Friday, January 4, 2013

Agent Q&A Part One: Revisions

Late last year Operation Awesome asked YOU, our readers, for your most burning revision questions that you'd like to ask our panel of agents. We'll be posting them throughout the New Year's Revisions Conference, but first here's a little more about our awesome panel of agents.

The Agents

Laura Bradford established the Bradford Literary Agency in 2001. She considers herself an editorial-focused agent and takes a hands-on approach to developing proposals and manuscripts with her authors for the most appropriate markets. During her own misadventures as a writer, Laura came to understand the importance of having a friendly but critical eye on your side, a career strategist in your corner and a guide who can lead you through the travails of publication. She continues to actively build her client list and is currently seeking work in the following genres: Romance (historical, romantic suspense, paranormal, category, contemporary, erotic), urban fantasy, women’s fiction, mystery, thrillers and young adult as well as some select non-fiction.

Josh Getzler is an agent and founder of HSG Agency. He left Harcourt in 1993 to get an MBA from Columbia Business School. After Business School, Josh spent 11 years owning and operating a minor league baseball team (the Staten Island Yankees). He left baseball in late 2006 and rejoined the book world on the agent side. Josh worked at Writers House until November 2009, building a list of novelists, YA and children’s book authors, and the occasional nonfiction writer; then joined Russell and Volkening. Josh represents fiction and nonfiction (mostly fiction, much of which is crime-related (mystery, thriller, creepy…)), adult and YA/middle-grade books (though not picture books). And please don’t send religious fiction. He is particularly into foreign and historical thrillers and mysteries, so send your ruthless doges and impious cardinals…and your farmhouse cozies!

Erin Harris is a literary agent at Folio Literary Management. She represents literary fiction, book club fiction, contemporary YA, and select narrative non-fiction titles. Some of her clients include: Times Magazine contributor and former Newsweek correspondent Carla Power, Executive Editor of The New Criterion David Yezzi, and the novelists Bryan Furuness and Jennifer Laam. Erin began her career in publishing in 2008 and has worked for both William Clark of WM Clark Associates and Irene Skolnick of the Irene Skolnick Literary Agency. She received her MFA in Creative Writing from the New School and her BA in literature from Trinity College (Hartford, CT).

Natalie Lakosil is an agent and Laura’s assistant at the Bradford Literary Agency. An honors graduate of the University of San Diego, California, Natalie holds a B.A. in Literature/Writing. After nearly four years at the Sandra Dijkstra Literary Agency and a brief dabble in writing author profiles and book reviews for the San Diego Union Tribune, Natalie joined the Bradford Agency in February of 2011. Natalie is drawn to talented, hard-working new authors with a fresh, unique voice and hook. Her specialty is commercial fiction, with an emphasis in children’s literature (from picture book-teen), romance (contemporary, paranormal and historical), upmarket women’s fiction and select nonfiction. Her interests include historical, multi-cultural, paranormal, sci-fi/fantasy, gritty, thrilling and darker contemporary novels, middle grade with heart, and short, quirky picture books.

Victoria Marini is an associate literary agent with the Gelfman Schneider Literary Agency,and an assistant to Jane Gelfman, Deborah Schneider, and Heather Mitchell. She began taking on clients in 2010 and is actively building her list. She's looking for adult literary fiction, commercial fiction, and women's fiction, plus YA (especially literary, contemporary, heartwarming and funny, or dark, edgy, and commercial), Middle Grade (fantasy and coming-of-age humorous), and nonfiction (narrative non-fiction, humorous/pop-culture non-fiction, and memoir, as well lifestyle/how-to non-fiction).

Kathleen Rushall is an agent at Marsal Lyon. She started as an intern at the Sandra Dijkstra Agency, and then spent almost two years at Waterside Productions. Kathleen looks forward to garnering fresh voices, strong narratives, and whimsical tales in all areas of young adult literature including contemporary fiction, suspense, Southern gothic, historical fiction, and science fiction. She is open to all genres of YA, but has a soft spot for thrillers, horror, romance, laugh-out-loud voices, and would love to find a dark mystery. She’s also open to New Adult queries. Kathleen is looking for funny, character-driven, quirky picture books and all genres of big voiced middle grade fiction. Kathleen also represents select nonfiction and is interested in parenting, cooking, crafts, business, alternative medicine, women’s interest, humor, pop-culture, and some how-to.

The Q&A Part One: Revisions

What is the most consistent change you ask for in a revise & resubmit?


Laura Bradford: I am not sure there is really a ton of consistency when it comes to R&R requests I make. I suppose I might most commonly request plot changes of some kind. If the writing is clumsy or the voice doesn’t work I am liable to just pass on a ms rather than request a revision. Plot tends to be something that can be fixable. I have asked authors to make genre-related changes… like in a contemporary romance with suspense elements I might suggest that it might sell better without the suspense elements. Or in a romance-mystery mashup I might suggest emphasizing the romance more so editors would better see where it might logically be shelved in stores. I could suggest that an ending might need to be reconceptualized. I could suggest adding or dropping a secondary storyline because the story was either too busy or not busy enough. I might suggest that a ms submitted as a single-title romance be better suited as a category romance and to make changes accordingly.

Josh Getzler: For children's books, it's making the age correct. I find myself moving ages up and down a year or two in order to make the character, plot points, and tone all be believable. For adult books, the revisions are much more varied, but usually involve cutting. In crime, it's often ratcheting up the pace.

Natalie Lakosil: Plot arc/context issues. I won’t offer a R&R if the voice/writing isn’t grabbing me, so it’s always going to be if I see enough promise and potential in the story but I want to be sure the author can tackle the changes/make it happen.

Victoria Marini: I don’t know that there is one. The kinds of consistent problems I have with manuscripts: pacing, flat characters, inert openings, endings that crumble apart… I don’t generally ask for an R&R on those. Were I forced to pick-on, I tend to ask for revisions that create more delayed gratification regarding the “big reveal” of a secret or a surprise.

Erin Harris: Again, it is difficult to generalize, because every manuscript is exceedingly different, but I will say that I am always hyper-critical of the first 10 pages.

These are the pages that convince a reader to buy your book in a bookstore or online. These are the pages that convince an editor to invest time in your work. They are akin to the handshake at the beginning of a job interview. You only get one chance to make a first impression.

Kathleen Rushall: Usually when I ask for a revise and resubmit, it’s because I saw something I really liked but that may have gotten lost in the current delivery of the story. Often, my R&R will have to do with pulling out the parts I found most promising, and streamlining the rest of the manuscript to help that element shine.

Post-Nano, what do you suggest as a starting point for that first round of revision?


Laura Bradford: I think it depends on the writer. Some authors write lean and in revision go back and fill in details and color. Some authors write long and have to go through in revision and streamline. Writers should have a sense of their strengths and weaknesses. Every author should have beta readers or critique partners…they will certainly help an author see what their strengths and weaknesses are if they are unaware of them. And choose beta readers and crit partners wisely. Some may be great at checking for continuity but terrible at spotting typos and bad grammar. Get a few reads on your work from people who can point out big picture concerns (like a lack of momentum or an unlikable hero) and smaller details (use of the wrong there/their/they’re). Set a reasonable deadline for yourself to get your revisions completed.

Josh Getzler: Read your manuscript as a reader, and have someone other than a close friend or family member read it as well. Are you interested? Is it compelling? Are there places where it looks like you were writing just to get your word count done? The first go-through after Nano is usually pretty big. It's the real question Do I have a book here, or an exercise? Is it a real story that people will spend money to read?

Erin Harris: Take another look at your opening pages, writers. Do they establish the Who, What, Where, When, and Why of your novel? Do they set the plot in motion immediately by introducing a conflict? Do they create tension by revealing what is at stake for the protagonist? The opening pages must do all of these things – and in arresting prose. It’s a tall order.

Natalie Lakosil: Nothing. Don’t touch it for two weeks. Then re-read it and see if it all makes sense.

Victoria Marini: Leave the book alone for a while. If you don’t start – wherever that may be for you – with a set of fresh eyes, it will all be for naught.

Kathleen Rushall: My first piece of advice would be to set it aside for awhile. You just wrote at full throttle to produce this story in a crunch. Now it’s time to ruminate on it.

Take a step back and consider it. During your revision break, you should continue to read books within the genre you’re writing. Know what’s currently working and any expected conventions. Question your characters: does the reader care enough about them? Do they have real goals? Are their motivations clear? Is their personality shown through action? How is the voice?

As you consider fleshing out your characters, also think on your plot and how this serves to do that (two birds here). You want your characters to develop organically with the plot. Is your plot arc complete and it’s now a matter of bolstering it? Or did you finish your draft before the story really ended? Use your resources at hand. As you begin mulling all this over, send your draft to beta readers and critique partners. While you consider your next move, have others dive in and offer feedback.

What is the most common revision request you make for a picture book manuscript?


Natalie Lakosil: Cuts. A lot of picture books are longer than they need to be. Otherwise, narrative arc.

Victoria Marini: I don’t take-on picture books unless they are by clients I already have, and in that case, I ask that they think about how the illustration will tell 50% of the story; what will the illustrations show us that the text does not?

Kathleen Rushall: I see a lot of picture books that I think have a promising story or loveable character, but that are either too long (word length) or too complicated. My most common picture book R&Rs involve cutting extraneous bits and guiding the writer to get to the heart of the story.

Is there such a thing as a writer changing too much during a requested revision?


Laura Bradford: Sure.

Josh Getzler: Sure, but it doesn’t happen too often.

Natalie Lakosil: Yes. Unfortunately, sometimes a writer can revise to a point that the manuscript loses its original magic. It’s a hard balance, so I’d definitely be sure to keep in mind what the agent/editor LIKED about the original, too, when revising!

Victoria Marini: Yes. But it’s not so much about the changes as about the voice. I haven’t seen an author make too many changes, yet. But, I have seen authors polish and polish and polish the heart and guts right out of the story.

Erin Harris: Yes, I do think it’s possible to throw the baby out with the bath water. However, I don’t think this happens very often…

Many writers have an easier time revising voice, setting, and plot, but they struggle with theme. One concern is to not let it beat readers over the head. How do you suggest writers revise for theme in order to make it as seamless as everything else?


Laura Bradford: I am pretty sure I have never in all my agenting days asked an author to revise for theme. I have no idea how to even answer this question.

Josh Getzler: Ultimately, as trite as it seems, show don’t tell, and don’t preach. An interesting story with a bright voice will allow you to get your points across without it feeling like medicine.

Erin Harris: A book is an ecosystem in which all of the organisms operate symbiotically. Theme is tied to voice is tied to setting is tied to plot. Given this view, I find it somewhat difficult to discuss these narrative components separately, because in my mind, they are all inextricably linked! Every book strives for perfect continuity.

That said, I think when “theme” isn’t quite working, it’s often because the author isn’t clear in her own mind about her authorial intentions. Before good writing can happen, good thinking needs to happen. An author needs to really know what it is, fundamentally, that she wants to say. What is her message? What is her book about on an emotional or philosophical level?

Sometimes the author “knows” what she’s trying to say before the writing process begins. A whole book, chapter, or sentence can exist in her mind before it appears on the page.

Other times (and I think this is more frequently the case), a writer needs to work through her ideas on the page and the “knowing” – the crystallization of her message – is a discovery that she arrives at.
It makes sense, then, that she would need to revisit the material written prior to her discovery, and revise it with her underlying intention in mind. This, I think, is how one edits for theme.

Natalie Lakosil: I’d say make it real; don’t force opinions or messages or be preachy. If theme has been pointed out as a problem, well, ask where it’s hitting readers over the head and fix it. I’d look at anywhere the author may be imposing an opinion rather than a realistic situation. To be honest, though, I can’t say I’ve ever rejected a book for a lack of a theme.

Victoria Marini: This is tough; I feel like Theme originates within the struggle of the characters. By that logic, I suppose creating a subtle, seamless theme is really about developing the character through the conflicts; experience, thought, behavior. Let those characters do their learning and their work. If you’re worried that you’re bludgeoning us with symbolism (hello C.S. Lewis!) my advice is to really stop thinking about what message you want to convey and just let the character experience the story and its problems.

I've seen a few agents talk about how writers should take their time with revisions on a revise/resubmit invitation and not worry about rushing to get it back to the agent. Any input on an ideal average time frame? Is there such a thing as taking too long?


Laura Bradford: I actually don’t care how long an author takes to complete an R&R for me (for the most part). If I know that I have suggested some significant changes and the author fires the ms back to me in 3 days, I would frankly be a bit wary that the changes were rushed and incomplete. That said, it is totally possible that an author take so long to do a revision that by the time they send it back the marketplace, or my own list composition has changed so that no longer can I or should I take it on. If I am looking for a YA sci fi right now because the market is hot and an author takes a year to send back a revision the market may not only be not-hot anymore but completely glutted. The opportunity was missed. I don’t send R&Rs very often so if I do I am really serious about getting the material back so I would be really bummed if I never heard from the author again, especially if I spent a lot of time writing really thorough notes. Taking a month or 2 or 3 to do a revision is certainly fine. Best advice is just to follow up with the agent and just let them know that you are working on the revision and give them an estimate on when you’ll send it.

Josh Getzler: For most novels, there really isn’t such a thing as taking too long. There are certainly exceptions that prove the rule—if you are seeing a trend and trying to ride the wave of it, you can miss it by taking too long. But that’s why agents really really try to discourage our clients from trying to hit trends. If you see a bunch of Twilight knockoffs (or Harry Potter or Lee Childs or Hunger Games or 50 Shades) and try to write one, you will be disappointed—every publisher will already have a long list of books coming down the pike trying to take advantage of the trend. Look, if you are able to see one coming, and are fortunate enough to have a great idea and can pull it off, terrific. But most of the time, folks are disappointed.

For your standard novel, however, which isn’t particularly timely, the goal is to get it right. However long that takes, take it. There are a lot of agents, and we tend not to be going anywhere. And you really only have one shot at submission to publishers, so it really needs to be the best it can be. But don’t worry about an agent saying “oh, you took too long getting back to me—I’m not interested any longer.”

Erin Harris: I’m sure every agent thinks differently about the ideal timeframe for turning around a revision on a revise/resubmit, but for me, there is no such thing as taking too long. Since I do think it’s possible for writers to submit work prematurely, I always encourage writers to resubmit when they feel ready.

Natalie Lakosil: I used to think there was no such thing as taking too long, but I’ve recently come across several situations where this wasn’t true. First, if an author takes over a year, the market may have changed and it may be impossible to sell that kind of book at that time. Second, if an author is taking forever and a day on a revision, and not even writing anything else in the mean time, I may have doubts as to the author’s ability to sustain a career in writing. That said, it is true, NEVER rush a revision. But I’d say…longer than 4 months and I may start to wonder (depending on the extent of the revisions, of course).

Victoria Marini: I don’t believe there’s such a thing as taking too long. The point is that when we open a revision, we should feel like we’re reading a whole new novel. If someone turns a revision back to me in a week, I know they didn’t recreate the book sufficiently enough to get me or an editor to reconsider it. As far as I’m concerned, the longer you take the better.

Kathleen Rushall: I wouldn’t worry about taking too long. It’s much more of a problem to rush a revision than to take a leisurely time on it. If your revision is rock solid and you’ve done a thoughtful, thorough job, an agent will still be happy to see it even after months have passed. Whereas, if you rush through your revision and submit it far too early you run two risks: the first being that you didn’t do the revision justice and it’s haphazard, and the second being that the agent may not think you’ve taken the revision seriously. Turning in a revision too early can work against you. We know writing takes time, and we know that thinking can take time too. A good revision isn’t just about doing it; it’s about formulating the changes in your head and getting them right when you do write it all out. We understand that and want to see it happen!

Thank you to all of our agents and all of our readers who submitted questions. 


Larissa said...

Yay! Great questions, and great answers! Thanks!

Becky Mahoney said...

Love this. Thank you so much, everyone! Being in an R&R siutation is so fun and so nervewracking at the same time, and posts like this are invaluable.

Rachel Schieffelbein said...

Great questions! Thanks to all of you for taking the time to give such informative answers!

Michelle McLean said...

thanks to all our wonderful agents for their participation this weekend. You all are amazing!!

Angelica R. Jackson said...

Thanks in particular for the detailed answers on R&Rs--I think writers feel so much pressure to get them done before the agent "forgets" about them that they rush. It's good to have that reinforcement that communication and putting some thought into the revisions goes a long way.

Anonymous said...

I'm currently revising for a requested resubmission so this was helpful. Thanks so much!

Unknown said...

Thanks especially for the comments on the timeline for R&R requests! That is so confusing to all of us who are new to the process. I think I would've scrambled to get everything ready and then blown it by acting too quickly, so I'm glad to know we have time to get it right!

Katrina L. Lantz said...

I loved this. It's so interesting to see where you all agree on something, and also where something seems to be a matter of taste. Very eye-opening! Thank you!

JeffO said...

Great interviews, thanks for doing this, and thanks to the agents for taking the time to participate!

K. L. Hallam said...

A Great help, thanks to the agents and Operation Awesome.

Anonymous said...

All quetions I've had at one point or another. Thank you for taking the time to answer!

janflora said...

Those were great questions! And very helpful answers. It's good to know that my extended revisions are not a bad thing :)