Lessons Learned Through Revision



Last winter I mustered up the courage to query an agent in New York about a novel I’ve been working on. I sent him the first fifty pages of it. It’s a big fat fantasy love story that just so happens to hold the keys to my heart. It’s the biggest thing I’ve ever written – a 150,000 words (550 pages). I wrote it as a gift to myself. After months of suffering from acute writer’s block, I finally decided to write the story I’ve always wanted to write even if it got rejected or wasn’t what people expected of me.

After I was finished with a few rewrites, I moved countries, and filed for divorce. Major life change. Then my current agent said he didn’t do fantasy. I’d have to shop for someone else to represent me. After a bit of thinking and networking, a friend of a friend recommended me to an incredible agent in New York.

At the time, I was suffering from a mild degree of anxiety and depression, moving countries and getting divorced and all … the last thing I wanted was to query a bunch of agents to hear that my novel was not what they were looking for. But as an act of faith, I sent it out to this one agent. Low and behold, he asked to read the full manuscript. (Which in the fiction world, is monumental.)

While I was waiting for him to read it, I told myself, if he thought the book had potential, I’d do whatever he suggested in order to get the thing published. Which is my way of trying to honor the work.

Long story short – I heard back from him a few weeks ago and he loves a lot of things about it. But, he wants me to cut about 40,000 words from the entire book. Oh. My. Gosh.  

I read the email and shoved it aside, completely unable to even fathom cutting that many words from it. The thought of mustering up the energy to do that kind of a revision overwhelmed me. What if I do the revision and he still doesn’t like it? What if I cut the wrong things out? What if I’m wasting my time as a novelist? Perhaps I should go into plumbing. Blah. blah. blah.

Anyways, this is part of what he wrote:

Here’s what I’d suggest before we talk again:  Cut the book.  Be ruthless and excise anything that slows the story’s forward momentum. I don’t think that this novel needs to be much over 100,000 words (~400 pages)  and I think that you’ll be able to see the improvement as you cut.  Look at how the story breaks down into separate acts, look at how each of those develops and then cut to the essential action so that we understand how our primary characters develop and change.  

In an objective sense, he’s spot on. The book has excess that gets in the way of the plot. But subjectively, as the writer, it’s horribly frustrating. How do I cut the very words I’ve bled over? How do I take out whole scenes that mean the world to me? I like my words.

What the agent is trying to help me see is that by cutting things out, I strengthen the real storyline. It’s about me having the guts and grit to recognize that while I might love something, it may not be vital to the story. I need the courage to look at my book and ask myself what it’s really about. What is the theme? What is the plot of the novel? What am I trying to say? Then … with all the chutzpa of Napolean, I need to cut everything out that is superfluous. This the real work of writing a novel. It’s also the real work of living a good and fruitful life.

Suffice it to say, I did nothing for days. I brewed over his email, overwhelmed by how to follow through. Until, I woke up and decided to be brave.

I’ve promised myself I’ll work on it a little bit every day. My plan is to read a chapter, a paragraph, a sentence and decide if it’s vital to the story. If it’s not, I cut it out. I let it go … maybe it’ll fit for another novel at another season in my life. But it’s not for right now. So far, I’ve cut 25,000 words.

The strategy I’m applying for my novel, could also be applied to our lives. It’s difficult to cut the excess, to take a long hard look at what is bearing fruit in our lives, and what is not. It can be scary to let go of parts of our narrative we’ve grown accustomed to, like our inner dialogue of shame and condemnation, or the relationship that bleeds us of our identity and gives nothing back. However, in order to move toward life, to move toward wholeness and a true authentic story that brings us to joy and fullness….Sometimes, the only way to strengthen the heart of the narrative is by letting things go.

Tina Osterhouse
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