Telling it like it is; a significant line of duty for the literary agent.

Your literary agent ought to be your biggest fan. I mean why should she choose to represent someone whose writing she is not keen on? And conversely, if she has no enthusiasm for your work then why have her in your team. To be fair to agents, they have the pick of a very large crop these days, but that is not to say there has been an increase in the number of manuscripts worthy of publication. Who knows, maybe the number of good apples received has reduced as both agents who farm them, and the daily intake of rotten ones (apples not agents) has increased. What I am saying is if you have an agent, and you choose to peel away from her for some reason, then you might not so easily find another. Bird in the hand.. and all that!  Think hard before you cast anyone aside. Nevertheless, she should be a fan, shouting your name from the proverbial rooftops. I’m not sure what you can do about it if she doesn’t feel that way, but my advice would be not to leave the agency for reasons already mentioned. In my last post I mentioned how my supports were eroded, one by one, as individual tragedies befell them, and how I hadn’t the sense to replace them, even though there were chances to do so. I think, at the very least I can be accused of complacency. But in this post I wish to speak of those two allies of the complacent; smugness and conceit. My agent at A.P.Watt was Clarissa Rushdie, and she was a huge fan of my work. But Clarissa was to demonstrate to me what I came to believe to be the most important mission of the agent, once you are signed up to her. And that role is ‘to tell it like it is’, simply because, as a fan, they have a right to do so. In fact I believe they may be contracted to do so, for to ‘tell it as it is’, is not merely their mission as agent, but also their role as true friend. Amongst all the other functions an agent has; selling your work, getting the best deal possible for you, holding your hand through interviews and bad reviews, seeing that the cheques drop through your letterbox on time, and so much more, the most important thing they can do for you when the occasion arises is to let you know when you are writing crap. Now I have to say that I used to be a lazy writer, conceited enough to send sloppy manuscripts to my agent; manuscripts, to my shame, I knew to have their faults. The lesson I am trying to drive home here is for you writers out there to draft and redraft your manuscript as many times as it takes, to hone it to be the very best you can do, and if it takes a year, or even five years, then so be it. When you can place hand on heart and swear it is the best you can do, then send it in. It has taken me many years to learn that lesson, and it all started with Clarissa. I had sent her the manuscript for ‘The Brightside Dinosaur’, the final book in my trilogy, mentioned in my last blog. I was smug; I had completed my trilogy and happy with what I had produced, despite the flaws I knew to exist in the final volume. She quickly returned it to me with a note to say that I could do better than what I had given her. And I returned the revised manuscript within a week, surprising her by the speed of my response. Of course, I was able to act as quickly as I had simply because I knew exactly what was wrong with the book. Chapters had been in the wrong place, and the writing was generally inconsistent. But I was lazy enough, and conceited enough, to believe that I could have got away with what I had supplied. She was amazed how the novel read so differently, and so well; and it went forward for publication by Constable, in my view the best of the Brightside novels. Clarissa had proved to be a great friend in ‘telling me how it is’. Had she not moved on, left agency work for the Arts Council, I know my career would have remained on track. She would, I am sure, have ironed out my tendency to sloppiness, knocked the conceit out of me. It has taken me an awful long time to learn the lesson, but I can honestly say that any work I send to an agent in the future will be, hand on heart, the best I can do. The agent is in an uncomfortable place, unable to begin her friendship until contracts are signed. But she has dealings with her potential clients prior to that, and I believe at least the semblance of a smile (or a frown) should appear long before the signing up. It is the system which is wrong. The standard rejection letter is cold and meaningless. The current vogue of not responding to those whose work is unacceptable is worse. ‘If you don’t hear from us within 6 weeks then accept that we don’t want it’ is callous. There is a growing need for the agency to present a human face to the legion of wanabee writers, most of whom are doomed to permanent failure anyway. Let me be clear: I am not asking the agency to dispense advice, or to express sympathy, or elation, or anything else, but as in the exam system, some kind of grading would at least tell us how we are doing. An honest B grade, and appropriate comment like ‘keep up the good work’ or an E grade and ‘don’t give up the day job’, would at least inform us where we stand in the queue – and the size of the hill yet to climb.


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