What Did My Years as an Agent Bring to My Writing?

Kath here. Today’s guest is literary agent and author Jean Naggar. Jean was born in Alexandria, Egypt. She grew up in Cairo, moving to England, and then New York City, where she currently resides. She is the founder of the prominent Jean V. Naggar Literary Agency, Inc. Her work has been published in the New York Times, the Village Voice and Publishers Weekly. She is the mother of three adult children and grandmother of seven. Now, she is at last exploring her childhood dreams: to write.  Her memoir of a magical childhood, SIPPING FROM THE NILE, My Exodus from Egypt is available now. Short-listed for 2011 Eric Hoffer Grand Award, Chronogram Magazine said SIPPING FROM THE NILE  is “Prose as densely woven and vivid as an oriental carpet.”

Please enjoy Jean’s post with us today.

The rock stars of my youth were the writers of the books I read. I dreamed that I, too, might one day grow up to be one of them. I never imagined my adult life would offer the privilege and pleasure of working with writers I admired, helping to birth their books, walking beside them down the path of many fulfilling years.

After navigating the shape-shifting publishing industry for more than 40 years, I realized the time had come to dust off my childhood dreams. Venturing along the very same trails I cleared for others, I crossed into the diaphanous world of seekers, trying my hand at taking the advice I gave to so many, for so long: rewrite, and rewrite again; listen to comments and only follow what resonates; let time go by, put your manuscript on a back burner: your subconscious will continue to work, and your editorial eye will sharpen with distance.

I questioned whether I could discover in myself some of the skills I so admired in others? Would I be able to find a voice distinctively my own? I so loved words and the ways that words can build worlds, release memories, weave experience and fantasy into stories that power the imagination, create characters more alive than flesh and blood in the minds of readers. Would my long-time love-affair with words suffice to make me a writer?           

Plunging into a boundless ocean, I tread huge waves without a compass. I am in this alone, writing for the sheer love of it, writing for myself, stealing secret moments from my obligations and life in the world.

What could have possessed me to imagine myself a writer? My years of working with writers only made me fear my own vision. I doubted I could ever measure up.

I was alternately embarrassed at having put myself out there, and proud of my work, proud of writing, rewriting, wrestling with words and structure to create something unique.

Having been taught to believe that one should never blow one’s own trumpet, I nonetheless instantly became a poster-child for self-promotion, hurling my technophobic self into social networking on behalf of my newborn book.

What did my years as an agent bring to my writing? I had the publishing contacts, of course, but because much was expected of me I feared it would always be too much. My life as an agent opened doors, but I knew that only the work itself would command attention – or not…

Writing is a solitary vice. I learn patience.

I complain that I can’t understand why people take so long to read my work and get back to me. I hear echoes from the past. Better to take time, I hear myself respond again and again. Let the work sit for a while before sending it out into the world. But I obsess over the overwhelming need for an objective view of my work, drowning out the voices of yesterday.

The eyes of my near and dear glaze over as I talk about my writing.  My listening ear has turned into a starving voice.

OMG, I must have shed my agent’s skin.

I always felt my authors’ pain, but now I own it. I am not with them, I am of them. I am vulnerable. I fall in love with anyone who loves my book. I seek comments, but cringe if they are harsh. I gave my all and have invited the world in to comment. I want everyone  to read my work and to love it as I do. I am aflame with the joy of the writing.

This book, this child of my heart has transformed me.

I am a writer now.



  1. Bernadette Phipps Lincke says

    “This book, the child of my heart has transformed me.” I’m going to buy your book.

    • says

      Music to a writer’s ears! I am interested to learn your thoughts onece you have read it. You can reach me on my Contacts page on my website.

  2. says

    What a beautiful post. I think that’s the beauty of honest writing, when you can connect with your readers and make them feel like life is just a notch more spectacular. Congratulations on your own book!

  3. says

    Jean, thanks for sharing your perspective. I believe agents have a lot of empathy for writers, but one must walk in a writer’s shoes, as you have done, to truly understand what goes on in a writer s head. All the best to you on this exciting journey.

  4. says

    The eyes of my near and dear glaze over as I talk about my writing. My listening ear has turned into a starving voice.

    Lovely prose. I’m sure you are asking yourself the same question I’m asking you. Why did you wait so long? I can’t wait to read your book.

  5. says

    In today’s day and age, writers must bond together and support one another as writing has become a huge part of our society. We write more and talk less. In that, we must learn to express ourselves using our literary outlets. This was a great post. I have heard of this book but haven’t read it yet! Can’t wait either!

    • says

      I hope it lives up to your expectations. Be sure to let me know. You can always reach me through the Contacts page on my website (which, of course, I check frequently!)

  6. says

    I imagine having experience as an agent offers both a lot of insight and introduces a lot of reasons for fear and anxiety when making the transition to being a writer. As an agent, not only do you have intimate knowledge of the workings of the publishing industry, what types of books are likely to sell, and what editors are looking for and how they operate, but you’ve worked with the clients you represented to better their books, and thus gained a lot of insight into things like story structure, pacing, and so on–what makes a book work or not. But since you know exactly how publishing works, you know what things to fear! And becoming a writer yourself makes you, as you said, own the concerns of writers with which you could only previously sympathize.

    Best of luck with your memoir! I have relatives who’ve lived in Egypt for extended periods of time, and their experiences always sound so interesting.

  7. says

    Jean, I have always admired you as an agent and am filled with awe to hear that you have now written what sounds like a wonderfully rich, multifaceted book. What an inspiration! Best of luck with it.

  8. says

    Thank you. I do hope you enjoy the book, and that you will let me know your thoughts. The Contacts page on my website will always reach me.

  9. says

    I’m starting out as an editor for a small literary journal and sometimes I wonder the same things as you. How will editing other people’s work affect my own work? At times I’m afraid that I may lose that “child of my heart” by being critical too often. Then I tell myself that I can learn from writing that may not be as “good” and that the critical eye may be more easily shifted from other work to my own–as the eye has become more focused. Thanks for the post!

  10. says

    Looks like an interesting read. Congratulations! Does this mean no more agenting?

    Full disclosure:
    I’m a sucker for anything Egyptian. Enjoyed the Yacoubian Building and loved The Map of Love.

  11. says

    What a gorgeous post. Those of us who write greedily digest the comments of agents, hoping to find some insight into our own work.

    I think your experience says it all: even we writers, who have read thousands of excellent books, still don’t have the magic formula to crafting our own “perfect” novels. It’s truly a humbling process, but a noble one. Congratulations on your book!

  12. says

    Oh, I love this. Thank you for sharing your shift in perspective here with other writers, Jean. I appreciate what you have said. And, as an expat living in Europe, I look forward to reading your reflections on your life in Egypt. I often wonder how my life now in Prague will feel in ten, twenty years. Thank you for sharing!

    • says

      I’d love to learn where my experiences touch yours. Do write to me on the Contacts page of my website, and let me know, when you have read the book.

    • says

      Thank you so much. We are delighted to have you in our midst.
      You will find a good timeline and a good Readers Guide in the back of the book, and I am very open to entering the discussion with book groups, either by phone or on the internet. I can be reached via the Contacts page on my website.

  13. says

    Aw, lovely. This sounds like the transition professional caregivers go through when they become ill: self-consciousness, vulnerability, and ultimately, if it goes well, a transition to trust and empowerment. Congratulations!

  14. says

    Jean, how lovely to hear that your book is published! I had the honor many months ago of seeing you mention on Twitter that you’d bought one of my books on writing, referring to the memoir you were working on at the time. Thank you again for that.

    And congratulations! The publication of a work of the heart is always an extraordinary moment in a writer’s life.

    • says

      Thanks for the kind words. I have enjoyed your book, and hope you enjoy SIPPING FROM THE NILE and that you will let me know your thoughts.

  15. Wendy Weltz says

    Dear Jean:
    This is the most beautiful, heartfelt piece of writing. It is so like part of you and how you honestly feel all worked into a wonderful essay. I adored reading every word and about your every thought. You are now one of my favorite authors — I need that novel you’ve been promising — no pressure!

  16. says

    I’m delighted that you liked the piece. It did, indeed, come from the heart, and I feel greatly honored to be one of your favorite authors. I shall try not to disappoint!
    And I will get back to the novel -soon-

  17. says

    What fantastic use of language! This is the joy and terror of being a writer. Putting yourself completely into your work means that there you are–out in the world for people to love or hate. But there is also an honesty to it. It’s not something you can fake (without people noticing). To put your writing in the world is brave, and based on this article, I’m sure your words will find a captivated audience. I wish you luck.

  18. says

    Hello Kath and Theresa, I love the name and concept of your blog. It’s so nice to connect with you via Jean.

    Jean, I’m following your back burner advice right now and catching up with life while my WIP is with readers. It’s wonderful to see your SFTN reach a broader audience. As you know, I very much enjoyed your memoir. It was interesting to hear how being an agent affected your writing.

  19. says

    This is a good point, many times writers don’t operate from perspective. We all want quick turnover, and we feel there isn’t more than a few days before something tragic happens and we have to abandon things.

    However, when you look at how it is unfolding today, at the pace of 40 wpm, the work only takes 40 hours total to get an 80K word novel finished.When you look at the other entertainment options and weakening attention span, you know writers and authors are losing leverage with this current generation.

    So there is reason to panic, but there is reason to take it slow and go with the process.

    Thanks for this, it was good to get the brain thinking and debating this early in the morning!
    Leif G.S. Notae´s last blog post ..Spiritual Flash Fiction: Guardian Angel Debate

  20. says

    Glad you liked the piece.
    I’d like to add that we should give our subconscious time to kick in and illuminate the cracks and flaws in the work that our flying fingers produced, flaws we could not have perceived earlier. The subconscious cannot be hurried, it cannot be measured, but it enables us to send our beloved brainchild out into the world with all flags flying. Time lost can be time gained in the overall scheme of things.
    Hard as it is to resist our all-consuming hunger to be done, to be read, to be out there, it is worth our while as writers to listen to that still small voice and heed its warnings.
    Good luck!