Interested in writing crime?
A regular column written by Jemima Forrester of David Higham Associates, one of the UK’s top literary agencies
COLUMN 8 – The Human Touch
In September, I was on a panel at Bloody Scotland. For those who’ve never been, Bloody Scotland takes place in Stirling and is one of the biggest crime writing festivals in the country. It attracts superstars of the genre like Ian Rankin, Val McDermid and Mark Billingham and is a great weekend of talks, events and pints at the bar (the latter being an integral part of the whole weekend). I would urge you to go if you have a love of crime writing and want to immerse yourself in that world and meet fellow crime fans, authors, publishers and agents. I was there to judge a pitching competition – Pitch Perfect – where aspiring writers have three minutes each to pitch their ideas to a panel of agents and publishers. They then receive feedback and one person (or two this year as we were spectacularly indecisive) wins the prize for the best pitch.
It was the first time I’d done an event like this and I found it really interesting. Mainly because out of twelve or so entrants, no two pitches were alike. At a general literary event, this would surprise me less, but at a crime festival I assumed it would be 80% police procedural with a couple of high-concept thrillers thrown in for good measure. I was completely wrong. We did have a police procedural, but only one (and it sounded brilliant!) The others were an eclectic mix of historical crime, psychological suspense, dystopian, cosy crime, crime/fantasy crossover, and several pitches it was really quite hard to categorise.
As an agent avidly looking for talented authors in this area this really excited me. One of the best and worst things about crime writing and crime publishing is that this area of the market is one of the most successful and therefore most oversubscribed. So having a really unique idea and strong pitch is essential if you’re going to write a novel and hope to have it published with commercial success.
However, the element that united the best pitches wasn’t just the unique idea or clever concept, it was the human element of the story. I loved the ideas that included a twisted relationship from the past, or that featured colleagues whose relationship veers from professional to personal, or were about a mother who doesn’t know if she can trust what her child is telling her. These are the stories we care about because they’re the ones we can really relate to. The emotions involved in love affairs, sibling rivalries and unlikely friendships are the ones where we can see ourselves in the situations and wonder what we would do.
I was reminded of this again when I sat down to catch up on the BBC adaption of Strike. I loved the novels and the TV is excellent (highly recommended if you haven’t seen it yet), but I found myself equally as intrigued and invested in the burgeoning relationship between Strike and Robin as I was in the crimes they were investigating.
At the end of the day, no matter what genre you’re writing in, no matter what world you’re setting your book in or how clever the plotting is, readers love stories about human relationships. This doesn’t always mean romantic relationships; it can be family dynamics, friendships or working partnerships – or anything that explores how we interact as human beings. You can write the most brilliant, twisty plot for a crime novel, but it’s the people at the heart of the story – be they perpetrators, victims or investigators – that will get me hooked on a series and keep me reading on late into the night.
COLUMN 7 – Do’s and Dont’s when approaching a literary agent
I really don’t want to use this column to teach my grandmother to suck eggs, but I also want it to provide practical information for new authors trying to break into the world of publishing. So for those of you who know the tips and tricks of approaching a literary agent or who’ve done a course on this before, you can stop reading now. But for those considering submitting soon or who have been unsuccessful in the past but want to try again, this column is for you.
Aside from writing an absolutely brilliant book, the most important step in the road to getting published is submitting your novel to prospective agents. I get around twenty submissions every week – sometimes more – and it’s impossible to read them all as soon as they come in. I have a pile on my desk right now giving me the side-eye because they’re still dated back to May and June. Argh!
So remember when you’re submitting that you are one email or letter in an enormous pile and you need to make the most of your submission package – especially the covering letter – to get the agent in question’s attention and make sure they put your book to the top of the pile.
Here are my dos and don’ts when it comes to submitting:
DO address your submission to a specific agent. Submissions addressed to ‘Dear agent’ or ‘To whom it may concern’ or – my personal pet peeve – ‘Dear sirs’ are unlikely to end up with the right agent for that book and will probably sit on a huge pile of similarly addressed letters for many months.
DON’T mention if you’ve been rejected by another agent – even if they’ve said something lovely about your work. That just makes me think a) I’m not your first choice and b) if it wasn’t good enough for that agent, why will it be good enough for me?
DO be clear about what your book is and where it sits in the market. Is it police procedural? Domestic suspense? A legal thriller? If you can be clear on the genre – and make relevant, realistic comparisons to other books or authors – that helps me to see that you’re aware of the market and where your book sits in it.
DON’T make your covering letter too long (or too short). Ideally it should run to no more than a side of A4. I want to be told – in as clear and concise a way as possible – what your book is about and where it sits in the market, who you are and why you’ve chosen to submit to me.
DO adhere to agent’s guidelines. Some agents are very specific about how your submission should be presented. Make sure you check each agent’s guidelines and send them what they ask for in the way they ask for it. Don’t give a busy agent an excuse not to read your submission!
DON’T leave crucial plot elements out of your synopsis. The synopsis should tell me in one to two sides of A4 all the main narrative events of the book – including how the ending plays out. Don’t end your synopsis with a line like ‘Will she make it out in time?’ – that’s not a synopsis; that’s a blurb.
DO make sure your book is in the best shape possible before you send it. If you’ve only just finished it and haven’t been back over it to polish, edit and refine it (at least once!), the chances are it won’t be good enough. You only get one shot to submit to a potential agent so don’t fire off your manuscript before you think it’s as brilliant as you can possibly make it.
DON’T make silly errors in your submission package. Read and re-read the cover letter, synopsis and material you’re sending over to make sure there are no typos. The odd error is forgivable, but if I spot two or three really obvious misspellings or grammatical mistakes in a submission, it suggests to me a lack of care and attention – not what any agent wants in a potential author.
DO be optimistic and remember that each time a submission lands on our desk, we’re hoping and praying to find the next big thing. Our submission piles might be teetering, but we all want to find and work with brilliant authors. If you can present your book well and get us hooked from the cover letter, the chances are you’ll get requests for the full manuscript.
But DON’T be disheartened if it doesn’t happen straight away. Remember even J.K. Rowling has had her share of rejections! I’d recommend sending your submission to a small handful of carefully selected agents in the first instance and if they all come back with rejections have a second and even third wave ready so you can take any feedback you get on board and hopefully tailor the submission package or the material itself before you resubmit to the next wave.
COLUMN 6 – Choosing a literary agent
Ah, choosing a literary agent. As if it’s that easy and we’re all just lined up on a shelf waiting for you to pick us. No sweat; whenever you’re ready.
Well, of course that’s not the case. Finding a literary agent – and not just any literary agent, but the right literary agent – is difficult, time-consuming and, for 99.9% of authors, fraught with rejection, failure and long agonising waits.
However, if you take your time, have faith, patience and good humour, it’s well worth the wait to find an agent who’s the perfect fit for you and your work – an agent who believes in you, will champion you to publishers and help your work reach the widest possible audience.
If you’re nearing the end of your manuscript, or busy editing the second or third draft before submission, it’s time to start thinking about who you’re going to send it to.
I cannot stress how valuable it is to do your research and make sure you’re submitting to the best possible agents for you. For example, if you’re writing crime (as I’m sure many of you are), there’s no point in submitting to an agent who specialises in non-fiction or SFF. They’re just not going to be right for your book and, to be honest, you’ll probably never hear back from them. This sounds like obvious advice, but I see it every day and it’s important not to waste your time on an agent who definitely won’t take you on.
Most agents have their bios up on their agency websites with information about what they’re looking for and who’s on their existing client list. Make sure you find someone who specialises in your area of fiction or non-fiction and who is actively taking on new clients. If they have a list of stellar clients on their books, you can feel confident in their talent, reputation and ability to get great deals and great publishers for their authors. However, be aware that more established agents take on fewer new and debut authors and might have less time to work with you editorially.
Use Google and social media to find out as much as you can about the way agents work, their style and what they’re into. Most agents are now on Twitter, so take some time scrolling through their feeds and seeing what they’re tweeting about, their tone and what sort of books they love to read. Online blogs or interviews (like this one) can also be a great way to gain insight into a particular agent’s taste and the way they work.
Once you’ve submitted your manuscript, you may find yourself in the enviable position of having several keen agents wanting to represent you. If this happens to you, that’s brilliant. Congratulations! But it also means you have a choice to make. It could be an easy one if you had a dream agent from the very beginning and they want to work with you – job done! Or it could be much trickier if you need to weigh up several talented, keen agents and pick which one you want to work with – hopefully for the rest of your long career as an author.
Though I haven’t been an agent for long, I’ve already had several situations where I’ve offered representation to an author who has also been offered representation by another agent – or several other agents. Some of them have decided to go with me and some have decided to go with other agents. And while it’s always disappointing to lose out, I know that those authors have made the right decision for them.
If you find yourself choosing between agents, take your time. Don’t feel rushed or pressured into accepting the first offer of representation. I always advise speaking to or ideally meeting in person all the agents who are interested in working with you. Consider their experience, their passion for your book, what work (if any) they want you to do to the manuscript, and the agency they come from. Big agencies can be good in terms of having in-house resources (foreign rights teams, film and TV agents, etc), but smaller agencies can provide a more boutique experience and there’s less chance of you feeling like a small fish in a big pond.
Ultimately it might well come down to which agent you get on with best on a personal level. It’s a very close relationship – agent and author – and you want to pick someone you can see yourself working with for years to come. You want to be able to trust their judgement and know that they’ll be your champion, but they’ll also be honest with you and push you to be your very best.
COLUMN 5 – Standalone or series?
One of the questions I get asked most by aspiring crime writers – both in my editorial days and as an agent – is whether I prefer standalone or series fiction. Do you write one knock-it-out-the-ballpark novel where everything’s wrapped up nicely at the end? Or is it better to plan a series of novels where you can develop your central characters over a much longer period and perhaps explore themes and tensions too big for one book?
The honest answer is that I have no preference. Ideally I’d like both (probably from different authors!). I believe the skills required are very different and neither is the easier or the more desirable option.
I adore series crime: John Rebus, Harry Hole, Jackson Brodie – give me more, more, more. And I published several brilliant new series in my editorial days (Denise Mina’s Alex Morrow novels, the Carter Blake thrillers by Mason Cross, and Steve Cavanagh’s brilliant Eddie Flynn legal thrillers). I love that as a fan of a series you feel an extra level of connection with your characters by following their exploits over a number of books – and for a publisher it gives you a great platform to build from. It’s a rich and rewarding way to read, and talented authors balance pacing and plot across each individual novel, but also across the series as a whole.
But there are challenges with series fiction. Not just keeping track of storylines over multiple books (a fine art in itself), but also keeping the series fresh and exciting when you’re tied to a specific set of characters, a narrative voice and probably a location. With standalone novels, you have the scope to reinvent yourself (up to a point) with each new book. As a reader that’s exciting and refreshing and it keeps us on our toes. Authors like Belinda Bauer, Megan Abbott and the inimitable John Grisham excel at standalone novels and the joy as a reader is that you can read them in whatever order you like and there’s no sense that you’re missing something or joining in at a mid-way point. They write in a certain style or subgenre, so you know it’s going to be to your taste, but the characters, situations and locations are usually entirely new.
The standalone novel is completely self-contained and, for the most part, we want the characters and storylines to have a satisfying resolution. Overarching plot lines left unresolved in a series are tantalising; in a standalone novel they can be frustrating.
As an author, it’s important to think about which route is right for you. That’s not to say you can’t switch later on, but if you have an idea for a plot or a character, think about whether that will lend itself best to a one-off novel or a series of books. If you’re approaching an agent or a publisher with a new crime novel, they’re bound to ask you if you plan to write a series, so it’s good to think about how you’re going to follow it up before you approach them.
The other issue with series crime, which crops up a lot for agents, is when authors submit the third, fourth, fifth book in a series in which the previous books either haven’t been picked up or have been self-published. I get this quite a lot and, while the books can be perfectly good, I’m unlikely to take an author on at that point. It’s not impossible, but it’s very hard, to get a publisher to acquire and publish a book that is mid-series. So if you have self-published the first few novels in a series and you’re now thinking about getting an agent and moving on to traditional publishing, it might be the right time to branch out into either a brand new series or a standalone novel.
COLUMN 4 – Book fairs in a nutshell
Ah, the book fair. London Book Fair to be precise. The place where I spent most of my working week recently. I have a love/hate relationship with the book fair. I love that it’s a chance to spend time with publishing colleagues from both the UK and abroad, I love that I get to meet new people who I can tell instantly I’m going to have lots of books in common with, and I love that it’s held at Olympia so for three days of the year I get to commute on foot!
On the other hand, I hate the recycled air, the obligatory pre- or post-fair bug and the fact that I eat more carbs and sugar in those three days than in the rest of February and March combined. (That last one is probably avoidable but it does seem to happen every year…)
If you already know about the book fair and about what agents and publishers do there, I’d advise you to stop reading now. This post is not for you. But for those who’ve never been but often wondered what we all get so worked up about at this time of year – and how it’s relevant to you as an author – here’s how it works in a nutshell.
There are lots of international book fairs held around the world every year. Frankfurt, held in October, is the most established, followed closely by London, held in March or early April. Bologna is also big, but dedicated exclusively to children’s publishing. The main aim of the book fairs is to buy and sell international rights. They are three days filled with meetings, book pitches and negotiations. Agents start planning for the fairs months in advance, preparing rights guides of the books they have to sell, setting up meetings and thinking strategically about when will be the best time to submit their books.
The set-up of London Book Fair is always the same. In the main body of the hall, publishers’ stands dominate. These range from small booths with a couple of shelves of books for the smaller indies, to huge, multi-level meeting stands with giant displays of ‘hot new book’ covers for the big conglomerates. It’s a chance for publishers to flaunt their wares as much as their budgets will allow. The main hall is big and bright and colourful.
On the top floor there’s the International Rights Centre where the literary agents (predominantly but not exclusively UK and US) take up residence. This is a less showy affair (the overwhelming colour scheme is ‘greige’), but this part of the fair is all business. Agents selling foreign rights will have back-to-back meetings here, pitching their upcoming books to foreign publishers. Publishers from countries all around the world will be on the lookout for exciting new books to acquire for foreign publication and translation.
This is why the fair (and the weeks leading up to and following it) is such a busy time for agents and publishers. It’s the time when industry folk – from the US, to Germany, to Japan – are all together in one place and hungry to do business. Literary agents have to think quite carefully about when to submit before the book fair. Selling a big book in the run up to the fair can mean a huge boost in interest from foreign publishers, but submit your book too close to the fair and you risk it getting lost in the chaos.
With the fair in mid-March this year, I sent out my last submission at the beginning of February and will wait until at least a couple of weeks after the fair to go out with anything new. I don’t want to run the risk of a book I’m going out with getting overlooked in the maelstrom of pre- and post-fair submissions.
That’s not to say agents don’t submit close to the fair – it’s just a slightly riskier strategy. Last year, when I was still an acquiring editor, I was submitted a book less than a week before the fair which I went on to acquire in three days. It’s stressful buying and selling right before or even at the fair, and you have to be prepared to move lightning fast, but it’s also exciting and adrenaline-fuelled and can lead to big-money deals.
Something that often surprises people unfamiliar with the publishing industry is that there are very few authors at the London Book Fair. A lot of authors ask me if it’s something they should attend and I normally don’t recommend it. The fair isn’t a great opportunity for authors to meet with agents and publishers. Most of them will be in meetings all day and if they have a half an hour gap in their schedule, coffee and a hastily snaffled sandwich will be their first priority.
Having said that, there is an Author HQ at the book fair. A space where London Book Fair organisers arrange a series of talks, panels and workshops aimed primarily at authors. This year I was on a panel talking about how best to find and work with a literary agent, as well as having a small number of one-to-one meetings with aspiring novelists wanting advice from an agent on their ideas. So if you are an author based in or near London, it could be an opportunity to gain some valuable insight into the industry.
COLUMN 3 Submissions that excite us
A couple of weeks ago I was panicking. Not about the fact a misogynistic, volatile baby currently holds the most powerful position in the world . . . well, not entirely about that. I was panicking that I hadn’t read a submission I really loved in several months. That I was trawling through piles and piles of manuscripts and finding everything a bit . . . meh.
Am I being too fussy? I worried. Do I need to lower my standards in order to build up my list?
Of course, the answer to that was no. And in the last two weeks I’ve read three submissions that blew me away and gave me that excited, can’t-sit-still feeling you get when you discover a real gem.
As agents, we’re looking for the best of the best. Not authors who are quite good or just OK – authors whose brilliance shines through and whose first few chapters leave us giddy with excitement. That’s not to say I only take on authors whose books are perfect and ready to send out to publishers. Far from it. I’ve just signed an author whose book needs completely restructuring from the ground up. But I can see the potential in it and I know with a little careful nurturing, this book could be really fantastic.
What we’re looking for is that rough diamond – an undeniable sparkle. It may need polishing, but there’s something there that makes us sit up and listen, and that makes it stand out from everything else we’ve read. So what does a book need to make us agents take note?
Top-quality writing – obviously this is the dream attribute we’re all looking for in our authors. Someone with a real mastery of language whose prose is clever, elegant and well thought out – but also understated. Is there a line or a phrase that’s so good it makes me want to underline it twice or even gleefully Tweet it? Is there a turn of phrase that’s so genius it makes me laugh out loud? Of course, the best writing is brilliant almost without the reader noticing. Don’t be tempted to overwrite. Excessive metaphors, flowery language and an onslaught of adjectives will feel like you’re trying too hard and distract from the story you’re telling. Trust in the power of your writing, your plot and your characters to tell the story and immerse the reader.
A cracking pace – particularly valid in crime and thriller fiction, but indeed a consideration for all commercial fiction. I love nothing more than a novel I really can’t put down because the pacing is so perfect there’s always something I want to find out or something going on that I need to see through to its resolution. It doesn’t have to be non-stop action – quieter intrigue is just as important. Think about chapter endings – each one should leave the reader desperate to start the next chapter straight away.
Characters we believe in – I am particularly drawn to characters and this is very important to me as an agent and as a reader. Your characters need to come to life through your writing. Everything about them (their psychology, their characteristics and personality, their speech, etc.) needs to be authentic and believable. I want to understand the motivations behind their actions and be able to put myself in their shoes. For me, I have to like them, or at least find them charismatic and intriguing. My main reason for turning down a novel is that I just couldn’t engage with the characters or I didn’t care about them. Make them real – make me care!
A clever hook – again, a crucial element of crime and thriller fiction is the hook. What is it about this novel (that can be summed up in one line) that makes it stand out from all the other books out there in an incredibly competitive market? It doesn’t need to be high-concept (although I’m a fan of that too), and it can be a new twist on or inspired by something that’s come before, but it needs to be something that makes me think Wow, the premise of this book sounds really unique and interesting. I must read it right now!
If your book has all four of these things, you should be beating agents off with a stick. But if you do at least one of these things exceptionally well, we know there’s something there to work with, a raw talent to nurture and develop.
COLUMN 2 Why do I need a literary agent?
This is a question I’m sure a lot of prospective authors ask themselves. Why not just submit to publishing houses directly? Or self-publish? Authors slog away night and day writing their masterpieces, publishers invest time and money producing and promoting the books – and the agent just sits in the middle, skimming 15% off the top, right?
Obviously not! I’d be doing my profession and my authors a pretty major disservice if I thought that. I can say, even only a few months into working on this side of the business, agents work incredibly hard and provide an invaluable service to both authors and publishers.
Firstly, it’s the agent’s job to find and nurture raw talent and make sure it’s discovered by publishers. Your book is unlikely to find its way onto the desk of a talented editor if it hasn’t gone through a literary agent. Very few publishing houses accept unsolicited submissions these days. They rely on agents to do the first sift, as it were. Why accept unsolicited submissions – which could be fabulous, but might also be dull as ditch water and written with all the finesse of a lazy toddler who’s got hold of Mummy’s iPad? – when you know the submissions coming from agents are guaranteed to be of a certain quality?
If an agent likes your work and takes you on then they’ll work with you to hone and finesse your manuscript and then pitch it perfectly to the right editor. I do as much – if not more – editing now I’m an agent as I did when I was an editor! Agents spend a lot of time getting to know what the editors are looking for so when they come to pitch and submit a book, they know they’re giving it the greatest chance of being taken on by a publisher who’ll really get it and publish it to its full potential.
Another very important reason for having a literary agent is that they will get you the best possible deal on offer. It’s the agent’s job to know the ins and outs of publishing contracts and to make sure the different rights (film and TV, foreign language, audio, etc) are all being exploited fully and the author is being fairly rewarded for their efforts. Unless you’re an expert on literary contracts and contract law, an agent can only add value at the point of negotiating your contract.
Next point: awkward conversations. No one likes an awkward conversation! If you feel that way, you definitely need a literary agent. Publishing is a business, of course it is, but it’s a friendly one and it’s hard to be all smiles and champagne toasts one minute and then demanding sales figures and marketing updates the next. Having an agent means you always have someone in your corner, fighting your side and willing to pick up the phone and have those difficult conversations for you. It’s much easier to be honest with your agent about how you feel about an ugly cover, for example, than with your publisher. And agents can help smooth over ruffles and act as a go-between if things aren’t always entirely rosy.
Obviously this is only a tiny fraction of the services agents provide for their authors – I could go on and on! – but if you’re serious about finding a publishing deal, it’s worth seeking out the right agent to help you, guide you and make sure you’re getting the most out of any publishing deals you get.
Until next time
COLUMN1 What’s on the agenting agenda
Hello and welcome to this brand new column for the CRA! Over the coming months, I will be attempting to demystify the world of agenting for those who don’t know it well, answering any burning questions you might have about the industry and the publishing process, and showing that – contrary to popular opinion – us agents are a friendly and approachable bunch who adore books and are desperate to work with talented new writers.
I’m kicking things off this month with a bit about me, my route into agenting and what I’m looking for at the moment in terms of crime and thriller.
So, a few months ago I made the pretty massive decision to move from publishing to agenting. I’d been an editor for nearly seven years working for some of the biggest publishing houses in the UK. From big hitters and award winners, like Ian Rankin and Denise Mina, to rising stars in the genre, including Mason Cross and Steve Cavanagh, I edited and published a varied list of fiction authors, predominantly in the crime and thriller area.
As an editor it was part of my job to butter up the town’s literary agents (usually bribing them with a nice lunch or a glass of wine) in the hopes they’d send me their exciting new submissions and I’d be able to snap them up for publication. Now, I’ve decided to swap sides, as it were, and turn my hand to agenting. (Thanks again to all my fellow agents who welcomed me to ‘the dark side’ when the news broke!)
As a relatively newbie literary agent, but an experienced editor, this puts me in an interesting position to write this new column – I’ve seen both sides of the business, but I’m learning more and more about the agenting side every day. In coming months, I’ll be looking at trends in the market, the reality of the slush pile, tips for submitting to literary agents, what agents actually do all day, how we sell foreign rights, working with film and TV partners, and much more.
Crime and thriller has always been my passion – as well as my bread and butter – so unsurprisingly this is top of my wish list to take on. I’d love to find a brilliant new crime series with a really unique, compelling central character, and an unusual or especially atmospheric setting. I love big, juicy thrillers that are fast-paced and intelligent with engaging characters and plenty of twists and turns. I’m always on the lookout for page-turning psychological suspense with a really stand-out hook and a clever plotline that hasn’t been done before. And I like a bit of speculative – something with a well-conceived high concept that takes the genre to another level.
My aim will always be to take on authors whose novels really stand out from the crowd, who I believe in and feel strongly that I can get them a deal. As an agent I’ll work closely with my authors editorially, shaping and honing their books until they’re ready to be submitted. I’ll also help advise them on where to go next, make sure they’re being prioritised appropriately by their publisher, and be there for all the highs – and hopefully not too many lows – of their writing career. The relationship between an author and an agent is a crucial one and, if all goes to plan, a longstanding one.
I really hope you enjoy reading this column and I’d love to hear from you if you do. I’m on Twitter @jemimaforrester, so do get in touch and let me know if you’re enjoying it and feel free to ask me questions. I’ll do my best to address and answer them in future posts.
Revisit soon for Jemima’s next column.