Thursday, January 24, 2019

What makes an agent take on a book that needs editing?

I frequently read interviews with debut authors. Almost all authors mention how much their agents contributed to their manuscripts, including numerous revisions. This is also a common theme in the acknowledgments of debut books.

Agents often say they are looking for very polished manuscripts. However, it seems that many agents still provide a degree of editing, some of it substantial. I’ve heard from recent debut authors about how their agent changed the solutions of their mystery novels, re-worked flat endings, added character POV chapters, and other major changes that weren’t caught by betas or CPs.

So, I’m wondering, what is going on when agents decide to take on a project which they still intend to edit significantly. What are the deciding factors that prompt an agent to offer rep on one MS that requires work versus another if both were worth a full request? How does an author know when her book is ready to query if many agents still expect to make big revisions? How does she know if she’s done her due diligence with revisions before querying?

Ok…that was many related questions! As always, thank you for all you do for writers. Your blog is my absolute favorite for understanding publishing and writing. I’ve learned so much.

ok, so you are running that rodent wheel full time aren't you?
Are you using it to heat the Jacuzzi during this cold spell?

I can only answer for myself on this.
I read requested fulls all the time.

The first thing I look for is voice.
I can fix almost anything but voice.

The next thing I look for is interesting plot.
I can make suggestions for improving the plot, but the plot has to be there before I can revise it. And it has to be something I'm interested in. You have ZERO control over this and shouldn't worry about it.

Then I look for pacing and tension.
This is where most manuscripts crash and burn.

When all those elements are in place, I can usually see some places that could use some polish. Or, some geographical elements in NYC need to be corrected. Or something.

But this doesn't address the real question you're asking: how do you know when your ms is ready?

That's an answer that varies author to author, ms to ms.

However here are some guidelines:

(1) Have you revised more than 20 times?
No, I'm not kidding. It's the revisions after you think you're done that produce the best writing.

I know this for an ironclad fact (for me!) because the lines you all mention in particular blog posts are almost always the very last line I wrote. And often wrote after I thought I was done.

(2) Have you made an index card for each scene listing how the plot moves forward or characters change in each one?

(3) Have you written a synopsis that includes words and phrases like "must choose" "But then", "unexpectedly" "except" that turn the plot in a different direction? Without a twist, or surprise, the book is probably flat.

In the movie Spotlight, a fairly straightforward chronological narrative, in which the audience knows the extent of the problem before the main characters do, the plot twists when the team learns sealed court documents are now public; and, when they learn to their dismay that they had all this information years ago.

Twists can deepen the story, as it does here.

Or it can turn a story on its ear as it does in Gone Girl, Gone Baby Gone, Mystic River, and almost every Agatha Christie novel ever published.

Without plot twists, without surprises, I'm just moving my eyes across the page, I'm not enthralled.

The other thing to remember here is that the experiences of other writers will not be yours. While it's interesting to hear other writers talk about how they found their pet shark, or how the manuscript was gnawed to perfection, that is NOT replicable. Writers are not fungible. Neither are manuscripts.

Is your book ready?
The best way to assess is to recognize good writing and see it on the page even if it's your own work.

I've gone back into this blog's archives on occasion, and sometimes I think "that was a deft turn of phrase, I'm so glad Barbara Poelle said that!" and a lot of times I think "oh man, I can make that better!"

Good beta readers; an outside editor; contests; classes. All those things can help you assess.

But remember this too: lack of success is not failure. Not trying is failure. If you think you're ready, go for it. The worst thing that will happen is you'll be held captive by a snarling pack of wolves on the Alaskan tundra and forced to learn to howl in C flat. hear nothing.


Carolynnwith2Ns said...


CynthiaMc said...

We just had a 3 day Parish mission with Father Jim Sichko. Last night he spoje on this very thing. He gave a rundown on Biblical figures and why they should never have been able to accomplish all that they accomplished (Moses stuttered, David was an adulterer, Rahab was a prostitute, somebody was a drunk, John the Baptist ate bugs - it was a lengthy list). And the bottom line was - never underestimate what God can do through you.

I bought a copy of his book. He talks about being a preacher not a writer, yet he was able with the help of other writers to put it together.

We are writers. That's our calling. That's why we're here.

Let's do it.

(He's flying to Los Angeles today. If you get a chance to hear him, go.)

Timothy Lowe said...

"How does plot move forward / characters change in each scene"

Post-it note on CPU. Now returning to regularly scheduled programming . . .

Kitty said...

I regularly reread all the stories I've written for Janet’s flash fiction contests. After the contests have closed, and the winners have been posted, I periodically go back and reread my stories. Without exception, I tweak them. I can’t help it. I change a word here and rewrite a passage there. While I always stay within the 100-word limit, I don’t always use the prompt words. These rewrites are for me. Over the years I’ve been amazed at some of the stories I've written for her contests. Thank you, Janet.

Amy Johnson said...

"... the lines you all mention in particular blog posts are almost always the very last line I wrote." Wondering if "slobbery slope" was the last thing you wrote for yesterday's post, Janet. Chuckling has resumed.

E.M. Goldsmith said...

" It's the revisions after you think you're done that produce the best writing"

This is painfully true. I have been gearing up to query my book since end of summer, thinking, I could only possibly have one more good revision left. Doh! So I have a clean, wonderful book in December. I do a workshop. I give latest polish to my go-to editor/beta reader. Both come back with the exact same torturous phrase. "you are almost there". Almost. It's almost there. Which is not all the way.

I take in both sets of feedback and apply. Then start to read through to my ever patient pug and realize my chapters are too long. It messes up the pace. So now I am restructuring the book - by my own instinct - not because of any feedback - and the pace is a gazillion times better. And the writing is improving as I make the revisions to work with this new structure. And I thought I was done, done, done.

It's killing me to be doing another revision. It means another beta read. It delays my jump into the trenches. I hate it. I am so tired of being "almost there". But the writing - so much better. I can really feel it. I feel certain the agents I query will see it as well.

Colin Smith said...

If an agent or editor plays such a significant part in the writing of the novel (e.g., changing plots, developing characters, re-writing chapters), shouldn't they get co-author credit?

We know ideas are a dime-a-dozen. You don't have to be a writer to have an idea. I can understand an agent or editor having ideas about how a novel can turn. But it must be up to the writer to decide if those ideas are good, and to shape and craft those ideas into well-written prose. Even adapt the ideas to make them even better.

When I send my work out to beta readers, I don't expect them to re-write stuff for me. I expect them to tell me the kinds of things Janet says are "fixable": the pacing's slow here, this was predictable, this character needs more depth, this was jarring, etc. I don't expect my beta readers to tell me how to fix these things, or re-write them for me. They might have ideas, and they might even make suggestions, but I don't ask for them, and I can take or leave their ideas. This is what I would expect of an agent or editor. If I need to be told how to slow/quicken pacing, how do develop a character, or how to make a plot twist satisfying, I'm not ready to query. Not by a long shot. Even if I have a great voice and a compelling story idea.

That's my thought, anyway.

Cecilia Ortiz Luna said...

I will hazard a guess that one of the things an agent takes into consideration in offering rep to an "almost there" MS is if there is a strong indication that the writer has the skills to execute the suggested edits. If the manuscript shows voice, adeptness with POV, pacing and evocation, distinct characters and crisp prose, the agent will know that the writer will be able to comply with directives such as "quicken the pacing in chapter 4" or "merge the characters of the asshole brother and the asshole landlord into one".

shanepatrickwrites said...

I live and play in Alaska. Wolves fangs and howls be sharp.

Julie Weathers said...

I have two ladies who have been with me for many years. We have a great deal of trust about our comments and advice. So, we'll give advice on changing a word or if something isn't plain etc. It's usually spot on, but we have homed in on each other after all this time.

I took a Margie Lawson class with one of them a while back and one of the exercises was on smiles and how to amp them up if you're going to use them and make them do double duty. B suggested two word changes and one of them was a word that I would never have thought of. I hope this has turned into one of those bits that people read and think, "I love that. I can see precisely what's happening."

As Janet said, these kinds of lines often come only after a lot of revising.

I'm reading aloud now from a hard copy and making more changes. Then it will go to beta readers old and new.

Brenda said...

4) Have you set the Beast aside for awhile to work on something else? The rewrite/s when you come back with fresh eyes are the best ones.
I’m frustrated with how slowly I’m learning but at least I’m learning.

John Davis Frain said...

Okay, I'm gonna take a guess at today's final edit, but I'm super torn between a couple. I'm going with:

I've gone back into this blog's archives on occasion, and sometimes I think "that was a deft turn of phrase, I'm so glad Barbara Poelle said that!"

Bold was the last added line.

But I'm with Tim Lowe. I'm writing an index card (How does plot move forward? / How is character revealed?), and it's going on my story board. Honestly, I'm looking forward to the next edit. I feel a little giddy right now.

Adele Cabot said...

Thank you! I’m re-reading every word and revising my novel for the last time again and again and again...I thought it was just me. Yay!

Janet Reid said...

John Davis Frain Nope, that was one of the FIRST lines I wrote!

Jennifer Mugrage said...

Question: my novel has plenty of twists, but the twists don't happen in the first 5, 10, or 20 pages, which is what you will be reading when I query. Nor are the twists easy to describe in a query-length synopsis. It's an epic fantasy with a dynamic main character, so it starts slow and builds up gradually.

How can I get anybody to look at it?

"If I need to be told how to slow/quicken pacing, how to develop a character, or how to make a plot twist satisfying, I'm not ready to query. Not by a long shot."
I agree!

John Davis Frain said...

Haha, I followed the instructions backwards. Life is like a blog.

Here's a conundrum from today's post. We've all heard about the challenges of getting ten pounds of excrement into a five-pound bag. That's what my mind conjures when I think about twenty revisions and getting finished in a six-month time frame.

Which means ... back to editing. Tip o' the cap to Julie Weathers as I turn over the sand timer.

Janet Reid said...

Jennifer Mugrage I'm not looking for the twists and turns in the query. This post is about requested fulls. You're going to be just fine.

Until of course, I ratchet up my tormenting tactics and ask for a major twist in the first five pages.

Or on the first page.

No, wait...the first sentence!

That odd sound you hear when you tilt your head to the left is shark cackles.

Timothy Lowe said...


In response to your question about co-authorship:

In my experience, the editorial letter will reference broad concerns, i.e.: that character overcomplicates things. Find a way to eliminate him (not easily done in an interwoven plot), or there are too many unbelievable twists, simplify. It's an author's job, not an agent's, to solve the issue. In one of what turned out to be two massive rewrites I did last year prior to subbing, I developed a 25 page outline at my agent's behest. Then, of course, the rewrite deviated significantly. It got the job done, though, at least in his eyes. (If anyone ever deserved the bottles of wine I sent over the holidays, it was this guy.)

It's always a writer's job to figure out the story. Agents can (and do) help, but the writer ultimately has to figure out what the characters want by listening to what they're saying.

Jennifer Mugrage said...

Thanks, Janet.
You're pretty reasonable for a shark.

The Sleepy One said...

If an agent or editor plays such a significant part in the writing of the novel (e.g., changing plots, developing characters, re-writing chapters), shouldn't they get co-author credit?

Colin, in my experience (working with both my agent and my editor at a publishing house), they don't rewrite the manuscript or tell anyone what to write. But point out things like, "something major should happen here to amp up the tension." Or "I really wish we found out more about your character's backstory here instead of waiting for three chapters." etc.

Elissa M said...

I don't know how many revisions I've done on my manuscript. Way more than 20. I think any writer who knows the exact number of revisions they've done probably hasn't done enough.

Also, because no one else said it and I can't let it go by: C flat is B natural. (And B sharp is C.)

Beth Carpenter said...

Elissa, I was wondering about that.

Janet Reid said...

Elissa M, and Beth Carpenter
Cflat was intended to be a joke (be natural howls!) but I think I wasn' enough.

Nom de plume said...

I just got home after having "lack of success is not failure. Not trying is failure" tattooed to my arm and now I can finally comment on this post.

It's so nice to have concrete ideas of how to evaluate my own work. I'm also glad to know I wasn't going off the rails when I made a chapter-by-chapter spreadsheet of character goals, stakes, and questions which prompt the reader to move forward.

I just had a draft of my MS edited by someone from my professional organization & she pointed out exactly where she needed more tension to keep her interested. For me it was more of an astute reader giving a review than a co-author. It sounds like others had a similar experience with their agents/editors.

Glad to have this piece of the puzzle in place. Back to writing or, rather, re-writing, since that's where the magic lies.

AJ Blythe said...

Nooo. I haven't done step 2. As I'm about to dive in for another round of edits, I'll add this step in =)

Elissa M said...

Janet, I got the joke, really. It's just that after decades of playing reed instruments, I've finally started learning piano (a childhood dream). And, well, I'm very cognizant of the lack of a black key between "B" and "C" right now. :)