James D. McCallister

author of the Edgewater County series

Revision, Lesson 1: Take a Step Back

As the process of selling DOGS OF PARSONS HOLLOW moves along, I will make occasional posts about working with my agent and future editors on bringing this novel to its ultimate published life.

Getting signed with agent Michelle L Johnson last week was certainly a thrilling experience, but a professional benchmark and personal-best moment that came with a proviso: a page of notes from my benefactor about elements in the text that needed addressing, correcting, or flat-out revising. Feigning calm, I assured her that, by all means, send the notes.

Don’t worry, she said. It’s not much. “And I’ll send the contract, too.”


When I read her email, I found, bless her, that the notes were not terribly daunting: Word replacement. Get rid of some em-dashes. (I explained that at times I was capable of going down the rabbit hole of em-dashes, but that one of my longtime professional goals had been to find an editor—the right editor, the kind who knows when they are useful and when they end up slowing down the text—like Michelle—to help me get those buggers under control.) Other light editing stuff, able to be fixed over an afternoon sipping a steaming dose of Sumatran potent enough to dissolve a stirring spoon. Like every afternoon.

But then, she pointed out a more substantive issue: pages 200-300, or what I would think of as the second half of the long middle act of my character’s escalating circumstances, felt soft. Saggy. Not up to the quality of the opening and subsequent narrative track.

I mulled this over—right as the screws should be tightening and the stakes ever raised, I had my heroine wandering off once or twice on what could be kindly called narrative peregrinations: a semi-bumbling amateur sleuth already, in these moments she’s putting herself in jeopardy to no good end, including during one long chapter placed very close to the moment of crisis that sets up the horrendous life-or-death climax of the story. However I once thought this material moved the story forward, I now saw that these moments stopped everything in its tracks. Summarizing some non-essential character interaction a few other spots resulted in a few more ideas about pages that could go to their final resting place in editing heaven. Nice—despite needing to spend serious time with a large chunk of text, in no time whatsoever I lost over twenty pages of unnecessary action.

I breathed a sigh of relief: when I saw how easy it was to tighten the material (which also, I discovered, needed a thorough polish in other stylistic ways, and on which I spent considerably more time on than the wholesale cuts I made), I knew that I’d ‘taken a step back’: I now saw material extremely familiar to me through Michelle’s discerning eyes. By extension, I also felt that I could now see through the eyes of future readers who were not only pulling for my brave and stalwart Randi Margrave, but readers also eager to see just how dangerous her journey would ultimately turn: the foreshadowing is insidious in its attempt to sew the seeds of coming violence and ruin, and after a certain point in this now 340 page MS, we need to get our damaged, brave protagonist to that moment of extreme and personal physical conflict.

A bereaved mother, we are already well sympathetic to her; her mission, to rescue abused fighting dogs from their heartless handlers, loomed large and carries a different sort of emotional wallop; and we are also already rightly fearful of an antagonist who’s potentially monstrous enough without the additional sequence of surveilling him up to no good. The sooner, I now understood, we got to the moment of absolute, apocalyptic crisis that Randi will ultimately face, the better—besides, her battle itself with the wicked Esau Macon goes on for many, many horrifying and polished pages, over multiple locations and with pulse-pounding developments that kick us in the gut and pin us to the floor. Let’s get to it, in other words—and so now we do.

About dmac

James D. McCallister is a South Carolina author of novels, short stories, and creative nonfiction. His latest book, a story collection called The Year They Canceled Christmas, releases in November 2017.

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