Writing Advice #32: Q&A Pt. 3 – Dealing with Agents

OK, continuing to tackle questions I have received recently…

This question is about something that may come up once you’ve landed an agent. This is most likely a VERY premature question for this blog’s audience, as most of you are still working on your million bad words and not ready for an agent yet. Still, I received this question in e-mail a little while ago and thought that it might be interesting and helpful to discuss.

Here it is:

Since your all about the writing advice on the blog I thought I would ask you a writing question.

I just submitted edits to my agent on my MS and she HATES them. That was upsetting considering I busted my ass on the edits, but that’s a different story.

Anywho. She said I needed to “overhaul” the MS and cut awkward narrative, dialog, choreography, etc.

In a way, her advice is self explanatory, but I’m still not sure what she’s talking about when she says awkward dialog and narrative. It doesn’t sound awkward to me.

Any suggestions on revisions you may have? I’m freaking out since I don’t want to lose my agent or my chance at getting published.

Whew! Tough one, eh? Here’s what I said in response:

It’s tough to know when to stick to your guns and when to cave. Let me ask: Is this your first book? [NOTE: It turned out it was.] With my first book, my agent made some suggestions that really worried me. But I made the decision to try them, rationalizing that I could always go back to the original version. I tried out her ideas and the book improved DRAMATICALLY. So, win for both of us.

With my third book, I was a mess. My agent helped me whip into shape and I did everything she told me to do.

With the fourth book, she had all kinds of comments. I ignored most of them, honestly. But by then, we had a great relationship.

My advice would be to try it her way. You have nothing to lose except, of course, time and a small chunk of your sanity. But you’re a writer, so you should have been prepared to lose THAT a long time ago. Also, if you’re unclear about something…call her! Ask her about it. If it helps you in advance, make up a list of things to talk about. Don’t be intimidated by her. Remember, you both have the same ultimate goal: To publish a great book. You won’t lose your agent just by asking questions.

To those comments above, I’d like to add this: A relationship with an agent is a working relationship. You both have your roles, and while there is overlap at times, at the end of the day only YOUR name will be on the book in question. You have to be happy with it. If following someone else’s suggestions (even your agent’s) makes you miserable with your book, you need to re-examine things.

I want to say again that you and your agent ultimately have the same goal. Remember that. You should not approach your agent as an adversary in this process. Some agents can be brusque and blunt in their assessments. It can be difficult for we emotionally fragile writers to deal with this. I really recommend taking a few deep breaths. When your agent first calls or e-mails with suggestions that rip your heart right out of your chest, say, “OK, I hear what you’re saying. I’d like to take a day or so to live with these ideas and then get back to you with my thoughts.” I’ve found that a little temporal distance helps a lot. Writers have a tendency to get very defensive in the face of criticism. This can mean that you end up alienating someone who’s trying to help…and also that you may end up dismissing some really good advice.

In my response above, I talked very briefly about my first book. Let me give you some more details on that now. Before I signed with my agent, we had a long phone conversation during which she spent a lot of time basically telling me that I was a genius. This is the sort of thing you can expect to hear from an agent who’s really hot for your work and of course it’s the kind of thing you love to hear.

A week later, I had signed the agency contract and we had another long phone conversation. This one wasn’t so pleasant. It involved a lot of my agent saying things like, “And ANOTHER problem with your book is…”

I got to the point where I wanted to say, “Hey! Can we go back to the previous conversation? The one where I’m a genius? Remember that one?”

After hanging up the phone, I couldn’t even look at the notes I’d taken. I bitched a little bit, then I went to bed.

In the light of morning, however, I realized something: What I had thought was an interminable conversation about how much I sucked was actually a brief chat about some very simple, very sensible ideas. I was resistant, of course, because I liked my book the way it was. But I realized that my agent’s ideas had merit. They weren’t entirely bad. So I figured I’d give it a shot and see what happened. If I hated the result, I would tell her so.

Turns out I absolutely loved the result.

Ever since then, I’ve applied that method to receiving criticism. As my blood boils that someone has DARED to question my eternal, supernal genius, I grit my teeth, thank them as politely as I know how to fake, all the while mentally cursing them and their children and their children’s children. Then I put it all aside for a day or even a week.

When I return to it, guess what?

Aw, you guessed!

I feel so much better about the suggestions. This isn’t to say that they’re always right, or that I want to follow all of their suggestions. But I can see their perspective, and that allows me to look at my work with new eyes, which is what I need when I’m revising. It’s at this point that I usually get in touch with the person in question and thank them again, this time sincerely. (Sometimes I even lift the curse!)

Your agent will often suggest things that are contrary to what you want, but my recommendation is that you not make that judgement right away. Take some time to think about it. Any good agent will understand if you say, “Let me get back to you on that.” They may be frustrated or annoyed by it, but that’s OK — we all get frustrated and annoyed. Believe me, once they sell that manuscript, that frustration and annoyance will be the merest memory.

One last thing: I wholeheartedly believe that you should NEVER be afraid to lose your agent. As soon as you let that fear into your heart, you might as well tell your agent to do whatever he or she wants without ever consulting you because you’ve just abdicated all responsibility for your own career. If an agent is going to cut you loose for passionately defending your work or taking some time to think or gently, politely disagreeing with his or her thoughts, then you’re better off without that agent.

“But, Barry!” you say in some mystical way that I can hear even though you haven’t read this yet. “But, Barry — it took me so long to GET an agent! I can’t lose this one!”

Yes, you can. You got one; you’ll get another. Just as there is more than one romantic partner out there in the world for everyone, so too is there more than one agent. People get divorced and re-married all the time. Similarly, they can find new agents after losing one.

Wow. OK, once again, I have rambled like you wouldn’t believe! I’m going to take the question about pacing and handle that on its own next week. Join me, won’t you?

Oh, and as always, feel free to ask questions in the comments below. You might want to avail yourself of the Writing Advice Archive first, though, just to make sure I haven’t already tackled your question in a previous entry.


  1. […] This is really about after the submitting process, but it touches on the fear that taints the author/agent relationship so I think it belongs here regardless: http://www.barrylyga.com/new/wa-q-a-3.html […]

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