In 2018, I was fortunate to work with three novelists who transformed their thrillers through remarkably inspired revisions. As is often the case, I learned more than I contributed while working on these exceptional books. Here, I’ll share a few of my takeaways.
When authors finish writing novels, they feel a sense of completion—relief that their once-infinite world has at last been rendered finite. When revising, however, authors face more open-ended arrays of choices. Substantially revising a full-length novel is hard: it’s the kind of three-dimensional chess game that would give Garry Kasparov a headache. Fortunately, these three authors shared a few key traits that enabled them to not only face the monster but slay it.
Because speaking about revision often means speaking in metaphors, I’ve also provided the most apt comparison I could come up with for each of these cases.
The first novel was written over the course of several years. On reflection, the novelist loved its twists and turns but realized it hadn’t been set up to maximize its ultimate, emotional core. Though approaching such a goal might sound abstract, it demanded the most detailed brand of interstitial work on the text. The result was astounding: a shattering and bittersweet conclusion that transcended the thriller norm.
● Metaphor: This author found the heart of the story, then replumbed the novel’s entire circulatory system so that each plot “vessel” fed that critical payoff.
● Lesson learned: Identifying a novel’s core provides the necessary focus for a fruitful revision.
The second novelist retained an already-excellent plot, then recast it with completely different characters in place of the lead. It was a tricky enough upgrade, but the novelist also switched narrative voices (from first-person to third-person) with dazzling results. Best of all, the novelist managed to feature the original lead character in the all-new draft.
● Metaphor: This author stepped into the operating room and performed nothing short of a full brain transplant.
● Lesson learned: Favor fortunes the open-minded.
The third author essentially rewrote the novel from the halfway point on. A number of things about the story’s first iteration nagged at the author, who returned to the manuscript and did two seemingly contradictory things at once: embracing the infinite nature of revision, the author analyzed each lead character’s possible reactions at every moment up until the finale, then distilled the potential choices down to the truest, most gut-wrenching options. This Choose Your Own Adventure–like process, taken to the nth degree, sparked an alchemical transformation of two of the leads, which in turn led to a series of extraordinary new plot turns and outcomes.
● Metaphor: This author took an electron microscope to the manuscript until the characters’ very souls were revealed.
● Lesson learned: Once again, focus is everything, but here, it’s the focus the author applies relentlessly to the novel’s key characters.
So, which traits do these three novelists share? First and foremost is an ability to look critically at their own books while also believing strongly in their stories. It can make for an odd pairing of traits, to be sure; in essence, they are self-critical true believers. But that’s only the start. They also share an ability to switch out of left-brain assessment mode and use their right brains to imagine solutions and improvements. Further, none of them are new authors; all are masters of their craft.
But even those traits are not enough to guarantee a successful revision. Revisions require sheer will—including the resolve to sacrifice time, certainty, reams of writing, and characters.
Witnessing the work of these three professionals was inspiring, to say the least, and it made for an unforgettable year. As for my role, it proved the truth of Maxwell Perkins’s famous words on editing: “The first thing you must remember: An editor does not add to a book. At best he serves as a handmaiden to an author. Don’t ever get to feeling important about yourself, because an editor at most releases energy. He creates nothing.”
Ed Stackler has been an independent editor since 1996. Prior to that, he was senior editor at Dutton. He began his career at St. Martin’s Press in 1989.