: The question of revising on spec

You send your story out into the world, and get back form rejection after form rejection. Then comes the day when you get a real letter, with comments specific to your story. In fact, you get a letter several pages long, with detailed suggestions—and if you’re very lucky, there’s an offer to look at the novel again if you revise. Do you do it?

I had heard authors, usually much-published and famous authors, say that you should never rewrite on spec. But I’d also heard dozens of authors and experts say that first books almost always undergo massive revisions, on spec, before they sell. So I concluded that you always revise when an editor asks you to. That’s how books are sold, right?

But after kicking around the writing world for a number of years, I began to see a darker side to my conclusion. I revised several manuscripts, putting considerable effort into accomplishing exactly what the editor wanted, only to have my novel summarily rejected—though I could have sworn I did all they asked.

The worst revision horror story I know happened to a woman in my writers’ group. She did four major rewrites, all at editorial request—the same editor, the same book, and different suggestions each time. She put in at least dozens, perhaps hundreds of hours of work. Finally the editor told her that it was a wonderful story, but serious historical fiction wasn’t the kind of thing their press published. The editor had mentioned it to a couple of marketing people, and they didn’t go for it. Mind you, this editor didn’t take it to a pitch meeting, fight for it passionately, and go down to defeat—she just mentioned it to a couple of marketing people.

To rewrite or not to rewrite? I was still wrestling with the question, when I came across an article in Writer’s Digest that compared the rewrite question to another—Do you want a cookie? Well, maybe you do. Maybe you’d love a cookie, and would do anything to get one. But maybe you just finished a big meal, or you’re allergic to chocolate chips, or you’re on a diet. There’s no one-size-fits-all answer to either question. Whether you should rewrite on spec depends entirely on your personal situation—and even then, your answer might may vary with each request.

At the time I read this, I’d been unpublished for many years—I was desperate for a cookie. Any time an editor sent me suggestions, I revised and resubmitted. But after multiple hard-worked revisions came to nothing, I finally stopped writing and thought about it. And I came to the conclusion that I didn’t always want a cookie. I resolved (and if you want to get published as badly as I did, you’ll understand how hard this was) that I would only revise if I genuinely agreed that the editor’s suggestions would make the story significantly stronger. Nothing trivial, and nothing I disagreed with.

After that, I only did one fruitless revision on spec. When the editor rejected it I sent her a sincere thank you note, because even though she hadn’t taken it, I knew the story was much stronger for her input. And I have to confess that I revised both Navohar and Songs of Power, which were my first sales, on spec. But by and large my solution is one I feel good about—it works for me. That doesn’t mean it would work for anyone else. The only advice I can offer someone else, is to think seriously about the pros and cons, before you come up with your own an answer to the rewrite question. Because it is a question, and there’s no one-size-fits-all answer. So, do you want a cookie?

Summer 2002