The Makeover of a Lifetime

Posted January 16, 2013

Everybody Loves a Makeover
I LOVE those makeover television shows. Don’t you? I am hooked on all of them—the decorating shows, the house makeovers and even the renovating shows. In fact, I was a fan of This Old House back when none of my girlfriends had ever heard of it, and when Oprah had those makeover shows where she made plain women into gorgeous beauties, well…I was hooked. Recently I had a makeover of my own—a manuscript makeover.
Before I go any further, let me share a bit of my writing journey with you. For as long as I can remember I always wanted to be a writer. I wrote my first novel about fifteen years ago and then began a long, long series of queries which ultimately resulted in enough rejection slips to wallpaper a small room. But rather than discourage me, with each rejection I felt closer to my goal. One in particular, I remember, really gave me courage to keep writing. This agent wrote, ‘I first read your manuscript on a Friday night train ride home and was very excited. After rereading it some weeks later, however, I felt that the manuscript had flaws.’
I know what you’re thinking—yes, this was just another rejection letter, but what all I heard was that a professional agent had been excited when she first read it. And as far as I was concerned, of course she wouldn’t have been as excited after reading it a second time. She already knew what would happen. There were no more surprises, so of course all she would notice were the flaws. I continued writing…and submitting…and being rejected. But eventually I did find an agent and now I have not one, but five books sold—not counting my two self-published novels. The first, “Getting Skinny, will be published in early 2013.
It is with this manuscript that my editor at Carina Press helped me, pointing out the flaws, and there were plenty; weak points in the pot, characters whose roles were unclear, and some writing habits that were just old fashioned. When I got the first round of edits—yes folks, there is more than one—called the content edits, I was floored. What did she mean those scenes did not propel the plot forward? Some of them were among my favorite. I couldn’t just cut them out. And—what!—get rid of that character? But so many scenes revolved around her.
After thinking about these points for a day or two, I came up with solutions. If I changed the character in question to an antagonist, I would still have to rewrite many of the scenes, but at least I wouldn’t have to chuck out large portions of the book. Also, I found a way to tie in those great scenes that she had pointed out as unnecessary and make them an integral part of the story. For the next few weeks I rewrote and then sent the new version down. I didn’t have to wait very long until she wrote back with another series of rewrites, this time, what she called line edits. These consisted mainly of chopping out unnecessary words or changing a sentence here or there. But she also mentioned that she was thrilled with the changes I’d made so far. Yay!
Here’s the thing, originally I probably felt like many of those before-and-after subjects—a bit miffed that somebody thought my story could be improved. Much as I hate to admit it, she was so, so right. Those editors sure know what they’re talking about. After the second round of edits, (I expect there will be a third, just to make sure every little thing was caught before going to print) I can tell that my fun little novel has been improved beyond belief. I found myself rereading sections of it and thinking, wow, this is good. This is really good. I didn’t know I could write so well.
So… what were those tips she gave me that helped so much?

1. Get rid of chunks of back story. Instead integrate it by little bits throughout the novel, only when it’s necessary. That way the story gets to the action much sooner.
2. Get rid of as many ‘he said’ and ‘she said’ as you can. The dialogue will flow more smoothly.
3. Go through your manuscript and pluck out the word “that” wherever you can. Your writing will sound better. For example, change “she was certain that I would follow,” to “she was certain I would follow.”
The moral of this is it’s easy for us writers to get down on ourselves and our writing. (Did you notice I didn’t have a ‘that’ between ‘this is’ and ‘it’s’?) A rejection letter often feels worse than a bad date. What we must remember is that it doesn’t mean we are without talent. Our writing—our voice just needs to be tweaked. We must work at it and nurture it until it shines, until we are ready for our after shot.

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