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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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