Thursday, July 17, 2008

Divas Need Not Apply: Why Revision Is Important

by Laney Katz Becker

Yesterday a manuscript landed on my desk and it was perfect. I signed the client, created a cover page for the novel that included all the Folio contact info, started calling editors to talk about the amazing project and began emailing it their way.

Then I woke up! (1)

Yes, it’s a dream of mine that a perfect manuscript gets handed to me. I’ve heard such a thing is possible, that it’s even happened, but never to me.(2) So until my fantasy comes true, I choose the projects that I find interesting/appealing, the writers I see the most potential in, and those are the clients I sign (3). Then, I push up my sleeves and get to work. And, you, dear author, must do so, too.

Here’s the deal: By the time a project lands on my desk, it’s likely that the author has been eating/sleeping/breathing that project for quite some time and feels it’s perfect, which is exactly the way the author must feel. (Never, ever send out what you know is less than your very best!) But, because of this complete immersion in their project, the author has lost much, if not all, of his/her perspective. Agents – good agents – bring fresh eyes and new ideas to the party, so we’re often able to see things that our authors miss. (4) My requests for revisions are typically to enhance characters, improve pacing or to get to the story faster. Sometimes I’ll find something confusing and ask for clarification, and other times I’ll suggest whole passages be deleted. Sometimes the plotting is too simple and other times, new threads need to be developed. But whatever my request, I make sure the author knows that my thoughts are only suggestions (5). Ultimately, it’s the author’s project and they must be happy with it. (6)

HOWEVER (yup, it’s a BIG however), good agents are much more than gatekeepers to the editors; we’re professionals who see thousands of projects from authors and wanna-be authors each year. We pay attention to what editors are buying, what they’re turning down – and why. And guess what? We want to share all our wonderful knowledge and experiences with you because our know-how can help make your projects stronger, more likely to sell, and to sell for larger advances. So when I talk to my authors about revisions, I don’t do it to create more work for them, (honest!) but to help elevate their already good work to an even higher level. But don’t think just because you and your agent are thrilled with your work it means the revision process is over. (7) Editors, too, will have their own ideas about how to further enhance the project. So, (you guessed it) you’ll be asked to revise still again. That’s just the process, ladies and gents. And it results in better books.

(1) Funny. I like this!
(2) "to me" repetitive
(3) delete "sign" insert "take on"
(4) Smooth this transition:
(5) Italicize "suggestions"
(6) Can this be tightened a bit more?
(7) explain this a bit better, please


Wilfred Bereswill said...

Yes, writing is a humbling experience and those with thin skins should not apply.

Actually, Paige Wheeler and another agent took the time to give me a bit of personal feedback which I took to heart. I made the changes and that lead to a contract for my first book.

Listening is a talent many of us don't practice, but it is worthwhile.

Thanks for the post Laney.

Keri Ford said...

Yesterday a manuscript landed on my desk and it was perfect. I signed the client, created a cover page for the novel that included all the Folio contact info, started calling editors to talk about the amazing project and began emailing it their way.

Then I woke up!

A similar dream many writers share. In particular on the first novel ever submitting...while they're awake.

Laney said...

Can I just tell everyone that my blog was so much more fun when what you now see as footnotes was in fact, displayed as track changes! But, because the track changes wouldn't work with our format/template I had to -- get this -- REVISE! Sometimes life is just too funny.

Marina said...

Thanks for that interesting post, Laney. Revision seems to be the way of things no matter what we do in life. I think the better the writer, the more open he or she is to this fact.

And footnotes noted!

Anonymous said...

Interesting to know how agents think of the revision process.
Thanks for the forewarning.

Travis Erwin said...

I'm in the revision phase now so thanks for the reminders.

Karen Duvall said...

Laney, what a terrific post! Are you sure you're not my agent in disguise? LOL! Because you sound just like her. Before she took me on, we had a phone conversation on this exact subject. She needed to know that I'd be open to making revisions to my manuscript, which I absolutely was. I'm one of those authors who savors the opportunity to revise. I love it. Polishing and sculpting a project to as close to perfect as I can get. Though yes, I know I'm not done yet. After two rounds of revisions, my agent will be submitting my manuscript next week and when it's picked up by a publisher, I realize more work is yet to come. Bring it! 8^)

alanajoli said...

I am always thrilled when an editor takes a piece of mine, finds things that really enhance the narrative, and the piece comes out so much better at the end of the process than when I sent it to them. No many how many readers I go through and revisions I've done on my own, there is always *something* to be improved. Your take on the process is lovely to hear.

Laney said...

Hey, all,

So glad to hear that you're willing to's an attitude not everyone shares (hence my topic). I urge everyone to continue the discussion in their writing groups, message boards, etc. I think that too often authors feel that when they're "done" that, um, they're DONE!

Joya said...

This blog entry is so helpful! I'm an aspiring novelist, so like you wrote, I've been going over my novel again and again for the past 6 months, and it's really great to hear a good agent doesn't expect a perfect manuscript the first time around. I mean, I know I should try to get as close to perfection as I can before sending it to an agent, but the fact that agents are willing to help so much with revisions is lovely to know.

Thank you. :)

Anonymous said...

WOW...( words of wisdom ) here...

Melissa Blue said...

You're absolutely right about an author being too close to the story. I think it was J.R. Ward who said writing a novel is like painting a room with your forehead against the wall.

Revisions can be hard, but I haven't met any that has not made my story better. You've got to like those odds.

Steven said...

Like you said, receiving a perfect manuscript is near impossible, but upon seeing a manuscript for the first time, what are some things you immediately look for to decide whether or not it's a project you'd like to consider and pursue?


Marc Vun Kannon said...

Wow! You just described my first novel's acceptance!

Well, not quite. Not a lot of editing, though. Mainly due to a poor editor. My second novel had much better editing, mainly removing leading Ands and Buts, and passive constructions. Nothing substantive, though. I try to keep those lessons in mind when I write my later books, always something to learn.

Glynis said...

An informative post, filed for reference, thank you.

I am on first edit of my first novel. It was a thrill to cross off draft, and write Ed1. Then there will be Ed2, and so on. During my editing I realised that it needed it. The second time around, I found so many errors, and I am sure I will find more on Ed2.
I will be happy to be told by an editor or agent to make revisions. Why? Because it will mean my ms has been noticed. *giggle*.

Anonymous said...

Revisions can be easy or hard. On my first novel I did it the hard way. I'm finding on novel number three revisions are actually, fun!

I am unpublished, unagented author so keep in mind I don't have the experience working with editors or an agent. This is just an amature's take on revisions.

Take the word herself, do a search in your ms and highlight the word herself in red, green, blue, etc. Then go back and read each sentence where you used the word. Could you make it better by removing herself and rewriting the entire sentence? You betcha!

This may be common knowledge but I thought I would share it anyway. Other words we tend to overuse are that, was, etc.

Trang said...

Actually, Paige Wheeler and another agent took the time to give me a bit of personal feedback which I took to heart. I made the changes and that lead to a contract for my first book.

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