Scorched Earth Revision

“It became necessary to destroy the book in order to save it.”

Okay, that paraphrase of an infamous justification for a Vietnam war atrocity might seem a bit over the top, but, when it comes to writing, there’s a bit of truth in it. Sometimes it really is necessary.

You finished your novel, written, revised, edited, polished, beta feedback, everything you’re supposed to do. But you aren’t done. Some people can dash out a book and have it take off, but inevitably they have other things going for them: a great bio, or a really strong pre-established fan-base, or maybe just the greatest resource of all, knowing somebody in the publishing industry. If you don’t have those things, you have very little chance of getting published. You wrote a book, but so did everyone else. Seriously, the second most popular search on line is “how to publish a book,” second only to “teen sex.” I’m not kidding. So yours can’t simply be good, it has to be great. It has to be beyond great. If you aren’t getting any response, it may be time to start over. I don’t mean writing a new book. Except, I sort of do. It will look like the book you already wrote, but it will be new. You’ll have to destroy your book in order to save it.

That’s what I have done and, although I now need to resume (or really, start over) querying, I think the book I have now is much better than the one I was trying to sell six months ago. So here’s what it takes.

First, you will need to make major cuts. Cuts to the bone. I did this because my word count was way too high, but, frankly, this still works even if your word count is good. In fact, being in a good place with word count is an advantage, but for the moment, you can’t have the luxury of thinking in those terms. You have to cut and cut. To do that productively, you need to hate your book. Really, it will help if you are coming from a very angry, frustrated place. Granted, that’s my normal mode, so it was easy for me, but you can do it, because you are going to have to cut things that you won’t want to.

First, identify the main, central plot line. The book in a single sentence. I hope you can do this, because, if not, you have bigger issues to deal with. Let’s take a huge, complex book as an example: The Lord of the Rings. What’s the main central plot line? “Frodo journeys into Mordor and throws the Ring into the fire.” Beyond reductive, right? But this is important, because it’s the edge of your scalpel. Figure out the main line and start going through your book. Start at the beginning and, as you go through, cut out everything that isn’t directly on that plot line. All of it. All the detail. All the character moments. All the subplots. All the digressions. It doesn’t matter how much you like them, or how they are what really makes the book good. Get rid of it all. But there’s a catch. Keep notes of what you cut. That’s going to be vital.

Now, before you freak out, I agree with you that you are cutting everything that makes your book good, and distinct, and yours. But here’s the thing: as you go through this, you need to be saving the document, and you need to do it with a new name. The old stuff isn’t really gone, and that’s important. But leave that for now. Continue to cut. This is where anger helps, because you are going on a rampage through your book, and if you can take a certain perverse glee, it helps keep you going.

This process may take some time. I tend to be an all-or-nothing-much kind of guy, so I knocked it out in a couple of days. The thing is to keep at it and not look back. When you are done, with luck, you’ve lost at least a third of the book. Now, step away. Breathe. Then look at what you’ve got. Terrible. A shell of a story.

Step two: remember those notes you kept? Go through them. Look at the cuts you made, and decide why. Revise your notes. Seriously. Write it up into an analysis that will likely be several pages long. Write out what you did, and why. “Lost the whole interlude at the tavern. It was funny, but the humor didn’t really go anywhere and this way the characters get into the wilderness faster, keeping up the tension.” Something like that.

Once you’ve written up a solid analysis of your cuts, it’s time to take a break. This is where a good beta reader or crit partner will help. Send your notes to a couple of people who know your story well. Ask for their response. Ask them to tell you the things where they disagree, where they think you cut something you really needed, and also the cuts that made them say, “Thank God he finally got rid of that!” I color-coded my notes, using green to indicate the things that I was hoping to keep, red for the things that I was confident would be gone unless I got a sold argument otherwise, and black for everything else where I was indifferent. I’m not sure that was a good idea, because the beta reader who was able to get back to me basically said, “You seem to have your mind made up so I won’t address that.”

But the point is, get someone else to react to what you have done. You need readers who will make the time to help you, and I acknowledge those can be hard to come by. And it will take time, so, while you wait, you need to perform restorative surgery. This may well be the hardest part. You still have the foundation of the story, but with huge missing chunks there will be enormous problems with transitions and continuity and structure. You need to take what you are left with and make it a readable (if not especially good) story. This will take a while. I spent nearly a week, working on and off. It’s hard because doing this feels like closing the door on everything you cut. Don’t worry. There’s one more part to this.

By now, hopefully, your reader(s) have gotten back to you. Look over their responses, see how they line up with your own instincts. Figure out what’s gone for good, then look at what you want to keep. Time to bring it back, one bit at a time. But it’s not simply a matter of undoing a cut. You will need to take the cut material and work it into the new version of the manuscript. It is essentially like adding a new scene. Make the restoration work in the new structure. That may mean putting the scene in an entirely different place than it originally was (I did that in at least three cases). It may mean the cast of characters changes, or the context is different. But add the “new” material, and then go through and make whatever adjustments are needed elsewhere to maintain continuity.

Look again at your cut list. Decide what else you really need back. If you don’t really need it, leave it. This will be the most labor-intensive part of the whole process, and, if that discourages you from doing more than absolutely essential, so much the better. What’s happening is that, by making all these cuts, you made your story as tight as it could possibly be, much more so than if you tried to tighten while keeping everything intact. Adding material into an already tight story has forced you to keep it tight. You have also probably been forced to make choices you should have made in the first place, organizing events more clearly than they played out when you were making it up as you wrote.

And finally, you are done. Step back, take a look at your much tighter, stronger, cleaner story. Now you can start querying.

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