As well as praise, my agent had some excellent suggestions. He has a great gift for seeing a project as a whole and winnowing out what is most important from what is extraneous or stilted, more 'scaffolding' than real writing. So the book is going to have a new title (there was always a choice of two, and Simon could see more clearly than I could which was the natural one). It is going to remain in the third person, rather than shifting into first person as I had thought it might. It is also - thanks to a particularly brilliant and rather high-concept idea which I can't claim any credit for - going to have a different structure, one which really pulls together the various threads of the narrative. The book (like many early drafts, by writers both new and seasoned) had a rather awkward prologue that wasn't doing much except sitting there slightly pompously at the start of each section, clearing its throat. Instead of this, it's going to have something more exciting and immediate, truer to the real story at the heart of it all.
I got back to my desk with a clear sense of the path I need to follow in order to get the rest of this story finished. It's a story which I believe in passionately, and which I want to tell in the best possible way, and it has now received an enormous boost and vote of confidence. I'll be working hard over the next few months to keep the momentum going and by autumn, with a few more meetings and discussions along the way, I hope to have a completed draft. At that point I'll be able to share much more information about the book - but for now, I can tell you that it's a historical story which follows a single family over 100 years in Europe, from the First World War up to the present moment.
I'm often asked whether a writer needs an agent. You can write without one, of course - and all writers write at least their first book this way - but I don't know if you can sustain a career without one. Writing is by its nature a solitary, long-term and precarious occupation. A book can become a black hole which subsumes other elements of your life - the more so the more passionate you are about the idea that you want to bring to life. For instance, I gave up another job to work on this book. I also took the decision to write the whole thing before submitting it to my publishers - something authors routinely do when they make a significant leap in genre or style or take a creative risk, but which nevertheless means that I'm essentially working on it uncontracted. Which is why a good agent makes all the difference. Simon has discussed ideas with me from the beginning, and generated many of the best ones himself; he has reassured me that the book is worth working on, that it will find an audience; and he has got me out of a lot of creative dead ends and blind alleys along the way. Having support from an agent means that there are two of you who rise and fall on the success or failure of the book, two people invested in its fortunes, two critical sets of eyes for when it isn't working out - and two people to celebrate when it does. If you're in it for the long haul, you're probably going to need an agent alongside you.