With the news that Emma Finn was promoted to full time agent at C&W last week, we thought it would be the perfect time to talk to her, and find out a little more about the kind of books and writers she is looking to represent.
Here, Emma talks about her career so far, her pitching dos and don’ts, and offers some advice for new writers starting out…
You started out at C&W as an intern and now you’re a full-time literary agent, could you tell us a little bit about your career journey?
I was very lucky to land at C&W just as they were starting up their paid internship scheme, so I had four months to learn the ropes, get to know the team and the books and to understand the mechanics of a literary agency. After that I went over to Profile Books, a brilliant independent publisher which also ran a great internship and where I had a chance to peek at the other side of the process, from editorial to publicity and marketing. Whilst I was at Profile, a full time job opened up at C&W working with both Sue Armstrong on her list and our translation rights team. It was a perfect first job in publishing – the best team in town (I’m biased) and I got to know every book on the C&W list. From there I dotted my way through a couple of different roles, including handling the translation rights for our children’s and YA authors for a while, before moving across to primary agenting full time, where I started to take on my own writers alongside working on Sue and Sophie Lambert’s lists. Now I’m growing my list of both fiction and non-fiction, and am always hoping the next manuscript to land in my inbox will be one that keeps me up reading into the early hours.
So, as you are actively building your own list, what sort of novels are you looking for?
I’m looking for a brilliant community or family drama, an atmospheric, original crime series, a love story, a really compelling mystery, or suspense in the vein of Tana French’s exquisite The Secret Place. More broadly, books written with heart and intelligence, a great sense of place and a page-turning quality that I can fall in love with and go on to merrily edit five drafts without despair.
You did your Masters in Psychology, do you think that this influences your taste in books?
I think psychology is part and parcel of good storytelling – in the basic sense that they both stem from a desire to have a look behind the scenes and understand people better – so yes, I suppose so. Buying into character motivation makes a big difference to how much I enjoy a novel and lots of my favourite authors (Elizabeth Strout is a wonderful example) are favourites because of how brilliantly they write interiority and complex relationship dynamics with all the dynamism and emotional drama of a driving plot.
Often the first thing an agent will read from a new author is their cover letter, do you have any tips to help push a good letter over the edge to become a great one?
I know authors are inundated with advice on the structure and basic components of a good cover letter but I’d say there are three elements that always stand out to me: a strong pitch (just a few lines that capture the heart of the book – its central conflict, characters and tone), a personal note that indicates why an author thinks their book might be a good fit for me (proper research is so appealing when we’re receiving lots of submissions) and thoughtful comparison titles that genuinely help me think about the kind of space the book might occupy on the shelves.
What book release are you most looking forward to in 2019?
So many! It’s impossible to choose but I am hugely looking forward to Diane Setterfield’s new novel Once Upon a River, since I spent a day by the fire over Christmas devouring The Thirteenth Tale.
‘Up-lit’ was the word on everyone’s lips after the Frankfurt Book Fair last year, do you have any predictions for new book trends in 2019?
I am useless at predicting trends, and I wouldn’t say I’m enormously led by them when it comes to the books I’m looking for. If ‘up-lit’ means books that leave us feeling good after reading them, then absolutely, I’d love to see it. But I think there are always hungry readers for brilliant stories and memorable characters. That said, given the political climate at home and abroad I suppose one thing I think we’ll see more and more is writers trying to make sense of our shifting landscape and its impact on everyday lives. I can’t say I’d be dying to read lots of Brexit novels but an intimate, character-led state-of-the-nation novel like John Lanchester’s Capital wouldn’t go amiss.
Finally, do you have any advice for writers in search of an agent?
Don’t take rejection personally (an impossible suggestion I know but it is a universal reality for all writers), polish your work until it is unbearably shiny and then leave it in a drawer for a month and have another look, and do your research before submitting. Most importantly, the author-agent relationship can (hopefully) be a career-long collaboration, so make sure you find the right fit for you – it’s not just about finding any agent to offer you representation, it’s about finding the right champion for your work.
As well as working as an agent at C&W, Emma regularly takes part in visiting speaker sessions on our London writing courses at the Curtis Brown offices in Haymarket.
If you’re writing YA or children’s fiction why not take a look at our selective entry online course for Writing YA and Children’s Fiction with Catherine Johnson.
We also run three short online courses designed to help writers at different stages of their novel-writing journey: Starting to Write Your Novel, Write to the End of Your Novel and Edit & Pitch Your Novel.