What non-writers don’t know about literary agents. Or, it’s not like the Yellow Pages

What your non-writer friends don't know about literary agents. Or, it's not the Yellow PagesAs you know, I was recently taken on by a literary agent (still excited about that) and I’m getting down to writing my next book. More on that process later – trust me, it’s quite a change of mind-set.

On telling people your exciting news, your writing friends are really chuffed for you (with exceptions that tell you a lot about them) because they know that it’s a really big deal. A Really Big Deal. They know the numbers, they know that some publishers won’t consider work that doesn’t come via an agent, and they know just how hard you’ve worked to get that far, even though it is only the first step on the ladder to publication and guarantees nothing.

But, and I didn’t realise this beforehand, some people won’t get why you’re so over-joyed. They’re happy for you because they care about you and they’re pleased that you’re pleased. Why you’re quite so excited is a bit of a mystery though.

I only grasped this when I was talking to my lovely and hugely supportive father-in-law who asked me why this agent business seemed to matter so much to me. A little questioning revealed that he thought that it was a bit like taking on, say, an estate agent. You look in the Yellow Pages or the online equivalent, pick out someone you like the look of and who has competitive commission rates, and there you go.

When I explained that my agent, and this is far from unusual, gets a few hundred submissions from prospective clients EACH MONTH and takes on a handful EACH YEAR, his jaw dropped. Literally. It’s a hit rate of about 0.1%.

FiL paused for a minute and said: “He must think you’re really good”.* And he was genuinely surprised. Still pleased but in a different way, with a bit more respect for what I’ve done. Which is good, because up until now, everyone has been encouraging me in what has been, in essence, a really time-consuming hobby and they must have asked themselves and each other why I’ve been persisting. I asked a few other non-bookish people and they were under the same impression.

So, if you secure representation, do bear in mind that you might have to do some explaining. Not to brag (although you’ve achieved something great so you’re allowed to brag a little bit) but just to explain the context in which you’ve done that.

* Not that I think having an agent necessarily means I’m good. I think it implies I’ve reached a certain level of competence. What it actually indicates is that I have come up with an idea and a novel that is saleable. It’s not great literary fiction and I’m not saying anything deep about the state of our nation. There is nothing wrong with being a storyteller and entertaining people and don’t let anyone tell you otherwise.

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Shelf notes: Missing, Presumed by Susie Steiner

Missing, Presumed by Susie Steiner. One of the best crime novels I've read in a while - click through to read my review  This, Susie Steiner’s second novel, is crime fiction that goes beyond the usual police procedural. A missing young woman is at the centre of the story, drawn in detail even though we see little of her. Steiner does a great job with her cast of beautifully drawn characters in conveying the urgency of the initial investigation in the 72 hours when a missing persons case is most likely to end well. And after that, she deftly handles the step change to the more measured pace of what is more likely to be a murder investigation. The detail is rich – this is an author who really knows her characters, no-one is just sketched in or a convenient archetype.

The protagonist, Manon Bradshaw, is satisfyingly complex, and likeable even when she’s frustrating. I love details like the way she uses her police radio to accompany her insomniac hours, lulled by the repetition of stolen cars and drunk and disorderly arrests. Manon is going to be a joy to follow in this series of novels.

The sequel, Persons Unknown, is just out in hardback and was on my TBR pile but has been swiped by my mother-in-law who loved Missing, Presumed so I’ll have to wait a little while.

I loved this and if you like Tana French’s Dublin-set crime novels, I think you will too.

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Writer? Four podcasts you should be listening to…

Recommended podcasts for writers Podcasts only really appeared on my radar when Serial was a huge hit a couple of years ago. The wonderful thing about podcasts is that although some are very professional, it’s a  medium that almost anyone can create content for. Your podcast might be one person sitting in front of a microphone, or a group of people in a studio or based mostly on recordings made in the field. You need no permission, no significant budget, no fitting in with other people’s agenda.

I wrote a year or so ago about some of my favourites and those are still worth checking out, but there are some for writers that I’ve subscribed to and never miss. The writers among you might find them helpful too.  I listen via Itunes but as far as I’m aware these are available in all the other podcast clients such as Sticher.

  • Top of the list – although it’s in no particular order – is The Bestseller Experiment. Mark Stay and Mark Desvaux, already knowledgeable in the areas of fiction and publishing and screewriting, decided that in a year they would write, produce and publish a bestselling novel. Not just a novel, but a bestselling one. Each week they update on how that’s going and interview guests about the writing and publishing process. Well worth dipping into – the John Connolly interview was great as were the two more recent ones with bestselling self-published author Susan Kaye Quinn. The latter to even got me thinking about the viability of being a hybrid author – traditionally published for one series of books, but self-publishing a series of shorter novellas…
  • Next up is The Creative Penn. Joanna Penn is a well-known and successful self-published author who manages to combine incredible productivity with a genuine passion for helping others to achieve their potential. Whether you want to go the indie author route or are seeking a contract with a Big Five publisher, there’s a lot to learn from Joanna, especially in terms of thinking of yourself as a creative entrepreneur and understanding the business of writing and being an author.
  • Another favourite podcoast is The Worried Writer. Sarah Painter is a writer who shares her experiences of fear of failure, anxiety about her writing and how she’s managed to find strategies to shut her inner critic up and get on with the writing. While I’ve been agonising and procrastinating over the edits of Death Will Find Me, I have found this podcast an immense support and it’s really helped me to have a bit more confidence in my work. Sarah has also published a book – Stop Worrying; Start Writing – based on the podcast and I can highly recommend that too.
  • How Story Works is new and excellent. Bite-sized podcasts from best-selling author and screenwriting teacher Lani Diane Rich which unpick the structure of writing – understanding the mechanics is vital to the process of writing a novel.  The rules can guide you and understanding them makes breaking them more likely to be successful.

If there are writing podcasts that you think I should check out do leave a note in the comments. Likewise, if you produce a podcast that you think I should check out.

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At last…!

Finished! That’s it – the revised manuscript has been sent to the agent who suggested some tweaks. I have rewritten chunks, edited the rest and I think the novel is better for it. It has taken far longer than it should have, for all sorts of reasons, but it’s finally done. I hope he likes it. But if not, I have other plans – I am firmly of the conviction that if you have a back-up plan you’re less likely to need it than if you don’t have one.

Why has it taken so long? Well, save for some relatively-minor-in-the-scheme-of-things family-crisis stuff, I think one of the reasons is that because I’m just setting out as a writer, as yet un-agented and unpublished, and so my writing is currently nothing more than a time-consuming hobby. That’s not to say that the only worthwhile writing is that which generates income, but it does mean that in my case  it has to take a backseat to ‘proper work’. So this novel, with its lengthy, and probably still incomplete, gestation seems to have taken forever to finish. I’m sure the next one will be faster, and if I’m being paid for it – ah, the aim of being a professional writer – I’ll be able to justify prioritising it over other things.

So, now it’s just a question of waiting, which is hellish for me as I am probably the least patient person I know. But as I find it hard to read fiction when I’m writing, it’s a great time to catch up on some of the teetering pile of novels on my bedside table.

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A quick update…

Life lately, May update Crikey, long time no see. How’s tricks?

It’s been while since I was here, albeit a while where ‘write blog post’ has been a constant fixture on my to-do list. Then again, so has ‘go to the gym’ and ‘replace bathroom sealant’ and those haven’t happened either.

By far the most pressing thing on my list has been ‘finish editing manuscript for prospective agent’ and I’ve still to tick that off. Until I have, I’m having trouble committing to anything else, even writing a blog post. When I’m not editing, I’m distracted because I know I should be.

And why is the editing not completed? After all, I have an agent that I’d really like to be represented by waiting to see it? That’s a great position to be in.

I suppose the problem is that I worry whether the changes I’m making are what’s needed. Some of the chapters I’ve edited have been rewritten three times. I’m getting there and by and large I’m pretty confident that the changes I’m settling on are the right ones. It’s a slow process though.

That’s one of the problems with first novels – to get the agent and the book deal it has to be perfect right off the bat. With subsequent books, you’re able to take soundings from your agent and editor from the start, even when it’s a germ of an idea, but in order to get the agent and the publisher you need to make it as good as it can be with hardly any input from others who know.*

While I’m making excuses, I do have to admit that I’ve lost some time due to family health problems, work happening on the house and The Son’s upcoming exams…

But I do have to get this finished. I’m actually planning how that’s going to happen (at last, I hear you cry – I’m sure everyone else already does that) by actually breaking it down into chunks and putting it into my diary so that it gets done. That also makes it feel like less of a mountain to climb.

I’m off now, but hopefully by the end of the month I’ll be back to tell you that the manuscript is polished up and that I’ve clicked ‘send’ on the email to send it to the prospective agent.

TTFN x

*Word to the wise – join a good critique group. The one I’m part of is amazing – positive and tough and funny and inspiring. If this ever makes it into bookshops it will be partly due to the perceptive comments of those writers.

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