Tuesday, May 12, 2015

An Agent's Definition of "A Lot of Work"

In response to last Friday's post on Thoughts on Sending Rejection Letters there was a great comment from a reader that I thought would be better addressed if I broke it up and posted it for the audience at large.

E.L. Wagner said...
I've heard these kinds of comments before, and as someone who is out in the trenches querying a novel, of course, it's hard not to get discouraged when an agent says they liked your book but it wasn't quite what they need for their list at the moment, but they're sure someone will end up repping it.
Out of curiosity, why would an agent feel that they personally couldn't sell a well-written and marketable novel (or get it a deal that does it justice), but another agent might be able to? It may seem like a naive question, but it's one that I've wondered about.
I get the "this is promising but it needs a lot of work yet" rejections some people get. All else being equal, who wouldn't prefer to take on a manuscript that needs a minimum amount of polishing before shopping it to publishers? But all else being equal, what makes an agent think they personally can't sell a given manuscript when someone else might be able to?

In yesterday's post I discussed why an agent might think another agent could better sell a book. Today I want to address why an agent doesn't seem willing to work with an author editorially.

Why if, "this is promising but it needs a lot of work yet" won't an agent take on the job. If this is the rejection you're getting it means that it doesn't need a minimum amount of polishing. It means that book still needs good, intense revisions, and possibly a couple of rounds of them.

I'm working with a new client right now. She just completed a very intense round of revisions for me. When I offered representation I thought the book was in great shape and of course I absolutely loved it. I did have some concerns and I addressed them with the author when I first offered, so I thought we both knew what we were getting ourselves into, but as what often happens, once I sat down to read with my editor's cap on I found a lot that was going to need revising. And let me tell you something, when an editor or agent tells you a lot needs to be changed, you better expect to move mountains. I always tell authors that "minor revisions" to an editor or agent mean something completely different (and usually much bigger) to an author.

She dove in, but I will tell you right now that book is, in some ways, a completely different book. And we might go another round or two before I'm ready to submit. And that's a minimum amount of polishing.

If an agent is telling you you have a good idea, but it still needs work you need to take a close look at the manuscript because it probably needs a good rewrite or two (or something close to that).



Virginia Anderson said...

As a long-time college writing teacher, I know as well that "revision" means quite different things to teachers and students! :-)

For me as a writer, figuring out WHAT revision is needed is the hard part. Getting people to read for you can be a challenge, given the time commitment, especially since my preferred readers are also my colleagues and their first commitments are to students. And you often get varying responses, depending on what people are reading for.

I have become better at seeing my work as a reader might see it, and my writing group has been invaluable, though a chapter a month means slow progress! I do sometimes have to prompt my group to be honest, since they hate to be "negative," and I have to be careful in turn with my comments because global critique is easily perceived as total rejection.

I'm enjoying your candid posts. I have been at both ends of this conundrum at different times.

Elissa M said...

I know many writers hate revising even when they're willing to do it. It's hard to face the idea that, after months of revisions getting your manuscript ready for querying, you now have to go back and do it all over again. It can feel like you're making no progress, and all that previous work was wasted.

I like to think that the writing I'm throwing out was just me practicing scales. The published book, no matter how many revisions it took, is the performance.

Virginia Llorca said...

Oh, man. I can't stop thinking of the most indecorous analogy. It doesn't belong here, tho.

AJ Blythe said...

I wonder how many debut authors think that once they have the contract the hard work is over for that book? Great insight yet again, Ms Faust.