Sitting on both sides of the desk…
I wrote this blog post earlier in the year for The Faber Academy News and Features page talking about my experiences of having been a Literary Agent and now being a writer. It may be of interest to any aspiring writers among you.
SITTING ON BOTH SIDES OF THE DESK
I was a Literary Agent up until two years ago representing mainly TV Screenwriters, and now I am (amongst other things) a Writer. My first book for Teens entitled My Second Life will be published by Usborne this July, and attending the Writing for Children course with Anthony McGowan at The Faber Academy was absolutely one of the key steps for me on the pathway to publication.
So when the lovely Faber Academy asked me to write something for these pages about my experiences of having been an Agent, and now being a Writer, I anticipated I’d be writing about difference not similarity.
Writers and Agents do such different jobs, right? Same industry, polar opposite skills required. It is the Talent vs the Business, it is the freedom of the creative vs the pragmatism of the deal-maker – we each sit on opposite sides of the desk.
Except that the more I scribbled down my thoughts the more I saw the value, from a writer’s perspective, in recognising where the similarities lay. Because I realised that to have the perspective of an agent during the tougher moments of being a writer had helped me hugely these last few months. I can’t claim that it had eliminated my feelings as a writer of generalised self-doubt, or made me less prone to disappointment or less sensitive in the face of it, but it had at least given me something to fall back on in those harder moments.
So with this in mind here are some of my observations, for what they are worth, of what an agent and a writer share between them as they go about their daily work. Within them there will hopefully be some useful food for thought for any new writer aiming for publication.
Let your agent’s belief in your writing lead you.
An Agent takes you on because he or she genuinely believes in what you do.
You need to believe in what you are doing too, but as this is not always an easy task for a writer, I suggest that you let an Agent’s belief in your work pull you through. It will help you in those moments of self-doubt, when you wonder just why the hell you’re putting in all the hours and for what. And why is belief so important for a writer and an agent alike? Because getting that first deal (and sometimes the second or the third one too…) can take some time…
Be prepared to give it time.
Be prepared for it to take twice as long – no, three times longer – than you think because whether you are building a writing career, or an Agent building a Client List, it’s the same. Of course it is. It’s just an Agent has the benefit of building or managing thirty or more writing careers, usually at different stages, and pretty much simultaneously. So she knows that a) it takes time and b) timing is all. She will have the patience – more patience than you perhaps want her to have – whilst you pull your hair out with how long everything takes. So value her patience. Whilst she’s patient, she believes in you, and she expects something to happen. She is prepared to give it time, and so must you.
And if it happens fast, then celebrate! Because if it doesn’t, you’ll need to be prepared for something else along the way…
Face rejection like an agent.
An Agent will see any number of rejections pass her desk in a month. Some may be for you, some may be for one of the thirty or so other writers she represents, but she expects to see rejection too.
Of course it doesn’t feel the same for an agent to receive a rejection on your behalf as it will feel when you, the writer, receives it. No way. Rejection can stop a writer from writing or worse still, stop a writer from trying, but rejection never stops an agent from agenting. OK – the agent didn’t write the work – I’ll say it again – it absolutely isn’t the same. But crucially what the agent knows that the writer doesn’t, is that somewhere amongst the doldrums of rejection there will be a wisp of wind that has the potential to change everything. Today your agent might have received a rejection for you and an offer for another writer on her list. This perspective is key. So if you can face your rejections with the bravura of an agent, then I think you will face your rejections more easily. Remind yourself that they are simply par for the course in the process of this whole writing thing. Then go back to your desk and write. Because to succeed as a writer you definitely need to have this level of stamina…
You need stamina.
After a bad day when you’ve lost your writing time because life got in the way, or you sat down and no words would come, or you couldn’t write because seeing past the rejections felt like an impossible task, you still need to get up and write.
And so too, after a bad day (yes, your agent has those too – it’s just not in her job description to let on) your Agent will still need to pick up the phone and talk the talk and fight the fight.
For Writer and for Agent alike, nothing is going to happen unless you stick with it and you work to make it happen. Put on your thickest skin, because even if you get a deal, and your dream of publication comes through, what follows will be the really hard work. What follows will be the notes…
Take the notes.
When I was an agent and I took on a new writer there was almost always a conversation early on in the relationship once the first set of notes came in that went like this –
New Writer So do I have to take all the notes?
Me No… you don’t, not technically, but I’d suggest that you do. If you need to go back then choose your battles.
Of course these words were ringing in my ears as I approached the first set of notes on my own book. Was this the moment I’d face my come-uppance for the advice I’d given?
As it turned out, I don’t think my advice was such bad advice. Phew! And I can say that now because what I have learnt from the process of answering the notes on my own book so far is that my Editor has always been right. Even the notes I thought I’d cherry-picked to challenge at the start remained unchallenged in the end. Some of the notes just took longer than others to unravel and address in my own mind, but still my Editor was right.
Notes often feel like criticism. Hell – they ARE criticism – but if they are challenging, insightful and well put then they are your best friend in all the world.
Yes, your notes may make you feel like you’ll never finish the book. They may make you work harder than you thought you had to or wanted to or even had the stamina for BUT your book will be better for them. And really, this is where really it all ends and it all begins – for agent, writer, editor alike – it all starts and ends with the words in your book…
It is all about the words.
The Writer writes the words.
The Agent is the carer, advocate, warrior for the words.
The Editor nurtures, teases, challenges the words.
You all need the words.
So whatever you do once you’ve read this piece, whether you have an Agent an Editor or neither just yet, make sure you do one thing and one thing only – keep writing the words.
Faye Bird / January 2014