Making Life Difficult for the Right Reasons

what_graphicI‘m a pretty lazy guy, so I generally try to arrange my life (both work and otherwise) so that things go as smoothly and as easily as possible. When it comes to writing, for example, I try to hand in the cleanest possible manuscript to my editor. It’s less work for everyone that way, and believe me — the Catholic/Jewish guilt kicks in big-time when I see the mistakes I missed.

Sometimes, inevitably, I end up making more work for everyone. It’s bad enough when that happens by accident…even worse when it’s on purpose.

Let me explain. And forgive me for being oblique, but I’m talking about a book that isn’t out yet and trying to avoid spoilers!

My editor on the forthcoming Secret Sea had a problem with…let’s call it Plot Point A (PPA). This was something that happened late in the story that made the ending possible, and the specifics of it unnerved her.

We talked about it quite a bit. I really liked PPA. A lot. I could see her point, but I wasn’t convinced it was an issue. Still, she was insistent and I decided to see what I could do.

It turned out that I was able to convert PPA into Plot Point B with very little work. Many of the specifics were still the same, but the unnerving stuff had been excised. Liz was happy. I was happy. The book went into Production.

Did I say I was happy? Ha! Idiot. First rule of Barry’s Life: Barry’s never happy for long.

A while later, I began having Revision Regrets. PPA had been perfect. PPB was watered down and wishy-washy. PPA was strong and memorable. PPB was bland and generic. I wanted to go back to PPA, but I had trouble justifying it. The book was in Production, after all — changing a major plot point would be a lot of work…and at the end of the day, Liz would still be unhappy. One of us was going to be dissatisfied and while I didn’t want it to me, I also didn’t want to add insult to injury by changing PPB back to PPA and making Liz work to do it!

I hemmed and hawed. And then, one night when I couldn’t sleep,1 the solution popped into my head.

I realized, in a flash, that what I had thought to be Liz’s objection to PPA actually wasn’t her objection. She didn’t have a problem with the action itself — she was bothered by a character’s thoughts about the action.

Well, hell — I hadn’t really delved all that much into the character’s thoughts anyway. I was much more focused on the action of the moment. I realized that with two lousy lines of dialogue, I could have kept PPA and satisfied Liz, all without compromising the integrity of the scene.

I wrestled with this overnight, then called Liz first thing in the morning. (I’m sure editors love nothing more than early morning phone calls from authors giving them more headaches.) I explained my solution.

“Barry!” she said. “Oh my God, that works! That works!”

She got in touch with the managing editor and got back to me right away — as long as I could make the modifications by the end of the week, we’d still be on schedule.

And so I jumped in. Now, based on what you’ve been told so far, you might think, What’s the big deal? It’s just tweaks, right?

I wish! Whenever you modify something that speaks to character motivation or plot, you run the risk of either missing some references or inadvertently adding something that contradicts the new world order. In theory, you should re-read the entire book, just to be sure. In reality, there’s rarely time for that.

In this case, I targeted the specific scenes that I knew had to change. Then I read them over, changed them, then read every scene after them, through to the end of the book, just to be sure that there were no “ripples in the pond.”2 Fortunately, the changed scenes were late in the book, so I only ended up re-reading about 150 pages.

Then, since the plot point required some very specific wording, I was able to do a quick search through the manuscript to make certain that anything that happened to foreshadow the plot turn earlier in the story also matched up.

With any luck, I managed to change and tweak everything that needed to be changed and tweaked. With further luck, the Production folks won’t have any trouble incorporating those changes into their current workflow. The worst case scenario is that I’ve screwed the pooch and will have to make a lot of manual changes on the page proof copies…and those mistakes will go uncorrected in the ARC (Advance Reader Copies), thereby baffling early readers.


So, was it worth it? Was it worth the extra work on my part and on the part of the folks at Feiwel & Friends? Worth the risk of screwing up the ARC?

Well, yeah, I think so. At the end of the day, I owe my readers and myself the best book I’m capable of writing. If I can make a change that will make the book better and don’t make that change, I’ve abrogated my artistic responsibility. I feel bad that I’ve made Production hustle a little more, but I can’t apologize for wanting The Secret Sea to be the best book it can possibly be.

Come Spring 2016, you can tell me if I’ve succeeded.

  1. Which is when all great ideas happen, kids.
  2. In other words, if I changed something blue to something red on page 200, I had to make sure I didn’t have someone still calling it blue on page 500.


  1. Oh yes, I hear what you’re saying–about “understanding” what that editor really needed as well as tweaking one bit of a manuscript, and then tracking down those other necessary changes. Add the time constraint and you’ve got writer-on-a-wire. A thin, sleepless one. Gotta get it right, through, so it’s worth all of that.

    I’m a new fan after reading Boy Toy. Just thought I’d stop in and see what you had on your blog. Enjoyed the post and, obviously, related to it.

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