“You just need… more,” the agent is saying to me as I try to pour myself a cup of tea out of the pot without it sounding as if I am doing a wee while on the telephone. “Higher stakes – more going on. More happening. A concept – even a great one – is not a plot.”
I take notes furiously, having learnt this summer/autumn that you’re lucky if an agent even responds to your email submission, let alone wants to spend an hour on the phone discussing your writing.
She says more – what she doesn’t like about my characters, what she does. We talk about who I read, who I should read. Questions are asked of me that I never thought anyone would want to know the answers to (“who am i writing for?”). I knew before this conversation that this was not going to be The Conversation where an agent tells me they want to represent me, but at the same time I didn’t really know what it was going to be about, really.
I try not to wince or worry at the constructive criticism. I remember all those times I drafted poor contracts at work and received them back with raised eyebrows and red pen marks, and all of those early-evenings spent feeling bummed out and stupid in the office made me a much, much better lawyer. Even now, I would always rather know.
I try not to worry about how it feels like I’ve climbed a mountain, rounded the corner and seen another one. I try not to worry that future-Billygean won’t make the changes, write the next book, will instead squander the opportunity of an agent being interested as so many other writers seem to do – to fall at the final hurdle, to endlessly procrastinate or decide it’s too hard or turn away from the pain of the blank screen. I try not to be disappointed at how I finished a novel – a bloody novel – and it needs re-writing, or a new one needs writing. This process is, after all, the one which published writers go through, anyway.
I try not to let my mood dip, as it does so easily at the moment, as it always did when coming out of being unwell and dealing with all the shite that goes with that – the lost career opportunities, the hottest summer in five years – gone, not enjoyed – the financial strain, the disappointment. I know I will look back on this week in particular – the week an agent asked me to send her my next novel, no querying, direct to her inbox; the week I got a diagnosis; the week I started the ball rolling back towards returning to work – as a stressful one, full of change and feelings and wantings.
The phone call is coming to an end. I hold my tea and look at the darkening windows in my living room. “You really do have such a lot of raw talent, for writing, for storytelling,” she says to me. “Your writing reminds me of David Nicholls’ – the warmth of it.”
I touch my hand to my heart, briefly. That sentence – that one, tiny sentence – will see me through the next few months of treatment, work and, hardest of all, writing a new novel.
“Thank you,” I say, bowing my head in the lamplight.
I stand up, my ear hurting from the heat of the telephone and walk into the kitchen. And, as always when I am unsure how to feel about something, I bake and think. The heat from the oven and the sweet peanut-butter dough of my cookies clears my head and as I roll the little balls out on the baking trays I feel a little calmer.