To Rewrite or Not to Rewrite, That is the Question

I’ve begun the arduous exercise of querying for literary representation of late. For me, the task IS arduous. We all know we must research the agents we intend to query. We want to know what genres or areas of fiction an agent represents. We don’t want to waste an agent’s time or show our ineptitude by asking him or her to rep a genre not represented. That would be careless and unprofessional.

In addition to this, I often read the acknowledgments in novels I love, seeking more information about the agent. How long he or she has been representing specific authors, what her background was before becoming an agent; any tidbit that may give me a better sense of how good a fit we’d be, as a good working relationship is paramount.

Having set my cap on an agent, I query, tailoring my letter or email specifically to that agent, personalizing when possible. For instance, I read in an agent’s blog that she wasn’t about to be restricted by a category genre if the story’s good. Booksellers and book buyers confirmed her point. As ATT is a non-genre historical romance with elements of time travel and fantasy (well, if you consider clairvoyance fantasy), I saw the blog post as an opportunity and jumped on it.

And received an apologetic form rejection email.

Which is fine.

However, the rejections I find more interesting—and far fewer—are those that offer criticisms along with their rebuffs.

One well-regarded agent, having read ATT and responded one week later, rejected ATT on the grounds that he didn’t rep romances, but generously listed the mss’s strengths and weaknesses. (I’m happy to say the scales tipped heavily in favor of the strengths.) His main criticism was that the main female protag was too weak. She had nothing to do and came off as a passive damsel in distress. There was a good lot of sense in that, and so I revised ATT accordingly, giving Elisa a brother with a horrendous past who, now a part of her new life, had the opportunity for redemption in their new situation. As far as I can see, I’ve strengthened her, but as the story’s still a romance, I won’t query him again.

Also recently, I received a rejection from an agent who had requested scenes selected from across the mss. She left the choice up to me. I chose scenes that would show my versatility as a writer–how I handle drama, humor, characterization, etc. Her rejection noted I handled action and pacing very well, with a cinematic quality and a lot of energy. However, she found herself not as transported as she wished to be because the time period and atmosphere were a bit hazy.

I must admit I was really disappointed. Having spoken with her face to face, even worked on the story overview together, I had a strong feeling we could work together, that it would be a terrific opportunity for me to learn and grow. I genuinely liked her. Too bad. Perhaps if I had sent her the first 3 chapters she would have felt more grounded, as those chapters describe how Elisa finds herself in the past, how she sees things, and how the period characters relate to each other and their surroundings. Having done the major portion of heavy lifting there, I didn’t think slowing down each scene with as much period detail as exists in those scenes would be a good idea. It would slow down the scenes, and the story.

Now, as mentioned, I did rewrite based on one criticism. Would I rewrite because of this one? I tend to think not. I have checked those scenes, and between the dialog, the scenery, politics and the mention of key words that should have evoked period–words like chatelaines, gambesons, flogging, vassals, psaltery, chaplets, crossbows, cutpurses, venans, and yarrow–I believe there was enough to keep the reader grounded in the period.

And what about future criticisms? Would I rewrite to suit? An agent at the last writers conference I attended advised that if her criticism wasn’t based on a basic flaw in the manuscript and was purely subjective, she didn’t see any reason a writer should make changes to a manuscript based purely on those comments.

That made sense to me, and so barring any serious flaws I may have missed, I’ll save major rewrites for the agent who signs me and for the editor I work with. To paraphrase the Bard of Stratford on Avon:
Whether ’tis nobler in the mind to suffer
The criticisms and rejections of a thousand agents,
Or to make edits to quell that sea of troubles… Ay, that IS the question.

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