QueryTracker Blog

Helping Authors Find Literary Agents

Monday, February 7, 2011


The Bookends weblog, written by literary agent Jessica Faust, recently addressed revision requests, and how some authors ruin their own books with rushed revisions.

Based on my experience both at the tutoring center and in critique groups, I have to say she's nailed the problem. When you finally get the attention of someone with suggestions to perfect your work, especially when you know there's a problem, the first thing any writer wants to do is revise, revise, revise!

But are they the right suggestions? And even more importantly, do you understand the suggestions? Can you frame the problem?

Because until you understand the scope of the problem, you won't know if the suggested changes will be the best possible fix. Even worse, you're not going to know if by following directions you've fixed the problem.

Taking every suggested change without understanding why is a condition I call "thrashing."

You'll see it most often on writer forums where you can post for critique. A writer posts five pages of material or a query and says, "What do you think?"  Four people come back with five different opinions, and the writer turns around the changes in an hour, posting the new material with, "Now what?"

Invariably the piece is now a mess, the new material unevenly woven into the old, the text jumpy where old material has been cut, and the meaning unfocused. New comments come in, and an hour later there's another revision for us all to digest, and it's still got the same problems, just in different places.

Imagine you post your query to the QueryTracker forums for feedback, and four of the people who reply tell you it's too long. You remove parts of the query and post it again. Now people tell you there isn't enough of the story there. You put back some of the original stuff, and again you hear it's too long, but at the same time people also say the story isn't clear.

It kills me to see a writer churn out thirteen drafts of a query letter, losing the good parts and retaining the bad, working like the dickens to turn the query inside out only to show no improvement. Is the problem with the novel or with the query? Or should the writer just take a week off and start over only after she wakes up one morning saying, "Oh, I see now! This is what went wrong!"

When you're doing a lot of work but making no progress, that's thrashing. And thrashing is frustrating.

That frustration is a sign to STOP. Stop, stop, just stop. Take a deep breath. Stop, put it away, and think about something else. All those agents you're on fire to query today will still be queryable tomorrow. If they quit agenting tomorrow, well, it didn't matter if you queried them today anyway. Stop until you get the scope of the problem rather than making blind changes hoping you stumble on the perfect formula.

If you have posted six versions of the query letter in two days, STOP.

If you find yourself undoing your edits in subsequent revisions, STOP.

If everyone's saying the same things every time they critique but you're not sure why, STOP.

If people who faithfully commented at first have ceased commenting, STOP. You're thrashing.

A few posts ago, Mary suggested putting your revision letter in the freezer for a few days. I'm going to go further and say not to make any revisions whatsoever (to your query, to your book) until you understand what the problem is.

Changes made rapid-fire without knowing why are only thrashing. Nothing good comes of thrashing. Settle down. Take a deep breath. Put the manuscript or the query aside and write something else. Re-read all the suggestions and try to whittle them down to what the real problem is. Only then will you know whether the suggested changes actually address it. If you don't know why you're making the change, you'll end up with the equivalent of a patchwork quilt, lots of visible seams and no discernible pattern. Even worse: the original problem will still be there.

Jane Lebak is the author of The Guardian (Thomas Nelson, 1994), Seven Archangels: Annihilation (Double-Edged Publishing, 2008) and The Boys Upstairs (MuseItUp, 2010). At Seven Angels, Four Kids, One Family, she blogs about what happens when a distracted daydreamer and a gamer geek attempt to raise four children. She is represented by the clever Roseanne Wells of the Marianne Strong Literary Agency.


Victoria Dixon said...

Been there. Done this. So frustrating, but you're right. The best thing to do is leave it for a week or so.

Michael G-G said...

Very wise advice. Thank you.

Hard Boiled Mysti said...

It's very important to remember that while critiquers know when *something* is wrong, they may not know exactly what is wrong, and really may not know why it is wrong. Always take comments as a symptom, not a diagnosis. This is one of the things that you learn to do as a writer, analyze the responses.

Danyelle said...

Very good advice, Jane. :) Trying to please everybody only ends up in pleasing no one. Great reminder to take a deep breath and sit back first.

Deb Salisbury said...

Alas, it's so easy to thrash about - and not realize you're doing it until you've written five or ten versions.

Great post!

Marsha Sigman said...

Thrashing...oh yeah been there, done that.

Paul West said...

Excellent advice. I've found myself caught up in that "thrashing" room.

G said...

Did a little of that with my latest project.

Fortunately, after putting it aside for awhile, and after getting a little clarification as to why the comments were made, I was able to fix without losing the flow.

Stina Lindenblatt said...

One thing I find with thrashing is that you end up losing your voice. You're trying so hard to get everyone's suggestions in (and quickly) that you forget the most important thing of all. Until someone reminds you have you have to go back and edit it again. :P