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.

Back on the shelf again

Getting a literary agent is a bit like getting a boyfriend. The very first time he rings you up and asks you out, you do a few cartwheels, followed by a mad dance, followed by several days of singing in the rain and holding doors open for strangers. Your world is a happy place full of cherry blossom and rainbows. You’ve made it. Your dreams of literary success are coming true. Or so you think…

At first things are going great. He digs you. He likes your style. He thinks you’re smart, funny, going places. He takes your hand and says he can see a bright happy future together. He’s really looking forward to seeing you again. You skip to the bus stop in the rain, hold your umbrella above a stranger’s head, offer the bus driver your last Rolo. Life is so beautiful you could cry with joy.

A publishing deal is just around the corner. You imagine your novel lining the shelves of Smith’s and Waterstone’s (in the number one spot of course). You picture your books being bigged up in Heat magazine. You daydream about being interviewed for the broadsheet culture supplements, appearing on BBC News 24’s Meet The Author, and The Big One: selling your film rights to Brad Pitt, who’s your biggest fan and can’t wait to meet you in person.

But as time goes by, the honeymoon buzz starts to fade. He’s not gushing about you any more. He doesn’t reply to your emails in a hurry. The friends he couldn’t wait to introduce you to have just been really, really busy. Then he says it’s impossible to see into the future. You get the sense he’s not as in love with you as he once was. So you try harder to make him happy, do everything he asks you to do, without coming across as too much of a doormat and without making contact too often in case he thinks you’re starting to reek of desperation. Which you are.

Then one day, the end comes. Times are just so hard right now, he says. Harder than ever. It’s not you, it’s just the way it is. The timing is all wrong. He knows you’ll be snapped up one day and it’ll be his loss. He wishes you the best of luck in everything. You walk home in a teary blur. As you pass the corner shop you contemplate buying a packet of fags even though you haven’t smoked in years. That night you drown your sorrows and wonder how you could have ever deluded yourself that you were smart/funny/pretty enough to attract the likes of him. You’re just not good enough. Life’s a bitch. 

A few weeks go by and you pick yourself up and dust yourself off. It’s not the end of the world. You are not dying, so enough with the moping. You are good enough, you just need to up your game, hone your skills, and listen to your writing voice. Stop trying to write what you think he/she/they will like. It’s what you wrote without anyone else’s input that attracted him in the first place. Get back to your true authentic voice – the one you talk to your cat in when no one else is around.

And there you are, back at the beginning, no worse off than you were before, but older and wiser. You do this because you love it, because you can’t not do it. You’re a writer. You just keep on truckin’.