Your Agent’s Editorial Ideas

Here’s an important thing that came up in my getting multiple offers post, and I wanted to expound and also to make sure you all saw it. Seth asked:

How about comparing each agent’s ideas for your novel? Is it prudent to make such a long-term decision based on short-term ideas? In other words, does the agent’s vision for this specific novel impact whether you should sign with him/her long-term?

Here was my answer from the comments:

Oh, yeah! Their ideas for your work will show you how they think, how they interpret your vision, and all about their editorial style. Since they’re going to be your first editor for this project and more, you need to mesh on this level. It’s very important. My critique partner was considering going with an agent and liked most of this agent’s ideas for her very literary, very dark manuscript. Then the agent asked, no joke, “Can you make this more like Gossip Girl?” That was going to be a HUGE problem, both short-term AND long-term.

***

True story about the Gossip Girl thing, by the way.

I am constantly amazed by writers who come to me after already having had an agent, and the stories they tell. Multiple times, I’ve been looking at a new client’s manuscript and I’ve seen that something doesn’t belong…it feels tacked on…a little forced. “I don’t get the dead pet dog story,” I tell them (or whatever it happens to be). A lot of the time, the response is, “Oh, my old agent said I had to have it in there because it would make the character’s backstory more sad.”

Well, no wonder it feels forced! It’s not truly the writer’s idea!

As an editorial agent, I am always looking to answer the following question: “What is the heart of your story?” And then: “How does everything else tie into the heart of your story?” The key words in both of those questions? “Your story.”

I don’t like to be prescriptive in terms of ideas, though sometimes I do get an idea that I can’t help floating by the writer. But most of the time, I say, “This isn’t working right here, what can YOU come up with to make it more in tune with what you’re trying to do in this moment?” I never say, “Well, clearly, you need to do this, this, and this.” Why not? Because then it becomes my story, not your story.

Michael Chabon and his wife, writer, Ayelet Waldman, as the rumor goes, critique each other’s work. The only thing they ever write to each other in the margins, though, is something along the lines of “You can do better” next to a weak or iffy part. I am much closer to the “giving specific critique” side, but I do it in the spirit of, “You can do better.” Because I don’t want to tromp through your story and leave my footprints everywhere.

Don’t get me wrong. If parts of your story or a character or a subplot don’t work or aren’t marketable, you’ll hear about it. And you may get an idea or two for what might work in its place. But the work — and that includes the majority of the idea work — is up to you.

So yes. Do weigh an agents editorial ideas for your piece very heavily, as well as their editorial style. I can’t tell you how many writers I talk to — not just clients — who’ve done revisions that they don’t agree with just because an editor or agent told them to. Sure, notes from a professional are impressive and seem convincing, but it’s your story, at the end of the day. If you are writing something literary and have an agent request the next Gossip Girl, they’re most definitely not the right agent for you. Trust your gut when listening to their editorial feedback, it will never lead you astray.

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  1. KinDallas’s avatar

    Mary — thanks for this great post, because it’s so true. I was in a similar situation in April. I had two agents interested in my manuscript. Both were great, personable and liked my work. The first agent wanted some specific changes I was a little lukewarm about. The second agent said, “this one character felt a touch flat to me, any ideas?” I went off for two weeks and thought about her feedback. Newsflash–I discovered she was a) right and b) I knew how to fix the issue in a way that melded with my own story and my own style.

    I signed with the second agent.

  2. Cat Woods’s avatar

    Mary,

    I think it is essential for us as writers to understand the relationship between agent and author and know what we want in a partnership. We must also share the same general vision. I would be leary of any agent that asked me to drastically change the over all tone of my manuscript. Going from dark and literary to gossipy and shallow would not be my idea of a shared vision.

    I think the best agent/editor is one who enhances the existing writing and helps authors hone their craft.

    My favorite feedback from an agent to date listed some of the things that didn’t work along with some questions that made me think about my manuscript in a new light. This was followed by, “What do you think?”

    Specific feedback, while leaving me in the writer’s seat to brainstorm how I could strengthen my writing. It highlights your quote perfectly: “I don’t want to tromp through your story and leave my footprints everywhere.”

    Instead of giving me a worn path to follow, Wonder Agent gave me a brochure of the territory and let me choose how I would get to our designated meeting place.

    Thanks for the post~ cat

  3. Krista V.’s avatar

    This is great advice when evaluating the feedback from any reader, be it an agent, an editor, or a critique partner. I recently read on another blog…somewhere…that when a reader spots a problem area in your manuscript, she’s probably right – and if she tells you how to fix it, she’s probably wrong:)

  4. Olleymae’s avatar

    I think an agent’s style and approach to critiquing would be the biggest deciding factor in whether or not the relationship could work.

    Mary, it sounds like you’re an awesomely considerate suggester!

    Krista V. — I love that quote, that’s hilarious!!

  5. Kay’s avatar

    Thanks for another reminder … that writing the story is the easy part. Like any product, the marketing process is the make or break point.

  6. Franziska Green’s avatar

    I do find Gossip Girl a bit sinister. But only because the characters’ looks and behavior make me shudder with contempt. Realize that puts me out of sync with a huge chunk of the young adult population but I can’t help it!

  7. KellieD’s avatar

    Just got a critique today from a soon-to-be pubbed author. Her words were “I challenge you to. . . ” and I thought that was so great. I love rising to a challenge! Like “You can do better” with a bit of a gauntlet thrown down! Really helped to inspire my revisions on my latest WIP. Thanks for the post, Mary. Hope you are enjoying the east coast/mid-Atlantic!

  8. Terri’s avatar

    Great post Mary. I’ve had similar thoughts recently as my critique relationships develop and grow. I SO appreciate the moments when they point out what doesn’t work or could be better. I appreciate suggestions or a direction on what COULD make it better, but the process of figuring out the fix in a way that’s in line with my overall vision is what makes the whole experience of writing alive and satisfying. Ultimately, it needs to be my story and my story written in my voice (not my story reworded to sound like someone else’s voice.)

    And in the end, if my blood, sweat, and tears don’t yield material that is marketable, I want it to be because MY story didn’t work, not the story I allowed to become my agents or editor’s or critique partner’s story.

  9. Heidi Norrod’s avatar

    An awesome post! But I thought of a question –

    If you have a disagreement about edits with your agent/editor, how hard should you push to have your way? I mean, it is the writer’s story. Is there a gray area there?

    Just curious and Thanks!

  10. Seth’s avatar

    Thanks for the shout-out, Mary

  11. Maria’s avatar

    I can’t wait to have this problem. (Dramatic sigh!)

  12. Joan’s avatar

    Awesome post! Thanks again for the insight. It’s important that the author finds out how to fix it on their own or they’ll likely continue to have the same issues in their future works. If someone tells me how to fix something, I don’t have to go through the process of learning to fix it myself, and then I don’t learn. I’d rather have someone tell me something doesn’t work and learn to fix it myself.

  13. dirtywhitecandy’s avatar

    Excellent post. Although it’s very helpful if someone points out a way a story could go better, it’s not always in tune with what the writer wants to do. And often those suggestions can make the criticism feel worse – ‘how dare you suggest I add zombies!’
    I always like to know readers’ expectations, though – I welcome a critic who says ‘I thought it was going to end with Jane getting together with Duncan and them robbing the bank without the others’. I don’t have to go and add that to the story, but I am interested to hear that those seeds might have been planted and I perhaps didn’t do enough with them.

  14. Kathryn Roberts’s avatar

    Thanks for this post. A person in my position with an ‘almost’ polished MS would most likely jump at the first offer of representation just because it was ‘an offer’ =). I keep reminding myself that patience IS and always will be a virtue.

    PS. Can’t wait to see you, Mary, at the Writer’s Conference in UTAH!!

  15. Franziska Green’s avatar

    This is a bit off topic but I have a question. What are the expenses that agents sometimes charge for? I read that one very well-respected agent charges 85 dollars for each project but also requires that the client provides hard copies to be mailed out. This agent takes 15% on top of that. Is this normal? I kind of dislike the idea of having to shell out 85 bucks and then have someone take 15% of whatever we get as a result. Am I being mean?

  16. Mary Ann Duke’s avatar

    Happened to me. As per editor’s ideas I took months and months to rewrite, then, on the next read through, the editing “committee” asked that I change and delete portions. Those parts were the exact parts I had spent months rewriting. Grrrr!

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