Wednesday, August 18, 2010

The Stark Words of a Literary Agent

Agents Joan Timberlake and George Oliver at the Writers Workshop last night.^

A literary agent can sure calm the brisk breeze in your sails. Joan Timberlake and George Oliver of Timberlake-Oliver, a literary agency, spoke last night at the Arts Council of the Blue Ridge's monthly Writers Workshop Series and their advice was both encouraging and chilling.

Their most important point, at least from the perspective of a guy who's just finished his first novel, is that the book isn't finished. It probably never will be, but it certainly isn't finished when the writer thinks it is. Far from it. It needs to be read and read and read and re-considered, re-arranged, rewritten and put aside for additional thought.

Joan's advice: send it to a publisher or an agent when it's perfect. Perfect. That's the minimum. Great plot. Riveting first page. Compelling first 50 pages. Page-turning book. No typos. Flawless grammar and punctuation. No fragments (like this one).

Give it to somebody who hates you and ask him to read it critically. Then pay attention. Your readers won't know you and won't be rooting for you. You'll be asking them to pay $25-$30 for your book and for that, they want hours and hours of reading pleasure.

Joan emphasized that publishing is a business; it is not about art. Publishers care much less about the quality of the book than about its ability to sell. They will tell you, says Joan, that first novels always lose money and though that's hyperbole, it's instructive about their position. They're doing you a favor, so take the contract being offered (all your books for life) or go back out into the great wilderness. Joan says, "Don't sign anything until you consult a lawyer, preferably one who knows the publishing business," like her. She's a lawyer, a novelist and an agent. Of course, bigger publishing houses have lawyers in-house, but small ones don't usually unless they have a Joan Timberlake as an owner.

Joan also says--and this is extremely important--that a real literary agent will never ask you for money. Not a penny. Her services to you are free if the book doesn't land some place. She is paid a percentage of the contract agreed to with the publisher. That's all of her money. If somebody asks for any money at all, politely decline and keep looking for an agent, which is sometimes harder to find than a publisher. But the agent is the clearing house. When a publisher gets a manuscript from a trusted agent, the manuscript gets priority.

So, ultimately, what Joan tells me about CLOG! is that it'd be better off as a screenplay; lots of potential there. But, I whine, "I've never written a screenplay and wouldn't even know how to begin." She points out that I'd never written a novel, either, until last month. "It means re-writing," she says. "You're a pro. You can do that."

Sure can, but the boat's going a little slower today.


  1. Dan, I've written both a novel and novella (never published and probable not very good) and am in the process of adapting the novella into a screenplay (which I have never done before) and let me tell you, it's tough. It's like writing an outline on steroids; you get to have fun with the dialogue, but not much else. It's been an interesting learning experience.

    This is not to say that the screenplay is any better than the novella upon which it's based, but in terms of learning a new craft it has been jarring. I really don't see how novelists can adapt their own stuff; it seems to take a certain kind of skill to write a screenplay vs. a narrative.

  2. Jeremy:
    Where did you learn format and form? Is there a good book? I have a friend at Hollins who can make suggestions, but I don't want to impose on people.

  3. The book I used was The Screenwriter's Bible by David Trottier (which I have and which you're welcome to borrow if you're so inclined). I also Googled a lot of screenplays. From what I've read, anything by William Goldman is a good example of how to do it right.