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Re-Writes: Antagonists and Stakes

keyboardsIt was six weeks when I heard back from a publisher about my latest work-in-progress. Waiting to hear back from a publisher tests not only one’s patience but self-esteem, too. While waiting and soaking in my lesson in patience, biting my fingernails, I was hunkered down under my fair tent as rain tumbled down during the Pendleton Round-Up this month. Most of the flaps were closed with one exposed enough to let brave shoppers know I was still in business. Tables were pulled back allowing the brave to come in out of the drizzle and browse books.

There was a lull in milling about during the rodeo so I checked my phone. There it was. An email from the publisher. I lay my phone in my lap and took in a deep breath. Rejections always sting. I bit the bullet and opened that email and read. To my surprise it was not a rejection, but a call to rewrite and offer for a second look.

The publisher was quite detailed in his email and I took it to heart. This was the first response that didn’t just say: your story doesn’t suit our needs; no one is interested in young adult historicals; or it’s too short, give the readers something to chew on (that one surprised me because my word count for my previous book was the suggestion straight from the experts).

I emailed him back, stating I was up for the challenge and would rewrite and resend. I sat under my vendor tent, listened to the rain bounce off the pavement, and let my brain mull over his comments.

tabs rewrites 1

His initial comments were: you write well, the characters and locations are drawn out nicely, and the dialogue sounds about right, although it’s a bit more adult that I’d recommend. What? I work with kids. I’m an expert. That is how they talk to me. I stewed until I’d gotten home from Pendleton. After talking to fellow teachers, I realized, yes, that is how they talk to me. But not each other. I swallowed my pride and hightailed it down to the high school with pen and notebook and sat in classes and listened. It was the perfect day to listen with class elections and meetings. I jotted down rich words I knew they used. Talked to teachers, had them read my list, and added words and phrases. I felt like I’d hit a gold mind and in a way I did. You can bet my dialogue has since changed.

I tackled the next item on my list––the antagonist. It was weak because I didn’t have just one. I had many. I brought out several of my books on craft and combed through the pages dealing with antagonists and villains. Googled and read articles. Let my brain mull over ideas and scenarios. Talked with those in my writer’s group and with fellow writer and vendor partner in Pendleton. Then on my hour drive home from town, it hit me. I knew who my villain was and the threatening letters she was going to write. I was shifting gears and picking up speed, taking notes and plotting scenes.


The third and final item on my list dealt with the character’s stakes. They were “pretty minor.” What was really at risk? A few thousand dollars when much more was needed?  Her self-esteem? The publisher wrote, “If you’re in a coin toss and losing means surrendering the coin, there’s not much risk. But if losing means losing your head (literally), then that’s a big deal.” That statement hit me in the heart. Well said, Mr. P.

rewrites tabs 2

I thought, no stated out loud, he doesn’t get it! I also made that same claim in writer’s group. I’d brought my query letter and one sheet with me (I’m pitching this to an agent at a writer’s conference in a few weeks). I began to read the query letter I’d sent to this publisher and while I read it out loud, it occurred to me I had not, in the slightest, made my true intentions known. This story is not about money. It’s not about finding the right horse. It’s not even about the race. It’s about the rite of passage. Honor. Shifting from adolescence into womanhood. About Native American tradition. I didn’t just miss the mark, I didn’t even hit the target. No wonder he didn’t understand the stakes. They were muddled and murky.

It was then I realized I had my work cut out for me and dug in.

I realize with all the rewrites my work can still be rejected. But I also know it will be that much sturdier for the next submission. I’m now a stronger writer. Growing pains hurt, but they are worth the risk.


~Mistakes are the portals of discovery. James Joyce

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  1. Alice Trego says:

    Wow, Carmen! I truly enjoyed reading this post about your latest work in progress. It was wonderful to hear how the positive suggestions of a publisher encouraged you to take a cursory look at your writing, to reinforce those “iffy” areas and to resubmit your manuscript. Thanks for sharing your thoughts on an important facet of writing.

  2. Carmen – you are an encouragement, inspiration, and a fine example of the sort of writerlyWoman I want to be. (I’ve missed the group, but my time away has helped me sort & settle. Maybe again, I’ll gather ’round with you all.)


    1. carmenpeone says:

      Thank you, Darlene. We miss you too! Keep writing. Keep believing!

  3. Yep. Sounds like what happened to me too. But I thanked him for investing the time to read the entire story and I made the rewrites to accommodate my publisher’s wishes knowing his experience would only make my novel have a better chance for success.

    1. carmenpeone says:

      Mike, that is exactly how I feel. I can’t wait to finish and thank him, whether he takes it or not. My MS will be that much stronger.

  4. Christy Martenson says:


    I loved this article. AND I love that we are able to take this journey with you to see the results. You are amazing and an inspiration!!

    Can’t wait to read the finished product! 🙂


    1. carmenpeone says:

      Thank you, Christy! I’m thankful for you and the group for listening and throwing out ideas. You are rich in encouragement and discernment.

  5. Carmen–I was right with you as I read his suggestions. The first one–not too bad. The next one, a little more work. The last one: a genuine re-vision of the project. Your enthusiasm for meeting each comment will guarantee your book’s publication. Thank you for sharing this and let us know how it goes!

    1. carmenpeone says:

      Thank you, Kayann. I am almost finished and then off to an editor, and then the publisher. I can’t wait for his response, even if it is rejected, the MS will be that much stronger. I will keep you all informed. Blessings.

  6. This is a strong, thought-provoking piece, Carmen. I had a publisher do me such a favor, too. Her suggestions made my book a lot stronger. Although she still didn’t take the book in the end, the book remained improved because of her remarks.

    1. carmenpeone says:

      Mary, I agree, even if he still rejects it, It is that much stronger. It’s turned into a bit of a mystery now! But he also made me really nail down the stakes, which I thought were strong. I’m thankful for his wisdom and taking the time to write what he did.

  7. Wouldn’t it be great if all publishers/agents gave this kind of feedback on submissions? Regardless of what happens, it is always a positive when someone is this interested in your writing and wants you to reach your potential. The fact that the publisher took the time to write a detailed analysis indicates that he sees your potential.

    1. carmenpeone says:

      Brigid, it would be wonderful to get that kind a feedback every time. I feel very fortunate.

  8. Ouch! I agree with Judith. We writers go through the stages, fight, resist, sigh, and finally look at the MS from a different perspective. It’s tough. Looking forward to hearing more.

    1. carmenpeone says:

      Brenda, boy, you said it. Fight, resist, sigh, resign. But it’s when we resign that the magic happens. Here’s to growth.

  9. Interesting how you arrive at each epiphany by first expressing skepticism, feeling frustration, and then an “Aha” solution. How humbling this writing life is.

    1. carmenpeone says:

      Judith, The “Aha” moments is what keeps me going! You are quite right, this is a humbling profession.

  10. Carmen, what a great experience to share. I’ll look forward to hearing the ‘end of the story’ and wish you good luck.

    1. carmenpeone says:

      Thank you, Andrea. I will keep you posted!