What I Talk About When I Talk About Revisions

Like many agents, I will ask for a revision of a manuscript before I make an offer of representation. I don’t do this with every manuscript I request. Sometimes I know that a particular novel either isn’t working plot-wise, the writer’s style differs from what I’m looking for, or the main character isn’t engaging enough to me. In these cases, it’s obvious that I’m just not the agent for them. I would never request a revision based on something that came down to personal preference. There are other agents, after all.

Sometimes, though, there are manuscripts that scream potential. I can’t speak for all agents, but the first things I look for in a manuscript are plot development and the main character – if those two things are done well, then we’re in business. Well, almost in business. Even if you have the idea, the writing ability, and the awesome main character that readers of all ages will fall in love with, there are still other factors to consider. These other factors are what I take into consideration when I ask for revisions.

What are these other factors, you ask? More often than not, in my request pile anyway, it comes down to supporting characters, pacing, and general marketability. Other agents may come across different factors. A writer can nail the larger issues at hand, but the rest of the novel, when not written with the same quality, can make the entire project suffer – no matter how amazing everything else was by itself.

If you’re a writer who’s been in this situation, I’m sure this is frustrating. (Even after you have an agent, you will still hear this from editors too. Then it’s frustrating for both of us!) When an agent comes back to you after weeks (if not months) of making you wait for a response, only to tell you they want you to go through it all over again, you probably think (after cursing a bit), But if you love the project so much, why not offer representation and then we can work on revisions together??? Sorry, but it’s not that easy.

Agents aren’t just taking on your project; they’re taking on you. When I ask for a revision, it means I’m incredibly interested in offering representation (I would not be willing to read the same manuscript over again otherwise). But, in my own way, I’m also testing writers. Most writers are willing to revise, so that’s rarely an issue. What I need to know is are they able to revise. Before I take on a new client, I have to ask myself, Can they effectively revise? Do they understand what I’m asking? Is this going to be a pleasant working relationship?

I’m thinking about revisions lately because I’ve had not one, but three, heartbreaking experiences this past month, and each were over those “other factors” I mentioned above:

1. Supporting Characters.
I surprised myself by loving a particular manuscript as much as I did. I requested it based on the premise, and it ended up having everything else I was looking for. I couldn’t stop reading – until! I was taken out of the narrative completely for about 50 pages. That’s a lot of pages to lose interest in a manuscript, but I had faith in it, so I pushed through. As I suspected, it picked up where it left off and I loved it again, but I couldn’t stop thinking about that chunk where I didn’t love it and how it effected other areas of the novel. I isolated the problem and realized it was one character’s fault. If only he was introduced later instead of earlier, then the problem could have been avoided and the novel as a whole would have become that much stronger. Something that seems minor never really is. Every piece of a novel matters, and sometimes that one thing is enough to make an agent wary of its ability to sell. If I was taken out of the story, an editor probably will be too. And they are usually less forgiving in terms of asking for revisions.

2. Pacing.
Sometimes I fear my clients think I nitpick about minor issues – sentence structure, wordy language, rearranging of paragraphs. Sure, compared to character development and the actual plot, these things seem less important. But they all contribute to the pacing of the novel. Does your writing style hold the reader’s interest? Are you being slowed down by unnecessary dialogue? Where does the action begin and how are you sustaining that tension while advancing the plot? Will an overuse of adjectives and adverbs make editors’ heads explode? (Yes.) Again, everything matters. Pacing was the issue with Heartbreaking Manuscript #2. Sometimes when a novel moves too slowly, it makes the characters themselves appear boring. I knew that this was not the case with this particular manuscript, yet I kept wondering why they were doing certain things or when they would do certain things. There was a lot of leg shaking. When pacing is the only thing preventing the novel from being truly great, and I see potential in the writer’s ability to improve it, I absolutely ask for a revision.

3. Marketability.
I think this is the concept that most writers dread, so if it makes any of you feel any better, I never request anything unless I think it has market potential. I mean, none of us are reading in our leisure time here. This is our job. However, sometimes – as in the case of Heartbreaking Manuscript #3 – the writing just doesn’t match the idea. When I received the query, I practically jumped up and did a fist pump (but I didn’t, I swear!). It was literary while still appreciating genre. It combined different styles that I am particularly fond of. It had an amazing hook. The query itself was well-written, clear, and professional. Basically I wanted to hug it. I requested the full and perhaps I had gotten my hopes up a bit, but when I sat down to read it, my heart sank. As imaginative as the story was, the writing fell flat in comparison. Don’t get me wrong, the writing was good. It just wasn’t especially clever or vivid, and the characters, while possessing a few redeeming qualities, didn’t jump off the page. In other words, it just wasn’t good enough. And that’s what I mean by marketability. Many writers have ideas that the market supports, but if the writing doesn’t make that idea stand out in the crowd, the novel won’t sell. Which means editors can’t buy. Which means I can’t offer representation. Sadly, it’s a lot harder to ask for a revision in this case because someone either has exceptional talent or they don’t. Usually I won’t ask for a revision in this case. But in the rare instances where I’ll continue to think about the initial query and see its potential, the best I can offer is a few examples of what direction I’d like the writing to take, and hope the writer sees a larger picture.

In the same way you want an agent who understands your work, agents want a client who understands their needs. The power of revision is strong. We don’t just request them for fun or “to be nice.” We request them because we see potential in your work that’s not being realized yet. In fact, the majority of my client list is the result of spot-on resubmissions. In their cases, I had no doubt about their writing ability and loved their ideas. When I went back and suggested how to fix areas that were holding them back, they came back to me with a complete understanding of the task, and went well beyond a standard quick fix. That’s how I knew we’d live happily ever after as Agent and Author, but I wouldn’t have had that confidence if they didn’t send me their revision. Likewise, they wouldn’t have chosen me as their agent if they didn’t agree with my suggestions, or understand that I had their projects’ best interests in mind.

I understand that some writers are not going to agree with my revision suggestions, and this is always sad for me because I wouldn’t have taken the time to make those suggestions unless I was serious about the project. But, agents get rejected all the time – just like writers. Rejection is the largest part of this business, and I hope that just because I’ve shown interest in a project doesn’t mean the writer feels compelled to do whatever I say. They have every right to reject me. Plus, I wouldn’t want a client who sends me work knowing I’ll just tell them how to “fix” it. To me, that just means they didn’t write what they’re passionate about in the first place. Yes, I’m an editorially hands-on agent, but I have no interest in being someone’s beta reader. I want someone to send me something they are proud of, something they think is finished, but who is also willing to see a larger “business side” of the project when that time comes, and revise with that in mind.

Writers shouldn’t be dismayed over revision requests. They can either do them or not do them, but it’s usually in their best interest to consider the agent’s perspective. Revision requests aren’t our sadistic way of giving writers the runaround. Revisions are a part of writing, and requests should be viewed as extensions of the query process. We all want the same thing, and that’s to see your book published.

Methods to the Madness

Every writer has a different approach to writing, a different method. My writing process, for example, has to involve a pen and paper (at least at first), and a very fragmented style. Meaning, if I get a scene in my head, or even just a line I think sounds good, I write it down. It is never, ever the opening paragraph. Then I’ll get an idea for a different scene, and write that, but it is rarely the scene that directly follows what I just wrote. Eventually they all come together.

There are also linear writers who can’t move on until the opening scene is secure. That, to me, would take forever. I’d be staring at a blank sheet of paper for hours if I was forced to think of beginning before I could continue. But they would probably think my process takes forever, and then we’d both disagree with someone else’s third approach.

Other choices writers are faced with when deciding which method works best for them are usually along the lines of “paper or computer?” “inside or outside?” or “gin or coffee?” But, the process that most fascinates me about writing is revision. You cannot be a writer and not revise. And then revise again. Something unavoidable, like the actual writing of words themselves, often means that it involves an entirely different approach.

I love revising more than I love writing a first draft. I don’t usually finish a first draft before I begin revising what I already wrote. But of course, there are those who loathe the revision process with a passion that rivals our collective disdain of whoever slighted Sandra Bullock this week. What are your methods and opinions on revising? I have a feeling you’re all going to say something different.

Lastly, something else that I’ve been wondering lately, as I ask for revisions, is what do writers prefer to hear from agents or editors? Would “complete re-write” would induce vomiting? Is it better to hear “add more” rather than “delete?” Things to ponder…

Enjoy the hot weekend everyone!