Agents and Plot Advice

A friend of mine wrote a historical urban fantasy manuscript that has a great voice and wonderful plot. In short, I think it has a strong chance of getting picked up by an literary agent and published. I’m not an expert in these things but I know engaging reading when I encounter it. I have great faith that it will be published someday.

Agent feedback leads to worry

She’s now worrying over it because one literary agent said “it is not what I thought it was going to be so you need to change it this way.” I’m sure my friend’s frustration blossomed because enacting the changes meant an extreme rewrite of the plot. Her thoughts flowed the same way mine would have if I had received that advice. “If I do it, the agent will accept it.” Except that is not guaranteed. Then I hoped that second, possibly wiser voice whispered to her, “but that is not my story.”

My friend tried to make the requested changes and the story ground to a halt in her mind. The characters didn’t want to walk that path. She grew frustrated trying to create the plot the agent wanted. However, it wasn’t the story she wanted. Any writer who has dealt writer’s block in the middle of a manuscript knows that they need to back up and reevaluate. If the plot stops, then you’ve wandered down the wrong mental road.

Carla At Printer's Row

A memory from Printer’s Row Festival 2013. The Festival is taking applications now for the 2019 season.

Now I’m not saying don’t listen to agents. They are the experts. So if they say, “it just didn’t grab my attention” or “the plot slows in the middle”, then you need to think about what they are telling you and probably rewrite parts of the story. Possibly a lot. I’ve edited many of my manuscripts based on agent feedback and feel the story is much stronger for that. I’ve started using developmental editors at the request of an agent who I thought would invest in my property after making all those changes. She didn’t represent the manuscript for other reasons, but it still helped me grow as a writer.

Agent advice with a grain of salt

I’ve also heard stories about how a now famous writer did massive rewrite because an agent or editor commented on the strength of their plot or a unique character. At one conference, an agent told a story about Stieg Larsson’s Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. The original focus of the book was on the publisher, Mikael Blomkvist, who is an unremarkable person. The remarkable character in the book is the hacker, Lisbeth Salander, who was only a minor character. A literary agent (or maybe editor, I don’t remember which) encouraged Larsson to rewrite the book to prominently tell Salander’s story and give her more importance. Larsson did the rewrite. His book went on to be a hit thriller and was adapted to two motion pictures. Moral of the story: feedback on your material is always good because writers can’t always see the weak spots in our work.

Where I differ from this moral is in when the ideas sound wrong to you. It is your story after all. In the case of my friend, it seemed like the agent had a story in mind already and tried to layer it onto my friend’s plot. But it wasn’t the story my friend had written. So she had a choice: force her characters into a different plot or keep the story and look for a new agent. My choice would be look at the manuscript again to see why the agent felt she was misled. Make possible changes but keep the story intact. In short, I would listen to the advice but also find a new agent.

Know the experts/Know yourself

In conclusion, remember that while advice is always good to a point, you are the master of your story. Imagine what would have happened if someone, say the angel Michael, said to the Lord, “Really? A duck bill on a beaver body? And you’re making it poisonous and electric? Isn’t that kind of weird?” Perhaps Australia would not have such an interesting and yet undeniably odd animal.

At the same time, what if Michael said, “hey, I think butterflies should all be the same size and color. It will them easier for humans to follow.” Then we would have lacked some of the true beauty and glory that exists on spring and summer days. The world would have become a grayer, sadder place.

As the author it is up to you to decide what to change and what to leave alone. Agents and editors are a blessing to serious writers. They often help us be better. But we must always remember that they are only human too. Each one has their visions and their specialties. So sometimes wrong advice simply means you are listening to the wrong person. Agent feedback can help us shape our vision, but not replace it. When you are editing and the story simply doesn’t want to bend that way, then your characters, your muse, and probably your heart are simply telling you that path is the wrong way.

Happy writing.