Can I trust my agent’s advice on my book?

Is the feedback you’re getting for the novel’s good or is it steering you to fit in with the market? This writer asked for my advice

I am in the fortunate position of having got (after plenty of rejections, redrafts etc) an agent for the first novel I’ve written. Which is great. But while the idea of my book is strong, the manuscript needed shaping. With my agent’s help, I’ve been redrafting for the last 15 months, but I’m finding it hard to differentiate between what is solid advice from someone who knows and what are tastes/suggestions that might take my novel away from what I’m trying to do. The suggested changes all ring true in terms of what will make the novel work/sell, it’s a much better book, and I know that what’s being said is mostly good advice, but I want to keep a tight hold on the heart of why I wrote the novel.

I presume this is something all writers have to go through once they open the door to the world, but I’m hoping you have some tips for gaining clarity and creating the best possible version of a story while not losing anything that’s truly integral.

I do sympathise. You’ve edited the novel for so long you probably can’t see where it should go. When someone else is contributing suggestions, you can feel like everything is whirling out of your control. Especially if that person might have different aims from you.

There are two aspects to tackle here.

1. Do you know what you want your novel to be?

You mention you’re worried about losing the heart of the book. Yes, absolutely. But it sounds to me as though you may not be entirely sure what that is.

Often if we’re writing a novel that’s unusual we feel there’s nothing else like it. But there are probably a lot of books like it in certain aspects. If you know what those are, it is far easier to have a meaningful conversation with an editor or agent – and it might also help you get clarity yourself. You can think about the novels that may have given you crucial inspiration. Also, look up Amazon tags for the subjects your novel covers – you can find surprising parallels this way

As well as this, work out which of your agent’s suggestions are raising your artistic hackles. This is similar to the situation I posted about a few weeks ago, where a writer felt her critique group was derailing her novel. The principles are the same – identify what is working for you and what isn’t.

2. Art versus market

Do you fear you’re being steered to write something that is more saleable but less artistically fulfilling?

First of all, take a deep breath and ask yourself what you want. I know writers who welcome a lot of direction from their paymasters and are truly happy to fit in with what the market needs. Others decide they have different priorities.

For instance, my novel My Memories of a Future Life was wooed by the senior editor at one of the Big Six, who wanted it to be a murder mystery. Another publisher hinted they would take it if it was reshaped as a conventional thriller. Both urged me to rewrite because their marketing departments would back me after my success as a ghostwriter. But I felt the idea deserved more unusual treatment. My agent liked the novel my way too – and took it out just as it was. But although editors enjoyed reading it, their marketing departments found it too risky.

So agents are not always trying to shoehorn you into a commercial space. And no one can make you change your book or write what you don’t want to. (And if you do try to aim more at the market there are no guarantees your book will sell or be successful enough to lead to a career.)

What do you do?

You mention that your agent has been working with you for 15 months. That’s a long-haul commitment to helping you nurture the book and shape yourself as a writer. This is a good relationship so far, so make the best of it.

It may be that, as I said above, the agent is unsure what you want and is making stabs in the dark. Give them a chance by begin clear about your vision for the book. Then have a frank discussion about how they are guiding you and where they see you in the market.

Best of luck.

Thanks for the pic jcoterhals on Flickr.

Agree? Disagree? How would you advise a writer in this situation? Share in the comments!

My Memories of a Future Life is available on Kindle (US and UK) and  also in print (and Amazon.com have knocked USD$4 off the price so grab it now). If you’re my side of the Atlantic you can now get the print version from Amazon UK and save on postage. You can also listen to or download a free audio of the first 4 chapters over on the red blog.

 

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  1. #1 by danholloway on October 16, 2011 - 9:36 pm

    As you say, it does sound in this instance as though the author isn’t quite sure what the heart of the novel is. I would say when their agent suggests something that does rip at its heart, they’ll probably know then

  2. #3 by Tahlia Newland on October 16, 2011 - 10:58 pm

    I’m so glad you didn’t turn ‘memories’ into a thriller or a murder mystery, Roz. I’m reading it now and I love it as it is. The things that make it not exactly those genres are what makes it so special. With the indie ebook path an option now we don’t have to squash our work into easily defined boxes anymore.

    • #4 by rozmorris @dirtywhitecandy on October 17, 2011 - 9:11 am

      Hi Tahlia – thank you very much! Yes, this is the very positive side of indie publishing. There was a time when mainstream publishing did back such novels but at the moment they’re not. So we find our own way.

  3. #5 by Paul R. Drewfs on October 16, 2011 - 11:03 pm

    Every writer, agent, or whatever, is a unique intelligent self-aware entity that has learned and evolved independently of all others. Each has their own unique domain bound definition of every problem and possible solutions to it. Whenever they come together on a WIP, they are bound to come into conflict over what the optimized end product should be. A transformation of these entities and the work is required to produce an optimum solution; a balance that cuts-out and cuts-off irresolvable errors from the work, while preserving and amplifying what works and will resonate with the intended readership. The more original the WIP is, the more demanding the transformation required of the author, the agent, and work; and the greater the chance of failure to achieve an optimized product. The problem is simple when the author presents a WIP to an agent and there are glaring irreconcilable differences between them at the onset. The problem grows increasingly complex as the differences between these entities become more subtle and late to arise. In such cases the risk of loss of author and agent time and energy increases along with the potential degradation of the WIP relative to the readership. The dark part of all this is that Human beings accept and diffuse change, but at a normally distributed fixed rate relative to any genuinely new idea, practice or object (innovation). I suspect that is why so many great works are not discovered and diffused throughout the population until long after their creators are dead.

  4. #7 by mrdisvan on October 17, 2011 - 8:51 am

    Of course, in the case of a novel there is no such thing as an “optimized product”. Agents will prefer a relatively sure bet, which they get by nudging a work closer to established genres and successes. The author, on the other hand, probably wants to express themselves artistically – if they wanted a safe bet, they would have got a job in a bank.

    If you can write a truly original work, that’s the high-risk option. It could hit big (Harry Potter, Time Traveler’s Wife, etc) or it might vanish without trace. Diluting your concept into the form of a thriller, whodunit or whatever makes it more likely to sell, but less likely to be a massive hit.

    I don’t advocate authors should even consider such factors, though; they should write from the heart. If your aim is to make money, there are other jobs than writing.

    • #8 by rozmorris @dirtywhitecandy on October 17, 2011 - 9:19 am

      That’s right. Many agents and publishers favour the well-behaved book. But I have known a few who aren’t so timid.

  5. #9 by Erika Marks on October 17, 2011 - 12:41 pm

    Hi Roz! Some great advice on a tough question. I think so much of the time, we have to go with our gut. I feel very fortunate in that I knew from the get-go that my agent and I were a great fit. Her ideas not only “felt” right to me, but they always inspired my writing and led me to improvements every time. There isn’t a crystal ball or a set equation to what makes the right choice, I think. At the end of the day, you have to trust your instincts. If an agent helps your writing to be stronger, and you feel more energized by the work you do together, that’s–in my humble opinion–your answer.

    • #10 by rozmorris @dirtywhitecandy on October 17, 2011 - 3:23 pm

      Hi Erika! That’s a great sign that you’ve found the right agent. A good match for you inspires you to go on and write your book better. Long may it continue.

  6. #11 by Dan Meadows on October 17, 2011 - 2:51 pm

    I suspect the writer may not be totally sure of what she wants the book to be because she’s been rewriting it for 15 months. That’s a long time and a lot of rewriting, and it still doesn’t sound as if its done or either the writer or agent is satisfied. I’m not saying that kind of process can’t be valuable, but it just sounds like overkill in this case and no surprise she’s confused. I would suggest taking control and ending the rewriting cycle. Nothing is ever truly perfect and nothing is ever really finished. At some point, for better or worse, you just have to stop or else you’ll be stuck in that same cycle forever.

    • #12 by rozmorris @dirtywhitecandy on October 17, 2011 - 3:26 pm

      I see why you would think that, Dan, but books can take that long to rewrite. Especially if they are a little unusual and there is no obvious route map. Sometimes, of course, you have to admit defeat as the concept may be fatally flawed. Other times, it’s a good idea to work on something else and come back refreshed and wiser. But a long rewrite time does not necessarily mean the book is doomed. We all need different apprentice periods, especially if we’re aiming for something out of the ordinary.

  7. #13 by Dave Morris on October 17, 2011 - 3:05 pm

    It’s certainly worth bearing in mind that your agent’s goals are not necessarily your goals. Your agent is there to make sure your work sells at the best possible price. For many writers that’s the highest priority, in which case fine. But creative integrity and artistic expression are your responsibility alone. That’s why it’s your name, not your agent’s or your editor’s, that goes on the front cover.

  8. #15 by Daniel R. Marvello on October 17, 2011 - 6:24 pm

    What a nice problem to have!

    If you want *total* control over your creative output, you pretty much have to publish it yourself. However, if you want the backing of a big publisher, I believe you have to be willing to compromise in order to play in their sandbox. Generally speaking, that means taking their advice on your novel. By signing that publishing contract, it seems to me that you are agreeing to let the publisher take the lead and use their experience and skills to help you make your book a success.

    I know of authors who reached a point of no return with their publisher and canceled the contract. The publisher asks them to do something they just aren’t willing to do. But after investing a lot of time in revision and in the relationship with an agent, I’d think you’d have to be pretty darn unhappy to pull the plug.

    If I ever got a traditional publishing contract, I would trust that the publisher knows what they are doing and follow their lead. I can always write another book, and if I don’t like what the publisher does, I can choose to do things another way next time.

    • #16 by rozmorris @dirtywhitecandy on October 17, 2011 - 10:29 pm

      Good comments, Daniel. It’s not always a deal with the devil, though.
      And, on the flipside, you often get precious little ‘backing’ with a traditional contract – unless you do a humungous deal.

    • #17 by Daniel R. Marvello on October 18, 2011 - 2:30 pm

      Deal with the devil? Wow. I guess I still came across as anti-publisher in spite of my efforts to the contrary. Sorry about that.

      Also, I think I misunderstood part of the issue here. This author is still only talking to an AGENT at this point? Fifteen months of revision based on an AGENT’s recommendations? For some reason, I thought we were talking EDITOR.

      I do respect the experience and marketing savvy of agents. But when it comes to craft, I’d consider their feedback at about the same level as a beta reader or critique partner at best. Beyond that, they are either a good fit for my writing or they are not.

      Just because an agent agrees to take you on doesn’t mean that agent is the right one for you.

      • #18 by rozmorris @dirtywhitecandy on October 18, 2011 - 2:51 pm

        It’s so difficult to judge. Some agents do know about craft because they’ve been editors – and in fact many editors are leaving the publishing houses because it’s got so difficult to nurture new talent. But even having been an editor isn’t necessarily a qualification – some editors give lousy craft advice and have been doing for years.
        I’m a bit surprised that this writer and agent have been going at it for so long, but in this industry everyone seems to make their own rules. Some agents aren’t in a hurry to sell anything and will happily tinker for ages. Others shoot the manuscript out of the door when it clearly needs work. And, as you say, some agents aren’t right for what you want.
        What I felt overall was that the writer needed a way to break through – which I hope we’ve all given her.

  9. #19 by Victoria on October 17, 2011 - 8:21 pm

    Oh, yes. The problem is that many agents and even, sometimes, acquisitions editors simply don’t know how to translate marketing advice into advice on craft.

    I’d always advise a writer to take such advice to an experienced indie editor (like Roz) for concrete help on craft along with clear explanations of how to meld that craft with—and make informed choices about—the marketing forces behind those opinions.

    (And, having read that fabulous party scene in MMOAFL, now I really am desperate for you to write a thriller!)

    • #20 by rozmorris @dirtywhitecandy on October 17, 2011 - 10:22 pm

      Eek, don’t get me started. They don’t do craft. Although they probably do market better than people like me…

      Glad you like that scene. I have in fact written loads of thrillers. Big enigmatic smile…

  10. #21 by Ollin on October 17, 2011 - 11:41 pm

    Thanks Roz! As always, great advice. I always wondered about this. It’s something I think we all fear. It all goes down to trust. Are we allowing others to help us and trust their advice? Or is this not about trust but simply about which way we want to go with our work? Maybe your reader should ask themselves this:

    Is it because they do not trust someone else to know what’s best for their book–or do they ALREADY know DEEP INSIDE that this person doesn’t know what is best for their book.

    In the end, I think an author should be happy with how the book ended. If they’re not, maybe traditional publishing is not the route for them.

    Then again, there is a question of maturity. Some people are not mature enough to know that others actually have some great advice to give–and what they view as threatening advice wouldn’t hurt their book at all but only strengthen it.

    I remember I used to be convinced that my work was best in its raw form–unedited. What a terrible idea to have. But I was immature as a writer (that was in high school.) Later on I grew to see the line between constructive advice and advice that was simply hampering me.

    Constructive advice should feel right and you should feel capable of executing it. Negative advice makes you feel like a terrible writer afterward and executing the advice makes you feel very wrong deep inside about the work and very unhappy with the product.

    But like I said, to get to this point where you know the line between the two takes maturity and some writers don’t have this yet. It may take time working with others and peer reviewing with a good mentor at the head of the table to be able to mature to that level. A good mentor in her own way teaches you what is good criticism and what is not.

    These are some great questions you raise with no easy answers and I look forward to reading more discussions like this. I’m very curios to see what people think.

    • #22 by rozmorris @dirtywhitecandy on October 18, 2011 - 7:55 am

      Maturity, trust… you’re dead right, Ollin. There are so many issues raised here. And not all constructive advice feels right – because we may not want to admit something’s wrong. But I don’t think this writer is necessarily in that position.

  11. #23 by Jenny Milchman on October 18, 2011 - 2:11 am

    I came to a somewhat similar place when my novel on submission began getting contradictory feedback from editorial boards whose editor had wanted to make an offer. One would say, The character is great, cut the pacing back so we’re more in her head, while another would say, I found the character claustrophobic, could we spend more time on action? At that point I knew the novel wouldn’t be improved with more editing–just changed–and it was a matter of needing to find the right click.

    Luckily that click did come, and my novel sold four months ago. But I really feel for the writer who’s been at it for so long that it’s not clear whether this direction is the right one–or even what direction he’s going in.

    Ultimately since editors’ (and agents’) reads are so subjective, I think it’s a matter of getting the novel as close as possible and then starting to throw spaghetti. Whoever winds up being the strand that sticks will want to put his or her own stamp on the book anyway. So–more revising.

    Best of luck to the author who wrote you!

    • #24 by rozmorris @dirtywhitecandy on October 18, 2011 - 7:59 am

      Jenny, what a rollercoaster – but terrific that it worked out for you. And I’ve known a writer who was given two lots of contradictory feedback like that. One editor said ‘write it all from x’s point of view’. The other said to do it from ‘y’ POV. Although they were both right that something needed to be done, they weren’t right about what to do. Incidentally that novel has just been voted Sunday Times book of the week!

  12. #25 by Paul R. Drewfs on October 18, 2011 - 4:59 pm

    The first thing J.K. Rowling did right was to shrug off the wrong advice of her agent. The lesson here is to never underestimate human beings and the potential influence of your target audience on the greater population. After Rowling finished her first book: “Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone,” her literary agent cautioned: ‘You do realize … you will never make a fortune out of writing children’s books?’” [http://www.infoplease.com/spot/harrypottertimeline.
    html, Revisited June 20, 2010]

  13. #27 by jacquelincangro on October 20, 2011 - 1:11 am

    This is a tough question and you offered such great advice. So many writers (myself included) feel lucky to *finally* get an agent that we don’t want to disappoint them for fear they will go away. But ultimately you have to go with your gut, I think.

    • #28 by rozmorris @dirtywhitecandy on October 20, 2011 - 9:31 pm

      That is such a good point, Jackie. In the end it has to be what you feel happy with. And I don’t think there’s anything wrong with changing your work because an agent has suggested it, provided you are happy to do so.

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