Monday, April 26, 2010

The Realities of Revisions by Keli Gwyn

The Rockville 8 Welcomes Three time Golden Heart finalist Keli Gwyn to its blog! We hope you find her thoughts about revisions as insightful as we did! ~R8
I’ve joked recently that I’m not a writer but a re-writer, one who spends much of her time in Revision Land.

Why is that?

I received representation from my Dream Agent, Rachelle Gardner, in December. (That was my best Christmas present ever!) During the call, she told me she loved the story but said, “It needs some revision.” I assured her I was fine with that. And I am.

Years ago, I worked as an assistant editor for a small textbook publishing company. I saw firsthand how much work goes into getting a book ready for publication. Our in-house writers would produce a rough draft, but that was just the beginning. Several rounds of revisions followed before I received the manuscript for copyediting.

Six weeks after talking with Rachelle, I received my Revision Notes. Even with my background in publishing, I was unprepared. She was compassionate but direct when she told me about a major plot problem that would require me to rewrite nearly three-quarters of the story.

“Yikes! How could I have been so blind?” I asked myself. A full week passed as I came to grips with the fact that I had a huge task ahead of me. I knew from the outset that Rachelle was right. Before becoming an agent, she was an editor who worked with some big name authors in my genre, and I trust her. However, I needed to accept the reality of revisions.

I’m currently rewriting this story—for the third time. My first two revisions were self-directed. This time I’m blessed to have Rachelle’s guidance.

When I finish, will I have a story ready for submission? Rachelle says that’s not likely. I may have to go through one or two more rounds of revisions with her, which will be followed by more once the book is contracted. She said I’m at the crucial point where many writers make it—or not. How well we handle revisions is critical to our success.

I’ve accepted the fact that while writing a first draft is fun, much of the time I’ll be busy working on revisions. Thus, I call myself a re-writer.

What Revisions Are Not

Revisions aren’t line edits (sometimes referred to as copy edits). Repetition of words, POV shifts, items that don’t make sense/need clarification, time-line consistencies, etc. will be examined in the line edit stage. An editor will see if house style issues need to be addressed. I think of this as looking at a garden patch. Are the rows straight? Are the identifying signs in place?

Revisions aren’t copy edits (sometimes called proofreading). Grammar, punctuation, spelling, typos, etc. will be examined in this final editing pass along with other details such as fact-checking and verifying consistent spelling of words and names. This is the nitty-gritty, get-down-on-your-knees view of the garden where we get our hands dirty pulling weeds.

What Revisions Are

Revisions can also be called Macro Edits, Substantive Edits, Structural Edits, Content Edits, or Developmental Edits. This is the big picture look. In this case, the garden would be viewed from the top of a hill so a person takes it all in at once.

Major issues are examined in the revision stage:

Character development
Plot structure
Story arcs

Often, the fixes require a significant amount of rewriting, which is why some people use the terms revisions and rewrites interchangeably.

Facing the Realities of Revisions

I won’t sugarcoat the truth. Revisions require hard work. We may have to make judicious use of the delete key. Cutting words we worked hard to produce can be painful. We may be forced to make sweeping changes such as eliminating entire scenes, chapters, subplots, or—gasp—even beloved secondary characters. Or we may be asked to add some.

One of the best ways to prepare for dealing with Revision Notes from an agent or editor is to subject our work to constructive criticism beforehand. Contests are one way to get objective feedback. Working with critique partners is another. A third option would be to hire a freelance editor. Any of these will help us learn to receive comments with an open mind, determine which are helpful, and act on those we believe will improve our stories.

In my experience, and that of other novelists I know, once we have our Revision Notes, we’re pretty much on our own. My agent isn’t holding my hand through my rewrite. She conveyed what she saw as weaknesses in my four-page, single-spaced Revision Notes. My job is to use her input as a guide while I rewrite my story. She wants to see what I can do.

Rachelle offered some encouragement as I grappled with the enormity of the task before me. She said published authors go through revisions the same as unpublished ones. I’m sure you’ve heard many novelists talk about working on their revisions. Have you heard any say they didn’t have to do revisions? I did. Once. A novelist posted on Twitter her amazement that she’d turned in her manuscript and found out her editor didn’t ask for a single change. She then added that this was her 80th book.

The Rewards of Revisions

Dealing with revisions is a major part of a writer’s job. If we learn to face them with a good dose of reality and as much objectivity as we can muster, we can prove to the publishing professionals that we have what it takes to succeed in this business. In addition, we’ll improve our work, sell better stories, and gain that all-important readership.

Revision Stories?

Have you received Revision Notes? If so, how did you react initially? Did you see things differently after some time passed?

If you’ve yet to receive Revision Notes, how do you go about getting feedback on your work?

What’s been the toughest—but most helpful—advice you’ve received?


Keli Gwyn writes inspirational historical romance and is represented by Rachelle Gardner of WordServe Literary. Keli was a double Golden Heart® finalist in 2008 and is a current finalist as well. She and her husband live in the heart of California’s Gold Country in a small town at the base of the majestic Sierras. When not writing, she enjoys taking walks, attending Toastmasters, eating at Taco Bell, and dreaming of her next Coach handbag.


  1. Excellent advice, Keli. Writing IS all about revising, isn't it? Thanks for helping me see it in a new light. And thanks for hanging out with the Rockville 8, today!

  2. Keli - I had a horrible, horrible boss once who ended up giving me the best piece of advice I've ever had: Everybody needs an editor. I completely agree with the concept that writing is re-writing. While I haven't had Revision Notes as yet, I do hope I can check my ego at the door and "get to getting" when they come my way.

    And heck, if I can write one sentence I've fallen in love with - I can write another, right? :)

  3. Yes, what a great post! Thanks for all the inside information. I love how you divide the topic into what revision is and what it is not--those macro changes are the harder ones to identify and change. This is extremely helpful for those of us still aspiring for the agent and the call.

    Thanks, Keli.

  4. Keli,
    You say it all so well. I love that feeling that the book is getting better and better -- not that I love revisions while I am doing them. Afterwards though, I always feel that I am further than I could ever have gone on my own. It's amazing what a few thoughtful words can do to spur creative thought. I often know there is a problem, but it takes my editor to give me the tools to fix it.


  5. Nichole, my Pixie pal, thanks for the warm welcome. Writing definitely is about revising in my book. Since I've been learning that lesson, I find that it's easier to give my OC-perfectionist self permission to slap a first draft on the page, knowing I can make it far better once I return in revision mode.

  6. Keely, thanks again for inviting me to be a guest on your lovely blog. I'm honored.

    I like the advice your boss gave you: "Everyone needs an editor." Having worked in a publishing house, albeit a small one, I know editors really are nice people who want the very best for a book, and thus for the author. Any suggestions I made were for the sole purpose of improving the work so it was the best it could be. I wanted to see the author succeed and the book to sell well. I'm sure the comments I gave hurt at times, but I was happy to explain why I made them if an author wanted to know. I really was on their side. I intend to remember this when I'm on the other side of an editor's desk. :)

  7. Candy, I'm glad you found the post helpful. I'm learning about the revision process firsthand, having never been though it myself before. Since I was a copy editor when I worked for the publishing company, I didn't participate in the macro edit stage. By the time I saw a piece of work, it was nearly ready for publication. I was the last set of eyes. Making the big sweeping changes required in revisions can be a bit daunting the first time, but I'm grateful to have such a knowledgeable and experienced agent guiding me through the process.

  8. Keli, I think you've nailed this subject. I've been in RWA for 10 years and I heard over and over again that editors/agents ask for revisions and see how fast you can get them back--almost a test, if you will, on how we as an author react and how fast/well we succeed with those changes.

    I think it's very hard to remember that writing is a craft, but publishing is truly a business. When asked for changes, you have to believe in what you've written and take a hard look on HOW you wrote it.


  9. Lavinia, hello to another of my Pixie pals. It is rewarding to watch our work improve as we implement a publishing professional's input, isn't it? And I hear you about it not being easy. Nathan Bransford said on his April 13, 2010 post, "If writing is always fun you may be doing it wrong." I took that to heart. Sometimes writing--or revising--can be very hard work. However, the benefits are sooo worth it. I certainly don't want to sell a mediocre book. Therefore, I welcome the guidance of those in the know.

  10. Angi, you certainly know far more about revisions than I do, being a soon-to-be published author with Hill Country Holdup due out this fall. How extensive were your revisions? Did you have to do more than one round before you moved on to line edits? What were the most valuable lessons you learned from your time in Revision Land?

  11. Thank you for the revisions road map, Keli. I'm about to embark on a new round for my WIP.
    And huge congratulations on landing your dream agent and guide!

  12. Jane, thanks for the congrats. Every time I think about opening the email from Rachelle in which she said she wanted to "discuss the possibility of representation," I get excited all over again.

    I wish you well on your revisions and hope the process isn't too painful. I've shared more about mine on my personal blog. Here's a link to one of the posts that goes into greater detail than I did here: Revisions: Plotting Along. The one prior to this outlines what was in my Revision Notes.

  13. Great post, Keli! I'm a non-fiction writer/editor by trade, and I keep wondering how I'll face that revision letter. Will I be a dream author? Or will I be like a doctor and be a TERRIBLE patient? I admire your calm in the face of all that work.

  14. Jessica, thanks for dropping by. As an editor, I'm sure you understand how important it is to have our work seen by a professional. Another set of eyes is vital. I cringe when I think of the glaring weakness my agent picked up right away, one I'd been blind to. I lacked the objectivity Rachelle has.

    My experience in publishing helped me realize the pros really do know what they're talking about. Not that I count myself among their number, but my time on the other side of the desk did drive home the fact that all work can be improved, so I was prepared for feedback. And thanks for saying I sound calm. The passage of time has tempered me. I was shell-shocked for the better part of a week after I got my Notes.

  15. Excellent post, Keli! It's so true that writing is REwriting!

  16. Keli -- thank you for guest-blogging! And for going so indepth with the revision process. I agree with Candy that the macro-level revisions are the hardest ones to see. Congratulations on landing your dream agent!

  17. Laura, thanks for heading over here from my blog. I appreciate you taking the time, and I appreciate your kind words.

    Yvonne, I hear you and Candy on the Macro Revision being tough. I get the details. It's the BIG picture that can elude me at times. However, after revising/rewriting this story so many times, I have a hunch the lessons I'm learning are going to stick.

  18. Keli, that was a very informative post. Thanks for sharing!

    I only joined a critique group last year so it wasn't until recently that I've really dealt with feedback that pushed me toward revisions. I just revised a manuscript that I thought was fine but when I got feedback from critique partners I realized a severe lack in character motivation. It was the first time I've ever really revised something I've written and it was hard.

    However, it was good for me. I believe it will help me continue to prepare for when I have to do this for an agent or publisher.

  19. Oh Keli, I am so glad you explained the difference between line edits, copy edits, and Macro Edits! I have wondered how the differed and you explained it so well! I guess most of us do the line and copy edits until we get feedback from crit groups and contests suggesting we need deep revisions. Thanks so much for the clarification!

  20. Cindy, thanks for coming over from my personal blog. It's great to see you here.

    I admire you for seeking feedback from your CPs and for using it to revise your story. Although it was tough, I'm glad you see the benefits. A big one is, as you mentioned, preparation for the day you're revising for your agent and editor.

  21. Sherrinda, I'm glad you found the post helpful. I would agree that revisions tend to follow feedback from others. We writers are so close to our stories it can be hard for us to see major weaknesses, whereas others can point them out.

    Now that both my CP and I have received our first sets of Revision Notes, we've agreed to do a macro read for each other as the first step in our critique process. After the revision is complete, we do a more detailed read. This multiple step approach serves us well.

  22. WOw Keli, I didn't realize you were doing all that. Rachelle must see something really special and talented in you to represent you even with revisions. Which there is!!!:)) I know the end result will be awesome and you will be so pleased you persevered.

  23. Terri, thanks for visiting me here at The Rockville 8. And thanks for your kind words.

    Rachelle has years of experience as an editor, and she brings that background and expertise to her work as an agent. I'm honored she chose to represent me even though I needed to perform a major revision of my story. Believe me, I'm doing all I can to produce something she's happy with. I know people like the beginning of the story since it's fared so well on the Contest Circuit, and that helps. What I'm doing now is making sure the rest of the story measures up.

  24. There is a lot of great information here, Keli. I completely rewrote a book last fall because I'd received good advice in a rejection letter from another book and decided to apply it. I'm thankful for expert advice, even if it means more work.

  25. Kelli - thank you so much for so much wonderful advice. As an unpub, I seek out well written articles like this and either bookmark or print it out. I think I'll do both in this case.

  26. Jill, thanks for coming over to read my post. I think it's admirable that you rewrote your story based on good advice you received in a rejection letter. If an editor takes the time to share the reasons for a pass, it's because he or she saw promise. Since editors are extremely busy people, such a letter is a gift. I hope your hard work is rewarded.

  27. Debra, I'm glad you feel the information is helpful. I wish you well in your writing and hope it's not long before you're revising for your agent or editor.

  28. Great post, Keli! I loved the anecdote you shared about the author who tweeted she didn't have any revisions . . . on her 80th book. Wow!

    I also really liked what Lavinia said: "Afterward, I always feel that I am further than I could ever have gone on my own." I feel that way too.

  29. All good advice. Revisions are anything but easy. When I was a young lawyer at the firm, I had no idea that God was preparing me to write a book -- by putting me through the meat grinder. I can still remember those red pen edits on EVERYTHING I wrote. It made writing a book much less painful! Sometimes the reward show up years and years later........

  30. Anne, thanks for taking time from your busy day and your own revisions to visit me here and leave a comment. You are the bestest CP ever!!

    Susan, it's amazing how our early experiences often come into play, isn't it? When I worked at the publishing house, I looked longingly at the writers in their special office and wished I was one. Now, here I am with my Dream Agent and more wonderful writer friends than I could ever have imagined. Wow! I'm glad those lessons from your superiors' red pens prepared you for revisions, even though they had to hurt at the time.

  31. Wonderful post, Keli. I loved your distinctions between what it is and what it isn't. Wnen I read my critique partners' work, I can easily slide into the "what it isn't" mode, but not so easily the other. I am definitly "look at the trees not the wood" kinda gal.
    As I am writing, being a pantzer and not a planner, I am constantly aware of what I have to hack out as my story lines shift and change here and there. I wonder, though, what I will feel like if I am told that a character has to be hacked, not just a scene. (my precious scene! my precious secondary! my precious dialogue!)But if my goal is not to hoard my preciousness, but to get published, then I have to learn from the likes of you and Lavinia and others who are going through the macro edits that the editors pen is to build a better book.
    Good luck with the GH!

  32. Marjanna, like you, I have to remind myself not to lapse into copy edit mode when I'm doing a macro read for someone. Since I'm a diva of details, the temptation to do so is great.

    I didn't touch on it in this post, but one of the biggest lessons I've learned as a result of my revisions is the need to plan a story before I write it. I spent four years as a pantser, but I've converted to plotter. Having to delete so much of my story and start over was so painful that I realized there had to be a better way. I put a link to a post about my process in a comment above. (April 26 @ 11:14 a.m.)

    Learning to let go of my tight grasp on my story and welcome the input of others has been a process. Because of my background, I find it easier to trust publishing pros than I might have otherwise. I saw writers' work improve greatly because of changes they made based on the suggestions of editors and our publisher. I know those giving me advice on how to improve can help me take my stories to a higher level.

  33. Great thoughts, Keli! This is so funny - today, for the first time, I dared to fantasize that my editor would say "no changes" in her first editorial letter. Fantasize being the operative word.

  34. Coming from a film background I'm come to embrace revisions because I see them as the real secret to effective story telling. It's like reducing a sauce in a just gets more fragrant, more flavorful and more powerful. Once you start cutting, then you slowly see the face of the statue emerge from the block of stone.

  35. I am in the middle of (I hope!) a self-directed rewrite to fix some of those things you outlined in this post. Your thoughts could not have come at a better time. Thank you.

  36. Rosslyn, that's a great fantasy, isn't it? If that ever happened to me, I have to read the email umpteen times to believe it--that and have my eyes examined. :)

  37. Michael, great analogies. I had to cut 2,000 words from the first quarter of my book. I had no idea what to remove, since I was convinced it was as tight as I could make it. Not so. I took a scalpel to it, analyzed every word, and ended up with something far better.

  38. Lisa, I'm glad you found the information helpful. I wish you well on your rewrite and admire you for undertaking it. I trust that even though the process can be painful you will be happier with your manuscript as a result.

  39. 80 books, huh? Is that all it takes? ;)

    Well then, 80 books here I come.

    Great insights, Keli. Thanks.
    ~ Wendy

  40. Wendy, here's to your 80 books! I don't know if I've got that many in me. That author got started when she was much younger than I am. :)

  41. Keli, thanks for explaining exactly what revisions are. You gave us a peek but it's still hard for me to imagine doing that to my manuscript.
    Not that I wouldn't or don't want to (trust me, if it makes the story better or will make it sell, I'm in!) but the sheer magnitude of it all is just...I don't even have a word. LOL
    I'm still in awe of your awesome attitude and hope I can be as positive and persevering. :-) Great post!

  42. Jessie, the thought of major revisions can be daunting, overwhelming, or even a bit scary at first, but once some time has passed they can actually be--dare I say it?--fun. OK, well maybe that's a stretch. Not everyone loves editing as much as OC detail-oriented me, but the process of going through revisions can be rewarding. There's a certain thrill in watching your work get better and realizing you have more ability and creativity than you thought. And I know you have heaps!!

  43. What an informative post Keli! I'm fascinated to hear how revisions work after you acquire an agent. I'm heading into revisions for one of my new WIP's and I can't wait. I love remolding and reworking until the novel sings to me.

  44. Thanks for stopping by, T. Anne. Hearing your excitement about your revisions excites me. I understand your enthusiasm. Revisions can be fun. As we reshape our stories, we can see them getting better before our eyes, which is quite rewarding. I love the image of your revised novels singing to you. I hope your revisions go well and that the end result is a chorus of your characters bursting into song.

  45. I thought I'd post an update. After eight months of work on the revisions, I pressed "send" with a trembling finger and zapped the manuscript to my agent. Wonder of wonders, she liked it! In October I prepared my first proposal package and Rachelle sent my story out on submission.

    We received a few passes right away, and then things got quiet. In this case, quiet can be a good thing. It was for us. We received two offers, and on December 7th I accepted one.

    My debut novel, A Bride Opens Shop in El Dorado, California, will be released by Barbour Publishing on July 1, 2012. And yes, I'm quite excited.

    A final note: revisions might be tough, but they are worth the hard work. My story is proof!