Wednesday, May 21, 2014

A Bad Case of Revisionitis

I'm all for polishing the heck out of your manuscript. The perfect-first-draft-writing author is as rare as a non-cute sloth (no? Have you SEEN this book??).

But when is enough enough?

I hear this question a lot: how do I know when my manuscript is ready for submission? Or, I sit across from a writer at a conference who tells me he/she has been working on his/her novel...for three years.

It's hard to put a definitive time frame on revisions; some masterpieces DO take years to write! But, at some do have to start getting it out there into the world, because you won't learn half as much from a revision as you will from writing a new book.

Starting something new isn't giving up. It's unlikely you're going to forget about that old manuscript - you can always go back later and give it a face-lift! But why spend time going over and over one when you could be out the door faster with another?

Which brings us back to the question: when IS enough enough?

While I can't tell you for sure, here are a few guidelines:

1. You've been revising the manuscript for over two years, sending it back and forth to the same people over and over again who keep suggesting things to tweak

  • Red flag! You may be too close to the manuscript. Sure, you could send it to some fresh eyes, but the best thing to do is likely going to be starting a new book and coming back to this one later.

2. You've been out on submission/shopping the same manuscript for several years in a row with no takers. Maybe some great critiques and R&Rs, but no bites.

  • Red flag! It could really just not be working. Maybe the hook isn't good enough, or the timing is all wrong for the genre. Whatever the reason...don't just keep on tweaking the SAME manuscript to send back out there. Start something new and come back to that one later if you love it!

3. You've been alternating pulling out several old manuscripts which you run through again and re-submit

  • Red flag!  You have to be career-smart; even if you get a contract for a have to keep writing to make a career out of it! So regardless of whether or not you love a're going to HAVE to keep writing and love another! You can't fall back on the same book or books for an entire career.

4. You've been sending the manuscript around to critique partners and friends for fresh reads for months now, and each time, they have something new and different to fix

  • Red flag! Writing is subjective. There's always going to be ONE THING you would or could have done differently in a manuscript. But part of your craft as a writer is figuring out what the BEST vision is for the manuscript. You don't have to please or listen to everyone.

You may have noticed that I made a point here not to say "give up on the manuscript." That's because it is still possible for an older manuscript to sell. But you're doing your career a disservice to only focus on one work over and over again; even if you do come back to a manuscript, keep writing and growing.

Of course, when you do start something new, do pay attention to the edits you received from your last book.

I can tell you, as an editorial agent, if I take on a client with potential who needs some work, I'm willing to put in the effort to revise the heck out of your manuscript...but after three books in, if that client is still at the same level, I'm going to get tired. I want to see you learning from edits and growing as a writer.

I'm not saying one more book in you'll be Pulitzer-Prize-winning level. But the more you write, the more you cure your revisionitis and get to brainstorming!


  1. So much love for this post!

    It's so difficult to know when to shelve something (be it permanent shelving, or just for the time being shelving) and when to start sending out the next thing.And I'm always working on something else. Some new project. I write constantly because that's what makes me happiest, but I also look at it as learning.

    So many times well meaning people have either counseled me to not write on anything new while I'm submitting. Or not shelve something because it's 'getting interest'. But while I'm writing, I'm learning. If I get rejections with tons of feedback, I stop writing and assimilate all the feedback on that project, but then I get back to writing. And if all the 'interest' never materializes into an offer, then that interest is no more valuable than flat rejections (unless theres useful feedback involved) and the manuscript obviously isn't 'working' for whatever reason, so I need to move on.

  2. I've already posted on reading rejections for critique (if everyone is all over the place stay on course, if objection consistent, fix it) but you also have to read the market and "gatekeeper fad index", as it were. A few years back, I came up with the personal memoir of the original medieval 12th Century prince who was the basis of all the Prince Charming tales of later centuries. Historical mockumentary for the Intermediate market, which initially got an enthusiastic reception from a major NY agency. Unfortunately, the agent was new and on the bottom of the pecking order, and the latest word then (and now, really) was "no teenage boy ever goes unpunished", meaning that if our 12th Century prince didn't have any of the fashionable ankle restraints boys nowadays are required to wear (cancer, mad cow disease, Serious Life Lessons About Grief & Loss) the project was a no-go, and what kids might actually want to read didn't even enter into it. (Although looking back, the fact that the historical Sleeping Beauty the kid accidentally stumbled across had a serious allergy to garlic and sunlight might have had something to do with it) So, OK, humor and irony are threatening, doubly so when an unpunished boy's the perpetrator. Into the vault it goes, out comes something with a heroically dangerous female. A too dangerous and expensive for a lot of gatehouse budgets, from the feedback I've been getting, but it's only a matter of time, whereas Prince Charming was last seen managing a Taco Bell in Van Nuys, CA., along with a few dystopian heroines who didn't quite make the last wave... All part of the business. Kevin A. Lewis

  3. I recently started a new book to give another a rest from strenuous revisions, and the decision felt right for me. Then a number of other writers scolded me for not sticking with the first until I'm ready to send it in the mail, because surely the second will confuse me with the first, and on and on. (They aren't even in a series.) Your post just confirmed my own feelings, and I like it so much I am sharing it on Facebook. Thanks!

  4. Thanks for this post. It was just what I needed to hear and it was very helpful. Lots of good advice!

  5. Dear Natalie: Starting out with a 30 page short story, which expanded into the first in a series of middle grade novels (300 pages), has been the most inspirational experience of my writing life, though at times I've felt like a seamstress. Adding and then taking in material; working toward a seamless garment with the expertise of my editor and then trying it on at writers' conferences has provided an invaluable experience.
    I wouldn't have done it differently, but if I were possessed of a magical eye that could anticipate market changes and qualifications (my series is Magic Realism and may include a carrier pigeon) I might not have had to make so many changes.
    Your blog is illuminating as is your beautiful website. As an artist, as well as a writer, I do appreciate your sensibility. Thanks, Ellen Ziegler,