I’ve been having such an interesting time with my agent hunt. One agent, who might’ve been terrific for me, recently rejected my work with encouraging words. The pitch was great, high concept, ambitious, the writing polished and smooth, etc…. But. There were moments that felt…like you could see the violin player in the corner of the room and hear his weep-worthy song. I was writing to force the reader to feel something for my poor heroine, he said, instead of letting those feelings evolve organically by letting the scene do its job.
No critique is easy to take, but all critique is worth digestion. Generally speaking, I open myself fully to it. This means I acknowledge that my “perfect” manuscript is probably flawed and that I still need to learn something. It’s crucial for me to understand a criticism and be able to learn from it, otherwise there go the reins on my story and there dives my confidence. But if I can learn from critique, then I still have the reins; in fact, I have a better grip on them. Critique becomes a gift. So I ask myself, do I feel, down deep in my gut, that the critiquer is right? Am I willing to do what it takes to make the changes? Can I make them without intrusive cuts to the story?
Critique from an agent takes on extra significance. Your first reaction might be to leap immediately into making changes to please one person, even without the promise of representation. Or you might resist making changes for one particular agent, choosing instead to push on, find someone who loves your manuscript “as is.” Again, the only way I have of knowing which direction is best is to follow my gut. In this particular case, the agent made no promises; in fact, he didn’t even offer to read the work again if I made changes. He was being helpful and offering me insight from his POV–the POV of a well-respected agent. And in my gut, after some thought and then some experimentation, I believed he was right.
In the end, these changes weren’t huge ones, nor were they time-consuming. They just made everything better. Here’s what I did.
* I made a list for myself, things to look out for in the text: traces of the maudlin, things that seemed overly sentimental, self-pitying, sulky, pathetic. I hated these words. Really hated them. But then I latched onto a new word to use as my guiding light, my new mantra. Let none of my prose be bathetic–displaying or characterized by bathos: the bathetic emotionalism of soap operas. I like this word, because it’s clear and doesn’t make me feel the least defensive, as the word “pathetic” might.
* I went through the first 50 pages of my manuscript as an experiment and snipped out words that might’ve made my strong heroine seem self-pitying or that veered into bathetic territory. Interestingly enough, I found most of these sprinklings of batheticness in my first chapter, where I was trying hard to gain reader empathy for my heroine and her situation. I could immediately see that the storyline wasn’t weakened by the loss of these words but rather was strengthened.
Here’s one example:
After a few minutes of dodging a variety of elbows and purses, I registered as the temporary owner of one beat-up marker (No. 51). Snippets of conversation danced around me as I wedged my way between wide-shouldered men and women.
“John would love that old clock for Christmas.”
“Let’s get through Thanksgiving first.”
“Thanksgiving’s just a day. Christmas is an event. Besides, it’s never too soon to buy for Christmas. Don’t you think he’d love that clock?”
Families. Holidays. I tried not to listen.
That snipped line was replaced with action.
I veered away from them, closer to the stage.
Having a few of these emotional hints in a manuscript is probably not a bad thing at all. I just had too many for this manuscript in close succession–and for a heroine who is otherwise emotionally strong.
* I asked a critique partner to critically evaluate those 50 pages for batheticness as well. In the end, we honed in on the same phrases. This was an important step for me. I wasn’t just making changes blindly. I was learning a valuable lesson.
* I swept through the last 350 pages of my manuscript and did a nip-tuck job on the prose. But, really, the worst of the soapy stuff was in the opening chapter when I was trying–too hard–to set the tone for my story and influence reader opinion of my character.
Through a convoluted twist of fate, the same agent who first offered me advice looked at my pages again. An associate of his who read my work liked my story and thought he should take another look, reconsider. He did…and recognized my editing right away and commended me for it. And, while the story is still not for him, we both know I made the right choice by taking the violin tones out of those important opening pages.
So, while it’s back to the agent hunt for me, I’ve come away from the experience with a stronger manuscript. Not a bad deal, really.
How about you? What’s the best critique you’ve ever received from an agent? A critique partner? What did it make you realize about your writing? How did it affect your editing?
Write on, all.
Photo courtesy Flickr’s txago