“The Binding Frame is one of the most original, captivating and vivid debut novels that I’ve read. Annetta is a first class storyteller and her attention to detail is extraordinary. I am excited at the prospect of sharing this rich, luscious and compelling novel.”
Sophie Lambert, literary agent at C+W Agency.
Congratulations, Annetta. How did you know Sophie was the right literary agent for you?
I am thrilled to have signed with Sophie Lambert and very much looking forward to working with her. Since 2014 I have been studying Creative Writing at UEA. I met Sophie for the first time in 2016, at a UEA Creative Writing agent event. She was very enthusiastic and expressed an interest in reading my novel when it was finished (I think I’d only written about half of it at that point). When I met her again a year later at a Writers Centre Norwich event at which I was volunteering, we got on very well with each other. I found it very easy to talk to Sophie and discuss my ideas with her. We also had a similar sense of humour.
At the WCN event, Sophie explained how she works with her authors to make their manuscripts the best they can be before sending them out to publishers. I was keen to find an agent with that approach. She also talked about how she’d worked with one writer over several years to get their second book absolutely right.
When I met her again in April 2017 at a Writers Centre Norwich event, Sophie was heavily pregnant. I reminded her about my manuscript and said that it would be ready in about six weeks. That date coincided with Sophie having her baby but she asked me to send my manuscript anyway. I felt very guilty but I sent her the first 50 pages when her baby was only about two weeks old. She requested the full manuscript four days later and offered to represent me two and a half weeks after that.
By that point, however, ‘The Binding Frame’ had won the First Novel Prize and I’d had two other offers of representation and two more agents were also reading. I never expected to be in the very fortunate position of multiple offers. I felt it was really important to take my time and hear everyone’s thoughts. Sophie had good ideas for editing my novel and I felt she saw it in the same way that I did. I liked her on a personal level and I was impressed by her list of authors and her obvious long-term commitment to them. In the end it just felt right that I should sign with Sophie. It became very difficult because I was so impressed by the enthusiasm and ideas of particularly one other agent I spoke to, but in the end I was certain that Sophie was the right choice for me.
Do you feel the feedback and exposure The Binding Frame received by being longlisted for our award made a difference to you securing an agent?
Absolutely. Being long-listed for the Bath Novel Award made a huge difference to my own confidence as a writer in making me believe that literary professionals rated my work and were interested in the story. I actively sought feedback from the Bath Novel Award judges and used it to improve my novel. I mentioned that ‘The Binding Frame’ had been long-listed for the Bath Novel Award in my query letters, and agents I met congratulated me on it so I know it made a difference to them.
Did you have a pitch line for The Binding Frame?
It was more like a whole paragraph! It probably goes against any advice about making a concise pitch to agents…
‘The Binding Frame’ is set in plague-stricken Palermo in 1624 and tells the true story of the meeting between two great portraitists: 25-year-old Antoon (Sir Anthony van Dyck) and one of the very few professionally-trained female painters of the Italian Renaissance, Sofonisba Anguissola (1532? – 1625), who was formerly portraitist to the Queen of Spain. Now 92 and almost blind, Sofonisba commissions Antoon to paint her final ‘self-portrait’. Antoon becomes increasingly drawn to the elderly painter as he pieces together her memories and image.
I did originally have a single line: ‘The Binding Frame is about portraiture, memory and the construction of the self.’ But I was advised to let agents work out for themselves what the novel was about.
What drew you to Sofonisba?
I’ve been fascinated by Sofonisba since my early 20s when I wrote my undergraduate dissertation about her portrait drawings. Although internationally famous during her own lifetime, she is little known today. Her meeting with the young Van Dyck was such an incredible moment in the history of art both because at 92 Sofonisba was the last artist alive who’d personally known Michelangelo and was one of the very few professionally-trained female artists of her day, but also because Van Dyck was later to become such an incredibly famous artist himself. Even more extraordinary was that this meeting took place while plague was raging in Palermo and Van Dyck was in fear for his own life, unable to escape. There were so many fascinating ideas and themes to explore in these true events that I was really excited about it as a project.
I wrote the novel over three years from 2014. The first six months was comprised entirely of historical and art historical research. I started writing while beginning the MFA in Creative Writing at UEA. The first year was mainly experimentation with structure and voice – I found my way by trial and error and with feedback from my tutors and peers at UEA. I started writing the novel properly in July 2015 and finished the first draft in February 2017. I had to do further research throughout in order to answer all the historical and art historical questions that arose as I wrote.
“From the first paragraph Annetta thrusts the reader into plague ravaged Palermo and brings Van Dyck and Sofonisba Anguissola to life with such colour and detail that it could only have been written by someone with extensive and passionate knowledge. Underpinning the narrative run themes of such universality that I know the book will have broad resonance and that it should prompt us all to question the transience of life and legacy.”
Sophie Lambert, literary agent at C+W Agency
How did you decide the time was right to stop editing and get your manuscript in front of agents?
I’d been editing for about five months and was coming to the end of my MFA course. I felt that the novel was in good overall shape. I knew there was more editing to do but that I now needed to develop it further and take the manuscript to a more professional level. So it seemed the right time to find an agent who could advise me on giving the manuscript the polish that would be expected by a publisher.
I was very fortunate that on the MA/MFA in Creative Writing at UEA students get to meet agents and publishers. This July, I approached the agents who had expressed a particular interest in my work at those events. I also contacted one other agent whom I hadn’t met but whom I felt might have an interest in ‘The Binding Frame’. A couple of weeks later, ‘The Binding Frame’ won the First Novel Prize and several other agents directly approached me about the novel. Everything happened very suddenly in the end.
Did you find querying stressful?
I did find it quite stressful because the novel’s subject is such a personal obsession and I wanted to find someone who really loved it. It’s hard when you’ve been working on something for a long time to decide this is the moment when you must send it out and put your writing and yourself to the test. My three young children were on summer holidays, I was doing a full-time MFA, I had two part-time teaching jobs, and I was preparing for a job interview at The National Gallery, so I was pretty distracted!
How did you handle any passes along the way and did you receive any helpful feedback?
I had several conversations with agents at UEA events during which their eyes and obviously their thoughts were wandering off round the room while I was pitching to them! With passes you have to think that either that agent just isn’t the right one for your work, or if you have several passes for the same reason once they’ve read your manuscript that there is something that isn’t quite working yet that you need to address. The key thing is not to get dispirited but to see rejection as a positive impetus for improvement. You just need to get the work right and find the right agent. I found the feedback I received from the Bath Novel Award judges particularly helpful. It gave me an honest professional appraisal of my work and ideas for aspects to fix.
Looking back on the past few months, any tips for anyone about to start querying?
Don’t do it over the summer holidays! No one is around and some agents won’t accept submissions at all.
Before you start querying agents, get as much feedback as you can on your work from other writers or critical readers. The online communities around writing prizes such as the Bath Novel Award are good forums in which to meet other new writers and make contacts. Enter writing competitions to receive as much professional critical feedback as you can on your work. If your novel is long-listed that will impress agents when you query them.
Research the different agencies and the agents who represent your type of writing. Look at which authors they represent and check The Bookseller to see the deals they’ve made recently and with which publishers. Try to look for agents in strong agencies who represent successful new writers and express a commitment to developing new talent. Choose your top five agents. If possible, try to meet them in person. Agents often travel to events at writing festivals or centres round the UK, these are good opportunities.
Before you send your query letter to an agent, be certain your manuscript is complete and ready. Your work will probably only get one chance so it has to be absolutely the best it can be. Keep your letter brief. Don’t be dejected if an agent doesn’t want to represent your work. It may just not be right for them. Always ask them for feedback.
If you receive an offer of representation, meet the agent in person, ask lots of questions, and ask for their detailed thoughts on your work. If you receive interest from more than one agent, be open with the other interested agents about it. Don’t rush into anything. Good agents will be prepared to wait until you’re ready to make a decision. Make sure your chosen agent sees your work in the same way that you do and that they give clear, perceptive and constructive feedback from which you can learn and work. Read all documents and contracts very carefully before you sign anything. Most importantly make sure you feel confident and excited about working with your agent because hopefully you’ll be working together for many years.
What’s next for you?
My next step is to visit some of the locations in Spain where part of my story is set. I’ve spent some time in Palermo but never been to Spain. It’s going to be amazing to walk in Sofonisba’s footsteps there.
I’m also editing in response to Sophie’s feedback and feedback from Alexandra Machinist at ICM, who will be working with Sophie to sell ‘The Binding Frame’ in the US. I will be sending back and forth to Sophie until the manuscript is ready to go to publishers in early 2018.
Lastly any advice for entrants thinking of entering this year’s award?
I’m certain that agents regard writing competitions as opportunities for finding and signing new writers. It was such a wonderful experience taking part in the Bath Novel Award. I’d highly recommend it to new writers looking to gain feedback, recognition and exposure for their work.
Interview by Caroline Ambrose
Annetta Berry was longlisted for the Bath Novel Award in 2017 and 2016. Follow Annetta @AnnettaBerry
Sophie Lambert is a literary agent at C+W Agency (formerly known as Conville & Walsh) where her clients include Costa Novel Award winner Nathan Filer. She is looking for literary, upmarket commercial and crime fiction as well as novels that don’t necessarily neatly fit into a single genre but that are strongly voice driven.
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