Last year, I was querying a YA fantasy. It’s the third story I’ve ever queried (and the second I’ve queried seriously), and it was going more or less like the last one had: a small handful of full requests that ultimately resulted in passes.
And then I got a revise and resubmit.
It was awesome! And harrowing! And wonderful! And scary! R&Rs are an absolute roller coaster. Your book has a lot of potential. The agent can see a market for it. That’s an agent, telling you yes, maybe, to your face! Holy moly!
Except your book still has some major flaws. In fact, as it is now, the agent won’t consider it. So as much as it sounds like a “yes,” they’re actually rejecting you. They’re just leaving the door open for you to make some changes and try again. And then they might want to represent your story. Or they might not! There’s no guarantee.
Is an R&R exciting? Heck yeah! It’s the best response I’ve gotten so far! But it’s also incredibly stressful–and a lot of work.
So here’s what I had to do.
First thing’s first: did I even want to do this?
As exciting as it is to get an R&R, it’s important to decide if you want to make the changes the agent asked you to.
You might not. The agent has a clear idea of what book they think will sell. That opinion is valuable–they are an expert–but few things in publishing are objective fact. One agent might fiercely believe you have to remove a plotline or change your main character; another agent might think differently. By the time you start getting R&Rs, you’re rarely talking about straightforward “right” and “wrong” issues like “Your MG story shouldn’t be 250,000 words long,” and far more situations where professionals may disagree. So it’s up to you to decide if the agent’s vision for your story is something you agree with.
In my case, the agent had three major suggestions:
- The protagonist’s motivation was hazy. My protagonist is an obsessive scribe with a bad case of anxiety, whose single-minded focus on discovering the secret of an ancient civilization drives the story. I relied on her being obsessive to the point that I didn’t get that deep into her head–she did stuff because she was obsessed. That’s it. She just was.
- The protagonist’s best friend was not a fully fleshed-out character. Meanwhile, the protagonist had a best friend who was essentially there to be her conscience. When she decided to do something insane, he would tell her, “You know this could ruin your life, right…?” (She mostly ignored him. Because she was obsessed.) He supported her the entire story (mostly), but had little other purpose outside of being the Voice of Reason. Because this character was a sort of fairy-style familiar, the agent suggested just removing him entirely or turning him into an intelligent but non-speaking animal familiar.
- The secondary characters weren’t as fleshed out as they could be. They were light on personality and background.
So, uh. The characterization had some issues.
The agent gave me some awesome, detailed suggestions about how they’d suggest addressing these issues. And I agreed with all of them–the main character did need work. Her friend needed work. The secondary characters needed work. The only thing I was on the fence about was removing the best friend. Removing him was straightforward (if extremely difficult), but keeping him in, and making him a full character, would require adding thousands of words so he could have a backstory, a purpose, and a character arc good enough to justify leaving him in.
But that’s planning. And before I could plan, I needed to ask myself: if I made these changes, would the end result be a better story? Would I rather query that story than this one?
And the answer was “yes.” Definitely yes. So I stopped querying and started to plan.
Step #2: Deciding on a plan
So I had to change one entire character and flesh out the protagonist, on top of doing general fixes to all the other characters. It was time to brainstorm.
- One of the things the agent suggested was awesome. In the original draft, it was the protagonist’s best friend who stopped the single-minded protagonist and made her think about the consequences. If I took every scene where this happened and gave his thoughts to the protagonist, she suddenly became conflicted. She would get excited about doing something impulsive, then realize the consequences… and have to decide to do it anyway. This forces her to rationalize, to think more deeply about everything, and to be intensely more anxious about her decisions. Gasp! Character depth!
- She also needed a goal. She couldn’t just seek ancient knowledge because knowledge is fun. (Well, it is. But still! She was risking lives for it!) I needed something she wanted to fix now. Then I realized…
- The secondary character either needed a new role or he needed to be thrown out of the story. Could he be the problem the protagonist was dealing with? What if he was more of an antagonist? What if he and the protagonist were friends, or used to be friends, but now they’re fighting? And their relationship is complicated and upsetting and they’re both sad and angry, and she wants to fix it, and prove him wrong, and change his mind, and…
I loved that. I loved the drama, the angst, the sadness, the conflict. It added an immense amount to the story. It also required changing a ton.
Step #3: Re-outline the entire story!
So I had a plan. The next step was to flesh out the details.
- Using Scrivener, I created two new labels for “Major Aki Scenes” and “Minor Aki Scenes.” (Aki being the name of the protagonist’s best friend.) A “major” scene was one where he had a major, active role in the scene. A “minor” scene is one where he appeared in the scene, but didn’t do much. Major scenes would need to be replaced with new chapters or rewritten; minor ones would need to be checked for consistency (unless other edits meant I had to rewrite those, too.)
- I tagged every scene in the novel. In Scrivener, this lets you visually color-code your scenes. I could see, for example, that about 1/3 of the novel were “major” scenes, and he appeared in… nearly every scene otherwise.
- Because this character spent the original draft hanging out with and supporting the main character, and I knew that wouldn’t happen in this one, I just deleted every “major” Aki scene from the first half of the story. I’d have to fill these holes with new scenes.
- I started at Chapter 1 and imagined what the scene would be like if the main character was not on speaking terms with her friend. Instead of them sneaking around together, she was isolated and distracted; instead of sharing joy at a discovery, she felt conflicted and bitter.
- Working from the assumption she was hiding things from her friend, I fleshed in the next chapters: an awkward meeting. Lies. Exposing the lie. Explaining their fight. Them disagreeing about the inciting event. The major events exacerbating their situation. And so on, and so on until…
- I hit the midpoint. Due to how the story was structured, the last 15 or so chapters weren’t going to change in structure–although I knew I’d have to rewrite pretty much every conversation in it. I tagged those.
I repeated the same planning for the main character: now that she and her friend were fighting, I had to rewrite every scene he wasn’t in, too, but with her making her own decisions, dealing with her own conflicts, and dealing with her feelings about her friend. And I had to flag every scene where another secondary character appears, then add layers to his personality, his scenes, his actions.
It ended up being a complete a significant rewrite. Despite this, it was far easier than earlier edits, because:
- The bones of the story were in place. The events that happened before happened now.
- The characters all stayed the same (except for the friend.) None were added. I fleshed them out instead, layering new details, new facts, and more interesting conversations on what I had.
Step #5: And then came the writing.
It took me 6 months. The end result was nearly 15,000 words longer–which put me at 109,000 words–so I also had to do a boatload of editing.
The end result was 99,000 words long, and I loved it.
This story was better–and I’m not afraid to say that, even though it’s easy to change an entire story and make it different, but not better. This was just immensely easier to read: there’s more character depth. Instead of a friend and her best friend who supports her uncritically, there’s a much more mature, complex dynamic with friends who love each other, but seem to be growing apart. One of the antagonists, who was mostly just a jerk in the first draft, is… still a jerk, but less in a “I like to make people’s lives miserable” way and more in a believable, adult form of “I expect people to do their jobs and am not very tolerant of feelings getting in the way of responsibility” way. Everyone’s more believable, deeper, and more interesting.
And the R&R helped. I knew I had some issues with my characterization–but I also want to work on a lot of things. When I edit my own work, I get caught up in trying to fix everything. This R&R gave me a focus. And by focusing on the characters and nearly nothing else, I… really, really fixed the characters. And it shows.
And now we’re at the hardest step of all: waiting.
Will any of this actually get me an agent? Who knows! Maybe this agent won’t like the revised version–or maybe they will, but it still won’t be enough. An R&R isn’t a guarantee, after all.
But no matter what happens, I’m happy. If this R&R falls through, I still have a much improved story. Even if I end up taking it back to the query trenches, it’s still a much stronger story that I’m much happier to query.
Now I just need to find something else to work on while I wait. And not check my inbox constantly. And not obsess so much that I… spend several days writing extremely long blog posts? Oh. Shoot. Uh.
Well, I’ll try, at least. Fingers crossed!