BATH NOVEL AWARD 2020 Judge
JENNY SAVILL is a primary agent and Director at Andrew Nurnberg Associates, placing its authors in both the UK and US markets. Within adult fiction she is on the look-out for writers of literary fiction, commercial and literary women’s fiction, well-written thrillers and psychological suspense and historical fiction. Her well-respected list of clients includes Bath shortlistees Neema Shah (Kololo Hill) and Hana Tooke (The Unadoptables) whose novels Jenny placed with Picador and Penguin respectively during 2019.
Thank you for judging 2020’s prize. What sort of novels do you love?
I like to be transported. Plus, a main character that really sustains my interest (they don’t have to be nice) or that I can root for. I have a soft spot for the genre-busting, the slightly speculative and stories set in the past, but of course brilliant stories can be found in any genre and across both literary and commercial publishing.
What key elements do you hope to find in opening extracts?
A great new voice, a freshness to the writing, a feeling of being anchored in the narrative from the beginning, and of being drawn into the story. But above all, a sense that the author knows exactly what they are doing and where the story will go – a sense that the reader is in good hands.
Are you pro prologues?
The contrast between a prologue and the opening of the first chapter can pique a reader’s curiosity, so I think a prologue can sometimes work well as an intriguing jolt. Not always necessary though and depends on the novel itself.
Any tips on writing a one page synopsis?
A synopsis is simply a tool for the agent or editor to see where the story goes and how it ends. It is not on its own going to sell your book, so for me it doesn’t have to be beautifully written. It is the “who, what, where and when” of your novel. It is not the “why” – all of that (motivation, detail, backstory) is in the novel itself.
If you are struggling to write a synopsis, a good suggestion seems to be to write the numbers 1-10 down the left hand side of the page. Put the first major thing that happens at number 1, the ending at number 10 and fill in the other major things that happen, one next to each number, in chronological order – you’ll have the skeleton of a synopsis. Flesh out into paragraphs and you’ll have one that’s submission-ready. Always include any twists, and the ending.
I think it can be helpful to try writing a synopsis at different stages of the manuscript – especially if you are stuck.
Any formatting likes or dislikes and do you have a font of choice?
1.5 or double spaced and a legible font in 12pt works for me. When submitting to agents, it’s a good idea to check their websites for individual preferences.
How important is the novel’s title?
It is a jumping off point – and it may change. Publishers like to create space around a book when they launch it, so sometimes, if it becomes apparent that a book with a very similar title will be published just before theirs, the author will be asked to change it some months in advance of publication – often with the help of the editor and the agent.
How perfect will the full manuscript need to be to win?
I’m hoping to see manuscripts where, for instance, the elements of voice, plot, character, setting, pace etc are functioning to a pretty high standard. I’m hoping to see stories that provoke a real response in the reader – three dimensional characters and narratives that strongly engage. I’d rather see raw storytelling that moves me than a manuscript that has had its voice smoothed out of it – if that makes sense? So: not perfect but as good as you can get it (see below). A book lives on in the author’s head. I know authors who are still thinking of small revisions to their book long after publication!
Any editing tips for revisiting the opening chapters before pressing send?
I have found that sometimes a submission benefits from cutting the first chapter or more so the story starts further in and there’s less exposition to get bogged down in. It is also worth considering whether scenes start at the latest possible point and finish at the earliest. I would say pay attention to detail – too much and there won’t be space for the reader to use their imagination and engage with the text, too little and things might not be clear enough. I have heard authors say that reading their work out loud is very helpful.
At the end of your first three chapters, will the reader be left wanting more? And, given the whole ms will need to be ready in case the agent calls it in, it’s probably a good idea to put it away for say a month and return to it with fresh eyes – what needs doing is then easier to spot. Any thoughts or realisations about the story that surface during that time can be jotted down and returned to with the manuscript. This can be done any number of times.
How do you feel about judging blind?
Excited! It’s all about the words on the page.
How and why did you become a literary agent?
I think the mixture of creativity/collaboration and business is what attracted me to agenting. (When I was a little girl I wanted to be a ballerina who ran a post office…) I started out as PA to Andrew Nurnberg, began to assist with the representation of the agency’s authors in the UK and US, was made an agent and was then given the chance to start a children’s list, which I now run alongside adult authors.
What’s your number one priority as an agent?
The proper exploitation of my authors’ books across as many platforms and markets as possible.
As an international literary agency Andrew Nurnberg Associates specialises in foreign rights. How important is this income stream for your authors?
With our offices in London and International offices in Eastern Europe, Turkey, Russia, China and Taiwan, we offer a unique service to our authors and those of our agent and publisher clients. Local, on the ground knowledge of the markets and the book buying public plays a key role in placing books in translation. Sometimes my colleagues will be getting translation rights offers in before I have closed the UK deal. And sometimes books end up faring better overseas than in their home market. It is fascinating to see where a book can really take off and of course each territory’s deal means a separate advance and royalties for the author.
How many debut novelists do you typically take on in a year?
It depends who comes along, but on average between 1 and 3. I have also taken on mid-list authors.
How do you work editorially with new authors to get the book ready for you to sell?
I’ll have had a chat with the author to make sure we are on the same page with regards to the manuscript. There’s no point offering – or accepting – representation if that shared vision isn’t there. If I am lucky enough to take the author on – and it is entirely the author’s choice as to whom they feel most comfortable with – I’ll work with the author to get the manuscript ready for submission to editors. I’ll write an editorial letter saying what I think is working and what I think needs attention or developing. It could be general or it could be chapter by chapter.
Once the next draft comes in I’ll either do another editorial letter or pop any suggestions into the Track Changes. The ms will go back and forth between us for as long as it takes. Towards the end of the process I’ll work with the author on coming up with a blurb and synopsis for submission.
Is award success an asset when pitching a debut novel?
It can be – nominations, a longlisting, a shortlisting, all show that the author is serious about getting their work noticed and getting published.
Any thoughts on current trends for debuts?
It’s always exciting when a debut comes along that gathers real traction in the market. 2020’s submissions are the potential debuts of 2021/22 and that is why awards such as The Bath Novel Award provide such a fantastic platform for new talent. Good luck everyone!