Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Rewrites: Legitimate Critique Technique or Unethical Ghost Writing?

Posters on critique forums seem divided over whether critters should rewrite queries as part of their critiques. Some folk feel having their queries rewritten is insulting. Others feel it's lazy or unethical to submit a query to an agent/editor that's been written by someone else.

What's your take? Feel free to discuss the pros and cons in the comments!

Not surprisingly, I don't see anything wrong with rewriting queries and it's never my intent to insult anyone by it. Though I've never explicitly stated it, anyone who submits a query here can ask that I not rewrite it. Conversely, they're welcome to ask that I specifically provide a rewrite. If neither is requested, I'll do a rewrite when I feel it's the best way to show how the suggestions I'm making can come together and still make sense. Sometimes I do a rewrite just because it's fun.

The Crit Line

I think authors are sometimes overwhelmed by the amount of feedback they get and the questions being asked. It's hard for someone so close to the work to see how they can possibly address all the concerns and still remain within an acceptable word count range. A rewrite shows in broad strokes how it can be done.

A rewrite can be anything from a framework that the author of the novel can use to hang their own words on to a polished piece that the author uses as part of their submissions package. In the end, it's the author's decision how much or how little of the rewrite to use.

The Agent Factor

Agents generally advise against submitting queries the author hasn't written themselves. Yet, curiously, many agents will rewrite the author's query when submitting the work to editors. I suppose the argument could be made that by that time the quality of the author's writing has already been vetted by the agent, but really isn't it done to put the best face possible on the submission? The query is a sales tool. And, all things being equal, the sales presentation that is most interesting and/or polished usually is the one to make the sale -- which in this case is enticing the agent/editor to read a few pages. Ultimately, it's the pages that will make or break the deal anyway.

Many hands shape a book. The author isn't asked to write their own backcover or flap copy. They aren't required to nail the title or design a cover. All these things influence a reader's perception of what the story and style and tone will be before they even crack the spine. The reader's interest is whetted before they even read a word the author wrote. Why should the agent or editor experience be any different? In the end, does it really matter who gets the agent excited about reading the story? After all, it's up to the author alone to make good on the follow-through.

Call for Queries

The queue is empty. Send more!

Tomorrow, I'll have details for you on a new query critiquing site you can submit revisions to for yet another perspective.


Whirlochre said...

To be honest, I'm happier with general critiques rather than re-writes, unless specifically asked for.

Possibly, this is because I'm a GREAT BIG SISSY.

In principle, I think it's best that all words used in your name are your own, though once things get to the agent/writer partnership stage, the necessities of synergy ought to figure in the pitch to editors — and then, via the w/a/e threesome, to the outside world.

On another note, I think agents and editors should receive more credit on the merchandise they help havehappen. If movie credits can list the 205 people making tea and biscuits between takes (or coffee and muffins if it's Hollywood rather than Elstree), it ought to be the case that agents and editors receive a mandatory mention on the jacket flap. As things stand, their acknowledgement is at the behest of the author's introductory "I'd like to thank..." gush.

Slush said...

Ethics and morals get in my way.
I agree with Whirl. While someone re-writing my query is great, and they will probably do a better job then me, morally I cannot submit someone else's work in place of my own. The idea makes me feel icky.

At the same time I don't find the idea of re-writing my query to critique insulting. If anything it reminds me of how I have a long way to go before I am truly ready to throw myself out there to the agents and editors. Plus it may offer some different ideas that I had not considered.

vkw said...

I see queries as a marketing tool. In my opinion, it is so far removed from writing a novel, I wonder how many great novels get passed by because the author can't master a query letter?

Seems a bit unfair.

However, let's use an analogy. A resume' is like a query letter. It's a marketing tool. It is what is used by employers to screen candidates out (not in). Many may complain they can't master writing a good resume and should not be discriminated because of it.

But then what other tool should be used? A synopsis. the first three chapters? A potential employer can not interview every candidate for a job. An editor can not read the first three chapters of every query submitted. (If only because they don't represent that genre.)

Since I see querying like a resume', and there are professional resume' writers and templates, I think it's okay to use a pro to write a query. I don't think you have to give credit either-Pepsi doesn't credit their marketing agent.

I disagree with Whirlochre on giving cover time to editors. It's only important to the people in the business. Those that need to know will find out who edited a novel. It's like giving credit to every instrument player in an orchestra instead of just the creator of the piece being played.

Matt said...

There's nothing wrong with rewriting queries or submitting them. Queries are nothing more than an interpretation of a story, different from the story itself. The query or jacket summary gets rewritten by the agent, editor, amazon reviewers, wikipedia, etc.

And you won't trick someone into publishing a book because of a great query. It'll be obvious from the pages whether or not you're a good writer.

I've even seen published authors admit that they didn't write their breakthrough queries...on the agent's website!

The novel, of course, is a different matter. That should be all you.

AA said...

A lot times I do a rewrite or something similar because I'm not sure the author gets what I'm trying to say. It's easier to show it than try to explain it. Then instead of saying, "But you still haven't gotten to the basics of what the conflict is," or whatever, I can just give an example of how I would do it. How much (if any) the author uses is up to the author.

I prefer giving only a framework or formula, something like that. It's like a teacher in school could show the kids a good formula to do a math problem or framework for an essay, but if she does the work for them they don't learn anything. It won't help someone master the query to do it for them.

McKoala said...

Rewriting can be useful as a way to capture the plot essentials, but most writers tend to want to rewrite their rewrite to recapture their tone.

Wordver: 'butboake'. Very funny for Scots. Maybe not for anybody else.

Jeb said...

I agree that a rewrite of a sentence or paragraph is often the fastest way to demonstrate the issue at hand.

I don't mind rewrites on my queries or synopses. Other people's work can show me new ways to address weaknesses in my version. No agent worth their salt buys a novel on the strength of the query letter anyway. It's just a tool, one they will rework as needed to sell the ms onward.

Rewriting my novels now, that's a different kettle of eels entirely.

Michelle4Laughs said...

My take on it is that agents advise having your work read by others including a beta reader before submitting. We're just doing the beta on our query letters with a broader audience. Sometimes the right word or phrase eludes us and others can put their finger on the difficulty.

Phoenix said...

Thank you everyone for such insightful thoughts. I see many of us still agree to disagree on the subject ;o)

Whirl: I've never thought of you as being a sissy. Much. And maybe as ebooks catch on, with the price of electrons being so cheap, all the players might start getting credited. But first, we might need to form a union...

Slush: I think you've put your finger on the balance that's needed.

vkw: I do like the resume analogy. I thought of another: It's like a symphony musician being asked to audition with a piece of music they've written themself.

Matt: Ooh, scandal! I haven't seen any public admissions. Links, please!

McK: Yes, capturing tone and voice in a rewrite can be the dealbreaker. I've seen it done brilliantly -- and quite wretchedly.

Jeb: "kettle of eels," eh? Are you Neptunian, perhaps?

Michelle: I wonder how much influence beta readers have had over books going from meh stories to something truly remarkable?

I did have to stop and think when I read this from AA:

It won't help someone master the query to do it for them.

It made me wonder how many times in an author's life we'll be asked to write a query by ourselves, without help from an agent or editor or flapjacket writer or publicist. Is it a skill worth spending time to master?

Matt said...


Look in the comments, near the top.