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Agents, Part 1: Not The Destination

One thing I hear more than any other from new writers in particular is how much they want an agent. It is, without any doubt in my mind, the single most important thing to them: above contest placings or even wins; above collaboration; above getting the respect of their peers even. And why not? When I first started, there was one single objective in my mind that counted above all others and that too was getting an agent. How else was I to know whether I was any “good” or not? Getting representation was proof of my ability if you like. It was, quite literally, the be all and end all to me.

Now I have an agent? I realise it’s not.

Don’t get me wrong. Having an agent is vastly better than not having one. Being represented means certain opportunities are open to you when they weren’t before: the “bigger” production companies are more likely to read your work; certain courses and competitions are more likely to take you; maybe a producer here or there is more “approachable” if you have an agent. But that’s the thing you see: the operative words there are more likely. Nothing is for certain in this game. It’s just that now I realise having an agent does not equal automatic success as I might have once upon a time.

It seems agents are much misunderstood by new writers. I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve had non-represented writers by the dozen express disbelief to me that their spec (which really is good) has been rejected YET AGAIN by a particular agent or agents. The draft went through three million rewrites! It’s going to be the next big thing! Plus so much worse gets to screen! Is this place INSANE?

But there’s another thing. A good spec is *generally* not your golden ticket to success either – not in the sense you might think, in that it gets an option, gets made, makes it onto screen and hits the top ten movies of the year, that is. It may get optioned and that’s all well and good and an achievement in itself, but is it likely to make it to screen? Not hugely (though not impossible, look at James Moran’s SEVERANCE). But you only hear about the successes, not what goes on behind the scenes. Many writers though have had LOADS of their specs optioned, yet have seen just one or two of their specs actually made. These aren’t your average new writer either, but guys and gals who’ve had loads of commissions on shows and projects that you and I would recognise. Take Marc Pye as your example here: he is a pretty “safe bet” to any investor, having had literally hundreds of hours of TV made, yet he was still told by potential investors that they could not see his film “Act of Grace” actually “working”! Same goes with Adrian Mead and NIGHT PEOPLE. They had to quite literally resort to DIY filmmaking to ensure their projects made it to screen, regardless of them both having agents AND a big track record.

What hope then do you and I have, you might say: if they can’t get something made, we’re DOOMED. Certainly this realisation has “picked off” many a newer writer – they can’t see a way round their lack of credits or representation and they give up. I might say that’s a shame, but if they give up so readily, perhaps it was not meant for them. I don’t hold with this notion “I’ll give it five years, then I’ll give up…” Would you approach any other facet of your life like this if it was meant to be your vocation? I can just see that with something like Parenthood: “I’ll give the kid til it’s five, then if we’re not getting on, I’ll send it back…” I don’t see quitting as an option: writing is for life, not just for Christmas… Or something. Joking aside though, maybe I’ll never get further than I am now: so be it. I’ve had fun and I’ve learned a lot – and really would not rather be doing anything else. That’s a success in itself as far as I’m concerned.

Agents don’t take on writers with good specs just to sell those specs generally; they take on writers who could get work using those great specs as samples. Who will make my TV Drama Pilot? I’ve had loads of great feedback about it and some interesting meetings and opportunities because of it. Yet no one will make it. I’m untried and untested. But that’s not what that Pilot is about: it’s an advertisement if you like of what I can do. My agent believed it was a good enough advertisement, which is why he wanted me to sign with him. Same goes for my supernatural thriller. But at the end of the day, I’ve made him no money. Yet.

And there’s the final thing. The reason it’s such a struggle to get an agent is because they are preoccupied with the clients who DO make them money – and lots of it. Why should they give you the time of day, especially when there are SO MANY writers vying for it? Even a small agent will receive in the region of thirty submissions a week. We hear all the fairy stories: this author or this screenwriter took a sample script into one agent, blew them away, had two agents competing for them, blah blah blah, got it sold, made a million pounds etc etc. I’ve never heard of that happening in reality. In reality you’ve got a squillion new writers sending their scripts off, crossing their fingers and a squillion scripts being sent back unread or gathering dust in a vault somewhere for months. I recall one place asking me to simply put scripts back in the return envelopes because they “didn’t have the time to flick through them, let alone read them”.

Yet there are ways you can avoid this happening to your script; we’ve talked about all the ways to impress the reader regarding format and scene description and scenario, yet until now we’ve not talked about what impresses an agent. Now I have no great authority on this, I’ve never been an agent, but I have talked to plenty and I believe there is a secret ingredient to getting on to their radar and stop being ignored–

–Getting on with it. Write, write and write some more. Stop using agents for free feedback and concentrate instead on collaboration. You’ll undoubtedly end up doing it for free at first, but as your experience and craft increases, you might get on shorts courses run by your regional screen agency and The Film Council (always a great start); maybe you’ll meet a young up and coming producer or director who will always come back to you because you’re a great writer , fast and easy to work with. You’ll be making pocket change at first, but then you’ll be making more substantial chunks of money and working on different projects from website copy through to computer games and eventually IPTV and beyond.

In short, get your own work. Get better at what you do. Be proactive. Stop targetting people, companies, agencies etc who are being targetted by everyone else in the known universe at the same time: the “big name” companies and individuals might be great to have on your Facebook Friends or Myspace page, but can they really help you get started? Should they, when they already have loyalties to writers who’ve “grown up” with them through the ranks? Instead forge relationships with people at the same level as you, make a network of contacts, create a world for yourself and squeeze yourself in through the key hole of bigger worlds with those “big names”, quite literally! From small acorns and all that.

Getting an agent is not the be all and end all, it’s just the beginning. Make it part of your journey, not your destination and it will all fall into place. Write it and they will come (oo er).

PART TWO: What do agents actually do?

Read English Dave’s thoughts on agents here.

Read Danny Stack’s thoughts on how to get an agent here.

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19 thoughts on “Agents, Part 1: Not The Destination”

  1. A big, hmmmm.

    Thought provoking indeed, Lucy. I must say I am “guilty” of thinking this way as a new writer. My goal for this year is to at least show up on the radar in competitions.

    I have a suspicion, that if your work is commercial enough, ie is highly sellable, then perhaps an agent is that more proactive in getting it to the right people. I’m wondering though, if it makes a difference who the agent is (you will say it’s not), his track record, ability to know what is worth the time and energy etc. I really think your stuff has got to stand out. Not easy with so many good writers around.

    Now, before you chunk my legs off, I’ll say that you’ve given some sage advice. After 7 years of unemployment in my younger years, I finally realised that it was no good applying through conventional means, because like you said, there are so many other people after the same job and with proven track records. That’s when I walked onto an industrial estate and the first company I had the audacity to invade and build a rapor with, took me on. The rest is a miserable history (not to bad really!). Proactive is indeed the word. You either have to get your own stuff made or hit a great big bell (comps) to alert everyone to your work.

    My advice, just a person in general is get yourself on the radar by any means necessary. If you have to take all your cloths off. Break into a house, whatever, you’ll be remembered (and arrested!).

    Nice one.

  2. I’d like it known Laydeez and Gentlemen that Bang2write does not condone general home invasion or the taking off of clothes in order to further one’s writing career… Though if you have the opportunity to take your clothes off with any hot agents (in a consensual manner), please do let tell us all about it!

  3. Yeah, I’m with Paul M – it’s gotta make a diff who you’re agent is as well, surely?

    BTW, glad move went well – am late for the party coz it’s exam season as you know Luce, thanks for the good luck card, you wouldn’t believe how complex girls are in comparison to us fellas, my female anatomy paper totally sucked ass… Man!


  4. Alright Dazza, wondered where you’d got to, sorry to hear your exam didn’t go well. It’s probably better than you think though??

    To answer ther Q:

    Of course it can make a difference who your agent is – there are good and bad agents, there are agents whose specialties vary, there are agents and clients who simply don’t “get on” for no other reason than they just don’t.

    That wasn’t my point though; my point is that even BEFORE you get the agent, the good or bad one, the one you may or may not get on with, there’s a hell of a lot more you can do to differentiate yourself from the thousands of others. As Paul rightly says, “show up on the radar” first and someone may be more likely to come into your orbit. Interesting mix of metaphors there!

    And no, I didn’t “go out” with him as such and he wasn’t an agent Evil, he was a work ex kid like me – though he is one NOW… Bugger still won’t read my scripts either!

  5. I don’t have a deep yearning to get an agent as the ‘be all and end all’; although I’d rather like one… I’d like one to help with the bits and pieces that are beyond my ken (negotiation, a little promotion, hard-ball playing) and to offer me a degree of protection from all the evil demons out there. Personally, I want to get myself some good specs together and find somebody to say, ‘alright, reckon this guy’s got something going here, we ought to keep him in mind just in case we ever need a serial-killing-kangaroo western written’.

    Trouble is, even if I were a Godlike-genius (as if), I couldn’t sell myself if I were dipped in honey and named as Delia’s ingredient of the season… better even than cranberries!

  6. Agents are great about MONEY and that’ll be the focus of my nexy posy, Jon. You may just have to get into the zone of promoting yourself more though if you’re to get your own work.

  7. A posy of colourful and pretty thoughts presented to your ever-loyal readers…

    I came from a (fine) art background (which is where the over-written scene description comes from), art schoool, etc. and I was fed (and believed) the Romantic myth of artists and writers lurking in their garrets then popping up, handing their masterpieces to their agents who’d present them to the expectant, and grateful, public while the artist went back to work without ever having to meet the great unwashed…

    Doesn’t actually work like that, does it? But it wasn’t until midway through the Ma. that anyone actually mentioned that you have to ‘self-promote’. That came as a bit of hammer-blow to me!

  8. Perhaps that is where collaboration would be a good thing Mr Peacey? Find someone who his all mouth and extrovert and not a bad writer.

    A partnership, if only temporary, may get the door open. If you’re the stronger writer, you could both benifit from each others weakness.

  9. I had a bit of an epiphany about agents recently when I realised that an agent is actually a writer’s, well agent — in the same way as their solicitor, or their accountant. They’re someone the writer pays to do a job.

    An agent is a writer’s employee, not their employer and certainly not their master.

    This cleared a bit of confusion I’d had over why on Earth you’d want an agent in the first place, given that they are not interested in you until & unless you’ve proven that you can do what I thought they were supposed to do, on your own. Why fork over ten per cent of your fees to someone who didn’t even have the faith to believe in you at the beginning of your career, when it was hard, but instead just tries to cash in once you’re already on the way to success?

    You feel a lot less bitterness once you stop thinking of agents as a form of life above you, to whom you have to supplicate yourself, and start thinking of them as a service industry: there for when you need and can afford them, but not something to worry about until you’ve got to that position, and certainly nothing to feel resentment about.

  10. If you consider an agent to be the writer’s employee it should clear up any confusion as to why a first-timer with no track record finds it so hard to snag one: who volunteers to be employed by someone without the ability to pay them for their work? Would it happen in any other walk of life?

  11. Some good advice there, Lucy.

    I tninks people’s lack of understanding of where an agent fits into the scheme of things is a reflection of the wider gap between what a screenwriting career actually is, and what aspiring writers want it to be.

    I’m looking forward to part two.

  12. Thanks and a good point there J&C -possibly it’s a reflection of people’s spreading aspirations via the internet maybe? They hear *so much* success (when before much of what the writer did was “shut away”, we heard more about directors and so-called auteurs) that they feel they can’t NOT get a piece of the action if they keep plugging away… An admirable concept, but one that can inevitably lead to disappointment in some cases unfortunately.

  13. Pingback: How To Get An Agent | Bang2Write

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