To Change or Not to Change: That is the Question

During the conference I attended last week, I must have asked thirty people how their editor and agent “pitching” appointments went.

Many of the writers were told to go ahead and submit their full manuscripts. Joy!

Even more, though, had flaws and mistakes pointed out in their summaries and synopses…things that needed to change before the story would be considered.

Constructive Criticism

The flaws included such fixable things as:

  • the manuscript was 20,000 words too short for the genre
  • the manuscript was told from an unworkable POV
  • the plot sagged instead of rising to a recognizable climax
  • the historical setting didn’t sound authentic

Reactions and Responses

What I found most interesting were the writers’ responses to the news that their manuscripts had flaws that needed work.

They included many reactions:

  • Some denied that there was any big need for revision. They decided to ignore the editor’s or agent’s comments. Every writer except one was an unpublished writer too, so I’m not sure what they were basing their denial on.
  • Some writers admitted that the flaw was there–a few had already guessed it–but they took the news so personally that their self-esteem was flattened. They left the conference depressed–not a good state for revising.
  • Some defended their mistake or flaw. One writer who had pitched an idea for a genre that the editor didn’t publish argued that they should! She defended her choice of publisher, claiming that they needed to think outside the box.

The Solution

Yes, it’s hard to hear that your idea needs a major overhaul to be publishable. None of us enjoys hearing that. What’s the answer? Eric Maisel in Fearless Creating says this:

“What are any of us to do? Abandon the work or complete it, learn from the experience, cry, forgive ourselves, and move on…Now dry your eyes. There’s work to be done.”

Yes, it’s true that editors, agents and publishers can be wrong. We love to hear such stories of rejected manuscripts that went on to publication (with no change) and hit bestseller status–even becoming classics.

However, says Nava Atlas in The Literary Ladies Guide to the Writing Life:

“There are certainly many other instances in which writers refuse to take any constructive criticism and cling to the notion that their freshman efforts are brilliant and beyond reproach. This creates a ‘me versus them’ mindset that’s never constructive.”

What if you’re willing to fix your writing mistakes, but you don’t know how? What if you freeze or block at the revision an agent or editor has requested? These words from award-winning Elizabeth George in Write Away might point the way for you:

“Why do [writers] reach sudden dead ends? Why do they become afflicted by the dread writer’s block? I believe it’s because they … don’t have enough craft in their repertoire. Put another way, they have no toolbox to root through to repair a mistake in the house they’re trying to build.”

You may not have the right tools in your toolbox, but you can get them. (Example: if your problem is the story lacking conflict or a climax, study books on plotting until you figure out the problem.)

How About You?

I’m curious. What do YOU do when you get the “fix this” message about your fiction?

Do you have any tips or special survival strategies for this?

[Be sure to read the great tips in the comments section posted by some much-published writers!]

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