Where do you draw the line when it comes to changing your story based on critiques and edits?
A few years back, I shared with my six-year-old granddaughter that my writing instructor wanted me to make drastic changes to one of my picture book stories.
I said, “If I make the changes that she wants me to make, it won’t be my story. . . .”
My granddaughter finished my sentence. “It will be hers.”
At the time, I thought, Wow, this is a no-brainer. Even a six-year-old can see it. I ignored my instincts and changed the story anyway. In this case, I think it might have been for the best. I love the new version. However, things did not go so well for another one of my stories.
I loved this story. It tugged at heartstrings. It was action-filled. And it was technically sound. Then the edits started. I made my first edits based on suggestions from my critique group. The next edits were steered by a professional critique editor’s suggestions. A copy editor made the final edits. For the most part, I was still happy with my story. However, the word count haunted me. It was around 1,000 words. After having “500 words – 500 words – 500 words!” drilled into my head by the writing community, I figured this story didn’t have a chance unless I word-chopped it to pieces. Instead, I left it as is and turned it in for a writing assignment.
My instructor helped me edit the story down to 650 words. I was thrilled until I realized that we had word-chopped the heart out of the story. It was a skeleton of “my” story. I ignored my instincts because I was excited that I finally had a short picture book. After all, that’s what “they” say will sell.
Although my instincts told me something was missing, I trusted that my instructor knew best and ignored my inner voice. I started submitting the story. With each rejection, I ignored my disappointment and instincts. I continued submitting until an editor sent me a rejection with two sentences that helped me see where I had gone wrong.
She wrote, “. . . Also this story does not have enough scenes for a book. It is more of a length for a magazine piece.”
I immediately became defensive. First thinking, I know what I’m doing. Of course, there are enough scenes for a book. I would never submit something so messed up.
Then I found myself speaking aloud to no one, “What! Not enough scenes? You’re crazy!”
I had to prove that crazy editor wrong. I opened my document, studied the scenes and paginated the manuscript. It was a push to get twenty pages out of the manuscript. Now, feeling a bit crazy myself, I did the only thing any self-respecting author would do. I went back to my original, action-filled, heartstring-pulling story. It had 29 pages worth of scenes. It had a tighter beginning. And it was “my” story not “theirs.”
My disappointment and anger at the editor has since transformed to gratefulness. What a great wakeup call.
1. Do not lose your focus on ANY aspect of your story telling. I was so focused on 500-words that I forgot the basic elements of picture book writing.
2. Do not get lazy or overconfident and bypass using a dummy book to test your scenes and pages. Always test the final manuscript before submitting. I had initially tested my manuscript with a dummy book. However, I never realized how drastically it had all changed in the end. If I had tested the final product, I could have saved myself this embarrassment.
3. Do not trust others more than yourself. Even though the story no longer felt like mine, I continued to ignore my instincts. I forced my authentic self to write what I thought they wanted. If you try making changes others have recommended and your instincts tell you it is better for you, follow your authentic path and see where it takes you. However, listen with respect if your instincts scream, “This does not work for me!”
4. Rejections are not all bad.
It took me a long time to get over the embarrassment of submitting something “so messed up.” I had to work hard to make peace with the fact that I presented that manuscript to the agents and editors that were gracious enough to read it. I initially saw these submissions as blown opportunities. Now, I am viewing them as opportunities to learn.
You can bet it will never happen again.
WHAT EVER HAPPENED TO THE STORY?
I put it aside, trusting that I would know when to pick it back up. Recently, I considered what the editor had said about it being better suited for a magazine. I decided to cut even more words from the story and submit it for the 2013 Highlights’ Fiction contest. In addition, it is still there awaiting its return to a touching, action-filled picture book (otherwise known as “my” story).