Thursday 24 January 2019

On breaking up and making up with agents: #Writing

I started tweeting about this in response to a thread on Twitter thread I was alerted to this morning regarding leaving editors and agents, but then realised I had more than one tweet to post and I am too chemo-daft to suss out how to link tweets (where is that + and why does it disappear, when you need it?) so am going to talk about breaking up and hopefully making up with agents here instead, in the hopes that this will be all round helpful and I will hear from others in similar stasis.

In 2005, after a national writing award and interest from agents, I took the one who seemed most keen. Greenly, I based my decision on the fact that my soon to be enthusiastic agent was working out of an office that used to be Spike Milligan's. My agent did the rounds with the publishers on my first book. One of the majors who was humming and hawing to what turned out to be a different tune: he wanted to change the (very political) central premise, which after much soul searching, I could not do: Why do I write? What is success? Do I have some deep and sordid need to be famous? What is recognition? What is the truth? This is my truth - I must tell it my waaaaaaay (Cue Frank Sinatra.) Several other publishers said that they had already bought a Post-Colonial novel that year - was this the standard riposte? It all felt a bit whimsical. I felt a bit fed up. And shortly afterwards, a bit gung-ho.

I decided I needed the book out of me and out there, and so I left my agent despite her saying I could seek publishing for book one myself and she would stay on for book two. We had some interaction on the second book, but the energy seemed to have gone. And so I wrote a kind letter expressing my gratitude and she wrote a regretful but kind letter back and thus I ventured forth into the unknown: the unknown in both senses. I was no longer the young writer feted at university and then having won the Jerwood/Arvon mentoring award, at the attendant literary parties with the who's who of the publishing zoo. Those parties terrified me and I had to get tanked up on champagne to cope with them - everyone, it seemed, except me had gone to Cambridge and was uber confident. The only thing Uber about me was a need to flee. Soon it was just me with no agent, no publisher, no editor, no marketing machine: just me, on an icy mountain with no crampons. I was, initially, undaunted. I simply got on with it and had the book published. It felt right at the time and I was confident, given what had gone before to do it.

I went on to write another book that I did not have the goods to promote. The reasons are myriad and complex. Young children? Attendant exhaustion. Breakdown, Depression, Anxiety. Working on other wonderful books for authors? A dwindling sense of self-belief given no accolades to cheer me on? #Fear. Do I regret leaving my agent? At times I have, usually after having visited Waterstones and seen book 3 or 4 of some of my peers who won the same competition as me and further ones to boot. I have also discovered that I can easily plug and rave about the books of authors I have since worked with in an editorial capacity, but struggle to promote my own, though the first has gone on to have lots of favourable press and reviews and has, after some years sold thousands of copies. I am haunted a bit Imagine if I had had a top literary editor and a marketing machine called Jenny - maybe it would have sold in the tens of thousands! Usually, I come round to thinking that it is what it is and I am grateful for the readers who have contacted me to say that the book changed their perspective as to the civil war in Zimbabwe in the 70s - it was worth it.

And now? (What's happened to the font here? - apologies, it'll just have to look like this. You should see what a woman jacked on chemo and steroids laced with caffeine looks like!) I hope to find an agent (I think; I'm scared) for the memoir I am currently writing, but have been out of it all for so many years, the prospect of looking for an agent is like contemplating dating after divorce. But then yesterday, some kind and generous women offered to share their knowledge, time, and even money - an offer of travel to be paid - so they can share their experiences on getting published at a free event. It was timely and meaningful: serendipity - I felt the glimmer of hope and dare I say it, a rising determination again to seek an agent for my own work, after thinking for so long that there was no point in trying to find one Like winning the lottery! given I'm no longer the 'hot property' I was previously being touted to be. I think I'm ready to go out there and face rejection. But nothing ventured, nothing gained and the memoir I am writing will either go out with an agent or go out for free. I'm over promoting me.