All About Revision Requests: agents’ defense and authors’ risks!

The Revision Request can be awesome… or it can be soul-crushing. Meredith Barnes blogged about The Exclusive Revision here, go check it out for a better summary.

Essentially, when an agent likes your manuscript, but feels it need extensive revision before it can be sold, that agent may ask you to revise it, send it back to them, and pending those revisions, they may offer representation. The key word there is “may.”

Why don’t we just offer on the manuscript and have you revise under contract? Sometimes we do. And (if we seem overly keen on revision requests) sometimes it backfires.

Revising is a different skill than writing. It behooves us to know that you can revise before we offer, because all too often it goes wrong. Why? Well. [Expletive deleted] if I know, but I suspect it has more to do with the troubles of communicating than any sort of failure on either the part of the agent or the author.

here’s how people think it works:

Here’s how it actually works:

Look at all that noise, the distractions (including perceptions, anxiety, fear, excitement) we both have to sift through!  And it’s not just about communication with each other, but with ourselves. We have to successfully verbalize (and in the author’s case, write down) our vision.

You authors out there, you are dealing with a great divide; that seemingly unbridgeable gap between what you want to write and what you actually write, the black hole between your vision and your execution.

Don’t worry, it’s okay! Consider yourself a member of the team if you’ve wailed at a keyboard having aimed for John Green and hit somewhere closer to Highlights Magazine (no offense, highlights, I loved you at the Dentist’s office!)

Most of you talented devils find a way to navigate it. My point here is to illustrate the  many opportunities one has to fail to meet expectations.

Offering and crossing our fingers that the revision is successful seems unwise and a little cruel, so we offer the revision request in the hopes that we’ll get lucky.

Mike wells blogged about the odds of the revision request calling it The Slow No; believing that 98% of revision requests are  on a long road to “no,” that results in a lot of heartbreak, frustration, anger and wasted time on behalf of the writer.  And you know what – he’s right. IT SUCKS. It sucks out loud.

But, I think Mike’s portrayal of the situation is decidedly one sided.

I can totally understand why an aspiring author, after months of revisions and positive exchanges would feel led on, taken advantage of, bull-dozed and utterly devastated. All that work for no pay-off. UGH.

But it can be just as tough for the agent! It is not our plan to turn you down even though it happens often. We are hoping for that last 2% that DO meet expectations and DO get offers. We’re hoping to be an exception. We are ALL hoping for an exception, are we not? Our jobs -both our jobs- are about beating the dismal publishing odds. 

Still,  unsuccessful revision requests can feel an awful lot like a break-up. There’s a relationship based on expectations, reinforcement and maybe genuine fondness, and when it all goes south everyone is pissed off and crying and WHERE IS THE CHOCOLATE AND WINE AND MY DVD OF “SOME LIKE IT HOT?!”

So, what are the risks and what are you supposed to do?

1.) in addition to feeling heartsick, like, truly in mourning…You also might end up working for free. You could put months into revisions and when all is said and done never be paid for that time. Granted, so can the agent. Some agents might be willing to work on your manuscript with out signing you. Some may never be willing to (agents can get burnt by authors who end up signing with another agent), but you’re certainly allowed to ask.

Is the agent just going to write you an e-mail or give you one phone call? or are they going to give you an editorial letter or maybe even line edit?

It still may not matter. It may only get your hopes up. But you might also get a better book in the end. Gauge how you strongly you feel about the agent’s efforts AND what they suggest because…

2.) You could always wind up changing the book so it works for only one person. Mike writes “Even if the agent or editor does not understand the highly subjective nature of the feedback he or she has given [a writer] [the writers] do!  [Writers] know better than to spend weeks, months or years customizing their book,” and I agree. Don’t change things just because we say to. Don’t do it multiple times because we ask you to. You are allowed to disagree with certain points. You are allowed to choose an end date. You are also allowed to say, “I appreciate the offer, but I’d rather revise non-exclusively and re-query you.”

3.)  Finally, Mike says, ” do not let so-called industry experts dictate what is “good” or “bad” to you. “ ( I don’t love his use of the phrase “so-called,” like we’re all running around flashing business cards we made out of construction paper and the lone office sharpie) but he is right. If you feel strongly about a point then stick to your guns. Take back your writing.

If that means turning us down- that’s okay. Obviously, I don’t want you to say “no” to me, but c’est la vie…

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14 responses to “All About Revision Requests: agents’ defense and authors’ risks!

  1. Wow, good to know. Definitely something to file away.

  2. From experience, sometimes nerves kill creativity. You’ve been at your keyboard so long rigor mortis has set in, hope has almost deserted you, and suddenly… an agent is liaising with you. They like your work. They want revisions. Yes, you do tell yourself (and agent) I think I can do this, and then your creative gene dies of fright. Just a suggestion, but take a deep breath and step back. Take the advice an agent once gave me and take your time. I didn’t. Regretted it. :)

    • I completely agree! Taking your time is extraordinarily important. In fact, if I go through a revision request with someone and I see their “edits” in my inbox 4 days later, I immediately worry. Great revision takes a lot of time and consideration. Plus, we don’t want anyone having a heart attack ;)

  3. Yes! I find revisions in my manuscript to be a completely different experience than say, a query (query shark kicked my ass). I think that a large issue is clarity. Explaining why revision X will tighten things up, and writer either going with it, or explaining why X needs to be the way it is, rather than leaving all the noise in the middle. So far, only one agent has requested my full, but that’s okay. It’s about the right fit. If you and the agent can’t communicate well about revisions – maybe it’s not a good fit. Communication, clear communication is key. You’re right – it is a lot like heartbreak when it doesn’t work out! Haha.

  4. As far as revisions go, I’ve never found a revision to hurt the original story. If you, as an author, go into revisions knowing the plot backbone, a good clean set of eyes can be an incredible help. I like to err on the side of trusting that my agent knows whats best — like a lighthouse in a storm. That is, after all, why I queried them in the first place.

  5. Great Post Victoria! R&R requests are exciting, that’s for sure, but you’re completely right! You (as a writer) go into it knowing that there is no guarantee of an offer on the other end of the revision. My opinion, is to take the R&R request more as an amazing opportunity for free feedback from an agent. Absorb what they’ve said, ponder, and ultimately do what feels right for your story. Because ultimately it’s YOUR story. And because it’s so subjective, one agent may tell you to change XY and Z, while another thinks XY and Z are spectacular, but AB and C aren’t.

    The hope is, one day you’ll find an agent that loves your ms as much as you do, and when/if they request revisions, that the suggestions give you a “you’re absolutely right, that’ll make the story 100x better” light bulb over your head.

  6. seriously laughing my butt off because there are probably a dozen of us reading this thinking “she’s talking about MINE!”
    Sometimes, no matter how hard we want them to, things don’t work out. You can laugh or you can cry about it. IMO laughing is more fun : )

  7. Great post! It does make me wonder though…If the main cause of rejection after revision is miscommunication, shouldn’t writers take this as encouragement to communicate more with their potential agent? In other words, if I only have a 2% chance at getting an offer of representation, what do I have to lose by emailing said agent and asking for clarification or further clarification on revisions? Writers are continuously told that they should never speak unless spoken to when it comes to agents, but I think that may be the problem in this process. Furthermore if I work for months to revise but the agent is not willing to work with me in return, what kind of author/agent relationship does that indicate going forward? I think this information tells me I should not be afraid to contact the agent and discuss the revisions advised, politely of course. Thanks for the post!

    • I think this is excellent input, especially because every agent is different. Though, I will note, that it may not be standard miscommunication between people so much as that indefinable quality that makes something amazing; it’s hard to verbalize it. That’s why people say “I know it when I see it.” It’s an infuriatingly vague phrase to have to use, but often, it’s the only accurate statement one can make! Thanks for commenting!

  8. Tracy N. Jorgensen

    *Deep Breath* This is what I needed right now. I’m revising based on agent comments, albeit with none of the “security” of an R&R. I was starting to stall largely because of the nerves Sheryl mentioned. Your post reminded me to look at it not “what would other people like better,” but rather, “what would I like better?”

    Thank you for the refresh, and I wish you luck beating the odds!

  9. Thanks for this, Victoria! I am working on revising right now, and it really is hard to get over that communication gap. I think I’ve read one email from one agent countless times and each time it seems to get more clear. Perhaps my emotions, over-analyzing, etc. has gotten in the way or perhaps it’s just a completely new idea I hadn’t seen. But now that I’m about two months into my revision, all the comments I’ve received have come together in my mind and I’m working toward that goal of making my story better. Whether or not that agent takes me on after revisions isn’t as important as making sure that my story is ready to be queried next time around.

  10. Great post!

    However, I don’t think you should slam Highlights. People who write for magazines take pride in their work, just like everyone else.

    • I was trying to illustrate the difference between attempt (at a literary novel) and output (children’s magazine), and I was sincere when I said “no offense, Highlights,” but you’re right, it sounds like I’m mocking them and I am sorry about that! That was NOT my intent. And, beyond that, writing in any format is a difficult pursuit and I think anyone who does it should be proud.

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