books with Athena

books with Athena

Friday, October 23, 2009

SHOULD YOU REWRITE WITHOUT A CONTRACT?

If you’re a diligent, talented writer who’s done your homework—and you have the good-luck fairy on speed-dial—sometime during your novel querying process, your phone will ring and you’ll hear the voice of an agent—a real, honest-to-goodness publishing industry professional—who’s impressed enough to spend money and time ringing up little old you.

(You know she’s the real thing because you researched her credentials before you sent off that query—didn’t you?)

So you’ve hit the jackpot. Somebody out there likes you; she really likes you.

But after you scrape yourself off the ceiling and order the kids to turn that noise down right NOW, you hear the agent asking for a rewrite.

Uh-oh. Maybe she doesn’t like you so much.

Not to worry. This is part of the process. Most agents make editorial suggestions before they sign a new client. That’s right: BEFORE they offer a contract. You’re asked to rewrite with no guarantee of representation.

Is it fair? No. But nothing in this industry is, so we get used to it.

Current rules dictate that you should NOT argue. You say, “Yes, sir/ma’am—O Great Publishing Industry Professional—you want the new manuscript when? Sure. I can skip my grandfather’s funeral and write while the surgeon is doing my pesky little heart bypass, and I’ll have it on your desk by Monday.”

And then she’s obligated to represent you, right?

Nope. The agent is likely to give you a pass anyway—or suggest further edits. One writer blogged about doing twenty-five requested rewrites for an agent who never did offer representation.

The first time an agent phoned me to ask for pre-contract changes, I was a newbie so clueless I didn’t know I was being honored. She asked me to change the sexual orientation of a major character so the heroine could marry him. I said I was happy to make minor changes, but that felt like a betrayal of my values. She hung up in a huff.

Did I screw up? I don’t think so, but I sure broke the rules.

Several years later, when another agent finally called—also asking for rewrites—I knew better. I agreed to edit all three manuscripts that interested her. The changes to the first were fairly easy, but for the second, she wanted massive shifts of plot, tone and character.

I put in months of painful, heartbreaking work, but she sent the manuscripts back—along with a copy of a novel she’d just placed, to show me how it was done. I found the model manuscript a boring, childish slog—something I’d never choose to read.

Obviously she didn’t sign me. I eventually sold the novels without representation and my editor took out every one of the agent’s “improvements.”

I’m not suggesting these agents did anything wrong. Editorial suggestions are a gift. They’re also subjective. Something in my work struck a chord, and they wanted to work with me. They knew what they could sell and hoped I could produce that product. I couldn’t. This is why we don’t quit our day jobs.

So what should you do if you get that call? I’d say give the edits a whirl—but stay in touch with your creative self (and save your original.) If you have to hide the new version from your friends, and/or start to sob when you sit down at the keyboard, it’s OK to say thanks but no thanks.

What you shouldn’t do is procrastinate or send the original back with only a few changes. The late, lamented Miss Snark said of an author who wouldn’t rewrite, “The author was really shocked when I said no, ’cause he believed my editorial comments meant an offer was a pretty sure thing. I said, look, you didn't make the changes I suggested…even if you did them now, I've got no confidence you'd be someone who can handle editorial direction.”

An agency is like a retail shop: it sells a certain type of merchandise. You’re being considered as a possible vendor. Don’t go into business if you can’t supply the product. If your rewrite is accepted, you’ll be expected to write more of the same.

So if an agent asks you to rewrite your western as a romance, or your biting satire as Middle Grade fantasy, agree to give it a try. But before you waste too much time, read some romances or Middle Grade fantasy he’s selling.

If you can’t read them, you can’t write them. Politely bow out and move on. There are other agents. And small presses. Keep sending those queries.

8 comments:

  1. It's definitely a personal decision to rewrite without a contract, but I also think you're giving too much weight to the agent. They're simply trying to find clients they can work with. If an agent asks me to do revisions that I don't agree with, and it seems like they're not giving me much of a choice with what direction I take, I don't think I could work with them anyway.

    I need an agent who trusts me to make decisions, too. I really like collaboration, but I guess that comes later in an agent-author relationship. Or maybe I'm totally daydreaming. Hah.

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  2. Lady Glam--You're not daydreaming. I agree totally. I guess I'm not clear enough here. I'm saying it has to work for you, because if you change your first book to get representation, you're going to have to keep churning out THEIR kind of book instead of what you want to write.

    I didn't do the requested rewrites for those agents and I sold my books anyway.

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  3. I agree with you all the way about churning out their kind of book. I also believe that the professionals know what sells and what is good, so I think in the end it's a fine balance of remaining true to ourselves and keeping our audience in mind at the same time. Tough stuff!

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  4. Seems like its one of those fine lines between "art" and "commerce." As a gallery director (centuries ago, in a previous life) I would see and talk with a lot of artists and some of them were really teriffic BUT I knew their work just wouldn't sell. Or, they were really talented BUT the work just hadn't matured yet and so they weren't ready for a one-man-show. In discussing their work, I'd go over those hard facts of life, offer encouragement, and or 'splain that when it came to "art" it's a life-long engagement and the field is filled with 'overnight stars" (who'd been toiling 25 years before being "discovered") so dont' give up. And sometimes, I could offer suggestions as to how they might work so the work might be more "saleable." BUT, that's also always a problem: The artist's vision is his own and you can't or shouldn't really alter that -- if you do you end up with . . illustration or commercial art or something. Which means the advice, Keep Your Day Job is always wise. I'd add that, Art is a lot like fine wine; takes time (and many failed barrels) before it/you matures into a fine vintage, so . . . Keep Your Day Job and, above, keep working.

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  5. Congratulations on the nibble, that's good news no matter what :) You have great advice here, especially about checking out what the agent is currently representing. If I enjoy the authors on their list I'd be more likely to be okay with their rewrite suggestions... actually I'd probably give almost any suggestion a try just to see if I could make it work, and if it doesn't than go back to the original version and keep sending out those submissions. I'd lose time, which is precious, but publishing isn't a hurried business.

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  6. Doing revisions without a contract is a tricky situation. On the one hand you've got someone interested but not interested enough to offer representation.

    Before I found representation with my most recent YA novel I did uncontracted revisions on an earlier novel with a different agent. That agent did not offer representation but I continued to query the original while I worked on and then submitted the revision. You don't have to stop sending out the original unless you've got some kind of exclusive agreement.

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  7. Northwriter--Good point that you can keep sending out the original while you're working on revisions for another agent. "Uncontracted" works both ways.

    And if the revisions make it better--even if the first agent rejects it in the long run--you've had some free professional advice.

    So I'm dying to know if the agent you finally signed with liked the original or the revised version?

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  8. I like the post and the comment by Northwriter...very empowering to continue to send out the original.

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