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.