Not-So-Secret Agent (anymore)

I have news. Good news. The sort of news unagented and unpublished writers dream of receiving. (And I’ve been sitting on this for ages, like a penguin desperate to get off his egg).

I am now longer without an agent.

Along with writing the next Harry Potter series, having a book optioned by a Hollywood studio, and being part of Richard & Judy’s Book Club, having an agent make an offer of representation is, for most writers, part of the Holy Grail. The shiniest treasure; that which gleams like a glorious, golden geegaw, is, of course, a publishing deal. But here’s the thing about the publishing industry: it’s really hard to get your book onto the shelves without first having an agent to help you get it there. An agent acts like a conduit – a well-connected, deal-making conduit – between the starry-eyed (or bleary-eyed, depending on how long they’ve been hammering away at the keyboard) writer and the publishing houses. It’s possible to make it without an agent looking out for you, but not easy.

I’m insanely happy to have found my agent. Here’s how it happened.

In a previous blog I wrote about my experience at the Society of Children’s Bookwriters & Illustrators UK conference. I’d entered a “pitch-your-book-to-a-panel-of-agents” competition. Having made it to the final, I had to live pitch my book, on stage, in front of the massed conference, with the judges (agents) sitting behind me!

I won the event, and my prize was to pick one of the agents to have a 1-1 with at some time.

I had spent some time researching the five agents, just in case I should be lucky enough to win. Therefore, when I was put on the spot, and asked to pick the agent I wanted to get some feedback from, I was ready. This task was made easier because I’d felt some connection with her during my ten minutes on stage.

And wow! How pleased am I to have chosen the fantastic Thérèse Coen?


Agent & Writer!

Fast forward two months…

Thérèse had already asked for my full manuscript (a leap forward in itself – only two other agents ever asked for THAT before), and we arranged for the 1-1 to take place in London. Thérèse picked an interesting venue: the House of St Barnabas in Soho.


It’s a not-for-profit private members club, whose staff have experienced life challenges in the past, but who have been offered a chance (and employment with training) by the club. It’s members appeared to be predominantly hipsters with beards tapping away on their Macbook Airs. The unmistakable scent of Penhalligan’s beard oil lay at chin level like an alternative-scene aether.

Thérèse had pre-warned me about the location’s pro-trendy tendencies, and I did my best, honest. I think my slim-fit jeans, Uniqlo sweater and air of quiet desperation did the job.

Fast forward two hours…

Having received feedback on my manuscript, Thérèse said the magic words and offered to be my agent. I think I was so shocked that I wasn’t entirely sure I’d heard correctly. She very politely suggested that if I had any other agents in mind, she would understand. Notwithstanding the thirty plus rejection emails in my inbox, I accepted her offer without too much delay.

Fast forward two weeks…

With my contract at Hardman & Swainson Literary Agents signed, I am now at liberty to share my good fortune.


Signing the contract!

And share it I have. A friend of mine from SCBWI-BI said that good news such as mine is like oxygen for writers. It is. We thirstily lap up positive stories about publications, prize wins, and yes, agents obtained. They smell better than the rejections we bury out in the garden.

Right now I’m embarking on edits and word-culls to get my book into shape for the publishers my agent might approach. And I’m doing so with a smile on my face. Writing has always been worth it; I love telling stories and bringing characters to life. I like giving them problems to solve and danger to survive. I enjoy forcing them to take risks and aim high. Higher still. As high as they can reach.

I took a risk entering the pitching competition. And I’ve been aiming high for ages trying to get an agent. Now I’m aiming higher still. But now I’m not aiming alone; with my agent behind, beside and out in front, we’re aiming as high as can be. Write a book? Check. Find an agent? Check. Get published? Not yet, but I’m reaching for that star right now.



Tinker, Tweak it, or Let it Lie?

It’s the forgotten quandary in the writing process, creeping up on the writer, ready to blow a raspberry in your face just when you thought your work was ready. Ha! It laughs. Thought you were done with this manuscript didn’t you? But are you sure? Go on! It says. Have another look. Wouldn’t another word work better here? What about there? Or there?

Maybe this is your fourth or fifth draft. Sixth even. Or more. Doesn’t matter. Just when you think you are ready to send out to agents, to start the terrifying process of submissions and queries, a voice says: hold on a minute. Are you sure it’s absolutely ready?

feather duster

You’ve shared your work with your beta readers; workshopped it; had it critiqued. You’ve polished, buffed and flicked a duster over it. So what! The dust always settles and needs shifting again.

cut copy paste

You’ve cut, copied and pasted. You’ve examined every chapter, paragraph, line and word. You thought they were the best choices, but then the doubts creep in…maybe a tweak here…how about a quick tinker there…

The truth is, you could go on forever like this. There will always be a change you might have made; and it might have been for the better. Poets often rework their poems years later, even after they’ve been published.  But there has to come a time when you say, “That’s it. It’s done. It’s as good as I can make it just now.”

Because all this tinkering and tweaking and dusting and polishing and agonising is simply preventing you from moving on to the next project. That idea which is locked inside, straining at the leash to be let out on to the page…doesn’t it have rights too? How will it ever know the joy of running free if you keep on keeping on at the same novel?

The time has come to cut the cord and allow the completed work to flex its muscles out there. Maybe it will sink without trace; maybe it won’t .

float 2

An agent might throw it a lifeline and reel it in.

In the meantime I think I’m going to release that new idea. I’m allowing it to unfurl its wings to see if it can fly.

The duster is shaken out and neatly folded. I’ll be using it again one day; but not right now.

Snowballs…in June

Odd, perhaps, to be thinking about snowballs in June, but then, these are odd times.

Two events this week have made me consider the snowball; one utterly depressing and the other distinctly positive.


Post-Brexit Britain feels like a snowball – a really big one – hurtling downhill towards an unknown oblivion, gathering, as it rolls, untold calamities, complications and catastrophic outcomes. They say a rolling stone gathers no moss; well, a rolling snowball gathers more snow exponentially. Each turn adding piles more of the white stuff, gaining momentum, power and threat of danger.

The image playing in my mind is of sixty million people, caught like pieces of mountain scree in the world’s biggest snowball, bowling down the slope towards a gaping crevasse.

It’s Ice Age IV, ‘Frozen in Fear’.

And so to Saturday and snowball number two; a gentler, friendlier snowball. And in terms of writing, a rather useful one.

I attended a writing workshop in Edinburgh: ‘The Writer and the Agent’, jointly hosted by writer Janis Mackay and her agent Kathryn Ross. Janis is a wonderful author who I was lucky enough to meet at last year’s Kelpies Prize, when I had the thrill of hearing her read an excerpt of my shortlisted children’s novel. She is best known – to me at least – for her Magnus Fin series and her Timetraveller trilogy. Kathryn Ross, her agent, is from Fraser Ross, an Edinburgh-based literary agency.


Kathryn Ross (agent) & Janis Mackay (author)

One of the exercises we were invited to do involved creating a ‘snowball’ of our novels. Disregarding the fact that I can’t draw a circle that actually resembles a circle (I went with ‘squashed ellipse’ or ‘half-melted snowball’), the exercise turned out to be incredibly useful.

Staring at the centre of the ball, we were asked to write the where and when of our story. Then, in a series of ever-larger concentric circles – or ellipses – we scribbled down the inciting incident (the thing that kicks off the action), followed by whatever it (or who) gets in the way to thwart our hero, then the decisive moment or turning point at which our hero must decide whether to act and how to do it. Finally, the outer circle of our expanding snowball contained the resolution to all this. Effectively, we had drawn a diagrammatic pitch for our work.

In using the snowball analogy, I found I suddenly had a real sense of the growing impetus within my story. I could almost visualise it rolling down that hill, gathering pace as the story developed. The exercise helped to distill my book into its core essence, leaving me with a much better idea of how to describe – i.e. pitch – it to anyone kind enough to ask.

The next exercise had us actually verbally pitching our books. I think I’ll gloss over my rather amateur effort. I’ll be better prepared next time. Promise.

As snowballs go, this one really helped me on my journey with this novel. And it didn’t leave me cold, wet and uncomfortable.

Unlike the other one. Try pitching that story to someone successfully. When it finally stops rolling, it’ll be so huge, it may never defrost.


Self-Promotion….how shameless should it be?

I’ve been busy putting together begging  covering letters for agents. Nothing prepared me for this fiendishly difficult task. It is infinitely more difficult than writing my book in the first place; at least, that’s how it seems. The situation is not made any easier by the fact that each agent appears to require slightly different things from prospective clients, which means each letter needs very small, nuanced differences.

I’ve read tons of blog posts on the subject and naturally have squeezed every last droplet of advice from the pages of the Children’s Writers’ and Artists’ Yearbook. They all scream the same thing: this is your one and only opportunity to promote yourself! And the covering letter is the place to do it. Forget the manuscript – or the three chapters of it they ask for, along with the synopsis, personal details, bio and bribe – it’s what you say about yourself that seems to matter. It’s up there with writing a CV and covering letter for prospective employers: it’s all about selling yourself and highlighting the most interesting and bankable quality you have to offer.

This leads me rather neatly – and here’s a tenuous segue if ever there was one – to my topic for this blog post.

Last week I was down in the Languedoc region of France. Whilst there I visited the charming town of Pézenas. This is a town with a past: old houses leaning across narrow streets; pretty squares surrounded by grander maisons; antique shops; artisans around every corner; charming cafés and bistros. You would have thought that these features alone would be enough to sell the town to prospective visitors. However, in a region which is packed with charming and historic destinations, not to mention beaches, the canal du midi, and the nearby Pyrenees, smaller towns such as Pézenas have to do everything possible to stand out and be heard. In short, they need to promote the most interesting thing about themselves; the thing that will make a prospective visitor stop and take a look.

In the same way that I have (I hope) created an original and interesting story which (I hope) will cause an agent to stop and take a look, so Pézenas has Molière to provide a similar role.


I didn’t have a guide-book with me on this trip, so was quite unprepared for the revelation that this is a town which seems to live and breathe France’s answer to Shakespeare. At first, I didn’t notice. Then a pattern emerged. Every other building appeared to have his name on it.

There’s the Brasserie Molière.


Le Grand Hôtel Molière.


Something called La Scénovision Molière, which was a sort of interactive exhibition put on by the local council.scenovisionmoliere-206x300 I’d imagine you can immerse yourself in all things Molière inside: wear a frock coat like The Miser; powder a wig like Tartuffe; play a hilarious game of mistaken identity. That sort of thing. I couldn’t say for certain because it was shut.

I passed at least two buildings which claimed to have had the great man himself inside their walls. One of these proudly asserts by means of a wall-mounted plaque, that the barber Gely, friend of Molière, lived here.

Moliere woz 'ere!

Moliere woz ‘ere!

It is unclear whether the dates refer to how long the barber lived there or how long the two men were friends. It is equally unclear whether Gely was Molière’s barber, or just a friend who happened also to cut hair. Perhaps he was famous for his styling, otherwise why mention the man’s profession at all? Didn’t they all wear wigs then anyway?

I digress.

I swear another building actually stated that Molière visited this place’ once’ in such and such a year. I can’t back this up with pictorial proof, but I know what I saw. I wouldn’t be surprised if somewhere else laid claim to hosting the playwright for a pee one day. I’ve been to Stratford…I know the lengths people go to for a piece of the money-spinning literary pie!

And of course, there’s a suitably grand monument to the man.

.moliere statue

So, Pézenas cannot be accused of not trying, (although there was no rue Molière, which would seem an obvious choice). This place is doing everything it can to link itself to France’s best known, most performed, most famous literary figure.

And to think…he only visited the place briefly. And then as an actor in a touring troupe. They say he must have found inspiration for some of his characters in the townsfolk, and I’m sure he did. But the fellow didn’t make his name there. That happened much later, back in Paris. Where he was born. If anywhere can lay claim to him, it’s Paris. Stratford-Upon-Avon claims Shakespeare as its own because he was born there, married there and lived there a lot of the time. Pézenas claims Molière because he passed through and stopped a while!

Now that’s selling yourself. Can’t think of anyone famous enough actually from your town? No problem. Search the archives; find someone famous who had a wash and cut. Once.

Good on you Pézenas. You’ve found something which makes people stop and take a look. I just hope I’ve done the same in my pitch to agents.

And who knows, if I ever find a publisher and make my mark on the world with my writing, there will one day be plaques bearing my name adorning walls all over Scotland. I’d settle for that, no matter how tenuous the link.

Yes, even if it’s as tenuous as the link between the beginning and end of this blog post.