In recent months, literary agencies have been branching out into offering mentoring and consulting services to aspiring authors looking for trustworthy advice on their manuscripts. In this post I interview Annette Green, whose literary agency now offers the Creative Writing Consultancy service, whereby experienced authors (who also work as creative writing teachers) signed to the agency provide editorial feedback and advice. Maria McCann will be one of those authors. She also answers my questions about her expectations of this initiative:
Annette Green runs her own literary agency, which she founded in 1998 after several years at A M Heath & Co. She is also my agent.
Annette, Your agency is a team of two agents, meaning that every writer gets your personal attention. How do you balance working with current clients and the attention required by the large amount of submissions you receive?
Well, obviously we have to prioritise. We made a decision a long time ago not to use outside readers, simply because we didn’t feel comfortable with trusting a third party not to miss something which might have seemed an unlikely project but which we might respond to differently. This means that we do have to read – at least partially – every submission we receive. Material arrives by post at the same rate as ever, but now we regularly receive a lot of email submissions too, so we do spend quite a lot of time dealing with these. However, the vast majority of material we receive is easy to assess quickly, because we can tell if someone can write and if their story is strong just by reading the synopsis and a few pages. If we’re grabbed we’ll read on, but I’ll be honest and say that we certainly don’t always feel compelled to read an entire submission.
As for the balance, although it’s important for us to be alert to talented new authors it’s imperative that our service to our existing clients doesn’t suffer. Questions need to be answered, advice given, updates provided, troubleshooting undertaken, statements prepared, payments made, deals negotiated. The reality is that we deal with unsolicited submissions in the gaps in between. If something outstanding arrives out of the blue while we’re in the middle of some very important work for a client, we may not be able to pay attention to it immediately, but we’ll make sure we get to it as quickly as other obligations allow. It does make work patterns slightly unpredictable, because you can’t plan for the unexpected arrival of a brilliant new script, but it’s possible to keep the diversion to a minimum.
If you were to classify your submissions pile, what proportion of them are ‘not even close’, what proportion are ‘great but not for us’, how many are ‘close but no cigar’ and how many are real gems that have you reaching for the telephone?
This is an interesting question. It’s hard to give a precise idea, because we don’t keep a log of what we receive or a record of how we rated things – that would just be a waste of time. For one thing, I wouldn’t really ever say ‘great but not for us’ because if I can see that something is great I’ll probably want to take it on. We don’t specialise as some agencies do – whatever the material, if it’s excellent it’s for us, irrespective of genre or age group. So, I would say that somewhere between 80% and 90% are not even close, sadly. Obviously within that group there is a huge variation – at the bottom end is material that is not even literate and at the top end there is writing that is simply workmanlike and uninspiring. Then I’d probably say the next 8% are ‘close but no cigar’, where we find material that is very impressive in all kinds of ways, but doesn’t have the extra factor to make it leap above the shoulders of everything else. Which, if my maths is correct, leaves us with about 2% of submissions making us excitedly reach for the phone to call the author and offer representation.
What prompted you to offer the Creative Writing Consultancy service through your literary agency? Will all applications be accepted or is there a sifting process?
As you can see from what I’ve said above, we receive a huge number of submissions, some of which are workmanlike, with a glimmer of potential but no more. For practical reasons of time and resources when we reject submissions everyone is treated the same. Many people ask for feedback and advice, but it’s simply not possible to give it in a business where time is precious. But I’ve long thought it was a shame that writers with a degree of talent were being given no encouragement or constructive response to their work. The only obvious solution to this was to find a way to make advice available. It would have to be paid for of course, but given that a number of our clients are experienced creative writing teachers we have access to a large pool of knowledge and ability. I’m not saying that every writer we reject will be explicitly invited to use the service, but it is clear on our website that it’s available to everyone.
In answer to your second question, although the service is available to everyone, in reality there will have to be a sifting process. It simply wouldn’t be ethical to take money from someone who clearly is never going to be a publishable writer, no matter how good the quality of the help and advice our clients can provide. There can’t be hard and fast criteria for deciding what to exclude, but we’ll judge every case individually in the interest of fairness to everyone involved.
4) How do you envisage this service working in practice? Should people consider using the service before submitting to you, or will you accept re-submissions that have been through this editing process? Clearly there is never a guarantee of representation – what advice would you give to writers?
The service – like others in the market – is available to all applicants, not just people whose work we have rejected. The question of whether people should use the service before submitting to us is one that only the individual writers can decide. Often, talented writers know when something is not right with their work. On a number of occasions over the years we’ve read scripts that were generally very good, but which suffered from fatal flaws in structure or tone or pacing or characterisation, and when we’ve said as much, the writer has admitted that he or she always felt the same, but hoped we wouldn’t notice. If a writer believes in their talent, but also has enough reason to doubt that a script is really working as well as it should, then they should certainly consider using the service. A gift for creative writing can’t be taught, but there are techniques for turning raw talent into professional skill, and that’s what we aim to do.
As for re-submissions, yes, if we judged that a piece of work would benefit from the help of one of our mentors, then after they’ve worked on it we’d be more than happy to reconsider. No, we can’t guarantee representation, but there’s a possibility that something we read when it was very good has now been turned into something great, then we’d be crazy not to reconsider it.
Maria McCann is a novelist, lecturer in English and an Arvon Foundation mentor. Her most recent novel is The Wilding, published in February 2010 by Faber.
What has your experience as an author taught you about the editing process?
That it is a form of creativity. Writers are often told ‘don’t get it right, get it written’ and that paying too much attention to correctness in the first draft can dry you up. My experience is that this advice is helpful to some people but not to others. It’s true that our creative impulses can be inhibited by too great attention to correctness. On the other hand, many writers feel a compelling need to correct as they go and sometimes use it as a way of ‘getting back into the zone’ when they first sit down at their computer.
Most of the time this ‘editing’ that people do as they go along is really proofreading. It has to be done at some stage and though it brings its own satisfaction, few people find it exciting. The most creative kind of editing is when we sit down and think about where the heart of the book lies and what is mere flab that can be cut away to reveal the work’s true shape. Inexperienced writers sometimes find this painful, especially when it means sacrificing a cherished scene, but being willing to commit to it is an important aspect of professionalism. Many talented people are never published because they prefer to avoid this work by immediately starting another book, yet with experience, writers come to relish the editing process and the possibilities it opens up. In fact, some love this stage more than the initial drafting.
The writer’s relationship with the book is passionate. An editor supplies the necessary detachment to see what needs to be put in place, so that readers can feel equally passionate about it. It all serves the text, which means it’s all creative work.
What will your experience and perspective bring to writers who choose to use this service?
I’ve spent many years working with writers of widely varying abilities: some who were struggling with basic grammar, some whose work was of a very high standard when I first met them. They were of all ages (with quite a few late starters) and all levels of education. I’m currently mentoring three fiction writers for the Arvon Foundation, which is a new experience and a very different kind of relationship. Some of the writers I worked with have gone on to find an agent. They haven’t been the only ones with sufficient talent to do so; they have been the ones with sufficient belief in themselves to invest that last little bit of effort. That’s what I would hope to bring to writers using the service: encouraging them to have the self-belief to make the effort. I don’t mean telling someone that work is publishable when it isn’t, but showing clearly what needs to be done to get the book to a better standard and supporting the writer in that process.
If you could go back in time and give your unpublished-self some advice, what would it be?
Ignore the inner voice that bullies you: ‘You’re no good! The book won’t sell! Your teacher was right! You’ll make a fool of yourself!’ This voice is the enemy of creativity and attacks wherever you are vulnerable. If you shut it up, you may hear a quiet but persistent voice saying, ‘Chapter 4 still isn’t right, you know.’ Pay attention because this voice is your best friend. Learn to distinguish between the two voices and treat them accordingly.
Many, many thanks to Annette and Maria for taking the time out of their busy schedules to answer my questions!