Getting an Agent and other such stuff

29th February 2004

A London-based agent tracked me down through my website about a year ago, so I gave her a clear run with a book that was already finished. It's a novel that had already done the publishing rounds in a previous draft so not one I would seek a new agent for normally. Six months on and she had yet to submit, but simply chased down a submission of my own. I would hear news of a particularly heavy period she was having, of her computer collapsing, of the excessive heat, of how dispirited she was about the state of British fiction publishing. I sent her my new novel, years in the writing, and had to chase down acknowledgment of receipt. She was overwhelmed by work she had to do and could not say when she would get round to reading my own work. It was a burden I lifted from her. While having an agent requires a good deal of interaction, there's no point having an agent who needs encouraging all the time .

So I'm back in the market for an agent. My new book, Look Who's Watching, is wonderful (it's fair to say that about books the way it's fair to say it about children). I'll come back and report any success on that front as it develops.

A new book is underway, a novel I'm writing as part of a distance learning Creative Writing PhD project at Lancaster University. It's supervised by the poet Graham Mort. I'm enjoying the collegiality of the process. I submit sequences of ongoing chapters with commentary and receive pages of comments in swift return. They add the perspectives of a writer highly attuned to language, a man alert to new ideas and the workings of society, and an academic who is tuning me in to fitting my work into the literary canon. It's main point of academic reference, when it gets to dissertation time, is set to be Aldous Huxley's Brave New World.

I'm still teaching high school too. Surprisingly there's no element of that job, bar the time it takes away from writing, that I dislike. The kids are great, it brings real community involvement, a true insight into the inner workings of disparate family lives. I know this teaching experience is shaping my language - it's all great front-line experience of holding people's attention. I run a creative writing group on Tuesday lunchtimes, kids turning up and pouring their own creativity into computers.

One new piece has come out, part of a book edited by Ralph Metzner on sacred mushrooms, Teonanacatl. In a bold commercial move, it's not even available from Amazon ... you can write in for it. It's hard to get psychedlic books into the commercial marketplace. They sell a pretty standard 5,000 copies (people prefer taking stuff to reading about it) so no commercial house is going to be eager. I sent a story to the New Yorker recently, submitting it through their email system. I've just realized I've got quite a bit of quality work that nobody has ever seen. One merry Saturday recently I sat down to collect together my short stories, and by lunchtime had compiled a complete book!

I've one more talk coming up in London in May - at NAWE (National Asociation of Writers in Education) on the use of Place in fiction. At the end of the month I also run up to Lancaster for an induction day as a mentor of their Crossing Borders project, a British council scheme to support emerging writers in Anglophone Africa. I'm excited by that prospect. And of course there are the regular dreams of fullltime writing in a cottage in France.

New non-fiction ideas keep cropping up. I may or may not run with one, write it up as a proposal, but really want to see how my fiction does in the marketplace first. I'm staying fairly sane as I await the agent's response. I used to rush abroad in such moments, anything so as not to be waiting by the letterbox, but guess I've become an old hand by now. Hopefully this next agent wil be my last one ever!

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