The word revision can mean a lot of different things. Maybe your manuscript just needs trimming. Maybe you need to knock down a few walls to provide better flow. Or maybe something more extreme is in order. Think big cranes and earthmovers.
When I finished my middle grade novel, Kate Walden Directs: Night of the Zombie Chickens, it was roughly 41,000 words. I was convinced it was pretty close to perfect, especially after several agents asked to see the full manuscript. That’s when reality set in. They liked it but they wanted changes. Big changes. My knee-jerk reaction was to emit a shrill Ha! and do some serious flouncing. As I stewed and simmered, a nugget of wisdom hit me. Agents know what sells. Their job is to test the strength of plot hooks, to analyze character and voice and conflict. Usually, you have to pay for that kind of professional advice. And, it was mostly good advice. So I started to revise.
One agent wished my story was “a bit longer and more complicated,” and she thought “some of the emotional situations weren't addressed well enough…”
Yes, it’s pretty vague, but I realized she was right. My story needed more… story. I began to hunt for places where I could add conflict. Those boys who tease one of Kate’s schoolmates? They begin teasing Kate too. And her best friend doesn’t just dump her. They have a big fight in the school hallway. I also ramped up the conflict between Kate and her mother. Each new addition gave me chances to have Kate reflect, to feel sorry or sad or vindicated. As I made the story “more complicated,” my main character came more to life.
Then, I reexamined my “emotional situations.” If the plot points are the bricks of a story, then emotion is the mortar. I had a lot of bricks and not enough mortar to hold it all tightly together. I wrote new scenes and more inner dialogue. In all, I added about 13,000 words. I decided my manuscript was ready again.
I resubmitted to three agents, confident that I had done exactly what they wanted, and they would be fighting each other to represent me. Instead, each one found new reasons to decline my manuscript. The agent who wanted more complications did give me one last suggestion. It was along the lines of, chop off your family room, move it to the other side of the house, and glue it back on. It meant substantially reworking my entire plot. My first reaction was to emit a shrill… well, you know. I came around. Bottom line, she was right. It would improve the story. When I finished rebuilding, my manuscript had expanded to around 60,000 words. This is considered long for contemporary MG, but I felt my novel was upper middle grade and, as such, could be a little longer.
Even though the original agents turned it down, their suggestions made it a stronger story and after a fresh round of query letters, I soon got “the call” from my wonderful agent, Catherine Drayton of Inkwell Management. She sold it as part of a two-book deal to Disney Hyperion. Interestingly, my editor liked the longer length. According to her, middle grade readers like longer books these days because they feel “older.”
With the help of good advice, I took a one-story house and added on a new addition, with more rooms and more levels. I flipped it, and it sold. So the next time you receive thoughtful criticism, feel free to emit a shrill “Ha!” Then, take a big step back and evaluate the feedback. Even though your manuscript is finished and you can’t stand the thought of working on it one second longer, ask yourself if the suggestions will make your story stronger. If the answer is yes, grab your construction helmet. It may mean lopping and chopping. It may mean calling in the cranes and undertaking a big build. But in the end, you’ll have a much stronger story with a bedrock foundation and, hopefully, a shiny new contract.