revising, part 5: BIG ONES

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My last revision post…next week is going to be given over to Close Encounters. I think B. H. is going to have a party on her blog so you must come, darlings.

Anyway, Liz asked (ages ago, sorry Liz), did you ever have to go in and do another big revision and if so how did you attack it and why?

So far, I’ve done two really major revisions after what I thought initially was final draft stage. Both were books that I wrote before I was published, and both revisions were done after I’d sold other books, to get the manuscripts to publishable standard. In both cases, I don’t think I could have made the changes I eventually made, before I’d written several other books and had editorial feedback.

DeliciousThe first one was Delicious (aka McAllister’s Baby), which was the second manuscript I ever wrote, and which was rejected twice by Harlequin/Mills & Boon before they’d bought anything of mine. But I loved that book and its characters so I blithely informed my editor at my first lunch with her that for my third M&B novel, I was going to revise Delicious for them. Easy, I thought.

It was tremendously difficult. I’ve blogged about it a lot already, here.

The second major big dammit revision was on Spirit Willing, Flesh Weak. This was the book my agent took me on with and I revised it for her before she sent it out everywhere. It kept on coming back with rejections. Nice rejections, but still…rejections. (On a side note, this is one of the many pros of having an agent–the rejections come a lot more quickly and more personally.) An interesting thing about the rejections was that they all mentioned something that the editors didn’t quite think worked…but those things were different in every case.Spirit Willing Flesh Weak

Usually I think that if several people tell you something specific is wrong, it’s definitely wrong. But if several people tell you that different specific things are wrong, then there’s something wrong overall–and not necessarily with any of those specific things.

Anyway, we decided to leave it, until we heard of this brilliant new romance list, Little Black Dress. My agent had lunch with the editor, and she rang me on a Thursday afternoon. “She wants to see it, but she says it’s too long at 100K words. Can you cut it down to about 70,000, and make sure it’s got a strong focus on the romance? By Monday?”


First I made a game plan. I took a page in my notebook and wrote down the heroine’s conflict. Then, I ruthlessly eliminated everything that did not directly impact on that. There are several scenes in the book where Rosie, a fake psychic, pretends to contact the dead; I changed every one of those so that the fake dead people she contacts somehow reflect her own problems. I cut dialogue whenever possible; I got rid of a prologue I loved and an epilogue I thought I needed; I drastically reduced the role of one of my favourite secondaries. I cut over 20,000 words in one weekend and printed out the manuscript and sent it to my agent, who sold it within about three weeks. Obviously, those 20,000 words had to go.

I could never have done it, I don’t think, without the training of having written for M&B, and the strict focus that category romance requires.

I’m hoping I won’t have such a desperate slash-and-burn session again. But odds are, I will, and probably something more difficult. But that’s this business; you have to be prepared to take a chainsaw to your own work.

What’s been your biggest revision?

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  1. 20K in one weekend??? Phew.

    I had to cut 25K out of Stage by Stage after they’d accepted it, but at least I had a couple of weeks to do it in!

  2. Probably the most recent book. I had to change the heroine’s entire motivation from despising her husband to wanting to stay married to him…um, yeah, LOTS of hard work. But it’s stronger by a landslide. Sometimes when an editor picks just the right tweak, it’s like wearing glasses and suddenly being able to see what’s wrong.

    But you’re right. Without having gone through this before with other books, I wouldn’t have had the nerve to slash and hack as much as I did. I probably cut 50 pages and added the same amount.

  3. Well, I think I’m working on my biggest revision. My editor said the hero and heroine aren’t sympathetic enough (she’s right) and that the plot doesn’t make sense: it starts in one direction, then stops for another plot in the middle, then leaves that and starts up with the first one.

    So, that’s character and plot to be overhauled. Actually it’s not the characters I’m so worried about, I know them well enough that I think I can present them in a different light without changing them very much. But the plot/s? Eep.


  4. Jan, I think the slash ‘n’ burn approach worked quite well for me–at least I didn’t have time to mourn the bits I was getting rid of! Interesting that you had to cut 25K after it was accepted–was it 25K in general, or was it specific parts?

  5. That does sound like lots of work, Michelle. But how brilliant that your editor could see what change had to be made, and that when you followed through, it was a much stronger book.

    I agree that distance and experience really helps. When I’m asked I really recommend new writers write another book or two before overhauling their first or second mss. It helps a lot. I rewrote Delicious fairly soon after its first rejection and that rewrite didn’t deal with the major problems, because I just couldn’t see them yet.

  6. Kate, what’s your battle plan for working on your plot? Do you have any techniques for tackling it, or are you just going to give it some thinking time?

  7. Right now it’s thinking time, Julie. I began a plot chart with what happens, and why, and realised that the second plot isn’t organic to the story, it’s just there to move my characters around and get them into certain situations (situations which are necessary, even if the reasons for being there aren’t).

    What I need is a way to fix that, but I haven’t come up with it yet!

    I’m working on some character fixes to begin with, and hoping that brings on some inspiration.

  8. I’ve just finshed mine and poored blood into it – now for the clean up. As always though your insights help me to see the way through 🙂

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