South London writers’ dog walk (no dog necessary)

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Anyone who follows this blog knows I have a dog.  I walk her every morning before work, and usually I’m thinking about books.  What I’m reading, what I’m working on, how I can help improve something, how I can bring something to people’s attention.  Sometimes I phone an author on my dog walk, sometimes an editor, sometimes I fantasise about one of ‘my’ authors winning the Booker.  And sometimes (but only sometimes) I want company.

So I thought…

How about if once a month anyone who wanted could come along?  Whether your writing is going brilliantly, or you’re finding it hard to keep going.  Published, self-published, yet to be published.  If you were interested, I could tell you a bit about the publishing process, and about finding an agent.  If a few people turn up we can chat to each other about writing, editing, publishing stuff.  Maybe editors, editorial assistants, other agents might join?  Just a 45 minute walk once a month.  Once round the park.  What do you say?

First one is Thursday 23rd Jan at 8.30 (IN THE MORNING).  I’ll be at the Brockwell Park lido car park whatever the weather.  Maybe see you there?

The publishing lunch

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Haven’t written a blog post for a while, and I thought I’d have a go at saying what the first few weeks of my new agency has been like, but honestly, all I can tell you is that I haven’t stopped eating for a month.  Forget 5/2, this has been 7/7, 24/7.  It’s something of a cliche, the publishing lunch, but it does serve a purpose other than making me unable to fit through the door of my new office.

I’m taking on new clients, and a large part of the agent’s job is matchmaking.  I’ve got to sell the right book to the right editor, and to do that, I have to get to know them.  It’s obvious, really, but you don’t get to know someone by sitting at your desk, however hilarious you’re both being on twitter.  You have to sit and talk, and let’s face it, that’s often easiest over … oh I don’t know, some guinea-fowl and braised fennel, or a rocket and parmesan salad with a balsamic drizzle.

Sometimes you’re meeting an editor for the first time, and look, however confident you seem to the outside world, you’re a bit shy.  And the best way to deal with that is – obviously – to gurn at them cheerfully through a faceful of French bread and butter.  But then the bread basket’s empty, to ask for more might look greedy, and the conversation turns to books.  How’s the publisher doing, what have they bought recently?  What have been their successes, what books are they expecting ‘big things’ of?  And then the pudding menu arrives, and you realise that you’ve been chatting merrily about books for an hour and all your shyness has disappeared (along with your waistline).

That is the thing about books.  You can talk about them forever.  And once you’ve talked about a few books, you can talk about book people, and booksellers, and book agents, and book-to-film agents, and suddenly you know the person opposite well enough to talk about Agent Provocateur and hair volumising agents, and before long you know EXACTLY what book they’re going to buy from you, and you have a fairly good idea of how to sell it to them, because you know what it is that made them laugh, or annoyed them, or Just Didn’t Work For Them.

At some point soon I’m going to have to work out how to make my connections without eating daily pie,  but for this first month of returning to agenting, the age-old cliche of the long publishing lunch has been serving its purpose very well indeed.

 

This one’s for you LH Johnson and Sarah Franklin or Rising to the twitter challenge

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I put down the phone.  I’m shaking all over.

She just said yes! so now I must show her

how worthwhile I am – how worth every penny

Got to do deals for her – not one but many.

But first we must meet, get down to brass tacks

Her book is superb but she’s got to relax

She’s trying too hard, wants to show off her talents

But bits of this book are not working: off balance.

I hope we can shape it, and see eye to eye

(I hope I can edit without making her cry)

This second draft’s better – my God she’s good!

But I’ve still got suggestions, and know where she should

Make cuts and improvements, make moments that soar

If I’m asking this of her I have to be sure.

I’ve pitched it to editors, they want something hot

I tell them I’m certain that that’s what I’ve got.

At last it’s ready – it’s time to get going

By the end of next week I’ve a good chance of knowing

If I was right and this book will be published next year

Or was I alone in my faith: that’s my fear.

But no! they all love it! They all want to buy it

I pick up the phone to my author – she’s quiet.

Can you now see why I love what I do?

For her, at that moment, a dream has come true

 

PS I do also represent men, but they don’t set me annoying twitter challenges.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Passion for pete’s sake

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Got back from the York Festival of Writing on Sunday night.  What a brilliant weekend.  I met so many authors, all at different stages of their careers.  As I have a habit of stating the blindingly obvious, here goes:  you have NO IDEA, by looking at them, what might be going on in their heads.  Smart and demure ladies writing erotica, fabulously dressed purple-haired young people writing serious thoughtful history,  little earnest men writing wild and wonderful fantasy and everything in between (hair-colour and gender have been changed to protect the identity etc…) 

And time and time again, we agents and industry people were asked – ‘What are you Looking For?’  If you’ve followed this blog you’ll know that we don’t know, but as I sat on those panels and heard us all saying what we believed to be true, I thought what a PHENOMENAL bum-ache it must be for you writers. “I want a good book I can feel passionate about”.  Passion!!  “We’re passionate about haircare” “We’re passionate about logistics”  … it’s all just gobbledegook, isn’t it?

But let me describe to you what’s going on at the moment.  I have two submissions in that I’m loving.  They’re utterly different, one from the other, but each in its own way is making my hair stand on end.  As I’m reading I’m  entranced and don’t want to be distracted by little fluttery excited thoughts … “ooh I know which editors would love this” “I wonder how this would translate into French” “would the Americans get this?” “how many agents have this in?” “would this author and I get on?”  It’s a jittery, tingly feeling, not unlike fancying someone, and as usual when I fancy someone, it involves calming my nerves with cake.

You might call this passion.  But feeling jittery and eating cake isn’t going to buy the baby a new bonnet, let alone butter her any parsnips.  What the agent needs now is not just determination, but resolve.  If the agent is lucky enough to be chosen by the author, he or she needs to commit to working with them through thick and thin (and God knows there can be quite a lot of thin for most authors) and make a decision.  And that decision is to champion and defend and support that author.  If not actually to love, honour and obey.  

“Like everything which is not the involuntary result of fleeting emotion but the creation of time and will, any marriage, happy or unhappy, is infinitely more interesting than any romance, however passionate.”

W H Auden

You haven’t just written a book. You’re an author.

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I’m about to return to what I love – being a literary agent.  I say return, because I had a go at life on the other side, in publishing, and it wasn’t for me.  I’m glad I accepted the job.  It was an unbelievable opportunity to work at one of the best publishers in the UK, but more importantly in this context,  those months showed me a great deal about myself, and about why being an agent suits me so well.

But taking the job meant one awful thing.  I had to break the news to my clients: I was leaving them.  Not chucking them to the four winds – they were all offered brilliant representation – but I did feel I was ‘chucking’ them, and some of them admitted afterwards that they felt utterly miserable and desolate for weeks afterwards.  I get it.  Nobody wants to be abandoned. 

So I’m thinking a lot about what I’ll be doing when I take on new clients from now on.  One thing’s for sure, and that’s that I shall be committing properly and for the long haul.  That’s only fair.  It’s what you’d expect, and what we agents would expect in return.  You don’t want an agent who whips up a storm about your debut novel and then dumps you when your second book is a harder sell.  And we don’t want to commit tons of time to edit after edit and long phone calls about insecurities and editors, only for you to waltz into the arms of another agent when you’re a proud bestselling author. 

It’s hard for authors looking for their first agent to remember that being an author isn’t about a single book. It’s a career.  And incidentally,  it’s therefore utterly unreasonable for an agent to insist on seeing your work exclusively.  Who are they to insist?  It’s your work, and you are about to enter into what we hope will be a very long relationship with someone.  You can’t do that without checking out the competition.  So don’t just accept the first offer of representation – use it to see who else might be keen to represent you.  Agents can be quite sheep-like (those of you following this blog will know that they are also dogs, but let’s not let that bog us down) and if we know that someone else has offered representation, we’ll naturally look more keenly.  Take your time.  You took a year or three to write your book  – you can afford a couple of months to make sure that you are about to go into a relationship with a prince, and not just the first frog that comes along.  YOU ARE THE AUTHOR, IT’S YOUR BOOK, YOUR CAREER – YOU SHOULD BE THE ONE DOING THE CHOOSING.

Allow the agent plenty of time to read and consider and think carefully – and then both of you can commit to what with  a following wind will be a long and happy relationship.

 

 

 

Being a literary agent is a bit like being a dog

I may never have thrown up in a tent on a family camping holiday, but in many other ways, being a literary agent is a bit like being my dog, Maisie.

Maisie is incredibly encouraging.  If she sees me scrubbing the kitchen floor, she’ll stand nearby, wagging enthusiastically and willing me to carry on til the whole floor is done.

Maisie is boundlessly enthusiastic, but just occasionally she looks at me with disdain. ‘You can’t really expect me to jump over that fence – it’s  high, and whilst I am a big dog, I am not an idiot’

Maisie is unbelievably loyal.  She’ll stick by you on a day-long hike, even if it’s boiling mid-summer and noone thought to tell her not to go cliff-walking in a fur coat.

Maisie is friendly – she likes people.  But she’s not silly, and if someone offers her a stick, she knows full well it’s not a bone.

Maisie enjoys a bit of a ding-dong.  She knows that wrestling with the punctured football in the garden is a negotiation from which both parties can benefit.

Maisie is quite greedy.  She likes long lunches and she certainly enjoys a drink.

Maisie has excellent taste.  She turns her nose up at revolting food, and will only eat the very best.  (Sadly this is a lie.  Maisie is not a fussy eater)

She is however, something of a stickler, and won’t accept her worming tablets even when lavishly coated with peanut butter.  (Keep up everyone, this analogy’s still got legs)

Maisie is a calming influence in our household.  When things are at their most tumultuous, she is a gentle beating steadying heart.

Any moment I’m going to head into poop scoop territory, and things are going to go horribly wrong.  Suffice to say (in case you hadn’t guessed)  I love my job and I love my dog.  If I could teach her to read, she could be on commission.

 

What is an agent or editor looking for?

I’ve been reminded recently how INCREDIBLY difficult it is to say what it is you’re looking for.  Asking agents and/or editors to define their taste seems to be as excruciating and uncomfortable as asking them to take a drill to their own teeth. The procrastination and squirming is almost comical to watch, until its your turn.  And I’m not going to lie, when I last had to summarise ‘what I was looking for’ as an agent I agonised for several weeks (ok a year and a half).

We all know that it’s useful: for authors to know which agents to approach, for agents to know which editors.  So why’s it so hard?   The first problem is that you don’t want to be pigeon-holed. I don’t want to be the agent/editor who one agent identified as ‘liking stories about children who don’t fit in’.  I don’t want that to be my ‘statement’ because then you won’t send me your novel about a gang of kids who fit together absolutely (but whose parents aren’t on speaking terms).  I absolutely want to help you, oh author, get the right book to me. I want it to be one that I can devour in a single sitting, and sing and shout and crow about for years to come, so I know it would help if you knew ‘what I was looking for’ – but it’s a problem.  Because I haven’t got a clue.  I didn’t know when I picked up Property by Valerie Martin for the first time, that I was about to read something that was going to raise my reading bar permanently.  And I certainly didn’t go into a bookshop and say ‘have you got a book about a tortured and homesick slaver’s wife in Louisiana?’  I picked that book up… because I liked the jacket…. and then the blurb seemed interesting… and it was in a 3 for 2. 

And here’s a thing – I don’t really know what ‘good writing’ is.  Not really. I can give you all sorts of tips and pointers, but what I really know is that I love it when a book speaks to me as closely as if the author were in my head.  The connection between author and reader can sometimes feel so intimate,  that it’s almost surprising that there is such a thing as a bestseller.

I’ll try to define what I love to read in a post at some point – and I can probably give a more confident sense of what I definitely don’t read – but in the meantime … don’t feel undermined or rejected when someone doesn’t ‘get’ you.  There is such a thing as a good book – of course there is – but there is also something very, very powerful which is just basic human chemistry.

 

 

2nd blog in two days. It won’t go on like this, but I’m excited and it’s a rainy afternoon.

When I left school I desperately wanted to be an actress.  I wrote pieces for myself to perform, acted a bit, had kids, did voice-overs, never felt entirely comfortable in my professional skin.  So after a while I went for some rather expensive and extensive careers advice, and it was pretty conclusive:  I should be working with the written word, and I should be working in business.  It was really disappointing – to me at that time ‘business’ was a dirty word.  (Don’t worry this isn’t all going to be about me – I’m getting to you in a minute – promise).  Quite a few years later I became a Literary Agent, and took to it like a duck to water, and can honestly say have never been happier.   I was working with the written word in ….  business.

I wanted to mention this because beyond the need to write, you might have any number of reasons to write your book.  You might long to have a Penguin Modern Classic to your name.  You might want to see a heaving shelf of copies of your book at Chesterfield Asda.  You may have a burning desire to expose a financial/political conspiracy, you may have written a six part adventure about a pirate stowaway; you may have had an amazing idea for an erotic thriller, you may dream of being Book at Bedtime on Radio 4.

ALL OF THESE are perfectly valid aspirations. Do not be ashamed!

But it does really help if you can have a sense of what you’ve written. If you’ve written a thriller that we’d read on an aeroplane that would make us miss our luggage on the carrousel at the other end, that’s BRILLIANT.  If you’ve written a delicate piece of literary fiction that takes time to savour and needs investment from the reader that’s BRILLIANT too. 

Just try to recognise what you’ve written and see it for what it is.  Because that’ll help you get an agent who sees the book the way you do, and help them in turn get an editor/publisher who is right for the book.  Don’t be scared that too literary won’t sell or worry that your book is ‘too commercial’.  Just write what you write, be true to it, and be proud of what you’ve written.