Review by Trevor Coombs of Novel Nights talk with literary agent, Carrie Kania

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Pretend you’re in an elevator and somebody asks, “What’s your novel about?” I had to put aside the obvious question – are we talking two floors in The Galleries, Bristol, or the Sears Tower, Chicago – for fear of missing what was said next. ‘Synopses? Don’t always read them. I go straight for the writing. I look for pace, voice and character.’ ‘Think what’s written on the back of the book.’

Anyone who’s done a creative writing course, read a book or blog on how to get published, or, indeed, attended other how-to-get-an-agent talks, would know that much of the above flies in the face of some accepted wisdom. How long have I agonised over a synopsis? How many times was I told to step away from the commercial language of book blurbs? It’s for your own safety, sir. It was clear from the outset that this would be a refreshing take on how to approach an agent.

Carrie commenced her talk with her top five tips, as follows:

  1. Make sure you’re ready. The novel has to be finished, edited and rewritten however many times, and also to have gone through a period of reflection before you even consider clicking send.
  2. Send it to the right person. Check out who an agent represents. Would your novel look good on the bookshelf next to theirs? Don’t send blanket applications, spend time researching instead.
  3. Be professional but informal in your approach. Mention why you are sending it to them.
  4. Understand your pitch. Compare yourself to great writers, if you have to, but make sure it’s not bullshit.
  5. Summarise your book quickly. See the quote that opened this review, above.
  6. Send out to multiple agents. (An  absolute no no, I was once told – send out and wait, then send out and wait again, ad infinitum, ad nauseum.)

Okay, that was six top tips, but that’s how many I scribbled down. She was breaking the rules already, and my wrist was hurting.

From the Q and A and discussion that followed, it became clear that Carrie is and has to be businesslike –

“You don’t make money – I don’t make money”

but equally important to her is the relationship between agent and writer. You have to get on. You have to share the same outlook. She has to like you and your writing. you have to like her and trust her.

Questions in the Q and A ranged across the whole spectrum of writing. Here are a few with Carrie’s, sometimes very, short answers:

Q: I have a story set in Ireland and have had no luck with English agents. Should I go to an Irish agent? A: Irish writing is hot at the moment and there are some good agents about.

Q: What about non-fiction submissions? A: Carrie outlined the differences between submitting non-fiction and fiction, most notably how the synopsis is much more important, and should therefore be longer. Also, the agent needs to know the ‘treatment’ of the content, particularly as a typical non-fiction submission will not yet have been written.

Q: Any preference for creative writing students? A: Nope

Q: Are multiple viewpoints good to have? A: Difficult to do well.

Q:Should I liken my work to films? A: Not really.

Q: Do you pass any interesting manuscripts if they are not for you? A:Yes, if they are good, either to another agent in the agency, and occasionally to other agencies.

Q: What is the ideal length of a novel? A: 60,000 to 110,000 words.

Q: What about the self-publishing route? A: She shies away from it and doesn’t know many agents who will take something that’s been uploaded to Amazon, no matter how many reader recommendations it’s received.

Q: Do I need to use social media? A: Only if you’re into it.

So, what did I learn? Well, some agents are human – who would have thought it? I sent my last novel forty times, the one before thirty-five times. For those that insisted on hard copy, I received slips, sometimes signed letters and sometimes daggers to the heart –  I made that last bit up. For those that like soft copy, I received emails that felt generated by bot or, more disturbingly, nothing at all. But I did receive three emails from humans, telling me why they couldn’t take me on, and one of these complimented me on my writing. I immediately proposed marriage to her. Still waiting.

I also learned that the one-page synopsis + the obligatory bio + the three chapters of fifty pages + the covering letter, add up to a system that does for most, but its rigidity is there to be tested.

Carrie is a human, and humans create their own systems or adapt the ones in place. She wants to find good writing and she doesn’t care how she achieves it. Which is why she won’t always read a synopsis, which is why she’ll welcome an approach over cocktails at her Soho bar, and which is why perhaps she’ll get out to the provinces now and then.

Oh, and for the whingers who moaned about the twelve quid admission to Novel Nights this time, and here I include myself, this was worth every penny.