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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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I may owe an awful lot of authors an apology. Then again, I may not.

To elaborate: I have been querying my novel for several months, with no results to speak of. I’ve tried everything I can. I’ve reworked my query so many times I’ve lost count, alternately emphasizing the male lead, the family unit as a whole, and, most recently, the female lead. Related to that, I’ve reworked my opening, creating a new first chapter from the female lead’s POV, based on the reality that female protagonists in YA fiction are so much the norm as to be pretty much a requirement.

Still, nothing has gotten me anywhere. Okay, maybe my book sucks. But according to pretty much everyone who has seen my query (and I don’t just mean friends, but people who don’t know me from Adam, or Eve), the query is solid, and it sounds like an interesting book. They give me small pointers about how to fix up this or that, but it’s always attached to some disclaimer about how they’re nit-picking, and really it looks good to go. So why do I continue to fail? I am left with one answer, and I now realize I’m going to have to face the elephant in the room: my wordcount.

To put it simply, it’s too high. I’ve been querying with a length of slightly over 100,000 words. Not bad, right? Especially for science fiction, which tends to run longer because of the world building involved. Well, not really. There’s no clear consensus, and a fair amount of outright contradiction, when experts are asked about maximum wordcounts, but overall, a first time author simply cannot have a high one. For YA fiction the range is pretty flexible, but generally seems to run between 55,000 and 80,000 at the very outside. More than that and you take a risk.

As I’ve commented more than once, agents get an unmanageable number of queries and they have to thin them out. One easy way is with wordcount. They look at the number and, if it’s high, they decide they simply don’t want to expend the time. Generally, they assume this is someone who doesn’t know how to edit. And longer books are harder to sell: they require more resources and take up more shelf space without a commensurate return. Sure, there are doorstopper YA books out there, such as the later Harry Potter books. But that’s the key, they were later. By that point the Potter series was such an unprecedented success the author could do whatever the hell she wanted. First time authors rarely have that luxury.

True, there have been exceptions. The very successful Divergent is over 100,000, as is Twilight. But it should be noted that both of those came out some years back, meaning they were probably queried several years prior. In other words, before the YA explosion that has made it so very hard for anyone to break through today. And they were, let’s be clear, exceptions. There will always be exceptions to the rule. But it’s a very bad idea to expect to be the exception. Rather, one must plan on being the rule. Sadly, that’s where I am.

It’s frustrating to see fiercely mediocre books like Divergent and Graceling finding success while I languish. But that’s the way it is. I don’t know the whole story. It’s entirely possible their authors had contacts, knew someone in publishing that gave them an “in.” Hell, that’s the only way I’ve gotten anyone to look at my manuscript so far, so I have no right to complain. But faced with the reality of my lack of success, it’s time to tackle the very likely problem. I simply have to trim my wordcount.

So that’s what I’ve been doing. I started in a very angry state of mind and set about to cut everything out that’s not plot and action. I cut out virtually all the setting detail, and most of the quiet character moments. I trimmed the main romance to the bare minimum, and eliminated another romance entirely, including one of the involved characters. I tossed everything that didn’t directly forward the main plot. And, while I was at it, I removed all the sexual content and nudity, even though I got positive feedback on my handling of it.

I’m not finished stitching the remains together, but I must confess that, with a distinct mixture of dismay and surprise, what I have left with… works. It’s a tighter, cleaner story, that doesn’t get bogged down in slow moments that don’t go anywhere, even if it’s a lyrical moment to watch the sunset, or a quiet conversation between the two leads as they dance around the mutual attraction neither is yet aware of.

What I am left with was a story that moves from one action scene to another, with an ongoing sense of tension. A story that lacks anything that makes it distinctly mine. A story largely indistinguishable from all the others out there. Hence, my apology. Specifically, I owe those fiercely mediocre authors I complain about an apology. I rant about how these hacks get a book deal while my literary masterpiece gets no traction. But perhaps my ire is misplaced.

It may well be that these authors started out with books that were every bit as rich and complex as I’d like to think mine was. And, in the process of getting them published, the authors had to cut and hack and slash and remove all of those things to get something that could sell. Something familiar, that an agent could immediately grasp and, more importantly, turn around and easily pitch to a film studio. Perhaps these authors aren’t hacks, they just had to compromise their vision to break into a hack industry. Just as I am doing.

Then again, I may also be too forgiving. The deficiencies that I’ve seen in these YA books may not just come from having to compromise. First, I will point out that there are more than a few YA books out there with prose that is weak, overwrought or just plain bad. That’s intrinsic to the writer. But I’ve also read books with hackneyed plot contrivances, underdeveloped characters and gaping plot holes. I am not alone in these objections. Many of these books have gotten less-than-stellar reviews, and many YA fans complain about how prevalent these problems are. I fear I may now be guilty of some of these things because of the cuts I’ve made, sequences where we get to know the characters and their relationships develop organically. I’ve cut that in order to meet the needed wordcount. I’ve been forced to turn my book into the sort of book I would condemn if written by someone else.

Sour grapes on my part, right? Not entirely. Because my story has, to a great extent, improved. I went in and cut out everything I could, and discovered that a lot of it really wasn’t needed. In many places, it’s much better, and I would not have discovered that without the damned wordcount issue. Now, perhaps I’m overreacting; wouldn’t be the first time. Maybe I don’t need to cut it this savagely. I haven’t ruled out bringing things back. But I won’t go backwards. Rather, if I decide to return something I cut, I’ll put it in fresh. I’ve already done that once, restoring a key scene between the romantic leads. But I put it back in a different point in the story, much further along, and it works much better. It’s where it always should have been, but I just couldn’t see it. I compare this to a book like Graceling, which runs over 100,000 words, yet has thin, undeveloped characters, a long journey during which nothing happens, a nearly non-existent antagonist whose defeat is anti-climactic, and what may be the ickiest sex scene I’ve yet read in the YA genre.  Length cannot improve what wasn’t very good to begin with.

So I continue forward, with a slightly more sympathetic view of other writers. And it’s worth noting that this article had been cut down substantially from its original form. Judicious editing is always appropriate. But I’m still saddened that these improvements I am making are being driven by a publishing industry that no longer has the patience for a complex story that develops at a leisurely pace, and takes a number of turns and sidetrips on the way. My book includes a journey, and that’s where I made the most cuts. I get to the destination faster, but at the cost of some delightful, yet ultimately unimportant moments. When there’s gain, there’s also loss. That’s just the way it is.

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