On Saturday morning I attended a workshop organised by the Huddersfield Literature Festival called ‘Meet the Agent and Editor’. Jenny Savill, a Literary Agent at Andrew Nurneurg Associates, and Antonia Hodgson, Editor-in-Chief at Little, Brown UK and a first time author herself, got together to talk a little about what they do and then opened the floor up to questions. I’ve summarised the content below from my own notes.
Of course, they answered from their own point of view as individuals in the industry and I was particularly interested in responses about the submissions process. Jenny Savill emphasised that when submitting the first three chapters to an agent it is significant that they are the TRUE first chapters – not written specifically to draw the agent in. I was also surprised – and a little disappointed – to discover that Savill tends not to read the synopsis that accompanies submissions. Surprised because it’s a vital aspect of all submission guidelines, disappointed because it’s such a tough piece to write that it’s disheartening to think that it won’t be read. Savill contextualises her position by arguing that, if she likes the writing, she doesn’t want to be told what will happen next – she wants to experience it by requesting the full manuscript. She did qualify her statement by explaining that, occasionally, the synopsis does provide her with information on where an author is going with a novel – so she obviously does pay attention to them, but prefers to let the writer speak through their manuscript rather than a summary version of events: which, in the end, I think I would appreciate more.
Both warned against writing for a market, suggesting that unless the writer really wants to tell the story the finished piece won’t read authentically. When I asked about genre and the importance of an author recognising the appropriate genre of their novel, both agreed that the idea of genre is currently so wide-open that it doesn’t really impact their decision. While some books fit precisely inside a genre – crime thrillers, for example – others are much less constrained by the categorisation process. In the end, identifying a suitable genre for a novel can be very helpful (for appropriate pitching, marketing and such) but it’s not a limiting factor. In fact, non-genre is almost a genre in itself suggested Hodgson.
They also agreed that it was vital that any submitted manuscript should be finished before approaching an agent and that an author is always best served by having an agent. Editors rarely accept unsolicited manuscripts and finding an appropriate publisher is best suited to an agent who knows the industry, including which editors would carry the novel forward with enthusiasm and author support. All in all, given the various aspects of support Savill outlined in her short explanation of her role, I can imagine myself – as a writer only – struggling with much of the business aspects of being a published author, as such I would tend to agree.
Savill shared some of the first time author pitfalls she most often discovers in submissions, including: telling not showing, surface rather than internal characterisation with no creative means of sharing backstory and the much-hated info-dumping. Hodgson nodded along and then added one of her own – rushed endings – explaining that she can understand the exhilaration of coming so close to that final page that many first-time authors hurry the process along.
The workshop could probably have gone on all day, and I think if it were repeated again next year it would perhaps be best-served by extending the time allowed and even having questions submitted prior to the event where applicable. It was definitely a valuable hour spent in good company, but I suspect we all had more questions we would have liked to discuss.
However, my favourite thing about the entire experience was that we were given the opportunity to buy Hodgson’s book before it has been officially released. I perused the first three lines of ‘The Devil in the Marshalsea‘ and decided it would be a worthwhile investment. Not only did I get the opportunity to have Antonia Hodgson sign my copy, but I was informed that I had purchased the first physical copy of it. 🙂 What a great feeling – for both of us. Even better, I haven’t been able to put the book down since…