Flirting with agents

One of the questions we’re asked a lot at the Festival runs approximately as follows:

Agent XYZ read my first few chapters and really wanted to see the rest of my manuscript. Trouble is, I know that the middle bits / end bits of the MS aren’t yet up to scratch and I’m worried about letting an agent see anything that’s not very polished. On the other hand, THIS IS MY GIANT OPPORTUNITY  and I don’t want to blow it. Maybe I should just get my material over to them anyway.

And the answer to that is No. Stay away from the envelope. Do not approach the letterbox. Put the postage stamps down and back away slowly. If you send an undercooked manuscript, the possible interest shown by your putative agent will evaporate instantly and you will never recapture it.

Vaster than empires

If on the other hand, you write to your putative darling, saying, ‘Dear Agent, I love you with every bone in my body and every sigh in my heart, but my manuscript is not yet cooked and will not be cooked for another 3/6/9 months. Please, oh fair one, grant me more time,’ the agent will ALWAYS answer, ‘Of course.’

Agents aren’t idiots. They know darn well that writing books is hard; that it’s slow; that the market is competitive; that you’re a new writer not a grizzled old hack. They honestly won’t care that the book is slow to arrive. Why would they? Offered a choice between an unsaleable book today and a saleable one twelve months hence, there’s no contest. And even if the book you have today is rich with glimmers of potential, an agent’s heart will sink at the time and effort involved in bringing that potential to its true lustre.

So take it slow. Follow Andrew Marvell’s famous courtship advice:

I would
Love you ten years before the Flood,
And you should, if you please, refuse
Till the conversion of the Jews.
My vegetable love should grow
Vaster than empires, and more slow.

It’s difficult advice to take at times but it is – I promise you! – the right advice all the same.

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  • Oh, very timely advice. I only came to the Festival on the Sunday (no cheap Scots jokes, please!) and I got two – TWO! – agents saying nice things about the chapter I submitted and asking to see the rest.

    However, I’m recently digesting an editorial report about the manuscript. It was largely positive, but there are a couple of changes I’m contemplating as a result of it, and I’ve been working against the clock trying to get them incorporated as quickly as possible – I suppose I thought the agents, one of whom was extremely keen, might ‘go off the boil’ if the novel wasn’t winging its way to them asap.

    What I’m going to do now is email them both along the lines suggested above, and set a reasonable deadline for sending it out to them – hopefully, this makes me sound like a professional type they would conceivably want to do business with, further down the line.