I have done three R&Rs.
And I might very well do another in the future.
I’ll let you in on a little secret: I am totally okay with this. Really. I actually kind of like R&Rs. They’re not offers, sure, but they’re not rejections either. Don’t listen to anyone who tells you that an R&R is a “soft no.” Writing up notes for an unknown writer takes time—time literary agents and editors simply don’t have. An R&R is a compliment, a vote of confidence. Most of all, it’s an opportunity. And I love opportunities. They smell a little bit like freshly brewed coffee. If you want to write and publish a novel, I suggest you learn to love them, too.
Like I said, I’ve done three R&Rs. Two of them worked out; one of them didn’t. So I feel like I’ve learnt a fair amount about them. If you’ve just been offered an R&R from a literary agent or editor, or you’re curious as to how they work, here’s some of the wisdom I’ve acquired over the years:
[In case you’re reading this and you don’t know what an R&R is, it’s when an agent or editor asks you to revise a piece of work and gives you an opportunity to resubmit it after those revisions have been done. Usually this involves getting some sort of edit letter from them, detailing what they perceive to be the weaker areas of the work and suggesting ways that you might go about strengthening them. Got it? Okay, on to the wisdom!]
Firstly, it really is a Good Thing. Okay, so this agent or editor didn’t call you immediately to offer representation/a book deal. But an offer to revise and resubmit really is a) rare and b) a huge vote of confidence. It means that the agent or editor in question loved one (or more) aspect(s) of your book SO MUCH that they couldn’t just say, “Sorry, this isn’t for me.” But they also couldn’t say yes, either, because maybe they know your plot is weak (*raises hand uncertainly*) or maybe they know the voice doesn’t work or the characters are flat, and, because of that, even though they love it A LOT, they won’t be able to sell it to the people they need to sell it to. Remember that agents and editors are not gods and goddesses—even though, sometimes, they may seem to exist on an entirely different plane to writers (and I’m pretty sure my literary agent is at least 25% magic). Agents and editors have to convince other people to love your book as much as they do. Most times, an R&R is an opportunity to give your book its best chance at selling.
Secondly: be open. But not too open. I mentioned above that I did an R&R that didn’t work out. What do I mean by that? Well, this lovely agent sent me some notes on how to make my manuscript—a novel in verse set in Johannesburg about a young girl whose voice is stolen by an ailing violinist—better. And I was so excited to dive into making changes! One of his (very smart) notes was that the story felt too small. It needed more of the main character’s life in it—her school, her neighbourhood, her family. And, for some reason, this translated to me as, “Oh, you know what I should do? I should rewrite the whole thing in prose rather than in verse!” And I did. You can see where this is going, and you can probably predict why it went that way. The agent in question got back to me fairly quickly, and it was a no. And although he didn’t say, “Ummmm, hello? You changed the very essence of what I loved about this book!” it’s clear to me, now, that that’s what I did. See, you want to do changes, but you don’t want to change your book so much that it becomes Another Thing Entirely. How do you stop from doing that? Well, you find the heart.
FYI: Your book has a heart. And its heart consists of non-negotiable elements. Earlier this week, I tweeted that I like to make a “Goosebump List” before starting revisions. This is a list of all the scenes, characters, world elements or snippets of dialogue that literally give me goosebumps. They make me feel all tingly, like a thunderstorm is on the horizon. The Goosebump List helps me to keep track of my book’s heart, so that I don’t stray too far from why I originally fell in love with the story. The Goosebump List is your book’s heart. Notice it. Keep it close to you.
If I’d given any thought to this back in 2014, I would have seen that the fact that my book was written in verse was a Major Non-Negotiable Element! (And just in case this isn’t clear: the agent who offered me the R&R did not ask me to write the story in prose. The error was entirely mine.)
You have to remember that if you’re getting an R&R, the person on the other end actually loves your book already. You might rework the plot, or add more setting, or cut a character, but they don’t want an entirely different book from you. They want This Book, but Better. So don’t throw the poodle out with the bathwater. Make your Goosebump List, pay attention to the elements the agent/editor said they loved, and don’t change your book’s heart. I promise you don’t need to.
Thirdly, take your time! No one wants to see an R&R in a couple of weeks. Most take a few months. The first R&R I did took four months. The second (for my magical agent) was supposed to take 4 months, but things changed when I received an offer of representation on my original manuscript. And the R&R I did for Miriam Newman at Candlewick (editor extraordinaire of THE TURNAWAY GIRLS) took me 3 months. Bottom line: rather take a little more time (and get the changes right) than rush through them and miss an opportunity to submit the best book you can submit. They won’t forget about you if you take six months to revise.
Lastly, when you read the agent’s or editor’s edit letter, do the following: read it through once. Step away from it. Come back to it the next day, or at least after having walked your dog, and read it again. Then make notes on what you’ve read, and start to think about how you could implement the changes. Let the notes sink in. Maybe take a week or two to mull them over. Don’t rush. Take a deep breath. You can do this.
I think that’s enough wisdom for today. But there’s a lot I have to say about R&Rs, so I might do another post like this soon! If you have any specific questions on revising and resubmitting, please let me know in the comments, or on Twitter, and I’ll try to answer them next time around.