I've been writing for as long as I can remember, and I got serious about writing novels many years ago. For a long time, I figured I was ahead of the curve: I wrote my first novels as a teen, had studied what it took to be published, read voraciously and had learned to apply techniques from my favorite books to boost the quality of my own prose.
But there was a big, huge part of the puzzle that I was missing that whole time:
Not just revising in the way I used to think of it—rearrange a scene here, fix some typos there, streamline my timeline and call it good. It wasn't until the last two years that I truly learned how to rewrite: How to dig deep, find the heart of my story, and then change anything that is necessary in order to reveal that heart to its fullest extent.
And, not at all coincidentally, it wasn't until I learned how to do that that my writing started getting noticed in ways that ultimately led to an agent.
Recently, we got a new piano after a year of being without one. (Hooray!) Music runs deep in my blood, so you can imagine how happy that's made me. In the first few weeks after getting it, I played every chance I got, combing both my sheet music and my memory for songs I enjoy. One of the things I found myself playing was from my teenaged music composition days—a flowing piano solo that I worked on for a long time before it ultimately went on to place in a national music composition competition. I remembered as I played it how much I especially love one section of it—a minor-key bridge whose stormy restlessness is meant to, and for me does, evoke the feeling of the ocean.
I've always found it interesting that, of the whole piece, that's the section I like the best, because for a very long time it wasn't part of the song at all. The rest of the song is gentler, in a major key, and fairly repetitive. As I was working on it, my piano teacher kept telling me that I needed a section that took the motifs I'd used throughout and made them new and different, instead of just repeating the same melody with a few small changes. (He was right, of course, and that inability to get myself too far from a single motif is why I never became a composer!) I went back to him and back to him, asking if a new idea I'd had was different enough, and he always said no. Until, one day, I was messing around and boom. The new section was born. It pulled the whole piece together and made it a hundred times better—and now, more than a decade later with my musical skills at least a little further along, I recognize that it's by far the most sophisticated part of that piece.
As I thought about the story of how that song came to be, it occurred to me what a perfect metaphor it is for any creative endeavor, writing included. Often, what we initially start out with as writers scratches only the very surface of an idea. Just as often, it takes us going back again and again to that idea in order to really dig deep and bring up all the emotion that we can from it.
And this is what true revision is: Going back to our story and asking more from it than we did originally. Being willing to look at the possibility of making big, dramatic, terrifying changes, if those changes will more fully reveal the heart of the story. Being willing to sacrifice anything—characters, plot points, favorite scenes—to get to that point.
I have a young adult novel that is, without question, the book of my heart. All of my books have pieces of my heart, but this one dials deeply into my soul more than anything I've ever written. The setting, the characters, and the themes all speak to really deep parts of myself. Last year, once on my own and once with a mentor as part of Pitch Wars, I revised that book on a large scale twice. The second was especially big—during Pitch Wars, I gave that manuscript a dramatic overhaul, so that it was hardly recognizable as the same book it had been to begin with.
And then it didn't get me an agent. These days, about eight months after shelving that book, I can see why not, and I can also see that it's not ready yet for the YA market. It's been on my mind again this summer, though, and within the next year I'm planning to overhaul it yet again—what will likely be the largest revision yet. This time, I'll be taking an axe to the actual plot, and when it emerges I suspect that once again, it will be an almost entirely new book (one which will hopefully have a chance at marketability!). It's a little daunting, thinking about revising this book so heavily another time, but it's also exciting—because I know that there's still more, thematically and emotionally, that I can pull from this book than I have in the past.
This is what I wish I'd known, years ago as an experienced-but-still-totally-green writer who thought she knew everything: I wish I would've known that truly, the heart of writing is rewriting. Drafting is fun, and streamlining is crucial. But most books will, at some point, need more than a quick-and-dirty revision to clean things up. Even if they don't need such a dramatic overhaul as my YA novel (most books don't, and mine since then haven't), it's quite likely that there are parts that will still need true rewriting. With the middle grade book that got me my agent, I cut several characters, changed the timeline of the book (and therefore the plot structure), and added in a whole magical realism element that wasn't there for most of the first draft. And, as hard as it was to do some of those things (my very favorite character went on the chopping block!), it was right.
So as you sit down to revise, never fear those big changes. They might just uncover the true hiding place of your story's heart.