Reasons for a Rewrite: The Ugly Truth

Last week I was privileged to be a guest on Rachelle Gardner’s blog. In my post, “The Revision Decision,” I shared some questions writers might ask themselves before deciding whether or not to perform revisions requested by an agent, using my experience working with Rachelle the past year as an example.

Here’s the final question I posed, along with the answer.

Was I willing to act upon my agent’s advice?

When I received my revision notes, I was in for a shock. Three-quarters of my story stunk. Not that my considerate agent said it in those words. Hers were far more tactful – she loved my writing and she could see the story in there, but I’d have to work hard to bring it out. The ugly truth was that I’d released the story’s tension at the one-quarter mark, and the only real fix was to delete and rewrite 86,000 words. (Can you say too much of a bad thing?)

A friend sent me a message suggesting I blog about “the ugly truth” and the reasons behind the rewrite. I told her I’d have to think about it because it’s embarrassing to admit that I sent a story in need of so much work to a top-notch agent like Rachelle.

I’ve had time to consider my friend’s suggestion, which isn’t the first. A number of my writer pals have expressed interest in hearing the story behind my sadly lacking story. Only a handful have heard the tale, one I made sure they knew was a secret not to be shared with anyoneeven someone offering a tempting amount of chocolate.

Upon reflection, I realized that none of those I took into confidence laughed at me or even snickered. Instead, they sympathized or, in some cases, even empathized. They found hearing how I could end up with my Dream Agent in spite of sending her a less than perfect story both enlightening and encouraging.

I’m going to let you in on the secret, too. And you don’t even have to offer me chocolate.

The Reason for My Rewrite

Lack of conflict – As noted in the quote above, I released the tension one-fourth of the way into my story. What exactly did I do?

I got the couple together too fast and had no real reason to keep them apart for the rest of the story, other than the heroine’s mistaken belief that the hero didn’t really care for her. Despite plenty of evidence to the contrary, she persisted in thinking he had no feelings for her. Can you say clueless heroine?

OK, I can’t let my dear heroine take all the blame. She wasn’t solely responsible for her inability to see what was right in front of her. She had help from a clueless writer—me.

In my defense, I lacked the experience of a seasoned writer. Rachelle was the first publishing professional to see the entire manuscript.

While my longtime critique partner, Anne Barton, had pointed out the same weakness, I was overly attached to my story the way it was and wasn’t yet at a point where I could hear the truth. I recall telling Anne that if I took her suggestion, I’d have to rewrite three-quarter’s of the story. How I wish I’d have heeded her wise counsel. But I wasn’t ready.

When Rachelle delivered the same news, I experienced an Ah-ha! moment. Because of her years spent working as an editor, she was able to explain things in such a way that I got it.

My Reaction to the News

I was mortified.

My brand new agent, one highly respected by many, had offered me representation based on a story that needed tonz of work. When Rachelle called to go over the revision notes she’d prepared for me and told me, with a wonderful blend of candor and compassion, that I needed to rewrite the majority of my story, I panicked.

I was sure Rachelle regretted her offer and wanted to withdraw it. Summoning every ounce of courage I possessed, I actually asked her if she still wanted to work with me even though my story needed so much work.

Reassurances and Reality

Rachelle was quick to assure me that she made the offer based upon my potential. She said there are no perfect stories and that even multi-published authors receive revision notes. Some well-known authors have turned in completed books and been told they wouldn’t work and would have to be rewritten.

I’ll let you in on another secret. Rachelle can look at a manuscript and see more than what’s on the page. In the quote I shared above, she added the words, “she loved my writing and she could see the story in there, but I’d have to work hard to bring it out.”

Those words did two things. One, they made me feel good. And two, they prove my point. Agents don’t represent writers who send them perfect stories, and editors don’t buy perfect stories.

My story needed lots of work, but Rachelle believed I had the ability to turn it into one she could send out on submission. Armed with that knowledge, I plowed into my rewrite determined to show her that her belief in me wasn’t misplaced.

* * *

What I hope you take away from my post today is this: We don’t have to be perfect.

Sometimes I think that message is conveyed, albeit unintentionally. We read posts and craft books telling us all the rules we must follow, how tough it is to make it in this business, and not to submit our work until it shines so brightly an agent or editor will have to don sunglasses in order to read it.

The truth is, our stories need to be something special. They won’t garner attention if they’re not. But special isn’t perfect. Special is a unique blend of craft, voice, and the ability to tell a story that will captivate readers, all of which can be learned over time.

One final secret. As many of you know, Rachelle sold the story I rewrote. What you don’t know is how much I had to learn to reach this point. When I showed the first chapter of my first story to a friend who loves to write, she had a hard time reading it because she couldn’t tell when a character was speaking and ever so gently informed me that using quotation marks around dialogue would help. My writing up to that point had all been non-fiction, and I didn’t have clue how to punctuate dialogue. Yup. I had a lot to learn.

* * *

Have you written a story and learned later that it had a weakness you’d been unable to see?

Have you ever felt paralyzed by the pressure to produce stories that are perfect?

photobucket image by xohotpinkx6

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About Keli Gwyn

I'm an award-winning author of inspirational historical romance smitten with the Victorian Era. I'm currently writing for Harlequin's Love Inspired Historical line of wholesome, faith-filled romances. My debut novel, A Bride Opens Shop in El Dorado, California, was released July 1, 2012. I'm represented by Rachelle Gardner of Book & Such Literary. I live in a Gold Rush-era town at the foot of the majestic Sierras. My favorite places to visit are my fictional worlds, other Gold Country towns and historical museums. When I'm not writing I enjoy taking walks, working out at Curves™ and reading.
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51 Responses to Reasons for a Rewrite: The Ugly Truth

  1. oh my goodness, Keli, I am so thankful for this post. I sent in a manuscript to Rachelle and I’ve been freaking out she wouldn’t like it and call me and say “sorry, I made a mistake, rethinking my representation”. It’s been pulling me down for the last couple weeks.

    You have a great journey to share with us and I’m enjoying every step. Keep ’em coming, lady!

    Hugs!

    • Keli Gwyn says:

      Bonnie, I don’t think we’re alone in our doubts. I have a hunch all writers experience them at times. I hope you receive good news. The nice thing is that no matter what, Rachelle will help you with your story. Even if you have to do some revision as I did, there are benefits. My writing improved dramatically as a result of working under her tutelage.

  2. Wendy says:

    I don’t see how anyone could regret choosing you! I went through similar experiences, except not with an agent. I sent my first novel out (even got a bite on it) but when I go back over it I see that the conflict doesn’t hold. My third novel finaled in a contest and a wonderful author took me under her wing and helped me with line edits. I had some POV issues and a some other things to clear up. It felt great to put in the work and get the author’s feedback once I dug in and made the changes.

    I love knowing I can improve–knowing there’s always more to learn. Keli, you have that attitude. I think that’s why you shine so bright in my eyes.
    ~ Wendy

    • Keli Gwyn says:

      Wendy, working to improve our stories can be rewarding. I like to think of it as a labor of love. What a gift to have mentors, critique partners, and friends who help us see the potential in our stories and encourage us as we make the changes.

  3. Keli, your candid transparency is wonderful. Everyone wants to know there are others out there who are imperfect, make mistakes or may be blind to our issues, whether its writing or real life.

    • Keli Gwyn says:

      Chris, it did this recovering perfectionist good to learn that potential can be recognized and rewarded. While I will strive to produce the best work I can, I’ve learned that I have a Dream Team who will help me improve in areas where I’m weak. Knowing that has gone a long way to reducing the pressure I tend to put on myself.

  4. This is where I am right now. The weaknesses I couldn’t see were pointed out by a kind reader. As soon as her comments sunk into my brain, I could see exactly what she was getting at. Although I’d read similar novel writing standards on blogs, I didn’t recognize these weaknesses in my manuscript until she showed me. Now I need to do some rewriting, and I don’t yet know how much. My time is so limited that I’ll have to take time off from blogging to accomplish this. I’m excited about it and looking for the right strategy. I like blogging now that I’ve started it, but I may have to make some changes. Do you have a difficult time dividing your time, including blogging? You seem to be accomplishing it all. Blessings to you, Keli…

    • Keli Gwyn says:

      Carol Ann, the inability to see our own areas of weakness or those in our stories seems to be a common occurrence among writers. We’re so close to them that we lose perspective. In my case, because I know so much more than what is on the page, I can look at the story and read into it, so to speak. It takes others who don’t have the insider info to spot what’s missing or unclear. I’m grateful for my critique partners who are so good at doing just that.

      I wish you well on your revisions and in your quest to find a schedule that works for you. In upcoming posts I’ll be sharing the process I’m going through as I adjust to the changes in my writing world and the additional demands on my time that entails.

  5. Keli, thank you for this story! I love it when agents and authors write about things like this. It shows me that it’s not about being perfect at the craft or having the absolute best platform, mostly it’s about having a great story and being willing to work hard to make it the best it can be.

    I have written so many stories that I’ve looked back on later and seen mistakes and lack in conflict or motivation. But the great thing is, just like you, I can learn from each and every one of those mistakes and improve. Thanks again for this post!

    • Keli Gwyn says:

      Cindy, as you said, having a great story is the most important variable in a writer’s game plan. Thankfully, it’s one over which we have control. While blogging, social networking, conferences, etc. play a role, the truth is that if there isn’t a well-written, marketable story at the core, one that grabs readers and takes them on an enjoyable journey, our other efforts won’t matter.

      Therefore, choosing to invest time learning craft, honing our voice, and strengthening our plots is a wise decision, especially for those seeking representation. Some of my best lessons have come as a result of correcting “mistakes” I’ve made.

  6. candidkerry says:

    Keli,

    Thank you, again! I adore your transparency. Your honesty reminds other me and writers that we’re always in process – as writers and people. And it’s such a blessing knowing that we don’t have to set the bar to perfection.

    I submitted my book to the CWG contest last fall. Nothing came of it, and I’m mortified to think that anyone actually read it. I cringe now about the draft I sent last year that I thought was nearly perfect because I’ve changed it SO much over the past 15 months.

    THANK you again, so much, for sharing this journey. I’m so grateful! (And I’ll get back to you tonight or tomorrow am about the interview.:)

    Take care,
    Kerry

    • Keli Gwyn says:

      Kerry, many of us send out work we think is ready when in reality it isn’t. As you saw, I sent my brand new agent a story that needed a major overhaul. While I advise newer writers not to submit until they’ve learned the basics of craft and have a story with a strong plot, plenty of conflict, and good pacing, it’s hard to know when that point has been reached. Sometimes the best way to find out how our work compares to that of others is to put it out there to be judged.

      Kudos to you for doing that. Even though you didn’t get the results you might have wanted, I can tell from your comment that you learned a great deal from the experience, lessons you’re using to improve your story. Therefore, entering the contest served as a good stepping stone, wouldn’t you say?

  7. Mary says:

    Keli!!!!!

    I feel so selfish having asked you to do this, but as usual, you responded with grace and truth.

    Thank you!

    I think perhaps I asked because in that one comment –
    “The ugly truth was that I’d released the story’s tension at the one-quarter mark.”

    – I saw myself. I go to great lengths to avoid conflict in real life so filling my stories with sufficient conflict is my Achilles Heel. I like my characters. I don’t want to hurt them. *g*

    Seriously, the conflict is what has me struggling with my story right now. The characters have history and problems, but their conflict doesn’t feel dynamic enough to carry the story. I’m working on it. I’m trying to learn to be mean to them. 😉

    Thank you, thank you, thank you – not only for sharing your story, but for finding a lesson in it that we all can benefit from.

    And kudos to Anne for such a good eye!

    • Keli Gwyn says:

      Mary, thank you for asking the question. As I pondered it, I realized my answer might help someone else, which is something I love to do. You gave me the nudge I needed, and I appreciate it.

      I hear you on not wanting to “hurt” our characters. I dealt with similar feelings. I’ll address the fear of conflict in Wednesday’s post and share some insights that have helped me.

      • Mary says:

        Thanks, Keli. Looking forward to it. We’re expecting an ice storm overnight so I’ll cross my fingers I get a day off to come study with you.
        Thanks again for being so generous with your heart and thoughts.

  8. Thank you for sharing this story! This is so encouraging!

  9. Thanks for this post, Keli! It was just what I needed to read this evening. ~ Over a year ago I sent in a requested proposal (had met the editor at ACFW) and now when I think back on that submission I almost feel *sick* – – TOO much backstory in the first chapter!! But at the time I felt it was necessary for me to mention all those details in the beginning. ~ Now I know better, LOL. But I’ll be the first to admit I still have LOTS to learn! (but I’m loving this writing journey!). ~ Thanks again for sharing your journey with us. Blessings, Patti Jo 🙂

    • Keli Gwyn says:

      Patti Jo, like you, I’ve submitted too soon. It happens. When we look back after we’ve grown as writers and realize what we did, we can indeed feel sick. However, I’ve interviewed many debut authors over at Romance Writers on the Journey who did the same thing and went on to launch successful careers. The important thing is to do what you did: learn from the experience and forge ahead.

      One thing I got out of reading your comment is that your work obviously showed promise. If it didn’t, that editor wouldn’t have requested it. =)

  10. Keli, I’ve learned (the hard way) that one of the things an author has to learn is to make themselves vulnerable and transparent, especially when it comes to admitting their mistakes. I appreciate your doing just that, and sharing it with the rest of us.
    Just remember, “pobody’s nerfect.”

    • Keli Gwyn says:

      Richard, thanks for the encouragement–and the reminder. Our pastor used “pobody’s nerfect” in his sermon a couple of weeks ago, a sermon with a message I needed to hear. I do tend to take myself too seriously, although I’m learning to lighten up.

  11. Lynn says:

    Keli! I went through the exact same thing, not with an agent, but with my editor. I thought I was a pretty good writer until he got hold of my first manuscript and “slashed” it to pieces with his mighty red pen (or in this case computer). Never was I more mortified, but also never more thankful. His remarks and help benefitted me so much! I am a better writer as a result AND the final manuscript was by far a better one than the one I had originally handed in. I am so grateful to those agents and editors (and others) who give good critical advice to me.
    Lynn
    http://www.shootthewounded.org

    • Keli Gwyn says:

      Lynn, I’m sorry you had to endure the agony of the red pen, but I’m glad you took your editor’s remarks so well and ended up grateful for the process you went through. I feel the same way about the revisions I did for my agent and am actually looking forward to the next round(s) with my editor. I want to produce a quality experience for my readers, so I’m all for doing the work needed to improve my story.

  12. Heather says:

    Thanks for sharing this, Keli! You give me hope!

  13. Tom Honea says:

    Keli…
    thanks for sharing that. as a writer searching for first time representation i can say that your points may prevent me ( and others ) from stumbling into the same situation.
    …………………. thanks TEH

  14. T. Anne says:

    Keli, thank you so much for your honesty regarding your story and all you had to learn as far as fiction goes. I see myself in this story as well. I think as writers it’s refreshing to see that humans such as ourselves can get to where you are someday.

    • Keli Gwyn says:

      T. Anne, I’ve no doubt you’ll be contracted very soon. You were, after all, handpicked by one of the best agents in the biz. (Yes, my dear agency mate, I’m biased. =)

  15. I had the same doubts after I received substantial rewrites on my first book contracted. I asked myself why they contracted me if the story was so flawed, but like you, I persevered and learned more than I could have ever imaged. I’m so thankful to agents like Rachelle and editors like mine who are willing to take chances on new writers with a lot to learn.

    • Keli Gwyn says:

      Julie, I look forward to learning heaps as I go through the editorial process with my publisher. I feel certain my book will be even better as a result and that I’ll be happier with it. Was that the case with you?

  16. KachLynda says:

    Keli,

    Thanks so much for sharing your experiences and especially this story with us. Caught up in the snow, ice, and gray of winter, I found it seeping into the WIP the past few days. Your post was a needed ray of sunshine!

    Lynda

    • Keli Gwyn says:

      Lynda, I’m glad I should spread a little literary sunshine. Stay warm! I’d send some of our current California sun and warmth if I could.

  17. Jill says:

    My writing imperfections stare me in the face almost every day. This post makes me want to jump up and down and shout, “My story is special!” Ha, ha. Anybody else (as yet unagented) feel like doing the same?

    • Keli Gwyn says:

      Jill, I suggest printing the words “My story is special!” in 72 point type and hanging that paper in your writing area where you can look up and see it whenever you need a dose of encouragement. Your story is special, just as you are.

  18. Katy McKenna says:

    Keli, Oh, how I relate to this story! AND admire the humble attitude with which you shared it. I am so happy for you that you embraced the changes that would have to be made in order for your story to work, and made the sale! I also submitted a less-than-perfect story to Rachelle, who offered me representation, too. Then we began the hard work of attempting to whip the manuscript into place. It’s possible I just did not have the skills necessary at that time to accomplish what was necessary. At any rate, I tried my best, but the book did not sell. That said, I have moved on, and anticipate a far greater understanding next time around of how to achieve the editorial results required to ready the story for publication. I have to admit there is a level of embarrassment associated with this less-than-optimal outcome that’s been difficult for me to face up to, but such is life. We aren’t exactly born knowing how to write a novel, you know? If I cut myself some slack, I can also give myself permission to put my writing out there again. Many thanks to you!!

    • Keli Gwyn says:

      Katy, you hit on a real truth. None of us are born knowing how to write a novel. It takes time to study craft, to learn to wield our writerly tools with prowess, and to find our unique voices. I still have heaps to learn. Getting a contract might seem like a diploma of sorts, but all of us need to engage in what my teacher hubby calls continuous education.

      I’m sorry your story didn’t find a home, but I feel confident you’ll receive a contract offer. Rachelle believes in you, and she knows her stuff. I wish you all the best as you work on your new story.

  19. Love hearing more of this story! You obviously had some serious craft going on for Rachelle to rep you.

    And *sigh* I’m an incurable perfectionist. It can make it tricky to find that balance between what needs to be done versus what is subjective feedback. I’m sometimes too quick to make a change because one person suggested it, so I’m trying to learn what needs to be changed versus what will bother a particular person regardless.

    • Keli Gwyn says:

      Sarah, I can empathize with your struggles. I’m a recovering perfectionist. For those of us who strive for that perfect manuscript, learning to trust ourselves can be challenging. In our quest to produce the best stories possible, we can find ourselves overly eager to incorporate the suggestions of others.

      The fact that feedback can be subjective is one reason I think it’s a good idea to have at least two critique partners. When mine concur on a particular point, I realize they’ve identified an area that needs work. When only one points something out or they have differing takes, I ask myself if the suggestions resonant with me. I’ve learned that my opinion counts, too.

  20. Awesome post, Keli! If I want my first two novels to ever see the light of day, I’ll definitely have to rewrite them. I had no concept of what a scene was when I wrote them. Or sequel. Or head hopping. I remember when I send the first 15 pages of my second novel into a critique service…I remember secretly thinking they’d send something back along the lines of, “This is brilliant! I have nothing to say. May I recommend you to some agents I know?” HA! What I got back was something like, “You probably shouldn’t hop into the dog’s point of view.” Seriously Keli – I took the reader into the dog’s head at one point. Not joking. Yes. I had a lot to learn. The wonderful thing is that I still do!!

    • Keli Gwyn says:

      Katie, I’ve never attempted to write from a dog’s POV. You’ve got me there. I was, however, in the head of every single person present in the early scenes of my first book. No doubt I’d have been in the dog’s head, too, had there been a dog in the story, though. Ah, the lessons we learn. 🙂

  21. Erin says:

    Wow, Keli– this is such a great post. I’m sure it was hard to write as our work is so personal but I think it will be so beneficial to so many authors who read it. For me, I haven’t had to do significant rewrites on a project (although I’m sure the day is coming) but my editor did have me completely redo an entire chapter on my book. It was chapter 1 and she felt like it set the wrong tone for the book–so so had me toss it and redo it. It was hard at first– but I confess that in hindsight, I ‘m glad it happened. I like the new and improved chaper 1 better!

    • Keli Gwyn says:

      Erin, a wonderful agent (ours), told me I would end up far happier with my story as a result of the hard work I put into my revisions. She was right. I’m looking forward to making it even better as my new editor works with me.

      I’m glad you’re happy with your book. You must be so excited that The Christian Mama’s Guide to Having a Baby will be released soon.

  22. Keli,

    This is one of the most honest, helpful posts on editing and dealing with our writing imperfections that I’ve ever read. Thank you for exposing your story issues so that other writers can grow.

    When I took my first job writing for our local newspaper years ago, a good friend was my editor, and her edits were ruthless. I was stunned, but also realized I could not afford to take any portion of her edits and suggestions personally. I made the decision to learn instead of be offended, and during the 2 1/2 years we wrote together for the newspaper, we both grew tremendously as writers.

    Clearly Rachelle goes above and beyond in helping her clients–you are blessed! (And I can’t wait to read your book!)

    • Keli Gwyn says:

      Julie, thanks for your kind words. Like you, I’ve learned to welcome the feedback of my critique partners and agent. I’ve seen how their input has helped me take my story to a new level.

      Rachelle is amazing! She really knows her stuff and is so supportive of all her clients. We’re blessed, and we know it.

  23. Mary says:

    Excellent post, Keli, and wonderfully encouraging, too. It really resonated with me because I feel that a weakness in my own writing is that I need to ramp up the conflict between the H/H.

    • Keli Gwyn says:

      Mary, being tough on our beloved characters can be hard, can’t it? In an upcoming post, I’ll share the process I went through when I learned that I had to make things difficult for my hero and heroine.

  24. Sue Harrison says:

    The honesty of your post is so encouraging, Keli. I’m in the middle of revising my wip, and sometimes get discouraged at my ineptitude. (Will I ever get it right?) Thank you for arming me with more courage and determination!

    • Keli Gwyn says:

      Sue, I feel for you. Revisions can be grueling. We envision our stories a certain way and do our best to get that image on the page. When we review our efforts and see that we didn’t achieve that goal, doubt and discouragement can set up camp. Our job is to evict the freeloaders, and I think one of the best ways for doing that is going though revisions and watching our stories improve right before our eyes. I wish you well on your revisions.

  25. Jami Gold says:

    Keli,

    I’m a perfectionist and this post was just what I needed to hear. Thank you!

    • Keli Gwyn says:

      Jami, as one perfectionist to another, I want you to repeat after me: “My story will never be perfect, but it is special!” You might even consider printing out a saying one of my friends reminds me of when I’m struggling: “Perfectionism is overrated.”

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