Now that I have an agent, I’m finding the relationship isn’t exactly what I thought it would be. My agent wants revisions. In fact, not only does he want revisions, but his assistant has suggested some, too. And I’m betting the editors in the publishing houses once he places this will as well.
All this after about a year’s worth of revising the manuscript over and over after feedback from external readers, other authors, and more than a few other literary agents.
Talk about naive. I thought that if someone said, “I love your book,” it meant “I love your book the way it is,” not, “I love your book the way I want it re-written.”
Now some of these recommended changes are pretty minor and very sensible. Change a name: it’s too similar to another in the book. Put the handcuffs on before you untie the prisoner, not after. Run these two chapters together.
But others are very subjective.
I should clarify that my agent is absolutely great. (For that matter, so is his assistant.) He doesn’t tell me what to do or how to do it. I love him. He points out the problems he’s identified, explains them cogently, and leaves it up to me to fix them, which is the correct division of labour between author and agent. He wants the book to be better than good: he wants it to be great.
But it’s awkward to find out that some of the things I’m being asked to consider removing are the same things that other agents suggested I include.
My good friend, Hayden Trenholm, a highly regarded sci-fi author (and classmate from the 1970s) says about thirty per cent of all revisions put forward by an agent are absolutely necessary. Another thirty per cent are what the agent thinks are needed to get the book through a publisher. And the remaining thirty or so per cent are what the agent would have done if he or she had written the book.
Hayden says, and I agree, that you need to pay really close attention to these suggestions. But he also says that there are times when you simply have to stand your ground.
I was almost relieved to hear that tonight, when Hayden and his wife and I went out for dinner, because, frankly, I’ve tried and tried to make one particular change that both my agent and his assistant have flagged, and I’ve finally given up.
There’s a relationship in this book that my agent wants reduced and that my agent’s assistant wants chopped altogether. But the relationship — a love story — is important to me and I don’t want to lose it. It’s a part of the story that every single external reader has commented on positively, including the Ottawa Gay Book Club. It’s the part of the book that makes me cry every time I read it: it’s quite possibly my favourite part of the manuscript. In fact, when the agent first contacted me and raised concerns about it, I asked him specifically if it was a deal-breaker.
I’m not sure I want to start lecturing my agent: after all, he’s the expert on what sells. But quite apart from whether that relationship should be ‘in’ or ‘out,’ it’s the demand for changes that’s been a bit of a shock.
I feel like I’ve been speed-dating for a year or so, and finally met Mr. Right. Needless to say, I was thrilled. “I love you,” he said. “I want to be with you. My parents are going to love you, too; I can’t wait to have you meet them. But first, you need to change your hair and get your teeth fixed. And oh, by the way, whatever you do, don’t say anything about your hobbies that might bore them.”
I spent about 48 hours trying to change that relationship in my story to address the concerns raised.
I moved it forward, then back. Took it out; put it back in. I moved it to my sequel, but it didn’t work there, so I moved it back to the first novel. Broke into smaller pieces and tried to integrate it elsewhere, then gave up and moved it back. Deleted it altogether. Retrieved it. Shortened it. Re-inserted it.
I wrote an entire PhD thesis in less than three months. For me, 48 hours is a helluva lot of time. I can paint a house in 48 hours. I can go all the way to Europe and back in less time. There are a whole lot of things I can do in 48 hours that I like better than to sit in front of a computer, moving and re-moving a part of a story that I personally like just the way it is. More than like: love.
The decision I finally made is this: the relationship stays but I’ve re-written some of the early material to flag it. I’ve removed some of the backstory that wasn’t necessary. I don’t like the story quite as much as I did initially, but I understand the concern. I’ve listened carefully and I’ve tried to respond to it while at the same time keeping creative control.
The way that people respond to this story may be subjective, but at the end of all of this, for me to keep doing it, it has to be mine. Right?