Ask the Agent: Banking on Potential

I was so tempted to blog about the Olympics today… I can’t help it, I’m watching it as I write this! I loved all your comments on Friday, bringing out all the ways the Olympic journey can be compared to writing and publishing… or anything we work hard at and strive for. BUT… I’m not going to comment further. Um… I’ll try not to.

Today I want to address a question that came in a couple of weeks ago from Sheri Boeyink:

How does an agent assess potential? Let’s say an agent reads some work from an unpublished author and loves the story; however, the writing is a little rough around the edges. I’ve heard that some agents sometimes work with authors (suggesting rewrites, etc.) because they see the potential. Is that accurate?


Oh, you wanted more? Okay, let’s start with the hard truth. Most agents have their hands full already, with authors whose writing is not rough around the edges. We’re busy enough, without adding “writing teacher” to the list of jobs we have to tackle in a day. Helping to polish proposals, selling projects to publishers, negotiating contracts, and handling the million-and-one issues that come up each day is already a full time job.

Also, we have so many writers submitting to us, we can be choosy. Why would you take on an author who’s not ready, when there are several more lined up behind her who are ready?

Having said all that, yes, there may be times when an agent finds herself so drawn to a project that she’s willing to put in the extra work to help the author get the writing up a few notches to where it needs to be. It’s all part of that subjectivity. It has to do with the particular agent’s interests and strengths. For me, it’s not so much of a stretch since I’ve spent years as a fiction editor. Plus, I’m still a newer agent and I’ve been building my client list with newbies I believe have long-term potential. So I have a couple of clients on my roster who I’m working with as they polish and perfect their novels.

Of course, each agent has their own answer to this question. Some agents have client lists packed with bestselling authors, so there’s not much mileage in representing someone who’s not ready.

What I want you to remember is this: Don’t count on an agent to smooth out your rough edges. Remember you’ve got a lot of competition—writers whose edges aren’t rough. Assume those rough edges will be cause for an agent to say “no” even if it’s a disappointed or begrudging “no” because they really like aspects of your work. Make it the best it can be, before you submit.

Sounds obvious, but I receive an amazing number of “first drafts” in my inbox. It continues to amaze me how many people think they can get to the “Olympics of writing” on a fluke, basically by sitting on the couch and watching Michael Phelps swim, then heading out to the pool and expecting to win a medal in the 400 freestyle. Don’t make that mistake!

However, if an agent agrees to represent you but says they’d like to work with you to smooth out your manuscript before submission, I recommend you jump on that. You’re being offered a valuable service from someone who probably knows what they’re doing.

Now that’s enough, I’ve got to get back to the drama in the Olympic pool. Did you see that relay??!!

Rachelle Gardner is a Christian literary agent affiliated with WordServe Literary Group in Colorado.

Rachelle Gardner

Literary agent at Gardner Literary. Coffee & wine enthusiast (not at the same time) and dark chocolate connoisseur. I've worked in publishing since 1995 and I love talking about books!


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  2. Andrew on August 11, 2008 at 11:45 PM

    >Potential energy is defined as mass times height times gravity. In other words, when you’re standing on a tower, you’ve got potential.

    To use it, you’ve got to jump.

    Writing’s a leap of faith. You won’t know what your potential is until you try.

  3. Kim Kasch on August 11, 2008 at 8:05 PM

    >For anyone who didn’t see the relay, check out this link:

    It was amazing!

  4. Marla Taviano on August 11, 2008 at 2:20 PM

    >I’ve watched it five times so far. 🙂

  5. Jennifer L. Griffith on August 11, 2008 at 12:03 PM

    >Oh, rub it in…I only get fuzzy ABC and CBS, so no Olympics for this Olympic fanatic of the past. That theoretically means more writing, … yay…yeah … if only the rest of my life and brain would cooperate with that theory.

    I do catch blurbs on the net.

    Good points about submissions, Rachelle. I think the hard part for a lot of writers is knowing WHEN it’s no longer “too rough” to send. Espeically when editing and critiquing is so subjective.

    It’s all about pressing on, indeed.

  6. Katy McKenna on August 11, 2008 at 10:21 AM

    >The video of this relay is AMAZING. I’m fascinated with Phelps, since he hopes to shatter the records of Spitz. We are friends of Spitz’s cousin here in KC. All extremely exciting. And shouldn’t the French no better than to taunt the Americans? (I can say this because my husband’s French–ha.)

    Rachelle, I’m impressed that writing is like a relay. It’s an individual discipline, but it takes an excellent team of professionals for a book to ever come to fruition. Thank you for being a tremendous member of my team–and for inviting me to swim on yours.

  7. Heidi on August 11, 2008 at 9:50 AM

    >I thought about almost exactly this when I was listening to Phelps talk about his daily regimen, and how many hours he spends (all of them!) either swimming, lifting weights or aerobic exercise to be able to be this competitive.

    Sure, that 6’7″ wingspan and size 14 feet don’t hurt, but he works every minute of every day training to be this good.

    It amazes me how some writers think they can put in an hour or two a day, or a week, and expect to be “the next big thing.” Writing well takes dedication. And practice, practice, practice.

  8. Courtney Walsh on August 11, 2008 at 9:11 AM

    >This is such a good point, and a great reminder that we as writers have to do all we can before we ever hit ‘send’ on our query letter! I’ve always struggled with the re-writing – as though someone once the story is out there I don’t need to keep revisiting it.

    Now that I’m in my 4th (or mabye 5th) rewrite, I realize if I really care about my characters, I should want to tell their story WELL. Not just ‘get it out there…’ but get it out there in a way that serves their story.

    I realize the leg work is mine to do – and I can’t rely on someone else to come in with a magic wand to sprinkle fairy dust on my 80 thousand words!

    I seriously didn’t think I would care much about the Olympics, but I almost started crying when those swimmers got their gold. I saw an interview with Michael Phelps mom about his 1st gold medal and she was telling the story of when she first saw him afterwards. She said “He was walking towards me, smiling this big smile just like… like a little boy… and I came towards him and he was carry a gold medal in one hand and a peanut butter and jelly sandwich in the other… and he handed me the medal through the fence.”

    I thought that was the SWEETEST picture – I absolutely loved to hear her tell that story! 🙂

  9. Sheri Boeyink on August 11, 2008 at 9:08 AM

    >OH boy, that relay WAS amazing. I about fell out of my chair with excitement.

    Thanks for the post.

  10. Inspire on August 11, 2008 at 8:35 AM

    >Hi Rachelle,

    I was wondering if you might share on this point. If a writer sends you a query, even a few sample chapters, and you turn it down, but think the writing is good, and then the writer is offered a publishing contract with a large CBA publisher, would you reconsider your rejection? Should a writer reapproach an agent if offered a contract?

  11. Pam Halter on August 11, 2008 at 8:20 AM

    >I, too, had to watch the relay this morning on the news. Yeah. WOW.

    I attended a writer’s conference last week, too, but I was on faculty and got to meet with many new authors. I hope I was encouraging to them, but I was also honest when I saw rough edges. It does no one any good to say, “you’re a great writer” when they’re not. But I was careful not to crush anyone as I watched other faculty members do.

  12. Mark H. on August 11, 2008 at 8:14 AM

    >This post makes a lot of sense, and I think it underscores the value of professional critiques, or at least having readers/friends who know what they’re doing tweak your work. I know I can reach a point where I’ve read my work so many times that I can’t see the forest for the trees any longer.

    P.S. I know I poked fun at the Olympics coverage the other day, but that 4×100 relay was absolutely incredible. Totally worth staying up till 11:30 p.m. here on the East Coast to see. I immediately made my wife watch it on YouTube when we got up this morning. Wow!

  13. Gwen Stewart on August 11, 2008 at 5:39 AM

    >I had the pleasure of attending a Christian writer's conference last week. I sat in on a session where an editor listened to pitches, and I *watched* her listen with one ear and flip through pages of a manuscript simultaneously–fast. I studied her doing it, and I knew she was reading between every line: what was there, what wasn't, what needed to be, and what could be fixed. Probably a bunch of other stuff I can't even imagine.

    So, being too curious for my own good, when it came to Q&A time, I asked. I said, "As fast as you flipped pages, you actually read every word, didn't you? And by the time you were done, you knew about that person's work." Of course she couldn't explain to us how she DOES that, but she confirmed that yes, by the time she was done with a short piece she had a firm grasp on the work and the writer.

    I would love to live in the brain of agents/editors for just one day and see writing the way they do. Fascinating.