Monday, February 16, 2015

Mouth-to-Mouth Resuscitation (aka Revision) by Joanna Roddy

Photo courtesy: Moving Picture World
Wikimedia Commons

It was just before Christmas two years ago and I was on the phone with my agent...having the conversation everyone dreads.

Back when I first signed with my agency, I knew they wanted a big revision and I was more than willing to do it. I *wanted* someone to tell me what to do next. I was good at being a student--doing my assignments, acing tests, and regurgitating my teacher's ideas--but all this author-ity was kind of unnerving to me. The creative process was so lonely and hard and I had no one to tell me if I was doing it right. So I took my agent's revision notes and treated them like my study guide. When I was done checking off all the boxes, I sent off my manuscript, sick of the thing and glad to be done working on it.

But then my agent let me know that although I had made some good changes, I still wasn't done. The manuscript needed more work. I was honestly a bit lost about what to do. The new revision notes reiterated problems I had tried to fix the first time. I wrote up a sample chapter and asked my agent for some feedback, desperately hoping I was now moving in the right direction. 

And here we were on the phone just a few weeks before Christmas when my to-do list was miles long (and the last thing I wanted to do was take on a major writing project) and she was telling me what I absolutely did NOT want to hear:

This revision wasn't working. Maybe I should take some time off and reassess. Maybe I needed to get a book doctor to work with me. Maybe I should go back and revisit craft. 


So I took some time off, tried not to think about it, and enjoyed the holidays with my family.  

Then I thought hard about what to do next. I was embarrassed and confused and a big part of me wanted to give up--the part of me that didn't know if I had whatever skill it would take to revive my book. 

But after a few months, I swallowed my bruised pride and I started to reach out. I contacted two published authors I know and asked if they'd meet with me to talk about my situation. I shared with them the painful truth and each in their own way offered perspective, advice, and got me thinking about craft in new ways. ON WRITING by Stephen King and Pixar's 22 Rules of Storytelling were game-changers for me.

After these conversations, something shifted inside me. I realized that I had to stop waiting for someone else to tell me how to write my book. I *already knew* what I needed to do to make it what I wanted it to be. I just needed to do it and stop waiting for someone to give me permission. I also needed to roll up my sleeves for some more(!) hard work and stop clinging to my earlier efforts.

I dropped the first five chapters and rewrote the beginning from scratch. I cut characters and scenes. I combined repetitive elements, reordered the plot, and even mashed two major characters together into one. I tied up loose plot ends. I took two-dimensional aspects of the book and examined them from new perspectives until I understood them more deeply. I clarified my point of view. I thought of new plot twists. I simplified unnecessary complications. 

By the time I was done, not a single scene was left untouched, much of the previous draft was discarded, and I'd estimate at least 60% of the manuscript was entirely new. It wasn't so much a revision as a rewrite.

And for the first time, I truly loved my book. It felt right in a way it never had before. 

I sent it off. When my agent and I had that next call, she said words that I almost never thought I'd hear: "Joanna, this is such a huge leap forward! How did you do it?"

Are you stuck? It's pretty likely you already know what you need to do. Keep learning your craft, trust yourself, trust your work, and don't give up.


  1. I can relate to this story all too well.

    Well, not the "having an agent" part, but I had to go through 4 versions of my upcoming novel "GABRIEL" before it was the state my eventual editor saw and sold it around Christmas 2012.

    In my case, there is one scene at the halfway point that my editor wanted me to strengthen, and the thing is I agreed with her, I just couldn't figure out how to do it without slowing the pace I'd set up.

    It's one of those scenes where I have to combat the "suspension of disbelief" thing writers of animal stories often face when we're not being "National Geographic" accurate about everything.

    For months I stalled not knowing what to do. I really didn't know.
    I was able to successfully incorporate all of my editor's previous suggestions that made the book flow so much better, but this one stopped me in my tracks for a LONG time...

    So I took a break from it, even though it felt like running away, I did need to take a step back, and I'm glad I wasn't on a super tight deadline.

    But recently, I finally figured out how to tackle that scene and still keep it moving at the pace I wanted.

    Now I know the middle's the part most writers are more afraid of/struggle to get right, though for me personally it's usually the beginning, but I'll try not to digress after my "editorial" to last week's post about the Caldecott kerfuffle...

    I'm glad you got through your block, Joanna, for me the most painful revisions or rewrites are when I know where I went wrong, but nothing I try seems to fix it, there'd the hardest to overcome.

    But you sure feel "invincible" once you figure it out, you know?

    1. Thanks Taurean! So glad to hear you got over that hurdle. I think the ending is my hardest part. I just reread the 22 Rules of Storytelling and it said something about getting your ending figured out first and I think that's good advice I'll take into my next project. Keep up the good work!

  2. Thanks for sharing this. I appreciate your honesty as I struggle to write and revise "the book" - the one that will get me published, get me an agent....etc. You've reminded me that what I really need to do is buckle down and write the book that will make me proud I am a writer.

    1. You're welcome, Andrea. If it encouraged you, then it was definitely worth it.

  3. Your final lines--"Keep learning your craft, trust yourself, trust your work, and don't give up"--should be emblazoned above every writers desk.

    I have been writing, and then rewriting, and now finally revising (but there's an awful lot of rewriting being done now too) my current ms for the past three years. Last fall, I was ready to throw in the towel and move on to something easier, but I took a few days off, and then came back and realized how much I loved the story (even though it drives me crazy writing it!) and how much toil I had invested in it. I am happy to say that I now feel I am probably a bare month or two away from querying it. Phew!

    1. Huzzah, Michael! I hope these final months of work feel really rewarding and that it comes together for you. I know that you've got the parenting gig going as well, so any forward momentum is a feat. Keep at it!

  4. "Stop clinging to my earlier efforts." That really rings true. I'm applying CPR to a manuscript right now, and I keep stumbling across things that ought not be in this story -- things that should have come out ages ago. I hope I can be as confident with this draft as you were with your rewrite.

    1. Thanks Dianne, I'm glad this resonated. I'm sure your ample experience will allow you to be far more confident than I've ever been!

  5. I LOVE this story - persistence and hard work paying off. Good work!

    1. Thank you for being a key player in this story, Marissa. I'm forever grateful for your good advice and support.

  6. Joanna, kudos to you for not giving up! I can empathize with this process. I got back the first round of developmental edits on my book and had to know what to do to make the story stronger - which meant dipping deep into my writer's toolbox to make it happen (and within a deadline). I think this served me well in having to write book 2 under deadline - I knew what I had to do up front and bring my knowledge to writing that first draft. As an emerging writer years ago I don't think I would have had the know-how to do this.

    I think it's wonderful you didn't give up and attacked your story with new vigor. That's the wonderful thing about writing stories - the beauty truly does come in the revision process through the peeling back of layer after layer to find the gem. And there is always a gem to be found from any story!

    1. Amen, Donna. My story is so much better because of this struggle. Glad to hear a seasoned writer like you can relate.

    2. And no struggle is ever wasted I believe! We definitely learn from the good, and challenging experiences.

      Volunteering to be an intern for a literary agency really helped me improve my writing. While I didn't get paid for my time but it was a huge way to add to my writer's toolbox and those hours were never wasted time. As a first-reader for the agency I deconstructed novels that agents requested from queries. I read them first to see what worked in the story what didn't - and based on that either recommended the book to the agent or didn't. Boy, it helped me see the problems in my own stories real fast!

  7. Great story about how taking a step back can take us many steps forward. Thanks for the tips!

  8. Joanna, I really admire your being able to do this. Hearing that kind of feedback after working so hard can really make you doubt yourself. That you were able to step back and ahead is an amazing accomplishment.


Thanks for adding to the mayhem!