I wouldn’t advise any writer to be late, but stuff happens, and this might be a handy guide to the consequences:
Book: Publisher not ready anyway
Script: Producer has sacked writer and got someone else to write it
Book: Publisher has vague presentiment
Script: Producer has forgotten writer’s name
Book: Publisher asks agent if writer’s OK
Book: Publisher starts to worry about book, not writer
Book: Publisher sends writer firm email
Book: Publisher changes publication date
Script: Production put behind due to rebrief, writer asked to rewrite
Book: Publisher and agent relax a bit
Book: Publisher now convinced author has discovered better way of making a living and the agent has either not noticed or is lying that ms on its way
Script: Production put behind due to change in exec; new rewrite
Book: Publisher demands return of advance
Script: Major cast changed; new rewrite
Book: Ms might still be welcome to publisher’s successor
Script: Surreal rebrief; new rewrite
Writer has no career left
Writer heralded as making triumphant return
Talking to Anne’s biographer has been the first real chance to review the years working with my longest-standing client. Anne’s been my education.
So, as an agent, what have I learned?
Perhaps the most important lesson was to ask questions, rather than find solutions, in the development process. The human brain seems hard-wired to identify problems, and work out how to fix them. Really useful when you’re doing a contract. But strangely, it doesn’t cheer up a writer to be told where they’ve gone wrong, and what they should do with their book.
A writer said to me that she didn’t worry if someone took issue with something she didn’t think was actually a problem. It was a signal that somewhere the script wasn’t wrong – even if it wasn’t what had been pointed out. Most of the time a trained agent is right – I believe this because when I compare notes with other agents, we almost always agree. But sometimes the agent is wrong. Asking questions are a surer way of picking up where the problems really are.
Second, if a writer tries to adopt someone else’s idea for their book, often it sounds forced and weird. Asking questions prompts a writer to come up with their own solutions. Since they’re organic to them, they’re not just going to be of a piece with the rest of the work – and often better than someone else would have thought up.
Is it a chastening exercise in humility? Yes, especially when you think the writer’s not solved something as well as your great idea for it. It’s way harder to think of the questions than it is the answers.
What sort of questions? Every piece of work is different, but examples are ‘Who’s the main character?’ ‘Which theme is more important to you?’ ‘What can X do to create more tension / be more active?’ ‘Where does X make their biggest mistake?’
Agenting has been compared to midwifery, and it really feels like that sometimes. It really feels sometimes like you’re listening for the baby’s heartbeat, and asking the mum how she feels. Only the baby really knows what it wants to be like, but we want to deliver a healthy, happy one.
Anne Perry’s biographer, Joanne Drayton, has been here in London with a New Zealand television crew, filming an interview. The biography, In Search of Anne Perry, comes out next month from HarperCollins.
From the moment Anne’s past was revealed by Peter Jackson’s Heavenly Creatures, I knew someone like Jo would come along. An agent’s nightmare is that the biographer will betray your client, bringing some agenda of their own or just wanting to be sensationalist. Anne’s no shrinking flower when someone criticises her from the audience – she can come back with a devastating riposte – but here she was facing having her whole life examined.
Luckily, Jo’s turned out to be empathetic and intelligent. She also ‘gets’ Anne. Naturally, Anne’s past has had to be thoroughly probed, but Jo’s also chronicled the 30+ years of Anne’s writing career and life since then.
A life of two halves? Before that terrible mistake, and after? Maybe not; Anne never set out to be a writer of murder mysteries, but being a writer was always Plan A for her. As she says, ‘there was no Plan B’. We could wish that her past had guaranteed her even better sales, but I can’t see there was any profit in it for her. However, it’s given her an authenticity with which to write, and reinforced her compassion for everyone caught up in a human tragedy.