Bath Children’s Novel Award 2020 Judge
STEPHANIE THWAITES is a literary agent at Curtis Brown where she has worked for 16 years. She represents children’s and YA books, commercial fiction for adults and narrative non-fiction and was short-listed for The British Book Awards’ Agent of the Year in 2018.
Thank you for judging this year’s prize. What would you most like to see on the shortlist?
I’d love to be surprised. I have a completely open mind in terms of genre but I do like memorable protagonists, fast paced plots and either different worlds or different takes on the familiar. I also love funny books, dark books and darkly funny books too.
How do you feel about Junior Judges choosing the shortlist?
I love this element and think it’s so important that we listen to young readers and make sure that the books we’re publishing appeal to and resonate with them. I’m interested in books that will spark a lifelong interest in reading for children and hope our Junior Judges will help us identify submissions that can do that.
I can’t wait to see what they select!
Any tips for the opening pages?
Don’t worry about setting the scene, just jump straight in, start with the protagonist and the action and then let the rest unfold.
What do you look for in a short synopsis?
Answer who, what, when, where, how and why. Don’t worry about recounting every scene or chapter, just focus on those pivotal moments that move the plot forward.
How perfect will a full manuscript need to be to win?
It doesn’t need to be perfect AT ALL – it just needs to have potential to excite us. Struan [Murray, 2017 winner] will tell you that we drove him crazy with edits and he worked on four rounds of revisions before we submitted his work to publishers. I’ve never submitted a manuscript without working with the writer on it first to make sure it’s in the best possible shape before we approach publishers. I really enjoy that early part of the process and working collaboratively from the outset is good training for new writers.
How important is the title at this stage?
A strong title can help but it isn’t crucial at this stage. As Caroline [Ambrose, Bath Novel Awards founder] will remember, Struan’s manuscript was originally called THE VESSEL and changed once we had Penguin on board.
How do you feel about judging blind?
I think for the purposes of this competition to put everyone on an equal footing it makes total sense. However I do think a writer’s personality and background can add another dimension and be an interesting and appealing addition when presenting their work to publishers.
When, how and why did you become an agent?
I joined Curtis Brown in 2003 as an assistant working for two primary agents. I quickly developed an interest in children’s and YA fiction and took on my first client in 2005. I knew from day one that I’d found my dream job. Finding new talent and helping to shape careers as well as offering practical advice and guidance and negotiating deals is for me the perfect marriage between the creative and commercial. Knowing the impact reading can have on children I feel fortunate to play a part in helping to create books which stimulate the imagination, build empathy and help young readers understand the world – ideally while entertaining them too!
Describe your (children’s fiction) client list?
I’m proud to represent a wide range of wonderful authors writing picture books, young fiction, middle grade and YA. While I look after a number of established names and international bestsellers, I am particularly keen on discovering and cultivating new talent and have a real passion for working with new writers and launching debuts.
I was completely swept away by Struan’s manuscript, It has one of the most arresting openings I’ve ever read and I just adored the world and the writing and couldn’t stop thinking about it. It was originally written as YA but Struan was receptive to rewriting it for a middle grade readership which was a huge undertaking and one I really admired him for agreeing to.
Penguin Random House made a pre-emptive offer within 24 hours of you submitting Struan’s book. How unusual is this for a children’s debut?
It’s pretty unusual. Ben, Struan’s editor, stayed up until 3am reading it and was able to move very quickly and enthusiastically. But it’s not just about speed or even the offer itself, the most important part of the process is finding the right fit when matching an author with an editor and publishing house. This is vital to give them the best chance of success and of forming a long term and happy relationship.
Can you say a little about how you collaborate with authors on edits before their book goes out to publishers?
This can vary from writer to writer and I tend to be led by the client and what they feel works best for them. Some prefer to revise a few chapters first and send those I to me, others will rework the whole manuscript then we’ll discuss the new draft. Sometimes we’ll work on a revised outline together before they start the edits. Before agreeing to work together we’ll have a conversation about the project and I’ll give some initial thoughts and suggestions then. I’ll usually follow up with written notes – often in bullet point form (I do love a list). Then we’ll repeat the process as many times as we feel we need to. We’ve really only got one chance to submit a manuscript and I want to make sure we give it our very best shot.
Lastly any advice for entrants on whether to include or avoid references to Covid-19?
I’d suggest avoiding references to Covid-19 and perhaps setting stories just before the pandemic, or in another world entirely.