The New Year means new resolutions. This might be reaching new levels on Candy Crush or for the less remedial, the intention to read more novels, or perhaps even to write one. But, if doomsayers are believed, it’s hard to know why - it’s like intending to invent the steam engine at the advent of the internal combustion engine. However, as the human race evolves from hunters and gatherers, to simply audiences demanding constant entertainment, novels maintain an admirable hold over us, even if it’s little less than the resolution to read more of them, or at least watch the film adaptation.
As targets of good intentions, literary agents must brace themselves for the flurry of novel (or not so novel) submissions completed in a final push through seasonal hangovers, winter lurgies, and inebriated family encouragement. January is always an unwelcome opportunity to reflect upon your masterpiece’s progress. There’s little more sobering than spending the break replacing ‘ands’ that you deleted last Christmas, or angrily adding English spelling of words to your (US) spell checker, accompanied by ‘that’ll show ‘em’, when it obviously won’t.
The best advice to any debut novelist on completing a manuscript is to lock it in a drawer for 6 months, instead of sending it to the nearest agency before the ink’s dried on ‘The End’, which is what everyone does. It’s only once receipt is acknowledged that you realise it was an experimental old draft, which you’d written from the POV of a sock, and described literary agents as swamp donkeys.
Then there’s the posted submissions, which some agencies insist upon, presuming, probably correctly, that despite having spent 5 years working on a novel, for most writers, printing off its first 3 chapters and writing a covering letter, is too much effort. Once thanking your work printer Canon Gs-57 in the acknowledgements, and running its paper dry, you walk to the postbox swinging imaginary holes-in-one, despite never having played golf in your life. The showbiz ker-tesh, as the manuscript joins the others already in there, is spoilt only by the immediate realisation that your protagonist’s mother needs to be a monk. Thus requiring the sort of rewrite that would have a car mechanic’s pre-quote inhalation resulting in unconsciousness, while your heart sinks so low it’ll need planning permission to recover.
However, before even facing up to the horror of a rewrite, you need to retrieve your manuscript. As an alternative to breaking into the agency at night, or waiting to intercept the postman, you nod at passers-by while dislocating your arm in four different places attempting to extricate it from the depths of the letterbox.
Then come the rejection slips. Some arrive so rapidly that agencies presumably have filter software automatically rejecting any email entitled ‘manuscript’, ‘life work’ or ‘blood, sweat and two divorces.’
It’s difficult submitting something you believe is good because Aunt Joan likes it. Everyone is writing a novel, possibly more than those reading them, with agencies so inundated by manuscripts they have to abandon offices every 6 months, while losing sleep over the fact that some might be good. But who knows, perhaps yours might be one sliding off the ‘slush’ pile into the hands of the agent with a free weekend ahead to spend reading. If not, there’s always next year, or Angry Birds.