On our London writing courses, we’re visited regularly by agents. Literary agent Lucy Luck has recently joined our sister agency C+W, having previously worked at Rogers, Coleridge & White, Lucy Luck Associates and Aitken Alexander. Lucy represents a list of prize-winning authors which include Catherine O’Flynn, Colin Barrett, Kevin Barry, Sara Baume, Sara Taylor and Andrew Michael Hurley.
Here she tells us more about the role of a literary agent, gives tips for authors submitting their work, and talks about some of her proudest moments as an agent so far…
How would you explain the role of a literary agent to someone who was new to the industry? An agent’s role, according to the Collins dictionary, is to ‘manage the business affairs of an author’. So far so straight-forward. But what does that involve?
To my mind a good agent loves to read and read widely; is able to recognise potential in unpublished work and knows how to work with an author to make the most of that potential; enjoys the editorial process and empowers the author to enjoy it too; knows what different editors & publishing houses in the UK and around the world are looking for; has an idea of the market value of a work and knows how to find the right editor for an author on the right terms; understands the principles of rights and contracts, royalties and discount provisions; talks to everyone (and knows who everyone is) about an author, book, project; is able to recognise any potential problems before they happen or deal with any problems when they arise; keeps all involved focused; is the person an author can call to explain a process or offer reassurance; celebrates or commiserates or strategizes, whenever needed; is a guide and a support and an expert and a fan; is honest and fair and in the background.
So to summarise: a literary agent is a champion, a professional, an enthusiast and a facilitator. And a reader.
You represent a number of short story writers; do you think the short story form is going through a revival? What are the challenges for writers who move from the short story to the novel and vice versa? The short story has been going through a revival for as long as I’ve worked in publishing, so since 1997, and I am pretty sure before that too – there have always been enough exceptional short stories and collections to keep the conversation about the form current, and regardless of their relatively limited commercial prospects there are a reassuring number of collections published each year, both by established writers and by debuts.
It has made a difference in the last 10 years that there are major UK prizes that focus on individual stories but actually it’s the few magazines that offer the platform for discovery (The New Yorker, Harper’s, Granta, The Stinging Fly, The White Review) that allow writers to practice and gain experience in the form. The short story competitions are also very welcome and give incentive and encouragement to those finding their way in the form.
The important thing about short stories is recognising how difficult it is to write an exceptional one – of all those thousands written each year there are very few, perhaps a handful, which would be deemed worthy of this accolade in ten years. It can take a writer a long time to put together a story collection of exceptional stories with the right balance – in fact as long as if not longer than perfecting a novel. The skills needed to create an outstanding story are a distillation of the skills needed to perfect the broader canvas of the novel but you can’t get away with anything in a story, no word or image or phrase can be included that doesn’t work towards the whole, whereas a novel has more give and freedom.
That kind of economy and ability to create character and tension in such a limited space does help with the longer form, but the larger canvas of a novel brings many different challenges too. A great short story writer may not be able to adapt to the expanded rhythms and scope of a novel while a brilliant novelist might find the concision of the story form too restrictive, but understanding the differences and working in both (and other media too) can inform and help a writer grow and know their strengths and limits.
What are the most important qualities you are on the lookout for in a new writer? I always respond first to voice, something so hard to define but for me it means a confidence on the page and a sense of an authorial presence distinct from the writer sitting at their desk putting together the words.
Do you have any big dos and don’ts for new authors sending in their submissions to you? Any common blunders, which you often see? This list might appear harsh but: make sure the work is ready to send, that it is the best you can make it; ALWAYS send the first section of the novel, not a selection of ‘the best bits’; don’t outline the marketing strategy, a letter laying out why the book will sell feels like I’m being told my job; don’t address to ‘All Agents’ or ‘Dear Sirs’, I want to know why someone has chosen to send to me not to every agent in the UK/world (and I’m not a man).
Do put the letter in the body of the email so that I don’t have to open an extra attachment and can assess quickly; only send one project, the one you want me to consider, not a list of possibilities; do check what I’m looking for and make sure I am a suitable agent to approach (I don’t represent children’s or sci-fi or conspiracy thrillers for example); don’t call first to see if it’s something I’d like to see, this can have the opposite effect; do as much research as you can before sending, it’s always worthwhile.
And is there one piece of advice you regularly give to authors at the beginning of their careers? I think every would-be author should appreciate how difficult being a writer is. Learning the craft of writing and working to find your voice involves many lonely hours and time not spent with family and friends, and there is no short-cut – every writer has to go through the process of sitting at a desk writing and re-writing and editing and revising and feeling that nothing is working, it’s part of the process.
Also, not to take rejection personally, it is part of getting it right. Enjoy the reasons you want to sit and work at character and voice and plot for that half an hour when the words come out as you’d like them to, for the sentence you don’t edit out when revising. Appreciate those who you can trust to give you the advice you need to hear when you’re 7 drafts down and looking at the trees not the wood.
How do you approach the editing process? Do you tend to work closely with a writer before you’re happy for something to be sent out? I do enjoy the editorial process and it is very rare that I don’t go through at least two drafts with an author before sending to any editors. My first comments are normally in the form of a letter offering structural and plot points, and then I’ll go through a closer edit looking at areas that can be tightened or things that might not be working. My three watch-words are consistency, credibility and motivation and I always want to be comfortable we have covered those areas as well as possible before sharing with editors.
If you had to pick one, what has been your proudest moment as an agent so far? When Catherine O’Flynn won the Costa First Novel award and then the British Book Award Newcomer of the Year award for What Was Lost in 2008 I felt on top of the world, and similarly when Kevin Barry won the Sunday Times EFG Short Story Prize in 2012 – that was an intensely proud moment.
In recent years I’ve been spoilt with Colin Barrett winning the Guardian First Book Award for Young Skins, the many accolades for Andrew Michael Hurley’s The Loney, the long- and short-listings for both Sara Taylor’s The Shore and Sara Baume’s Spill Simmer Falter Wither and then the critical response to Kevin Barry’s Beatlebone crowned with it winning the Goldsmith’s Prize last year have all left me feeling extremely lucky and proud of what my authors have achieved and I look forward to many more moments to come.
Unlike most creative writing courses, CBC is led by literary agents; what kind of difference do you think this makes? Authors know how difficult it is to write and can teach the different stratagems that can be used to help a writer find their voice and work out plot on the page, agents know how competitive the market is and what is needed to convince an editor and publishing house to take a chance and invest in a new voice. CBC can offer both authorial expertise and can also call on a huge amount of experience about the process of selling and publishing a book and about what happens next.
For an in-depth course as part of a group of 15 (in which students are selected on the basis of their submission) with a great tutor and participation from our literary agents, apply for:
Six-Month Novel-Writing Course in London with Christopher Wakling (deadline for applications is Sunday 21 January).
Six-Month Online Novel-Writing Course with Lisa O’Donnell (deadline for applications is Sunday 28 January).
For a dedicated online course for those writing for young adults or children as part of a group of 15 (in which students are selected on the basis of their submission), with a top children’s author, apply for:
Writing YA and Children’s Fiction with Catherine Johnson (deadline for applications is Sunday 4 February).
We are also offering three low-cost ‘foundation’ online courses, featuring tuition from CBC director Anna Davis:
Starting to Write Your Novel (deadline for enrolment is midnight on Mon 15 January).
Write to the End of Your Novel (deadline for enrolment is midnight on Mon 22 January).
Edit & Pitch Your Novel (deadline for enrolment is midnight on Mon 29 January).