10 Agent Feedback Tips

This month’s 10 on the 10th is from Ruth Walker, a partner in Writescape and author, poet & creative writing teacher:

I’m fresh from over two hours of a one-on-one Zoom meeting with my agent, Ali McDonald of 5 Otter Literary. She’s had my Young Adult Science Fiction manuscript for a few months and, at last, she’s finished her editorial read and response. Thank goodness, she still loves the story. But—and you know there’s always a but – the MS is not yet ready and I have a boatload of work to do to send her something she can share with editors and publishers this fall.

Our discussion was not all book, book, book. We both have busy lives and spent some time being a bit social. But the majority of our chat focused on strengths along with logic glitches, character development, questions, a bit of copyediting and the several substantive changes I’ll need to add new scenes, cut others and arrive at the sweet spot of 90,000 words (currently at 94,000.)

Besides the MS covered in Track Changes edits and highlighted Comments, my agent also sent me 10 pages of notes. Narrative issues. Sensitivity issues. Dropped threads. Confusion. Suggestions. Questions. And, fortunately, many nice things said as well.

Ali did a terrific job. As we chatted and exchanged ideas and asked questions of each other, I realized the old saying: Choosing to write with hopes of publication is not for the faint of heart. For better or worse, here are some of the qualities you’ll need to have on hand during “that talk” with your agent or your editor:

1   Patience – your agent has spent a lot of time with your words, so you need to give your agent time to explain why – why that edit, why that question, why that isn’t clear, etc. Don’t rush this opportunity to absorb and consider how you can further hone your masterpiece.

2   Focus – early on. I failed miserably at this in our meeting.  I actually allowed myself to be interrupted by a call on my cell. Nothing should be more important than having my agent’s time. I hope I made up for it for the rest of our time together. Cell turned off. Eyes on Ali. Listening.

3   Curiosity —  your curiosity needs room at the table. If a note or edit does not make sense to you, don’t pretend to know it all. Further and Farther came up with a note I needed to be consistent. I thought I understood the meaning of each and I was right. But obviously I used them incorrectly often enough to deserve a mention.

4   Commitment – set boundaries on your time for revision work and stick to it. “No, I’m sorry. I’ll have to miss the BBQ”, etc. Then set and stick to a deadline. But also be clear with your agent about your timelines and intentions. Make room in your calendar to produce.

5   Critical thinking – making revisions is more than chopping out words or fixing typos, as you know. But using your critical thinking skills as you discuss big (and small) changes to recognize the ripples it will have on the whole narrative. A deleted scene in Chapter 2 could leave characters talking later on about something that’s no longer in the book. Discuss this with your agent and leave reminders for yourself right in the MS so you won’t make that mistake.

6   Humility – maybe this should be number one but I’ve left it down here on the list for a reason: so you won’t skip it. Most writers carry some level of insecurity. We’re often in a tug of war between feeling we’ve written something brilliant and feeling that we are useless hacks. But we also have an ego and sometimes that ego needs to be reminded that it doesn’t know absolutely everything. (Case in point: further/farther and other embarrassing typos.) So be prepared to be educated about what you missed. Fortunately, you’ll likely also get some lovely ego strokes.

7   Kindness – of course, you need to show kindness to your agent. As noted in the preamble, Ali and I both have busy complicated lives. I could have been all “What took you so long?” or “This better be worth waiting for” and so on. But I already knew she’d been dealing with a lot personally. The fact that she was meeting with me despite working through COVID-19 showed her commitment to me and my book. So, I really appreciated all the effort on her part. But I also will remind you to be kind to yourself. This is tough work, writer, so go easy on yourself. Treats go a long way to ease difficult times.

8   Acceptance – “gird your loins” is an old saying that might be useful here. You are receiving gold even if it is hard to swallow. Let’s face it – it’s your baby we’re talking about and somebody is telling you what needs to change. (Thanks goodness, I haven’t had to send any characters off to the Island of Unwanted Characters…yet.) But you are getting professional advice, writer, and you need to accept it. It does not mean that you need to MAKE all those changes but you do need to accept that the suggestions are coming from someone who knows the industry. So don’t dismiss the feedback – use patience, humility and critical thinking as you consider.

9   Fear – this may feel contrary but a good dose of healthy fear can be the ticket to keep you on the job. Yes, there will be obstacles. Yes, you may think you’ll never overcome them. And yes, your story may never find a publishing home, even with an agent on your side. It can all be paralyzing. But only if you let it take over. Consider the edge that racers feel revving their engines just before the starting pistol or the nerves that fuel actors before they walk into the spotlight: fear can be useful as motivation. Don’t let fear of failure take hold: instead, harness it and ride that energy to “The End”.

10   Love – oh my god, there have been days when I thought I could dump my book and its characters into the storm sewer and be done with it. But those days are rare. It’s been a long haul since my story’s first steps at the 2014 Muskoka Marathon. I loved my characters even back then and as I worked and reworked Garnet’s story and those she lived among, I kept loving her story. Year after year. Edit after edit. Until it became a chore and not a joy. I put Garnet away for a time. When I could love her and her story once more, I started up again. And remember writer, it isn’t just your story or characters that you need to love. Love yourself by doing things that support your writing journey, that help you keep on track and offer you inspiration exactly at the time you need it.

My commitment: a finished next draft of 90,000 words with copyedits incorporated and substantive edits made to Ali by August 31, 2022. If I’ve done a thorough job and stayed true to the sacred heart of Garnet’s story, we might be ready for our close up.

If not, I might have to pull out all ten of these qualities once more to keep on track for the next draft. Wish me luck!

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