The Bath Novel Award is delighted to welcome literary agent LAURA WILLIAMS as 2017 Judge. Since joining Peters Fraser & Dunlop in 2011, Williams has built an exciting list of exceptional debut novelists including Barney Norris, Jem Lester, J Kent Messum & Gabriel Packard, as well as inaugural Bath Novel Award shortlistee Catherine Barter.
Thank you, Laura, for judging 2017’s award. What are you hoping to find Bath’s entry pile?
What an honour to be asked! My author Catherine Barter came to me through the Bath Novel Award – she was a deserved finalist a couple of years ago for her YA novel Troublemakers, which will be published by Andersen Press in Spring 2017. The quality of the finalists of this prize is always amazingly high, and we’re always watching to see what comes out of the prize. I’m very excited to be judging the award.
I’m looking for a novel that has a wonderful voice, is original and is something I’ll read without noticing the time go by – when you read all day, that’s when you know you’ve got something special. Other than that, I’m open to any type of novel of any genre. You never quite know what’s going catch your eye until it’s in front of you!
How did you get into agenting?
I wanted to work in publishing ever since I was a little kid, and I did my first work experience at Vintage when I was sixteen. After lots more work experience at various wonderful publishing houses, after university I got the opportunity to intern at Curtis Brown, which is a wonderful agency, and realised that this is what I really wanted to do. Agents get to work with authors from the ground up, hopefully for their whole careers, and that appeals to me. Then I was lucky enough to get offered an assistant job at PFD, and I’ve worked my way up from there.
Each and every time I get to call a wonderful and talented person and tell them that an editor has made an offer on their book – the dream has come true; they’re going to be a published author. It’s the most thrilling thing in the whole world, and I can’t imagine any kind of accolade is ever going to feel better than those magical phone calls.
You’re pretty hands on editorially. How polished will a manuscript need to be to win?
I love editorial work, which is handy because editors are more risk-averse than ever, and to do our jobs properly we really need to get the manuscript into as good a shape as we believe it can be before submitting it to editors. I almost always end up doing more editorial work than the editor themselves. It’s the most satisfying thing to take something that has bags of potential but is basically a hot mess and working with the author until it gets to where it needs to be. It’s hugely satisfying. As to how long that process can take? Anything from one light pass to half a dozen full rewrites.
I look for quality as well as for a great hook and neat pitch. My tastes are quite literary, and it’s so exciting when something literary and beautiful and exciting can punch its way into popular consciousness.
How do you decide whether to take writers such as Catherine on?
Troublemakers, Lena, is just such a well-realised character, and the story is fresh and exciting and progressive in the YA market, and I couldn’t be prouder to represent Catherine. Every time she sent me over a new draft I couldn’t help but start it straight away – it was exciting to read every time, and that doesn’t often happen when you’ve been redrafting for a while.
I always try to meet with authors before taking them on, especially if I want to run my initial editorial thoughts by them, if I think the project needs work. So much of the agent/author relationship is about how the author feels about the editorial vision at that stage. If they’re receptive to my thoughts and are ready and willing to put the work in, then that’s a great sign.
What makes a great first page for you?
I want to dive straight in. I hate being given a description of a character or their clothing or the landscape or whatever on the first page. That should, to me, come out a bit later, more slowly, in a non-exposition heavy way. I want something to happen on the first page.
How important is the title at this stage?
A catchy title in a pitch always helps, but they so often change down the line, it’s really okay to have a working title when you’re submitting. That’s part of the collaborative process of working with your agent and editor – figuring out from a commercial standpoint what kind of title might best serve the book, as well as making sure the author is happy with the title as well.
What do you look for in terms of characterisation and who are your favourite fictional characters?
Oh my goodness, big question. Yossarian in Catch 22. Ponyboy Curtis in The Outsiders. Nick and Norah Charles in The Thin Man. All the girls in The Best of Everything by Rona Jaffe.
I want to be utterly convinced by the characters – sometimes when I’m telling people about a book I’m working on that I really love, I find myself talking about the characters almost as if they’re real, telling people anecdotes from their lives… that’s a strange and wonderful thing.
What plot issues do you most come across?
A common note is that the narrative arc isn’t quite there yet – it’s important for the protagonist to be on some sort of journey in a book, something that must begin and then resolve itself. That can be as light and abstract as necessary, but it’s got to be a satisfying read. There are lots of other common things – plot holes in motivation or action, too many characters, too few characters, not enough happening, too much happening…
Where and when do you read manuscripts?
All the time. In my office, on the train or the bus, in bed. All the time, daytimes, evenings, weekends but the reading pile is endless! I have the best job in the world.
The quality of the finalists of this prize is always amazingly high, and we’re always watching to see what comes out of the prize. I’m very excited to be judging the award.
Extract or synopsis – which will you read first?
I normally start reading the novel itself, and read the synopsis later. Plot can be fixed, but the quality of the writing itself is always the most important thing, and it’s nice to dive in without any potential biases over how the story will play out.
Any tips on writing the dreaded synopsis?
The most important one is don’t worry about it too much, I think! An author’s job is to write the book, it’s ours to sell it! We write hundreds of blurbs and synopses and pitches, and we know what we’re doing. As long as the initial synopsis is clear, concise, and gets across all the key beats of the story, we’re happy.
You’re actively building your fiction list, with literary fiction, edgy commercial fiction, psychological thrillers and contemporary YA all high on your wishlist. Are there any genres of novels you would not pick to win?
No – it’s going to all be about quality. As agents, we don’t just work on books that are our exact personal reading taste, it’s a business, and we’re looking for quality books that we feel confident will find a place in the market, as well as in our hearts.
You’re also a fan of high concept fan novels…
There’s a moment sometimes when I’m pitching a book when the person I’m talking to gets a little wide eyed and goes ‘oooh’, and that’s when it’s high concept. When a pitch is simple but intriguing, and is doing something that is new and exciting and makes you sit up and listen. You’ll have heard of the dreaded ‘elevator pitch’ – some novels absolutely can’t and shouldn’t be pitched in a single line, but in the more commercial genres it’s quite important for the book to be clearly and succinctly pitched, and the more exciting and unusual that one-liner is, the more excited industry professionals tend to get.
I’m looking for a novel that has a wonderful voice, is original and is something I’ll read without noticing the time go by – when you read all day, that’s when you know you’ve got something special.
What do you look for in a commercial novel and what are a few recent favourite books you’ve read?
I look for quality as well as for a great hook and neat pitch. My tastes are quite literary, and it’s so exciting when something literary and beautiful and exciting can punch its way into popular consciousness, such as most recently The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead, which I think is an absolutely amazing novel. I also love it when a book makes me cry, so if a novel can do that, I am all in.
You also like novels which examine politics and culture. Do you think publishing is going to be hungry for Brexit Lit next year?
Probably, yes, but I think what’s going to be more interesting is lots of editors are saying to me right now that they want big beautiful sweeping love stories. I think might be due to the backlash from the huge global events of 2016, and also because the psychological thrillers that are very popular at the moment are getting dark and darker, and I think it’ll swing around quite soon to something a bit more uplifting. Also, after the recession in 2006, thrillers about the finance industry basically disappeared because people didn’t want to read them anymore. I wonder if it’ll all be too much to deal with, and people will be looking more for escapism than engaging in big state of the union novels.
Are there any particular angles you especially enjoy in psychological thrillers?
Psychological thrillers have become such a popular genre, and we see a lot of submissions that are thinly veiled knock-offs of successful books. So I think it’s important that if you want to write in this now fairly saturated but still very robust genre, you have to have an original angle or aspect to make it stand out above the crowd.
You studied Classics at Oxford. Do you have a favourite novel set in the past?
The obvious but totally true answer is The Song of Achilles by Madeleine Miller, which just makes me fall down, I love it so much. As well as being so beautifully written, it does something totally original with the classical source material, and makes it accessible to non-ancient history nerds. It’s a wonderful thing. I also love with the Icelandic novelist Sjon does with historical material, in particular The Whispering Muse, which is set in both the mid-twentieth century and ancient Greece.
Do you represent previously self-published authors?
I do, yes. Authors approach us all the time with their self-published novels, complete with sales figures and reviews, which can be helpful. However, sometimes of course they don’t get the sales and endorsements you’d hope for, and then the author can get a bit stuck if they want to move to the traditional path. It’s a more complicated and knotty question than I have the word count to get into fully here, we could talk about self-publishing all day!
How would your writers describe you as an agent?
You’d have to ask them – but I hope they’d say that I’m a diligent editor and a passionate champion and advocate for their books.
Describe your client list in three words.
Talented. Born writers.
Lastly, any other advice for entrants?
I know this sounds basic, but do just double check your spelling and grammar. I can’t tell you how irritating it is when there’s a very avoidable spelling mistake on the first page of your manuscript. We want to see a writer has taken the time and care to be serious about their work in that way. I’m not saying we won’t forgive the odd typo, but do just be careful to avoid jarring someone who reads for a living out of the story before its even begun! Best of luck to you all.