Euan Thorneycroft: The Practice of Writing
As part of my TCD MPhil in Creative Writing course, we had a class called “The Practice of Writing”, a one hour class where writers and agents would come into the class and talk about what the practice of writing involved for them. Euan Thorneycroft is a literary agent who represents crime, thrillers, historicals and speculative fiction at the A.M. Heath literary agency.
Euan opens with the question: “What do agents do?” His answer: “Contracts, PR, therapy, publishing. We help authors make a career through their writing.” Getting an agent, he says “is always the hardest stage for writers [but] we desperately want to read new works. Put very crassly, that’s how we make our money.”
He then goes on to give some tips on how to get an agent. “We receive hundreds of manuscripts per week. To get to top of the pile, identify the right agency. Buy Writers and Artists Yearbook. Find an agent who reps the kind of work you do. The match is crucial.”
“If I were an author, I would send my work to a few agents at once,” he says. But tell each agent that you’re submitting simultaneously. And send it to ONE agent, a particular agent, at an agency, not several. Spell his or her name correctly.
“And it sounds like a really basic thing and a really boring thing” but follow the submission guidelines to the letter. Spelling and grammar — if the first pages are littered with mistakes, it doesn’t create a great impression. Cover letters matter. Publishing “is a people industry”; give a sense of who you are on a single side of A4 paper.
“Give a signpost of what we’re about to read.” Is it a crime novel? A couple of lines of blurb; trace the story. “And also a few lines about yourself.” Not much, but if you have an interesting job or background, it might strike a chord. Some of these are “small, psychological games or tactics to get an agent interested in your work.”
A synopsis gives us an idea of whether you know how to build a story. Don’t get hung up on it. Half a side of A4. And, of course, read as widely as possible. “It’s the best way of learning, as well as doing the writing itself.” Crime fiction, for example, can teach you about how to plot, how to reveal plot points.
He then offers a few don’ts. Don’t send bribes, gifts, gimmicks. No photos. Smokers, your hard submissions smell “pretty grim.” Don’t write to trends or fashions; they’ll be over before your book gets to the shelf. You have to write something you really want to write about. “And, most importantly, don’t give up. You will get knocked back. Most writers’ debut novels are not their debut novels. They’ve written novels before.”
“So, what happens when we take someone on at A.M. Heath?” he goes on. Once he takes something on, he works with a writer for “a couple of months to a couple of years” before sending it out. After Thorneycroft took on M.D. Villiers’ City of Blood, they went through two more revisions before sending it out. “My job is to get that book into the best possible shape it can be” before showing it to publishers. If you get knocked back by a publisher, “we can’t really resubmit it.” So agents want to do the work first. Agenting is a close relationship; it’s personal. Writers need to meet, measure and trust their agent.
After whipping the book into shape, the next step is making a deal. Key part of job is managing authors’ expectations. Most authors do NOT get a six-figure deal. Most get far less, and shouldn’t give up their day jobs. “The reality is that most authors have to do other things to bring in money.”
“How do we get the best deal for an author?” he asks. Sometimes it’s the money, but sometimes it’s a better editor/house/market. “Our job, as I keep coming back to, is to help an author have a career in writing. It suggests longevity.” Sometimes that means helping an author shift genres, plan series, make long-term choices for their writing.
Hilary Mantel has always been a great writer, but didn’t have the commercial success [her agency] felt she was due. But then she won the Booker and things took off, and that’s a good example of an agent-author partnership in the long term.
One student asks about matchmaking between books and editors. “Each project is different,” he says, “with a different tactic for each book. We pick the editors carefully before submitting.”
Another student asks about synopses. “I want an overview,” he says. “I don’t want every twist and turn. Don’t tell me the big twist at the end. What’s useful is to get someone who doesn’t know the book to read it and write a synopsis. It’s quite a good test of the book.”
He’s asked how he manages an author’s neuroses through a long or difficult process, or if a book doesn’t sell? He says it’s about boundaries. “One of the first authors I took on phoned me on Christmas Day on my mobile. We sometimes are therapists. … Writing is a lonely pursuit; not everyone has someone to read their work.”
Thorneycroft has some final words on self-publishing. Publishers don’t pay high enough ebook royalties. Whether that will change? It will have to. You see the Hugh Howeys of this world. They’re outliers, but influencing authors’ sense of digital rights. For agents, it’s a challenging time. If you want to self-publish, what is the agent’s role? We’ve had to change our view. We used to think it was vanity publishing. Our view has changed completely. If we take something great and can’t sell it then we have to help them figure out how to self-publish and justify why they should use us for that. Amazon has been very smart, and we work with them to get certain deals that most new authors can’t get. On the one hand, digital disruption has made publishing quite difficult, but there are a lot of opportunities out there. Publishing has been quite slow to react to digital publishing and ebooks. The successful ebook writers are doing quite hard work. If they feel we’re not worth the 15 percent, they can get rid of us. Agents can help self-published authors with marketing, publicity, social networking, covers, pricing. It’s up to us to prove that we’re useful, and up to an author to decide whether to do all of that work for himself.
Derek Flynn runs Writing.ie's SongBook blog, and is an Irish writer and musician. He has a Masters in Creative Writing from Trinity College, Dublin. He’s been published in a number of publications, including The Irish Times, and his fiction was featured in 'Surge', an anthology of new Irish writing published by O’ Brien Press with the aim of showcasing “the very best of the next generation of Irish authors”. Online he can be found at his writing/music blog – ‘Rant, with Occasional Music’ – and on Twitter as @derekf03