When authors meet publishers for the first time, they always ask me: What are they expecting? Should I say X? Will they expect me to know Y? May I mention Z? I tell them what I know but it always ends with the same advice: Just Be Yourself. Of course, I mean to offer the ultimate loving instruction, the best encouragement: a reminder that you are perfectly great, just as you are, which means that all you have to do to impress others is to reveal your true self and they will like and admire you as much as I do. Even though I am aware that, whenever I have been told in my turn to Just Be Myself, I have found the advice very irritating. Which self? Which part of me do you mean? Will I recognise it if I see it? Who am I? If you tell me, I’ll be that person, gladly.
Of course we’re all supposed to know who we are by now. And growing up isn’t just an exercise in working out who you are, but also in seeing and accepting who others think you are, and in assessing both the opportunities and the dangers in the crevasses between the two. Recently, someone described me as “undiplomatic”. I was quite offended; this adjective didn’t sit well at all with the Me I want to be. Until someone who loved me reminded me: “But you’re not diplomatic. That’s just not your way. Why don’t you just embrace it? We love you anyway. You get stuff done in a different way.” Oh yes, I see, alright then. Ok, I can work with that.
Agents and editors, when discussing undeveloped writing, often refer to the process of an author Finding Their Voice, as in: “She hasn’t really found her voice yet” or: “There were glimpses here of a real voice, but it’s intermittent.” What do we mean by voice? A unique sound, a tone that seems true and different – and striking in its honesty and difference? When we look to authors for their own ‘voice’, we may be demanding the same unmediated version of the self that we refer to when we ask friends to Be Themselves.
Knowing how to be one’s own self, finding your authorial voice: these are real achievements of which to be proud. It takes hard work to dismantle the layers of protective armour we construct as we make our way through life, to unlearn behaviours we have picked up from others, especially when so much of our lives are necessarily dedicated to just such observing, copying and learning.
When I started agenting, I set about working out who the good agents were, and how they did what they did so effectively, so that I could try to model myself accordingly. I remember hearing, how Pat Kavanagh used silence as a powerful negotiating tool in phone conversations with editors. The story was that she would simply wait, when she heard something she didn’t want, until the publisher filled the silence with a better offer. How I wished I could resist filling conversational holes! And I have already written about how my own agenting mentor, Ed Victor, loved parties and always made friends from clients and clients into friends. He had shared his maxim with me: “Why stay in, when you can go out?” How I worried, about how little I enjoyed parties! How few useful connections I had.
Of course eventually I realised that I could be a good agent, in my own way, learning from my mentors but using who I really am, to do the best possible work I could for my clients. I understand it better now: Every excellent job is accomplished by combining the good things we do intentionally because we know them to be right and the things we do unintentionally because they are natural to us – we do them automatically because they reflect who we really are. Many of my natural instincts – loyalty, persistence, my endless desire to problem-solve, courage in speaking my mind, love of writing and respect for writers – are all essential agenting instincts. And then I have learned how to enjoy parties, how occasionally to use silence… ….
And this is how our business seems to work, in general, every bestselling book representing a triumphant combination of luck and hard work – some elements of unforced brilliance, a dose of good timing, all maximised by strategy, insight, skill and relentless effort.
Authors with ‘a voice’ find success in the same way. A writing tutor told me once: “If talent is the horse, technique is the bridle – you can’t have one without the other.” And so every writer at the start of their career invests time in the serious industry of writing page after page in order to work through and to shake off everything they have read, whilst retaining the important lessons they learned from the books they admired – they refine their technique, in other words. We readers know they have done enough when we see them make astoundingly good writing look easy, unaffected. When it seems as though what we are hearing is their true voice.
“Creativity requires a certain boldness,” Zadie Smith wrote. This statement is true and useful on many levels, but one of them may be that it takes courage to ‘be yourself’ – to reveal the heart that beats underneath the clothing that is the social construct of ‘you’ that most people meet. For writing to be truly affecting, the reader has to be immersed in the emotions described by the writer, to experience what the protagonist feels in an unmediated way. We readers can only do that if those emotions have been described to us in a similarly unmediated way by the writer – if the author was willing to be unclothed as they wrote, to be exposed, to use everything they know about their true selves in their work. When I tell writers – Just Be Yourself – they are better able than others to understand what I mean. They have already done so much work, towards working out who that is.