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July 30, 2015

When Does It Make Sense to Make Big Revisions?

Pile of cookies with text: "Measuring" Revisions with Baking Soda

As I mentioned last time, I’m gearing up for the release of the next novel in my Mythos Legacy series, Pure Sacrifice, coming out August 12th. In my previous post, I alluded to the fact that revisions for this book were difficult. Very difficult.

In truth, revisions are never easy. Unlike just plain edits, which might have us questioning a word, sentence, paragraph, or scene, revisions might have us questioning everything:

  • the characters and their arcs
  • the plot arc and specific events
  • the conflicts and stakes
  • the goals and motivations
  • the story and core premise
  • the themes and messages we’re sending, etc.

Those are big ideas. And big ideas might require big changes.

The Fine Line of Developmental Edits

We are likely to face those kinds of questions when we receive feedback, especially if our developmental editor or beta readers are good. And stress is a normal reaction if we get feedback about those big elements because the changes often seem daunting or require a lot of work.

(Or if we’re neurotic, we could stress even if we don’t get that feedback. I didn’t receive any big-picture suggestions on the third book in the series, which will release this fall, and I freaked out rather than celebrate because I knew—I just knew—something had to be wrong with the story. *smile* Second-opinion editor: Nope. It’s all good.)

As I’ve discussed before, it’s not enough to rely on just copy editing. Jefferson Smith’s Immerse or Die study of story openings found that only 25% of the “strikes” that get him to close a book fall under copy editing.

Readers are just as likely (if not more likely) to hate a story for a plot hole or a Too Stupid To Live character as for missing commas or repeated words. So we need to make sure those big-picture issues are being examined.

Yet sometimes the feedback we receive might cause us to wonder if the suggestions are a good idea for our story. If we’re indie published, we can make any decision we think best.

If we’re in the midst of the query process, we might receive a “revise and resubmit” letter. Then we’d have to decide how much work to put into a story the agent or editor might still reject.

Or if we’re traditionally published and under contract, we might face an awkward choice. Our development editor is usually our acquiring editor, so we might feel pressured to make changes we disagree with, and we might doubt ourselves, wondering why they even wanted our story.

Whatever the situation, we might struggle with figuring out when suggestions will actually make our story better or when they’ll only make our story different:

“I’ve seen editors who want to change the premise(!). I’ve seen editors who want to change the tone (from dark to slapstick!). I’ve seen beta readers who want to change the whole plot(!). *sigh*

In all cases, if those changes would make the story closer to the story we intended to write, great! But we shouldn’t change just for the sake of change.”

Sometimes suggestions just tell us how they’d write the book, and that’s not going to help us tell our story. How can we tell the difference? And how can we know which battles we might want to pick when debating our publisher’s editor?

Be Wary of “Baking Soda Changes”

I came across a great post by Ally Carter about the sort of changes stories often go through during a book-to-film adaptation. She compares story chemistry to baking chemistry:

“If a cookie recipe calls for pecans and all you have is walnuts? Fine! If it calls for M&Ms and you’ve got chocolate chips? Well, that might work.

But only a fool would substitute baking soda for baking powder.

Why? Because that changes the chemistry and will throw the whole thing off whack and out of balance.

Good book-to-film adaptations know the difference between Baking Soda Changes and Walnut Changes. They know better than to mess with the chemistry.”

She goes on to explain that what constitutes a Baking Soda Change will be different for each book. For some books, the setting is an essential part of the story, and for some, it’s not. For some stories, removing a subplot won’t affect the main plot, and in others, they’re intricately linked.

She suggests focusing on how the change will affect other aspects of the story and gives examples from Harry Potter:

“”We found a great young actress for Hermione but she doesn’t need braces.”
—Walnut Change

“We decided to set Hogwarts in Ireland instead of Scotland.”
—Walnut Change (an unnecessary change, but a Walnut Change nonetheless)

“We decided to give Harry a spunky kid brother because there was a kid brother in Jurassic World and everyone loves a kid brother.”
—Baking Soda Change”

“Baking Soda” Changes: Not Always Bad

At the very least, Baking Soda Changes are those that affect:

  • what makes a story work
  • the essence of what makes a story feel like ours
  • the character arcs we want to explore
  • the themes or messages that resonate with us

That doesn’t mean every suggestion for a Baking Soda Change is bad. Unlike Ally’s comparison between finished books and movies, our in-process stories might need their chemistry adjusted.

The point is that for Walnut Changes, especially from an acquiring editor, it might not be worth it to argue. Those generally aren’t hills we need to die on. But again, what constitutes a Walnut Change will be different for each story.

On the other hand, with Baking Soda Changes, we want to look closer at whether those changes would bring us closer or further away from the story we want to tell. In other words, when we have to pick our battles, these are the changes to focus on.

Even as an indie author, I make myself justify every suggestion I ignore. So I have these debates in my head to make sure I’ve really analyzed the suggestions versus the affects on the story.

In short, understanding what the Baking Soda Changes are for our story helps us dig into the essence of our story’s elements. And with that understanding, we’ll be better able to make our case about whether the changes make sense for our story.

Case Study: Pure Sacrifice

One of my developmental editors (Jessa Slade of Red Circle Ink) made several Baking Soda Change suggestions for Pure Sacrifice. I wasn’t surprised, as pieces of the story had felt off to me as well.

Her suggestions included major changes to:

  • the worldbuilding,
  • the heroine’s arc, goals, and motivations,
  • the hero’s internal conflict and motivations,
  • the premise of the scenes leading up to the Climax,
  • a few plot events, and
  • the themes.

Huge, right? But…

When I stepped back from the suggestions that I knew wouldn’t work for the story I was trying to tell, I found several ideas among her examples that—although seemingly huge changes—would get me closer to that story essence in my head.

By skimming through each scene, I came up with a two-page list of questions to help me seamlessly patch the changes. The questions focused on what Ally mentioned above—how the changes affected the rest of the story—such as:

  • Why can’t she ABC?
  • How is XYZ supposed to work?
  • Why is he avoiding ABC?
  • What does XYZ mean for ABC?

In short, lots of whys, hows, and what does it means. *smile*

With that list in front of my keyboard, I was able to fix every aspect of the story (and maintain continuity) in one pass. Even better, by really understanding the baking soda elements at play, the changes turned out to be not so huge.

I didn’t delete or add any scenes. I didn’t rewrite any big sections. I didn’t change the main plot events or any turning points.

I changed some dialogue. I changed a lot of motivations and internal thoughts. I changed a few details about the questionable plot events. And I changed a few word choices to focus on different themes and messages.

By no means am I saying this revision was easy. I started out the post (and my last post) admitting that it was difficult.

But this key of understanding the underlying chemistry of the story, along with the two pages of questions to maintain story flow, helped me see how the pieces and parts fit together. In other words, the thinking about how to fix it and all the questions to answer took at least as long as making the actual changes.

After all that, the story is so much better. I addressed every single issue Jessa brought up. And more importantly, it’s so much closer to the story I wanted to tell. The changes didn’t break the chemistry—they fixed it.

There are many ways to approach revisions (one of my guest posters last month even shared a worksheet for her method), and there are many reasons why suggestions may or may not work for us or our story. Perhaps this idea of Baking Soda Changes will help us separate what we want to do from what we don’t and give us guidelines on how to get closer to the story of our imagination. *smile*

Have you ever received revision suggestions that felt wrong? Were you able to point to how it would break your story? How did you handle the situation? Does the analogy of Baking Soda Changes help your understanding? Have you been able to make any Baking Soda Changes work?

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What do you think?

21 Comments on "When Does It Make Sense to Make Big Revisions?"

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Kristen Luciani

Hi Jami! Kudos to you for powering through to make your manuscript as great as possible! And good luck with your upcoming release! I am always panicked to send my manuscripts to my editor and beta readers. Just because I think it’s great doesn’t mean they will! But it’s all part of the process and at the end of the day, I know that the right changes will make a much more compelling story. I won’t lie though…any criticism is a tough pill to swallow, at least at first. 🙂

Deborah Makarios

Oh, this is SO where I am! I think I’ve got a few baking-soda changes to make, and a whole heap of walnuts.
One thing that’s really sticking out to me is that I keep going easy on my Lead – things get better and better, mostly, instead of worse and worse. Apart from how I nearly drown her four times. Maybe I need a bit of variety there…

Davonne Burns
I love the analogy since I bake a lot and understand how adding (or even leaving out) baking soda can affect a recipe. Last year I submitted a synopsis to an editor and she made several suggestions. I agreed with a couple but one in particular I refused to budge on. This wasn’t just a chocolate chip or baking soda issue. It was going from cheesecake to chocolate chip cookies. She wanted me to take out my character’s ‘crossdressing’ completely missing the point that they are genderfluid and as such do not crossdress. Their genderfluidity is a core part of their personality and not something I can just delete. They literally would not be the same person and most of the plot would no longer work and my core message would have been completely lost. This was a major change I could not agree with. However on this same WIP I got to considering the opening chapter and realized I had completely mucked up a major plot point. A very important major plot point that required going in and rewriting whole chapters and had huge implications for the rest of the book. A chocolate chip change. Still cheesecake though. Those changes are mostly made now and the book is so much better and the characters more that much more vibrant and real. It was a ton of work (I still have 6 chapters to go) but it has totally been worth it. The book is so much stronger and as… Read more »
Julie Glover

This couldn’t be more timely since I just dealt with editing notes, round #2, from my agent. I’ve agreed with 90%+ of her changes and easily see how they strengthen my story. However, one suggestion was something I simply didn’t want to do because I felt it took away from my goal. Rather than ignore it altogether, I recognized her change pinpointed an underlying problem I had to deal with in some way. If I didn’t want to use her fix, I had to come up with another path for making that scene work for the reader.

Sometimes, when a beta reader, critique partner, agent, or editor suggests a change, the important takeaway is that there is a problem. How to fix the problem might be negotiable, but if it’s not working on the page, something may need to change.

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[…] Revision is necessary to creating a great story, but sometimes knowing where to begin editing is mind-boggling. James Scott Bell addresses writing paralysis due to over-analysis, and Jami Gold looks at when it makes sense to make big revisions. […]

Serena Yung
Serena Yung
Hey Jami, I meant to comment on this post much earlier, but had too much to do lately! Anyway… Nice way to put it, baking soda vs. walnut changes. Somewhat related to this, I’ve been re-reading some of the long dialogues in my story for fun, but this re-reading could be useful for my future revisions too. Remember my worry about very long dialogue scenes? Well, from what I re-read and to my memory, these long dialogue scenes fall into these main categories: 1) High sexual/ romantic tension, romance or romantic comedy scene 2) Friendship scene that reveals the relationship between certain friends and the personalities and quirks of these friends. 3) An interpersonal conflict scene, e.g. with friends arguing, not over trivial matters, but over matters that could threaten their friendship. (The” hopefully no one will write any Dear John letters” kind of threat!) There are also for instance scenes of conflict between enemies or characters who just dislike each other. 4) Discussion scene on what to do next, or characters trying to make sense of things or guess what’s happening. These discussion scenes often involve more than two people, and the discussions may or may not include interpersonal conflict. Interpersonal conflict includes straight out arguing, insulting, mocking, criticizing, belittling, etc. And these discussion scenes discuss plot-relevant, usually main plot-relevant things. In general, I made a rule for myself to never make a scene exceed 5-6 pages, because the reader’s patience can wear out by that time (or even… Read more »
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[…] already alluded to the editing required by this story, as well as the difficulties I had with finding a cover model, but it all worked out in the end. […]

Dani
Dani

Love the concept of “Baking Soda” changes. I just went through a month of soul-searching to decide if I should essentially swap my main plot and my sub plot, after a year of feedback from readers who don’t believe the character would act based on the main plot. In the end I decided they’re right– just because the concept was my first idea doesn’t mean it’s the best idea for the book. Essentially I think it *needs* baking powder instead of backing soda. It is painful, though, to rework so much of what I had hoped was near completion. Just another reason to not waste time on superficial editing before you’re sure the ‘bones’ are sound.

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[…] When Does It Make Sense to Make Big Revisions? […]

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[…] Jami Gold goldmine of writer’s resources online including When Does It Make Sense to Make Big Revisions? and How to Revise for Structure courtesy of Catherine […]

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[…] mentioned before that I’ve seen too many authors struggle with revisions and think that the answer is to change plot…. Sometimes that will fix whatever is broken, but too often the author doesn’t really […]

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[…] might sound like they’d require big changes, maybe even starting over. But just because a scene isn’t working doesn’t mean we have […]

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