The Long & Winding Road: Part IV – Editing With Agents
Recap: The Long & Winding Road is a multi-part essay about my endeavors to get an agent and publish my first novel. Part I discussed writing my first novel and seeking representation, Part II discussed "revision hell", and Part III discussed talking to and landing an agent.
Again we begin this column with the theme of “waiting.”
After the flurry of excitement of being courted by two agents and finally making a decision to work exclusively with one, I had to settle in for the long wait for my first agent notes. I knew I had picked a very editorial agent, and had done this deliberately, whether because I was smart and knew I would need as much help as possible, or because I was insecure and believed my work wasn’t good enough. Regardless, I knew it would be a long time before I got to see those first notes. My agent had suggested four to six weeks. It seemed like a lifetime.
The first bad news came almost immediately. The ex-editor my agent had hoped to involve was busy, so we were going ahead without them. Part of this, I suspect, was driven by how anxious I was to get started. I often wonder if I had been less concerned with time, maybe things would have gone differently that first summer. I was a rookie in every way and my expectations were incredibly unrealistic. I try not to think too harshly on how naïve I was back then…this is the way we learn of course.
My first notes arrived about eight or nine weeks in, and though that’s an utterly reasonable timeframe, especially in hindsight, I admit that the waiting was difficult, and I was bad at it. More importantly perhaps, I made the worst mistake any writer can make.
I wasn’t writing anything new.
And to this day, I’m really not sure why. I had heard a million times that you HAVE to write something new, but some combination of anxiety, fear, and insecurity had me paralyzed. I had a lot of ideas, not to mention a sequel I could have been writing, but instead I wrote nothing. That’s right, I’m a genius.
There are so many good reasons to write something new while you’re waiting but the two that I have come to believe in most are:
1. Writing something new means you’re not putting all your eggs in one basket. What if your first book doesn’t work out? Wouldn’t it be better to have another one ready to go? This industry is so much about waiting. As the writer, you cannot afford to have anyone waiting on YOU. It’s the only thing you have true control of, and you should absolutely harness it.
2. The single thing that actually makes waiting a bit easier is becoming obsessed with a new project.
So don’t do what I did. Write something new while you wait! Please!
When my first notes arrived they were a massive ten pages. Single-spaced.
We had problems. I had been expecting suggested cuts and character work, requests for toned down violence and language, as well as some streamlining and clarity when it came to some dangling plot threads. And all of those requests were there, but they were just the tip of the iceberg. We had some major plotting problems.
I would be lying if I said I wasn’t completely at sea looking at notes. I had no earthly idea how to make these changes. Perhaps even worse, I didn't know how to make my own changes in places that I didn’t necessarily agree with proposed solutions, but could still see the problems that had to be solved. It honestly hadn’t occurred to me until I read the notes that I had never really done this before. I’d revised the crap out of this book already, I knew what I was doing, right? Maybe not.
It took a couple weeks of looking at the notes and making my own to even be able to begin. I felt mixed about the notes. Some of them were brilliant. Some of them were necessary. And some of them were things I didn’t want to do at all, but could see I was going to have to address regardless. So I searched for solutions that would solve problems without changing the fabric of what I was trying to do. It was very difficult, in part because the book was structured into alternating first person POV's between two primary characters, and so changing one thing had a ripple effect on both POV's and timelines, in a devastating way. I had to quite literally un-knit the book and then knit it back together from scratch. It took me about two months (and would have taken much much longer had I not still been unemployed). And in October of 2009 I sent off my first major revision to my agent. I already knew there would be another pass needed, but I hoped it would minimal compared to what I had just done.
After sending off the revised manuscript I settled in for another wait. Did I write another book you ask? Why no, I still had not learned my lesson, so I did not. I was writing - columns and blog posts, slowly building myself a little "fan base" - but there was no new novel. Still. And I was petrified that I was going to be that person who only managed to ever write one complete novel…and who knew if it would even be published? I had a filing cabinet drawer filled with ideas and partially finished projects, but not a one ever made it to “the end” the way The Girl Who Would Be King had. I tried to reassure myself that it had been my first major project and I had gotten it to the finish line. But that couldn’t hide the fact that I continued to not write something new.
I got my next set of notes two months later. They were wonderful, but again they were ten pages long. Which meant I had another major pass in front of me. The second pass also took two months and in late February of 2010 I submitted the revision, hoping that minus a few tweaks, we were there. My agent turned that pass around very quickly, getting back to me in only four weeks. Unfortunately, though my agent was very happy with the last pass, it had highlighted the one remaining roadblock in the story, something we had discussed but not in any real detail. The book was still not "YA enough.” Though I had tried to retro-fit a pseudo adult novel into a YA novel in some ways I had failed... was still failing.
My agent asked me to go back in with that in mind and rework it again.
To be honest, though I didn’t disagree with the notes, I had two problems that were quickly coming to light:
#1. I didn’t (and probably still don’t) read enough YA books, so my touchstone with this note was not great. I had trouble distinguishing what was okay to do in YA and what was forbidden.
#2. I was getting really sick of the book. It was hard to keep perspective on what was good and bad after so many passes. I had now been working on it for over five years in some form or another. I kind of hated it sometimes.
Also, since I had still been unable to write anything new, it felt stale and old to me. I had no new projects to distract me. But if I stopped now all the hard work would be for nothing. I was having trouble understanding what to do, however, so my agent and I had a good phone conversation that explained a lot. He used film ratings as a touchstone to help me ground myself - i.e. if I thought what I was writing could only be in an R-rated film, then I had probably gone too far and should pull back. This was a brilliant conversation that really helped me hone in on what was forbidden. In truth, I didn't want to cut that stuff out, and sometimes I didn't, but at least now I could better see where the line was when I was deliberately stepping over it.
There was one other factor that was freaking me out on a daily basis. I was still unemployed. While this made for a lot more revision time, as someone that had never been unemployed a day in my life, a year of it was freaking me out. And I was running out of money and options. The situation was stressful to say the least.
Though it was the fastest revision pass I made, it was easily the hardest of all the work I had done, even more difficult than unstitching and re-stitching the plot in the first and second passes. Perhaps I say it was the hardest because even now, I feel like I have not been entirely successful in that effort. And maybe I failed in part because some of me didn’t believe in it. But I did it anyway, as much as I could, at least, and submitted the revision a few weeks later. My agent responded that the pass was good, but I still hadn’t pushed it far enough, and so in May of 2010 I went in with a final kamikaze attempt.
And that was the magic pass. In June 2010 we agreed to go out on sub to publishers. My agent’s plan was to go out to the big six with the book and hold back on others in case we got rejections with similar comments, which would give us a chance to make changes and re-submit.
We would go out in July of 2010 to the six biggest publishers around.
I was beside myself. And I still hadn’t written anything new. What would be my fate? Come back next month to find out if we sold or not, and to see what happens next on this very long and winding road.
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