I met up with a friend last week who was on the third draft of her novel. She said that she had been on a writing course hosted by a well-known literary agency. I asked her how she’d found it. ‘Good,’ she said, but her voice gave a telltale wobble. She had learned a few things, yes. She had also had the stuffing knocked out of her. Why? Because alongside the very competent writing coach there sat an agent. And what could have been an open, mutually supportive and nurturing group had become one where its members cast furtive glances at each other, trying to work out who was in with a chance.
Let’s face it, an agent isn’t your friend until they decide to confer that honour upon you. They’re like the leader of the ‘it’ crowd in the playground. You hate them until they cast a smiling glance in your direction, and then you instantly become their labrador.
But let’s think about it from the other side too.
Some years ago I spoke to an agent who had been paid to attend an Arvon creative writing holiday. She’d had an uncomfortable week. She said that she’d felt like the enemy. The men were particularly difficult: angry and defensive. Others pursued her. At night she lay in bed listening to the rustling of manuscript pages being pushed through the crack under her door.
When I became a coach I crossed over from enemy lines. As a publisher I’d had to learn to shut the door politely in people’s faces. There are those whose dreams become a reality with your help, but there are plenty more whose dreams get trampled on – it’s is an unpleasant part of the job.
I much prefer being a coach but it doesn’t pay as well. Simon Cowell would tell you that being nasty is where the bucks are …