Q&A: 2016 Bath Novel Award Judge SUSAN ARMSTRONG, Literary Agent at Conville & Walsh Literary Agency
As ever, I’m hoping to find someone whose writing makes it impossible for me to think about anything else. Something fresh and compelling with characters I’d follow anywhere.
The quality of the prose and appeal of the voice are both vital to me so I dive straight into the novel, then once I have a sense of the writing I’ll step back and look at the synopsis. Even the most brilliant novelists can struggle with their synopsis so I prefer my first impressions of a writer to come from their opening chapter.
The synopsis can be a real challenge but it’s worth spending some time refining it. For me, I prefer to see one page and want to come away from that page knowing whose story is being told, why that story is worth me following and how their story ends (I like spoilers/plot twists to be included). Don’t include character or chapter breakdowns as that just makes for a very stilted read.
Sometimes, if you’re unsure which parts of the plot to include in the synopsis, it can help to say the story out loud to someone to get a sense of where the plot isn’t clear/which bits make their eyes glaze over/what parts make them sit up and pay attention….
And always think about what makes your book unique. Is it the setting? The circumstances? The concept? The narrator? Don’t include too much detail, just make sure your synopsis includes the most intriguing, crucial parts of the story.
Receiving around 250 submissions a week, I have, over the years, developed some pet niggles when it comes to the opening page. For me the main culprit is overwriting and I think this is more evidence of the pressure put on writers to impress from the first line, rather than a reflection of poor writing.
So much emphasis is placed on wowing the reader early on that the first page can often become overwritten and dense. Of course a writer does need to impress and hook their reader quickly, but my advice would be to be very careful with the number of similes, metaphors and descriptors. Overuse doesn’t show skill with words so much as a lack of confidence, and it often doesn’t reflect what the rest of the book is like.
My other niggle on opening pages is the classic telling rather than showing. Again, I think this comes from a desire to really immerse the reader and tell them exactly where they are, who their characters are, but telling makes for a very flat reading experience. We don’t need to know everything straight away, better to gradually, organically reveal things.
Titles change all the time; it’s not the be all and end all at this early stage but a cracking title is eye-catching, so if you’ve got something that conveys some of the mood/originality/intrigue of the novel then fantastic. For instance, if WHEN GOD WAS A RABBIT or THE EARTH HUMS IN B FLAT or MY SISTER LIVES ON THE MANTLEPIECE had landed on my desk I’d have zoomed in on it immediately.
It doesn’t need to be perfect to win. The moment a manuscript needs to be perfect is when it goes to print. As an agent, I’m very hands-on editorially so I look for talent that has big potential (potential that can be realised through close editorial work), and I’ll be looking for the same thing for the Bath Novel Award.
I’m a real sucker for voice. I adore an all-embracing, distinctive voice – after all, I’m going to be spending a lot of time with this narrator so I want it to be an enjoyable (and/or gripping) experience, regardless of whether I actually like them. I also look for assured storytelling. A writer who leads me through their novel confidently allows me to fall entirely into their hands, and this makes for a far more absorbing read than if the writer seems unsure of exactly what they are doing.
This is a tricky skill to master and a difficult question to answer. Conflict is important so there’s an element of, or potential for, the unexpected; threat is also vital for tension as everything is heightened when something is at stake for our characters. But really it’s all down to the execution.
Utterly, utterly biased I know, but my most recent favourite characters are from two forthcoming novels I represent. Each contain delightful, unforgettable duos and are perfect examples of exceptional characterisation, which was part of the reason I wanted to work with the authors: there’s mischief and innocence with Grace and Tilly in Joanna Cannon’s debut THE TROUBLE WITH GOATS AND SHEEP; and charm meets eccentricity with Mahony and Mrs Cauley in Jess Kidd’s debut HIMSELF.
But in terms of recent non-work related reads, characters that have stayed in my head, and heart, are: Bernadette from WHERE’D YOU GO, BERNADETTE by Maria Semple, who is as warm as she is peculiar; I’ll never forget the endearing anomaly that is the ‘deathless man’ in THE TIGER’S WIFE by Tea Obreht; and though all the characters in LIFE AFTER LIFE by Kate Atkinson are exquisitely drawn but I particularly love gentle, ‘broken’ Ursula and her irrepressible aunt Izzie.
Two things spring to mind: a lack of voice (voice again!) and being unsympathetic. As I mentioned above, if I’m going to spend 300 odd pages with a character I either want to be rooting for them or intrigued by them. I tend to sympathise quite easily with really messed up characters who behave dreadfully, as long as I can see that their motivation comes from a well-intended place, even if it’s totally misjudged. If, on the other hand, the narrator is also the antagonist then I need to be intrigued by their character to compensate for the absence of sympathy.
Your wishlist includes literary fiction, book group/upmarket commercial women’s fiction, crime, psychological thrillers, suspense, YA, high-quality magical realism, science fiction and fantasy. Are there any genres you would not want to see on our shortlist?
If I’d been told THE POWER OF ONE was about boxing, I’d never have read it but I did and I adored it so I’d never exclude any type of book. I’m coming into this open-minded and will simply be looking for great characterisation, strong prose, a striking voice and a cracking plot.
I absolutely love speculative fiction, something with an ‘otherness’ to it, so an upmarket commercial or literary novel that has touches of magical realism, fantasy, dystopia or sci-fi would be marvellous. Especially if it appeals to the general reader.
Ian is an incredible, naturally gifted storyteller and I was immediately swept away by his stunning prose and deeply compelling characters. I also have a real soft spot for Australian fiction so the setting was particularly appealing to me on a personal level.
Ensure that you polish your work as much as you can, but other than that all I’d say is good luck and I’m looking forward to reading your novel!
The Bath Novel Award 2016 is open for entries until 10th April 2016. Fulle terms and entry details here