You get to the end of your story, you start rewriting. You show it to some people who all think it has promise, they like this and that about it. It’s not perfect, but you already knew that. You keep working on it. You trim, you hone, you tinker. Weeks, months — it’s slow going, but it’s improving. One day you finish. Hurrah!
Most people are encouraging. Some people point out flaws, but they aren’t really getting what you’re going for. Not everyone’s going to like it — horses for courses. You stick to your guns. Still, there isn't an overwhelming tide of publishers knocking down your door, and to be honest, there’s something about your story, now that you look at it after six months, that doesn’t seem quite right...
They think it is full of problems. Slow, dull, meandering. What's this guy’s problem? Axe to grind? Bitter and jaded about his own lack of success? Just a dick? Thing is, some of what he says makes sense to you. He could have put it a little more tactfully (i.e. less like an A-hole) but he sort of touches on things you were beginning to suspect yourself.
You have a moment of clarity. Of course it doesn’t work. You should cut the start, move the bit about the child who died to much later, switch chapters 4 and 5, expand the bit when she lost her job. It will not only still make sense, it will make better sense. And be more exciting and funnier and sadder. You work all night in a state of frenzied enthusiasm. You finish as the sun rises, read it over and feel fantastic.
You give it to the guy who eviscerated the last version. He reads it and gives you the thumbs up. You’ve dealt with all of his concerns. You feel even better. You show it to the people that have been supporting and encouraging you from the beginning.
They hate it.
It just doesn’t have the heart, the flowing language, the beautiful imagery that it used to have. It was so much better before, you have to change it back, they say, otherwise it’ll just be another cookie-cutter story off the production line. Yes, it is a stronger start, a faster pace, a more thrilling read, but now it has no soul.
What to do?
This scenario is one I come across surprisingly frequently. The writer goes into a spiral of self-doubt. The readers are adamant things are headed in the wrong direction. Accusations fly, conspiracies are outed, African nations riot...
The thing about rewriting a story, especially when it’s a drastic change, is that it’s hard to keep an objective perspective. You spend all that time working on the first draft, getting things polished and sounding just right. It isn’t the finished article, but it feels 90% done. The final destination is in view.
However, just because you can see your destination from where you are, doesn’t mean you can get there from here.
Sometimes, you have to go back to the last fork in the road and try that other route instead, because the way you went didn’t have the bridge you expected, just a yawning chasm. Yes, you will end up further from your goal then you were, but you’re now going in the right direction. Or maybe you still aren’t and you’ll have to retrace your steps again — at least you’re learning the routes to avoid. As long as you don’t give up, eventually you will get there.
But you should be prepared for that feeling after a major revision of your manuscript, when it feels worse than it did before. Of course it does. You spent all that time polishing the last version and now you’ve just chopped and changed and stuck bits together, it’s not going to read as smoothly as before. Remember all those times you thought the previous version was done and then you found extra typos and errors and better ways to say the same thing? You have to go through all that again. Yes, again. And again. And again.
It’s tedious and soul-destroying and a lot of hard work — you thought you were at 90%, now you’re back at 60%. But the truth is you never were at 90%, you were at 60% with a brick wall in front of you which you thought was the wall of the magic castle, you just needed to find the door... but turns out it was just a wall blocking your way. So, you’re still at 60% but the road is wide open again. And isn’t that the magic castle on the horizon, that tiny dot? Hey, at least now you’re on the right path. Most probably. You’re approaching it from the side the drawbridge is on, right?
1. Every major revision will make the story read worse than before until you work on smoothing over the cracks.
2. If you wrote wonderful, flowing language that captures the imagination before, then you can do it again. If people tell you they liked the old version, then you have the ability to make them like the new version.