Wednesday, April 20, 2011

22 WOW Wednesday: Lena Coakley on Working Through an Agent's Critique

Our guest today is Lena Coakley from Toronto, Canada. For nine and a half years, she was the Administrative Director for CANSCAIP, the Canadian Society of Children’s Authors, Illustrators and Performers, but is now taking time off to write full time. Her first novel, a YA fantasy called Witchlanders, will be published this fall by Atheneum (S&S). You can reacher her on her website, or via twitter or facebook. She is represented by Steven Malk.

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.

Cut deep.

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.


  1. I so just went through this process myself (well, not two years) to attain an agent. Gratifying, for sure, but, yeah, there was that invisible anvil of stress hanging over the head that seemed to grow larger by the day.

    Congrats on the quick turnaround once finished.

  2. Thanks for sharing this. I don't have an agent and haven't even started querying. But I've done multiple revisions and had to finally use the axe and delete some scenes that were well written but didn't do the job. And I'm doing another revision for voice now. Thanks for making me feel it's okay to go slow.

  3. Interesting to read your experience, Lena! I'm also represented by Steve, and I went through revisions with him, both before and after "the call." I agree that the mulling part is the most crucial, and for me, sometimes it's the longest part of the equation. And certainly, revising is one of the best skills I've picked up, because you will do them not just for an agent, but for an editor (several times, too!) Congratulations on what sounds like an enriching experience!

  4. Thanks for sharing your story, Lena! It's so valuable to learn that although a quick turnaround is nice, quality writing and revising is better. And that it's important not to just blindly follow advice, but to address the core problem in a way that works for your book.

    Great post - I'll be coming back to it often.

  5. Great piece about the importance of listening and taking your time to get it right (or should I say, "write"?). Congratulations on the contract and good luck with the book!

  6. I'm here via an RT on Twitter and want to say THANK YOU for this awesome post. I'm currently revising a MG for my agent and it is so heartening to read about someone else who needed mulling time, and deep changes. I laughed at "I’ve learned to eye my favorite scenes and characters very suspiciously while fingering that axe of mine." Great image and an even greater point about the old "kill your darlings" advice.

  7. What absolutely perfect, uncanny timing for this post! I am about to revise according to an agent's notes; great advice to MULL things over for a make things fit--really fit. Thanks for sharing your story! So glad it had a happy ending. It sounds like your time spent revising before getting an agent shortened the time your manuscript spent while on submission, so that's a good thing. :)

  8. Excellent advice Lena! Especially the part about mulling, which is tempting to skip because it's such a miserable place to be. Can't wait to read The Witchlanders!

  9. Great advice. I just received a partial critique from an editor for a manuscript I thought nearly ready to publish. After taking time to consider her advice, I'm now revising with renewed energy and a willingness to cut more than before.
    Congrats on your sale. Looking forward to seeing more about your book. :-)

  10. Two years! I admire your patience. I'm just starting the query process on my second book, right now I'd kill to have some good agent feedback. At least then I'd know whether I'm on something approaching the right path or not.

    Thanks for the insight into what could very well (fingers crossed) be the next stage in the process. Although I hope it doesn't take two years of revisions for me!

  11. I just received some great advice from an agent and am currently in the mulling stage of revisions, though I feel guilty each day that I'm not rewriting. So thank you for your post. It gives me hope that I am on the right track!

  12. This is great advice! Some of the best advice I got about notes is "Ignore the fix." That is, listen to what isn't working for the reader, but don't feel compelled to incorporate the changes they suggest.

  13. Very nice post. Very very inspiring. Thanks for sharing, Lena!

  14. Lena, I'm feeling so much better about myself this morning--I take a long time to do anything, and I mull. And Mull. Thanks for this fabby post and excellent advice--I loved reading your story :) xxxNat

  15. Wow! Thanks for commenting, everybody! So glad I could help some of you who are, or soon will be, in the same boat.

  16. I love this post. Like, LOVE love. It's so flipping timely because this:

    'the write-a-scene-throw-it-out-write-a-scene-throw-it-out method...progress was glacial'

    IS ME right now. To a tee. And I think it's because of this:

    '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.'

    I'd heard this sentiment before but sort of dismissed it because it wasn't applicable at the time (apparently my brain is only a sponge when it wants to be). But now that I've written and thrown out 20+ different chapter ones in my WIP, I Get It. I'm trying to make it fit what I've "outlined" (and yes, I'm using that term rather loosely since I've never been a plotter) instead of just letting it happen organically.

    So now that I've quoted half your post and left an encyclopedia-length comment, I just want to say thank you for your post, Lena!

  17. Thank you for this Lena. Here I did this MULL for so long thinking I should be finished with my novel but had to figure how to move from the 14th century to 21st century. So as you say-- I MULLED. Then one day out of the sky came the idea. That night I could not get to sleep. Next morning-- sleepy-- I wrote what had to be written.

    So glad I MULLED.

  18. This is so interesting, reading about your experience. I love how you had to mull over it before revising. That's something we all need to keep in mind, no matter how anxious we are to dive right in. Good luck with your book.

  19. This Wow Wednesday gets a WOW from me. It's so cool that Lena took her time. I feel the need to rush, even though I know I shouldn't, and I'm freaking out just a bit that I won't get it just right. I need to chill out and "mull."

  20. Wow. This is just what I needed to hear today! I am currently revising my manuscript after signing with my agent, and the whole process has been daunting. I have been mulling, and writing, and mulling--but you're right! The mulling part is often as important as the actual writing part.
    Thank you for the encouraging post!

  21. This was so interesting. "Cut deep." Yes, and yet sometimes, so hard. Glad you found your happy ending. Thanks so much for sharing~

  22. Thank you for sharing this. I'm so glad you said to mull and that even if it doesn't seem like work, it IS. I think that holds true for pausing at various places in plotting, rewriting, editing, etc.--those times when you just need to step back, refresh your mind, and contemplate.


Tell us what you think. We'd love to hear from you! :)