• Marc Hamer

Updated: Mar 24, 2021

I said in my last post about how my agent helps me in my work and how he works with publishers. Perhaps I need to say more about the relationship between writers and agents. If you haven't read it and you are interested in how he works with me on a proposal, go there first. The post is called 'A Deal is Struck', the link is down at the bottom of the page.

Yesterday a phone call with my agent Robert, to iron out the details of the new book contract. The contract is on its way and my advance will be paid in four stages, at signing the contract, at delivery of a satisfactory manuscript a year later, at publication of the hardback a year after that and at publication of the paperback a year after that. Also there are audiobook rights and other bits and pieces to do with foreign rights. My agent has negotiated me a good deal that we are all happy with, he has pushed and looked at every angle. You need an agent to do all this stuff, it is complex and filled with legalese and tradition, he is worth every penny of his commission and more. Now this is done he will begin, when the time is right to look to sell the foreign rights. 'How to Catch a Mole' went on to sell in 16 different languages, so far Seed to Dust, launched in a pandemic when nobody is buying anything has done less well.

About forty years ago I wrote a novel which I sent to a well known agent. I typed it on a tiny children’s typewriter, this was before computers, I posted it to her in a brown envelope. Three months later she sent me a very long, very lovely letter saying that she loved my work and thought it was very profound but could not see how it could fit into the market, she told me to keep on writing. She was right, it was very derivative but I wish I still had that novel, I would rewrite it and submit it again now. Being something of a wanderer who doesn’t hold onto things, it has gone the way of all things. On and off I did keep on writing though, but did not submit again for years, instead I served my apprenticeship, writing short stories and poetry and stuff for employers, marketing my own gardening business, leaflets and operational manuals, essays and the odd magazine piece.

To a writer who wants to be published by a traditional publisher, an agent is vital. It is no longer an option. So the first job for any writer if they want to get their work in the bookshops and to earn any money at all, is to get an agent. This is tricky. I have seen rants on social media from writers who thought that any agent should be glad to have them, who have become angry when an agent turns them down as if the agent is there to do their bidding. Such writers fail. This is a hard and cruel business but it is polite. Writers are not special, there are millions of us, and there are many millions more who want to be writers, and there are billions of people who think they could write a book if only they had the time. Writers are ten a penny and agents have their pick of people they feel can make money, or can add something worthwhile and different to the literature that is already available. Agents are literary people who read an awful lot and if you can make one sit up and take notice then you have got something original or engaging to say.

It all goes in fashions that respond to what is going on in the world, angry young men is old hat, angry young women is a wonderful new hat with feathers on, politics is current, coronavirus is a no-no, post-apocalyptic dystopian fiction is a definite ‘no thanks, not for us at this time’. They always say ‘not at this time’, I don’t know why, are they hedging their bets for when the dystopian future fails to arrive and we can read about it happily again? Happy old men? Well that’s my thing, it’s not a thing yet but I’m working on it.

It takes about two years or more for a book to hit the shelves and publishers are always looking ahead to imagine what might be fashionable by then. So if you want to get famous, start a #movement, be ahead of the curve or at the very least on it, and as good as anything else that is coming. Above all write your own thing in your own voice. But that is for another blog.

To find your agent do your research, find an agent who represents people like you or better still, read between the lines and find an agent who wants to be seduced by your work, but doesn’t know it yet. Then get out there and enchant them. After I wrote ‘How to Catch a Mole’, I started to look for an agent. I looked specifically at people who were interested in nature issues or biographies or growing old, maturing or better still, deeper subjects like who and what we are, and why we are here, and what we are supposed to do with our life, because that is what my work is really about when you scratch away the story. I looked for people who were looking for something different and perhaps a bit literary. I avoided people who liked mass market fiction, who wanted thrillers, or books for bird spotters and so on because I am not interested in that kind of stuff and more importantly they would not be interested in me.

Every agent has a website, on their website they tell you who they represent, what kind of work they are looking for and if they are open for submissions. I found three agents who might fit the bill and I targeted them, I had a first choice and two second choices. My first choice was a top literary agent based in Soho, his website said very clearly that he was looking for non-fiction work that introduced him to a different world. So I emailed him and the other two a polite covering letter saying that I had written something that I thought he might like and had taken the liberty of attaching an outline (one page) and the first couple of chapters, about five pages altogether. I was in a freezing house in the North of France, the cows in the field were leaning against the walls to protect themselves from the hailstones, the heating was a log fire and the log pile was diminishing and I was an unemployed writer looking for a break.

Now it usually takes about three months for an agent to reply because they get inundated with books from people who want to be writers, and if the book looks promising they read it, and sometimes their co-agents will read it too, and they will discuss it. Other writers are going to hate me when I say this but, I had an email back in about half an hour, asking me to send more, so I sent him what I had which was what I thought was a finished piece of work, a short snappy book of about 50,000 words. Then he emailed and asked can we talk on the phone, so the rain having stopped I wander round the field outside talking to him on the phone. A few weeks later I was back in Wales and we were hugging in my kitchen after drinking too many Negronis in a cafe in the village. It was fast. I emailed the two other agents who had not got back to me or sent an acknowledgement, one of them replied with a congratulations and thanks for letting me know, the other I never heard from.

An agent has a deep connection with people in the publishing houses, they know each other, often for years, they have a track record together, a relationship. Your agent will look at your work and think about who in the business you will be a good match for, he or she will be thinking of individual editors. They will identify an individual they think might be good fit for you and will start to probe; ‘what are they looking for? Are they interested in this or that? What about this really interesting book that has just come in, it’s fresh, nobody else has seen it yet, it is a real goer and I think it fits your list perfectly, would you like to have a look at it?’ And so the book is read by an editor who will either say maybe or no. If it is ‘no’ your agent will look for other matches who might be in the right place to be looking for something like what you have written, and so on until one of them says, ‘I like it! Maybe, let’s take it to the team and see what they think’. At that point I always feel ‘the game is afoot’ as Sherlock would say and it may get to the next stage or it may be turned down and move onto another editor. There are many reasons it may be a ‘no’. Not all of them are to do with whether you have got a future as a writer or not.

At events writers are always asked by somebody in the audience if not the chair, ‘what was your journey to publication?’ and every time the story is different. Having been to many literary parties and events as audience and participant, I have heard hundreds of these stories. So, find your agent and seduce them with fabulous writing that floats their boat. I think I have the best agent I have come across. That is because we work well together, we understand each other, we have similar philosophies, we are honest with each other and I love him as a person. At every writer event, especially if the booze is flowing you will crash into dozens of boring conversations between authors who are staggering about saying how rubbish their agent is or how crap their publisher is. This little world is full to the gunwales with dissatisfied writers. I am not one of them. I see myself as part of a team which includes my agent, my editor and publisher, the designers, the marketing and sales people and the booksellers. If any one of those falls down, your book dies and you become one of the many hundreds of authors who disappear every year.

So the next thing for this new book of mine is that the contract will arrive by email, I’ll sign it and email it back, keep my copy and get on with writing the first draft. I have until the end of March 2022 to submit.

When I think I have finished it and that I can do no more, when I am exhausted and sick to death of it, when I am wondering why I ever got into this stupid business, and want to find proper job that pays me enough money to live on, my wife will read it and make suggestions, then it will go to my agent who will read it and send me back to work on it some more and I will go back to work. Quality feedback from my agent is vital. Agents all work in different ways, some very rare agents will take on a writer that they think shows promise and will work with them to develop an idea for many months and through loads of drafts. Others will just give the barest minimum of feedback. Mine is just right for me, he will tell me in the nicest possible way what I need to hear, then I’ll go back and fix it and he’ll read it again. That will be the first edit. Before that will come a lot of hard work, heartbreak, terror, joy, worry and sleepless nights.

My home is my office and I am on duty 24 hours a day. I wake in the early hours and my wife often hears me typing at 3am. Before I start on this book I have to clear my decks and my desk. For my North American publisher I have a book review to write - so I need to read it first, and a newspaper article and a video to make thanking some booksellers and a book to finish editing for another writer. When I have done all that I will be free to fully immerse myself in the new book.

The title? Oh I won’t be telling you that until much later in the day, there are many writers who are desperately sniffing about for material, and they will steal your ideas and your title and pretend they are they own, with less guilt than they would feel at taking a chocolate biscuit off the pile on your plate. Never trust a writer, some of them are desperate and immoral creatures.

Ta ta for now!

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  • Marc Hamer

Updated: Mar 12, 2021

This is a blog about the writing process of a book that I have just started working on.

A long telephone call with my agent Robert. My editor at Harvill Secker, who published my previous two books, ‘How to Catch a Mole’ and ‘Seed to Dust’ has made an offer for my third book and we have agreed to accept their offer. I now have to write it.

The offer has come at the end of a long process. When I started writing the first book ’Mole’, I knew there would be three books in the series. As well as writing books and essays and the odd poem, I’m a gardener, I plant things in threes or fives or sevens, good things come in threes I think. Goldfish in bowls should be in threes. It is a lovely harmonious number, a beginning, a middle and an end. There may well be more books I’m pretty sure there will be, but these three books have been for some time, everything to me; my life, my income, my love, my art and my poetry and I am deeply proud of them.

This blog is the story of the third.

Each book has been sold to the same publisher as a ‘one off’. When I sent the first book off, I thought it was finished. I had a lot to learn. It was far from finished, it was little more than a proposal, nevertheless they saw something in it and bought it and then sent me away to finish writing it. There have been no ‘two-book deals’, just one book, then I offered another which they liked and published, and now the third. This book and the last one have been sold before they were written. This is usual in the world of “Non-Fiction” They are sold on proposal. (More of that later). It’s like buying a new house ‘off plan’.

In reality I have already written thousands of words, some of these will end up in the final book. Most of them won’t. These notes have helped me to define what this book is, what it is about, what the story is, what the themes are, where it starts and ends. The notes were started about a year ago, immediately after I had finished editing my most recent book 'Seed to Dust'. They are in various notebooks, on bits of paper scattered about the place, in my phone and 70,000 of them in a file on my computer, some of them are duplicated in two or more places. My notes are a mess, my notes are always a mess, I like them being a mess, pulling them together is part of the creative process, finding connections that I had not noticed as things appear out of sequence, it keeps my mind questioning, accepting and rejecting. I write my notes wherever I am on whatever is to hand when they come to me, at three in the morning when I wake up or walking in a field or driving to the shops. I wrote most of my first book on my phone, it dictated the style of the book, little short sentences, many of them in the 5/7/5 syllable format of the haiku although you wouldn't notice unless you were looking.

I knew there was a third book, but I did not know clearly what it looked like. I knew what it ‘felt’ like, I knew its mood and tone and 'flavour' I knew its subject but very little else and so I had to go exploring, trying different avenues, experimenting with ways to tell the tale until I found one that intrigued me and that I was confident about. At that point I contacted my agent (Robert Caskie) and asked if he was ready to receive another book from me, ‘Seed to Dust’ had just come out in hardback. The UK and the rest of Europe was in tight lockdown. The bookshops were all closed and no foreign rights were being bought, so I was not certain that he would. He said, ‘send me a proposal’, so I wrote about two pages outlining my idea, ‘not enough’ he said, ‘tell me more about the structure’ and as I tried to write about the structure I realised that I didn’t have a story at all. He is good like that, he saw what I in my closeness to my work, had missed. Structure is everything in a book. Not just everything but EVERYTHING. And this was unwritable, junk, the meandering thoughts of a lunatic. In my excitement to get on with the new book I had rushed ahead, not given myself time to really absorb the idea and let it bubble around in my head, give my subconscious enough time to crawl through all the nooks and crannies and find the structure.

I went back to the drawing board and after about a month the story began to reveal itself as I built it up and carved it down again. This is how it usually works, for me anyway. It's like making a clay bust of someone, you add more material and the more you add, the more obvious the flaws become so then I have to scrape it down and leave the bits that work if I can, without undermining their structure, then adding more material and the likeness begins to get closer and over time closer still until something sparks and I can say THAT'S IT!

So I wrote another proposal, another two pages and two pages of samples from the first few chapters. These were based on my notes that were starting to form into a structure that was approaching what I wanted to portray. He came back and said ‘not enough’ tell me more. So I added and scraped some more, digging more deeply into the idea and he said ‘Great! I love it!', and I felt a spark of hope and he sent it off to my editor at Harvill Secker who published my last two books. I grew increasingly nervous for about two weeks.

Writing has historically not been considered an occupation, most writers have another source of income, whether that be a partner or a career. My partner is also a writer, so we support each other, we were writers when we met over 30 years ago, books are one of the things that drew us together, we write different things but have an intensely creative relationship, we talk about our writing constantly, we are that vital second pair of eyes on each others work. A supportive partner is really helpful, whether that be financially or as in our case, creatively.

In the pandemic no bookshops were open, publishers were not buying books, people didn't feel like reading and foreign rights were not being sold, life was static and I needed money to continue my not very lavish lifestyle. So as I say, I was nervous for a couple of weeks. Two weeks later my editor came back and said ‘I love it - but tell me more. I want to know how the chapters pan out, what is in them what’s the story arc?’ So I rewrote the proposal, moulded some more sample chapters, indicated the arc, outlined the beginning and the end, my lovely agent said ‘brilliant! I love it so much’. He sent it back to my editor who takes a couple of days and comes back saying ‘perfect. I love it so much, I need to see what the publishing team make of it, and then if they like it it will go to another meeting where we will decide if it fits into our plans, and if we can make an offer (based on how your other books have sold)’. A month passes, half-term intervenes, home schooling of locked down children and I begin to consider my long term future and joining a buddhist monastery, I can grow vegetables and sit immobile for hours so I would be good at that.

My work is classed as ‘Non-Fiction’, occasionally described as ‘memoir’ or ‘nature writing’ depending on who you are talking to but I don’t see it that way, I think of myself as a novelist who writes about real stuff, events that really happen in people's lives and about the conflicting feelings and understandings that go along with those events, how we justify, explain or just plain live with our inconsistencies. In much the same way as Jack Kerouac and Jeanette Winterson write about real things, human journeys that define who we are. I am their love child, my great, great grandfather was the poet John Clare, (not really though - I made that up). It is rarely up to the writer to decide what box we get stuffed in and there is a lot of pressure to keep reproducing your first success. That is easy for me, I am a one trick pony, I write about the bitter sweetness of life and how to be a happy old man.

So Harvill Secker made an offer. They are going to publish. Cue running out to the local spa to buy whatever fizzy booze they had to celebrate with. Publishing is a weird business, most people are in it because they love books, the pay is not mind blowing, the work is hard but it seems fun. My publisher, Harvill Secker, is an imprint of Vintage, which itself is an imprint of Penguin Random House. So there is a massive team of expertise in that system and some very talented designers and editors and sales and marketing people who are there to make it beautiful, get it noticed and make it sell so we can all have a living. I feel very privileged to be with them, they are a serious publisher who manage some very serious writers who I am in awe of.

As I was lying in bed this morning nursing the hangover, I was thinking about the process and about how every time I go to a literary event, whether it is mine of somebody else’s, there is always an interest from the audience about how you write a book, what a writers life is like, what the process is, and as there are no literary events right now I thought I would write a blog. This blog. So here it is, this is the story of writing a book, from beginning to end, the story of my writing day, of how it is going, the ups and downs. The book will take a year or more to write another year to edit and then the long publishing process. By the time the book comes out and is born into the world I will have started the next one and will have forgotten all about this one, I’ll struggle to remember what happened.

Today it is sunny, nearly spring. I am going to put old clothes on and do some gardening, turn the idea taps full on and let all the wonders begin to flow. I have been holding it back for a while in case there was ‘no deal’ and I would have to come up with a ‘Plan B’. It is full on ‘Plan A’ and I am a very happy writer. I might order a new pair of shoes later.

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  • Marc Hamer

Updated: Mar 6

This blog is about the writing process of a book, my next book, a book that I have just started to write. It is the story of each stage of the process from the initial idea to publication day.

When I wrote my first book 'How to Catch a Mole' I felt that it would be part of a series. I wanted to write three books that were related to each other, not dependent on each other, you could easily read any one of them alone, but I wanted them to relate to each other in a way that only someone who had read all three books would understand.The second book 'Seed to Dust' consolidated the idea of a trilogy and I am at the moment writing the third. I won't tell you the title just yet because we are still in the very early stages and writers get very superstitious about their titles being stolen - I know someone it happened to. Today I am waiting for a telephone call to confirm that the book has indeed been agreed by my publisher, the wonderfully classy Harvill Secker who publish stars like George Orwell and Haruki Murakami. As George Orwell was the first proper writer I ever read, I feel very proud to share a publisher.

I want to take you with me on the journey of writing this book and to be honest I think keeping a process log of it might help me to work out any problems I have along the way. There will be problems, there are always problems. My wife Kate is also a writer and if you go to her pages of this website you'll be able to read about her work which is very different to mine. We are a writing couple, that is one of the things that drew us to each other when we met. Each morning we take to different parts of the house, meeting up for coffee or a break and at the end of the day we talk about how the work is going and try to help each other through any difficulties we are having, it is a creative partnership. If the work is going well, we tend to say little, talking about it can interfere with the process and a good writing streak is so precious that we hang onto it with every ounce of our attention out of fear that the creative genie will disappear. If it is not going well, life can get very fiery!

I imagine there will be periods in this blog where I post nothing for a while, hanging on to the process until it hits the rocks, then I guess I'll be back here. At the moment I am very excited about this new book. I know I can do it. For me, every book starts with a feeling that I want it to have. It has to be beautiful, for me that goes without saying, but beautiful comes in many different flavours. I know what its personality is, I know what it feels like, I can see it in my minds eye, it's shape, layout, the density of the text on the pages. I know the feeling I want the story to create, I know how it begins and ends, I know a few of the islands I want to explore on the way, some of them I know very well, others are new territory and what I will find there is a mystery. There will be periods when I hate it, other periods when I think it is rubbish and I am totally wasting my time and need to find another way of paying the bills.

So if you are interested in taking this bumpy journey with me, please come along, I'd be pleased to have the company! It can be a lonely old business.

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