Thursday, June 05, 2008

Taking an Agent's Advice

I recently received an email from a writer asking for some advice. She is writing (and submitting) a historical romance and has been told by two different agents that she should narrow her point-of-view focus to two characters and eliminate all others. The author feels this would make the story long and boring and wonders if this is narrow thinking on the agents’ part or her own.

I’ve always cautioned against taking every bit of advice you receive from agents or editors and simply running with it. Publishing is a subjective business and just because one person gives a suggestion doesn’t mean it’s necessarily the right suggestion for your book. However, if you are receiving the same information from more than one person it’s very likely it’s advice you should consider taking; of course you should only consider taking it if you truly believe it’s something you can and should do.

In this case I haven’t read the book and don’t have much more information than what I posted above. However, if you are writing from more than two points of view you probably have a problem. I doubt you need to fully eliminate all other characters, but you do probably need to look at how well your protagonists really stand out. If other characters are overshadowing those who should be the stars you are going to have a problem, especially when writing romance.

Ultimately I can’t give you advice on how you should revise or edit your book without reading it myself. I can, however, tell you that if you are getting the exact same feedback from more than one agent you might want to seriously consider their comments, and if you haven’t yet, you need to find yourself a writing critique group. One that can honestly take the critiques you’re receiving from agents and help you evaluate and possibly implement them.

Any advice from readers? At what point do you decide that the advice agents are giving is dead-on rather than just too narrow-minded?

Jessica

30 comments:

Keri Ford said...

If the advice makes me want to slap my head and scream, 'why didn't I think of that???', then I run with it.

Recently I was given advice that made me pause and I didn't think it could work right with my story. Two or three weeks later, I'm up at midnight with my baby and guess what's on my mind? Yep, that advice I hadn't thought of in weeks that I didn't think could work. I put the babe back to bed and sat at my computer to make notes. Next I know, my husband's alarm is going off and it's daylight outside. Not only did the agent's idea work for my manuscript, but I like it better with the changes made.

I'm not saying you should take on every advice thrown your way, but sometimes it doesn't hurt to give it a try and see how things work out. Just don't be scared or let your ego get in the way of applying that advice or seeing if it works for you.

Melinda Leigh said...

I usually have three POV's. In addition to the voices of my heroine and hero, I love to be the villain!

Christie Craig said...

Great post Jessica.

I always pay attention to advice. If more than one person points out something, I really pay attention.

This said, I don't always do exactly what the these people suggest I do. Even when it's two or more saying it. For example: They are suggesting that you cut the other POVs. I would ask myself, why are they saying this? What have I not done right? Why is my vision of this book not working?

In this case, I would possibly look at not jumping POVs so quickly in the book. Maybe stay with one character a little longer before jumping. Prehaps, I started the book in the wrong POV. Maybe I might need to reread the POV scenes and make sure I've made clear the reasons I included that person's POV. Does this person's POV really add to the story, if not you might need to cut it, or do some brainstorming to discover why you felt it was important in the beginning and then make it important.

So I guess I'm saying that I always listen, but I have a tendency not to always take specific advice, rather to try to figure out why my original concept didn't work.

And then sometimes a person's advice might be right for me. However, I have found that if I try to fix something according to someone's else's vision, I often time lose my own vision of the story.

CC

Anonymous said...

I think some genres are probably more rigid about conventions than others. In literary fiction, multiple povs are fine IF you pull it off--I'm reading a novel now with at least four povs and it's well reviewed and terrific. In literary fiction, it's all about execution. But if you want to sell a book in a more rigid genre and are getting advice about its expectations and conventions, you should probably at least listen.

Jessica said...

This is tough. When I first started writing I took everyone's advice. And then ended up with a mess.
A tough thing. Writing being so subjective it's impossible to write the "perfect" story. Everyone can find something to fix.
I never know what to do. That's why I currently have three different versions of one chapter, lol.

Anonymous said...

Advice is well taken if it comes from someone whose opinion you trust.

I've been working with the same agent for nine years (yes, nine!) and she just recently completed my first sale (an excellent deal and I'm very happy.) I can't speak for why she was stuck it out with me, but I can say that I stayed with her because I felt she always gave me thoughtful, considered advice regarding my work.

The last book before this one was a mystery in which I had many POVs. She advised me to cut some of them, explaining it was confusing. She added that too many POVs usually indicate lazy writing. She was right. The ms was much improved after I focused in on the people who really had something to say.

I think, especially if you're starting out, it's wise to listen to those in the know. Once you find them, they're golden!

Kristin Laughtin said...

Your posts are always so timely! I have dual protagonists in my story, which is running much too long as I near the end, and I have a few scenes from the villains' POV that I'm considering cutting for this reason. I just need to find the right way to reveal their motivations, etc.

On the topic of agents--yes, they generally know what they're talking about. They're in the business for a reason. But they're people too, and have subjective tastes, and so one should weigh their advice rather than listen to it blindly.

spyscribbler said...

The key is knowing the problem. Advice often gives a solution, but when deciding whether to take someone's advice or not, you need to dig deeper and find what the problem is.

Then you can provide a solution, whether it be that particular agent's advice, or a solution you come up with yourself.

Aimless Writer said...

I would consider all advice from a professional in the business. Especially if more then one said the same thing.
If its too long and boring with only two POV's maybe I have something else that needs fixing too?
I'd have to think long and hard on the advice for a while before deciding if I would dismiss it or use it.
Agents know what sells. But is this a really active agent with a good track record? What has she sold recently? Who are her clients. I'd take it all into consideration before deciding what to do.

Kate H said...

Basically what you said, Jessica--if more than one person says the same thing, I take it seriously. If two people say different or even opposite things about the same passage or aspect, I look for some common ground between their responses. Maybe the passage needs fixing, but in a completely different way from what they've suggested.

I would take agents' advice more seriously than advice from other writers at my own level because agents know the market. But I would also consider things like whether the agent generally seems to "get" the kind of book I'm writing and whether they've read the whole MS or just a partial.

Ultimately the author is the only one who can really "feel" whether a certain change is right for the book--but I try to consider sugestions well and even try them out before rejecting them.

Irate Teacher said...

Being unpublished--because I have yet to finish my first manuscript(which may never make it, though I've learned and improved along the way)--I would weigh any feedback from an industry professional. I would especially do so if that feedback came from my agent or my editor, because it would give them a small piece of ownership in the work, and I tend to think you fight a little harder for something you have a stake in.

Cindy Procter-King said...

I'm writing an ST with four POVs - the H/h, a secondary character who has her own story arc, and the villain's (whose story arc intersects with the secondary character's as well as the H/h's). In a long book like historicals usually are, I don't see the problem with more than two POVs - depending why they are in there. Is there a secondary romance running parallel to the the primary one and therefore four POVs? I've seen that done a lot, both in contemporary and historical ST. Like someone else said, it depends WHY you're changing POV. If changing POV too often, or headhopping for no reason, or not staying in a POV long enough for the reader to identify with the character is the issue, to me that's different than a simple statement that you should restrict yourself to two POVs. There are plenty of reasons TO restrict yourself, but there are also valid reasons not to. I'm guessing the agents in question couldn't see WHY the writer was changing POV, and thus the comments.

Santa said...

I didn't want to believe it when I first queried or put my work out there for critiques by published authors but all advice can be useful advice. And it doesn't pay or make sense to be stubborn about not making changes in your manuscript. You want your work to be the best writing you've ever done so it makes sense to take advice that's been 'seconded'.

Elissa M said...

Christie Craig summed it up perfectly for me:
"I would ask myself, why are they saying this? What have I not done right? Why is my vision of this book not working?"

This is exactly how I evaluate advice. If a reader, especially an industry professional, doesn't "get" what I'm trying to do or say, then I've gone wrong somewhere.

Still, I'm not sure how cutting multiple POVs to just two can make a novel longer. My experience is fewer POVs equal fewer words. My current WIP is too long totally because of multiple POVs.

Miss Viola Bookworm said...

I always listen to the feedback I get from agents, but I try to let it sink in for awhile before I make changes. A few times, an agent was kind enough to give me very specific feedback, which make it very easy to make changes. These types of comments were the kind that make you slap yourself on the head for not noticing the problems earlier, so it was easy to revise and fix these issues because I saw the relevance and how the changes could strengthen the manuscript.

If the comments weren't as specific or clear, I waited and pondered their thoughts for some time before making changes. I always know in my head what I'm trying to achieve in a story, and often the comments tell me that I didn't quite get it just right on the page for the reader. That is usually why I make changes based on comments, and usually, the agent is right. It doesn't always make sense initially, but in the end, I usually see how I can strengthen the manuscript by making changes.

JES said...

Hard question to answer unambiguously. I think if my first instinct is to flounce away to my desk in a huff, I probably need to take a breath and at least consider the advice.

And yet...

I had an agent for my first book, a mystery; she came on board right after I'd sold the book to the publisher. So she was there as I started my first round of revisions. She put her foot down about one issue:

The book made absolutely no secret of who the killer was, because I preferred to establish suspense not by withholding that information but by showing how the protagonist and villain would move toward one another over time.

No, my agent said, the one cardinal sin a mystery writer can commit is to reveal the killer before the climax.

As I said, this was my first book. And the agent was a Big Name, with lots of experience. So I gulped, shrugged, and sort of ran back through the MS, y'know, obfuscating the obvious.

The one thing which most negative reviews focused on: it was OBVIOUS who the killer was, why did the author even bother pretending it was some big mystery?

Granted, the problem (first-time author again) was indeed my fault to the extent that the "obfuscation" was done poorly. But still, I couldn't help feeling a little cheesed off about it.

(My soon-would-be-fiancee said, "Sheesh -- hasn't she ever watched 'Columbo'?" Dang. Wished I'd thought of that comeback myself!)

Stephanie Feagan said...

It's all so subjective, I think every writer has to weigh advice against her own gut feeling. I remember an editor said about my first book that I was trying too hard to be funny, and if I wanted to be Janet Evanovich, I was sadly lacking. Ouch. But my then agent sold it to a different editor, who thought it was way funny. So did a few RWA judges - that book won a RITA for Best First Book.

Like I said, it's all subjective. Go with your gut. I like Christie's advice, as well - ask yourself the hard questions. Step back and look at the work with as much objectivity as possible. Sleep on it for a few weeks - even a month - and you'll be amazed how different the project will look.

It's tempting to have a kneejerk reaction and start tinkering and tweaking after each rejection letter rolls in - but that can lead to a mismanaged mess of a book that bears little to no resemblance to what you started with. Have a care not to write your voice out of the book. If I had 2 agents tell me the same thing, I'd wait until 2 more said the exact same thing before I started slicing and dicing.

But that's just me. The Janet Evanovich wannabe. Haha!!!

Lucy said...

"I think some genres are probably more rigid about conventions than others. In literary fiction, multiple povs are fine IF you pull it off--"

Anonymous 10:01 is dead on. From what I've seen of genre romance, it usually is focused on the heroine and hero, and occasionally a cute little kid thrown into the mix. But the romance is uppermost. Possibly both agents were looking at selling from that viewpoint, and not finding the work sufficiently focused on the primary romance, or were concerned that too many characters and subplots would distract from the primary romance.

It's easier to do multiple POV -- if, as Anon 10:01 says, you can pull it off -- for a general historical novel, or something of that type, where the story can be quite broad, and deal with more than one strand.

I think, if I really loved all the characters, and felt that they were necessary to the story, I'd look at stretching it for a broader audience, maybe go easy with the traditional "romance" elements, and try marketing it as something other than romance.

Anonymous said...

Depends how much work the suggestions would involve versus who the agent is and how likely it is that they could place it.

Also, I know the question asked specifically about aqents, but if a publisher is asking for changes, I'd be inclined to make those changes since they're basically paying me to do it.

Same as how a publisher can greatly influence my decision over which book to write next. What--you want a sequel to this one, and you'll pay me an advance to do it? Sequel it is (byebye, experimental futurist memoir).

When in doubt, follow the money.

Julie Weathers said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Julie Weathers said...

I have a couple of thoughts and I'm going to sound like an egotistical worm.

If you have multiple points of view, but it is done so well the reader consumes it eagerly, it isn't a problem. The trouble comes up when it is less than masterfully handled. Not many of us can pull off a George R.R. Martin-type tome.

Nothing is forbidden if you do it so well, the reader can't put it down.

I was fiddling with my final chapter the other day and two spies came to life. Rather than two faceless spies, they just bloomed. With them, and yet another, albeit, brief pov switch, I answered a question of how I get my spy in their midst.

Did I need another pov? Not really, but in this case it solved a serious issue. I love it when stuff just falls into place.

I can't always take all the advice I get in critique sessions because some of it is completely opposite. However, I listen to all of it. If more than one person is picking up the same thing, then I have an issue that needs to be.

I would listen very carefully to anything an agent says. I didn't say follow it blindly, but listen and think about it. Two different agents, saying the same thing? Yeah, that bears scrutiny.

vicky said...

Best advice I ever got about revisions came from an editor about my 1st book. She put her hand to her heart and said, "Listen to your own inner voice." I recently got feedback from two agents about my 2nd book. Agent #1 wanted me to change the central plot of the book. My gut said no, but I emailed her, seeking further clarification. And it was very apparent her opinion was based on personal prefences, despite my explanation that I'd chosen this plot for marketing purposes. I also knew from having pitched it more than once that others loved the high concept. I said thanks, but no thanks. OTOH, I got some FANTASTIC feedback from agent #2. The minute she mentioned the major issue in the 2nd half of the book, she tapped into a misgiving I'd been in denial about. It's resulting in some major rewrites, but she was dead on right. Note to self: Email her and let her know you're working steadily but not done yet. Kim L, major thanks! I'll be in touch soon!

Anonymous said...

Thanks for your reply, Jessica. It was my question you answered. I should have mentioned my story is historical, it is romantic, but I didn't write it as an HR for I knew it would never fit the guidelines for such.

Yes, two agents wanted me to turn it into a standard HR. I'm pleased to say I now have an agent for the story as it is. Whether an editor will accept it is another story.

Cheers!

deboradale said...

I take all of the advice I'm given and mull it over to see what effect it will have on the overall story. The way it might affect the tiny nuances throughout the story is a vital consideration as well. If I think it'll enhance the work, I'll certainly make the changes, but if it'll alter the story I'm trying to tell, then I'll probably let it go for that piece but keep the gist of it in mind for the next.
~Debbie

Robena Grant said...

I listen and take all advice into consideration, that's why I put my work out their, for the feedback.

In my last ms. I had three pov's (one the villian but he also had a sidekick who ended up being more interesting than the villian.) An editors advice made me sit up and take notice, he said, "You don't want a wimpy villian" so I had to merge those two characters. That has made for a more interesting story, I'm still toying with it in rewriting but it is much better than the original already.
The current WIP is a romantic suspense/mystery told only from the H/H pov's. The thing I've noticed with the writing in this one is it's tighter, I'm not all over the place with my ideas and the h/h are are stronger in character because of this.

Leona Bushman said...

I admit, I've already fallen into the taking one persons advice trap. I sent a mystery romance to harlequin who wante more dialogue in the beginning and less exposition. I sent it back with the revisions. The letter back tore apart a couple of places, and said the dialogue was stilted. All of the parts they didnt like were what I did in following their advice!

Listen to your gut is very good advice. While I felt more dialogue would probably help, and agreed with the concept, It wasn't furthuring my intention with the story. Which was pointed out also!

The few parts I added because I had already seen the need, were fine. The parts I added because I soooo wanted my book to sell? ugh.

That said, I finally have an agent, but its for a sci fi I wrote from a dream I had! It kept interfereing with my other stories, so I wrote it. I had a professional critique done. I had about the same amount of dialogue and you know what the comment was?

The use of dialogue kept the story moving, and they really connected with teh characters. I dont know if its a difference in genre, or if the person who read my manuscript actually read the first three chapters they requested?

I'll never know. But Point, listen to your gut, and not your ego! Get a second opinion unless you know it was a problem before they said something!

Leona Bushman said...

I admit, I've already fallen into the taking one persons advice trap. I sent a mystery romance to harlequin who wante more dialogue in the beginning and less exposition. I sent it back with the revisions. The letter back tore apart a couple of places, and said the dialogue was stilted. All of the parts they didnt like were what I did in following their advice!

Listen to your gut is very good advice. While I felt more dialogue would probably help, and agreed with the concept, It wasn't furthuring my intention with the story. Which was pointed out also!

The few parts I added because I had already seen the need, were fine. The parts I added because I soooo wanted my book to sell? ugh.

That said, I finally have an agent, but its for a sci fi I wrote from a dream I had! It kept interfereing with my other stories, so I wrote it. I had a professional critique done. I had about the same amount of dialogue and you know what the comment was?

The use of dialogue kept the story moving, and they really connected with teh characters. I dont know if its a difference in genre, or if the person who read my manuscript actually read the first three chapters they requested?

I'll never know. But Point, listen to your gut, and not your ego! Get a second opinion unless you know it was a problem before they said something!

Cindy Procter-King said...

Anonymous, congratulations on finding an agent for your book!

Barbara Martin said...

Excellent post. It is important for authors to look at their characters viewpoints, and not have a story swimming with them. I fell in that hole writing my first manuscript trying to make it interesting.

Stephen Griffith said...

This post reminded me on a BBC program "Ramsey's Kitchen Nightmares." The talented chef was cooking for a restaurant with no customers. Ramsey told him there were too many flavors on the plate, the chef needed to simplify. The chef was angry and belligerent and refused to comply. Finally Ramsey brought in a food critic who said exactly the same thing. The chef tried to change but couldn't and was convinced of his genius. Ramsey brought in an even more renowned food critic and without prompting the critic told the chef there were too many flavors on the plate. I'm not sure the message ever got through to the chef.

Stephen King in his book ON WRITING says he sends out his second draft to some of his regular readers and only changes things if two or more people make the same comment.

My solution is to find readers who are not influenced by the dreaded "halo effect" (my mother read it and says it is the best book ever written). If two or more of these readers agree consider the change carefully.

One of my friends in the Monday morning writer's group has been asked for partials from two agents. Their response was worded exactly the same. "The promise of your query did not deliver."

My advice was to study the first five pages of books in the same genre these agents have sold. Find out what the books have that yours doesn't. Then make changes if appropriate.

Will it work? Who knows. John Steinbeck said, "The profession of book-writing makes horse-racing seem like a solid, stable business. (Newsweek, 24 December 1962)