Ch-ch-ch-changes: facing the rewrite

Had a long talk with my agent yesterday, and one thing I must say for this woman: she gives good critique. No smoke is blown; she's a realist about the industry, which is probably a healthy balance to my Pollyanna tendencies. I don't come away from these conversations with some pie in the sky notion that I'm going to be the next big thing, but I am left with a realistic expectation of income. Fame is not my objective. Neither is artistic masturbation. My goal is to continue making a living writing books I care about. My agent's goal is to make a living repping books she cares about. So it makes sense for us to have this conversation sooner rather than later, though I was nervous about showing her this rough draft before my critique home girls had cracked their whips over it.

Her surgically correct advice mostly confirmed issues I already knew in my heart I'd have to change. Colleen pointed out to me the other day that this is often the case. You hope you're going to get away with that flabby transition or that hasty bit of backfill (because big name authors get away with it all the time, frankly) but the moment you get called on it, you wonder why you even wanted to. In this case, however, my agent asked for a 180 on a major plot twist to which I'd given a tremendous lot of thought. This isn't a search and replace "Matthew" with "Edgar" kind of change. This is a move all the living room furniture, pull up the carpet, and install hardwood flooring change.

When I get the routine body scans that are part of the follow-up to my cancer treatment, the nurse always hands me two quarts of barium milkshake and brightly says, "Take as long as you need to drink this. But be sure you finish it in 30 minutes."

This felt a lot like that.

The reasons my agent gave for the change are inarguable, and the change will "serve both God and mammon" -- artistic integrity and marketability -- but knowing that doesn't make it easy. (Certainly not as easy as telling Colleen what she should change about her manuscript!)

Facing the rewrite is a process that begins with acceptance. There's a brief grieving for the words and work that will have to be sacrificed in the name of learning -- the so-called darlings that will have to be killed. Then there's the reality check. Exactly how, on a utilitarian level, am I going to make this work without ripping the rug out from under other elements of the story? Then comes the actual work. You have to erect scaffolding, identify and buttress other parts of the book that will be affected. You have to go to the place in the ms, score the passage or the chapter or whatever, and force that cursor up to those little scissors on the tool bar.

It helps to create a "killed darlings" file where you can store this because there might be bits and pieces that come in handy. And so you can pretend you're not actually trashing your golden prose. If you want to resurrect it later, you can. But I gotta tell ya, I always revisit the killed darlings file before I sign off on a ms, and I've never once chosen to reinstate anything from it. Once that dog's been walked, the new version has my total commitment.

Until the next round of rewrites.


For the past few days, I've been filling my "killed darlings" file, too, thanks to your suggestions. It's a real balancing act, as you say, but I'm happy to see a leaner, stronger manuscript emerging.

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