When people have found out about my book, there’s one question that I’ve been asked time and time again. Sometimes by someone asking for themselves, sometimes on behalf of a friend but nonetheless the question has been “how did you get an agent?”
It’s a good question because the initial process of getting an agent is possibly the biggest barrier to overcome for an aspiring author and, from the outside, it can seem an insurmountable barrier and, for that reason, I know that when the person asking me is really asking for a formula that they too can follow with guaranteed success. Which makes it a shame that my answer is both rather mundane and tricky to replicate. I’d love to be able to tell an inspiring and moving story about how I sent my book to every agent in London, received rejection after rejection and rejection but then, when I was right at my very lowest ebb, an agent finally responded and made my dreams come true. But that would be a lie. The simple and most honest answer is that I got an agent through sheer dumb luck.
The day that I decided to write a non-fiction book about Santa Claus, I was feeling quite motivated to get on with things and decided to get on and write a proposal. The only problem was that I had absolutely no idea what a non-fiction book proposal looked like or involved, or how much of the book I needed to write before submitting it (this is a question I will answer in either the next article or the one after that). Feeling a bit lazy I decided not to Google it myself but instead posted something on Facebook asking my friends, acquaintances, people I went to school with and the people who I’ve never met but continually send me invites to gigs they’re promoting whether anyone had ever written a non-fiction book proposal and whether they knew what it involved. I wasn’t expecting much but a friend of mine came back and said that his friend Matthew was a literary agent and would be happy to give me some advice. I dropped the friend an email asking for help and briefly pitched the idea (“to give him an idea of what I was trying to do”) and got an email back from Matthew saying he liked the idea and wanted to meet me the following week.
I realise that this involves a lot of lucky coincidences. I happened to know someone who knew an agent, the agent happened to be willing to give some advice to a friend of a friend and the agent then actually liked my idea. I also realise this is the sort of thing that could make other aspiring writers a bit angry and would (probably rightly) lead you to conclude that it’s not what you know but who you know. Also it raises the question of why I’m telling you all this and whether there’s a particular lesson that I wish to impart.
The answer to the first question is that I’m telling you this is that it’s because it’d be a bit odd if I wrote about how I came to write the book and didn’t touch on how I came to get an agent. The answer to the latter question is there are probably two lessons you can take from this that you might find useful.
The first one is to remember that luck will play a huge part in anything that happens to you, for good or ill. This can be a difficult thing to accept – everyone wants to feel they’re responsible for their successes and we live in a culture where it seems everyone of note – from writers to actors to musicians to businesspeople to sports stars – will continually emphasise how they have succeeded because they worked so hard and ‘wanted it’ so much. And I’m sure they belief that but nonetheless you’re getting a very skewed picture because newspapers and magazines tend to only interview the rich and famous – you never ever hear from the people who worked hard but didn’t ‘make it’. Who’s to say how hard they worked and how much they wanted to succeed? Ultimately you can work as hard as you like but, without the lucky break that gets things moving, it won’t guarantee anything.
So far then, none of this is actually particularly useful and it all probably sounds slightly depressing. I can only apologise for that. I’m trying to be truth rather than raise false hopes and this is the precise reason I’ll thankfully never make much of a self-help guru or ‘lifestyle coach’.
Nonetheless there is a more positive side to this that perhaps you can learn something from and that is that I’ve not yet revealed the full picture of how the lucky coincidence that helped me get an agent took place.
I might have got a break through knowing the ‘right’ people but, when I first came to London ten years ago, I barely knew anyone at all. I grew up in a small village, my family had zero links with the literary industry whatsoever and, when I first moved to London, ten years ago, I had literally one friend in the entire city and for several months I was lonely, shy and probably a bit depressed. I wrote in the first article about how, as I approached my 30th birthday, I felt I’d wasted my twenties. But looking back, this wasn’t entirely true. I actually spent a lot of time putting myself into a position where I knew enough people for coincidences to happen. I don’t entirely buy into the idea that people ‘make their own luck’ but I do believe it is a simple truth that the more people you befriend, and the more you demonstrate to people what you can do, the more likely it is you’ll find somebody who can help you.
But, short of sitting people down and forcing them to read your book, how do you demonstrate what you can do? What I did was learn a few simple guitar chords become a musician. I originally started playing acoustic guitar and singing at open mic nights because I was feeling pretty isolated and wanted something to get me out the house but I realised that, whilst film scripts can take well over a year to write and wind up being read by nobody whatsoever, you can write a song in the morning, perform it to the audience in the evening and receive instant feedback on something you’ve written.
Daunting though it sounds, I would recommend any aspiring writer tries their hand at performing in public – be it music, poetry, stand-up comedy or even simply delivering talks and lectures. It’s a chance to see what audiences respond to, when and where you gain and lose audience interest and, because you don’t want to embarrass yourself in public, it really forces you to improve. I’d also advise, when you’re out at any kind of performance, gauging audience reactions to other people’s work as well. Obviously your ability to go out and perform regularly depends on where you live, your financial situation and your family commitments so I know this may not be advice everyone can follow but, if you can do it, I’d strongly recommend it – I learned more about writing in my first nine months’ of performing than I did in five years of writing in a room on my own. (If it really isn’t possible, then I’d probably recommend starting a blog and joining internet messageboards related to your interests – it’s not quite as good as meeting people in the flesh but you can nonetheless befriend like-minded people and let them get to know your style of writing).
What’s more, by performing you’ll start to meet people who share your interests and build up the number of people you know – many of whom will work in creative field. I despite the term ‘networking’ and the idea of anyone cynically going out and meeting people who can advance their career but, if you go out to things you’re interested in and talk to people, you might find it happens anyway. What’s more, it shows an audience what you can do. Ultimately I enjoyed the music so much that I ended up with a band, a small record deal and some radio and festival appearances. Not only was this fun, it was a brilliant way to get people to know about my interests and my style of writing. Going back to the top, the friend who responded to my Facebook question was someone who’d seen me play several times and liked my style of writing and I later found out one of the reasons why Matthew was interested in taking me on was because he too had heard my music and the dissonance between the blackly comic approach of my song-writing and the fact that I wanted to write a book about Santa was a big part of the appeal.
None of this changes the fact that I succeeded through a series of lucky coincidences but they were lucky coincidences that only happened because I was already going out and working hard to promote myself and my writing without really realising I was doing it. Luck will play a huge part in whether you succeed or not but I certainly think the writer who goes out and talks to people is far more likely to be lucky than the writer who stays at home and keeps all their work hidden in a drawer. It might not be fair that we live in a world where who you know matters more than how you write but, if that really is the case, then – like it or not – the most pragmatic solution is to get out there and meet more people…