Saturday, 10 October 2009

Special Agents and the Mission Possible

It seems I don't blog enough about writing. This is true, but it shouldn't be a surprise – I've been a visual artist for a great deal longer, and when it comes to writing I don't feel I know how to write about it yet, if you see what I mean.

As I've mentioned before, I was unable to find a publisher for my first completed novel. This has set a certain tone in my writing efforts this year. At the time I was quite shocked by this -- I think it's a good story, well(ish?) told, though there are certainly some kinks to be ironed out. And I'd turned down paid work to get it finished too. But also at the time (just six short months ago) I hadn't really explored the more authorly corners of the blogosphere, and had no idea how many aspiring novelists there are or just how stiff the competition is. Yes, I'm a published writer already, but moving from one publishing subset (picture books) to another makes me a beginner all over again.

Which is why I'm so lucky to already have an agent.

It's been a difficult summer for me and my writing. When, in the wake of all that rejection, my agent sent my second novel back for a major rethink, I was left pretty demoralised and confused. What was the best course of action? Run back to my illustration? Start a third novel (I have several ideas) or tackle that major re-think and find a solution?

It can be very tough to have that 'end of the line' phone call but at least with an agent the whole process of submission -- from hopeful optimism to bitter disappointment -- can be all over in a couple of months. No lingering 'maybes' for me – just one big terminal NO. But this was different -- with the second novel my agent was stopping me from using up another chance with real live editors (they're very busy people). In her words, 'we won't throw you to the lions.' And those lions are choosier than ever.

Writers are solitary creatures and need friends, but there are times when the best friend you can have is a no-nonsense industry professional with a big red pen. And an assistant. My agent's assistant has a sharp editorial eye and she produced detailed critical reports on both my novels. With the first, I was reluctant to make big changes based on such a report, naively saying that I would rather work on such things with an editor. That's a mistake I won't make again. So when she suggested that I spend time writing around the subjects and themes of my second novel in order to develop them and then present the (hopefully) more highly evolved result to her for a new assessment, I knew what I'd be doing over the following months.

And it did take months to do this. The lowest point of the whole exercise was deciding to embark on a detailed, blow-by-blow chapter plan of the story and then getting bogged down in that! It felt like having a puncture, but finding that the jack was broken and so going to fix that, but finding the spanner missing, so going to buy a new one, but the shop was shut, so...

that really was Mission Impossible, and dropping that approach marked a change for the better.

Ten days ago I finally clicked 'send' on a 5k word proposal/synopsis, complete with a list of characters and their motivations. And last Friday I heard back that the whole idea was 'much, much stronger'. So I'm writing again. And I mean, really writing, not faffing about with arcs and chapter plans (never do that! It's pure muse-icide! Like dismantling a butterfly to find out how it works, only in reverse.)

I've read a lot of 'why you need an agent' blog posts recently, but one advantage that I haven't seen mentioned is the dousing effect they can have on an author's flaming self-delusion. Left on your own with your head full of story, it's all too easy to end up wallowing in a sticky mire of self-indulgence, chasing your own shadow. A good agent will soon put a stop to that. That's what makes them so special.


  1. Yay! Your writing! Best of luck!
    And I completely agree with the whole outline everything thing. It can be such a mind number!

  2. LOL @ "it's all too easy to end up wallowing in a sticky mire of self-indulgence, chasing your own shadow"

    You've nailed my writing process the last couple of weeks. I'm trying to break out of it (with the help of socks and duck tape of course).

  3. Hmn, 5k...and I thought the aim was to make those submissions as short as possible! Haha! Writing about writing can take all the fun out of actual writing sometimes. I like your mix of illustrations and words: pictures can carry the sentiment when we're too tired from writing to write about it.

    I wrote my first novel without much in the way of a plan - actually just rattled 40k words off in under 6 weeks and then went, uh, now what do I do. It was real hard work (4 years) going through it, expanding, editing it and puling it into some sort of shape. Decided I wouldn't do that again! I plan things now - not in an OCD way, but enough to know what I have to include in a chapter and how it needs to end with regards to what it precedes. Feel much more confident now. Ha, uh oh, confident - I must be doing it wrong! I usually start from the assumption that I'm rubbish and everyone else will think the same unless I write my brain inside out!

    But I am passionate about writing and would feel pretty hopeless if someone told me I couldn't write anymore. I figure if you're passionate about something it usually follows that you have some aptitude for it.

    Perhaps i am delusional. Don't tell me.

    So, I think, in moderation is my mantra. The good thing about it has been that it has allowed me to see the thing in a complex way and add more depth rather than tangles - I hope!

    I think your novel sounds very intriguing.

    You could always say you're eschewing the narrative arc!

  4. Sheesh! Sorry for mega comment, just read it again. And it's all over the place. No, I mean it is in the style of the Modernists...and I'm going for stream of consciousness... :)

  5. Thanks Anita and Megan. And thanks also to you, Rachel -- mega comments always welcome here, especially interesting ones like that.

    I wouldn't completely dismiss the chapter plan. A few notes scribbled down for each, just to keep the story on track, can be very helpful. But mine was turning into a mini version of the real thing, with the word count reaching five figures and my ideas curling at the edges. Accountancy would be more fun.

    I'd like to talk in more detail about my novel, but I'm genuinely nervous about giving too much away. I think the central premis is both strong and unusual and don't want some faster writer to pinch it:) I'm not normally too concerned with idea theft, but this time is different.

  6. Oh, yes. A lot of this sounds like those horrid dreams, you know, where you're either being shot at, or trying to run, while stuck in place, or just falling out of the sky.

    And true, being solitary creatures, we need some friends who understand us. And good agents are a big plus, no doubt.

    Keep writing and blogging. I find your blog a comfort zone, like a nice cup of tea, on a stormy afternoon.

  7. Thanks, Terry. That's one of the nicest things anyone's said about my blog. I hope you'll keep commenting too (and it's not just the legs).

    My frustration dream is the leaden-legs-but-got-to-run one.

  8. Another great post Thomas. I always find your posts engaging and interesting, your tone is perfect. If your novel is sililarly written I'll keep my eye out for you on the top ten bestsellers list.

  9. Many thanks, Paul. I hope you'll find me there one day!

    (And I'll know where to go for a website;)


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