We’re delighted to welcome HELLIE OGDEN as 2019 judge. Hellie is a literary agent at Janklow & Nesbit UK, renowned for its electric list of authors from the literary to the commercial including Tom Wolfe, Joan Didion, Thomas Harris and Danielle Steel. Her client list includes brand names such as M.J. Arlidge and Kiran Millwood Hargrave alongside new talents like inaugural shortlistee Sophie Cameron.
Thank you for judging this year’s award! What kind of manuscripts do you hope to find?
I have a broad list, but what unites everything is clever, unique ideas. I’m
hunting for a hook I haven’t seen before, a new way of seeing something,
ingenious concepts. I’m looking for originality and storytelling that will move
me, excite me, challenge me.
As an editorially focused agent, you have a keen interest in helping to develop and
nurture debut writers. Can you describe how you work with new writers?
Each writer is different in how they like to work but I will always make sure we
are on the same page before signing a new client. I then will send an editorial
note with the bigger structural edits and then a line by line edit too. We go
back and forth until it is right. It’s a collaborative and I hope fun (!) process.
As an agent you’re happy to see manuscripts at just a rough stage, can you expand
on what you mean by ‘rough’ – in terms of line / structural edits?
I’ve taken on writers on the strength of a brilliant idea and fantastic writing
from the opening chapters. If I can see the potential and the author wants to
work with someone at an early stage to hone the idea and direction of the
novel I will jump at the chance.
Are there any genres you would not represent and/or pick to win?
You’re known for your love of bold storytelling, moving prose and vivid, thought-provoking characters, can you say a bit more about this and give an example?
Characters and plots that get under your skin, that compel you to keep going. Urgent, compulsive storytelling that leave you so full by the end. Perhaps a recent example would be my client Kiran Millwood Hargrave’s debut adult novel THE MERCIES, which I sold in a 13-way auction this year. Norway, witches, storms, strong female characters. A story of love, evil, and obsession that transported the reader to a terrifying, remote world with such vivid writing.
The books on your list often tackle dark themes in a strong, fresh voice. Are there
any themes you’d especially like to see and can you pinpoint what you love about a
I’d love to see a big concept driven thriller in the vein of I AM PILGRIM, as well
as a quirky, clever literary/commercial crossover story and I always want
something that will move me to tears. It’s so hard to work out what I love in a
voice. It’s a tone that feels exciting to you, and unique to us.
In psychological suspense and thrillers you love bold concepts with big ideas and
daring twists. Any editorial tips for suspense and twists?
Read lots in this area so you have a good sense of how to construct
crime/suspense. It’s such a skill, a puzzle that takes huge expertise. Think
about your plot beats, mapping everything out before you start and dripping
information slowly. Don’t let that middle sag, maintaining momentum will be
crucial. And your ending, of course, will need to leave a reader stunned.
In crime, you’re on the lookout for series potential with a main character you want to come back to again and again. What makes a great crime protagonist for you?
It comes back to a uniqueness again. Someone I haven’t seen before, someone extremely likeable but often complex with a hugely compelling personal story you can grow across a series.
Do you represent any previously self-published authors?
I don’t actually, but I’m always happy to see work from self-published writers.
You represent authors who write novels for both the adult and children’s markets. Is there a conflict between supporting clients to write the book they have to write and publishers wanting writers to stay in a particular lane?
Yes, it’s a business and an agent’s job is to offer advice and help so we steer
our clients in the right direction, working closely with the publisher, whilst not
stifling authors’ creativity too. It’s a balance, and a discussion and you want
an agent who you can trust wants the very best for you.
On the YA-side you love stories with a big heart and voice that tackle the often
messy side of growing up. Is that across all genres of YA?
Absolutely! I read widely in this area and I’m interested in any interpretation –
fantasy, reality, historical, contemporary – of the teenage experience.
Sophie is an exceptional writer and she combined a killer idea (angels falling form the sky) with a twisty plot, great sense of place (the backdrop of the Edinburgh
festival), endearing characters and a beautiful reflection on grief and healing.
Tell us about the last debut novel you placed with a publisher?
That would be Molly Aitken’s debut: a beautiful, painful, wild, Irish novel. A
magical tale of motherhood, desire, loss and the healing power of stories.
What’s the biggest challenge within agenting right now?
Getting an unknown author noticed, championing a debut when retail space is
diminishing and competition is fierce.
How helpful is an award listing when submitting a debut novel to publishers?
It will certainly help publishers take note when they are getting huge amounts
How many submissions do you receive as an agent and how many writers do you take on?
We get a huge amount of submissions every year, which I am extremely
grateful for and we take very seriously! We read every single one. I pride
myself on keeping my list small and focused so I only take on a couple of new
things a year, it isn’t many, but that means I can put my love and time into
absolutely everything and make everything a standout book. I do a huge
amount of editing and strategizing with all my clients and I couldn’t do that if
my list was unwieldy.
How difficult is it as an agent to find time to read submissions and do you have help?
Lots of reading when my little girl is in bed (!) and first thing in the morning.
Yes it can be hard but it’s the most wonderful bit of the job discovering debut
writers so it is worth all the hours. We have brilliant assistants in the office
who read with me but I tend to read everything myself and we don’t use any
external readers, it’s all done by us and that’s hugely important to us.
When reading agency submissions do you read the extract or synopsis first?
Always the extract. A synopsis is a difficult beast (!) and if the novel is
fantastic, I don’t care in the slightest if you can’t write the perfect synopsis.
Focus on your novel and make the synopsis a short, simple map of the book. I
might choose to read the entire story without looking at your outline as I want
to avoid plot spoilers and read fresh, particularly with crime.
What do you look for in a first page and do you have any first page no-no’s?
I want to feel convinced the writer knows where the novel is going and who their audience is. You might not have the entire thing plotted out in your head but you should be clear on a rough plan for the book that will then come out in the opening chapter. Avoid clichés, with perhaps the biggest culprit being starting the novel with your character waking up from a dream.
Any other advice for entrants?
Read widely so you are aware of the market, spend time in bookshops looking
at the backs of books and at titles too. Spend time on your synopsis but don’t
fret over it and more importantly try and make those opening chapters of
your work as wonderful as possible. Good luck, I can’t wait to read.
Interview by Caroline Ambrose