Write Advice: publisher Mary-Anne Harrington on writing awards and editing
Tinder Press publisher and editor, Mary-Anne Harrington, popped into our online classroom to answer questions from our Faber Academy Alumni on book fairs, writing awards and the mistakes to avoid when editing your novel.
- Spend time on your novel, and get it done
- Fit your writing around your other commitments
- Detailed personal critiques from our tutors
Sarah Farley — Hi Mary-Anne, and thank you for sharing your time with us. I know you’ve been very busy with last week’s London Book Fair.
Mary-Anne Harrington — Thank you, I’m very happy to be here!
SF: We’re going to take questions from our Faber Academy Alumni, so over to them…
Question — I’d like to ask about book fairs. Are they good places to pitch yourself to potential agents?
MAH — There are really informative things happening at book fairs, and I would recommend going to get a feel for what’s going on in the industry. For agents, though, they’re essentially rights fairs, so a British agent would be mainly focused on trying to pitch foreign and US rights for books they’d already sold in the UK. They are always a very busy time for agents, which doesn’t mean you shouldn’t talk to them or try to pitch them your book, but it might be slightly tricky to get their attention if they’re very scheduled up.
That said, I think you have to be in the mindset of being prepared to approach anyone whenever the opportunity presents itself, as sometimes those one-off encounters really can work.
Agents will scour prize anthologies, e.g. the Faber Anthology, the Bath Novel award/ Short Story prize anthology, etc. Any credits like that do help.
Q — What were the biggest insights this year at London Book Fair? Are there any genres or writers we should be looking out for?
MAH — It’s been reported that there’s something of a move away from what we call ‘grip lit’ — psychological suspense for example. I take that with a pinch of salt, as I know how much readers love those books. I think the difficulty is that there are so many books coming out in that territory, so it’s more of a problem for publishers trying to position their books and make a unique claim for them.
I am going to shamelessly plug an author called Guy Gunaratne I took on just before London Book Fair with a novel called In Our Mad and Furious City, set on a West London council estate in 2013. I am hugely excited about it. He’s very talented, and I love publishing debut fiction.
Q — We heard it here first guys — look out for Guy Gunaratne!
MAH — There’s also a book set around Brockwell Park Lido by an author called Libby Page. I think that sounds very cute, and I would like to read it, but it didn’t come in to me.
Q — How did Guy find you?
MAH — Guy came to me via a very conventional route, in that his novel was submitted to me by his agent, Sophie Lambert. I think she found him because he was shortlisted for a short story award — the B4ME prize which 4th Estate runs with the Guardian. It’s interesting, because he ended up coming to Tinder Press/Headline rather than 4th Estate in spite of the prize shortlisting, but I know Guy felt that was really helpful in terms of his finding an agent. The B4ME prize is really valuable, and I think prizes and competitions in general do really help.
Q — I am interested that it was the agent Sophie who found Guy. Maybe trying a short story competition is a very promising route to getting noticed.
MAH — Agents will scour prize anthologies, e.g. the Faber Anthology, the Bath Novel award/ Short Story prize anthology, etc. Any credits like that do help — you’re more likely to be discovered that way, and also it gives you something extra to put on your ‘writing CV’. It shows commitment and intent.
Your main job in that first chapter is to convince the person who is reading it that they can trust you to deliver a story.
Q — Do you often hear of books you’d like to read but have been pitched to other editors?
MAH — I do, actually, all the time. We have a lot of editors in the fiction department at Headline. We’re in a kind of benign competition with each other, in that the convention is an agent will submit to just one of us at any given time, but none of us can read everything and we’re realistic about that. The lido novel came in to a colleague, Leah, who sits just next to me. We often talk and share reading, and at the end of the day our priority is having the best books across the list. As it happened, this one was sold very quickly so there wasn’t time for me to second read it, I guess I’ll have to wait until it’s published.
Q — What are your thoughts on workplace fiction? I’m writing a novel about workplace bullying with a dual narrative, spanning from late 70s school days to a modern day workplace. I see Joanna Trollope has just published a workplace novel, and Tammy Cohen recently published When She Was Bad.
MAH — I think the workplace can be a really good setting. One of my favourite books is Josh Ferris’ And Then We Came To The End. Offices and the like are full of politics, drama and even tragedy, and I think books set in this kind of milieu can appeal to the readership that enjoys an intelligent box set. I think you may be right that this setting is due for a revival.
Q — I’m doing a rewrite, but my book is complete and I’d like to avoid the usual issues — mainly so that I don’t have to do another big rewrite! What are some common mistakes people make?
MAH — The main advice I would give is to work really, really hard on getting the first couple of chapters to deliver. They need to be very tight, and carry the reader through. Make the first chapter all about story and not exposition — character set up, world building, etc. You can go back and fill that in later. Your main job in that first chapter is to convince the person who is reading it that they can trust you to deliver a story.
Also, though, don’t overcook them. They need to be quite clean. Try to keep them focused on the story and the voice. Trim out anything you don’t really need the reader to know at that point.
You only learn to write a novel by doing it. It’s an incredibly hard thing to do, and in the first instance you have to be your own editor.
Q — Being Australian, I am planning to pitch my novels to Australian publishers, but I would love to try to get into the UK market too. Any tips for approaching publishers in the UK?
MAH — I think you should think about the writers you’d compare your work to. Look up who their agents are, and approach them directly with a letter to say that you admire their author’s work. If they are at a larger agency, approach one of the more junior members of their agent team, as they’ll more likely be building their list actively and have more room for a new author on their books. You can usually find out quite quickly who represents the authors you’d compare yourself to. A quick web search and then a very targeted letter should really help.
I think there are some agencies that have offices in Australia and London now — Curtis Brown for example — so you might want to think about them. The Australian agents mostly work in partnership with one or other of the UK agents, too. And Australian publishing houses often have relationships with the British houses. Text have an amazing reputation for selling their books into the UK, and at Tinder Press we share a number of authors with our colleagues at Hachette Australia. There’s a lot of great writing coming from Australia now, and British publishers are certainly watching.
Q — Can an agent tell if a draft has been through a professional editor?
MAH — I’m an editor rather than an agent, but I suspect any agent who is worth their salt would likely have a sense that a manuscript has been worked on professionally before it was submitted to them. I certainly feel that I can tell whether the editorial work on a script has been extensive or pretty light before it comes to me. It doesn’t necessarily mean I’m more likely to want to take on that book — what I’m looking at really is the writing and the premise, and how they work together — but if a manuscript is in relatively good shape, that certainly establishes a sense of confidence.
Before submitting, though, the key really is to keep going and make it as good as you can before you do anything else. That’s how you learn to solve the problems your work presents. You only learn to write a novel by doing it. It’s an incredibly hard thing to do, and in the first instance you have to be your own editor.
Q — Mary-Anne, this has been wonderful. Thank you for joining us and giving these insightful answers.
MAH — It’s been lovely to talk to you all! Thanks to all of you for such interesting questions. I wish you the very best of luck, and I hope some of your novels cross my desk in the future.