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Friday 6 February 2009


The setting: a house in the heart of England.

The year: this one. This week, in fact.

The weather: snow and general unpleasantness.

The protagonist: a well-known literary agent with tooth-ache; she has spent a day last week at the dentist having a filling replaced - or actually not having it replaced because the dentist, after three injections, had told her, "I can see this is hurting you - let's leave till next week." His leaving it till next week has not helped the agent one bit.

The dramatic tension: the agent is awaiting the arrival of the day's post with unbridled anticipation. After all, the next Dan Brown / JK Rowling / Ian Rankin could be in it. They rarely are, but, like all agents, she lives very much in hope.

Lights, camera, action. The post arrives. The agent snatches it up almost before it hits the mat, and rips open the promising brown envelope. She ignores the picture of a grinning pink fairy at the corner - this could simply be a re-used envelope and she approves of recycling. She does quite a lot of it herself.

Out falls a manuscript. There is no return SAE. This is a bad sign. Her inbuilt "unprofessional author" alert is beginning to beep. Though worse things have happened: there was the time when ... But wait - there is something else in the brown envelope. She shakes it onto the floor, not sure whether to be wary or intrigued.

Two Werther's Originals fall to the carpet. (Point of information for anyone lucky enough to have been born after 1979 or so: these are toffees, very old-fashioned, and the source of arcane amusement in post-toffee Britain, especially in educated circles. I once stayed in a hotel where a Werther's Original was placed seductively on my pillow each night, to which the only sensible reaction was, "What the hell am I supposed to do with that? Get out of bed and clean my teeth afterwards, or stand here freezing in my bare feet while I eat it first?" A very recent visit to Wikipedia elicited some fascinating and detailed information about the different varieties of Werther's Originals which apparently exist but suffice it to say that I entirely agree that these sweets recall "a halcyon age of innocence, nuclear families and good old-fashioned sweets." None of this, however, is likely to help either author or agent.)

The question: does the agent think to herself, "Well, that was a kind thought. After all, the generous and attempting-but-failing-to-be-innovative author was not to know that a) I have severe toothache and b) I HATE Werther's Originals. So, I will now settle in my armchair by the wood-burning stove, with a peppermint tea and warmed oil of cloves, and forget the pain by immersing myself in what may well be a stunning debut of obvious shining literary and commercial merit by a new author with the whole reading world at his finger-tips."?

The answer: No.

The denouement: The agent places the manuscript unread in the pile of fuel for her wood-burning stove. (I told you she was into recycling.) After all, it's the snowiest day the UK has apparently had for eighteen years, we're in the middle of a British winter that is giving two fingers to global-warming and she's not one to waste a genuinely useful bit of fuel.

The message: don't do it, people. Don't even be tempted. That kind of wacky innovative approach went out around the same time as Werther's Originals on the first occasion, and whereas Werther's Originals (sugar-free version in biodegradable wrappers) have come back, this hasn't.

The really sad thing: that could have been a great submission consisting of perfect covering letter / succinct and compelling synopsis / glitteringly lucid sample. It probably wasn't, if the author had to disguise it with Werther's Originals, but in theory it might have been. You may think the agent should have read it if she'd really cared. But why, if the author didn't care enough to be professional? The agent has many, many submissions which the author thought good enough not to need to be supported by toffee. You can be witty, dynamic, different, extraordinary, unique, fabulous, but you can't send toffee in the post and expect to be taken seriously. Or taken at all.

The quite amazing thing: even chocolate would not have helped. Ask your dentist.