Monday, 2 April 2012

The Golden Key or A Tale of Two Novels

I was at a thing once where the writer Hari Kunzru was doing a question and answer session with aspiring writers. Inevitably someone asked him How Did You Get Your Agent question. The one that is eventually asked at all such events. It's a bald, bold and rude question really isn't it?  Imagine someone asking How Did You Get Your Wife? It's the word 'get' -  which implies the use of trickery, plus some surprise on the part of the questioner that you managed it at all...

Anyway, at this thing Hari K leant forward and said 'Ah, I have the secret to getting an agent.' The atmosphere in the room changed perceptibly, became just that little more charged. 'Yes, I have the secret and I'm prepared to share it with you now...' Everyone in that room straightened up, then leant forward. Everyone was now fully engaged in a way they hadn't been earlier when he was reading from his novel.

'You do these three things...' dramatic pause. 'Step One,' he said, 'You write your book. Step two - you put it in an envelope and send it to an agent. Step three: you wait. And if they like it enough they'll sign you up.'

And that was it. His entire version of Three Steps to Heaven. The whole group sat back in their chairs with a collective exasperated sigh.

See, there's actually no Golden Key at all. No Magic Words. No tricks. No secret party where agents circulate waiting to pick the authors with the right clothes, the right hair, the right handshake, the right skin colour, or the right CV. There's no secret door in the wall.

Write your book. Send it off. Wait. It's all you can do.

Agents do eventually read everything. I would. No one wants to be Dick Rowe do they? You know Dick Rowe? The guy that turned down the Beatles in 1962 because 'Groups with guitars are on the way out.' (Dick Rowe did sign the Rolling Stones a year later so he redeemed himself a bit - but he only did that because George Harrison told him to.)

I have an agent. In fact I'm onto my second.

In 2005 after years of procrastination and prevarication I started a novel. I also started an MA in Novel-writing at Manchester Met University. Why MMU? Because they let you 'study' at home online and, crucially, they would only award you the degree if you actually finished your novel. Some MAs let you just do 40,000 words and so there are lots of writers with masters with half a novel in a draw (some of them teaching creative writing now themselves but that's a whole other post).

So I started my book thinking that if nothing else happened well, at least  I'd get my MA. A few weeks into the course, it all seemed to be going quite well. I was writing much faster than I thought I would, the feedback was good and so I thought I'd put what I had into an envelope and send it off to an agent. And then do the waiting thing.

How did I choose which agent? I just chose the biggest. I chose Camilla H at Curtis Brown. Curtis Brown because they were the biggest and Camilla H because I'd met her once for about fifteen seconds at Punk Rock Karaoke (Punk Rock Karaoke is also a whole other blog post). She was the only agent I had ever met.

I waited

But only for about two days because that's how long it took for Camilla to phone me and say yeah, it's great I'll send you a contract.

That, I now realise, is a very, very unusual How I Got My Agent story. And it was a very, very good day. If I'd known how unusual a How I Got My Agent story it was, it would have been an even better day.

However, don't worry, because that Good Day was followed by a lot of crap ones. I think there's a sum to be worked on, a proper algebraic equation to be done, but my very rough calculation is that for every Good Day in writing there are about twelve Very Bad Days.

It took a while to finish the book. Camilla read everything very closely and made some brilliant suggestions for redrafts and then she also put the book in an envelope and sent it off. And the 12 Bad Days duly followed. The days where we got the worst kind of rejections. You know the ones - the ones that go 'we love this... but can't publish it.' If even the people that love it won't publish it, where are you then?

And I was thinner skinned then, being a mere stripling of 41 and all. And so then teeny, tiny Cinnamon press came in and said they'd do it and I was so grateful. And I still am. Cinnamon took a chance when no one else would and 18 months later the book - TAG - came out. Tiny print run, invisible as far as shops were concerned, but a published book. And I worked hard. I appeared everywhere and anywhere in my attempts to win the world over one reader at a time. And the book won a prize. And that helped - but not as much as I thought it would.

People love that book. Not many people obviously, because not many people have even seen it, but people that have read it really love it. Which is odd, because I don't. There's so much wrong with it. I'd love to another go at redrafting it. And despite what some people say, books are not like children - you can always, always edit your book one more time. In fact you always should.

And I wrote another book. The book that became Life! Death! Prizes! the book that is officially out today.
I wrote it. I put it in an envelope and sent it off to my agent.

And she hated it.

Well, she never said she hated it, she's way too nice for that (Agents ARE nice you see. Or at least they're nicer than novelists. More interested in literature too. Writers are mostly obsessed with money and sales and prizelists and all that. Agents care less about all that) but I think she hated it. And after I rewrote it several times I think she still hated it. She certainly didn't want to send it out.

She did let one publisher see it however (A publisher who had wanted to do TAG but hadn't been high enough up the food chain then)  and to her frank astonishment that publisher seemed to go for it. There was a lunch, there was a tentative, informal, verbal deal sketched out - there was the phrase 'we just need to get it through sales and marketing.' Sales and Marketing wouldn't let it through. Of course they wouldn't. Sales and Marketing were having none of it. Of course S and M may have just been an excuse. A euphemism for 'Christ I've made a mistake. How do I get out of this?'

So that publisher passed and then, about a day later, my agent retired. I don't think the two events were related.

So to recap - yes, I got an agent very quickly but she hadn't been able to sell the book and now three years on I had no agent, a tiny, tiny publisher (because good old Cinnamon had agreed to publish Life! Death! Prizes! if no one else would.)

But because I felt I should, I put the book into an envelope sent to an agent and waited. This time I didn't send it to a big agency, no, instead I sent it to the only other agent I'd ever met: a bloke about my age whose politics and music taste seemed kind of in tune with mine. He liked punk and hated Tories basically and, in an uncertain world, these are eternal verities. Things you can rely on. If you meet someone and they like The Jam and hate the antics of the ruling class then there's a decent chance the're going to be okay. It's not an infallible rule but it works enough of the time.

Only he didn't reply.

Months went past and I assumed that he hated the book (after all he wouldn't be the first) until I got a phone call while I was on a train back from Hull. He loved it. He was going to put it on the desks of all major literary editors. this book deserved to be huge (I paraphrase - but he was very enthusiastic). So that was A Good Day. But I was 45 by now and older and wiser than the callow youth of 41. By now I was expecting the 12 days of misery that were bound to follow. Yeah, yeah - I thought. And I also thought I'm now going to have to put my arm around my agent. Comfort him as the rejections come in. And that seems a weird situation. Seems against nature somehow.

And we did get some rejections. yes, about 12 I think. And yes, they were of the 'I love it but..' variety. Some of them from the very same people who had said the very same thing about TAG. So I've learned that that 'I love it but...' translates as 'I don't love it.'

And then my agent rang.

'Bloomsbury want it.'


'Yes - they just need to get it past Sales and Marketing.'

Ah yes them. Those funny little twins. S and M. So clearly there was no real chance. If S and M were doing their job they'd see that a book set in a museum in small town Essex had no mass market appeal whatsoever. I relaxed.

Only S and her friend M did like it.

Fuck me. And they paid me an advance of XXXX for XX novels.

Yes, that's right. XXXX for XX novels. Unbelievable isn't it?

So then there was a year of arguing in a very civilised way with my editor (I lost most of the time. Thank Christ because I was nearly always wrong. I might still be wrong about the  few things where I insisted on getting my way. Except in the argument about the title. I won that one and I'm so so right about that) and now here we are Publication Day.

And what have we learned, all of us? If you're a writer just write cos that's the fun bit. Everything else is a kind of misery. Interesting misery but misery none the less. A kind of M if not S.

And actually quite often even the Fun Bit isn't all that fun. I was up at 5.30am today - like I always am - writing the new novel called, funnily enough, Wake Up Happy Everyday and how much did I get done?

Nothing. Nada. Sweet FA. I'm stuck frankly. It'll come but still, mornings like this with a full day of work ahead of you, you wonder what the point is. Writing can feel like a weird, twisted compulsion. It feels like a session in the gym that doesn't get you leaner or fitter. A session in the gym that does the opposite makes you older, greyer...

It feels like that because it is like that.

Still, Publication Day, huh? That's a Good Day. Has to be.  Just need to ready myself for the 12 Bad Days to come...


  1. A Very Good Day indeed, I'd say - CONGRATULATIONS!! xxx

    1. Cheers Megan and your book is out this month too... Hurrah! x

  2. Congratulations! I started reading Life! Death! Prizes last night. And I like the title of your new book already. Excellent choice of agent. Excellent choice of publisher. High five.

  3. Thanks Claire. I know, a good team huh? I often feel like the only amateur on the squad... x

  4. Thanks for this post, Stephen, there couldn't have been a better time for me to read it. Although all writers know in advance how painful and protracted the whole process is, it's really heartening when successful authors are willing to share what they've been through to get where they are. I think Life! Death! Prizes! is certain to bring you a few more good days.

  5. Cheers Isabel. I think it takes ten years from the moment you start writing seriously (ie with serious intent) to get any where near where you want to go...

  6. Am really enjoying these reflections - keep them coming. Inspired to hear of your 5am starts and I Can't WAIT to read the book. See you on the 19th, Gemma x