Working Through an Agent’s Critique Letter
by Lena Coakley
Without a doubt, my big break on the road to publication came when, eight weeks after requesting my full manuscript, agent Steven Malk asked to work with me exclusively on a rewrite of Witchlanders. He wasn’t offering a contract, not yet anyway, but he sent me something that turned out to be even more valuable: the best critique letter I have ever received.
“I’ve worked with some authors for as long as a year,” he told me. “But I’m sure your revision won’t take that long.” Two years and two more critique letters later, I finally got “the call” and Steven offered to represent me.
At some point during that dizzying phone conversation, I was shocked to hear him say: “You know, I wish more authors would work through their critique letters the way you did.” Really??? When it took me two years and three critiques to get it right?
Then he went on with his cheerful California accent: “I love how you never did anything I told you to do!” Wait. I didn’t? And he liked that? Man, I thought, book publishing is a confusing business.
In the hopes of making it a little more transparent, these are a few of the things the things I kept in mind—and some of the things I wish I’d known!—when I tackled my first revision letters.
My manuscript was printed out and my pencils were in a row; I’d read my critique letter a hundred times; I knew this was a golden opportunity and that I should be pouncing on it by getting the revision done as quickly as possible; and yet something was telling me I wasn’t ready to begin rewriting. Every day I’d say to myself: okay, I’m going to spend today making notes and getting organized and tomorrow I’ll start. I did this for a month. Mulling doesn’t feel like work, not in the same way writing does. There’s no visible product. There’s no word count to post on Twitter. But it is crucial. Take some time to sit with the agent’s comments, getting a grip on the global problems—and how you’re going to solve them—before you begin.
Address the agent’s underlying concerns—in your own way.
So…about that I-love-how-you-never-did-anything-I-told-you-to comment. I don’t want to steer a lot of writers wrong by telling you that you don’t have to address an agent’s concerns! But it’s very important during that mulling phase to figure out what the underlying problems are with your manuscript, because addressing them is the crucial issue, whether or not you address them in the way an agent suggests. For instance, one of Steven’s comments (and it was hard to hear!) was: The love interest isn’t compelling (underlying problem). He gave me three choices: I could cut her entirely; I could put her in the shadows and give her a key role in a sequel; or I could flesh her out and develop a credible bond between her and my main character. In the end, I chose to flesh her out and give her a larger role in the book, but at the same time I downplayed the romance. In my contrary way, I didn’t exactly follow any of the three choices Steven had given me, but I think I addressed his underlying concerns about the character.
Take as long as it takes.
I’m a slow writer. Or at least I was when I was working through that first critique letter from Steven. I found it impossible to outline because a new scene that looked perfectly good in outline form simply didn’t work when I wrote it out. I was using the write-a-scene-throw-it-out-write-a-scene-throw-it-out method, and my progress was glacial. By the time I sent back that first revision seven or eight months later, the dread that I had blown my big chance by taking too long had nearly crushed the breath out of me.
The funny thing is, Steven had told me more than once to “take as long as it takes,” I just hadn’t been hearing him. I don’t want to generalize. Some agents may well think that over six months is too long to wait for a revision, but I think many agents understand that first-time authors are still feeling their way along when it comes to writing their first novel. If you can revise quickly and well, your agent will love you for it, but if you can’t, I think they’d rather wait for your best work than get something they can’t represent.
One of the things I believe separates a good writer who is published from a good writer who is unpublished is a willingness to make deep structural changes during the rewrite process. I’ve seen so many writers with could-be-publishable novels daintily refining their work with sandpaper at a stage where they should still be using an axe. And the irony is, the more you sand and refine, the more attached you become to the scene that needs to be cut.
I haven’t actually done this, but I’m quite certain that if I added up all the scenes I took out of Witchlanders, there would be enough to make another book. And here’s the rub: some of them were really good scenes.
We’ve all heard some variation of the writing adage, “Murder your darlings.” But why? Why should we cut out our favorite bits? Okay, we don’t have to cut them all, but when a novel isn’t working, I’ve learned to eye my favorite scenes and characters very suspiciously while fingering that axe of mine. This is because when my novel hits a snag, it’s often because one of those characters or scenes is tugging the story in the wrong direction and I’m trying to work around it to make it fit.
While waiting for the agent’s response, try to forget about it and write something new.
Ha, ha, ha, ha, ha, ha. Good one, right? Still, I think it’s theoretically good advice, even if I wasn’t able to follow it very successfully myself. In reality I spent most of my time worrying that my email had gotten lost and googling Steven within an inch of his life. (His favorite movie is Rushmore and he collects bobbleheads.)
I’m happy to report that all that revising did pay off. After I was signed, Steven and I sold Witchlanders in just a few weeks to the Atheneum imprint of Simon & Schuster. Of course, my lovely editor, Caitlyn Dlouhy, wanted revisions of her own…but that’s another story.