This year’s judge is NELLE ANDREW. Nelle joined Rachel Mills Literary in 2020, previously worked as an agent at Peters Fraser and Dunlop for eleven years, and prior to that at Macmillan publishers. Nelle represents an array of internationally bestselling and award-winning authors and was crowned Literary Agent of the Year in 2021 at The British Book Awards; the most prestigious accolade for a literary agent in the UK.
Thank you for judging 2022’s prize. What do you hope to find in the opening 5,000 words?
Utter absorption. That moment when you think, oh I don’t want to do anything else. Whether it is the voice, or the plot, or the hook or just the line by line amazing writing. But honestly, it is the sense of feeling as if you are sinking down into a world where the author has complete control and all you have to do is follow their lead.
Any tips for the first page?
Do not tell us – show us. The opening of the best novels don’t assume they need to spoonfeed you intel; they give you setting, place and people and just enough information to ground you but enough space to create an enigma that keeps you going. Assurance of voice also is key. I don’t want to read a version of an author that already exists. I want to hear your perspective on the world, whatever that may be.
What do you look for in a one-page synopsis and do you read the extract or synopsis first?
Who, when, where, catalyst and resolution. I read both and I think both are equally important. They are an elaboration of the other and should be working in sympatico completely.
What makes you want to request a full manuscript?
It is entirely subjective but that gut punch in the stomach that makes you think I need to know more, I need to know how this ends. Essentially I care about the characters and their journey. The author has created either an emotional connection or a need to know connection, where I just have to see how this goes and where it lands. I start with such hope and am always anxious for the author to deliver.
How perfect will a manuscript need to be to win?
Oh god, there’s no such thing as perfect, only done. When you’ve got to a stage where you cannot edit it any further without essentially unravelling it because you can’t see the wood for the trees, it is done and ready to start the next stage of its journey. I am looking for potential here, I know full well the massive difference between what lands in my inbox and then what ends up on a bookshelf. Sometimes I wish authors would publish both so you could see how much editing goes into that final product, so don’t be intimidated to send your work in.
How do you feel about judging blind?
EXCELLENT. It should be entirely on the experience as a reader and how that makes me feel as one, not an enterprise from a space of business. That is how we find amazing new voices.
Could a novel in a genre you don’t currently represent still win?
Absolutely. I don’t represent what I don’t read enough of, but that isn’t to say I don’t completely appreciate things that are outside of my wheelhouse. I adore Angie Thomas, but I wouldn’t know how to represent YA in the same sense as other genres. I think World War Z is phenomenal but it’s an outlier in my taste as an agent. What I read and what I work with overlap but what I read is more extensive because I don’t believe we are brilliant at everything and I prefer to narrow that focus as an agent, which I don’t as a reader.
How and why did you become a literary agent?
I actually didn’t want to be a literary agent, even when I worked for an agency. The weight of responsibility made me feel overwhelmed but eventually after being an assistant to a major agent for 3 ½ years, I realised I needed to leave, so started looking for editorial jobs though my heart wasn’t in it. In the end, the decision was made for me by the people around me who pushed me for the promotion saying I was doing the job in so many ways and it was time to just be brave and do it for myself. So I did and here we are…but it was definitely a calling I resisted.
What do you love most about agenting?
Making someone’s dream come true. Giving people that physical manifestation of a life long ideal or endeavour. That is amazing. Essentially I love finding and turning people into stars. Seeing people on the tube reading books I helped shepherd to publication. Watching people go from nervous sitting in my office as we discuss representation to being mobbed in award ceremonies. It is a total thrill. I live for it.
How do you work editorially with new authors?
VERY. To the point that I actually warn people signing with me that I will put them through their paces because if I can see something is not right, then an editor will. I don’t send something out unless I 100% believe in it and I have to be able to say that it is truly deserving of being published and that means putting the work in right from the get-go. If you don’t want to be put through that rigour, working with me would be a huge mistake. It is my standard and I don’t lower it for anyone but my record speaks for itself.
Any other advice for entrants?
Perseverance is key. That is what is the real difference between books in a shop and the ones that stay in your drafts folder. You have to keep trying, you have to keep your faith in yourself. Never outsource your validation to this industry because readers and markets are fickle, but someday, somewhere if you keep going, you will find your place. Which will never happen, if you quit.