go against your instincts and rewrite the manuscript into something another person is envisioning. Rewriting does not make sense in such a situation.
But sometimes an agent or an editor sees the bare bones of what the manuscript was meant to be. But it might not be focused sharply enough to appeal to the very audience the writer has in mind. Or, in the case of fiction, the characters aren’t as compelling as they could be. Or the writer started the novel in the wrong place–a place that makes it hard for the reader to enter fully into the story. In those situations and others like them, the feedback enables the writer, who was too close to the work to see structural problems, to recast the manuscript, bringing it to its full potential.
It’s not about taking the book down a new path; it’s enriching the experience of the path the manuscript is already on.
That means, even if the publishing house asking for changes ultimately says no, the manuscript is stronger than ever.
I guess I would see the changes you note as editing, but not complete rewrites. Maybe it’s just semantics. But again, if a publisher said, “We’ll publish if you make these changes”, and I agreed those changes would enhance the story, then of course I’d rewrite. I’m just not sure going through all that without any guarantees would be worthwhile, versus submitting to other publishers and/or working on the next book.
Janet, I’d just read that Amor Towles–author of A Gentleman in Moscow that you recommended last year and I loved–took five years to write his novel and suffered through three complete rewrites. That is encouraging. At my crit group leader’s prodding, I rewrote a critical section. Brainstorming with my family, I stumbled upon something I’d never envisioned for the manuscript. And I’m so grateful. The addition did overshadow the original theme somewhat, but I’m pleased. It’s where it needed to be.
I’m thankful that Towes was willing to rewrite A Gentleman in Moscow. It was such a beautifully told story, and I’m sure much improved as the he reworked it each time.
Thanks for sharing your own experience of revising based on feedback. And for being flexible enough to keenly listen to what others suggest.
I learned from the first time I entered a Genesis contest that my omniscient narrator POV was wrong for today’s market, but a judge who was obviously an agent or editor loved the plot and said they’d ask for a manuscript if it was in 3rd person limited. So I learned what that was, studied hard to learn how to write it, and totally rewrote those three novels. Worth every moment of time I spent because readers love all three of them.
But I also had an editor ask for a full manuscript of a 1925 western thriller that was tightly written and 110K words long. She would have taken it forward if I could edit it to 80K words (their normal imprint limit), but there was no way I could strip more than a quarter of the book out and leave a thriller plot intact. She graciously sent me her marked-up copy, so when I pick it up someday to polish to a high sheen for publishing, I’ll have the benefit of her wisdom. I’m happily indie-publishing my Roman-era novels, but I might someday re-examine that Colorado story and submit to an agent. I’ve learned more as I’ve written each new book, and I’m sure I can edit/rewrite parts to become much better than it is right now. So many good authors are hybrid now, and those I’ve talked with all recommend it.
Carol, thanks for sharing your experiences of choosing to make suggested changes and then, in another situation, realizing you would have to compromise too much of an element you wanted in the manuscript. That shows a willingness to learn but also an awareness of what would be too big of a compromise.
As my critique group is going through my novel, I’m reading their suggestions and realizing there are significant chunks I’m going to have to rewrite. Two years ago, what you’re suggesting, and what they have, would have made me close my computer and put that baby on the shelf forever to sleep. Now, I’m eager to go back and strengthen where it needs.
What a difference time makes as well as learning.