Saturday, 14 February 2009

Agent autopsy

It's silver lining time. Regular readers will know the drill. For newcomers, it goes like this. I pitch the novel to an agent; the agent requests the first three chapters (I've breached the first circle, good); agent requests full manuscript on strength of first three chapters (breached second circle, now I'm getting excited); I wait (usually for around two months, sometimes with 'thank you for your patience' emails at intervals from the agent), during which time I alternate between imagining the wait is good (it never is, by the way, at least in my experience) and preparing myself for the worst. Then comes the letter. The fact it's a letter tells me it's bombed. The letter runs to two pages, is awfully nice but slice it how you like, it's a rejection. All I can really see, jack-knifing from the page, are the words "I'm so very sorry to say..."

At this point, not surprisingly, I experience a depression. It lasts hours, maybe days. I don't just feel rejected, I feel stupid (why can't I get it RIGHT??) and ashamed and talentless and humiliated and guilty on behalf of all the people I've whipped into a sense of anticipation, including my readers here, friends, family etc. After I've hit rock bottom (hello again) I start to claw my way up out of sheer bloody-mindedness. At this point I begin to re-examine the agent's letter, trying to see past the "I'm very sorry to say", gathering every crumb of consolation and doing my best to see pearls of wisdom in what at first sight seemed to be hard words of criticism.

Here we go then.

The first thing I need to remember is that this is the leading UK crime agent. THE agent, none bigger than this. She liked my writing enough to request the full manuscript, to spend time reading, to ask her colleagues to look at it (all this is in the letter), to write two pages of constructive criticism. She also asked to see the next novel, a synopsis of which I sent with the first. This must mean that she likes my characters, and the series concept doesn't suck. That's a fairly big bit of silver lining right there. To come to the nitty gritty in the letter:

Your writing has much to recommend it - as indeed your writing CV leads one to expect. It is controlled and intelligent, with an almost poetic feel in places. It was distinctly atmospheric and chilly - accentuated by the rarefied elements of the world you depict.
Pure silver. Now for the cloud:

I'm very sorry to say, however, that we are not going to be able to take this story on. For all the positives, we just feel it is going to be a very hard sell in the current publishing climate.
Big cloud, black. Mining on, here come the pearls of wisdom (I ignore these at my peril):

In some ways your undoubted descriptive skills caused problems as it felt overly descriptive to the expense of story and tension - there was a lot of scene setting and dialogue with a slight lack of action to counterbalance it. In the absence of a great deal of tension there ought to be strong characterisation or a sufficiently engaging 'puzzle' element, and again I think the script fell down a little in those areas.
There was plenty more to get my teeth into but I won't bore you with the fine details as they don't mean much out of context. She ended the letter by saying she'd be happy to read the first three chapters of the second novel if I'd like to send it to her. This effectively means I get a free pass through the first circle (the pitch) and go straight to second base. I did what I've learned to do in these instances: I emailed her, thanking her for her kind and helpful feedback and asking if she'd be interested or willing to see a redraft of the novel if I decided to edit it based on her comments. She emailed straight back to say, 'I think that I would prefer to see the next novel... starting afresh and reading it for its own merits. Perhaps bearing in mind the feedback on the first novel could help with the next novel as well? – ensuring there is a balance between the descriptions/ dialogue and sufficient action or new developments to keep a strong momentum, taking care to ensure the investigation feels as realistic as it can, ensuring the readers warm to X enough...'

So this is where I'm up to. I can start a new novel (which, let's face it, I'm going to do anyway; if I was capable to stopping I'd have done so after the first three rejections which hurt like hell) and/or continue sending out the first one to new agents, see what gives. Sounds like a plan, but I do have to quote from Prick up your Ears with reference to the 'write another one' angle because I don't want anyone to imagine I can just knock these things out willy-nilly. So here's a little snippet of dialogue courtesy of Alan Bennett, performed to perfection by Alfred Molina. Just insert "write a book" for "have a wank" and you get the picture:

"Have a wank? Have a wank? I can't just have a wank. I need three days' notice to have a wank. You can just stand there and do it. Me, it's like organizing D-Day. Forces have to be assembled, magazines bought, the past dredged for some suitably unsavoury episode, the dog-eared thought of which can still produce a faint flicker of desire! Have a wank, it'd be easier to raise the Titanic."
Don't mind me, I'm off to raise the Titantic (again). And thank you, dear readers, for your patience, tolerance and warmth, for not dropping me like a hot scone when all the evidence suggests I am a very cold and stale scone. You are a constant boon and a solace.

29 comments:

douglas.bruton said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Nik's Blog said...

Hugs, Sarah.

Nik

K.C. Ball said...

Sarah, you had me at, "Why can't I get it right?" I can't count how many times I've said that (or thought it).

No matter what others say about us; we are our own worst critics.

I like your determination to go on, BTW. All four of my grandparents were immigrants from Britain and I was brought up on the phrase, "Getting your Johnny Bull up."

And hang onto the finished one. When she sells the next one, she'll come around saying, "Do you remember that manuscript ...?"

Oh, I had to Google "wank". And I am such a fan of both Gary Oldman and Alfred Molina I can't figure how it is I've never seen Prick Up Your Ears.

Tania Hershman said...

First, Sarah, I'm sorry. It's shitty. It's crappy. It's almost worse to get to the 2nd circle and then get rejected than not to get your hopes up. You are allowed to feel bad for a little while...

but then...

"Your writing has much to recommend it - as indeed your writing CV leads one to expect. It is controlled and intelligent, with an almost poetic feel in places. It was distinctly atmospheric and chilly - accentuated by the rarefied elements of the world you depict."

WOW!

All the silver linings you saw are really there, and in spades. She loves your writing, she wants, wants, wants more. She showed her colleagues. And she is THE agent.

We know you can't just pop out another novel like that, and no-one's expecting it in a week. But THE crime agent has given you some amazing feedback, and that is going to help.

But ultimately, you should write what you love to write, write your stories, as you do already, and try and put the agent and all thoughts of sales and marketing out of your head. This is not what is important right now. You don't write for anyone else. Just do it.

PS Not easy. Very not easy. Thank you for sharing it all with us at every step. We're here for you!

Sarah Hilary said...

Thanks, Douglas, and apologies for the crudity at the end there. If you've seen Alfred Molina deliver that speech you'll know why it works so well. He says it with such aplomb. And non-writers do love to tell us 'better luck next time' as if we can just bash these things out without mental and physical pain and exhaustion (my god, the exhaustion). But then we do it because we love it, because we can't not do it. And we want to get better. I would never ignore considered, constructive advice from a professional who knows what she's talking about. That would be arrogance and it would be self-defeating. I will track down the video you recommend - thanks.

Sarah Hilary said...

Thanks, Nik.

Sarah Hilary said...

K.C. you must see Prick up your Ears - it's magnificent. Oldman's finest hour but Molina steals the show. I should've know that word doesn't translate, having once spat coffee at the TV when reading the credits to Buffy the Vampire Slayer and seeing the score was written by Thomas Wanker.

"Get your Johnny Bull up." I like that - thank you!

Sarah Hilary said...

Thanks, Tania. Yes it's tough but you know what? If I hadn't stuck my head above the parapet I wouldn't have those silver lining words from the biggest crime agent in the UK to stick on my wall and look at next time I'm thinking I suck at this. So it was worth it, for that alone.

On writing the books we have to write - I agree 100%. But I would temper it by adding that if I want that book I've written to be read by as many people as possible (which I do, because it's an important story with something important to say) then I know it's vital to be as good as I can possibly be at making those words (my words, uniquely mine) work for readers. No point being all poetic and intelligent if no one is reading because I've neglected the essence of story-telling, what makes the reader engage over the length of a novel with my characters and their journeys. So I value each and every word that the agent has said to me, because they will help me to get better and getting better means a greater chance (not a guarantee) of being read.

Gay Degani said...

Cold Reading hasn't received the old cold shoulder, not at all. She loves you. So write write write. We're all there for you.

Sarah Hilary said...

Thanks, Gay, you're the best.

Anne Brooke said...

Sod it - she's obviously an idiot. I think you rock. I'd go straight to the publishers if I were you - to be honest an agent isn't the be all and end all ... Hush my mouth.

Oh and she's still an idiot.

Axxx

Bob Jacobs said...

Your biggest successes are still ahead of you, but closer than they were. Congrats, S.H. If I had to put money on people I know going places, you'd be a safer bet than many. I'll be waiting to buy a copy when you do.

Cheers,
Bob

JohnA said...

Sarah,

So, tiger, life sucks ... and then you want to be a writer as well!

Keep at it - you'll get there! After all, you are my hero - and I've heard you roar!

All the best.

Sarah Hilary said...

Thanks, Anne! (But she's not an idiot - she said my writing was controlled, intelligent, poetic...!!!)

Sarah Hilary said...

Bob, you're making me blush. Thank you for the kind words. See you at the signing??

Sarah Hilary said...

Dear John (I've always wanted to write a Dear John letter), you're lovely. Right back at you with the hero talk.

Anne Brooke said...

But it is, Sarah - and she's still an idiot not to take it!!!

Axxx

Martin Edwards said...

Very frustrating for you, Sarah, but the crucial thing is to keep at it, as I'm sure you will. And agents do get it wrong, quite often. So don't lose heart over this particular book.

Sarah Hilary said...

Thanks, Martin, yes I'm already plotting the next one. I much appreciate the words of support from a writer I admire - thank you.

Women Rule Writer said...

Oh bloody hell. I'm so sorry, Sarah. I hate all this talk of the current publishing climate. I've been hearing that since I got serious about all this 11 years ago. The publishing world is in a permanent depression, according to itself.

Onwards and upwards, girl. Send the first one out again. Look at smaller publishers like Snowbooks and Portobello; they answer quite quickly. Good luck!!

Sarah Hilary said...

Thanks, WRW. Yes I'm going to send it out again. I really ought to take a direct shot at a publisher but fewer and fewer seem to a) accept mss that don't come from agents, and b) currently be open to unsolicited subs. Ah well, if I wanted an easy life I wouldn't be (trying to be) a writer, I guess.

jumbo2008 said...

Hi - it's me again - only this time incognito!

It's always difficult to know quite how to enter into fray of the publishing world. I've done the sending out the first 100 pages of my un-put-downable novel only to receive them back some weeks - or months - later. And trying to work out if the pages have ever been turned over and read by anyone.

But I see from your post that you pitched your novel to the agent by letter first. Is this an initial selling job? A cold-call type opening salvo, outlining the plot - maybe including the synopsis?

I supose my question is - is this what agents want now? That introductory letter?

John (jumbo)

Sarah Hilary said...

Hi Jumbs! Every agent is different, in my experience. Some don't even have a website, some have websites with no submission guidance on there but this doesn't mean they don't have strict guidelines on what they will look at and when, and how. In my experience, the best first approach is a quick email (most agents do have email and I haven't found one that won't reply that way but that doesn't mean they all will) to ask whether they would be happy to look at opening chapters and a synopsis. It's not necessary to sell the novel at this stage, it's just a way of establishing contact and finding out whether a) they're looking at new subs right now (some may not be depending on workloads etc) and b) their preferred method of submitting. Most agents will ask for first 3 chapters or, say, fifty pages plus a synopsis and covering letter. That's when you do the sales pitch, in the covering letter sent with the first chapters. BUT - save yourself some wasted time (and paper) by ehecking first if they're looking at fresh subs at all. I know of a couple of agents right now, for instance, who are not taking new subs because of maternity leave cover for colleagues. That's the sort of inside track you won't find in the Writers and Artists Yearbook. Good luck!

CarolineG said...

Just found this via the Writewords blog page and wanted to say I could identify with it SO much. Have been EXACTLY here, very recently, Sarah. Can completely and utterly sympathise. The funny thing is, when I read someone else saying this, I'm able to be objective and say, 'but you really did get SO very far' even though it doesn;t help me at all when people say it to me!

Caroline

Sarah Hilary said...

Dear Caroline, thanks for dropping in. I'm so sorry you've been through this, too. Thanks for the words of support - same to you! x

MG said...

Sarah - so sorry to hear that this was the reaction. After all you've worked on it! And you know - we all know that you've got talent. This agent knows it too. Bummer. I think you're right to start something brand new...but I know it won't be easy. love and kisses and lets get together asap. Pita x

Sarah Hilary said...

Thanks, Pita. I saw your new book in Waterstones in Wilmslow at the weekend - it looks ace! xx

MG said...

Have you listened to the Litopia podcast today about Rosy Barnes's new book? She mentions chick-noir.
You could do that! You could do that no problemo! Although, being good, crime is a difficult genre and takes time to master. How about crime-chick-noir?

Sarah Hilary said...

Crime is definitely difficult to master. I feel my strengths probably lie more on the psychological-thriller side. Not sure I could go too far down the chick-path as I don't read ANY chick-lit and even just Kate Atkinson's perfectly pleasant literary crime (which I find VERY chicky) leaves me cold. I write dark but my heroines aren't "lite" enough for chick readers, I fear.