About to Take Off
Not too much reality

The market for ropes

There's a kerfuffle in the book trade over the likely defection - or earlier defection, or certain defection, depending on what you read - of a variable number of high-powered agents from the agency PFD. I do feel sorry for writers whose agents are directly involved, but for the rest of us it's all good soap opera. For a moment I even allowed my decision not to talk book trade on this blog to wobble.

But only for a moment. Because I really do believe that allowing too much (any?) book-trade stuff into your writer's consciousness is absolutely inimical to creativity. And that's true whether you're writing at the sharp edge of literary experiment, or well within the boundaries of good stories comfortably told. It's not that agents don't matter: after talent, a good agent is probably the biggest blessing a writer can have. Nor is it that we can afford to ignore how the book trade works, at least, not if we want to find readers, let alone make anything approaching a living.

But the book trade deals in product - it has to - and it sees and judges writing in those terms: the end result. Good editors know that real writing comes from somewhere else, a core of self that shrivels and hardens if it's exposed too often to such corrosion, and they may try to protect us, but equally their job is determined by the product, not the process. What is it in us that takes threads and scraps and hairs of the real world and spins them into the thick, sustaining rope we call a novel? None of us knows, and we'll only know if the rope's strong enough by spinning it. Which is fine, until The Ropeseller says that best-selling ropes next year will be orange. Is it too late to weave some in? Would a bit of red blend well enough with the yellow to fool the world? Never mind that orange looks dreadful with the wonderful kingfisher blue that runs the whole length. Our fingers stumble, and suddenly there's a flaw in the rope. And then we discover our rope-dealer is paying someone else more than us. Maybe this rope's the wrong kind of thing altogether, or maybe just unpicking a bit will somehow please them without changing the rope too much...

This consciousness of product, in other words, messes up a writer's process. The ease, the natural fluency, the inborn or acquired sense of the right thread for the right place, the talent-guided skill, is gone. I suspect this is one of the big reasons for Second Book Syndrome: for most writers, the second book - under contract or not - is when that consciousness of product really begins to bite. Even the good things that happen to our product - the prize shortlistings, the great reviews - shake our confidence in the second book: what should we be doing differently to get a product that will do as well?

I said that a good agent is a great blessing. Of the many good things my agent's said to me, one of the best was when I was fretting about how unlike, and like, my current novel was to The Mathematics of Love. 'Just write it how it needs to be,' she said. 'We'll worry about everything else later.'

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