This post was submitted by a self-published author who wished to remain anonymous because he/she did not want any information written here to get in the way of negotiations with a literary agent. Yes, agents are that fickle. Part one of a series, the article asks: how many revisions are you willing to make for an agent or editor before you’re compromising your integrity?
The conversation with a prospective literary agency should go something like this:
“Would you like us to sell your book to a major publisher?”
“Are you willing to make a fair number of changes to your novel to make it marketable to major publishers?”
Three months ago—two months ago, one week ago—I’d have wanted to be in the position to have to answer that question. “Are you willing to make a fair number of changes to your novel to make it marketable to major publishers?” I’d have been envious of anyone else in that position. And I’d have been bitterly annoyed by anyone daring to discuss that “dilemma” as if it were oh so difficult poor baby to have to decide whether to let a literary agency take on their novel.
Now I have to decide whether I’m willing to make a fair number of changes to my novel in order to make it marketable to major publishers.
Do I want an agent, this agent, bad enough to change my book?
I don’t know, yet, what the changes are. But I know I won’t get that agent if I don’t want to make those changes. If I don’t like their suggestions I could try other agencies, sure…but I’ve already been trying—by marketing the book I self-published—for a couple of years. What if this is it?
I’d be a fool to deny this opportunity.
“Do whatever it takes to get your foot in the door,” said a writer friend whose whole body is in there.
“Let them make the changes,” said another friend. “Once you’ve published a few more books, you can re-release the first one the way it was originally written. You know, like Stephen King.”
But here’s the thing (and this is not unique or special, but it’s the thing): I love my book. Every character, every character arc, every scene, every argument, every relationship, and every description was written the way it was to communicate something very specific about a singular experience in the rawest, most honest, and most effective way I knew how. Edits and revisions were done painstakingly. Obsessively.
Since self-publishing, I’ve found a typo or two in the book, and probably a page or two that could stand to go. Some scenes that would benefit from tightening. But those are minor changes. Practically cosmetic.
The agency did not say it wanted to make “cosmetic” changes. Nor did it use the word “minor.”
Since the communication with this prospective agency, I’ve been waking up earlier than usual. What changes could they mean? Changes in character relationships? Do they want to eliminate a character? What if they want to set it in a different time period, like sixty years in the future? What if the changes they want me to make include an alteration of my very voice, undoing the basic plot line, taking out every third “the,” and giving me a new name because mine isn’t author-y?
Would I say yes to get my foot in the door?
Sometimes I’m amused when people say writing is an art. I agree with them, of course, but what’s funny about it is that as much of an art as it may be, it’s not really respected in quite the same way as, say, painting. Or sculpting. Art galleries don’t take a painting from the artist before the opening and add a blue brushstroke here, a gold box there. Sculptures aren’t shaved, painted, or chipped away at by Sculpting Editors to change the shape of a curve. Art by artists is accepted as is, or it isn’t.
The same doesn’t hold true for writing. First the agency edits, and then the publisher edits. The book on the bookshelf is rarely the sole creation of the writer whose name is on the binding. If anything, novel writing is a collaborative art.
Unless you self-publish.
In its current incarnation, my book is exactly as I intended it. Mine, mine, mine. It is the most important thing I have ever done, the achievement of which I’m most proud. It is, at the risk of being trite, my baby. And it’s disturbing to hear someone say they want to change my baby.
I really, really want to be published. I mean, really.
“You already have your book out there the way it is, and people have read it and liked it,” my best friend told me. “When you put out a different version, that original version will still exist.”
True. But. My name would be on the new version, too—and that new version would have to be something I’d feel good about having my name on, something I could honestly claim I’d have written myself, even without editorial urging, if only I’d thought of it first.
Or would it?
I wonder about writers like Carlos Castaneda, Tom Robbins, Douglas Adams, and Kurt Vonnegut, and what their original, unedited manuscripts looked like. How many compromises did they have to make? However many or however few, look at them now. Book after book on bookstore shelves. They lived, or are living, writers’ lives.
The fortune in my cookie tonight—no kidding—read, “The star of riches is shining upon you.” I know getting an agent doesn’t mean I’ll end up like Adams or Vonnegut. It doesn’t mean I’ll make a living writing, or even that I’ll be guaranteed a publisher. Getting an agent does, however, mean having a shot at that writer’s life. And the truth is that agents and editors aren’t stupid. They don’t destroy writing; they better it. They want to sell it just like writers do. They may be less personally attached to the work, but they’re a business, and businesses aim to succeed. Chances are I’ll be excited by many of their ideas.
Tomorrow morning, I’ll no doubt wake up wondering about those editorial suggestions. What if they want to make a revision that changes the fundamental meaning of the book? What if they aren’t open to discussion about something I simply can’t agree to change?
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