Monday, January 31, 2011

Revisions from an Agent

Not long ago, @agentgame posted this on Twitter: “I've gotten back revisions on an overly fast turnaround that damaged the book rather than making it better.”

I immediately knew exactly what she was talking about. Frequently, I send back revision suggestions to unpublished authors. There might have been a number of things I loved about the book, but it was still far from perfect and needed a lot of work. That being said, I also felt a certain passion for the book and definitely wanted to see it again.

All too often what happens is the author feels rushed to get the material back to me as quickly as possible because she doesn’t want to lose my interest, and I get that. But listen here, folks, getting it back to me quickly isn’t going to do you a damn bit of good if what you send back is in even worse shape than the first version. If you think it had to be perfect before, now it has to be even better than perfect. There aren’t many second chances in life. When you get one, use it wisely.

When an agent sends you revisions with a request to resubmit, I have a few tips:

  1. Respond with a thank-you and let the agent know you’re going to take a close look at the revisions and are looking forward to resubmitting when it’s done. DO NOT commit to a time limit. You’ll only put undo pressure on yourself.
  2. Remember that revisions to a submission are only just the tip of the iceberg. Revision letters to my clients can be pages and pages long. I’m not going to spend that time on a submission. Therefore, you have to carefully read between the lines. Look at what I’m saying and then beyond that, and fix it all.
  3. Do only what works for you. If you are fixing something because it’s what you “think” someone else wants it WILL NOT work. You need to fix only what you see needs to be fixed.

And by the way, all of this holds true even for those already represented by an agent, as well as for those under contract with a publisher.

Jessica

34 comments:

Roza M said...

Thanks for this post. It's true. Most people rush instead of taking possibly two maybe three months to make the revisions perfect.

Misty said...

Hi Jessica,
This is really tricky stuff. Your second point caught me especially. Revisions are a funny dance that require exceptional clarity and like-mindedness on both sides. This process takes a high level of communication on both ends to work.

Mark Terry said...

A suggestion to writers: interpreting editorial suggestions can be an art in itself. You really need to not jump in immediately, but try to get a sense of what the editor is suggesting.

Here's a wonderful example that the late Michael Crichton gave. He said one of his editors said, "I really think this character should be a woman." Crichton's first response was to freak out, because it would require a massive overhaul of the book, changing the character and everybody else's relationship, etc.

Crichton said after he gave it some thought and discussed the comment, he realized that (no offense, ladies) what the editor wanted was for the character to be "softer" which was a very different thing than change the sex of the character.

That's a fairly dramatic version, but I think it's worth keeping in mind when an agent or editor or someone says, "I really don't like, etc., etc." that it doesn't necessarily mean you need to jettison it or go through a dramatic change, but you should try to figure out why they're saying what they're saying.

And otherwise, well, it's your book. If you're totally opposed, well, don't change it.

Sue Harrison said...

Thank you for the excellent advice!

R.S. Bohn said...

I love when you and Rachelle Gardner answer questions I didn't even know I had -- yet. :-)

DO NOT commit to a time limit. You’ll only put undo pressure on yourself.

And that is exactly what I would've done had I not read this entry. Thank you very much.

Sally MacKenzie said...

I have to second what Mark Terry said. When Jessica gives me revisions, I think I often don't take her suggestions--at least her specific suggestions on how to fix something--but I do take her comments to heart. What they tell me is there is a problem. But I'm the writer and I'm ornery. I have to do it my way, and as long as I figure out how to address the issue to make the story stronger, Jessica is fine with that.

Deren Hansen said...

We advise writers to let some time pass between completing a draft and diving into revisions so that they can approach their work with fresh eyes.

There's a similar dynamic with readers.

In addition to all the good reasons Jessica gave, why squander the opportunity to have someone who's interested in your work take a second look at it with fresh eyes?

Louise Fury said...

AMEN!

Rachelle said...

This is SUCH important advice! I had a client guest-blog last Thursday about doing revisions based on my suggestions. She took it seriously, took her time (several months), and sent it back to me in such great shape that I had no trouble selling it.

Cathy in AK said...

I received my R&R not from an agent but from an editor. It was both exciting and terrifying, and I wanted to turn around and send revisions back ASAP. But an upcoming three week trip probably saved me. I worked on the revisions for a few weeks, went on my trip and left what I'd done with my crit partners, then spent another month polishing. The result? A contract offer. Oh, and a week later, an agent.

The editor had actually stressed in her letter about taking time to make changes. Lucky for me, I also had her fabulous notes to work from.

YMMV : )

Stephanie McGee said...

This is what I'm learning as I really and truly revise for the first time. I've a couple first drafts under my belt but those books are not salvageable at this point. It's a really delicate process, developing your intuition for revision so that you can read between the lines on the feedback you receive from anyone who reads your work to critique it.

Thanks for this.

Vickie Motter said...

Such great advice! So true. I've seen this happen so many times, it breaks my heart.

Jaxbee said...

Thanks Jessica, this is great advice and brilliantly timed for me. I'm working on revisions, really pleased with how they're going but I've already been at it a couple of months and suspect I've still got a month to go. I deliberately said 'early next year' in our correspondence so do think February is fine. However, the agent in question is currently running a competition for which the prize is representation and I do worry I'll be forgotten in the flurry of all that! So thank you, I know I have to stick to my own road but it's great to have this re-enforced by someone who knows!

Ian said...

I had an awkward R&R from an agent a few years ago. The first round of requested changes were fine, because they did improve the story. The second round went awry because the agent wanted to change a fundamental part of the story (it was a superhero tale and he wanted the powers to be eliminated) so I politely declined and continued seeking representation. I don't mind making repairs/revisions, but it bothered me that he wanted to change the story at such a fundamental level.

Keli Gwyn said...

Awesome advice, Jessica! I'm living proof that it pays to take your time on requested revisions.

When I received the revision notes from my agent and learned that I needed to ditch the final 3/4 of my story and rewrite some 75,000 words, I took several weeks to plot a new ending that lived up to the beginning that had caught her eye. Several months later I sent her a new version of the story, which she sold.

Waving at Rachelle, my agent extraordinaire.

jj. said...

Really, this is your advice to writers? Be better than perfect and read between the lines …
Seriously … ??

Dina Santorelli said...

Interesting post. I agree that the only revisions that really work are the ones that we believe in, and I feel lucky to have an agent whose opinion I greatly respect. As for the timeline, well... some of us writers (lapsed journalists) can only write under a deadline, so unless I set a due date, the novel might never, ever get done. :) Thanks for a thoughtful post!

Kristin Laughtin said...

The third point is really important. Agents should be knowledgeable about the business and what will sell and what does or doesn't work in a book, but they are still human beings with subjective tastes, and their requests for revision should be looked at with that knowledge in mind. Is their suggestion really going to make the book stronger? In most cases, the answer is probably yes, but as Jessica said, "You need to fix only what you see needs to be fixed. "

Plus, I would assume most agents know revisions are going to take time, and won't expect a very quick turnaround from a potential client anyway. At least, I hope this would be the case.

Leslie Dicken said...

And I was worried I was taking TOO long with requested revisions. I didn't want to lose an agent's interest, but I wanted to make sure it was a MUCH better book -- or why bother? It took some time to let the thoughts simmer in my brain, to find my mojo, get feedback from critique partners and then actually make the revisions. But, I'm so much happier with the results -- a better book (I hope!).

Great topic!

Sarah Allen said...

This is very good to know. I have not been in this situation yet, but its good to know for the future.

Sarah Allen
(my creative writing blog)

virtualDavis said...

Oh-so-timely. Oh-so-helpful. Thank you!

Chazley Dotson said...

Oh, this is fantastic advice, and right when I needed it. Thank you!

captivated1 said...

I'm about to start shopping for an agent for the first time and wanted to say thank you for the past several posts on this process. You've helped me to see things more realistically and I am more and more convinced the perseverance will pay, eventually.

Suzanne said...

Thanks so much for this. There have been so many times that I think if I just slept on revisions, I'd see the error of my ways the next morning. As in, never send a final ANYTHING to ANYONE when it's way past your bedtime. They won't read it until the next day (at least) anyway, and there is always more editing to be done. Sleep on it, twice if you can. Always.

Laura - Cedar Fort said...

This is good advice, not only for revising a manuscript, but for life in general: Don't rush the important stuff. Things usually work out better that way.

Anonymous said...

I can totally relate to the "freaking out" aspect when the agent suggests revisions.
My first response is fear, because I think I won't know how to fix it. My agent and I went back and forth with some ideas and I said I'd think about them. Then....a couple of days later, I came up with something that was much better than what we had discussed! So I still seize up a little at first, but I'm coming to trust the process. I'm finding that it helps to just sit with it for a while. And yes, not to panic or rush it.

Anonymous said...

I can attest that these revisions are very difficult. I had an agent advise that she liked my writing but thought there were a few problems with the story. She said I could revise and resubmit. I did revise, but her suggestions were vague, so I had to do some of that "reading between the lines." Now, however, I'm deathly afraid to resubmit it to her because what's worse than being rejected by an agent once? Being rejected by an agent twice!

Donna Hole said...

Thanks.

Its nice to know the agent isn't expecting a miraculour turn around :)

........dhole

Anonymous said...

Really, really good advice. Really good advice. When my agent took on my ms, I knew it needed major work, and she confirmed that. I was so eager to show her I could be a professional writer, I decided I should turn it around in 2 weeks to impress her.

Luckily, I never said that out loud, or in an email. I thought it'd be even more impressive if I just didn't say anything, and, voila! It magically appears in her inbox 2 weeks later! Once I dived into the revision, it became evident 2 weeks wasn't happening. 2 weeks became 2 months, and I was truckin', man, writing 6-9 hours a day, 7 days a week.

The funny thing is, she expressly said to me, "This should take some time. I'd be worried if it didn't." But in my head I was all, "Just wait! It'll only take two weeks and yet it'll still be awesome!"

It's finally sinking in that faster does not equal better.

Martha Ramirez said...

Great advice, Jessica. Thanks for posting.

Lynn said...

I recognize the wisdom here, even though I'm not looking for an agent at the moment.

Take your time. Breathe. Think.

Revisions should improve your story, not turn it into someone else's, right?

Thanks so much for sharing this.

Lynn
www.writeradvice.com
Author of You Want Me to Do WHAT? Journaling for Caregivers

Andrea Wenger said...

I once heard book editor extraordinaire Chuck Adams say that his worst editing experience was when the author made every one of the changes he suggested. Editors and agents aren't gods and goddesses. Their feedback comes from a very human place. They may be experts on the market, but they're not experts on your story. You need to use your own knowledge and discernment to make your story better. And the agent will be much more impressed with you if you improve on their suggestion than if you merely follow it.

Miles said...

Haha, is "undo pressure" a pun?

Anonymous said...

I'm a represented author. I've written my first book, netted an agent at a top agency. He asked for very minor revisions (mainly word length rediction), and I implemented that & sent him the revised version. How long should I wait to hear back?