Writing FAQ: Should I revise my story to make it more marketable?

Head and shoulders shot of Alyx Dellamonica peering over their glasses.

How much should I be willing to change a work–say a gory horror story or something with explicit sex–to make it eligible to sell to a magazine that won’t take it in its current form?

I get this question quite often, and what caught my attention this time was the emotional framing captured in the phrase How much should we be willing

It’s a little meta, I know, to pick apart the very words of a simple question. This writer wasn’t really asking me to set levels for their feelings about revision, of course. But writing and editing are professions where close reading is a must and everything you say has impact, so for a second I’m going to take this literally. This question, as phrased, is set up in a way that invites us to judge the writer’s emotions, isn’t it? It’s not that different from asking How much should I want to get married?

This can remind us, though, that the idea of revision is emotionally charged. Changing a work of fiction isn’t like tightening the bolts on your kitchen taps or defragging a hard drive.

So let’s start with this: how you feel about revision (or marriage) isn’t really up for discussion: if you’re in hate with any given editorial suggestion, that’s allowed and valid and perfectly all right. It’s your story, always. You never have to do anything to it unless you want to. On the other hand, if you’re open or even excited about the idea of making possibly-radical changes, whether it’s for artistic reasons or commercial ones or maybe a little of both… that too is just your emotional response.

Basically, don’t let other humans try to tell you how to feel.

All right, but that’s obviously taking us away from the intent of the question… or is it? If you truly have a story that’s on the far end of salable because of its content or extreme sensibility, isn’t that a question of artistic impulse in question with the crass needs of the market? Gore’s a great example to use here. A lot of people are horrified and even triggered by graphic violence. Readers may actively seek to avoid such content and many fiction markets don’t accept stories that push into that sensibility…

… Okay. But horrified. That’s a feeling, isn’t it? And artistic impulse… that’s a value judgment we often attach to feelings that reinforce our sense of ourselves as artists. When we talk about the crass commerciality of wanting to sell stories for money, we’re judging too. We all know there’s a big tendency in our culture to imply that artists should feel bad if they want to make a living. People can find it easy to assume that someone who courts the markets somehow isn’t really a writer, or not really a good writer, and they should definitely feel bad about themselves.

In putting those imaginary judgmental voices aside, ask yourself: what matters to you most? The story as it is, as an expression of your original vision? Or the chances of a sale? Either answer is valid and can determine your choices.

Does this mean you should never examine or question those feelings or impulses? No. It is always worthwhile as a writer to explore the feelings of reluctance that arise when a difficult editorial suggestion is on the table. Sometimes we don’t want to trammel the purity of our vision, but other times the reluctance comes from other places. Places like: I am so ready to be done with this story and to move on to the next thing. Or: I don’t know how to do what’s being asked of me in a way that makes the story as good or better.

No writer, writing instructor or editor should ever argue that you should sell out your true artistic impulses by throwing your story under the bus. If you’ve got a great tragic ending and someone offers you big bucks to make it happy–we should all face such dilemmas!–and it would truly feel like a betrayal of the work, then you might feel you’ve diminished yourself and the piece by doing the changes and taking the cash.

But I want to emphasize that editors and readers do not set out to deliberately ruin stories. Editorial suggestions, even commercially motivated ones, are often good suggestions. So do check in with yourself, now and then. Are you leading with No out of habit, without even considering or trying to make the change? Sometimes this is the right instinct, but at other times it can potentially be a reflex that causes you to discard worthwhile artistic possibilities.

As for how to make revisions once you’ve decided on possible changes to a story, that’s a topic for another essay. Or, really, several other essays.

Advice for new writers at this site is provided for free and without ads. If you use and appreciate the essays, you can support me in various ways, including subscribing to the A.M. Dellamonica Curious Fictions feed, buying me a coffee, or buying my books or stories.

Not all drafts are created equal (the sequel)

Many years ago, when I first found myself giving people grades for their fiction projects, for the first time, I realized several things that may seem self-evident to you all…

–A huge part of being a writer is learning to turn a flawed draft into an utterly awesome work of fiction.
–The ability to revise a draft into something good develops with time and experience.
–Experienced editors can tell the difference between drafts with a lot of potential and those facing massive challenges.
–When we think we have nothing left to learn, we tend to stop learning.

To be clear, I do not submit immaculate stories to workshop! When I am writing drafts, a high level of craft is at the bottom of my list of priorities. I’m a pantser at this stage in my life. I’m not above naming incidental characters things like CousinTwo, or even getting halfway through a paragraph and writing “Insert kick-ass detail here!” or “WTF does this house look like?”

The compulsion to get the story onto the page, to drag the character’s journey into the light, is my first and overwhelming imperative. By the time something of mine hits a workshop, I’ve had to go through it three to five times… and even then, it’s still pretty much a shambles.

So. Drafts are crap. Even more, we routinely tell people to write drafts that are crap! It’s so important to have something to revise that we urge writers to, you know, spew whatever they can onto the page in service of getting finished.

So this leads to an apparent contradiction, which is explaining to my students that I can look at their crap drafts and evaluate their commercial potential. To assert that I am qualified to say “This manuscript is this far along the road, while this one is further behind,” even though I will never see what their authors might accomplish in rewrite.

What makes the difference in such cases is the task list, the things the author needs to do to the story, and how tough those challenges might be. If the author of a given draft is writing vivid scenes that give the reader a sense of immediacy, if their characters are relatable and in conflict, if they’re more or less telling a whole story and that story has something fundamentally cool about it, they’re close. Closer, anyway, than a writer that hasn’t learned some of those basics, or whose line by line writing hasn’t yet begun to carry the reader smoothly through their story.

Does that mean I can look at ten drafts and say which writers will be successful? No. Almost anyone who writes ‘how to become a published author’ essays will inevitably will tell you that success in publishing often amounts more to being persistent than to any kind of innate talent.

The same person whose 2019 draft story suffers from insurmountable weaknesses might write a very workable story on their very next outing! They might then whip through an intriguing third project, and then dive into an experiment that almost succeeds wildly before it crashes and burns. Meanwhile, the person who seems to be halfway to publishable in the same workshop might stall out, or give up before they reach their next artistic breakthrough.

As editors and agents and teachers–as professional readers–we look at the pieces submitted to us and say “Yes, there’s a terrific story in here.” Or, alternately, “This one isn’t ready yet.”

I do sometimes get feedback from students that I shouldn’t be subjectively grading their stories at all. That they should get full marks for submitting them, without any evaluation. They’ll point out that many of their other instructors don’t give them any component of a grade that measures quality or merit, that indicates how well a given piece is doing. So it’s tempting to go that route… it’d save me argument and negotiation, and intellectual energy, and all sorts of work.

I get this, I do! In fact, the lion’s share of the grade in most of my courses is awarded just for showing up–doing the assigned work, writing the critiques, following the guidelines, submitting fiction on time. I give these grades because of the aforementioned persistence factor, but also to reward professional working practices. It is by and large the people who show up and do the work, after all–the ones who seem at first glance to merely be putting out quantity–who are building an artistic practice that will probably lead to sales.

Why hand someone back a story worth 10 points, then, with a 7 on it, and a note amounting to: This is 70% of the way to being salable in a professional market; for the things that are still in its way, see my workshop critique? It feels to the recipient much as a rejection does, after all, and rejections are painful.

(Spoiler: The answer is no. I don’t strive to have people practice feeling rejected.)

Most beginning writers, especially the serious ones, want desperately to know if they’re getting closer to publication, and what’s holding them back. When I speak at conventions, you can sense a hunger for that answer in the questions that come from the audience: How close am I? Will I get there? What do I do to get published? What does it take?

Some of what it takes is accepting, in your bones, that sometimes your stories need major rewriting.

Now that I’ve been at this awhile I have seen, time and again, that when I critique a story or exercise and attach a 100% grade to it, their authors take the problems I’ve identified within that work of fiction–and the need to address those problems–far less seriously than when they get that sobering 70%. It’s getting less than a perfect mark that brings people to my door or inbox with follow-up questions about how to embark on revision.

Universities require that students be graded. I can’t not do it. And for me, making those grades meaningful means awarding them in a way that brings writers more deeply into the revision process. If that also brings them back to my door with follow-ups questions and demands for resources, so much the better.