Listening for the heartbeat

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.

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