The Accidental Agent

Orna Ross talks to The View From Here about her book Lovers' Hollow and Font Literary Agency.

Font Literary Agency is based in Dublin and extending our reach as we open a London office in a few months time and an office in San Francisco early next year.

Font is not a typical literary agency; I suppose because I am not a typical literary agent. My representation of writers arises out of my own experience as a writer and teacher of writing.

I have been writing professionally for twenty years, firstly as a features journalist in Dublin and London, and for the past eight years as a novelist.

I always wanted to write fiction but opted to do journalism first because it seemed more manageable, more achievable, than the strange, complex challenge of sitting down and writing a novel. Coming up to my 40th birthday, I knew that if I didn't do it now, I never would. So down I sat.

It took me five years and 668-pages to write Lovers' Hollow, the story of a small Irish village's experience of Civil War, and the complex, angry heroine who fled her own private wars with the place and its people, only to return twenty years later to try to become reconciled to family feuds and secrets.

Writing it was the most gruelling, and most joyful, work I had ever done. Then began the almost equally drawn-out task of finding the right publisher. After a London literary agent failed to win interest, I reluctantly took the task upon myself.

I was very systematic about it - with an A-list and B-list of publishers, which I worked methodically through, refusing to take rejection personally and all the time, rewriting, editing and improving the manuscript in the light of any feedback I got. In the end, after negotiating a very steep learning curve, I managed to win simultaneous interest from four publishers, two in Dublin, two in London.

Publishing has become increasingly competitive and editors have less and less time to devote to writers. I started Font because I seem to be one of very few people who is comfortable in both worlds and because I felt there was a real need for a writer-centred agency.

Our growth has been very organic, slowly building contacts and gaining trust and respect from writers and editors. We are pleased to be opening a UK office in the autumn and have already begun to sign some British authors. And this year, for the first time, we will be travelling to the US for Book Expo, bringing UK and Irish writers to US readers, and US writers to a readership on this side of the pond.

To me, being a writer means being dedicated to writing and that means other people's writing as well as my own. After all, in a short life I can only write so many books. Despite the cult of personality stoked by our media, I know that it is writing, not any one individual writer, that's important and I find it increasingly difficult to separate my work as writer, mentor and agent.


Paul Burman said...

Journalism does seem to be a more accessible path into writing fiction than many of the alternatives (teaching, working in book sales, etc). I suspect that the journalistic discipline of writing succinctly and to the point, with a strong sense of structure, are important ingredients in this process, but I may well be wrong. What are your thoughts on this, Orna?

kathleenmaher said...

More power to you, Orna!
As Paul Loeb wrote and Billie Holiday sang, "The difficult I can do right now; the impossible may take a little while.."

Orna said...

Hi Paul,
everything you say is true and I think the experience of working to deadline, of not waiting for inspiration to "strike" but getting on with it, is probably the most useful training.

However there are downsides too. To write a good article, you must tell people what the salient issues are and what you think they should think. As a fiction writer, you must do the very opposite.

Novelists use words to unfold a scene before the reader, allowing them to imagine and think what they will.

This is what makes fiction art, different from other, more everyday, forms of writing -- the writer tells the story, gives it the most accurate expression possible, then gets out of the way.

Sometimes as I write, I fall into journalistic mode still. I call it my rant mode (!) and often have to cut whole pages in editing.


Orna said...

thanks Kathleen. I'm a great believer in committing to the things you really want in this life -- and enjoying the ride. Then it doesn't matter how long it takes to get there!

Mike French said...

Hiya Orna - sorry the Amazon links in your article have prevented me from editing in your links, which I forgot on Friday.

Ho hum

so here we are :

Orna Ross web site


Thanks for the article!

Paul Burman said...

'Rant mode'---I like it. Although that's probably not exclusive to novelists with a journalistic background. I've had to dismantle a few soap boxes of my own in that editing process. :-)

Mr. Grudge said...

Hello Orna,
For me, I have been writing since I was in elementary school. My attempts at getting published over the years has resulted in two "contracts" with bad literary agents who scammed me for money and an increased desire to learn my craft.

A few years ago, I spoke with author Jay Nussbaum (The Blue Road to Atlantis) at a local Barnes & Noble and it turns out we both were rejected by the same literary agents ar pretty much the same time. He's gone forward and written another novel and I continue to write in obscurity, save for my humble blog. My quest for an agent has slowed considerably as my search has narrowed to the point where I research agents whom I query extensively, which is what I should have done in the first place.

To me, writing is as important as breathing; and, I think about my characters and topics even when I am away from a computer or pen and paper. I know I am finished with an article, essay, short story, or a novel when I feel "blue in the face," as though I cannot breathe life into it anymore. Then I begin the uncomforatable task of editing.

My goal is to continue writing my novels, publish short pieces to my blog and to the writer's society blog of which I am a founding member, and to realize the being published is a feat which requires as much luck as it does skill. Thanks for the insight and for sharing your own experiences with writing.