Wednesday, February 03, 2010

The Sign of a Real Pro

Any of you who follow me on Twitter have heard me say this before: the sign of a good writer isn’t the first draft or even the second or third or fifth, but how well revisions are handled, each and every time they need to be handled.

Many of you probably know by now that I’m not an agent who simply sells projects. I tend to invest a lot of time in the manuscripts and proposals my clients send me before we even consider taking them to editors. In fact, I think my record is the nonfiction client who went 12 rounds of revisions before we finally felt the proposal was ready to send out. In that case I pushed her to make the book bigger than what she had originally submitted to me. While I know that each of you is doing round after round of revisions before even sending out the query, I will warn you that once you get an agent, and later when you get an editor, it’s likely you’re going to have to do another few rounds before that book is finally published.

The editing and the work you do on your own is difficult enough, but adding in the voices and opinions of your agent and editor is when you’ll face your true test. I’ve seen authors gut a finished manuscript down to the bones and I’ve seen others simply toss one out and start fresh. Neither of these tasks was easy, nor did they happen without complaint. However, they were done because the author trusted in the people she worked with and knew, in her heart, it was the right decision for her career.

What proves the professionalism of how an author handles revisions means that she honestly listens to what others have to say. That doesn’t mean blindly following whatever her agent and editor tell her. In fact, most of my authors will disagree with at least one of the revisions I suggest to her. The sign of a professional is that she listens and truly hears what agents and editors are saying and understands that they aren’t trying to make her a clone of everyone else, but truly trying to make the book the best it can be, because, let’s face it, the more success you have as an author the more success we have as agents and editors.

Listening to the criticism of others is not easy, but let me tell you, it’s a lot easier to revise a manuscript than it is to read reviews on a book you can’t do anything about.



Kimber Li said...

'understands that they aren’t trying to make her a clone of everyone else'

Ohmigoodness, I hope I get to work with an editor and an agent I can believe this about.

Because I do review books and I swear there's a Heroine Cloning Plant out there somewhere.

And it must be destroyed!

Seriously though, I need an agent who's a good communicator. I can communicate in written form with people I create myself, but, huh, like Han Solo says, "Going against the living, now that's something else."

Donna Lea Simpson said...

From experience - this is to other writers - be grateful if your agent is this meticulous and this committed to your work. It's rare.

Debra Lynn Shelton said...

I'm currently working with my agent on revisions before going to submission. I trust her implicitly, and am doing my very best to bring the vision we have for my novel to light. I haven't agreed with every suggestion she has made, but I've agreed with most. She's brilliant and insightful and "gets" my writing. Working closely with her to make my work as perfect as possible is an absolute dream come true, and I look forward to delving deeper into the process with an editor. I feel absolutely blessed.

Richard Mabry said...

Quite right. My work goes through x + 1 + 1 sets of revisions. I do x, until I think it shines. My agent does +1, and I've learned to heed her words. Then my editor adds the final +1, and I try to transform her suggestions into better writing while retaining my own voice.
Wasn't it Michener who said he wasn't a great writer, but was a great editor? Both are necessary for success.

Heidi Willis said...

That last line is GOLD!!

Every author should have that taped to her computer!!

Stephanie said...

You have to think of your agent and editors as team members...everyone has to work together to make the book a success. If you go into this process thinking your work is are not going to make it very far.

Alexis Grant said...

Love this! (Suppose it helps that I enjoy revising.)


Unknown said...

You want to have a good team together that will give you good criticism. I try and take it and listen carefully to what would improve the book, becuase lets face it we all want it to be successful! Listening is important!

Great post!

Buffy Andrews said...

Well said. A writer has to remember that the agent and editor etc. want what they want -- the book to be the best it can be. I say, "Bring it on and let's make this book the best damn book it can be." No one should ever settle for mediocre. If you're willing to settle, I'm not the editor for you. I tell my reporters this all the time. I'm simply not interested in working with people who don't want to do the best work of their lives. I'm committed to helping them do this and I expect them to be committed as well. If they aren't, they can go work for someone else. Might sound harsh, but that's the way I feel. Turns out I have a great team who feel the way I do. They want tough editing. They want to be challenged. They want to learn. As a writer, I want that, too.

Rick Daley said...

I'm in fourth revision of a manuscript (incorporating 95% of my agent's feedback, because it was spot-on).

I'm glad she doesn't want to send it out before it's ready. I'm also frustrated that I can't know it's there before I click send, but every revision I've submitted has been a vast improvement, and I think I'm getting very close to the final draft.

Please cross your fingers for me! Mine are too busy typing for me to cross them myself.

Spy Scribbler said...

Oh definitely! I'm always so relieved to know beforehand, before I let readers down or make a fool of myself, LOL. I'm not as worried about the latter, but when I know in my heart about the former, I can beat myself up for years. Revisions are a relief!

Lola Sharp said...

This is my first time here, and Jessica, that last line IS gold.

An excellent post. Well done.

(hey, my word verification is "wrimo". Interesting, that.)


Anonymous said...

I'm curious...if a manuscript has to be gutted or practically rewritten, what about it made the agent take on the author as a client to begin with? Or are these coming from writers who are already clients?

Danica M. Rice said...

Brilliant post.. I know that this will be necessary once I get published.. But it's surprising how many will think it's not necessary, and how easily it can be forgotten. I honestly look forward to the day when i hear from my agent and editor regarding their thoughts, and I will keep this article in mind because while it may be difficult to take the criticism at first, it'll all be worthwhile, and you reminded me (and I'm sure countless others) of this crucial fact.

D. Antone said...

Great comments. I've learned that one of the best way to learn to deal with revisions is to let a lot of people see your work and express their opinion about it. I know the process has given me thicker skin.

Mira said...

My fingers are crossed for you, Rick. Good luck! :)

Love the last line too, Jessica.

Honestly, I feel very ambivalent about this. I get alittle nervous about the idea that the I'm supposed to turn control of my work over to someone else who isn' :)

I absolutely value feedback, of course. It's essential. So, I think this one would depend upon whether the agent or the editor shared my vision for the work. If they did, it could be truly wonderful. If they didn't - hopefully, I'll be smart enough to gently end the relationship and look for someone else who does share my vision.

Kate Douglas said...

I think the most important thing in this post is "trust." I am very lucky in that I trust both my agent and my editor to steer me in the right direction, but they also trust me to know what my story requires. I've done numerous revisions for Jessica and they've always made the work better--and the really cool thing is that my editor has requested very few revisions because Jessica's gotten to them first. It's a win/win situation, and I honestly think the result is a much better book.

A.L. Sonnichsen said...

Thanks for this wonderful post, Jessica. As an unpublished writer who participates in critique groups with other unpublished writers, I really struggle with this one. It's so difficult to know when to take advice and when not to. Even with line editing help, it's difficult, because you want your own unique voice. But does anyone want to read a unique voice that uses unnecessary words? I haven't figured that out yet: if there's a simpler way to say something, should we always write it? Or does that "clone" us and neutralize our unique voice?

Anonymous said...

It's a difficult balance to manage, as a writer, dealing with criticism. And you have to be diplomatic all the times so you don't look like a diva. But there are ways to deal with criticism that isn't needed (or bad criticism you don't like), and it takes a certain amount of clever, polite manipulation, on the writer's part, to know how to "handle" the agent or editor and let them think they are right at all times, even when they are wrong. And from what I've found, most of the time they are.

This way everyone is happy and no egos are bruised. And the writer still gets what's best for the book without hurting anyone's feelings.

And when the writer learns how to manipulate people this way, and always remains looking good at the same time, that's what I call the true sign of a real pro.

Carolyn V. said...

Oh, that's probably true. No wonder we are warned not to be difficult writers/revisers. =) Thanks for the post.

R.M.Gilbert said...

This is one area a solid critique group is helpful. First, as a writer you learn to deal effectively with critiques and realize quickly NO MANUSCRIPT IS PERFECT. Second, after agents/editors suggest changes there are other who can pick through the rewrites to find anything you might have missed before you resubmit.

One of the first things I did when deciding to pursue writing a little over a year ago, was apply to a crit group. It's one of the best choices I've ever made.

I can't wait for the an agent tells me to fix something, because that means, I'm on my way.

Thanks for the post. :)

R.M.Gilbert said...

Another reason a crit group is good...they can read things, like my post above (when my son is on my lap helping me type) and say, "Gilbert, you missed a few things, like, spelling and grammar."

Got to love having a 4 year old helping you out.

Lindsey Edwards said...

The time and effort you put into your clients careers are what make you an awesome agent! I hope one day I am lucky enough to have an agent so dedicated to her job.

I know the round of edits that come after signing with an agent and then signing with a publishing company can be seemingly never-ending, but as you said it's to make the author bigger and better.

Anonymous said...

Most non-book writing gigs -- magazine articles, corporate material, etc. -- tend to be highly collaborative with a lot of drafts. You get accustomed to accepting and (here's the important part) analyzing feedback so you can use it to improve the work. Sometimes feedback needs to be interpreted. And sometimes it needs to be rejected. But it should always be listened to.

Anonymous said...

I don't want an agent messing aorund with revisions. That's what editors are for. I want an agent SELLING. Reject it if you can't sell it. Don't try and play editor. Ain't your job.

Ann Elle Altman said...

What you say is true. You have to learn what is good advice and what isn't. How much to edit, how much to strip, how much to add, who to listen to.

great blog.


Jenna Wallace said...

Anon at 3:04, you are going to leave yourself a very small pool of agents who meet your criteria. And why wouldn't you want to collaborate with an agent who sees literally thousands of projects, probably reads about the same number of books each year, and knows what works for the editors they are pitching to?

It IS the agent's job to make sure a manuscript is ready to be pitched. If you don't know that, you don't understand this business.

Kim Lionetti said...

Anonymous 3:04 --

I guess everyone has their own perception of what their agent's job would be.

I think, however, that most of our clients would disagree with you. And I certainly consider revisions part of my job. I'd feel as if I were "slacking" if I didn't help them bring their work to its fullest potential. I'm not going to just slap our letterhead on a project and send it out to a mailing list. I wouldn't feel I was earning my commission that way.

Gordon Jerome said...

You are insane. I'm taking a closer look at your last two posts in my blog tomorrow.

You must be coming apart--no one talks to other human beings this way.

Gordon Jerome
A Literary Experience

Anonymous said...

yawn. princess gordo is a douche

Kim Lionetti said...


I've seen your blog. You're the last person I'd listen to on how to speak to other human beings.

Anonymous said...


Your comment made me curious, so I checked Gordon's blog. You don't love it? It's exactly what I'd write, were I afflicted with some terrible disease that prevented dissimulation.

Anonymous said...

I'm with Anon 10:33- posts like these make me so confused. Everyone always insists that before you even think about sending off to agents your MS has to be pretty much perfect, which to me translates as, "Your work must be a masterpiece or else it's Form Rejection for you."

So I guess my question is, what kind of editing gets done by agents/editors? Is it small things like grammar/wording/inconsistencies? Or is it big things like character/plot in general?

JDuncan said...

Timely post, Jessica. I will be getting my editor's revisions at the end of the week. While not extensive (this is entirely subjective of course), they may require a fair bit of rewriting. Three or four things I will have to think about. Will be interesting to get these and see exactly what this means. This is my first go around with this process, and it's both exciting and intimidating. I handle critique fairly well, so not worried much on that end. My greatest fear really is that the editor's view will veer in a direction radically different than my own. While I don't foresee this, I trust she knows what needs to happen to make this story better and more viable for the market and because this is a series, orienting things for the long run. This isn't something I have expertise in. I've never written a series, so how can I do anything but trust the ones who have the expertise? Besides, they want my story to succeed as much as I do. We're in this together, and while I'm putting the words on the page, this is now a group effort. And I for one and happy to be a part of it.

Kim Lionetti said...

Anon 10:33 and 6:51 --

After offering representation on a manuscript, we rarely ask that the book be "gutted" or completely rewritten. If it requires that much work but we still like the writing, then we would more likely offer editorial advice and tell the writer that if they choose to take our suggestions and would like to resubmit, we'd be happy to take another look. That said, I don't think I've ever taken on a client and told them I didn't think the manuscript needed any work at all. It's probably more than just grammar issues, but less than an entire reworking. For example -- a section could be tightened here to improve the pacing, or when the character says this it's really hard to sympathize with him, etc....

I do discuss these issues with the writer when I first offer representation. Sometimes they like my suggestions and it encourages them to sign with me. Sometimes another agent's response resonates with them more and they go elsewhere.

For established clients on their second, fourth or seventh book, however, we often become their critique partner and so we become more involved from the very beginning. Unlike their first book that we offered on, they haven't had as much time to hone or receive as much feedback from peers, so they welcome revisions. As Jessica said, they may not always agree with our suggestions and that's fine, because ultimately we understand that it's their book. But it's important that we respect one another's perspectives and remain open to hearing each other out. That's the mark of professionalism that Jessica's talking about.

Sharon K. Mayhew said...

Anonymous 3:04--It must be nice to have your confidence. I take all the advice I can get. :)

Anonymous said...

"I think, however, that most of our clients would disagree with you."

I'm sure they would, in front of you. Unfortunately, you have no way of knowing what they are really thinking.

Anonymous said...

"That's the mark of professionalism that Jessica's talking about."

That's one way to look at it, I'm sure.

But another mark of professionalism, for a writer, is to agree with everything, smile and nod, and then figure out a way to get what you want without bruising anyone's inflated ego. There's a psychology involved that comes with time and experience.

When it ultimately comes down to who is going to take the heat in reviews and comments on a book, it's the author. No one else! And I've seen too many good authors take the heat because an agent, editor, or some other know-it-all made the wrong suggestions. The one thing I've never seen is a blog post about this topic. I wonder why. Could it be that when this happens everyone who gave the adivce jumps ship and leaves the author stranded?

Sorry for the rant. I understand this post wasn't written with bad intentions. But when you're posting about author-agent relationships you should take into consideration that there aren't just unpubbed writers reading these posts.

Lorelei Armstrong said...

I think I did well working with the editor on my last novel, but I've had only one similarly good experience with an agent. A couple of other agents signed me, sent notes, and when I wanted to discuss them suddenly they were unavailable. I got the feeling that I was a "problem" client, and before long I wasn't a client any more.

I'll be searching for an agent again in a few months, and that is my biggest fear. That they will not want to hear from me about their notes, they will just want me to execute. Sigh.

Anonymous said...

Thanks Kim:

That makes a lot of sense. I, for one, WANT an agent who makes revision suggestions. Why would anyone turn down an opportunity to have two different experts (agent and editor) helping them better their book - and therefore, their career?

As for all you folks who seem to be in a perpetual bad mood or unnecessarily don't deserve agents like Kim and Jessica.

Anon 10:33

Anonymous said...

"Why would anyone turn down an opportunity to have two different experts (agent and editor) helping them better their book - and therefore, their career?"

Some of you people are so dense.

The writer takes the final hit, not the agent, editor, or publisher. And if you can't trust your own instincts as a writer, maybe you shouldn't be doing it.

Anonymous said...


You want to see an agent or editor run faster than a speeding bullet?

When book reviewers slam something in a book that they advised the client to write.

Simon Hay said...

I'd expect, and I'm sure most writers would too, that revisions will occur. I want my best work to be read, and I tend to lose objectivity. Bravo to you for being passionate and committed to your authors.

Kimber Li said...

To tell you the truth, then, I'm no pro.


The last time I interacted with an editor, she wanted me to rewrite history. I was so flabberghasted that she believed I made up my facts after MONTHS of research, I never responded. I had no idea what to do, except clean the coffee spit off my computer screen. An agent really would have come in handy.

I still have no idea how to handle a situation like that.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for the reply Kim! That makes a lot more sense now (actually I don't know why I didn't think of it before... it seems so obvious??)

Thanks again :)

- Anon 6:51

Sally MacKenzie said...

Late to the party here, but I had to respond, having just gone through revisions with Jessica on my seventh contracted book. She's invaluable to me in helping me see the big picture, since I'm so deep into the words and sentence structure I sometimes can't see the forest for the trees. And I know what's in my head--well, sometimes I can't quite remember if what's in my head stayed on the paper--so it's great to get a fresh read from someone who's very interested in seeing me succeed and my career grow.

Jessica doesn't give me a line edit--she just tells me what in the story didn't work for her. She'll often give me suggested fixes which I often don't agree with. This time she suggested developing one aspect of the story more, but I didn't want to go that way so instead I decided to tone that part down. The point wasn't the specific fix, it was that there was a problem. I ran the revised story by her and she thought it worked the way I'd done it.

I sometimes fuss at her when we have these conversations, but I know from experience the process always makes the book better.

I've found that editors don't always have time to edit--or at least not as promptly as I'd like. Also when up against a deadline, I can't get the perspective I need to see what is working and what isn't.

Samantha Clark said...

Great post, Jessica. I think it's great to have an agent who's a partner on your work.

I've been blogging about the Austin SCBWI conference this week, and agents doing edits came up in a few presentations. Agent Nathan Bransford, for example, said that with the state of the publishing industry, houses aren't taking chances on books and authors the way they used to, and with fewer editors on the payroll, each doing more work, there's less time for editors to work on a book. So, publishers are looking for books that are pretty much shelf-ready. Because of this, it's important for agents to do whatever they can to help the author get that book as good as it can be before it goes out to an editor so the book can sell. Nathan also said that he doesn't impose his vision of what the book should be but helps bring out the writer's vision.

Editors and other agents at the conference echoed what Nathan said. One editor said that when they take on a book, they don't know how well a writer can revise. So, if it's a new author, they prefer to have a book really close to shelf ready in case the author isn't a good reviser and they have to print the book as is.

Ultimately, publishing is a business, and a bad book isn't going to make money, so there's no reason for an agent or editor to make suggestions that will hurt a book. They both want the book to succeed so they can make money.

Both agents and editors at the conference said the revision process is a back and forth and everyone is trying to make the best book possible. And, authors should trust their instincts. If they don't agree with a note given by an agent or editor, they should say so. Be professional, consider all the notes, take what works and revise, and explain why they don't agree with the notes they don't feel will work. Often better ways can be found through the back and forth, but ultimately -- and again, both the editors and agents said this -- it's the author's name on the book, so the author has the final say. The author doesn't have to agree, and doesn't have to make the change.

If an author makes changes the agent suggested, the author should agree with those changes.

This is why, as Nathan said, it's so important for a writer to have the RIGHT agent, not an agent. Because they have to trust each other and see eye to eye.

Anonymous said...

With all due respect to the agents and authors here, I have to disagree w/ the premise of agent rewrites.

I fully understand you are doing what you can to make the MS as strong as possible etc.

But I want to be rejected if you think my work can;t be sold as is (or with some minor tuning). Seven revisions is co-authoring a book. I have no idea how to be n agent. That's why I need you. If you could write a steady stream of marketable books, you;d be an author.

Editors are people handing you money (ok not by hand, but you get the idea!) so if they want a revision (and you agree with it) DO IT. IF an agent makes a suggestion and it makes sense to you - fine.

If an agent says rewrite this or I won;t send it out - you need a new agent because you are not on the same page (oooooh bad pun... bad bad bad)

Anyway, I hope none of this is taken as a flame, I have no reason to think ill of anyone who has posted here, and I hope none of this is taken personally.

I simply feel that as an author I am asking the agent to send my work out and negotiate deals on my behalf. I welcome feedback and advice, but I do not rewrite for anyone who is not paying for the work. Again, if my agent thinks it won't sell as is, he is free to reject it. I fully expect that he will. If not, I would ask that he try to sell it and leave the revision requests to the people who want to publish it.

steeleweed said...

I suggest anyone interested in the author/agent/publisher/revision merry-go-round read John Masters' Pilgrim Son. It's autobiographic, covering his decision to become a writer, thru his success. It sheds a lot of light on how it looks to the author and what the choices are.

Chaoticia said...

Revision is usually important, but I don't think revision alone is what makes a masterful writer as opposed to maybe a professional one.

Kimber Li said...

I can understand Anon 12:54's opinion, I think.

If the agent or editor doesn't like the story, why are they requesting revisions in the first place?

I think this is another big reason why I would need an agent and/or editor who is a *good communicator.* If a revision letter sounds like a demand that the author completely rewrite the book or else, then, of course, the author is going to be a little put out.

Bill in Detroit said...

I think the point was made that the willingness to consider the informed opinions of other stake-holders and to revise intelligently based on their voices is a dividing line between an immature writer and a professional.

The professional, having poured their life's blood into a manuscript is then able to take a step away from it and consider it, with a certain coolness, as a product that may need considerable polishing before it will sell well.

The hobbyist defends every mole, flaw, streak and blemish and wastes the time and money of all concerned.

And, if you aren't writing to make the sale, why are you submitting to agents and publishers?

Kimberly Kincaid said...

Wow. I haven't had a chance to hop on the blogosphere this week until now, and it looks like I have really missed out.

Suffice it to say that I am even more keenly aware of the different ways people perceive the writing process. Me personally, I relish the opportunity to adjust my work when I'm offered advice by someone who obviously has a lot of knowledge and experience. And I think it's crucial to point out that, while it's my name that ultimately ends up on the front of the book (and in the reviews), if I don't agree with what an agent or editor wants in a revision (especially to the point that I would think it affects said reviews of my work), then I should say so and face not continuing with the project.

You see plenty of authors thanking their agents wholeheartedly in the acknowledgements sections of their successful books. It's not just for brokering deals, people. It's for all of the hard work that came before that deal took place, INCLUDING suggestions for revisions. Most agents have keen eyes and keener insights. I'm grateful for what they have to offer, even if it stings.

Sometimes, the truth hurts. It's still the truth.

Just my 2/c. I thought the original post was very insightful.