Agent Marlene Stringer: When Authors Overdo It

We’re stepping away from the business of reading today to talk about the business of writing–or, in this case, editing. At what point is your manuscript ready to submit? As writers we talk a lot about “polishing” our manuscripts. We take courses on editing and revision. We read books on honing our craft. We solicit input from crit partners, beta readers, other authors. We learn all those darn “RULES.”
What we don’t hear enough about is when to stop–and that there is a point at which we have gone too far. 
Agent Marlene Stringer joins us today to discuss the “overdone” manuscript. If you have questions for Marlene, please put them in the comments section and I will post the answers next week (I promise!).
Overdoing It

Nothing frustrates me more than to request a project from an author based on a fantastic query only to have the actual pages disappoint. With so many resources available on the Internet and elsewhere, a healthy number of new writers are honing their query skills and creating really strong queries. If only the wonderful query always guaranteed a terrific read.
There are a few reasons for this dichotomy. Sometimes, an author queries as soon as he or she finishes writing a novel, without giving it time to rest, get feedback, and revise. It may be that a clever query conceals a “same-old, same-old” story, bringing nothing new to the table. Sometimes, it’s a lack of craft.  Sometimes, it’s a lack of storytelling. 

I’ve seen all of these, and some are fixable. However, the one that saddens me most is also the one that reflects the most work on a novel: the over-polishing to a point where there is no voice left whatsoever.  The story is there, but it is sterile and flat. It is written in monotone, with the same emotional impact as reading directions. In a quest to get it right, the writer goes over the edge and eviscerates the writing.

A writer seeking publication cannot write in a vacuum.  Feedback is essential, but it needs to be educated feedback.  Taking advice from the wrong source can hurt a lot more than it helps.

And the hardest part: each writer has to learn when it’s time to step away and let the work go. Nothing is ever perfect, but it’s impossible to fix what isn’t there. 
Thanks, Marlene! 
It’s a tricky thing, editing. Writing rules are good, but they aren’t gospel. Sometimes, an inactive verb works better. Sometimes, fragments help give voice and tone. Voice is a nebulous-enough thing for writers to grasp. Scary to think we can work so hard that we lose it!

For me, a good yardstick to know it’s time to step away is when I’ve reached the point in my editing where I’m no longer looking at whether a scene advances the story but instead I’m tweaking words, looking at comma placement, second-guessing things I originally thought worked just fine.

Any of you ever have the “overpolishing” problem? How do you recognize when to let your manuscript go? Readers: do your favorite authors have a recognizable “voice” to their work–you always know it’s theirs? What do you like about their writing?

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About Suzanne Johnson

Author of urban fantasy, paranormal romance, and suspense. As Suzanne Johnson, she is the author of the Sentinels of New Orleans urban fantasy series (Royal Street; River Road: Elysian Fields, Pirate’s Alley, Belle Chasse, Frenchmen Street (March 2018). Writing as Susannah Sandlin, she is the author of the Penton Legacy series (Redemption; Absolution; Omega; Storm Force; Allegiance; ILLUMINATION); The Collectors series (Lovely, Dark, and Deep; Deadly, Calm, and Cold); and the Wilds of the Bayou series (Wild Man’s Curse; Black Diamond).

24 thoughts on “Agent Marlene Stringer: When Authors Overdo It

  1. Great post and great advice.

    I think my yardstick for letting the story go is when I am tired of hanging out with my characters. That’s when I start over-tinkering. It’s time to move on to find the next people to fall in love with so I can tell their story.

  2. As a new writer who relies heavily on my crit partners to help me find the “bad habits” in my writing, this is an important point to remember…my bad habit might be my best characteristic (and I mean that in a good way…not like the rest of my work is so bad that an adverb is the best of it).

    As for voice? Well, JR Ward certainly has it, true?

  3. @Judi–that’s an excellent yardstick. I’m going to have to remember that one.

    LOL Teri Anne. She does have it, true? And I still haven’t had a chance to read Lover Unleashed yet, which is just wrong on so many levels.

  4. Suzanne, I send it out when I stop seeing the problems. Crit partners only catch so much, then I revise. And when I’ve read through it twice and nothing’s hitting me in the face, it’s ready. I’ll start querying after my last major revise. When I’m to the final read through. By then, I won’t be changing anything that will make or break the book. Great post!

  5. Suzanne,

    Thank you forsharing this with us. Sometimes as writers we do tend to over do things. Readings this helpped remind me to keep my voice in the story. Sometimes that does get widdle away to nothing. 😉


    Micole Black

  6. Nice article.
    With so much emphasis on edit/polish/perfect, we can lose the forest for the trees.
    I agree, when I’m looking at word choices and not the story, time to let go!

  7. As one who just handed her second novel draft to her publisher, all I can say is — thanks for making me feel like I made the right decision!! I could have gone over it once more, but honestly — the story was there, the voice was there, it might not be perfect, but it was definitely ready for review by another!

    Thanks Suzanne for having Ms. Stringer as your guest today!

  8. What’s your thought on hiring a “professional editor” before sending it to agents and/or editors.

  9. While I was reading this I kept hearing quotes from my editor. When you said, “What we don’t hear enough about is when to stop.” My editor’s voice chimed in and said, “A writer’s work is never done. He simply gives up.” Then near the end of the article when you said, “Writing rules are good, but they aren’t gospel.” the quote that jumped to mind was, “Once you learn the rules of the craft, you can break them.” — I’ve started to experiment with breaking them and I feel so rebellious lol.

  10. Marlene, excellent point — my mother was an artist, and she said the most important thing she learned in Art school was when to put down her brush. This applies equally well to writing.

  11. LOL, Lindsay–I’m kind of at the rebellious stage too. Rules? Bah! I flaunt you!

    @anonymous. We’ll see what Marlene says about hiring an outside editor. My own thought is that it depends on being able to recognize one’s own strengths and weaknesses, and what kind of editor. What you don’t want is a copy editor who focuses so much on the minutia that the writer’s voice is lost. On the other hand, an author who is a great storyteller but doesn’t have a firm grasp of the technicalities can benefit from an editor who’s detail-oriented but sensitive to author voice.

  12. Oh my gosh, I just asked this very question – how often does an agent or publisher get a great pitch or query only to find that the work doesn’t measure up? This is such a cool, totally applicable post!
    I’d like to know – Is this a common occurrence?

  13. I’ve always told my CP’s, at some point editing becomes nothing more than rearranging and it’s time to step away and submit.

    Great post.

  14. Suzanne — another terrific guest today!

    I think advice should be listened to, but not necessarily taken at face value. For example, suppose initial readers find a certain character unlikable. They advise you to soften his edges. Maybe that’s a good idea, but maybe you should ratchet up the obnoxiousness to make it clear that his unlikability isn’t an accident. Readers can be a skeptical lot; maybe he’d even win a little admiration if his obnoxiousness felt like a bit of a hard sell.

    Relentlessly smoothing the rough edges of characters leaves the story populated by shapeless blobs.

    I think anxiety leads authors to take sound advice and apply it too slavishly. That produces results that sound the same as everyone else’s who does the same thing.

    One example of this is the sensible advice of getting your characters moving early in the story. Some take this to the extreme, relentlessly packing as much action into the very first *paragraph* as they can in an attempt to grab reader attention.

    While action packed hooks are common in good openings, they are far from universal and there’s an art to doing them well. An action-packed hook must be carefully fitted to the rest of the opening; E.R. Burroughs’ *A Princess of Mars* is a pulp story masterpiece in this regard. But there are other ways to launch a story, and maybe aspiring authors should try them.

    The one thing that *is* universal about good openings is that they are confident. They take the reader by the hand and lead him into the story. C.S. Lewis opens up some of his novels with a few pages of beautiful, robust expository prose that effortlessly conjures vivid images in the reader’s mind. If only *that* could be made into a formula.

  15. Very timely as voice is in my head! No, not those little voices that tell you to get off the blogs and hit the keys or the one who tells you that you really don’t need that extra glass of sweet tea. My local writing association, LARA, recently had a workshop featuring Jane Porter, Megan Crane and Liza Palmer and their topic was all about maintaining the voice in your writing. Thanks for the very knowlegeable reminder! I have been rereading my manuscripts and realize that I hear my voice coming through loud and clear and I can only hope that the editor and readers who finally read it will be able to hear it as well as I do! 🙂

  16. Great post, but the question remains, what do you do if you *do* end up with an overpolished manuscript? If it’s not good enough for an agent, do you toss all that hard work out the window and start on something new? Or do you leave it alone, come back a month later, and try to dirty it up?

    I have this problem with my first manuscript – one I’ve been working on for nearly 3 years now. I can’t let it go, and the muse won’t let it go since it’s the only series I have in my head. Kinda stuck between a rock and a hard place with it. Damned if I love it, damned if I leave it.

  17. Timely and excellent advice! I do think word choice is important–I relish when I get past major rewrites and restructuring and can play around with words, LOL!

    But when I caught myself counting “was” (after reading about how some editor circled every “was” on a page and sent it back to the author) –well, I slapped myself upside the head and reminded myself that was is merely a verb form, the past tense of is, and it’s perfectly appropriate to use it.
    How it became a “rule” to avoid “was,” I don’t know.

  18. Thanks so much, this was timely for me as well. I’ve been known to polish the shine off my ms on more than one occassion. Thing is, we are so creative that every time we look at a piece of writing, we come up with different ways to say something thinking all change is improvement. This is where a good editor can call a timely halt.

  19. Maybe it’s not so much a question of overpolishing from the author’s pov, but of nitpicking. When you can really step back from a project and realize your last round of revisions ideas have been based on nothing but authorial nitpicking, I think, you’ve gone too far! :)(does that car really have to be orange instead of orangered or tangerine or coral? etc… seriously. Probably the “pumpkin” terminology you picked originally will be fine.) Just a thought from one likewise hitting this milestone. 😉

  20. Great post. This is definitely good advice to keep in mind.

    I work with a partner. We often revise as we write. After we’ve hit the end, we go back and read through the ms to edit a few times. At this point, though, we usually have other characters begging us to get their story told. It really is important to learn to let go and move on to the next story.

  21. Thank you for the wonderful reminder! I’m something of a tinkerer… I’ve rewritten stories two to four times (once at the request of my agent—I made a single title to fit Harlequin American). But I have to force myself to let it go. I refuse to listen to CPs who want to rewrite my work. I personally think this is where a lot of writers go wrong—their voice than is tangled with their CPs and comes away flat. And I think too much rule adherence and perfect grammar/punctuation can destroy a voice, too (this is the one I have the most problem with. I force myself to let go of a story when I find I’m simply rearranging verbs and chasing commas.