In my post about getting offers from multiple literary agents, an important point came up about literary agent feedback. I wanted to expound and also to make sure you all saw it. Seth asked:
How about comparing literary agent feedback 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! Looking at their feedback will show you how literary agents work, 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.
Does the Literary Agent Feedback Mesh With Your Vision?
I am constantly amazed by writers who come to me after already having had an agent, and the stories they tell about how literary agents work. 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, that’s old literary agent feedback. They 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!
It’s Your Story
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 my literary agent feedback, 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. If you’re looking at how literary agents work when you’re selecting representation, you want to go with someone who isn’t going to write your story for you.
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 my literary agent feedback 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 literary agent feedback for what might work in its place. But the work — and that includes the majority of the idea work — is up to you.
Trust Your Gut
So yes. Do weigh literary agent feedback 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 literary agent feedback, it will never lead you astray.
Are you ready to submit your work to agents? Hire me as your query letter editor and I’ll help you develop a strong pitch.