Time after time

June 27, 2012

I grew up in a house built in the 1580s.
My family tree is charted back to the 1600s and includes a dude in a very fancy wig who has his own plinth in Westminster Abbey, London.

The church I used to attend was consecrated in 1094. I went to its 1000th birthday party.

Time moves very, very slowly in my bloodstream. Born and raised in a country where most grassy hillocks conceal ancient secrets and a simple brick wall can enshrine whole layers of civilization, I see most events through a long lens. Disaster? We will rebuild. A new gimmick? The wheel will turn. Think you know it all? We’re just passing through. Everything has layers of meaning, nothing is lost, and the decades and centuries shuffle forward, forever gone but forever present.

But I also work in a very fast-changing industry. I was involved in the launch of a very early e-book list in 2007 and just look where we are now. Methods of pricing and delivery are changing before our eyes. And every time we get a contract from one particular house, the digital wording is slightly altered to reflect some new reality.

Now, we agents are on call practically every moment. We can wreck our reputations in 140 characters – the work of ten stupid seconds. And if we don’t get there first, someone else will have beaten us to it. The pressure for all of us – writers, agents, publishers, can feel relentless. We’re ruled by the tyranny of the urgent, the need to win NOW, and ‘speed is of the essence’ is even enshrined in our contracts. The temptation not to think but to act can be very strong.

image Oh, how it throws us about!

If you’ve got queries out there, it’s an agony of expectation and self-doubt. As the days crawl by, how that optimism must turn to jelly.

Time can also be one of the toughest issues for writers once they get a deal. Suddenly the speed of an offer, a negotiation, the whirlwind of announcement is over, and the long pause begins. The watching-the-paint-dry hiatus of waiting for a contract to be finalized (often several months. ‘Did I dream the whole thing?!’). The thumb-twiddling, anxious tedium of awaiting editorial notes (‘Do you think they really want this book? Suppose they’ve gone off it!?’). The nerve-racking crawl towards second revisions (‘Did she like it? Has she even read it? Suppose she DOESN’T like it?!’). And of course the shifting of tectonic plates that must happen before a print copy actually appears, bound and jacketed.

For the author it can feel like a bad case of ‘All dressed and nowhere to go’ until you lurch into the next phase, suddenly asked for a major turn-around of manuscript or proofs in a weekend when you’ve been waiting for weeks. Not quite as streamlined and elegant a process as you imagined?

You see, this is a business forever poised between frantic haste and the ponderous stretch of time, and the knack is both to accept that (usually; unless an ‘intervention’ is needed) and to use time to your advantage. Where might your dreams take you while you’re waiting? What creative ideas could pop in from your peripheral vision that you’d otherwise have ignored? What might you discover hiding down there in the deep well of the past, beneath those grassy hillocks, and how does your treasure trove intersect with the present and future?

As Tolkien said, our creativity comes from the ‘leaf mould of the mind’. What is in YOUR compost?

As an agent, I constantly feel the pressure to speed. To find that great novel today. And if I haven’t found it today, next week, next month, what am I doing wrong? Perhaps I should grab something I don’t really love as it rushes past me . . . .Or perhaps not.

Once I have signed a new client, how tempting it is to throw their manuscript out there and see what sticks. My client wants a deal. I want a deal.


But this is where my thoughts about time truly do play into my process. Because it is the easiest thing in the world to be rejected. Many are. Even agented manuscripts. And crafting a great book is an immense mental and physical challenge.

Everything I have learned about writing, about story creation and craft, has convinced me to breathe deeply, unclench my hands, and take the time a manuscript needs. And the time a writer needs, too. After the thrills and spills of the query chase, we are now a couple, and the relationship and the work can begin out of the spotlight. How might we extract every bit of juice from the succulent fruit of plot and character? Is there a way to raise this story by 10, 20, 50 per cent? Maybe it’s ready to go straight out – but that is very rare.

If I were an editor, with a bursting Kindle of manuscripts, what would convince me to read this one – and read it before the others?

Now it is time to shut the door and put on our aprons. Time to bake this literary pie in our peaceful, magical, painstaking oven. And what a thrilling, revelatory process that can be. It may take a few days; it could take several months. What I can guarantee is that it will be worth it.

Do you feel the rush of panic and haste? The urge to sling your query, your manuscript, out there at high speed? If you’re working to a genuine deadline, under contract, then you do indeed need to buckle down, cut out as many distractions as you can, and find ways to beat time at its own game. Or ask for an extension. You’ll usually get it.

But if you’re not yet under contract, calm down and take your time. Every day Julia and I receive scads of misdirected, mistake-laden queries that would have benefited from more time spent on both writing and research. They waste our time, they waste yours; they lead to regret at wasted opportunities, fruitless hours. Results can wait – just get it right.


Maybe we’ve all listened a little too well to ‘seize the moment’. Maybe it’s time now to stop, breathe, experience the silence, know that all things will be well, and craft in peace.

Under the wind-blown grassy hillock, there may be an Anglo Saxon ship burial. In the gnarly old brick wall , there could be a Roman mosaic full of breathtaking colour.

If you take the time, you might spot them.


Pix: 1) St Mary’s Church, Harrow-on-the Hill, Middlesex, GB. Consecrated in 1094. 2) and 3 and 4) ): A weird metaphorical clock, a grassy hillock and a very old brick wall. What can I say? 4) A relic from the Sutton Hoo ship burial in the UK. A true treasure trove.