Revising Your Manuscript: Sifting through All That Good Advice

Back in March after I finished the first draft of my WIP, I talked about getting the most out of your beta readers. But what do you do with all their comments and advice? Most especially, what do you do when one person’s feedback conflicts with another?

So far, I’ve had ten lovely people give me feedback on my manuscript. Three more are reading now. With that much feedback, you’re bound to get some comments more than once (and that’s when you should perk up your ears and seriously consider their advice) and you’re bound to get a few things that don’t mesh.

My WIP is really three stories in one. Three protagonists. Three time periods. Lots of connections between the three. Inevitably when you have an ensemble cast, readers will likely gravitate to one character over another. So I’ve had champions for each of these three characters as well as critics for each of them. One reader thinks the book is really about Character A and rushes through the chapters that don’t include her. Another reader can’t stand Character A and knows that the book is really about Character B. Another adores Character C but can’t connect with Character B. And so on. And most readers have ideas about how you could improve the parts of the book they didn’t like as much.

On a smaller scale, you may have different readers mark the same little bit of prose with an underline and a smiley face, or a double strikethrough and a skull and crossbones. A member of one of my writing groups recently had that very experience with a descriptive dialogue tag and was at a loss about how to edit or if she should change it at all.

So what do you do with this conflicting advice?

First and foremost, consider your true audience. What’s your genre? Who is going to gravitate toward this book and snatch it off the shelves? Is the reader who gave you feedback someone who generally reads in your genre? If not, pause a moment to consider whether their advice on this particular problem is coming from a place of ignorance.

That doesn’t mean there’s no point in having them read and comment. After all, my book is geared toward the women’s book club crowd, but male readers (I’ve had four of them) are essential because there as many male characters as there are female. But if one of my male readers advises me to change a female character’s reaction to a situation because he doesn’t think women act that way or doesn’t understand why women act that way, I’m going to give it some serious thought, pat him on the hand, and say, “Nope, a woman really would do that, even if you don’t understand it. Women readers will understand that completely.”

But if the same male reader advises me to change something a male character says or does because he thinks that no man would act that way, then you had better bet I’m listening close and following his advice. In fact, that often makes for better conflict because the male characters aren’t behaving the way I as a female writer would like them to, and so now my characters have to deal with it.

Sometimes advice doesn’t hinge on audience. Sometimes it’s a matter of clarity versus obscurity. I tend to not like to explain things too much in my writing because I resent being talked down to in any area of life (which is why I hate getting my oil changed). I’m intelligent enough; let me figure it out. And if I can’t, let me struggle with it and discuss it with others. I’m sure this has something to do with being an English major.

But not all of my readers will have been English majors. Not everyone is on the lookout for obscure symbolism–or even overt symbolism! So when a beta reader completely misses an important plot point because I was worried about making it too obvious, it’s time to reread from the point of view of someone who hasn’t been thinking about the plot of this book for over a year. Come at it with fresh eyes. The best way to accomplish this is temporal distance–spend time away from your manuscript. Put it away for a month, then reread the notes from your beta readers, then reread your manuscript through the lens of a first-timer.

The side benefit of spending that time away is that any anger or anxiety you felt when reading over the notes that your beta readers sent to you will have dissipated. Items that seemed like a crisis at the time will suddenly seem very doable. Things you bristled at when you first read them will now seem quite sensible. And the task of revision will be at least partially divorced from the task of creation. You’ll accept that this novel you wrote is, in fact, not perfect. And that that’s okay. That it’s all part of a longer process by which you will slowly, slowly chip away the things that are not your story so that you can uncover the thing that is your story.

Above all, when you are considering conflicting advice–or any advice at all for that matter–there is a balance to be struck between being true to yourself and your vision and being faithful to your potential readers. If you’re writing to be published and read, you do need to consider your audience. But remember that you cannot, no matter how hard you try, please everyone. When you change Character A so that Reader A will like them more, Reader B will be furious.

So how do you like Character A? Does she serve the story? Does she evoke some kind of emotion in the reader? Does she struggle and change and mess up? If you’re uncomfortable with Character A, change her. If not, don’t.

Stories that get passed around and talked about are not necessarily the ones where everyone has the same opinion on every element. After all, if everyone thinks the same way on something, there’s really nothing to talk about, is there? So leave us a little complexity, a little controversy, a little mystery. We might be frustrated sometimes as readers, but it’s a sweet frustration indeed.


3 Easy Ways to Get Back into Writing Your Book

Ideally, we would all have time to work regularly on our writing projects, never allowing the fire to cool or the story to get stale. But reality is rarely ideal. It’s reality. It’s busy times at work, kids who need love, meals that need making. Those clothes won’t wash themselves, you know. So we often find ourselves torn away from our works-in-progress for a time and they turn into works-in-the-backs-of-our-minds. Sometimes we wander away from our writing fairly purposefully when we aren’t sure what comes next.

Either way, how do you get back in the groove after an absence? Here are three easy ways…

Reread. If it’s been just a few days, reread the last chapter. If it’s been more than a week or so, read what you have written so far, from the first to the last page, to get yourself not only back into the story, but also to reorient yourself to the flow of the story thus far. It’s more than simply figuring out where to go next. It’s recapturing the flow, the voice, the tension, the characters, the setting. Immerse yourself in it as a first-time reader would and you’ll be propelled forward in the story by the momentum you’ve hopefully built up. Plus you’ll see if what you’ve written thus far still holds up after letting it rest. You can also listen to what you’ve written, which gives the story another dimension altogether.

Outline. After that, see if you can outline what happens in the next few chapters. It helps to have at least a small idea of the road ahead. Just seeing a paragraph of synopsis (which I tend to write before an actual chapter is written) can almost trick you into thinking you’ve already written that chapter and give you a small feeling of accomplishment, which you can then ride into the actual writing of that chapter. Then, when it’s written, you can go back and tweak your synopsis to match what you actually wrote. In this way you are also finishing a chapter-by-chapter synopsis to put into your book proposal later. Two birds, one stone.

Research. Read over any research notes you may have taken to put you back into that world and spark your imagination with possibilities for your characters. If you are writing anything besides contemporary fiction that is set in a city like your own, you need to put yourself back in the right place, the right time period, and the right clothes. You need to pick up those speech patterns you’ve given your characters. You need to reorient yourself to that world, reintroduce yourself to its problems.

Now stop fooling around on the internet and get back to work!

On Writing Well: Enjoying the Process as Much as the Product

For about the past year I’ve been in some nebulous writing space when it comes to my next novel. While I’ve been pounding out short stories each month, I’ve also been furiously scribbling notes in parks, in the car, at restaurants, and at my desk. I’ve been creating massive family trees and designing sets. I’ve been writing scenes and sketching outlines and placing them aside, not quite sure where to go next.

I’m calling this conglomeration of activities the “germination stage” of the new novel. And this past week the germination phase came to a close as I entered the “gathering stage.”


A little bit at a time, I have gathered together what seem like the best of my ideas and put them into a structure I think will work for telling my story, which will span from 1859 to the present, encompassing several generations of a family’s history, but which I have determined I will tell through three separate POV characters. The scope of this novel has created unique structure issues for me (my first novel takes place over a few months and was written entirely from one perspective). The uncertainty about just how to tell the story has stymied my efforts to actually write the thing. So last week I sketched out 30 chapters and essentially outlined the entire novel, something I’ve not done successfully in the past.

In addition to the outline, I’ve gathered scads of images: railroad maps, house plans, photos indicating clothing styles and covering historical events, garden designs and tree profiles, quilt designs and furniture examples, photos indicating mood and available technology. I’ve taped all of these to two pieces of foam board (connected in the middle with packing tape so they fold up and can be made to stand up on the floor or a table). It’s sort of a primitive Pinterest board where I can see everything without accessing the internet (which, generally, one should avoid doing if one wants to get any writing done).


The process of gathering is just as beneficial to me as the actual product. It makes me review everything I’ve been thinking of, makes me order events in my mind, makes me realize where events need to be foreshadowed in earlier chapters, shows me what I need to research. The product itself (the boards) will serve as a road map for my writing and as inspiration when words aren’t coming easy.

Sometimes we have an idea for a story that balloons so much that it’s hard to keep everything straight in our heads and we lose sight of the main thrust of the narrative we want to create. In times like these, going through your own unique process of gathering and ordering your ideas is so useful. Now that I have all of these words and images on my little idea boards, I feel mentally ready to start tackling this project. Everything is there, I just need to breathe life into it.

Have you been avoiding a big writing project because you just didn’t know where to start or how it would all hang together? Perhaps you should try making it more visual. Get it out of your head and into reality and maybe you’ll find the pieces fitting together in ways you hadn’t anticipated.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, since my gathering is done, I need to get on to the next–and most exciting–step: writing a world into being.

Editing Out the Cowbirds

nestLast week my husband, Zach, and I were over at our friends’ house. While our sons tore around the house and our husbands scrutinized slabs of meat on the grill, my friend Kristin told me with a little glint of excitement in her eye that they had a bird’s nest in their juniper near the front door. She knew that I, the consummate animal-lover, would want to see it, so we went down the porch steps to the blessedly quiet outdoors.

Being allergic to juniper, I allowed Kristin to part the boughs and I peered into a small nest that held five eggs: four tiny blue eggs with speckles on one end and one creamy egg with speckles all over.

“You need to get rid of that white egg,” I said.

Kristin looked at me, her face a swirling mixture of puzzlement, suspicion, and intrigue. “Why?”

“It’s a cowbird egg. It’s a parasitic bird. The cowbird chick will be larger than the others and will push them out of the nest or eat all the food and the other babies will starve.”

Now Kristin looked positively flummoxed. “What?!”

“Yes, they lay all their eggs in the nests of other birds. You need to get rid of it.”

After I assured her that the mother bird would not reject the nest if it smelled like human (besides vultures, birds actually have a very poor sense of smell) it was decided that Kristin would fish the offending egg from the nest so that I wouldn’t break out in a hideous and persistent rash, but I would be the one to heartlessly dispose of the egg. I tossed it into the backyard where it could become a tasty treat for a blue jay, crow, or garter snake.

As a child, such an act would have seemed to me to be very harsh, cruel, morally reprehensible. To even squish a bug was a sin to me. But I am an adult and my sensibilities have been hardened by the knowledge that we have plenty of cowbirds in Michigan and if that nest contained the brood of a rarer bird, like a warbler of some sort, the threatened species was the one that warranted my protection.

Not surprisingly, there’s a lesson to be learned here (beyond the avian one).

In our interaction over the nest, Kristin was the writer, I was the editor, the nest was the piece of writing, and the eggs were content.

When we act as writers, we love the piece and everything in it. Then we share it with someone else, looking for critique. When we act as editors, we see a problem the writer does not. We helpfully point it out (hopefully with tact). We explain why it’s bad for the rest of the piece to leave it in there. And then it’s the writer’s job to trust the editor and actually pluck the offending egg out for the greater good. Sometimes the writer needs an extra push here and there, sometimes she needs reassurance that it’s the best course of action, and sometimes she needs the editor to be the bad guy. (“Yeah, I loved that part too, but my editor said it had to go.”)

When you’re writing for eventual publication or public consumption, you can’t go it alone. When we write, we need others to look at our work and identify the cowbird eggs, the parasitic parts that need to be removed so that the good eggs will survive and mature.

Who is editing your work? If you’re thinking of self-publishing, this is an essential component. Yes, self-pubbing is relatively easy and very cheap, and maybe you have an awesome platform to help you market your book and sell lots of copies. But don’t make the mistake of going it alone. Every writer needs an editor. And there are a lot of freelance editors out there.

If you have trouble finding one, let me know. I kill cowbirds for a very reasonable price.


How to Enjoy Writing the Slow-Drip Story

Fence Droplets

Sometimes story comes in a torrent and your fingers have trouble keeping up. This was my experience with the last 20,000 words of my novel A Beautiful Fiction. Sometimes story comes in drips. This is my experience with February’s short story (which, it so happens, I started only a couple weeks in to January). This story is dripping from my brain in a slow but fairly methodical fashion, I manage a paragraph or two every few days. So I suppose it’s a good thing I started early.

What do you do when your story resists being told? Do you rush it, force it out? Do you hold to stringent word count goals and so daily fill up pages with stuff you know you will trash later? Or do you change your writing goals to fit the pace of your inspiration?

If you’re writing on a publisher’s deadline, you may not be able to take a leisurely approach to story creation. You take X number of days to write and fill each day with Y number of words in hopes that you will have Z by the time your work needs to be handed over to an editor. The benefit of this method of writing, of course, is that you are generally more productive, are probably better paid for your work, and you can more quickly move on to the next project/contract/royalty payment. You can get yourself out from under a story that was difficult. You can see the end of the struggle.

If you write as a hobby or are publishing your own work independently, you may allow yourself more leeway. You can let your story out slowly, savor the process a bit more, perhaps. You don’t have to worry so much about those times when the next step your character must take is unclear. You can simply wait for the next drip.

Since I have imposed my own arbitrary deadlines for short story creation this year, and since I’m ahead of the game at the moment, I’m not terribly worried at this point about the slow drip. And I know that once things reach a critical point the stream of words will begin to flow more easily as I come to the end. For the moment, anyway, each drip-drop of a sentence onto the page is satisfying to me. My bucket is about halfway full now–and I feel that the tipping point may be coming soon.

Celebrating Progress, Planning Ahead, and Challenging Yourself

Over this past weekend I finished writing January’s short story. Now the man/fellow writer of the house will read it, give his feedback, help me to catch any errors, and show me how to format it for Amazon. I’m pretty excited that the first story of the year will be “on schedule” such as it is. Makes things so much easier to maintain when you start off with a bang.

I very much enjoyed writing this story, which I’ve retitled to Beneath the Winter Weeds. I can’t say that each story will be set in time during the month in which it is written (and certainly for many stories, it will not matter so much when they happen) but it was a fun challenge to write a story that felt immediate.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERANow then, how am I deciding what to write about when? If I plan for a story to take place during a particular time of year, that is when it will come to life. I know one is in early spring and a couple are set in summer. Beyond that, I know some stories will have female protagonists and some male, and as much as possible I would like to switch back and forth between those so that people don’t feel I write for women exclusively. So both of these elements have helped me arrange my thoughts on which story to put my focus on next.

I have also already mocked up covers for nine of the twelve. For most of these, I have an image and a title and little else in terms of notes on what these stories will be about. I think it will be a fun challenge to approach story creation this way and to see how the title and cover may change as the story develops. For those not yet mocked up, I have particular images I want to capture (all covers will have my own photos on them) but I have to wait until the snow is gone and then go to a couple particular places to take the photos I envision.

Thanks for coming with me on this year-long writing experiment! I hope you’re thinking some creative thoughts of your own. Whether you write novels, short stories, poems, or just in your journal, why not give yourself some creative challenges to have fun with? Try coming up with a title and perhaps an image, then write to that. See what comes out. If you have trouble getting started, try a book like The Pocket Muse or its sequel for some writing prompts.

Happy writing!