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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15 thoughts on “Lessons Learned Through Revision

  1. “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.” You got me right there, Tina. I’ve been thinking lately how there’s part of my story that I keep retelling and while it will always hold a major part in who I am, I don’t need to keep that front and center. I need to grow to more. Thank you and good luck with your editing. You can do this because you love it enough to let parts go.

    • Yes, we need to grow to more. I love how you’ve put that. So so good.

      Thank you for the encouragement! I’m going to keep at it.

      Much Love,


  2. Congrats to you for having the courage and self-confidence to continue through the difficult process of finding agents! I know completely what that’s like – the difference is that after spending months writing something, I would just give up if the first ten agents I sent it to didn’t like it. That was in my early twenties and I gave up on writing altogether. Now in my early to mid thirties, I am returning to it, and trying to build the confidence to do exactly what you’re doing! Thank you for the encouragement!! Good luck!!!

  3. “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.” Sometimes it’s even harder to let go of the good things that feed the identity we want to have but shouldn’t be looking to for life. Thanks for this Tina!

  4. I love this parallel between life and editing – so true! Thanks for having the courage to cut all the excess and inspiring your readers to do the same!

  5. I needed to hear this today! Both for my writing and for my life. I’m hanging on to words and stuff and activities that are just getting in the way of my real life story. I just finished hacking up a post that means a lot to me so it could fit under the 1000 word limit of Huffington Post submissions. I cut ruthlessly and hit submit before I could chicken out.
    I love how you pointed out the courage required to cut out what isn’t necessary. Thank you for being brave! You inspire me to do likewise!

    • I do the same thing, I sort of close my eyes and… hit …send!

      It was so nice to hear from you. I will look for your article with Huffington.


  6. Tina, I love this. So very true — to writing and to life. I love that you are being brave and cutting words and that you have such an attentive agent to lead you through. I cannot wait to read it.

  7. Tina, wonderful word. I’m struggling with some emotional surgery and removing and cutting right now. It’s hard. So hard. And it’s hard to remember that it will be okay. I’m trying, but it’s a breath-by-breath process.
    Thank you for sharing from your heart. Your transparency encourages me.

  8. I just got done working on cutting words for an article I want to submit here and it was so hard. This is serendipity or a God thing depending on your point of view!

  9. “Sometimes, the only way to strengthen the heart of the narrative is by letting things go.” As hard as this is to do, it is what is needed in our writing and in our lives. It’s really hard, but in the end our story has more power. So glad I read this today. It is very inspiring and encouraging. Blessings to you, Tina!

  10. I’m living this one. Not the book writing part (yet) but the recognition that I have to cut out some good things to move on to great things. For me, it’s going in a whole different direction than I thought. God gives us things for certain seasons sometime and then we’re asked to move on. I forget that. This is a good reminder! Thank you.

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