If you want to sell your book to a major New York publisher, you need an agent, no question. As with anything in life, there are rare exceptions, but do you want to drastically narrow your chances in hopes of winning the lottery? If so, why? A good agent has relationships with editors and publishers, they know who’s looking for what, they know how to sell a book, they know how to negotiate a good contract, and
You’re trying to juggle a dozen things at once – an unforgettable first line, a fresh voice, an original theme, complex characters, mood and tone and conflict and a sense of mystery, and so on and so forth. In so doing, there’s a good chance you’ve inadvertently lost the most important element of all – clarity.
Once upon a time, I was a magazine editor with an inbox full of pitches from writers and publicists. Many of the senders probably submitted those queries and imagined me waiting for them to come in, reading through each one carefully to decide whether or not it had merit.
Here’s what was really on my mind each time a new pitch pinged through:
Triage. I didn’t come up with this myself. I heard it from the editor Sol Stein, who likens revision to battlefield triage - treating patients in priority order, not first come first serve. For a book, this means tackling the big stuff first. The stuff that is most likely to make a huge overarching impact on the book.
We’re talking about things like character arc, plot, point-of-view, entirely new scenes...
When I was an aspiring writer, I often heard other wannabes bitch about the unfairness of it all. You know the conversation – it’s not about the writing, it’s all about who you know. The only people who get ahead are those with trust funds, who went to Ivy League schools, the types who rub elbows with New York gatekeepers and can slip agents manuscripts over drinks…yadda yadda yadda. Stubborn idealist that I am, I refused to believe them. I’d been raised by movies that told me “If you put your mind to it, you can do anything.”
I spend a lot of time encouraging writers to reach into their hearts and get out of their heads (those inner critics are serious assholes). Only, there does come a time to unleash your intellect. That time is called revision.
These are my own tried and true techniques for revising without getting overwhelmed.
If you're hoping for an easy answer as to whether or not an MFA is worth it, you’re not gonna get it from me. Unlike the ex-teacher who thinks his students suck or the many characterizations of the MFA program as a ponzi scheme, I think their value depends entirely on a student’s unique circumstances.