Agents: masters of TLC (Tough Literary Criticism)

They take months to respond, and then it’s usually with an impersonal rejection. In the miraculous event that they like your MS enough to take you on, it’s still a gamble whether or not they’ll be able to sell your book to a publisher (see my previous post).

So, in this era of accessible-to-all self-publishing, are agents worth paying any attention to at all? The answer is yes. It is absolutely worth going through this process, even if, like me, you get all the way to being taken on, only to be released again, novel unsold. For while my agents were unable to sell my novels, they helped me to edit my work, to ‘sharpen’ it so that it was as good as it could be, and I’m very grateful for that.

For example, one of the areas that I needed to work on was pace of plot. In my first ever novel 12 years ago (which I haven’t put on Amazon because I don’t think it’s good enough), an agent I met with at the time pointed out that the beginning was strong, the end was strong, the characters were strong, but the middle of the story “sagged”. She was right. I had a lot of re-writing to do. Even though, despite the re-write, that agent decided not to take my novel on, it was a good exercise which I learned a lot from.

With Package Deal a few years later, my agent at the time suggested putting in an extra scene where the main character, Mia, has some kind of confrontation with her mother or her mother’s husband. I followed her advice. She was right, it added more tension in the build-up to the climax. She also suggested toning down Steve and Craig’s language. I deleted a few expletives here and there, but in doing so I could almost hear Steve and Craig shouting at me: “Give up swearing? Us? You must be fucking joking!”. They’re just not polite, what can I say? They’re real.

With Hot Property, and yet another agent, I was advised to lose 20,000 words. (My word count was over 100,000.) That was a challenge. I didn’t want to lose any of my precious words, but they had to go. Fortunately, as a sub-editor I’m used to axing copy, but when it’s your own copy, it’s a lot harder to detach! Also with Hot Property I was advised to change a risqué storyline to avoid “alienating readers”. I didn’t like this suggestion or agree with the reasoning behind it, but I did it anyway. And now that I’ve self-published, I haven’t changed it back to the way it was originally because it felt OK like that.

I was also given advice on presentation and layout, told to shorten the sections where Georgie is emailing her friend back in the UK and make them more “punchy”, and work more on each character’s voice so that they all sounded different and distinct. It was pointed out that my teenage character Sophia was a bit of a Nobby No-mates – wouldn’t she have some friends to hang out with? All these observations, whether I agreed with them or not, helped me look at my work more objectively, more carefully. The result was a better, stronger story.

So even though I’ve ended up self-publishing on Amazon, I’m still glad to have had the experience of working with a literary agent. It has definitely helped me improve my writing.

I’m currently editing my fourth novel (title TBC) and half-way through writing my fifth (working title Blown-Away Man). Now, while I’m editing, I try to bear in mind what an agent would say (even though I’ve currently got no plans to submit to one). But while I’m writing, I shut those voices out and listen to the characters. It’s their story, after all.

Are literary agents still the key to success?

I’ve touched on this issue before in my post Back on the shelf again, where I compared getting a literary agent to getting a new boyfriend. But I thought I’d revisit the subject, given that many writers today are asking themselves if they even need a literary agent anymore, now that self-publishing online is giving traditional publishing a run for its money.

When I first got a literary agent, I made the mistake of assuming I’d made it, that I was one teeny-tiny step away from getting a publishing deal. I’d been plucked from the slushpile and deemed worthy. I had an industry professional’s stamp of approval on my work. My self-esteem was lifted from the doubtful doldrums to heights it had never known.

But despite my agent’s total confidence that she would sell my novel Package Deal in a jiffy, she was unable to. ‘Not to worry,’ she said. ‘Go and write something else. No one gets their first novel published.’ Alas I was eight months’ pregnant with my first child at this point, and writing didn’t feature on my agenda for a while.

Cut to a few years later, and I’ve self-published Package Deal (against Agent One’s advice) in paperback format. I’ve got it into a few branches of Waterstones, and I’m getting a weeny bit of publicity. At this point I hadn’t embraced blogging, Twitter (don’t think it existed yet) or any other social media – not even Facebook – partly because I was knee-deep in nappies, and partly because I’m a bit of a luddite. In terms of marketing and sales I was going nowhere, but I wasn’t bothered because a new agent was interested in my next novel Hot Property.

However, I now knew that getting an agent didn’t necessarily lead to a deal. ‘What if you don’t manage to sell my book to a publisher?’ I asked Agent Two. ‘It’s not a case of if, but when,’ she said with the kind of uber-confidence I wish I’d been born with. I liked this woman, but I was a little wiser and so I kept my joy in check. I was just thankful to be back in with a chance.

Together with Agent Two’s guidance, I wrote several drafts of Hot Property. Each time I sent it back to her, there was something else she felt needed adjusting. I did whatever she suggested. I trusted her expertise. This went on for six months, a year, perhaps. Then she said, ‘How about you put Hot Property to one side for a while and write something else?’ This sounded familiar. I could only assume the economy was driving publishers to invest less and less in new authors and my book was in the saturated category of women’s fiction. Never mind. I had a new idea anyway.

I wrote a synopsis of my new idea and sent it to Agent Two. She asked me to change the characters’ ages, which I did, and eight months or so later, I’d written a new novel. After months of waiting for a response, she rejected it and soon after left the agency, leaving me high and dry. I don’t mind admitting that I cried. (Not in front of her, thankfully.)

A year goes by and, not quite knowing where to start again, with an increasing sense of the utter futility of trying to get a publishing deal, my husband finally persuaded me to stick my books on Amazon – after all, what’s the point of two perfectly decent commercial manuscripts sitting at home gathering dust?

They are now selling, slowly but surely. This month’s sales are up on last month’s, and last month’s are up on the previous month’s. I’ve waited a long time for the satisfaction of having total strangers buy my novels. If sales accelerate to a noticeable amount at some point, maybe I’ll approach an agent again. Or maybe I won’t. The nice thing is, my feelings of self-worth as a writer are no longer dependent on having an industry professional’s stamp of approval.

You spin me right round

Do authors need a USP, a new genre or just some interesting buzz about them in order to get ahead?

We all remember the stories about how JK Rowling allegedly started writing Harry Potter in cafés in order to save on her heating bill. You might also recall how Martina Cole was living in a council flat when she was offered a historic advance for her first novel. Great stories, right? The kind that attract attention.

More recently, the new buzzword ‘mummy porn’ is on everyone’s lips as EL James’s book Fifty Shades Of Grey takes the publishing world by storm. A year or so ago ‘chick noir,’ “chick lit’s bigger, badder sister”, (think Jane Fallon) was the trendy new sub-genre attracting all the attention.

Every time I read something like this I start wracking my brains as to what cool and catchy genre name I could stamp on my novels, or what juicy little factoids I could use to spice up my author biog. I wrack and I wrack and I wrack. And still nothing comes.

Genres. So far my two beach reads have got off to a good start on Amazon. But ‘beach read’ is hardly a catchy genre name. Nor is holiday read, summer read and especially not airport novel. Apparently ‘romcom’ is an outdated term, or so I read recently. I once came up with plage-turner, which I thought was rather clever for all of five seconds until my husband pointed out that, for those who don’t speak French, plage looks more like plague spelled wrong. (And besides, both novels are set on Greek islands, not the French Riviera.)

I also came up with soap lit, as my novels are told from the viewpoints of several characters, rather than just one or two. But what image does soap lit conjure up? A ten-book saga set in the East End of London with more characters than you can shake a pound of spuds at?

Beach lit, chick lit with balls, summer sizzlers, feel-good fiction…I am still working on this and will shout if I ever hit the jackpot. As for some staggeringly fascinating fact to make my author biog more gripping than my books, I have dug deep and come up with these inconsequential crumbs.

“She is the daughter of a Buddhist and an aethiest. (Divorced but on good terms.) Her dad is half-French and the nephew of famous Corsican bandit Nonce Romanetti. (Who? Never mind.) Her husband is a graphic designer. (The National Lottery logo? Well, that was him.) Her brother and cousin are Icarus. (But all you avant garde drum’n’bass fans already knew that.) Before training as a sub-editor she worked as a shop assistant, receptionist and secretary. Zzzz. Hello? You still there? Oh, and once, when she worked in a pub, she loudly mistook 80s popstar Nick Heyward for 80s popstar Nik Kershaw. (He took it very well.)”  

Barrel well and truly scraped.

Probably the most interesting thing about me is that I’ve written four novels, (two of which are on Amazon, the other two I’m still debating uploading), and I’m half-way through a fifth. And I’ve got through two-and-a-half literary agents without a publisher in sight. Yet this information could work as much against me as it could for me, as some might choose to see a pattern of failure in my writing journey, rather than a pattern of near success and bad luck.

Anyway, all this is by the by. Once I’ve executed Operation Bonza-biog (streaking at the 2012 Olympics trailing a beach towel behind me with the words ‘Once upon a time in Greece’ on them), all my problems will be solved. Flasher fiction perhaps?