A few weeks ago, guest blogger Camille Eide wrote about getting a revision letter for her novel, and how much time she spent reworking the manuscript as a result. Many of you have asked variations of the following question, which came from Mike Dennis:
I have to ask, if the agent had 10 pages of “suggested” changes, how could she have liked the book in the first place? What I mean is, when the agent thinks virtually everything in the book should be revised, it usually means she sees very little reason to represent it. It’s hard to imagine an agent slogging all the way through a book like that, then saying, “Yes! Yes! This is what I’ve been looking for!”
Since so many people seem to wonder the same thing, let me take a shot at explaining.
1. It’s all about potential.
Many agents enjoy finding brand new authors and launching them. In order to do this, you have to be able to spot potential – even if that potential isn’t currently being lived-up-to on the page. While some manuscripts from new authors simply blow me away and are strong enough to be submitted quickly to publishers, that’s the exception. More often, new authors have talent that’s visible on the page, but they’re capable of doing better than whatever they’ve currently got written.
Since my goal is to sell it, rather than have editors come back to me with “She’s a good writer – but not quite there yet,” it’s in my best interest to help the author polish and revise the ms until I think it’s ready. So I often agree to take on a client based on the potential I see – and before they accept representation, I make sure they understand that I think the manuscript needs work. If they disagree or they prefer not to work with an agent who gets involved editorially, they can choose not to work with me.
2. The revision letter isn’t a negative message.
Just because there are 10 pages of revision notes doesn’t mean I see “very little reason to represent it.” Au contraire, 10 pages of notes indicates that I believe the author is worth this kind of time and effort; that with work she can become great; and furthermore, that she’s capable of handling this intense level of rewrite. Rather than a put-down, the big revision letter is a vote of confidence. It says: “I think you’re great, but I think you can be even better, and I know you’re capable of rising to this challenge.”
Also, do you have any idea how long it takes to write a major revision letter 10 to 20 pages long? Between reading the manuscript, evaluating it, identifying what’s not working, trying to figure out why it’s not working and how to fix it… it can take anywhere from 20 to 40 hours or even more. In other words, it’s a huge undertaking and if you get one of these letters, you shouldn’t take it lightly. Nobody would put that kind of effort into something they don’t think is worthwhile.
3. The Point is To Bring Out Your Best
Writers typically worry (understandably) the the editor or agent is trying to “take away their voice” or somehow ruin their story. The goal is the opposite. It’s to strip away the unnecessary bits and allow your voice and your story to shine through even more powerfully. For most people it’s a painful and difficult experience, but the resulting book is so much better that they realize it was all worth it. I’ve never met an author who didn’t believe the revision improved their book.
4. The Revision Letter Isn’t an Edict From a Dictator
Editors are always open to discussion, and if there is something particularly painful for you in the edits, they’ll help you understand why the change will make it a better book, and if necessary, they’ll help you find a happy medium. Sometimes it’s just a matter of the writer explaining to the editor what they were trying to accomplish with a particular character or scene, and the editor helping find a better way to accomplish that goal.
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