Bath Novel Award 2024 Judge

Thank you for judging 2024’s prize. What do you hope to find in the opening 5,000 words?

I use the phrase ‘word spell’, but that’s what I’m looking for. I read books to be transported, to step into someone else’s experience, to explore another world. I want to be captivated. 

Any tips for the first page?

I think a memorable first page invites a reader to step into a story. As an agent, I usually fall in love with a novel from those opening sentences, and as a reader, I know that I am usually captured by the first page as well.  

There is a temptation to set a scene or to set up a story, but often if you drop in a reader as close to the inciting incident as possible, the reader can then build the world around themselves as the writer does as well. This doesn’t mean that there needs to be some dramatic action in the first page, there are ways to do this with a character’s thoughts, but the opening needs to be compelling.

The most effective descriptions are the ones that are unexpected, and in that first page, you are showing us what you are pointing a reader’s attention to, and so those descriptions should be precise and intentional. 

What do you look for in a one-page synopsis and do you read the extract or synopsis first?

Clarity is what I look for in a synopsis. I know it is difficult to condense any story into one page, but I think it is possible, and it shows an understanding of your narrative to be able to do this. 

I tend to read opening pages first, and sometimes when I read a cover letter, I want to read an extract and full manuscript without knowing what happens, but almost always, there is a correlation between a well-written synopsis and a manuscript.  

How perfect will a manuscript need to be to win?

I think perfection is impossible! I’m sure nearly every author would say so as well. So hopefully that’s reassuring, but of course, editing is important, and as a writer / creator, you’re the one who will have the vision for your manuscript. 

However, often I see manuscripts where the story structure will need to be changed completely, but the voice is there and the characters and the idea are there – and that can be more important. 

How do you feel about judging blind?

I think it’s a great idea, and it means that we are truly basing this based on the story and the work – which is what’s most important. 

Could a novel in a genre you don’t currently represent still win?

Definitely – as a reader, I read across all genres, and I’m ambivalent about the category of genre anyway. My list is an eclectic one that spans a lot of different genres, although as an agent, I tend to focus on the novels that I feel that I have the best editorial vision for. For example, I usually don’t represent crime, but I do love a great crime novel, and I can admire the elements that would make it a strong novel. 

How and why did you become a literary agent?

I didn’t know that agenting existed, I had never heard of a literary agent until I started in the industry. I always loved reading, and I was an English major at university, but I tried being in corporate law, I even went to law school. Then I worked for a lobbying firm in Washington DC for a year before becoming very disillusioned and deciding that I wanted to find a job that I believed in. 

I thought I’d try to become an editor, but someone suggested I look into agenting since I had a law background. I was lucky to find an assistant position, and from the beginning, I fell in love with it. 

Agenting combines the things I love most – storytelling and working with writers, and ‘lobbying’ for my writers. I enjoy the dealmaking aspect as well as the editorial aspect, and I feel lucky to love what I do. 

What do you love most about agenting?

I love the feeling of discovery, of finding a new voice, but ultimately, my favorite part of the job is calling a client to let them know that we’ve sold their book. It’s such a thrill to do this, the adrenaline during an auction is unmatchable, but it’s not just about the adrenaline, it’s about helping someone on their path. I love to be able to help make a dream come true, to have their stories seen. 

How do you work editorially with new authors?

I am very editorially focused, I do enjoy the process of collaborating and taking something apart and putting it back together. I do think it can be difficult for writers, and it can mean that I’m not the right agent for someone, but I always say that even though this process is difficult, it’s even more difficult to send out something on submission and have it fall. 

I will usually start with an edit letter that has some high level, structural edits, and then we go from there, it can be 2 more rounds or 10 (although that’s never ideal!). We are also very lucky to have a stellar in-house editor, Melissa Pimentel, and she will read alongside me and give the most insightful editorial notes. We put a lot of time and effort into our client’s work, and so when something goes on submission, I know that we have done our best to give our writers the best chance. 

Any other advice for entrants?

To find joy in the craft! Writing is a passion, the publishing industry and the ups and downs can mean that this joy is forgotten, but I think that ultimately, writers write because they have to, they have stories they want to create, and at the end of the day, that relationship between you and your work is the most important thing. As a writer, the work is what you have control over, and it’s also what matters most, so hopefully that’s empowering.