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.

Writing Time Free From Distractions

A child’s scream cuts through the air so high pitched that it shoots right through my brain and into my bones. It leaves behind a silence so blanketing that even breathing seems loud. The air is shattered a second, third, and fourth time as the girl’s shrieking gets amazingly louder and longer.

I figured it must be some emergency so I rose away from my chair and the half-written story on the computer and venture forth. Did the child find her mother passed out on the driveway? Is her house engulfed in flames? Are three or more bullies threatening to rearrange her young features?

None of the above.

She is riding her bike around in a circle while playing with her slightly older brother. The high squeals continue off and on again as I grind my teeth and think dirty words about her parents. I return to my story but the flow has crumpled, my focus gone, and the next brilliant line evaporates before I return to the keyboard.

The irritation about this is two-fold. I raised my children under a strict blood-or-fire rule as in “if I hear you screaming like that again, you’d better be bloody or on fire!” While some parents may not restrict their children’s soprano leanings, the screams are as bad as a constantly barking dog. In some ways it is worse because you fear ignoring the yelling may put someone in serious danger.

The second irritation is that the event represents another distraction during my precious creative time. If you are like me, then the distractions include a dozen different sources from the little email pop-up window, the social media button, or a pet that needs to go in or out 10 20 30 times a day. Your writing time ends with little productivity on the page and a lot of frustration.

So how do you fight distractions? Sometimes you can’t (such as when little kids are active). The best course of action is to rise from the manuscript and try again later in the day/night.

However, you can control some factors through sheer discipline. For instance, set a timer for a large friends and family that you will not answer the phone, do chores, or Skype chat during that solid one to two hours of creativity. And Mean It.

When you sit down during that time, be already working on your story in your head. Ban yourself from any other activity, including writing letters to agents or answering emails. Jump headfirst into your story and don’t come up for air until the allotted time has passed.

For me, the best creative time is in the early morning after kids go to school and the husband drives off to work. Skype is off and social media updates are banned. I still deal with our dogs but they are also parked outside for as long as possible. Few things are as ongoing or annoying as a golden retriever noisily licking his nuts near your feet.

On many days my plan works well. On others, I wish I could put my office in a shack in the backyard, dig out a moat, and stock it will alligators or piranha. Sometimes I even wish for trainable gators that feature a taste for screaming kids and barking dogs. When the distractions are too much, I relocate to a local coffee shop or bookstore, paying my table tax in terms of multiple cups of hot tea.

However, creative time is not always that simple.

While raising kids, I carried a journal type book with me everywhere. Writing occurred on my knees during soccer practice, doctors’ appointments, piano lessons, and car waiting times before the school released its inmates. If I had 15 minutes, I wrote. It wasn’t smooth and coherent until I typed it into the computer (an act that takes less concentration) and I edited as I transcribed the material. The work was slow but I did eventually produce a book, several short stories, and a bevy of articles.

The moral here is don’t wait for the perfect time and place to write. Make it whenever and wherever you can.

As ever, happy writing!