Inside the Agent/Client Revision Process

Last week, Christa asked the following question (edited slightly):

What are revisions are usually like between agent and writer? Are there common mistakes you see with each client, or does it vary? What is most revised, usually, or is it all over the board? And what kind of turn around time do most agents appreciate (I’m sure it all depends on the amount of revision–but maybe an approximation or something) for the revisions to be completed?

Great question. I love doing editorial work with clients and I think most agents feel similarly. A lot of writers also appreciate the chance to work on their manuscripts before going out on submission. My thought is… if we can strengthen a project and give it the best chance of attracting an editor, why the heck not?

The process of working on revisions with a client really does depend on the manuscript. Here’s how it usually goes, though:

First things first: I read your book, I love your book, I float a few revision ideas by you before offering representation, you like my thoughts and you sign up with me.

The second read and giving notes: I read your manuscript again. I do some light line-editing, honing in on small nitpicky details and areas where the writing or voice could be smoothed in the manuscript. More importantly, I look for character, plot, structure and pacing issues on a macro level. These are things that affect more than just a paragraph or a page. Do two similar best friend characters need to be combined into one? Is the tension of the subplot low throughout the piece? Can we strengthen a character’s relationship with her mother? Etc. etc. etc. These are the bigger changes that I think will make the manuscript stronger and help the storytelling become more compelling.

Genius at work: The writer gets my notes, crafts a voodoo doll in my image and eats some ice cream. Several days pass and they realize a) I’m on their team and b) I’m freaking brilliant (and humble!). If there are any questions or disagreements, I invite my client to talk to me, argue, discuss, vent. We brainstorm together and often surprise each other with unexpected solutions. Then the writer works on revisions. These really do take as long as they take, and each project is different. I’ve seen them take a weekend, I’ve seen them take months. For me, I want them done in a timely manner but quality is much more important. My big pet peeve is seeing a revision that’s been expedited but is incomplete. Revision is a complicated process… you think, you stew, you gnash your teeth, you get ideas, you work and rework… it can’t be rushed.

Now it’s my turn again, and I’m faced with a decision: I read the revision ASAP. My challenge is to try and see it with fresh eyes, forget the last draft, and evaluate whether or not it’s “editor ready.” That last bit can be a difficult decision. Do I want to push the writer into another revision and make it perfect perfect, or is the potential clearly evident, even if I still see a few small tweaks that could be made? I’m a ruthless perfectionist. I find holes and opportunities in everything, even books that have been published and decorated with awards. I realize I can’t hold every manuscript to the standard that’s in my head. So at this point, it’s really my call whether or not to go back to the writer. Sometimes I do, sometimes I don’t. If the manuscript looks great or only has a few tiny issues remaining, I go out on submission. If it needs another revision, it’s lather, rinse, repeat, only there should be much less work to do on the second pass.

There are all sorts of situations that can arise, though. The writer can totally go off in a different direction and it turns out they’ve made the manuscript worse. This is a situation that’s happened to every agent and it is an icky, horrible one. Everyone has different skills when it comes to writing. Some people are good at revision, others aren’t. You never know how strong your client’s skills are in this department until you go through a round. Luckily, though, once writers are at the level where they’re working with an agent, they’re usually revision professionals.

A lot of Christa’s questions can only be answered, unfortunately, with “It depends on the client and the manuscript.” However, I just want to hammer home that the most common revision mistake I see is rushing through the work. Some writers see notes and take them very literally. They only fix those notes — as if checking them off a To Do list — and spend no time thinking and imagining how else they might refine, finesse, deepen. They go through page by page but never stop to consider how to take their manuscript to the next level. My expectation is that there’s always some creative evolution, above and beyond the things I mention in my notes. I can always tell when a writer has rushed through revision, because it comes back with changes that have only been made at the surface level.

But let me make one thing perfectly clear. I only sign a client and work on revision in-depth when I absolutely love the project and am confident I can sell it. Otherwise, it’s a disservice to me and the writer. I can’t pitch something I’m not crazy passionate about and every writer deserves nothing less in their advocate. So when I give revision notes — even if they seem like a lot of work — it’s because I believe in the project and the author with all my heart. And there is very little that’s more satisfying and gratifying to me than reading a revision that has been absolutely, positively hit out of the ballpark.

Getting an Offer and THEN an Agent

Elizabeth asked this great question yesterday and I wanted to tackle it for everyone:

I am unpublished and unagented, but I have a picture book manuscript under serious consideration at a great publishing house. If I am offered a contract, can I (without annoying the publisher) try to find an agent before accepting the contract? Would this take too much time from the publisher’s point of view? Would agents be likely to take me on at this stage? I have heard that many agents are not interested in picture book authors. Is it better to try to find a literary contract lawyer and pursue an agent after I have a published book under my belt? Such a raft of questions! I am obviously in a stew.

Most of the advice I can give Elizabeth will apply to all creators who have received an offer for their work and want to find an agent, so read on. First of all, congratulations! Even though there’s no firm offer yet, you’re in a good place. I’d advise you to take the time — once you receive a firm offer — to find an agent. IMPORTANT: Tell the editor “Thank you so much for your offer. Before I get back to you, I’m going to try and partner with a literary agent.” They’ll be fine with this, it happens all the time. But make sure you don’t agree to the terms of the offer just yet (I know that can be hard and anxiety-making. Don’t worry, they won’t withdraw it.) When you query, put something like this in your subject line: “Picture book Query — OFFER RECEIVED.” Believe me, you’ll catch a few eyes because it’s good news for both you and the prospective agent.

Since you have an offer on the table, the agent search won’t take too long. Agents tend to read things that have offers quickly, and picture books are easy to evaluate fast. I’d say that, if getting an agent is your eventual goal and you’re sure you’ll have one sooner or later, do it now while you can seem more attractive to them and rope them in from the first contract, not after it. There’s really not much reason not to.

Now, the agents I know are still taking picture books on but it’s tougher to attract an agent with a picture book than with a fiction manuscript, that’s true. Make sure you query people who deal in picture books or have in the past. When I’m evaluating a picture book author, I always ask them what else they have. Before I take one on, I like to know that this author has other manuscripts. I’d be less interested to take an author on who only has one or two picture book ideas in them. I want someone who has potential for a long and lucrative career, of course.

As for the deal itself, I do want to tell you that a) if you get an agent before you sign your contract, they will take 15% of the money you’ll earn and b) there will be a very limited number of things they’ll actually be able to do for you with this contract. Especially if you’ve already accepted, verbally or in writing, the offer. They might not be able to get you a better advance, but they probably will be able to negotiate better terms for you, like rights, options, royalties, etc than you would’ve gotten on your own. So you will lose some money in the short term but will most likely fare better in the long run with this particular book when you bring an agent aboard.

All that said, an offer in hand isn’t a magic bullet. The agent will still have to love you and your work enough to be your long-term advocate, for this deal and for those in the future. I wouldn’t take someone on automatically just because they have an offer. Overall, a good situation to be in. I’m obvious in favor of writers getting agents, but I’m also very much in favor of this particular scenario, since this is exactly how I got my first picture book author/illustrator client, who I love!

Polish the Entire Manuscript

Here’s an interesting trend I’ve noticed in queries versus the full manuscript. At my agency, we request the first 10 pages along with the query in our submission guidelines. That’s great for me because, if I like a query, that means I can start reading immediately and continue (I hope) to enjoy what I see.

There’s only so much a person can tell from a query. A writer could’ve had someone write their query, could’ve workshopped it relentlessly with other writers, could’ve polished it for years. There’s just no guarantee that the quality of writing in the query will match the quality of the sample. And query writing is pitchy and explanatory by its very nature — quite the opposite of prose. Only the manuscript matters, after all. So I like to see a little writing before deciding to either reject or request.

Lately, however, people have been sending more and more polished writing samples in those first 10 pages. On the one hand, it’s great because everything looks good. On the other hand, it’s a horrible trend because after those first 10 pages, or 15, or 20, the manuscript tends to fall apart.

Why? Conferences, critique groups, writing workshops and the like usually work with the first 10, 15 or 20 pages of a manuscript. It’s a manageable enough chunk and the writer can learn a lot from getting it critiqued. Also, conventional wisdom goes that the first pages are the most important, so they get a lot of focus. Those writers who use a lot of resources like conferences and workshops end up with freakishly well-polished first chapters… and then are left to their own devices for the rest. And the agents who read these types of first pages/chapters are tricked over and over again, only to become confused and frustrated when we see a noticeable decline in quality.

Here’s the bottom line. Are you especially proud of your manuscript’s beginning? Great! You’ve accomplished a lot. Now, though, you have to put that same amount of work and excruciatingly close attention into every other page of the project. If it starts out great, we’re only expecting it to get better, not worse, when we read the rest. The last thing you want to do is disappoint.

Rejection Follow-Up

I hope this post will lift the veil a bit and let writing hopefuls see some of my thought process as an agent. There’s some truth here about rejection that might not be fun to hear. Sensitive souls might want to turn back now.

An issue that some writers wonder about is rejection follow-up, aka., what to do once you get a rejection in your inbox? Tread carefully, writers! A rejection is, by its very nature, unpleasant. There are many different types of rejection — something I’ll post on very soon — and some rejections are better than others, but at the end of the day, it’s still a “no” when you want to hear a “yes.” Here are two frequent rejection follow-up responses agents get:

The Salesman: “Oh, you don’t like this particular manuscript? Well, I’ve got something else here in my Bag o’ Tricks that might just fit the bill instead.”

Here’s the ugly truth, writers: when we reject something, it is because we don’t believe we can sell it to a publishing house. About 90% of the time, this is because the manuscript is just not ready to be shown for possible publication. The writing is weak. There’s no voice. The idea doesn’t have any spark. (The other 10%, of course, is reserved for people who are rejected because they’re just plain crazy…) I try to give some constructive feedback if I see the opportunity. But most of the time, it’s simply because the writing is not ready. (The good thing about that, of course, is that every day is a new opportunity to improve your craft and get it ready!)

This problem is not going to be fixed by trotting out another manuscript. Or two. Or three. I used to let people show me a few things if they so insisted but the results were always the same and now I dread this situation.

Whatever you have in your stable, chances are, it still has the same general writing issues as the thing I just rejected. It’s already a less-than-pleasant part of my job to reject you. Don’t force me to do it again.

Please don’t start going through your roster of manuscripts and offering up everything else you’ve ever written unless you can categorically say that the quality is a huge improvement (and if it is, why not just send that in the first place?). Instead, hone your craft, get opinions from readers you trust and query around after some time has passed and you’re confident that your work is stronger.

The Rage: “You are the stupidest/most incompetent/ugliest/smelliest person in the world and you are missing out on MILLIONS, LITERALLY MILLIONS of dollars by rejecting my genius opus. I thought you were one of the smart ones and could recognize brilliance when you saw it. Well I guess I was wrong.”

Nothing needs to be said about this other than: email makes it easy to respond, no matter what emotional state you happen to be in. That doesn’t mean you should.

Long story short? Don’t take a rejection to mean that the door’s wide open for everything you’ve ever written and don’t be a psycho.

What are the two preferred responses to a rejection?

  • “Thanks for reading!”
  • Nothing

Simple as that.

References in your Manuscript

Over the weekend, I got the following email about using pop culture references in a manuscript:

I’m a grad student trying to write her first children’s book.  As I go over my notes, I see a lot of references to events or pop culture from the 1990’s.  They are funny anecdotes to me and people in my age group but, I don’t know how to make it meaningful for my audience (2nd-4th graders).

Thanks in advance for the help.
Jac

While Jac is writing for a younger audience than some of my readers, the references question applies to every manuscript, from a picturebook to a YA. And it is a contentious issue. Lots of people have very different opinions about references.

In Jac’s case specifically, I’d definitely say that hearkening back to the 90’s might be a mistake, especially for an audience that young. Remember, you’re writing for your readers, not for yourself. Not to mention, of course, that a 2nd or 4th grader is going to care about entirely different things than an adult. What kind of references are they? Movie? Music? World events? Those might be a bit outside the realm of your reader’s awareness (or caring). It might be a good experiment to cut out the references and focus on the world of the story, the characters and the plot. Those are going to be much more interesting to your target audience, Jac, than anything you bring in from the outside world.

While younger projects like Jac’s might have less room for references, older projects, like MG and YA, have lots of opportunities. Overall, I’ve seen references tackled in four different ways:

  1. References from our world are included in the manuscript.
  2. References from our world are parodied in the manuscript.
  3. References are made up for the purpose of the manuscript.
  4. References are omitted entirely.

Let’s tackle these one by one, both pros and cons.

If you use references from our world, you can make your story seem more realistic and seamless to your reader. They’ll look around your book and see things they recognize. The inherent danger here, of course, is that your references a) might be totally irrelevant by the time the book is published and b) might make your book less attractive to future generations of readers. It takes about two years for a book to come out. All those manuscripts written a few years back that use a line, for example, like “You’re crazier than Britney Spears!” are going to seem totally out of touch if they were to be published now. And teens have an Uncool-o-Meter that’s finely honed. Let’s not forget that, ideally, you’re writing for longevity. Are your references going to seem hokey to a reader who picks up your tome in 10 years? 20?

If you are parodying references, you get your point across but your appeal will also be limited. You get the benefit of giving something a name, but when you parody, you assume your audience knows what you’re parodying, so it’s almost like using a real world reference, only one degree removed. I see some manuscripts that talk about “the latest social networking site, MyFace,” or something similar. I’d say this presents the same problems as above, only you add in a very distinct cheesiness factor that might elicit a few eye-rolls from your audience.

If you create your own references, you might be dodging the reference bullet. All the names of movies, websites, music acts, colleges and maybe even cities are new to your readers. If you give your readers enough context, they’ll get what you’re going for. Like the bands in NICK AND NORAH’S INFINITE PLAYLIST… they don’t really exist but you get what kind of music they play and that’s pretty much all you need to know. I just finished Sarah Dessen’s ALONG FOR THE RIDE, which made up names for colleges and totally immersed me in the world of the book by shutting out the “real world.” I’d say this is my favorite elegant solution — at the moment, at least — for those who like using references. Make some up. You won’t run into the issues outlined above and, if you give your reader enough context, they’ll know exactly what you mean.

If you use no references, you’re avoiding all the issues. References can add something to your story if you need to pull in a simile or nail down a particular shade to your character or your world, but they’re also not necessary. Plenty of books don’t have any nods to anything outside the story. In Meg Rosoff’s HOW I LIVE NOW, we have hardly any specifics about the outside world. The war that swirls at the heart of the story doesn’t even have a name. By not using references, however, you do run the risk of creating an anemic environment. What’s playing on the radio? Where do your characters point their browsers to research the hot new girl in school? It really depends on what kind of story you’re writing, but some references, whether real or made up, can add some authenticating details to your world.

One of my personal pet peeves about using pop culture references is that they either seem tacked on to a story, or they’re obviously there to entertain the author’s age group. This is distracting. In the spring, I read a rash of books where a “quirk” of the main character was that they loooooved watching 80’s movies. Um. This reads like a quirk of the author, who loves John Hughes, and not a quirk of a character who was born sometime in the 90’s, like that author’s target reader was. I’m sorry, ladies, but 16 Candles is already irrelevant to most teens today.

Make sure your references augment the story but don’t take over it, and make sure they’re not limiting or tacky or more about you than your audience. I’d say that’s my rule of thumb.

Direct Address in a Query

Which brings me to another point. Several queries have come in recently that use this technique:

Dear Ms. Kole,

You are an aspiring garbagegirl in Brooklyn who is allergic to flies. And your mom says you have to go to beauty college when you get out of high school. Your world turns upside down one day when a faerie vampire crashes through your bedroom window…

This is a <sarcasm>fun</sarcasm> new spin on my absolute pet peeve: the rhetorical question query. And the use of second person in general, when it’s not earned or warranted. I don’t understand this technique… and there are several examples of it in my slush. Did some blog somewhere tell well-meaning writers that this was the new no-fail query fad?

I understand it’s meant to be arresting and pulse-pounding, it’s meant to grab me and never let me go and all that junk, but here’s the reason it bugs me: I want to read about you and your work. LEAVE ME OUT OF IT!

The example up there is one I wrote. But it’s not too far off from what I’ve been seeing. And honestly? Instead of thinking “Wow, that sounds cool,” I immediately think: “I am NOT a garbagegirl, my mom does NOT want me to go to beauty college and there’s no way in heck that a faerie vampire is crashing through MY window without picking up the repair bill!”

And you don’t want me to be thinking about ME when I’m reading YOUR query, right? Didn’t think so.

YA Literature That Pushes Modern Boundaries

I recently read Justine Larbalestier’s LIAR (Bloomsbury, September 29, 2009) and Libba Bray’s GOING BOVINE (Delacorte, September 22, 2009) back to back. Both books are similar in that they blur the line of “reality” and leave the reader wondering what really “happened” and what didn’t. The reason for the gratuitous quotation marks (lest anyone accuse them of being unnecessary) is: this is fiction. Technically, none of it is real.

But even with fiction, the reader tends to assume that most things they read are true. Just like Micah says in LIAR, people expect truth, they need it. They want to believe. Similarly, readers want to believe a narrator, especially a first person one.

That’s what makes an intentionally unreliable narrator like LIAR’s Micah — who revels in the falsehoods she spins, sometimes with (dubious, perhaps) apology, oftentimes without — so challenging and so delicious. In the case of Cameron, from GOING BOVINE, his unreliability isn’t necessarily a choice, seeing as his brain is quickly deteriorating from the variant Creutzfeltd Jakob virus, or mad cow disease. Nonetheless, his view of the world is extremely skewed. Both narrators spend their arcs in the messy gray area between what might be happening in a realistic, linear plot and what they insist is the true story.

Two such similar books — that question truth and reality and how easily these things can be manipulated in a reader’s experience of fiction — coming out in the same month makes me think that we might be entering a new phase of postmodernism in YA literature. These books don’t just tell a story, they comment on the medium of the storytelling, on the life inside the story and outside of it, on reality itself, for both the characters and the reader. Postmodernism, in terms of literary criticism, refers to art that is self-conscious, self-referential. Metafiction, also at play here, means fiction that never lets the reader forget that they’re reading something somebody made up.

I think these books are an important bit of evolution, especially when I consider the young adults who will be reading them. The question of what reality is posed here is apt for teens growing up today, whose reality is augmented by technology, the Internet, social networking and virtual worlds that seem to nestle within each other like stacking dolls, among many other things. Reality has a different flavor, more layers of experience and a faster tempo right now than it ever has before, and YA is changing to reflect this.

Every art form has a moment when it begins to fold in on itself and comment on the established tropes, the form, the function of its ancestry. I think this point has arrived for YA — at least for the rich and extremely meaty incarnation of the genre that has developed into a market powerhouse over the last ten to fifteen years. More so than before, this fall and books like LIAR and GOING BOVINE seem to be leading the charge. I’ll be very curious to see if more and more boundary-bending, metafictional YA starts to emerge. Also, I can’t wait until reactions from teen readers pour in. I want to know whether or not these stories will resonate with a generation that gets more and more postmodern, that seems to press against it like a plane nosing the sound barrier, with every passing every nanosecond.

Rhyming Picture Books: A Rhyme With Reason

There’s a fairly strong consensus out there that some editors are moving away from rhyming picture books right now. One reason for this, as I see it, is that picture books in general are evolving. They’re being acquired by younger editors, they’re being purchased by cooler parents, they’re becoming modern and… if I dare say… maybe even hip. Not all picture books, of course, because lists and houses have room for the traditional, beautiful picture book reminiscent of the good old days of yore. But there’s definitely been innovation, and that’s crucial to remember when you sit down to write yours.

Rhyming picture books — especially those written in rhyming couplets — take us back to more traditional picture book legacy. That’s not bad, per se, but with all the new styles and ideas hitting the shelves, the more traditional is becoming a more difficult sell. Here are some other reasons rhyming picture books are becoming less attractive to some agents and editors:

  1. They’re old hat. See above.
  2. Not everyone can write brilliant rhyme. And, in this market, it has to be brilliant, fresh, unique, imaginative, unexpected… No lazy or conventional rhyme will cut it.
  3. There also has to be a reason for the rhyme. Too many times, I feel like a manuscript’s rhyme is forced or dictates the story… that the author is making decisions based on which words would fit into their scheme, not based on which words would make the best possible storytelling sense.

If you’re considering writing a rhyming picture book, ask yourself this question: Why does it need to rhyme? If you answer: “Because that’s how a picture book goes” or “Because that reminds me of the books I read as a kid/to my children/to my grandchildren,” then that might not be reason enough.

One of the most compelling reasons to rhyme, in my opinion, is if you are an author who relishes playing with the language. It’s also a good thing if the rhyme is an integral part of the story. I read a book a little while ago that blew my mind with its dizzying, sprawling, complicated rhyme. If there was no rhyme in this book, there’d be no book! If you’re up to the challenge of writing truly astounding rhyming picture books in the current climate, definitely add BUBBLE TROUBLE (Clarion, 2009, by Margaret Mahy and illustrated by Polly Dunbar) to your bookshelf.

Using “Suddenly” in Creative Writing

Using “suddenly” in creative writing can be a faux pas. There are tons of writing adages out there along the lines of “Show don’t tell” that you’ve no doubt heard your old creative writing schoolmarm repeat hundreds of times.

But unless you know what they’re really saying and what they really mean, though, these cheerful mottoes can’t help you. Today, I want to fire off a quick explanation for why writers generally should stay away from the word “suddenly.”

using "suddenly" in creative writing, writing cliches, writing crutches, writing strong transitions
Suddenly, a wild chameleon appeared!

Using “Suddenly” in Creative Writing Is a Cheap Crutch

“Suddenly” is a crutch. It’s cheap. It’s easy. Lots and lots of writers pepper their manuscripts with it because then they don’t have to worry about writing transitions, describing actions or giving the reader any context. They just slap a “suddenly” on to an event or feeling and voila! It fits!

Except it really doesn’t. A reader’s job is to react and infer and analyze what is going on in a manuscript or book. When we’re faced with “suddenly,” it’s like a power surge. Our system is scrambled. Something suddenly comes on the scene that takes us by surprise, whether it is a plot twist, an action, a feeling or a thought. And that’s fine. We react. We try to understand what the new development means. If it is an emotion, we try to fit that into the character and situation. We do our job.

The problem is, though, that a writer who leans heavily on the “suddenly” crutch usually thinks that “suddenly” is enough. They wallop the character and the reader with something and then move on. We don’t get a reaction from the character, we don’t get the feeling explained, we don’t see a lot of context. The “suddenly” has been used to shoehorn something into the narrative without much regard for how well it fits.

Examples of When “Suddenly” Works and When It Doesn’t

For example:

Suddenly, a big slimy alien burst out from behind the wall.

Reader’s reaction: Jarring, but okay. Hopefully there are aliens elsewhere in this book and this isn’t the first one we see.

A rage overtook her and she suddenly punched him square on the nose.

Reader’s reaction: Whoa! Wait. They were just kissing. Where did that come from? Why?

As you can see, “suddenly” is usually a treasure map of lazy writing. When you come across “suddenly” in your own work, you’ve likely found a section of the narrative where you could’ve given more context, more reasoning, more explanation. Let’s rework one of our examples:

She pulled away from him and looked deeply into his eyes, only to catch him staring blankly at the TV over her shoulder. The rage that overtook her was so intense that she sent a fist flying straight for his nose.

Context Is Key

At least now we understand her rage (even if we think she might be overreacting just a liiiiittle bit). So take a look at your manuscript. Are there any places where “suddenly” is standing in for something that could be expanded, deepened? That could be given some more meaning and context? It’s not the word itself that’s bad, it’s what it does with the reader’s understanding of your work.

If you’re finding crutches and clichés in your manuscript, bring me on as your novel editor. I will give you actionable revision challenges to help you take your work to the next level.

Great News!

Since it is officially up on the website now, I can announce it: I am an associate agent at Andrea Brown Literary Agency!

Check out my bio on the agency website!

If you are a YA, MG or picturebook writer, please think of me when you put together your query list.

As a result of my new position, I’ll be making changes to the blog, vetting some old posts and generally getting everything into brand new shape. Please pardon the dust while I revamp some of my old content and look for more content geared to aspiring writers in the future!