Change Your Manuscript For An Agent?
by Natalie R Collins
It seems exciting and too good to be true. You've finally landed the Agent of Your Dreams. You get along well, and the agent has a great track record. There's just one tiny problem. The Agent of Your Dreams despises work written in first person. What is a great story will be much better if you move it into third, according to this agent.
What do you do? How much should you change a manuscript to suit an agent?
There are several things to try if this dilemma is something you are faced with, and I decided to try them out to see what I came up with.
The first thing I did was create a new file of my manuscript with a different name. For example, my third book is entitled Outer Darkness. I copied the file and renamed it OD3rd. Then I sat down to rewrite it in third person, as opposed to first.
When I started to write OD, it was originally in third person, but it simply didn't flow. I switched to first and the words practically fell upon the page. This work is fiction, but is also loosely based upon my own youth, so one of my good friends, who happens to be a marvelous editor, mentioned that it made it seem too personal in first.
Changing it to third, however, is a huge task in an 80,000-word manuscript.
What used to be I, me, or mine became her, her, and hers. Entire sentences had to be reconstructed to avoid repetition and it no longer felt like the same story.
In short, I felt it compromised the story and simply didn't work. But I wouldn't have known this if I hadn't tried.
So my first suggestion is be willing to give it a try. Take one chapter, even a short one, create a new file, and make the suggested changes. Does it work? Give it a night and come back to it. Send it to a friend, preferably a friend who has read the other version.
Consider the reasons the agent is suggesting the changes. Does this agent have a good track record and a lot of experience?
"If I trust the agent, and the request seems reasonable, I'd change a good bit," writer Tom Horner said. "I have made changes for an agent. Good suggestions deserve our best effort. She made good suggestions and I followed them."
Author Lois Winston has also made changes to a manuscript based on her agent's suggestions. "She never insists on a change. She always suggests and gives me reasons why she's suggesting. I value her opinions, so this hasn't been a problem. I'd say ninety percent of the time I've taken her advice. Occasionally I disagree and when I tell her why, she sees the issue through my eyes and agrees with me. But for the most part, I think her suggestions have been right on target and strengthened my manuscripts."
But how much is too much? If you make the changes, are you damaging the integrity of your work?
One writer, who preferred not to have her name mentioned, told me how she played a "tennis game" with her agent--a game that ended up with no winner. Her agent wanted to represent the manuscript, based on great reviews of an e-format of the book. She asked for a few changes, which the author made. Then she asked for even more changes, so the writer revised again. The agent then asked her to go back to the original. "Needless to say, my current revision is still in a non-published work in progress form."
The bottom line appears to be knowing the strength of your own writing, trusting enough in your own talent, but still being open to honest feedback. Every writer I spoke to seemed to have a very strong opinion about whether or not changing a manuscript to fit someone else's opinion should be done.
"My feeling is, if you want to get published, do as the editor or agent suggests, within reason. But if you feel strongly about it, I think you owe it to yourself and your book to speak up and at least make your point, even if you still get shot down in flames," writer Elizabeth Clements said.
Sheila Jordan, author of Lakota Star, a historical romance, believes making changes to a manuscript goes even deeper. "Taking the moral issue out of what you were saying would put the piece in danger for me. Everything has a moral--a personal reason for the story or manuscript--so to me, taking the heart of the story out would kill it. Replacing your heart with someone else's would be death at some point."
This entire article came about during a discussion with a writing friend who is currently contemplating whether or not her work should be changed from first person to third for an agent. In deciding whether or not to change your manuscript, or make major changes based on an agent's suggestions, you need to also consider the genre you are working in. Is the agent most familiar with romance, which is rarely written in first person?
Ask yourself an important question: Does the agent making the suggestions have enough experience to guide you in the right direction?
"I did attempt to change my manuscript from first person to third after several agents told me that my women's fiction wouldn't work from the male point of view," Jody Pryor said. "I reworked a few chapters, and sent them off to a couple of trusted friends that had helped with the previous drafts. They all said the same thing--no it didn't work in third person for them. It lost too much of what made it special, being so firmly entrenched in the man's head."
For one author, however, making requested changes for an agent became an invaluable learning experience that she doesn't regret.
Jerri Corgiat received a request for a full manuscript from one agent's romance editor for her book, Lemonade & Lilacs. When she received a critique back from that editor, she was ecstatic at the suggestions. "She'd put her finger on a few minor problems that had bothered me, but I couldn't see them from my up close vantage point," Corgiat said. "She closed the letter by asking me if I'd be willing to work with her on making some changes. Doing so would not mean a guaranteed offer from the agent, but if I could make changes to her satisfaction, she'd have no problem passing the manuscript on with her 'highest recommendation.'"
Because Corgiat had already marketed her book to agents and received over sixty rejections, she decided to go along with the plan, which included a ninety-day exclusive. "In some of the rejections, agents had commented on 'problems' they had with the manuscript, but had not been able (or willing) to specifically pinpoint what they were. I thought this editor had seen what they weren't seeing."
Karen Brichoux says, "Having an agent who will tell you that first person isn't marketable or that third person is the only one that sells...well, we know that isn't true. And it means the agent is probably used to dealing with other areas of women's fiction and romance, but may not have that much experience with chick lit or literary fiction (which also has quite a bit of first person). So, it boils down to how the agent's proposed changes will affect the manuscript, I think. You need to have an intimate knowledge of the factors which make your novel your own, so you can decide what is necessary and what is negotiable."
Collins is a regular columnist for Fiction Factor,
contributing helpful articles about agents and editors.
You can benefit from some of Natalie's hard-work and in-depth
research on agents here:
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