Cultivating patience

Hello, again —

As you may have noticed over the last few postings, I have been trying to burst one of the most common unrepresented writers’ preconceptions about signing with an agent: the notion that the hard work and months of waiting stops the moment that the representation contract is signed. It’s counterintuitive, now that agents expect prospective clients to send them fully-polished and print-ready manuscripts and market-ready book proposals, that the workload and time expended AFTER signing should not have compressed accordingly across the industry, but actually, it hasn’t. Even though agents are now signing writers with much more professionally-ready books in hand than every before, the time lapse between signing with an agent and selling the book is much what it ever was. Be prepared to wait, as well as to revise your book or book proposal until the agent loves it.

This is true, incidentally, even if the agent SAID she loved the book when she asked to represent you. I know many, many authors — and have had many, many students and clients — who have been left astonished when the initial raves of their new agent suddenly turned into change requests that took three months to implement. Try to take these requests as a compliment: if the agent did not think you were a good writer with a good idea, she would not be asking you to improve your work; she would not have picked it up at all.

Most writers serious enough to finish a book, however much they may think of themselves as procrastinators, do actually like the work of writing, but revising is another matter. Every agent in the world will, at the slightest provocation, regale listeners with horror stories about how hard it is to get writers to revise their own work after they have been signed. Writers, on the other hand, will happily tell anyone who will listen about the characters their agents had them write out, or the time that their agent wanted the same story to happen in fifty fewer pages.

What they do not do, almost without exception, is talk to EACH OTHER about this issue.

I think this is because translation is necessary. When an agent asks for a change, though, it is seldom (at least in his conscious mind) simply a matter of personal preference, particularly if the work in question is a book proposal. Usually, the change is to make the work more marketable — and, if I have not yet impressed this upon you, dear reader, take notes — good writing and marketable writing are not always the same thing.

And — are you sitting down for this one? — what was marketable writing two years ago isn’t necessarily marketable now, or two years hence. Standards, alas, change, and your agent is in a better position than you are to follow the fads on a minute-to-minute basis. (Remember, what you are seeing on the bookstore shelves today was actually sold to publishers a year to a year and a half ago.) Most of the time, an agent’s request for change, even if it’s purely stylistic, is either to avoid a common editorial pet peeve or to bring the work more in line with the demands of a very specific market niche.

When a writer receives a change request, however, even a minor one, he often hears it as a referendum on whether he can WRITE, or as a tactfully-put suggestion to revise the entire work, if not his entire life plan. Believe it or not, good writers have often far less experience dealing with constructive criticism than poor ones: the good students get much less feedback than the ones who are struggling. So very often, the writer who got nothing but As in English all through school crumbles into little tiny bits the first time he receives hard-core, professional feedback.

To remind everyone: agents and editors do not pull their punches to make writers feel better. Many of them regard tact as a waste of time. So what sounds like devastating, don’t-quit-your-day-job criticism to you may well be just an agent or editor’s way of being straightforward with you. As I said, in their minds, it is often a COMPLIMENT; they wouldn’t waste their vitriol on someone with no talent, right?

(Yes, I know: by this logic, the person eaten by a lion should be flattered by the lion’s impression that he tastes good. I don’t make the rules. I just tell you about ’em.)

I am reminded of an M.F.K. Fisher story about being solicited to write a preface for a charity cookbook. (I am writing a preface at the moment, so I’ve been reading them like mad, to get in the spirit of the thing.) The cookbook’s editors, both volunteers, came to visit Fisher, a neighbor of theirs, in the hope that having a big-name food writer attached to their compilation of local recipes would make the book sell better. It was, they told her, for a good cause.

Well (the story goes), Fisher took the draft book from them and had a good, professional look through it. Without missing a beat, she instantly began barking out everything that was wrong with the book: poor editing, meandering writing, abundant redundancies, all of the things that professional writers and editors automatically flag in a manuscript. When she looked up, however, the amateur editors were not gratefully taking notes. Instead, they were dissolved in tears. From their non-professional standpoint, Fisher had been hugely, gratuitously, deliberately mean, whereas in fact she had been paying them the compliment of taking their project seriously.

Believe me when I tell you: the ability to take criticism well is a highly valuable professional skill for writers; you need to develop it as part of your tool kit. Your dream agent, I assure you, will just assume that you have already acquired it. If you do not have experience rolling with harsh-but-true feedback, it is well worth your while to join a very critical writing group, or take a writing class from a real dragon, or submit some of your work to a freelance editor, before you send your work to an agent. It is much, much easier to learn the basic skills of revision with grace when your critiquers are your peers or teachers, rather than your agent or editor. The stakes are lower, and it’s less stressful by far.

If you are already in the throes of working with an agent and thus do not have the luxury of time to get your work dissected by a writing group for practice, here’s a trick for appearing to be coolly professional when you are in fact seething and sobbing inside: DON’T RESPOND TO THE CONTENT OF THE CRITIQUE RIGHT AWAY. Buy yourself time to think it over. For now, just nod, take copious notes, and say, “That’s interesting. I’ll have to think about that. Can we talk about it again after I’ve had a chance to re-read the text?”

Even on a tight deadline, few people will say no to such a reasonable request. This will enable you to go away, scream into a pillow, send bitter e-mails to all of your friends, and climb the nearest mountain to work out your aggression, out of sight and sound range of your agent.

This is not to say that you should not debate proposed changes that you feel passionately are wrong — you should. If you believe that any suggestion will harm your book — no matter who makes it, from writers’ group crony to senior editor — you have an obligation to discuss it. But calmly, coolly, rationally. You are your book’s keeper; it deserves both your protection and your best argumentative skills.

After you have calmed down, take another look at the feedback, if only mentally. Is there anything here you can use. Make a list of every single point that has merit. (If you cannot find any that you think are salvageable, have someone you trust go through the feedback and your text and pick the most reasonable. I do this for my editing clients all the time, incognita, and my clients’ agents and editors exclaim aloud at how easy the revision process is.) If you have time, go ahead and make the changes in the text.

Then revisit the other points. Are you willing to make any of these changes? Are there some that you might be willing to make if you could ignore others? Why do you hate the ones you hate most more than the others? Rank the suggestions from least to most odious, and come up with reasoned, text-based arguments for each.

Then, and ONLY then, call or e-mail your agent (or whatever publishing professional gave you the feedback. Say, “Gee, I tried out what you suggested about X, and boy, did it make a difference!” Repeat for all of the major points you used, to hammer home the underlying message: I respect you enough to take your critique seriously; I really am trying to work with you.

Then, after you have established agreement on these points and made your critiquer feel very clever, bring up one of your sore points. Ask if it is vital to make this change; could you perhaps change something else instead? Concentrate on making the process a negotiation between two reasonable people, not a resentful subject’s uneasy plea to an autocratic king. If your reasonable tack doesn’t work, you’ll have plenty of time to try resentment later, right?

If you are in a face-to-face meeting, you can still utilize this basic strategy. If you can possibly swing it, find a way to get out of the situation for a few minutes. A coughing fit will usually do the trick; no one will begrudge you a trip to the water fountain, followed by a trip to the restroom to blow your nose. Once out of the room, vent your anger on the nearest inanimate object, pick your points to praise, and walk back into the meeting, concentrating on the change you are most willing to make.

If you can’t get out of the room at all, respond ONLY to the critique you like best. This will give you time to calm down before getting into the truly contentious points. It also will disarm opposition: most people will jump right on the point they like least, and argue first about that. By finding at least one point where you can say, “Gee, that’s a great idea” (even through gritted teeth), you will be building up credit for arguing other points.

You may have noticed that I have not suggested that you don’t make any changes at all. You should, insofar as you can, trust your agent’s instincts about what will sell. But always, always, ALWAYS keep a copy of your original version, in case you later want to revert to it. Your biographers will thank you, believe me.

Whether you have serious problems with proposed changes or not, it’s a good idea to open a dialogue with your agent about them anyway. Ideally, you will be working with this agent over the course of many books: the earlier you can establish a good give-and-take, the better.

Many writers, disliking confrontation, just agree to make changes and then disappear for months on end, without ever discussing the potential problems of implementation. I feel that this is a mistake, again for reasons of translation: from the agent’s perspective, a long silence born of anger looks exactly like one born of confusion, or of laziness. If a few weeks have passed since your agent asked you to make a change and you have not sent back pages, get back in touch, if only to let her know that you are indeed working on it. If you are having problems making the suggested changes work, ask for advice. Trust me on this one: it will not make you look like a bad writer to share your concerns, but like a professional who is making a serious effort to understand what is required of her.

This, incidentally, is what agents mean when they make those ambiguous statements in the agenting guides about what kind of clients they want: they tend to list asking lots of questions as a major characteristic of both a dream client and a nightmare client. The difference lies primarily in how those questions are asked, and if they are asked in anger.

So ask your questions. The only question that I have found that agents hate universally is the grown-up version of the child’s car-tip whine of “Are we there yet?” Every agent I have ever met — and I get around, believe me — has complained about clients who call or e-mail every few days or weeks to ask what is happening with the book. Leave ’em alone; let them do their jobs. Remember, just as you want your agent to respect your writing time, your agent will want you to respect her networking time.

Which brings my little homily full-circle: to work well with an agent, you need to be both patient and flexible. Pick your battles, and remember, your relationship with your agent is not primarily a friendship, however much you may like each other. It is a business relationship, for the mutual benefit of both. Treat it as such.

Thus endeth the lesson. Keep up the good work!

– Anne Mini

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