Making the Agents Cry: Unwrapping Our Writer Delusions
By Michelle Barker
I blame the film industry.
How many movies have you seen that feature a writer happily plunking away at a keyboard, or sure, why not, a manual typewriter? They take those finished pages that they’ve barely reread, stuff them into an envelope, and send them off to their agent or publisher who calls them a few days later and says, tearfully, “This is the best thing you’ve ever written.”
These movies skip one small piece of the process: revision.
I get it. No one wants to see a writer at their desk for weeks, months, sometimes even years, going over and over the same story—because that doesn’t sound like fun. In fact, it sounds like drudgery.
But that’s what it looks like to take a novel from first draft to publication.
Revision is not a small puddle that you leap over in a couple of months of work. It’s more like the Atlantic Ocean. Pack your steamer trunk and a bunch of snacks because you’re going to need them.
I wish I was exaggerating. I’m not.
I have told this to nearly every single client I’ve worked with, but somehow, many don’t hear it with the amount of emphasis I intend. They nod. They say they understand. Then after one developmental edit, they’re convinced it’s time to move straight into a line edit, and then they’re off to market. Months later they come back to me wondering why all they’ve received are rejections. Didn’t they pay a bunch of money to have their novel edited?
Do you know how many times I edit my novels? And by edit, I mean:
1) Several people read it several times in several different incarnations.
2) I read it so many times I can almost tell you where to find a particular word (certainly the context in which I’ve used it, if not the precise page).
3) I print it out and read it on hard copy, so my eyes don’t play tricks on me.
4) I read it out loud, so my ears catch every snag.
5) I workshop parts of it.
6) I have long phone conversations with trusted writer friends about it.
Eventually I send it to my agent. Sometimes she sends it back to me with suggestions for revision. Maybe a reorganization of some basic plot elements—not so bad.
But sometimes, sadly, I have to start again. Maybe with the same characters, maybe the same setting. But a whole bunch of words end up in the garbage as I rethink the story.
The point being: one developmental edit and one line edit of a novel aren’t even close to being enough, particularly when it’s your first novel. Even with several under my belt, I would never publish a novel that had only been through two edits. Correction: no one would ever want to publish a novel of mine that had only been through two edits.
By the time a novel reaches a publisher, it should have been through countless edits (and I do mean countless). If the publisher accepts it, they start with yet another developmental edit—usually two—and then a thorough line edit that is done by more than one person. Then the proofreading process begins. Note the word process. It’s not a one-time thing.
This is what happens with a manuscript that has already been through the countless edits I mentioned earlier, so we’re not talking about a first draft.
I had a discussion recently with a client who’s in the process of submitting to agents. Her plan: submit to about a hundred of them. If they all say no, set the novel aside, chalk it up to the education process, and start another one. What would she get out of doing another revision, she asked? How would it make a difference?
In my experience, this is precisely what makes the difference. When you’re faced with sitting down and rethinking a novel to turn it into something publishable, that’s when you learn how to write—because that novel is already in a state where you think it’s the best you can do.
If that’s the point at which you throw up your hands and decide either to self-publish or move onto another project, you miss out on what I think is the crucial part of the learning curve.
Most writers are in too much of a rush to see their work in print and do not believe or accept that a manuscript should need that amount of work. For many years, I was one of those writers. I was in for a rude awakening. But I had no choice: when I was writing my first novel, self-publishing wasn’t an option. Either you learned how to make it good enough or you didn’t publish a book.
And let’s be honest: I still experience that rude awakening with every single manuscript I write. Because I’m always hopeful that this one, finally, will be the one I get right on the first draft. Just like in the movies. Pack it up. Send it off. Make my agent cry.
Sometimes she does cry. Just not for the reason I was hoping.
Michelle Barker is an award-winning author and poet. Her fiction, non-fiction, and poetry have been published in literary reviews around the world. She has also published three YA novels (one fantasy and two historical fiction), a historical picture book, and a chapbook of poetry. Michelle holds a BA in English literature (UBC) and an MFA in creative writing (UBC). She loves working closely with writers, both at the developmental level and on finer line-by-line issues. Many of those writers have gone on to win publishing contracts and honours for their work. Michelle lives and writes in Vancouver, Canada.