While my current novel is out on submission to agents and editors, I figured I’d dig my other novel out of the drawer and see about revising it again. This is a novel that I shopped around a few years ago. I received some positive responses and suggestions, but never managed to find a home for it. Since there was interest in the project, I tried to revise the manuscript in the hopes of sending it around again. The problem? In messing around with it, I broke it. Completely and totally broke it.
I hear you asking: How does someone break a novel? It’s not like it shatters when you drop it. It’s not like mistakes can’t be fixed with a few keystrokes. Anything that’s done to it can be undone, right? In theory, yes. It should be possible to fix almost anything that’s done to a novel. But I liken what happened to my book to what happens to a toy truck when you play with it over and over again. Eventually, the wheels come off and no fix will ever get it rolling smoothly again. It may roll, but it’s never going to be as good as it was.
That’s not to say that my novel was rolling along perfectly. Obviously it wasn’t since it never sold. That it needed some additional revision became clear during the submission process. The problem was, I tried to shoehorn all of the feedback I received into places where much of the feedback didn’t fit. In the process, I totaled my manuscript and made myself nuts. This was all due to my inexperience on the battlefield of revision and I offer it as a lesson to you.
The mistakes that broke the book were twofold. First, I tried to make the book into something it was never meant to be. I got feedback that said I should emphasize the adventure aspects of the story and minimize the fantasy elements. Yet I never intended it to be an adventure story. It was supposed to be a fantasy. Was there a story I could tell that would up the adventure and minimize the fantasy? Sure, but not in the world I had created and not with those characters. It would have been a totally new book and I didn’t want to write that book. Instead, I tried to preserve what I had yet make the changes. Guess what? I turned it into, at best, a muddled mess. At worst, it was no longer my story and I became less and less interested in telling it. There’s no faster way to kill a book than with disinterest.
Second, I tried to integrate too many conflicting pieces of feedback. Tone down the romance. Add more romance. Make it more realistic. Emphasize the uniqueness of your world. Get rid of a character. That character is a strength of the book. Everyone wanted something different. Not surprising since readers (which is what agents and editors are) all like different things. I tried to cram all of the feedback into my changes and it didn’t work. I was trying to make everyone happy and in the end what I created wouldn’t make anyone happy, including myself. It’s impossible to make two puzzle pieces fit together if they aren’t meant to, unless you’re willing to pound one or both of them into an unrecognizable shape. That’s what happened to my book. I pounded it into an unrecognizable pulp and still nothing fit.
I’m not saying that the feedback-givers were wrong. Feedback is great and it’s good to hear how people think a book can be improved. There is something to learn from all feedback and I would never discourage anyone from giving or receiving constructive criticism. Everyone has their own opinion and it’s up to the writer to take it onboard and decide what to do about it. At the time I was working on this book, I wasn’t able to do that. I thought that my best chance at selling the book was to make everyone happy and to chase the market. In the end I made myself crazy and broke the book.
The way I went about trying to make changes was completely wrong. I needed to learn that some feedback just won’t fit into your plan for the book and that’s okay. I needed to learn that you can’t integrate every piece of feedback into any kind of cohesive work, especially when it’s disparate feedback. You have to choose one path and follow it. I needed to learn that sometimes incorporating feedback may mean starting over with a completely new story. And that you have to decide whether that’s a story that you want to (or can) tell. Most of all, I learned that there is no way to make everyone happy, so do your best to create an excellent book that you can be passionate about because if you’re not passionate about your own book, for sure no one else is going to be.
As for what to do now? I still believe in the story and I think it’s worth trying to salvage it. I’ll go back to the version I submitted and revise again from there. I’ll dump all the versions where I crazily tried to incorporate every piece of feedback into one book. Those are broken and can’t be saved. However, if I go back to what was once good, I might be able to repair it. This time I’ll use the lessons I’ve learned. I’ll make some changes, but only the ones that work for the story I want to tell. In the end it still may not be a great book, but it might finally be the book it should have been all along. In either case, the experience will be educational. And if it doesn’t work and the book never sells? Well, there’s always just starting over on another story.