Wednesday, May 9, 2012

Types of Rewrites

Rewriting and revisions can be a tricky business. The way I see it, there are three basic types of rewrites, each of which makes different demands. These are:

  1. Rewrites to strengthen your work before submission
  2. Rewrites to make your book better fit its chosen market
  3. Rewrites requested by your editor before publication

So how are these types of rewrites similar? And how are they different? Let’s break them down.

Strengthening Your Work Before Submission. Before you ever submit your book, you want to be sure it’s the strongest you can make it. This means evaluating every element of your story, from plot to characterization to the accuracy of your research to where you put that comma on page 47 (that one, there, about halfway down the page…). This is where you slave over every word until you’re completely certain your book is a piece of swamp sludge that no one will ever want to look at for any reason whatsoever because if you see it one more time you might just punch someone in the throat.

Okay, wait, you’re saying. Aren’t I supposed to work on the book until I love it more than my firstborn child? Well, one would think that would make logical sense, but in fact just about every writer I know says their book is ready to go out when they have reached a level of maniacal hatred toward it. I personally wait until I get to the point where I want to rewrite every single word on every single page. Then I send the damn thing out before I end up deleting the entire file.

I have no idea why our creative brains work this way, but it’s pretty common. I think it’s the whole familiarity breeds contempt thing. You second, third, fourth and nine zillionth-guess yourself so many times that you can’t tell what’s good and what’s bad anymore. So keep working until you just can’t stand it anymore, and then start sending stuff out.

In order to stay somewhat objective about this stage, it can be helpful to set up guidelines. A workflow might keep you on track, or a limit to how many revisions you’re allowed to do before you send it out to your chosen publisher. For example, you might say okay, I’m going to make four sweeps through: one for characterization and dialogue, one for plot and exposition, one for language and clarity, and one to hopefully catch all those lingering typos and grammatical errors. Add a bit of time between each sweep, and then promise yourself the book will go out after sweep four regardless of how you feel about it. Chances are, if you’ve given each step concentrated attention, your story’s going to be as good as you can make it by that time. It's also helpful to have someone else read it through, just to reassure you that it's not complete crap, and also to help find things that a reader might stumble over that you don't notice because you have all 100,000 words memorized by now.

Revisions to Better Match a Market. This could be a bit controversial, I suppose. However, marketability is a good goal. If you write genre fiction in particular, it’s essential that your manuscript meet the market expectations. Readers of romance novels expect a certain sequence of events (you can call this a formula, but if you’ve never written a romance it’s WAY harder than you probably think it is). Ditto mystery readers. Some other genres provide a bit more leeway as far as the plot “formula,” but there are still expectations. Your job as a writer is to meet the expectations without becoming completely predictable. It’s a tough line to walk sometimes.

If you think trying to meet a genre’s expectations is selling out, then you might not want to be writing genre books. On the other hand, if you truly feel your book won’t be the book you want if you try to fit it into market expectations, then you might need to look at a different market.

I think it’s important to understand genre expectations before you try to sell a genre book. It’s also important to stay true to your vision for the book. Finding that balance can be tricky, so the decision whether to revise for these reasons is going to be a very personal and individual one. Evaluate each book on its own, and in the end, go with your gut.

Rewrites Requested by Your Editor. This one initially seems like a no-brainer. You sold the book—now do your edits. However, again, I think there’s a certain amount of gut instinct you have to honor even in this situation. If your editor asks for changes that just don’t work for you, or that you feel are contradictory to your vision of the book, then some discussion might be in order.

Now, by “discussion” I don’t mean you should just tell the editor you won’t make the changes. I mean explain the reasons why you don’t want to make those changes and maybe come up with a compromise. If you’re willing to do a little give and take, then your editor most likely will be, too. And editors aren’t always right. I threw down with an author once over a scene I really, really disliked. She told me her readers would be fine with it, and she’d prefer to leave it. We ended up with a bit of a compromise—she made a few changes that made it more palatable to me, but in the end I still didn’t care for it. However, she knew her readers, and the book sold quite well. So I wasn’t really right on that call. Of course, I’ve had back-and-forth with my own editors on various projects, and maybe I was right and maybe I wasn’t, but in the end there have only been a couple of cases where I was really unhappy with elements of the final product. And even in those cases, the majority worked for the finished book. I still grumble, but the readers don’t even know there was ever a problem.

Overall, I think it’s important to have an editor you can communicate well with, and who you trust. (I personally am grateful to have editors who'll put up with me even though I'm a huge pain in the ass sometimes.) It’s also important to be willing to compromise even when you want more than anything to dig in your heels and keep your baby exactly the way it is.