Write Advice – literary agent Susan Yearwood
The process of representation and submission of manuscripts to agents can seem alien to a first-time novelist. Here, our Faber Academy alumni speak to literary agent Susan Yearwood about what she wants in a submission package, what kind of deal authors can expect and the three things her successful authors have in common.
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Q – Hi Susan, and thanks for joining us! To begin, would you be able to tell us what you look for within the synopsis, in terms of length, style, etc.?
SY – I like to read synopses before the writers’ extracts; I think once the writer describes what happens within their novel, character motivation and narrative drive as well as a well-evoked setting become evident and help with my decision to read on and ask for a full read of their manuscript.
I prefer to read a one-page synopsis in 1.5 line spacing if the writer can’t fit everything they want to state in double line spacing. Lead with a character description, if possible, then progress onto major plot developments, showing how these create tension and drama, along with lesser storylines and the novel’s setting.
For submissions as a whole, do include the first 30 pages of the novel with your synopsis and a covering email that includes a sentence on the novel’s major theme and a brief paragraph consisting of more detail. Follow this with a description of your writing experience so far, with a little about yourself that may be of interest to an agent and publisher.
Q – Is there a strong market for narrative nonfiction, and is it something you look for?
SY – I don’t read narrative non-fiction; I am currently looking for book club fiction, commercial fiction including romance and saga, women’s fiction, mystery and suspense, as well as non-fiction consisting of self-help and lifestyle, such as cookery.
Q – How much does it matter to an agent to see that a manuscript has been longlisted for an award?
SY – Awards are helpful but not conclusive in deciding whether to read a writer’s manuscript. Do mention the longlisted position when describing your writing experience in your submission, however.
Q – I’ve finished the first draft of a historical thriller on the Faber Academy Work in Progress course, and I’ve also nearly finished a fantasy novel for 9+ children. How should I approach this with agents? Should I choose one and focus on that, or look for an agent who covers both of these areas?
SY – It may be best to choose an agent who represents both children’s and adult fiction. If not, once your writing career is established in adult or children’s fiction you can look for another agent for new work. It’s possible to be represented by two agencies, one for children’s fiction and the other for adult fiction.
As for trends, I expect more of the same with more cross-genre titles in book club fiction, particularly including elements of mystery and suspense.
Q – I’m writing a novel that could definitely be called commercial women’s fiction/chick lit (incidentally, a label I feel writers of books for women should proudly reclaim!) Which authors working in that space do you really rate, and what kind of manuscripts do you think agents will be after in the next 12 months?
SY – I am looking for commercial women’s fiction at present, particularly the ‘little cottage’ style books which are hugely popular both here and in the US. I also like the slightly grittier women’s fiction that Jane Fallon writes. As for trends, I expect more of the same with more cross-genre titles in book club fiction, particularly including elements of mystery and suspense.
Q – If you were to read a submission, like the story idea and see potential in the writing, but the writer needed some help and guidance, would you consider taking them on?
SY – It’s definitely easier to take someone on with brilliant writing and a potentially good idea than the other way around.
Q – I see you’re looking for women’s fiction. Would that include historical fiction with a strong focus on women’s themes, or just contemporary?
SY – I am looking for contemporary and historical fiction. A strong female lead also helps.
Publishing can seem daunting for new writers, but it’s made clearer once the process of representation and submission to publishers takes place.
Q – What are some consistent qualities you have found in your successful authors?
SY – Being patient; publishing your writing is a long-term commitment and I enjoy working with authors who are committed to their future career at debut. I represent mostly debut writers and they tend to be hugely enthusiastic about their writing, which of course is incredibly helpful from an agent’s point of view. Also important is that writers are realistic about their writing and the career possibilities therein.
Q – The ‘unreliable female protagonist/witness’ has been popular for a long time – would you still look for this kind of story? Also, are gay themes mainstream or still quite ‘niche’?
SY – I quite enjoy the unreliable female protagonist as a starting point for a character, especially once her motivation is revealed. Gay characters have become mainstream as crime and thriller books have risen in popularity. At the moment, romance writing is gaining sales momentum once more and, here too, gay characters are more prevalent.
Q – What sort of deal would a first-time author expect – or aim for?
SY – There are many different factors that determine the type of deal a debut writer receives (advance, royalties and how many books to sell in a deal) and that is negotiated for you by the agent. This can seem daunting for new writers, but all of this is made clearer once the process of representation and submission to publishers takes place.
Q – Susan, thank you for your time!
SY – Thank you for having me. Good luck in your writing careers!