Friday, October 19, 2012

In Defense of the Less Editorial Agent

First off, an apology: Due to unforeseen circumstances, I’m cancelling this month’s round of “An Agent’s Inbox.” And because of the general contest weariness I’ve noticed around the blogosphere/Twitterverse of late, I’m holding off on scheduling another until after New Year’s. I’m so sorry to anyone who was counting on entering a round this year!

The online writing community has always seemed a little preoccupied with the Editorial Agent. Someone asks about an agent's editorial-ness in almost every interactive interview I host, and it’s one of the criteria Casey McCormick regularly highlights on Literary Rambles.

I understand the preoccupation. We writers are an insecure bunch. When people tell us we’re crap, we tend to believe them, but when they praise our writing, we tend to get suspicious and make excuses for their opinions. (“They don’t really think that, do they? They’re just saying that to be nice. Or maybe they just have no idea what they’re talking about. I mean, last time I checked, this manuscript was pretty lame.”)

This attitude can be especially destructive when we start receiving offers on those “pretty lame” manuscripts. We want to sign with someone who’s going to rip our stories apart, make them swifter, better, stronger, so we might shy away from those who think our manuscripts are already good to go simply because we suspect they’re joking or stupid or both.

But just because an agent thinks our manuscripts are pretty good--or even great--as-is doesn’t make her wrong. She may just be a less editorial agent. And she may know exactly what she’s talking about. Here’s why:

1. I’ve noticed less editorial agents often have more clients, more sales, and more experience than their more editorial counterparts. This doesn’t hold true for everyone, of course. Some agents, no matter how long they’ve been in business, want to work with their clients on fine-tuning their manuscripts, and even some newer agents are better negotiators than editors. But usually, newer agents have more time for everything, including client revisions, so their interest in revising is more of a reflection of where they’re at in their careers than the condition of our manuscripts.

2. Because less editorial agents usually have more experience, their instincts are often right. Amazingly enough, agents who’ve sold a lot of manuscripts tend to know what sells. So we shouldn’t discount their opinions just because we’ve conditioned ourselves to discount anyone who says our writing’s good. We should take those opinions as compliments.

3. Sometimes, revision doesn’t make a manuscript better, just different. Every agent, every editor, and every reader is going to have a different vision for our stories. Some visions are better than others (“Oh, wait, you think I should cut the wizard out of my YA contemporary?”), but some are just different. So editorial agents may have a million and one ideas for tweaking our manuscripts, but that doesn’t mean those ideas are necessarily an improvement over what’s already there.

I really don’t dislike editorial agents; in fact, I suspect that if I were an agent, I’d be an editorial one. And when you’ve got offers on the table, you should always weigh your options rationally and go with your gut. But don’t let whether an agent is more or less editorial hold undue sway. Remember, an agent’s job isn’t really to edit your manuscript--it’s to sell your manuscript to someone who will.


Kristen Wixted said...

Good post, Krista. I think that's an idea you don't see much out there.

Have a great weekend!

Jenny S. Morris said...

Great post, it really is true. I've seen agents say it a lot. Don't send me a book that I can make better. Send me something I can sell. If you have a great support group of writers they can help you get it to the point where it's ready to sell.

Suzi said...

I think you called that right on the big part of our insecurity. If an agent told me my ms was pretty much ready, I wouldn't wonder if they were experienced. But if they were new, I would probably question if it was really ready or not.

Good post.

Janet Johnson said...

Great post! Every agent works differently, and it's really about finding a match for you, whatever that may be.

Ink in the Book said...

Well done post, and enjoy your rest and the holidays:)

Michael G-G said...

I haven't seen this opinion before in the blogosphere--and I thank you for it.

(Plus, I have to say, you are a very good writer. I hope you don't think I'm merely "saying that to be nice.")

Write Life said...

I have to say though. You go out in front of editors, you want to be as tight and as smooth as you can be, and if your agent has advice on how to make sure those pages do what they should be doing, then listen. No agent's going to tell you how to write it, but they might point out places where you're missing a beat, or have too many beats. Then it's up to you. Remember, they saw something in that manuscript in the first place, so one step in the right direction.

I think you're right, Krista. When it comes to choosing an agent, or having that luxury of choice, go with your gut! Don't worry about what they will or won't do to improve your manuscript.
An agent is like having a top notch crit partner. They know how to find the holes. I actually believe every agent is editorial to some degree, and if it happens that there aren't any holes in your manuscript, then great. With any luck you're on to the next stage. An editor who probably will find a few!

Carrie-Anne said...

I'm surprised to hear so many writers nowadays want someone to rip their hard work apart and be told it's not as good as it could be. I never had that attitude growing up, or felt that attitude from any of the other writers I knew. I'd prefer an agent who points out strengths as well as things that could be made even stronger, but not someone who fills it up with red ink. Then again, I've been a writer since I was 4 years old, and have had 28 years of learning, growing, and evolving in my craft.

Krista Van Dolzer said...

Thanks, Kristen!

Good point, Jenny. If you believe in your critique partners, then you should also believe in their ability to help you get your manuscript to a submission-ready level. (And if you don't, then maybe you need new critique partners.)

Suzi, I've seen this happen a few times now (a writer signs with a less experienced agent simply because the less experienced agent has a bunch of revision ideas and the more experienced one doesn't), and I do think it's indicative of our writerly insecurities. I think it just comes down to having faith in your critique partners--and especially in yourself.

Very true, Janet.

Thanks, Ink! You, too! I'll be back next year with more contests for sure:)

Thank you, Michael, for your lovely comment. I really appreciate it.

Yes, Linda, if your agent has great suggestions, I would definitely say take them (or at least consider them). I was just concerned about a trend I've noticed recently. As I mentioned above, I've heard of several writers who signed with less experienced, more editorial agents (when they had a choice between the two) in large measure because the newer agent was editorial and they thought that was how an agent HAD to be. So I wanted to share another opinion.

Yeah, Carrie-Anne, it's like we're going into this with the belief that our writing's crap and we're just hoping to find someone who'll love it enough, anyway, to tear it apart. But if we're getting offers from reputable agents, OUR WRITING CLEARLY ISN'T CRAP. (That should be every writer's mantra:) )

Melodie Wright said...

Great point. And no doubt agents switch editorial hats like everyone else...maybe one MS they love enough to go right on sub w/ and another needs some tweaking to appeal to editors in a certain genre. It probably depends on the MS.

Ben Spendlove said...

My first thought is which kind is your agent?

My second thought is that you make writers sound pretty pathetic but you're absolutely right! Those words in quotes are exactly what runs through my head every time someone praises my writing. It's so easy to imagine the potential in what I'm doing, yet I'm conditioned to see only the flaws once it's written down. What a world.

Krista Van Dolzer said...

Great point, Melodie. I'm sure it does depend on the manuscript, since manuscripts, like people, are one-hundred-percent unique.

I would say Kate definitely leans to the less editorial side, Ben. We did very little revising before going on submission with Steve. That said, I just gave her Clyde, so we'll have to see how he turns out.

And you're absolutely right--once something's written down, we all tend to focus on the flaws. But even though I always make suggestions (and usually quite a few, because that's just the way I am), that doesn't make me any less of a fan of your writing. You should know that if Kate represented adult fiction, I would have recommended your work to her a long time ago.

Myrna Foster said...

I'm making revision decisions this week, and yesterday it hit me that I was discounting critiques that said TBW was close to being ready over those that wanted me to make sweeping changes. But you're right, sometimes different is just different.

I would like to have an agent who sees my work going in the same direction that I do, whether she is editorial or not. But I would like her to be editorial when I need that kind of feedback. I think that the agents I'm submitting to at the moment are all editorial.

Thanks for giving me something to think about!

Krista Van Dolzer said...

Myrna, funny how we're so conditioned to see the bad. But I bet THE BINDER'S WEB is closer than you think...

A.L. Sonnichsen said...

Were you thinking of me when you wrote this? You could have been. And I think, after experience, that you're completely right. I can raise my hand as a member of the insecurity camp. And just because an agent wants to change your story doesn't mean they'll be an editorial agent later on when you need them to be. They may just want to change your story. Wise, wise words here. :)

Krista Van Dolzer said...

This. Oh, this --> "And just because an agent wants to change your story doesn't mean they'll be an editorial agent later on when you need them to be." Great point, Amy.