What I Learned in Agents School: Feedback 101

Mike Carey delivered his new thriller to Little, Brown this week.  The editor there, Daniel Mallory, not only read it overnight (it’s huge, and he says he’s a slow reader) but also wrote Mike two poems about how great it is.

OK, short poems –a haiku and a couplet – but this is the mark of a really good publisher.  Yes, the book’s fantastic; Mike’s an extremely talented writer and it’s a genuinely exciting book.  But feedback about how good something is, is very hard to give.

Agents, publishers, and producers often confer, like the team of diagnosticians in House, over exactly what’s going wrong with a book or script.  Many of us have learned in English courses or Film Studies how to analyse work.  When we’ve been in the business for a bit, we’ve got used to seeing work in a raw state, seeing what it could be at its best, and working out how to inspire the writer to get it there.

Writers work best when they’re happy and confident, and know where they’re going with a piece.  An agent can kill a book or script by rolling up her sleeves and showing how expert she is at diagnosing what’s not working yet.  But it’s equally important for the writer to know what’s going right.

Why is that so hard to identify?  Why is it so much easier to, say, come out of a movie talking about the bits you didn’t like, and assuming that what you don’t mention is OK?

There’ll be editing to do on Mike’s book.  There always is.  No book is perfect.  Not only that, but I think writing a book or a script is too big a job for one person.  Also, the publisher will have in mind any adjustments they feel are necessary for what the market’s doing at the moment.  A producer will have their execs, controllers, studios, investors to please.  But for all that it costs double the effort to work out what’s good about a book or a script, it’s vital.

4 thoughts on “What I Learned in Agents School: Feedback 101

  1. Good post and food for thought; it’s very easy for the positive to get lost in the agent/editor’s rush to problem-solve a manuscript!

  2. Very good post – I like the idea that it almost takes a village to write a book.
    It was a very constructive response from an agent, Anna Webber, with good as well as bad or missing parts identified, that was most help to me. Even though she didn’t take it she gave me the confidence to go on working at it until it was accepted elsewhere.
    I’m still working through all ‘Jude Morgan”s books – does he perhaps teach biographical fiction writing anywhere? – if so I want to be there.

  3. I also like the idea that writing a book is a joint effort between writer, agent and publisher. Maybe that explains why so many self-published books don’t hit the mark.

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