Got a Novel That Needs A Fix or Two ... or Twenty? Whose Advice Should You Trust?

By Michael Neff

First of all, should you trust the advice of just any literary agent when it comes to editing or "fixing" your novel-in-progress? Would you trust a mechanic to fix your car if you knew he had never touched an engine in his life and could only quote passages from an instructional manual? Of course not. You would be foolish!

Yet many writers do just that.

Experienced agents with good reputations do understand what makes a novel sell, and their advice on how to prepare a manuscript for the commercial fiction market should be obeyed. However, when it comes to the nuances and process of actual fiction writing and story structuring, most agents can only guess or repeat what they've heard from others. As a writer, you must approach with caution, compare and contrast what you hear from various sources before making a crucial decision that could either save your novel or damn it for eternity.

If you are fortunate enough to have the ear of an agent who also has a solid background in fiction writing (like an Eve Bridburg or a Peter Rubie), then breathe a bit easier. If he or she tells you to rewrite X or Y to get Z, then YOU DO IT!

And btw, whatever you do, DO NOT EXCLUSIVELY RELY on your parents, friends, or writer group for advice. They are amateurs--well meaning, yes, but still amateurs.

Your best advice, on both a macro and micro level, will come from professional writer/editors with years of experience in the literary biz, i.e., individuals who understand the commercial book market, who have actively edited fiction writing, worked one-on-one with fiction writers, as well as created their own fiction--whether in the form of short stories or novels.


  1. Great post. I agree that it is important to consider the source of advice.

    And perhaps it would be good to bring up the issue of motivation. There is a difference, on the one hand, between wanting to make a novel the best it can be, and, on the other, making it into something that can be "sold" in the current marketplace. Sometimes the two can get along, but often there will be conflict there.

  2. "As a writer, you must approach with caution, compare and contrast what you hear from various sources before making a crucial decision that could either save your novel or damn it for eternity."

    How often does the publishing industry take upon itself the stature of an organized religion?
    The acquisition of publishing houses continues apace. Five conglomerates control 80% of the market. Myths of synergy aside, the price for these acquisition is paid in human flesh. Editors and staff are ejected leaving only the lovely cash-flow of the current publications list.

    So, the number of publishing professionals continues to dwindle, the workload to replace the saleable product of yesterday mounts and the temptation to look for something familiar becomes overwhelming.

    "Hmmm, Guardian Angel Cat, I like it! Even better, I think it will sell to the people who liked Guardian Angel Dog and Guardian Angel Hamster! Whoa, eleven already? I have to deliver a twenty minute talk about finding one's unique literary voice. Get back to Sheldon and tell him to send us the first thirty pages of Guardian Angel Iguana. I have a very good feeling about that one!"

  3. Hi Frank,
    You are right about the publishing industry dwindling and that's because of two major market forces. Less book sales and a publishing industry business model that no longer works in light of digital media, the Internet, and video and computer games.
    Publishers can no longer afford to run large print runs and have the majority of books returned because poor sales.