Monday 6 May 2013

Slushpile Chat: an Author and Agent Discuss the Art of Revision

Agent Jenny Savill (left) and author Sara Grant join Notes from the Slushpile to share a few tips on how to improve your manuscript and pitch your work to agents. Jenny is an agent at Andrew Nurnberg Associates Ltd and Sara is the author of Dark Parties.   

Sara: I used to hate to revise a manuscript.

The joy of writing came from that initial rush of telling myself the story. Once I’d written the story down once, I had a difficult time going back and figuring out how to make it better. Reading and re-reading a manuscript from start to finish might catch the typos, but this linear review doesn’t often significantly improve a story.

Sara's YA books (US covers)

I read a lot about revision and devised a system of reviewing my manuscript that looks at the big picture first and then by character and chapter, scene, paragraph, sentence and ultimately word by word. Revision can be a painful and endless process, but it’s necessary and incredibly rewarding.

Would you agree, Jenny? How many times do your writers typically revise their manuscripts with you and then with an editor?

Jenny: I agree, and the answer is: multiple times.

I will take on an author because I am excited by their writing. For me, it’s a strange combination of personal literary taste, instinct, commercial musings and, strongest of all, a conviction that here is a project that deserves to see the light of day – a story that needs to be shared with editors, a manuscript that deserves to become a book.

If I can visualise it on the shelf, I’m half way to phoning the author. Having taken the author on, I will work with them to get their manuscript to a point where it is submittable to editors. Sometimes this involves a lot of work, sometimes not so much, depending on the issues with the project when it arrives with me – all manuscripts have different things that need working on. It’s not unusual for an author to do several revisions with me, followed by tweaking.

On occasion, a manuscript can land in my Inbox where all the main elements of the novel are already working to a high degree. These projects will typically need only a couple of small revisions to get them ready for submission to editors.

Much as I enjoy working with authors, there are only so many hours in the day

Much as I enjoy working with authors, there are only so many hours in the day and this is of course the sort of manuscript I pray for..! So, before submitting to agents, writers need to do all they can to get their draft manuscript as ready as possible. You want your manuscript to knock an agent’s socks off, but if the agent is stumbling over spelling or typos, never mind plot inconsistencies or pacing problems, there’s obviously less chance of that happening.

 So, my advice is to learn how to revise your manuscript – speak to other authors, listen to editors - and find a way of doing it that works for you. Revisions don’t stop once you have an agent – and they carry on once you have an editor. They are a necessary on-going process.

Sara: It’s good to know that I’m not alone with multiple revisions. You will probably recall that I received nine, single-spaced revision notes from my US editor on the first round of edits for Dark Parties. (And I learned from her blog that she typically writes up to twelve pages of notes to writers the first time around.) Published authors don’t often talk about this exhaustive revision process.

I supposed we’d like our readers to believe our novels come out perfectly formed. Oh, if that were only the case.

Sara's younger fiction 

It’s easy for writers to get pulled in a million different directions during revision. When I talk to other writers about revision – whether it’s one on one or during a workshop – one of the first things I ask them to consider is: What’s at the heart of their story? Why are they writing it and why are they the only person who can write it?

If you want to be published – as you’ve pointed out, Jenny, writing is collaboration with agents and editors. You have to know why you are writing your story and what’s important to you so that when agents or editors ask for changes – and they most certainly will – you know the heart of your story and you can remain true to that throughout the revision process. This clarity of purpose shines through the prose organically and subtly.

That’s one of my top tips for revision. What’s one of your top tips for writers?

Jenny: One of my top tips would be this. During the revision process your manuscript will change – sometimes in dramatic ways. You might find that if you write in the first person it brings the voice alive; that if you change the tense the story flows more easily; or that two very different narrators, rather than one, add tension and texture to a flat narrative.

Perhaps you need to flesh out the world of the story. Perhaps you need to rein it in. It might be that the manuscript stays basically the same structurally and changes only in more subtle ways, but one of the things that tends to happen is that old stuff from earlier drafts lingers in the latest draft.

So part of revising should be checking for stuff that no longer belongs in your manuscript and getting rid of it. This sounds easy enough, but when you’ve been looking at your story for months on end, it can be really hard to spot these things, and what you don’t want to do is end up deleting something that is actually working.

Part of revising should be checking for stuff that no longer belongs in your manuscript and getting rid of it

 So, take a break, do something else or write something completely different for a while. Give the manuscript to someone who hasn’t read it before to read and feedback on. Return to it with fresh eyes, at which point there is a checklist of things you can do to make sure it is working – and this is where Sara, armed with her highlighter pens (!), excels. Hers is a helpful, hands-on strategy to help authors revise methodically, without losing sight of the heart of their story, or the reasons they started to write it in the first place.

Sara: After you’ve polished your revision until it sparkles, the best piece of advice I can give writers is: GET AN AGENT!

I tell anyone who will listen how important it is to have an agent. On a personal level, writers need someone who can offer advice and critique. And from a business prospective, agents can market your work globally in a way that writers simply can’t. They know the market and business of publishing so writers can focus on their story.

I knew from our first meeting that Jenny was the agent for me. She understood Dark Parties and was genuinely interested in teen fiction. I wanted a partner in the process from brainstorming ideas to giving editorial feedback along the way. And Jenny has exceeded my expectations in every way imaginable.

So, Jenny, what are you looking for in a writer? Any do’s and don’t’s for people who are submitting to you?

Jenny: *blushes* I look for a good understanding in the writer of who they are writing for, what they are writing and why they are writing it. A sense of humour is always good. Not only does it make working with an author fun, it helps us through the tricky patches. The willingness to receive feedback in the spirit in which it is given and to work really, really hard at revising, going forward.

In the writing, I want to feel from the first page that the writer is in control of the story and that I, the reader, am in safe hands. I love being surprised - by an original voice, a character who confounds the reader’s expectations, a plot that doesn’t go where you think it will, brave use of language or structure, an unusual setting.

Make me laugh. Make me cry. Give me a stunning and satisfying ending

The thing that children’s books often do so much better than adult books is to give the reader a fresh and insightful take on the familiar- so I will be looking out for this. Make me laugh. Make me cry. Give me a stunning and satisfying ending, even if there is to be a sequel.

Sara: Speaking of satisfying endings, I think we should wrap up for now.

My final advice is READ! READ! READ! Read the genre and age range similar to the book you are writing. Read the books you wished you’d written. Read the classics but also what’s new on bookshelves.

Dissect the stories you adore and determine how the author made you fall in love with his/her book.

Also buy the book. Support your fellow writers and the industry you want to join.

Best of luck with crafting and editing and revising you novels!

Sara and Jenny have teamed up to offer a day-long workshop on 15th June and again on 2nd November to help writers polish their manuscript and make it stand out from the slushpile.


  1. This is so interesting - and so true. A lot of new writers don't realise just how much rewriting is involved and can be very disheartened by editorial feedback that means a lot more work on a project they rather hoped was finished. But in time I think the rewriting becomes as satisfying as that first draft - although I still start my (very linear!) rewrites with a big groan! Talking of which, I'd better get on with tackling chapter 27 . . .

    1. But aren't rewrites so much more satisfying than starting from scratch? When you KNOW your story ... the first draft is an exploration, the second tends to be a consolidation - and any subsequent draft is a step towards perfection (or so we hope).

  2. Oh yes! Hoorah for agents and that horrid moment when you've handed over your beloved script, certain it is perfect and they say, 'Actually, no...not yet...' It always, ALWAYS produces a better book. However much we hate it.

    1. Sigh. Aren't we gluttons for punishment!

    2. Yes, we are. I had a great time on Sara's revision workshop, the advice is step by step and extremely practical. Big thanks from me.

  3. This is such an interesting post - so many insights. Thanks to both Sara and Jenny!
    Now back to rewrite number eleventy-seven...

    1. Someday we ought to have a competition - the most revisions win.

  4. Very interesting post, thank you!

    (And am booked in for the workshop!)

  5. A really useful and interesting post.I love the advice to keep hold of the heart of your story. There have been far too many times when I've drifted away from what I'm trying to say because new and interesting ideas have popped up. But if I ask myself the question, 'does this chime with the heart of the story?' I can discard what turns out to be padding (sob).Thanks to Sara and Jenny!

  6. Great post, thanks so much Sara and Jenny. I wish I knew this stuff BEFORE I started rather than having to train myself to become a serial darling killer. On the other hand, I agree with Candy that rewriting can be very rewarding. Editing one work ruthlessly also helped me a lot when I started a new m/s. I'm plotting it quite tightly, rather than blundering about in the unknown.

  7. I am in the middle of revising my YA novel. This has been very helpful. Thanks. Gracias.

  8. Thank you for this insightful dialogue. SACKETS HARBOR POWDER MONKEY - THE WAR OF 1812 is my 35th book. I am currently having the next one professionally edited. You've convinced me it's time I search for an agent so that I can spend my future time writing a new story rather than trying to find the perfect publisher on my own for the one that I've just completed..


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