We are delighted to announce JULIA SILK as shortlist judge for 2021’s Bath Novel Award. Before becoming a literary agent in 2016 Julia was an editor for 15 years, latterly at The Orion Publishing Group, where she worked for nine years. She holds an MA in Comparative Literature from UEA and has broad-ranging taste in fiction across the spectrum from commercial to literary.
Thank you for judging this year’s prize. How and why did you become a literary agent?
In my last few years as an editor, I was becoming increasingly aware that I was more interested in serving the needs of authors than publishers, and realised I was probably on the wrong side of the fence. I’ve also always been an all-rounder – I enjoy equally every aspect of unearthing new talent, pitching, selling, negotiating, editing, strategizing and relationship building. These are all things editors do to some extent, but there’s an added intensity and aspect of risk as an agent, which I enjoy. When I left my last publishing job, at Orion, I approached a few different agents to see if we might be able to work together – and I was lucky to be able to start a list from scratch under the umbrella of an established agency, who gave me backroom support and were incredibly generous with contacts and advice when I was learning the ropes. Then a couple of years ago I moved to Charlie Campbell Literary Agency (formerly Kingsford Campbell) a relatively new agency, where I could put more of my own stamp on things.
How many debut novelists do you typically take on in a year?
I’m not sure there is really such a thing as a typical year in agenting, but I’m still growing my list and even though I also represent non-fiction, I would probably have room for four or five new fiction authors, depending on how much work each MS is going to require to be ready for submission.
What sort of novels do you love?
Stories with a distinct and engaging voice that make me feel something. Generally if the first few pages provoke a rush of some kind (amusement, fear, a thrill in the writing), show me something new, make me well up, evoke a need to read on uninterrupted then I’m in. I’m pretty genre-agnostic: some of the books I’ve enjoyed most in the past year or so include My Sister the Serial Killer by Oyinkan Braithwaite, Kiley Reid’s Such a Fun Age, Rebecca Serle’s Five Years Later, Magpie Lane by Lucy Atkins, Small Pleasures by Clare Chambers, and my current read, Selena Godden’s Mrs Death Misses Death. The thing they have in common is that they all feel (to me) as if they contain some kind of essential truth about the human condition. They all pay equal attention to detail, plotting, character, everything connects to everything else and they never lose sight of the reader.
What key elements do you hope to find in opening extracts?
Engaging writing that feels vibrant and fresh. Characters to love (even if they are not loveable – or even likeable). Something to pique my curiosity and drive me onwards. I like plenty of forward momentum in the opening chapters and the sense that the author is in control of their story.
Any tips on writing a one-page synopsis?
Be as succinct as possible, while outlining the whole story arc: you don’t have to include each minor subplot and it’s wise to limit yourself to 4 or 5 character names if possible, to avoid confusion, as it’s actually quite hard to take in a lot of detail over a page.
How perfect will the full manuscript need to be to win?
It would need to show a satisfying fully fleshed-out story and character arcs, but it won’t be a problem if there’s the odd minor plot hole or issue of pacing or emphasis. Primarily It needs to feel as if the author has asked themselves the important questions about their plot and characters and has the confidence and ability to see it thorough. So often in submissions I see a strong start peter out when I’ve asked for the full MS.
Any editing tips for revisiting the opening chapters before pressing send?
Really interrogate yourself about what those first chapters should achieve. I see this all the time in initial queries. Writers are worried that their first three chapters won’t be enough to show what their novel is ‘about’ so they try to put in too much information and fill them up with backstory – but that’s unnecessary, as that’s what the synopsis is for. Or sometimes there is so much description and scene setting that it’s hard to have any sense of what might unfold – so be sparing with description that doesn’t serve the story in some way, and make sure every sentence is earning its keep. In the first few chapters I want to see an author’s skill as a writer and storyteller, which should come through in the quality of the writing and the ability to create narrative drive. Think about which books have great openings and why.
How do you work editorially with new authors to get a manuscript ready to sell?
We’ll already have a fairly clear shared vision for the novel, because that’s really key when you offer/accept representation. Once we start working together we discuss where we think there are weaknesses or any issues they are aware of but haven’t yet been able to ‘fix’. I make my own notes in advance of our first big editorial conversation but then it really helps to think out loud together about what’s needed – the conversation itself will always offer new perspectives. Then I flesh out my notes based on our discussion, for the author to work from. Then depending on how well the edits have gone and what new issues might have been thrown up by any changes, we edit each draft in a similar way until we both feel happy that we have done what we can to get the MS to where it needs to be for submission.
Is award success an asset when pitching a debut novel?
I think there are three or four awards, and the Bath Novel Award is one, that seem to have a relatively high take-up of winners and shortlistees by agents and publishers, who definitely scour those lists with interest as they are undeniably an indicator of the writer having reached a certain level. So it definitely doesn’t hurt, but ultimately an editor is going to respond to a book on a personal level and if they don’t connect with it and have a vision for how they could publish it, then anything else is pretty much irrelevant.