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Before You Say No, Ask Why

If you’re an agent who likes to make suggestions, like me, revisions can be a tricky process. When I give suggestions, I fully give suggestions. Things like, “what if instead of dying by poison, your victim’s lines were cut while mountain climbing.” I will usually explain my suggestion, but also realize that it doesn’t always go over well with the author, who might not know anything about mountain climbing. Or just thinks my idea is terrible.

I’m good with that, though. The purpose of my suggestion is never to change the story but to give an idea of what I might mean when I say, death by poison seems expected. Can we do something more interesting? Rather than just toss it on the author to come up with something new, my hope is that the suggestion starts a brainstorm.

Ask Why

Before you say no to an agent’s suggestion (no matter how ludicrous) ask yourself why the agent is suggesting it. Most of us have a method to our madness and yes, some of us are truly mad.

In this case, it’s not likely that the problem is how the victim died, poison kills people. The problem is that as a reader it felt expected and somewhat boring. And I don’t want to submit a book that feels boring. I want to excite editors and eventually readers. If you don’t like my idea of mountain climbing, at least consider why I’m asking for the change. In doing so, you’ll likely come up with something far better than the agent, while still coming up with the perfect solution.

The Agent’s Goal with Revisions

My goal when asking for revisions is not to make the book mine. It’s to bring out the best in the author and, ultimately, eliminate all reasons why editors might reject something.

If you want to fight the agent or say no to a revision suggestion that’s entirely within your right. I’ve been wrong about revisions in the past and am certain I will be in the future too. However, in my experience, for the most part, I’m right. If I, as a reader, feel something isn’t working, an editor will feel the same. And unlike agents, editors aren’t allowed to take chances on things that aren’t nearly perfect.

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5 comments

  1. I love this, Jessica. I recently received feedback on a full from an agent that gave me the opportunity to re-envision my ending. I chewed on them for a few days, but a gut-check and conversations with two of my Beta-readers convinced me that she was right. These weren’t major structural things, but they pushed me to see character-motivations from a different perspective. The result, I believe, is a much stronger book.

  2. Thank you. When a professional gives advice, it is rational to consider it. (Well, except for politicians, used car sells people, politicians, and politicians.)
    .
    Poison is too easy: anyone can do it. (_Arsenic and Old Lace_ comes to my brain. “I’m the son of a sea cook!”) At the least, poisoning should be complex, clever, and interesting. And the result being extra ordinarily messy is a plus.
    .
    In my comical first Tea Cozy the murderer uses a chisel to sever the cervical spine of her victims, between vertebra #1 and #2. The idea came to me after I recalled reading, when a wee bairn, a 1920s New York City newspaper about The Ice Pick Boys. (I was a precocious child.) “Ice Pick Willie,” as everyone knows, applied an ice pick to his select customers through the ear and into the brain. (Everyone needs a relaxing hobby.) This is a mess-free, and eventually painless, way to relax one’s victims.
    .
    The usual “She walloped ’em upside ‘es head wid ‘er sixth Grammy troppie” just does not “cut the mustard” these days.

  3. I can’t wait to find an agent that will care enough to give me these kinds of suggestions. I imagine it must be a lot like experiences I’ve had working with a team to write a single story. Putting more than one person’s ideas together seems to make something magical happen. What you end up with is not exactly what any individual suggested. Nobody in the room could have predicted where it would all end up, but the sum is always so much greater than the total of its parts!

  4. Good lord, Jessica! Do you honestly think I can pass this one up? Jessica probably remembers exactly what would happen when she’d make suggestions. I’d waffle back and forth, say I had no idea how to make it work, used every excuse in the book until we got off the phone. And obviously, her suggestions wouldn’t go away, sort of like an earworm with way too many legs.

    I can’t recall any specifics at the moment, but I definitely remember more than one instance where a simple suggestion would send my brain off in so many directions that it forced me to see the reason for the suggestion and how I could improve what I’d written. Rewrites always ensued, but that’s my favorite part of the writing process. When the book is done and editing ensues, the biggest job is done: THE BOOK IS WRITTEN! You have a beginning, a middle, and hopefully, an end. Everything else is just to make it better.

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