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Written some books. Drink lots of tea. Prefer dogs to cats. Can't juggle.

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We usually look at the world through the eyes of authors – and quite right too – but I recently saw an interesting article by literary agent Kristin Nelson, which evaluated the changes she’s seen over twenty odd years on Planet Agent.

The gist of the article was that agenting has become a tougher business than it was. I’m going to look at her fourteen reasons why … but first:

Oh ye people.

Last week, I told you that the Summer Festival of Writing is, from now on, going to be free to Jericho members. This week, I tell you that we’ve also tossed in an extra event, for free. October sees the launch of our Build Your Book month (info here). We’ve got twelve events aiming to help you turn your book into a masterpiece. In effect, it’s the self-editing complement to our super-successful Getting Published and Self-Publishing months, which take place in spring.

All this stuff is, and will remain, completely free to Jericho members. If you’re not a member yet, we’d absolutely love to have you (how to join). You also get full access to all our 1000+ literary agent profiles on AgentMatch. You also get access to our 400+ films and masterclasses (info). You also get access to our amazing (and expanding) range of video courses (info). You also get free weekly events throughout the year (info). We’ve also got further yumminess coming up, but I can’t tell you about that now, because I’m bound by the terrifying code of Jerich-o-merta …

Okiedoke. Back to Planet Agent. Here are Nelson’s fourteen reasons why agenting has got tougher:

1. More agents

Nelson reckons there are more literary agents around now than there used to be. I can’t quantify the degree to which that’s true, but certainly there don’t seem to be fewer agents, even though most publishers have cut the size of their frontlists.

Verdict: she’s got a (smallish) point here.

2. Agents as editors

Back in the day, agents used to be able to hawk a manuscript that had clear potential – and clear editorial needs. These days, with the competition as it is, it would be a dumb agent and a dumb author who took that approach. Instead, agents have tended to get involved in editorial work prior to submissions.

(And if you think that because your agent has given you editorial feedback, you won’t need an extensive editorial process with the publisher – well, think again. Everyone gets to give their thoughts; you get to do the work. The good news: books usually get better as a result.)

Verdict: She’s right

3. Less agent visibility

Nelson comments that, years back, it was quite easy for an agent to be noticed via your blog or Twitter feed, just because so few agents did anything like that. Well, that may be the case, but you don’t find many agents complaining about a shortage of submissions – and I know plenty of successful agents who don’t spend any real time on social media.

Verdict: Hmm.

4. Agent as publicist

Nelson writes, ‘In today’s publishing landscape, agents have to do so much more marketing/publicity management to optimize client success.’

Really? Aren’t publishers doing that? And how many agents are actually pro publicists? And if they are, why are they selling manuscripts for a living? I think most agents do take on real editorial work. I think the good ones do a lot to manage a career and guide the author/publisher relationship. But honestly, most agents don’t do a ton of marketing work and they probably shouldn’t. It’s not their skillset.

Verdict: Hmm.

5. Email mountains

Nelson comments that ‘three hundred emails is a light day’. Jeepers. There’s no question that email volumes have vastly increased – and it can’t actually be healthy or make for efficient business that any one person has 300 emails to deal with in a day. (Before they’ve actually read a word of their clients’ work, or anything from the new submissions pile.)

Verdict: I’m very sympathetic.

6. Indie Publishing

When I started writing, traditional publishing was the only meaningful route to making money and finding a relationship. That’s no longer true and that also means agents are aware that their clients can scarper sideways into a game that’s fertile for the writer and arid for the agent.

Nelson writes, intelligently, ‘I’m hugely supportive of authors and indie publishing, but the loss of talent to the indie sphere does impact an agency’s bottom line.’

Verdict: She’s right, of course. Not a big problem for authors, though :)

7. Publisher payments

Back in the day, advances were split into two or three chunks – typically, on signature, on hardback publication, and on paperback publication. These days, some publishers insist on four or five instalments, and have pushed some payments back to well after publication. (So they’re not advances any more – perhaps ‘late payments’ would be a better term.)

Nelson notes that this practice makes life harder for agents, which is true. I also note that it’s effectively a way for billion-dollar companies to boost their cash flow at the expense of authors, which doesn’t seem very graceful to me.

Verdict: She’s right again

8. The Great Contract Swamp

Publishers have always been slow in negotiating contracts, which is pitiful when you consider that the vast majority of contracts deal mostly in boilerplate. But they’ve got slower.

I’ve known authors with roots in more businesslike professions write to me concerned when they haven’t seen a contract within two or three weeks. What’s going on, they ask, is there a problem?

And the answer is no, there isn’t a problem, except that publishers understaff their contracts department and deliver too little authority to editors to sort out issues. I once wrote an entire book in between agreeing the deal (orally and by email) and the publisher actually delivering the contract. And which do you think ought to take longer: writing a 100,000 word book, every word of it original, or writing a contract of about a dozen pages, with almost every word of it boilerplate?

Verdict: I’m with Team Nelson here. And I think the publishing industry should do a lot, lot better.

9. Then there was one

Publishers keep eating each other. First Penguin and Random House married. Now they’re going all menage a trois with Simon & Schuster. Meantime, Hachette is currently gobbling Workman, its sixth US acquisition in eight years. And so it goes.

The fewer big publishers there are, the less the competition for authors. And yes: there are some terrific micro-publishers and they do a great job. But if you want cash in your pocket, you need one of the big guys. And there aren’t as many as there used to be.

Verdict: Team Nelson all the way

10. The Great Flood

Editors see a lot of submissions. They say no to a hell of a lot. And because they see a lot, and say no a lot, it takes longer for editors to get back to agents.

That makes it harder for an agent to mount an effective auction and means a lot more chasing to get anywhere at all. Nelson comments that that’s made life harder for agents and, since trad authors have their fortune yoked to Planet Agent, that means it’s worse for writers too.

Verdict: Yep, right again

11. The death of the editor

Yea, verily, back in the time when the flood waters receded from the earth, editors were allowed to choose books because they liked them. These days, editors are second-guessed by acquisitions committees and marketing folk who sit on those committees, with the result that the whole process has become more tangled, more bureaucratic and (I bet) no more effective.

I’d like to say that Nelson is right about this, but remember marketing people and other execs were deeply involved in acquisitions even twenty years back. So if she is right, she has a longer memory than I do.

Verdict: Hmm.

12. Blockbuster or bust

Back in the day, there were authors like Ian Rankin whose first books didn’t sell especially well and weren’t perfectly formed. But they grew into their careers and became serial bestsellers.

These days, publishers lack the patience to grow an author in that way. If an author’s debut two-book deal doesn’t pretty much earn out, there’s every chance that author will simply be discarded. That’s nuts.

Verdict: I’m Nelsonian – one-eyed and one-armed.

13. The Death of the Mass Market Format

Nelson writes, ‘Back in the day, so many agents got their start representing authors in romance, mystery, and urban fantasy—all genres traditionally launched in the mass-market format. Fantastic glory days were when I would sell in a debut romance author for six figures.’ These days, she says, mass market editions have subsided in favour of e-books, which haven’t given publishers anything like the same income.

That’s all true – but also a misdiagnosis.

The reason e-books haven’t given trad publishers a huge payday, compared with the mass market editions of the past, is that the areas concerned – romance, genre mystery, YA paranormal, SF, and much else – have been very largely colonised by indie authors, who have made a killing.

So, on this topic, the impact for authors has been highly positive – so long as they’ve gone indie.

Verdict: I know what she’s saying, but …

14. The Change that Wasn’t

Oh Jeepers. Nelson also says this: ‘Publishers, despite emphasis on social change in the last couple of years, have not expanded their readership outreach or marketing to reflect the current cultural landscape. This continues to mean fewer opportunities for agents and authors of Color. This should be the one area where it’s better for the agents of today, and it’s not.’

This is real head-in-hands stuff. If not now, then when? As it happens, I think a change that has been very long overdue really is beginning to happen – but it probably won’t finally bed in until the mid- to senior ranks of publishing start to resemble the cities that house them: the highly multicultural London and New York.

I’ve been publishing work for more than twenty years. I’ve had more editors, publicists, marketing people and others involved in my books than I can easily count. But, from memory, only one of them – ONE! – was a person of colour. Ye Gods. It really is changing though. It really is.

Verdict: She’s horribly right.

Don’t forget to check out our Build your Book month. And n'oubliez pas that the Summer Festival is now free to Jericho members. Interested in joining us maybe? Course you are.

Oh and you don't know what I mean, one-eyed, one-armed? Tush and pish. Inform yourself.

The kids love that damn pallet. It's impossible to steer and the camber on the road means it swivels into the verge quite often, and there are plenty of roadside trees or nettles ... but they still love the thing. Happy days

Good luck! And good word of caution there! Thanks

Bet that's not true actually. If the right character popped into your head, you'd find you had more voices available. It happened to me, y'know

That's an amazing fact too, isn't it? It's strange that people can know that research ... and then undergraduates aren't set that exact exercise day 1 of their course.

In fact, it makes me think we should get our Ultimate Novel students to perform that exact exercise at the very start of their course with us. I'm going to suggest the idea, then people will say no, then that will be the end of that - but at least I'll suggest it.

Our pleasure re the Festival - it's really nice to be in a place to give something like that away for free. There are more good things coming up too; can't mention them yet, but the coming year is going to be easily the best ever time to be a member.

And yes: writing definitely has a precision about it, which means you can't avoid the specific questions it rams you into.

And the skate-pallet - yeah, I'm not worried about that. I've registered it in my older girl's name, so if anyone is done for the road-tax thing, it'll be her. :)

Gosh, yes. As you say, that's just one data point ... but it's a Pennabaking good one!

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Folks, today is International Pennebaker Day; I have so decreed it. And, lucky you, I plan to tell you all about Pennebaking, but not until I have told you this:

We started our Summer Festival of Writing last year because our plans for our regular, physical Festival were thrown into disarray by the pandemic. Then, partly for the same reason, but also because the Summer Festival was such an obviously brilliant thing to do, we ran it again this year, with fifty or sixty live events running across the whole summer. 

We’ve now taken the decision that the Festival is so awesome, we should make it as widely available as we possibly can. So from now on, the entire Summer Festival will be free (and exclusive) to Jericho members. That means, if you’re a member, your membership has just become a whole lot better. If you’re not a member, then you have about fifty or sixty additional reasons for feeling sad.

OK. Nuff of that. Back to International Pennebaker Day:

James Pennebaker, a US psychologist, was interested in trauma. He knew that trauma of any kind is associated with bad health outcomes, but what if those suffering trauma were good at talking about their ordeal? Would that make a difference?

Pennebaker decided to investigate. His first thought was that some traumas carried more shame than others. (So, for example, the death of a child by suicide might be more shameful to the parent than a death by car accident.) So perhaps the nature of the trauma would be highly correlated with outcomes?

He investigated and it turned out that the exact nature of the trauma was essentially irrelevant. Instead, what mattered – and it mattered a lot – was what people did with that trauma. If you had a bad experience and talked about it with friends, or family or a support group, you were largely spared the adverse health effects. If you stayed schtumm, you were much more likely to become physically ill.

That was interesting enough, but what if you didn’t talk about your problems? What if you just wrote about them?

Again, Pennebaker investigated. He asked a group of people to write – for fifteen minutes a day, for four consecutive days – about the most upsetting experience of their lives, preferably one they hadn’t shared extensively with others. A control group undertook a similar exercise, but wrote about their homes or their workdays, or something else forgettably bland.

A year later, and with permission, Pennebaker got hold of everyone’s medical records and found that those who had written about their trauma got much less sick than those who did not. An hour’s unstructured writing had yielded major health benefits – a remarkable discovery.

But further research got more interesting still.

If people were asked to describe their emotional difficulties via music, or dance, or painting, they got no benefit. What’s more, if people came to the writing exercise already fluent in their description of their trauma, they obtained no particular benefit to writing it down. The people who benefitted were the ones who made progress over the four-day period; who gained in insight, who built a story.

Now all that is interesting in itself – blooming interesting, if you ask me. But we’re writers, either already professional or with aspirations to be published.

What does Pennebaker’s research mean for us?

Well: I don’t know, but here are some things that occur to me.

First, if you have experienced major trauma, you should write about it. It doesn’t matter whether that trauma was newsworthy or not, of public interest or not. All that matters is that you write about it, for your own mental or physical health. You’ll be glad that you did. It’s an amazing thing to do and you’ll definitely feel better for doing it.

Secondly, I should probably tell you now that memoirs of personal trauma usually aren’t saleable for a mixture of reasons. There are some significant legal obstacles – libel and privacy – for one thing. I know of one really strong memoir, well-written and shocking at the same time, which found an agent, but which publishers declined to take on for fear of the possible legal consequences.

But, look, what publishers do really doesn’t matter. That’s not the point. You’re the point. Write it for you.

Third, I do wonder whether all novelists don’t in some way write books in order to deal with some deep psychic issue – or more accurately, our life experience simply smuggles itself into our work, whether we want it to or not.

John Le Carre spoke somewhere (I haven’t been able to find the quote) that he found himself always writing about love and betrayal. It’s the theme that resonates through his work and one born of childhood insecurity: a conman father, a mother who deserted him. When you read things in Le Carre, like “Do you know what love is? I’ll tell you: it’s whatever you can still betray.”, you know you are reading about the author as well as the character.

If you notice things like that happening, let them happen. The richest novels always have deeper themes stirring beneath the surface. I don’t even think you need to analyse those themes beyond a point. I always love it when I’ve written three-quarters of a book, or am doing my tenth edit of a completed draft, and then think, ‘Dang me, I’ve been writing about X all along and never noticed before now.’ Sometimes that X is a directly personal thing, but often it isn’t, or at least not so obviously as in Le Carre’s more colourful case.

And all this makes me wonder: does writing novels have a health-protective effect? If we sublimiate our emotional difficulties and work them out via space opera / detective stories / Regency romance / literary fiction / dystopian YA, does that work as well as doing the Pennebaker exercise, the way he set it out?

I’m going to guess not, but (A) I bet it does something beneficial, and (B) it does seem, from Pennebaker’s work, that there really is something special about words, as opposed to paint, music and all that. (The ‘lesser arts’ as we can agree to call them.)

Which gives us a conclusion of sorts, I think.

If any of you have real trauma to deal with, I think the Pennebaker exercise looks genius. Four days. Fifteen minutes a day. Just write, don’t judge. The science says you’ll be wiser, happier and healthier for that (tiny) investment.

And all of us: if traumatic events smuggle themselves, subliminally, into our fiction, then great. Our fiction is likely to be the better for it. As you know, I can be quite analytical about fiction, but when it comes to that personal/fictional interface, I tend to be quite incurious. I somehow feel that if my unconscious wants to work a few things out via my story and characters, I’m probably better off leaving it be. I’ll look after the story. My unconscious can look after its Pennebaker-chores.

That’s it from me.

In this week’s, Kids Being Barmy news:

I screwed some castors onto an old wooden pallet and added a rope to pull it along with. The four kids pull the pallet up the road outside the house, then ride it downhill with the younger boy shouting, ‘Crash coming up! Crash coming up!’

His predictions generally come true within a few seconds of being issued. So far, no major injuries.

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What’s the point of metaphors, similes or other such imagery? Yes, they add colour, but a one-legged Russian general with an odour of bear and a bellowing stutter would add colour too, and I bet you don’t have one of those.

Really, I think a good metaphor does three things:

  1. The writer introduces a pause – the purpose here is to make you, the reader, stop, look and reflect.
  2. The reader recognises something. The feeling is roughly, “Yes! It’s just like that.” But at the same time ...
  3. The reader is surprised. The feeling here is roughly, “But I never thought of it that way before.”

That means, I think, that plenty of more showy and self-conscious metaphors don’t really work. Shakespeare had Romeo say, “But soft, what light through yonder window breaks? It is the East and Juliet is the sun.”

But honestly, have you ever looked at a teenage girl and ever thought of her as a sun? Iis your view of Juliet in any way deepened or extended by that idea? I seriously doubt it.

(And, uh-oh, I’m coming close to dissing Shakespeare here, which is a punishable offence under the Don’t Bad My Bard Act of 1843. So let me hasten to say that I think Shakespeare probably gave Romeo a strikingly naïve metaphor to tell us something about the boy, not about Juliet. Phew!)

More effective imagery might work something like this:

… in the early days, when our love was settling into the shape of our lives like cake mixture reaching the corners of the tin as it swells and bakes. (Max Porter, Grief is the Thing with Feathers.)

Sometimes I have loved the peacefulness of an ordinary Sunday. It is like standing in a newly planted garden after a warm rain. You can feel the silent and invisible life. (Marilynne Robinson, Gilead.)

You couldn't make yourself stop feeling a certain way, no matter what the other person did. You had to just wait. Eventually the feeling went away because others came along. Or sometimes it didn't go away but got squeezed into something tiny, and hung like a piece of tinsel in the back of your mind. (Elizabeth Strout, Olive Kitteridge.)

In each of these cases, the author starts by describing the thing he or she is talking about in ordinary language: love settling into the shape of our lives, the peace of an ordinary Sunday, how you can’t make yourself stop feeling a thing. But that first description, although accurate and efficient, doesn’t quite clinch the deal. If there hadn’t been a metaphor to follow, you wouldn’t, as a reader, have stopped to take stock of the thought being presented. The reader’s inclination is, always, to hurtle on without that moment’s thought.

So the first thing a metaphor needs to do is slow the reader down – to arrest them in the moment. The incongruity of the metaphor does that instantly. The reader has to pause to assimilate the sudden incursion of (in these cases) a cake, a garden, and a piece of tinsel. It’s almost as though the reader has pinned a red flag to the piece of prose that’s just gone, saying, “No. Look at this. Consider it properly.”

But you can’t, of course, just stick any old flag in place. The flag has to add something. It has to deliver that little click of recognition, but also add something to the thought that has just gone before.

So ‘Love settling into the shape of our lives’ is clear, but functional. It’s dry. Add the idea of a cake starting to push into the corners of a cake tin and you have a sense of the gradualness of the process, the way crevices get slowly filled. You have also that phrase ‘swells and bakes’ which tells you that the love is growing (something that the earlier language had omitted) and that’s it’s baking, or curing – becoming mature. All that, plus you have the sense of something turning golden and smelling nice. Something functional and dry has turned into a literary moment that you want to break off and eat.

Same thing, give or take, with the other bits I’ve quoted.

Which brings us to the question: how do you do that yourself? How do you gets bits of writing like the ones above into your own text?

Well, I have two parts of the answer, but there’s a crucial third which I’m missing – and which may not exist.

The first part is that you need to be alert, yourself, to the moment in your tale when you want to arrest the reader. You might well, for example, have a moment in your book when your character is enjoying an ordinary, peaceful Sunday. I suspect that your vocabulary comfortably extends to each of those three words. So the first bit of the Marilynne Robinson quote is definitely within your grasp. So your job now is to notice that you want or need to do something more.

You need to have the thought, “Hmm, yes, I’ve described that experience efficiently enough, but I need a dot of colour to flag the moment for the reader’s attention.”

If you have that thought, you are already halfway there. Noticing that you have a job to do is probably the single most important step in actually doing it.

The second part of the answer is that, to find the right image, you have to loosen the handbrake. You can’t find the right image by analysing too closely. You find the right image by detaching a bit – blurring your gaze, not sharpening it. It's like a word association game, or one played when you're under the influence of a mild hallucogenic.

It’s like you go into the feeling (peaceful Sunday) and let yourself forget what you are actually talking about in order to find the image (garden / rain) that it most resembles. Once you have that basic image, you can then start to mess around with the right words (mature garden? Newly mown garden? Spring garden? Newly planted garden?) to find the formulation that works best. Once you have the actual idea (peaceful Sunday = garden after rain), the best way to phrase it is a matter of trial and error, pushing words round to see what fits best.

The third part of the answer is the one where I can’t really offer you much help. How do you release that handbrake? What if the handbrake is jammed on? Where do you find the damn thing? What if the instruction manual for finding the handbrake is written in Japanese, or Cornish, or Kashubian, or Klingon?

Well, I don’t know. All I can say is that my own handbrake has loosened up the more I write. These days, the damn thing is so loose, I can’t park on a hill without running into a parked car or (once) tumbling over a quay into the sea.

I so also think it helps if you lose any sense that you might be ridiculous, or that an image is just silly. (Love? Like cake mix? Don’t be absurd.) And yes, of course, your first three ideas might not work. But that doesn’t mean your fourth one won’t.

Notice when you need a dab of colour. Grope around for images. Tinker with them till their right. And free up that damn hardbrake.

Oh yes, and even if you follow all the advice in this email, you probably still won’t write like Marilynne Robinson. She’s a god.

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Yep, gotta obey The Voice ...

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Hi, G! And yes, that never-ending checklist. Sigh ...

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Ha, ha! Ghostwriting is a dodgy gig, tbh. Ask Elmore Leonard - he's a better writer, and a proper ghost.

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