Revision: The Joy of the Extreme Makeover

When it comes to revising my fiction, a secret side of me sometimes comes out — the scalpel-happy cosmetic surgeon. Most of my revisions have been mere touch-ups, but several have been, to put it bluntly, extreme makeovers. Where one writer might trunk a book, I will go all Dr. Frankenstein on that poor manuscript. I’m not above repurposing plot arcs for whole new characters, or cannibalizing my best prose to use in a fresh context.

Case in point: the book I wrote about extreme plastic surgery.

Yeah, I know, the irony. But here’s how it went:

Ten years ago (yes, really): I copyedit a medical paper by a surgeon hoping to perform the world’s first face transplant. Hey, that might make a great creepy story!

Later that year: the world’s first (partial) face transplant actually happens.

Nine years ago: I query my first draft of the “face transplant book”: adult near-future SF with a twentysomething male protagonist.

Eight years ago: I read Scott Westerfeld’s Uglies. I love it. I age my protagonist down and rewrite the book as YA.

Five years ago: I decide my protagonist isn’t sympathetic enough. I make a supporting female character into the new protagonist and restructure the entire book, transforming it from a “be careful what you wish for” cautionary tale into a revenge quest.

Four years ago: Writing a synopsis, I have a revelation: this book has too many central characters on too many separate trajectories. I demote my female protagonist to a supporting character again. I invent an entirely new female protagonist who’s emotionally connected to the antagonist. My former male protagonist is now her love interest. Gone is the revenge quest. My story has become a cross between Sunset Boulevard for teens and a Snow White retelling.

Meanwhile, more than a dozen successful face transplants have been performed — though the creepy scenario in my book remains, I’m happy to say, science fiction.

(For the record, the book’s antagonist is a perfectionist who can’t stop getting “work done” on herself and others. Hmm.)

Last year I did touch-ups on the face transplant book. I hope it’s reached (close to) its final form, but I don’t regret for a minute all the surgery I performed on it. Let’s just call it my favorite patient.

There are other books I’ve performed less drastic surgery on, and still other books I’ve abandoned on the operating table, or before they ever got there.

Right now, I’m doing something new to me: I’m performing surgery on a book with an editor’s notes as my guide. I’m still holed up in my Frankenstein’s castle, pulling out the rusty scalpels and occasionally uttering a sepulchral “Mwuh-ha-ha, this shall be my masterpiece.” But now I have detailed, articulate feedback to keep me from giving my creation two heads or a lizard’s tail.

Has this mad scientist gone … sane? We shall see. But it’s worth remembering that when Mary Shelley’s Victor Frankenstein chopped up those corpses, he wasn’t actually trying to create a monster — he was trying to create life where there was none. Writers try in our modest, muddling ways to do the same.

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