Literary Agent – Friend Or Foe?

As soon as I could hold a pen, I began to write. I learned to read when I was four but of course, I couldn’t write or spell, so I created this weird kind of shorthand that looked like a cross between Sanskrit and morse code. It was completely indecipherable to anyone but me but I remember filling page after page with this illegible scrawl while experiencing something I had never felt before – utter contentment.

I forgot about my adventures with semiotics until a few years ago when I saw the first Lord Of The Rings movie, The Fellowship Of The Ring. When Frodo ended up in Rivendell and I saw examples of Elven script I had an overpowering sense of deja vu. Elven script was exactly like my childhood scratchings. For about a month I obsessively checked the tops of my ears for any evidence of pointiness. Perhaps I had been channeling an elf all along.

I wrote the 6th grade end of year play. At that stage I was obsessed with mysteries, mostly Agatha Christie, so it was a whodunnit, complete with a suspicious-looking butler and lots of blunt objects just left lying around. The detective in charge of investigating the case was called DC Dubious. It was a bit of a hoot.

I continued to write throughout high school, getting more plays performed and winning a few prizes for creative writing. I wrote my first novel when I was 13. It was about a dog who was psychic. I based it on my own dog, Angus, an incredibly intelligent Scottish terrier, whom I was convinced was psychic. The novel was like an episode of Scooby Doo, with Angus in the role of Scooby.

In my mid-teens I made a foray into poetry, really bad poetry. Can I just say that I regard poetry as the highest form of literary art. I wrote my University thesis on the man I regard as the greatest poet ever – Shelley. I have aspirations to be a poet but in truth, the skills elude me. Poetry is hard. Depicting beauty so concisely, so precisely only falls into the hands of the gifted few. The descriptive powers of the poet are much more acute than those the rest of us have. I do believe they see the world differently.

I still have a poem I wrote when I was sixteen. At the time I was interested in the gothic genre – lots of castles, night scenes and men wearing cloaks lurking in the shadows. My poem Lady Annabel begins thus:

“She stiffened
As if aware of the danger that was starting to begin
And from the shadows emerged a stranger
Who had followed her within…”

I think you get the picture. Poet I am not.

In my 20s I wrote a few short stories which were published and a fantasy trilogy which still sits in my desk drawer. It really needs to be edited and at over 1,000 pages, I don’t have the heart to tackle it. In my 30s I continued to write short stories (some published, some loudly rejected,) several songs for amateur musical theatre productions and a screenplay which was held under consideration by a film production company for over a year and then rejected (that one really hurt.)

When I was 38 I began writing the only novel I have followed through with. It was loosely based on the life of my Uncle who lost his family and his livelihood to a gambling addiction. My aunt came home from work one day in the late 1960s to find removalists moving out her furniture. When she asked them what they thought they were doing they thrust the deed to her house in her face. Her husband had bet it in a poker game and had lost. My aunt never recovered.

Travelling through the UK several years ago, I happened upon my Uncle in a small village in the Scottish highlands. I hadn’t seen him for over 20 years but I recognised him immediately. Big bear of a man, 6 foot 5, hunched forward slightly as if his height was a burden, eyes blue as the sea in midsummer, a face that had given up on happiness.

I hugged him and he cowered like a dog that’s been kicked over and over again. “I don’t deserve to talk to you,” he said. He had spent the last twenty years meandering, stumbling from one odd job to the next, drinking a bit, gambling a bit, seeing the world in shades of grey. Losing faith in the world. Losing faith in himself. That’s when I decided to write his story.

I researched gambling addiction for months, attending local Gamblers Anonymous meetings, talking endlessly to people who had given up on life. I came to the conclusion that the support programs offered are not inclusive enough, that there are myriad issues which make someone gamble to the point of compulsion that are not addressed, the least of which is a desire to bet. I also came to the conclusion that there are very few happy endings when your addiction is gambling.

Which brings me to the point of my post. Thanks for bearing with me. After 15 excruciating drafts I submitted my book to a literary agent in Sydney and to my surprise she was keen to represent me. “This is the stuff dreams are made of,” I thought.

My agent thought my book was too long at 220,000 words. She suggested I axe 80,000 words before peddling it to publishers. I had already completed 15 drafts and was completely sick of the thing but, keen to be published, I complied. That edit was one of the hardest I’ve ever had to do. It is very hard to decide what stays and what goes. To maintain consistency of style and plot you have to keep re-reading because you don’t want to continue to mention things that have already been edited out.

I did the rewrite in a month and presented it to the agent somewhat forlornly. When she asked me what was wrong I told her the book now felt like a chicken salad sandwich without the chicken. She was adamant that I’d done the right thing. “Length is everything for a first-time writer,” she said.

It is now fifteen months later. My book is yet to find a publisher and my agent and I have had a bit of a falling out. She claims the problem lies with defining my work. It seems I am not genre specific. She doesn’t know if I fall into the literary fiction category or the chick lit. category. “Genre overlapping is problematic,” she says. “Publishers aren’t keen on it. It limits your market. You should pick a genre and stick to it.”

This is where the problem lies. Unless you are a romance, fantasy or murder-mystery writer, it can be very difficult to define your genre. In fact, most writers just write, they don’t sit down beforehand and say: “I’m going to write a spot of literary fiction today.” It’s a little more abstract an exercise than that.

Literary fiction is meant to denote fiction of a higher quality, richer and denser than other genres. It is writing which entertains its readers but also changes the way they look at the world and themselves. Many literary writers go on to win coveted awards like the Booker prize. They include such writers as Ian McEwan, Annie Proulx and Cormac McCarthy.

By contrast, chick lit is defined as genre fiction written for young women in their 20s and 30s. It is modern, fun and intelligent. Noted writers include Helen Fielding (of Bridget Jones’ Diary fame,) Candace Bushnell and Marian Keyes. I didn’t seek to fall into the chick lit category but I did want to lighten my subject matter a little so I included the gambler’s sisters as secondary characters. Seems the sub-plots arising from their inclusion pushed me into another genre.

Yet there are exceptions to every rule, even in literary fiction. Look at Umberto Eco (The Name Of The Rose)who could also fall into the mystery and suspense genre and Margaret Atwood (The Blind Assassin) who could also fall into the speculative fiction(fantasy) genre.

All this talk of genre is making my head spin. I really just wanted to tell a story, not fall neatly into a category. A friend of mine who used to work for Penguin Australia but resigned in disgust at the state of Australian publishing told me that it’s probably likely that my agent has only just finished reading my novel and on closer inspection doesn’t know what to do with it. It seems an awful long time to spend making a decision about something. The disregard with which unknown writers can be treated horrifies me.

There is also a new development in Australian publishing which further adds to my difficulty. Angus & Robertson, one of the biggest book sellers in the land is forcing small publishers to pay for shelf space in their shops, particularly with regard to new authors. Many of these small publishers can’t afford to pay for shelf space. However, they also can’t afford not to pay for shelf space. This is a development I could have done without.

My agent and I have parted ways. After nearly four years the novel I had such hopes for has met the fate of my previous books. It has a nice, snug place in my desk drawer (it’s getting crowded in there.) I am disillusioned but haven’t yet given up. I’m going to rewrite my novel for next month’s NaNoWriMo and see what happens. And if anybody asks, my genre is contemporary fiction !

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10 thoughts on “Literary Agent – Friend Or Foe?

  1. Your former agent sounds like a bit of a nitwit. Pidgeon-holing writers… No way. In fact, when someone suggested that I join the Romance Writers of America association, I said, “But I don’t write romance.” “Sure you do,” she said, “when you think about it just about every book has a bit of romance in it.”

    So… I’d pick a main catagory, call that your genre, and run with it. I’d also put back the words you took out and try another agent. You write so well, I cannot imagine an agent unable to sell it. (and I think your friend was right when she said your agent had only just then read the manuscript. Silly monkey).

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  2. Karen – I think that agent definitely was a nitwit. I figured that she knew what she was doing, though as she was earning a living from representing authors. However, since parting from her some similar stories have emerged. Writing is a hard road to travel, isn’t it? Finishing the manuscript is only half the battle. Thanks for your words of encouragement.

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  3. You mean, you found an agent who said more than ‘I don’t do this kind of thing?’

    The received wisdom in UK is that agents will rarely, if ever, deal with a new author, and most people advise to approach a publisher direct. Of course, IF you’re finally accepted, or you self-publish, and your book sells, you’ll spend the rest of your life fighting off agents!

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  4. Keith – it shocked me too. It all seemed too easy. This was one of those cases where my gut feeling of ‘run and don’t look back’ was right. But c’est la vie. Tomorrow is another writing day!

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  5. If you’re thinking of rewriting it, why don’t you go dark? Take out the sisters and make this truly a deep literary work that really digs into the soul of gambling.

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  6. Daoine – I swear you have read my mind. I am so going over to the dark side with this novel. That was my original intention and the agent talked me out of it. Thank you so much!

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  7. Hunh. I thought that I had left a comment. (My mind, she ain’t what she used to be…) In my imagined comment, I told you to trot over to Diana Gabaldon’s website and read what she said about genre. Because it sounds to me like perhaps your agent isn’t up on what’s going on with the literary world right now…like how Cormac McCarthy’s THE ROAD mixed genres left and right–and won the Pulitzer.

    But it sounds like you’ve got your head right with the whole agent/rewriting thing, so…um…carry on.

    Sheesh.

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  8. I happened to see this post in your “top” spots today Selma, glad I did. What an interesting post.

    I’ve had several dealings in the publishing world and I know first hand,it can be a cut-throat and depressing experience.

    Another depressing aspect…some of the best writers NEVER receive the recognition or reimbursement that they deserve. Drivel and junk can and do sell, if touted by the right people/companies along the way.

    I’ve found such talent online since I started blogging, including yours. I wish you well in your future work as a writer. I hope to find my way in the wacky world of publishing (on the right footing) once again and soon. Several projects on the go right now. Never give up Selma. Never stop doing what you love. That’s a big part of getting there.

    Hugs, G 🙂

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  9. GERALDINE – I had almost forgotten about this post. In some ways I’ve given up trying to get published. The whole process leaves me too stressed. I’ll just plod along writing my little stories for now and see what happens. I wish you the best of luck with your endeavours. You are an inspiration.

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