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.

Whose storyline is it anyway?

I had such a good writing session the other day that I tweeted jokingly that my ‘muse’ had turned up and written a whole chapter for me. Perhaps my writing had gone well because I had originally planned to take the day off, so I was relaxed, not putting pressure on myself. But also, I let go and wrote without thinking too hard. Before I knew it, I had a chapter I was really happy with.

I’ve heard other authors say time and again that when writing a novel, they ‘let the plot evolve out of the characters, rather than the other way round’. Having written two novels where the characters inspired the plot, and written another novel where I tried to plot the whole story before I’d even started writing it, I find the above statement to be true.

Package Deal and Hot Property, my two novels available on Amazon, were the ones I wrote ‘organically’ and also won me the attention of a literary agent. A while later, when my agent asked me to write another novel, but to plot the whole thing before I got started, I struggled to do as she asked. But I gave it a go – a different approach would be a good exercise.

However, I found I was forcing the story out before it was ready to come. I’d had a clear picture of the beginning in my head for some time, and I also had a strong visual of the climax. But there were large blind spots that just weren’t coming into focus. Nevertheless, I sketched out a plot and polished it up into a synopsis. My agent gave it the green light, but not before suggesting I make one of the main characters ten years younger. My heart sank. This would change so much about this character. It would mean she came from a whole different era, and not the one she had been born with.

By the time I’d finished writing the novel, I didn’t have the satisfied feeling I’d had with the previous two. There were parts of it I liked, loved even. But there were parts that didn’t feel right, that felt weak, fabricated. So it wasn’t a great surprise when my agent turned it down and, as she was leaving the agency, we went our separate ways.

Disappointing though that experience was, I learned a lot from it: I write better when I let my characters tell me where the story is going. Plot is important, of course, but when I forced it out like an essay that needed to be handed in to a teacher, I came unstuck. To me, there is a strange, almost mystical process to writing. You’re not always in control, and that’s a good thing. 

In his book On Writing, Stephen King sums it up well: ‘The situation comes first,’ he says. ‘The characters…come next. Once these things are fixed in my mind, I begin to narrate. I often have an idea of what the outcome may be, but I have never demanded of a set of characters that they do things my way. On the contrary, I want them to do things their way. In some instances, the outcome is what I visualised. In most, however, it’s something I never expected.’

I am now 28,000 words into a new novel, and I’m taking it slowly. When I started writing it, I had a firm beginning in my head and a hazy image of the ending. As I’ve been writing, developments I had not foreseen have emerged. For the first time in a long time, I’m relishing just seeing where the writing will take me.

For more on the creative process of writing, Eat, Pray, Love author Elizabeth Gilbert’s talk on Ted is fascinating.