Everyone wants to know what will make their novel jump out from the agent’s slush pile. I was lucky enough to be one of the 75 writers picked to go to Date With An Agent at the International Literature Festival Dublin last weekend. I thank my lucky stars I was there, and got to hear what five different agents want, right from their very own lips. The five agents present were Julia Churchill, Sallyanne Sweeney, Clare Wallace, Simon Trewin and Paul Feldstein.
Julia works with AM Heath, and represents children’s and young adult authors. Sallyanne works with Mulcahy Associates, representing children’s, young adult and adult commercial and non fiction. Clare Wallace with Darley Anderson Agency represents children’s, young adult and women’s fiction. Simon Trewin, Partner and Head of Literary at WME London represents adult fiction, some YA, non fiction and poetry. Paul Feldstein, of the Feldstein Agency, represents adult fiction and non fiction (although not historical fiction, sci-fi or romance).
The agents all agreed that an outstanding ‘voice’ is what they want above all. They want to be excited by the style of writing, by how the writer makes the reader feel, by how the words flow together in a way that only that writer can do. I have previously heard Vanessa Fox O’ Loughlin explain ‘voice’ by pointing out that if Pavarotti and One Direction both sang Ave Maria on the radio, you would immediately know which was which. It should be the same with writers.
Julia told us that everyone has their own voice, and it’s what makes the reader recognise something in the writing that they enjoy. Simon explained how important it is for writers to stop trying to copy or create a voice based on other authors, that you need to find your own voice, your natural self. Sallyanne agreed with this, saying if you hold back your own voice, your work won’t be true to you. So much so, that you shouldn’t really be aware of your own voice in your writing because it’s so natural to you. In short, summarised by Paul, the voice is the soul of a book.
Along with a unique voice, the story needs to stand out. Simon said that he likes books that make him see the world in a different way. While he deals with many books that make commercial sense, his passion lies with quiet novels, books that make a difference. Julia wants to be taken somewhere new when reading a book. Clare likes to see a character led novel with a “cracking pace”. Paul wants fiction that grabs him, and again, something different. He would love a new crime novel with a fresh angle or a new character, as many of the crime novels he gets in his submissions are similar.
It became clear that the agents want to be moved by a book. Sallyanne wants books that excite her and evoke passion. Julia gave some hilarious anecdotes about how passionate she can get about a new book, to the point of letting her hair turn grey at the hairdressers when she wanted to sign up a new writer (wouldn’t it be wonderful to be that writer?). Simon joked about how he has had to hang up the phone on authors when their novels brought him to tears.
The unpredictability of the market was referred to at various stages, and how fickle the market is. Julia advised writers not to follow trends in the market because by the time the book comes to the shelves, the trend will be gone. Clare also advised against following trends because your heart won’t be in it. A book needs to be unique and have its own merits and qualities. Sallyanne summed this up beautifully saying “We want to see the book that only you can write.”
Researching the agent before you submit is vital, as they often get submissions for books in genres that they don’t work with. Paul said agents tend to stick to what they know, because that’s what they can promote the best. So sending an adult crime novel to a children’s agent is not a good idea. And it does happen! Sallyanne added to this that an author needs to be very clear on their pitch, and make the agent understand why this is the book for them. She also said the tone of the book needs to match the target audience. In relation to children books, she said the only way to make sure your tone is right is by reading children’s books. On this note, it is vital to read the submission guidelines online before submitting to any agency. Not sticking to the guidelines is an immediate black mark on your submission.
I loved realising that agents are all normal people like you or me, not scary ogres who don’t want your books. They want new voices. As Sallyanne said, they want long term relationships with their writers. Clare reminded us that agents are all different people with different tastes, and finding the agent that is passionate about your book is what matters. The same book in different hands will have different outcomes, and Simon pointed out that if a successful author was turned down by a particular agent, the author may never have become as successful with that agent.
When it came to the Date, ten precious minutes with an agent, everyone had different experiences. Many came away with some great advice or even a sparkle of hope.
My date was with Julia Churchill. Julia’s extensive experience in the world of children’s books was enough to make my heart giddy-up. I went into the meeting seeing it simply an opportunity to get professional feedback, but I came out of it with so much more. Julia had read 1500 words of my novel and the synopsis. She picked one negative and one positive thing, explaining why they mattered and where there was room for improvement.
Getting this kind of feedback is invaluable, especially on the first chapter which is the most crucial part of the book to get an agent’s attention. The highlight of my day was when Julia said she could see I could definitely write. That comment alone was worth the trip from Cork to Dublin. As for the future, who knows? I will send Julia my novel when the final draft is done, and maybe she will love it, and maybe she won’t. If she loves it, I’ll pop out the champagne. If she doesn’t, then I’ll know we weren’t the perfect match. Either way, she gave me hope, and I am deeply grateful.
On a final note, the day was more than just the agents, editors and publishers. It was about writers, and for writers. If the other writers in the room were anything like me, writing is their addiction, and a day spent learning about getting to the next step was like an infusion of sense and hope. Meeting other writers, talking about our books to people who understand our obsession was inspiring and heart warming. Writing can be a lonely business, with a lot of solitude. Events like this throw us into the light.