Writers, not bakers. What a literary agent really wants.

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It’s about time I wrote something about submissions and since I have read more than eighty this week, and thousands over the last ten years, it’s a subject about which I know a little and can talk a lot, (for evidence of this see my earlier post on searching for new writers).

In September last year Curtis Brown launched a brand spanking new online submissions site finally replacing the postal submissions system which was old fashioned, inefficient and, at times, pretty creepy.  We used to meet in the boardroom once a week and wade through piles and piles of submissions – negotiating our way through all sorts of strange folders, perfumed paper, “gifts” (bribes), in the form of mugs, teddy bears, sweets, photographs, dollar bills (a personal favourite), and even a visit from the police (don’t ask…).  Before my time Vivienne Schuster was even sent a dead rat by a disgruntled, (and undoubtedly disturbed), aspiring author. So now we have moved to online submissions, we’re paper and rodent free but I’ve noticed that new writers are still making some of the same mistakes.  Here are some examples:

1. Covering letters not addressed to a specific agent.

Our new site makes it easy to identify the right agent to approach. It even gives you the option to select from a drop down menu so there’s no excuse for sending letters without addressing them to an actual person or marking them for the attention of Mr. Curtis Brown. While part of me likes the sound of “Lady Thwaites”, I’m not convinced that this belongs in a covering letter.

2. Silliness. There’s a time and place for this and I suggest that it is within text itself.

Forget gimmicks – letters stand out if they are professional, well-researched and well-presented. Ideally the letter should briefly explain why you are approaching that agent, include a short description of the book and the intended age range, (marks deducted for saying ‘adults and children alike’, don’t be lazy!). Mention any relevant writing experience, (but this isn’t crucial), and a line or two of biographical information.  Simple! If you can liken your book to relevant similar titles then do, but avoid comparing it to  Twilight/ Harry Potter/ The Hunger Games – it suggests you have only read one book for young people in the last decade. Of course aim high but comparisons like this feel meaningless.

3. Pages and pages of material before the sample text starts.

Keep your synopsis brief, delete long lists of chapters and think very carefully before including a prologue. Make it easy for the reader to find the beginning of the text quickly – after all that is the most important part of the submission.

4. The endless synopsis.

Again, keep your synopsis brief. Often agents won’t read a synopsis unless they like the sample material and want a sense of where it’s going. It’s just a tool providing more information and should be a short summary, not a detailed chapter breakdown. My preference is for just one or two paragraphs. Did I mention I like a short synopsis?

5. Lack of research.

TEXT please! I ask for text only, not illustrations, not embroidery manuals, or dancing spiders, (actually I kind of like that idea). Nowhere do I say anything about embroidery manuals on my client list, on my profile page with its ‘what I’m looking for’ section, which you’d think would be the obvious place to start, on twitter, blogs or any interviews. There’s a reason for that… It sounds obvious but I’m still astounded by the number of people who don’t put the research in. To give yourself the best chance of hitting the right agent with the right project you have to start by figuring out who the right person might be. If you’re not sick of me banging on about this you can read my answers to questions on submitting on Lou Treleaven’s site.

6. Nutters & lunatics

If you’re a little unconventional that’s fine, many authors are, but it’s probably best to tone it down in the covering letter.  Quirky is ok but full blown fruitcakes can be tricky to work with – best to disguise that initially.  Talking of cake – hand delivered baked goods may be a lovely gesture for friends, neighbours and people you know but together with a submission, before a professional relationship has even started, it feels a bit like presenting an engagement ring on a first date.   Besides it won’t affect on our decision about a manuscript and nor should it – we’re looking for writers, not bakers.

7. Unrealistic expectations.

We read and respond to all submissions and do so within a reasonable time frame.  Not all agencies accept ‘unsolicited material’ and some don’t respond unless they are interested. We welcome new submissions and reply to everything we receive but we draw the line at feedback – we just couldn’t possibly offer this to the thousands of people who submit their work to us every year.  There are companies who provide detailed reports and critiques and charge a tidy sum for it but they are not literary agencies.  While we are enthusiastic about new submissions we do make it clear that reading and responding is as far as we will take it for many of them. Irate phone messages or pleas for feedback just reinforce our view that we’ve made the right decision to decline. While it’s understandable to feel disappointed, and do disagree by all means, but aggressive and demanding reactions demonstrate a fundamental misunderstanding about what agents actually do. We would be neglecting our responsibility to our existing clients, plus it would be deeply misleading, if we spent time giving personal responses to writers we don’t intend to work with. For some sensible words on why agents can’t give feedback and why new writers don’t really want it, see Rachelle Gardner’s blog.

So mistakes, directions and complaints aside, the good news is that agents do actually want to find new authors. In fact I am working with at least half a dozen authors I’ve connected with via our online submissions site since we launched five months ago.  We are constantly monitoring the site and looking for new authors writing books for children and teenagers. I would love to find something in the vein of Game of Thrones, a contemporary romance for teens, an emotional middle grade story, irresistible characters and ideas that are instantly intriguing.  For a superb elevator pitch read Jamie Mason’s 140-Character Story Pitch in her interview on Chuck Wendig’s blog.

Happy pitching! I look forward to receiving your perfect, polished, submission. No pressure though…

Nerves are the norm with Discovery Day on the horizon

Tomorrow, around 250 new writers will be turning up at Foyles Bookshop on Charing Cross Road to pitch their idea to agents from Curtis Brown and hear feedback on their first pages. I know for probably 248 people this is a terrifying prospect.

Talking about your ideas and your writing can be deeply personal, and knowing you have a limited amount of time and the ear of an industry professional is bound to be daunting. But it’s worth remembering that the stakes are not as high as you might fear – it will be an audience of just one and it’s unlikely to be the only chance you’ll have for an agent to read your material, so it should be seen as a trial run rather than a one-off opportunity.  No one is expecting stand up comedy acts or X-Factor performances, (in fact, we might find that a bit alarming). Rather, we’re aiming to have just a brief, informal chat which we hope will be useful.  Sharing your work puts you in a vulnerable position but if you’re a writer who wants to be read, then at some point you’ll need to take the plunge and where better to start than on a day devoted to discovering new talent?

For writers, there can’t be more sympathetic crowd than a bunch of agents.  After all, we know how writers feel and hear their concerns on a daily basis. We’re familiar with the crippling anxiety that kicks in after pressing the send button and delivering a manuscript, and the torturous time spent awaiting a response. We’ve seen even the most experienced writers tackle nerves and beat back butterflies before speaking in public so we know that what we’re inviting new writers to do tomorrow won’t be easy. However we genuinely want to help – to give honest and realistic feedback and positive advice to new writers at the beginning of their journey.

Pitching face to face to an agent is unlikely to be the starting point for most new authors, but it is a useful exercise and whenever I talk to groups I always harp on about the importance of the covering letter, which is where a new writer first interacts with an agent.  A live pitch can be transferred into a covering letter and, as I’ve mentioned before, a strong idea, with the right title will really stand out if expressed in the right way.  We won’t be offering anyone representation on the spot – we couldn’t, based solely on the first page – but we hope the day will provide useful tips, encouragement and practical advice.

And there’s more to Discovery Day, too. Aside from the pitching stations there will be small “surgery” groups in the Foyles Café (a draw in itself), where new writers can ask general questions about publishing. And there will be a panel event in the afternoon with author Salley Vickers and debut novelist Tim Glencross. We hope it will be an opportunity to connect new writers with industry professionals and to celebrate books, debuts and independent bookshops.

If you can’t make it on the day then join us on Twitter and follow the day via our new site which we’re super proud of!  Not only do we now accept submissions online but we’ll be providing resources here for writers in our New Writing Room.

Discovery Day will just be the beginning …

What’s in a name? Tackling titles and staying calm.

Writing a children’s book – you think that’s hard part? Now try coming up with the right title.  If you find yourself tearing out your hair, howling at your computer screen or flinging your keyboard across the room, you’re not alone. Title tantrums may plague even the most composed of authors. You’ve toiled for hours, months, or years, agonising over sentences, entering into the psyche of your characters, and creating an entire world. And now you’re supposed to reduce all of that to a few puny words.  Even God found naming tiresome and delegated responsibility to Adam; creativity has its limits. So it’s easy to see how a title can terrorise an author. The pressure to describe your book, to capture its tone and spirit in an engaging, appealing and completely original way may be too much.

Well, the good news is that you don’t need to secure the ultimate title, at least not initially. Few titles tick every box so instead just aim for a couple or at the very least just make sure it’s easy to pronounce. While a great title will pique interest early on, so will a great idea and a great book.   A title can be revisited, revamped and rearranged and in all likelihood it will change altogether and even change back as I discovered with one of my children’s authors this week. In fact if you’re too wedded to your title it can be an issue – I’ve heard of a publisher lowering their offer because an author refused to consider using a different title.  In some territories a title might not translate well – words or sentiments might not resonate in the same way and the publisher will work with an author to find the best alternative. The title of your manuscript may not end up being the title of your book so be prepared to adapt: and crucially in the words of the superbly titled THE HITCHHIKER’S GUIDE TO THE GALAXY, “Don’t panic”.

When choosing a title you might want to think about which of the following categories your choice will fall within:

1. One word – If you go down this route make sure it’s something that really packs a punch and captures the spirit of the book.

eg. CHOMP, FLIP, SAWBONES

2. Descriptive – it pretty much does what it says on the tin.

eg. GHOST GAME, SPY SCHOOL, THE LUNATIC’S CURSE, THE ABILITY

3. Eponymous –  Naming books after characters can work well if you have an arresting name for your character but remember it won’t mean anything to a reader on its own so consider adding something to their name to describe the story further

eg. VIOLET MACKEREL’S BRILLIANT PLOT, CHARLOTTE’S WEB, THE OGRE OF OGLEFORT, STITCH HEAD: THE PIRATE’S EYE

4. Longer, intriguing and slightly quirky – these are rather popular at the moment but do make sure it is relevant to the book’s content.

eg. THE STATISTICAL PROBABILITY OF LOVE AT FIRST SIGHT, MY BEATING TEENAGE HEART

And here’s what not to do:

  • The title should convey something, but not everything, about the book. Make sure it’s relevant to the story but don’t try to fit the whole story into the title, stick to just one aspect of it.
  • Avoid tongue-twisters or anything too obscure
  • Avoid anything that has been used too much or old fashioned words ‘daring’, ‘magnificent’ ‘Chronicles’, ‘Adventures’, and the word ‘eternal’ can be off-putting
  • Don’t be too clever – puns can be tricky to translate

If you can’t come up with something dazzling don’t despair – your idea of mediocrity could be deeply stirring for someone else.  Just to show how subjective a ‘great title’ can be I asked my colleagues at Curtis Brown to share  favourite titles.  You’ll see from the list below that there’s no obvious pattern here – the appeal lies in the music of the words with every reader humming a slightly different tune.

Sheila Crowley:  The Memory Keeper’s Daughter by Kim Edwards

Anna Davis: A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius by Dave Eggers

Jonathan Lloyd:  Not A Penny More, Not A Penny Less by Jeffrey Archer

Vivienne Schuster: Wuthering Heights by Emily Bronte

Gordon Wise: No Turn Unstoned: The Worst Ever Theatrical Reviews by Diana Rigg

The ebb and flow of Publishing

I recently spent such a special afternoon with Scholastic and two Ibbotson brothers celebrating the launch of THE ABOMINABLES by the much-loved children’s author, Eva Ibbotson.  It consisted of a delicious boathouse lunch followed by punting down the River Cherwell (not quite the Amazon River but similarly idyllic).

As the water sparkled in the sunshine and we trailed fingers (and scarves in some cases) as we floated along, we agreed that there could not have been a more fitting tribute to the author of the prize winning JOURNEY TO THE RIVER SEA, a remarkable woman who touched so many lives not just with her writing but with the spirit of adventure, sense of fun and warmth she shared with friends and even acquaintances, and of course with her readers. I am constantly coming across editors, assistants, publicists and journalists who encountered Eva, even briefly, and who all adored her – it was impossible not to.

I was fortunate to spend a few years representing Eva as her literary agent.  At first she had her reservations about my age (youth),  and hair colour (potentially-ditzy blonde), but I made excuses for both and we quickly became close.  Eva was a real tonic and whatever the issue her phone conversations would always lift my mood and her emails frequently had me in stitches. Despite her experience and success, Eva was incredibly humble about her achievements and, as Marion Lloyd, who edited her for many years, will attest, she would often hand in a new, flawless manuscript saying ‘I don’t think it’s very good’. Without fail, it would be utterly marvellous.  But Eva understood that the publishing industry can be a capricious beast and she captured in a letter a duality familiar to many published authors:

“This morning there was a further lowering of spirits as the paperback of X is to be remaindered and they asked if I wanted copies. But by the same post came the enclosed thing about the film option for Y. It’s like that all the time – up and down – you’re a great author having a ritzy lunch, you’re an obscure provincial failure. So the only thing is to keep on writing and forget about the response”.

Navigating ups and downs gracefully is an art form and one that not all authors master.  For new children’s writers advice that they should keep writing and forget about the response, that it is, (excuse the pun), worth a punt, is certainly encouraging. But for Eva the response was, and still is, one of resounding enthusiasm and utter enchantment. The reaction readers and reviewers have had to both ONE DOG AND HIS BOY and THE ABOMINABLES, both published posthumously, is not one to forget, and Eva will undoubtedly live on through the classic children’s books she has given us that  will continue to brighten the lives of readers in the years to come, just as Eva herself lit up the lives of those who knew and cherished her.

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Before JK Rowling, there was Eva Ibbotson by Lorna Bradbury

The Daily Telegraph obituary of Eva Ibbotson

Round up of reviews for THE ABOMINABLES

Mal Peet’s review of THE ABOMINABLES

Creating characters

Never mind dogs looking like their owners: it dawned on me this week that a number of my children’s authors are starting to resemble the characters they create – slightly disturbing, since many write about animals, monsters and other strange creatures. Good-looking versions of their creations, of course.

Perhaps I’m hallucinating as a result of mid afternoon blood sugar level slumps, lengthy meetings or the kind of silliness which occurs when spending a long time immersed in children’s books. But it’s not completely surprising – after all, it is often the case that writers imbue their characters with personality traits they themselves possess, so why not physical characteristics, too?

But actually we shouldn’t really know what characters look like – or, at least, descriptions of physical appearance are best avoided. Characters should emerge through their actions – the way they slam the phone down, scowl at the bus conductor or march to the front of the queue (they don’t necessarily need to have anger issues, though). Knowing that she has long curly brown hair just doesn’t bring a character alive in the same way; in fact, I can’t think of any examples where a description of how a character looks works really well.

Am I wrong? Let me know if you can point to a really strong physical description of a character in a children’s book.

The BBC Writer’s Room site offers some other useful tips on creating character. It’s aimed at scriptwriters but can also apply to children’s book writers,
too: http://www.bbc.co.uk/writersroom/write-a-script/character