10 Questions With… Jack Byrne

Hi everyone, and this afternoon I’m delighted to welcome Jack Byrne to the blog. Jack is from Liverpool and has set his debut novel there.

I was delighted when he agreed to an interview, and to find out about his writing journey. Details of how to contact hun are below the Q&A.

Over to you, Jack…

1) As a child, did you have a favourite author? Was there a turning point with a book that made you go ‘Wow!’?

I read everything I could get my hands on as a kid. No particular favourite, from Sven Hassell to Dickens. I never really read children’s books, Narnia, Lord of the Rings, all came later as a kind of catch up exercise. The books that were available in the house were mum’s Catherine Cookson, and an older brother’s collection of socialist literature, he was a shop steward in a local factory. The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists was an early book that had a huge impact on me and I would still recommend it today. Maybe even more than ever, as we have multi million pound companies skimming huge profits from kids free school meals.

2) Did you enjoy English at school?

I did, it was probably the only subject I had any time for. After leaving Grammar School part way through and going to the local Secondary Modern I told the English teacher my favourite book was Of Mice and Men. He laughed and said that would be too high a level for the Secondary Modern. I left that school without sitting for a single exam.

3) Do you currently write full time? If so, what was your ‘life’ before becoming a writer?

Writing full time is still an ambition. Like most working people I had jobs, rather than a career or profession and I have done many things, from car factory to University janitor, including setting up a couple of businesses. I finally settled to teaching English as a foreign language and combine that with writing.

4) How did you develop the idea for Under the Bridge?

The experience of the book is part of my life. All my ancestry was Irish but growing up during ‘The Troubles’ being Irish existed in, to use a more modern phrase, a hostile environment. One narrative in the book follows the adventures of two immigrants to Liverpool through the 50s to the 2000s. The second is set in 2004 and the main characters Anne and Vinny try to uncover the mystery of unidentified human remains found near the docks. Without being biographical, the story is of families like mine, the city they came to and the country they left.

5) Can you briefly describe the publication process?

I had been querying agents and publishers for over six months, with over fifty rejections, I had given myself a year to try the traditional publishing route if nothing happened then I would self publish. A writer friend suggested Northodox, and after submitting through their process they said they liked it, so that’s where we started.

6) How did you find your current agent and publisher? Do you have any ideas for other novels and have you started working on them?

It’s a little bit unusual; I’m a debut author, this is the first book for the publisher, and I think I was the first client of the new agent to get a deal. So a trifector of debuts. I found the publisher then approached the agent, and the agent sorted the the contracts etc. Under The Bridge is the first book in The Liverpool Mystery series, books two and three are written, and I am currently working on book four. The books cover the period from 1920 to 2020s a hundred years of turmoil in Anglo Irish relations, and the consequent crises in the lives of my characters.

7) Can you name one author that you admire, and why you like their style of writing?

There are too many to name a single style or author, some favourite books; A Place of Greater Safety, Hilary Mantel. Germinal, Emile Zola, The Black Jacobins CLR James. Reading in The Dark by Seamus Deane. I guess I like a more direct style of writing, luxuriating in the prose seems self indulgent to me.

8) What are you currently reading? Have you found that your reading habits have changed throughout lockdown?

I am researching the last book in the series and while writing most of my reading is background. My current WIP is set in Ireland in 1975 and 2019 so I am reading Dairmud Ferriter’s 800 page tome about Ireland in the 70s.

9) What are you currently watching on television?

I guess like many people TV is no longer the ‘go to’ medium. For casual viewing I tend to surf news on Youtube, and for entertainment there are so many great TV series being produced these days it’s hard to choose.

The Wire is the stand out series of the modern era, then of course the Sopranos. I came across Dirilus Ertugrul recently, a propagandistic Turkish production about the foundation of the Ottoman Empire a bit weird but strangely compelling.

10) When you write, do you prefer music or silence? Do you have a favourite band or artist you like to play when you do write?

It’s silence for me, I don’t want anything competing with the voices in my head.

Thank you for your time today Jack. I wish you all the best with your writing.

Bio: Jack Byrne was born and raised in Speke, Liverpool to an Irish immigrant father and grandparents.

Under the Bridge is his debut novel and follows reporter Anne and student Vinny around Merseyside, as they become involved in a story of unions, crime, and police corruption after human remains are discovered at a construction site.

Follow Jack on Twitter @Jackbyrnewriter

And find him on www.jackbyrne.home.blog

An Interview With… Tom Ashton

Hi everyone, and on the blog this evening I’m delighted to welcome Tom Ashton. Tom is an editor and award winning novelist, currently working for Northodox Press.

He joined me on the blog to chat about his career to date and what he looks for in submissions.

Over to you, Tom…

1) How did you first become involved in the publishing industry? Was it something you always wanted to do? Did you have any other career plans?

I’ve always been publishing something or other.

At Age 5 I published a school newspaper, called Playground News consisting mostly of size 36 font and blown up clipart. 

Fast forward to university, I published a Creative Writing magazine showcasing the work of unpublished student writers and poets, which is where I met the other members of the Northodox team. 

Publishing’s always been the career path for me, whether it be my own books or other peoples. The world needs more books.

2) You studied Creative Writing at University. What was your experience of the course like and how has it helped you as a writer?

If I hadn’t gone to university, I would never have met the two chaps with whom I created Northodox Press.

The creative writing course at the University of Derby taught me how to critically analyse writing independently and in a workshop situation, and I gained a lot of contacts who’ve helped me throughout my career.

3) You have worked for independent publishers and literary agents. How did you find your experience? Did you find your previous roles were good experience for Northodox?

I’ve done everything from flogging books off a market stall to haggling over rights at London book fair – and frankly I loved doing both.

Working in independent publishing, allowed me to study the publishing process from start to finish, whereas working for a leading literary agency allowed me to communicate with the ‘Big Five’ and see how they do things on a wider scale. 

Both were good experiences for seeing what Northdox needs to be, and what it could be.

4) Why did you choose to specialise in crime fiction? What do you feel Northodox can offer a new writer?

All of the staff at Northdox have a natural fondness for crime fiction – and it sells well! Everybody seems to love a juicy murder.

We offer editorial support, pre and post publication marketing, and quality cover design, along with bags of enthusiasm, tenacity, and regular communication. 

We want to champion your book.  

5) Where do you start with the submission package? The cover letter, the synopsis or the sample writing?

We ask for a 5000-word extract or your opening three chapters, along with a blurb and a short author bio of no more than 200 words

6) What are your views on the fiction market currently? Across the crime genre, what would you like to see more of that hasn’t been submitted before to you?

The fiction market, particularly the crime fiction market, is booming!
Personally, I love an antihero, a dirty cop, a whiskey swigging detective with anger issues. Send me your noir detective stories and anything with a serial killer in it.

7) When you leave your desk, on a Friday afternoon, what’s the first thing you do? On a Friday evening/the weekend, what do you do to relax?

I take the dog out for a long walk usually. Then the rest of the evening consists of pizza, Netflix, Fifa, and, of course, books – editing, writing, or reading. The grind never stops.

8) During lockdown, what have you been watching on television? Do you have a favourite drama that you watch religiously?

I’ve been trawling through Netflix mainly, watching F is for Family, Gogglebox, and Trailer Park Boys. The best thing to come out of Netflix for a while, in my opinion, is Mindhunter. Seriously check it out!

In terms of stuff I watch religiously… The Sopranos. 

9) During lockdown, what have you been reading? Have you found that your habits have changed?

Lockdown has been a great opportunity to read all those books I’ve always felt like I should have read, so I’ve been wading through the classics. 

I’m also trying this thing where I read anything a friend recommends, so I read lots of stuff that I might not necessarily pick up whilst browsing Waterstones… it’s been a very hit and miss experience. 

10) If you could only listen to Rod Stewart, Freddie Mercury or Brian Johnson (AC/DC), who would you choose and why?

I’m an enormous AC/DC fan, but Freddie Mercury… the guy’s elite.

Thank you for your time this evening Tom. It was a pleasure to interview you. I wish Northodox Press all the best for the future!

Bio: Tom is an award-winning novelist, from Cumbria, who holds a degree in Creative Writing. He has worked for independent publishers, literary agencies, and often speaks at universities and literary festivals about his career. Tom is interested in zany characters – send him your weirdos.

An Interview With… Genevieve Pegg

Hi everyone, also this morning on the blog I’m delighted to welcome Genevieve Pegg. Genevieve is the Publishing Director for Harper North, a northern based imprint of HarperCollins.

I was really intrigued by Genevieve’s role so I was delighted when she agreed to answer a few questions on her career to date.

Over to you, Genevieve…

1) How did you first become involved in the publishing industry? Did you always plan to become involved when you left school? Did you have any other career plans?

I left university having been told publishing was too competitive, so I signed up with lots of temping agencies while I was working out what to do instead. Luckily, they sent me for an interview at Penguin…

2) You have a background in editing. What was your first editing role at Orion like? How has it helped you in your current role as Publishing Director?

In so many roles right across the business, much of what you learn is on the job training and a key part of that in editorial is learning from a slew of amazing colleagues. I started that process at Penguin and later at Orion – at first as an editorial assistant. Like lots of first and second job roles in the industry it gave me an appreciation for the whole chain of people it takes to create a book – between the talent and hard work of the author and the end experience with the reader, are so many dedicated teams of people. It’s important in editorial to connect those people. And of course, it also gives you a sense of how much a book can evolve from first draft to finished copy.

3) What prompted HarperCollins to set up a northern division? How did you feel about moving from London to Manchester?

Having grown up in North Wales, Manchester always felt like a city of opportunity to me. I moved back north five years ago and started working for myself. But when I first spoke to HarperCollins about their ideas for a northern-based imprint, it really tallied with all the conversations I’d been having with clients about regional diversification, so it seemed the perfect time to join. HarperCollins could see a chance to join the literary scene in the north – publishing from here but for a global audience. And since HarperCollins in the UK is already spread between offices in Glasgow, London and Honley, they welcomed another location.

4) At HarperCollins, what is a typical day for you? Do you have a particular department that you are attached to?

As I’m sure most of your interviewees say, no two days are the same! Since the pandemic has moved us to remote working, maintaining contact and team collaboration is a big part of what I do. As well as working closely with my colleagues, we’d normally all be seeing lots of authors, agents, booksellers, librarians and readers, so making sure those communications continue online is really important – while trying to make sure no one’s burning out from too many emails, videocalls and meetings. But in terms of the publishing, my role is to oversee the shape of the list – looking at what books my team are hoping to acquire, discussing ideas for new projects and where they sit in the market, and making sure every department within the business shares our vision for how to publish each title and help every book reach its widest readership in all formats. In between that, acquiring, editing my own titles is a key process. And in addition to looking at individual titles, I work on the financials and the strategy of the list – planning how to build authors for the long-term as well as on a book by book basis.

5) If you weren’t working in publishing, what would be your other dream/ideal job?

Growing up, I wanted to either drive the mobile library – I don’t think I’ve quite let go of that ambition! Or if I was to leave the book business entirely, I think I’d still hope to work in a field that touches on the stories we tell ourselves and each other. I think, for example, we all struggle with finding the right words at some points in our life and I really admire the work people like grief counsellors do to help people find their own story to make sense of the hard times we all face on occasion.

6) What advice would you give to a writer who is just starting out? Would you recommend a creative writing course?

First of all: start writing. Finding your voice and getting into the habit of words on a page is the basis of everything. After that, whether you should pursue a creative writing course can be quite personality-dependent. If you like structure and input, they’re great for adding accountability and community into your writing process – while other authors flourish by writing in the secret hours of the day and night. Whichever path you choose, I would say it’s useful to think about how you’re going to share to your work. Whether that’s with fellow course members, beta readers or agents, at some point writers make that step towards releasing their words into the wild.

7) When you leave your desk on a Friday afternoon, what’s the first thing you do? On a Friday evening/the weekend, what do you do to relax?

Since remote-working, the first thing I do when I leave my desk is usually feed my ever-hungry children! And to relax, getting outside gives me perspective. Spending so much time reading, it’s great to lift your eyes to the horizon when you can.

8) During lockdown, what have you been reading? Have you found yourself re reading your favourites or starting new books?

I confess I lost my reading mojo in the early stages of the pandemic, and found myself dipping in to lots of books rather than devouring them in long sittings. And after an autumn of being in the lucky position of reading wonderful submissions, I’m treating myself to reading some finished, already-published books for the holidays.

9) During lockdown, what have you been watching on television? Do you have a favourite drama that you watch religiously?

Recently, I’ve loved The Queen’s Gambit, Sex Education and Criminal.

10) If you could only listen to Rod Stewart, Freddie Mercury or Brian Johnson (AC/DC), who would you choose and why?

Freddie for me – Queen is often my children’s car music of choice!

Thank you for your time today Genevieve, it was a pleasure to interview you!

Bio: Born in Liverpool and raised in North Wales, Gen is delighted to be at the helm of HarperNorth and bringing readers and writers together across the region. Gen has published authors from Kate Mosse to Belle de Jour and has worked at Penguin, Orion and with indie authors and publishers. She is always in search of page-turners, from bookclub stories to historical fiction, and from memoir to crime thrillers.

First Drafts With… Jay Stringer

Hi everyone, and today on the blog I’m delighted to welcome crime writer Jay Stringer. Jay is the author of the Eoin Miller trilogy, a detective series set in the Black Country, England and the author of the Sam Ireland Glasgow set series.

I was delighted when he took some time to answer my questions on writing his all important first draft.

Over to you, Jay…

1) When you begin the next book, how do you go about it?

I’m interested more in character than plot, so there’s usually some trial and error and false starts. I need to find a character who interests me, who I want to hang out with and listen to. Someone with a fun contradiction at heart, and a voice that I’ll enjoy writing. I might start two or three books and abandon them ten thousand words in, on the way to finding the character I most want to work with.

When it comes to the first chapter, this is the part of the book I’ll spend the most time reworking. When I first started out, I liked writing opening lines that grabbed the reader and maybe shocked or challenged them. Now I prefer to write openings that ease the reader in through voice, like the story is being told to them by a friend on the next barstool. So I’ll spend a lot of time working on the opening, finding the right tone.

2) Do you follow the same process you did for the book before?

Each book is different. But I don’t know how until I start it, so at first I try and write each new book the same way I wrote the one before. The new book tells me what it needs as I figure out the first act. Each of my books ends up having a different act structure to the one before, a different pace and energy, but those are differences I find along the way, and I’ve learned to embrace them rather than forcing the book to stick to an existing template. It’s like doing stand-up comedy. You write the jokes and go into the gig with a plan, but each crowd and room feels different, and your performance of the joke evolves from gig to gig. You need to roll with that, let the story and characters lead you.

Really the only things I’ve learned to apply to every book are: Aim for clarity, not perfection. Always know what the characters want, and need, at each stage in the story. Good dialogue is about what the characters aren’t saying. Read all the work out loud, because good writing sounds good. That’s it, really. All the other rules change from book to book.

3) What is your research process, if you have one?

It varies, depending on the book. For my crime novels, my heart beats for Elmore Leonard, and the research is mostly just talking to people and listening to how they talk. Collecting voices and stories out on the street, at work, in bars. This has become trickier since I stopped drinking. I don’t write police procedurals, so I don’t need to worry about police procedure. I write about the kinds of people I live and work around, so I just keep my eyes and ears open, and they give me material.

My deeper research comes if I’m writing one of my Marah Chase books. That’s the action movie/Indiana Jones side of my brain, and I need to dig quite deep into history, archaeology, and mythology. As much as I can I’ll walk around the places I want to use, thinking of cool ways to ‘film’ an action sequence there. I spent two months before the last one reading up on the Fountain of Youth, and volcanoes, and earthquakes, and researching the locations I thought I needed, and how I was going to fit everything together. But, as ever, the minute I started writing the book all the research went out the window. I found different characters and locations on the page, and almost none of my initial research was used. I went into the final act of the book still not knowing how it was all going to tie together, and that was exciting. I have a long-gestating dream project of writing a Robin Hood novel, because there’s a version I want to see that hasn’t been done. And that’s probably the thing I’ve researched the most, on and off, for two years. I could probably earn a history degree with everything I’ve learned about the thirteenth century. And guess what? I just started work on the first chapter, and it ignores all of my research.

4) How quickly after thinking or planning do you sit down to write?

For my non-crime books, like Marah Chase, I’ll tend to take a few months to let ideas gather. My brain likes to throw a million different ideas at me on these books, and after researching I need to take some time to let everything settle, and to see which ideas feel the strongest and clearest. I’m doing that right now with a sci-fi idea, waiting until it’s ready and clear. Then I start my usual process, working and reworking the opening chapter until I find the right voice for that book.

For my crime novels I don’t wait around much at all. Those are based more on dialogue, so my ideas grow from getting a funny conversation in my head, the minute I get one of these I start writing. And that’s where the trial and error comes in, sometimes these small ideas take on bigger shape and I have a book to write, other times they fade away after a few thousand words and I move on to something else.

5) How does the draft form on the screen?

I don’t plot. I have nothing against it, I learned to do it and gave it a go, I have a whiteboard and I know how to layout the beats in all the right places. But I found that it didn’t really work for me. But writing completely without direction didn’t work either. So I have a hybrid approach, and my first draft is written by focusing on one act or movement at a time, nothing beyond that. Each movement has an opening, midpoint, and cliff hanger. These tend to be 60 or 80 pages. And within that, I focus on the characters, what do they want out of each scene? What do they need out of each scene? Why are the two different? Repeating that process four, five, or six times adds up to a book. It also helps avoid writer’s block, because I’m never lost in thinking about the overall book, I only ever need to think about what my character is doing in the moment, and then vaguely think about what they’re doing in the next 30 or 40 pages. I think the biggest compliment I’ve had since adopting this approach is that people think I must put a lot of work into plotting the books, when the truth is the exact opposite. I just keep an eye on the character’s motivations at all times, and the plot takes care of itself.

6) Where do you write the majority of the draft?

This is something that keeps changing. My Eoin Miller books were all written on laptops, and I would fit time in around the day-job, a few hours here and there. Most of the work was done on a sofa or at a desk we put in the kitchen of our old flat. When we moved into this house I finally had an office, and the two Sam Ireland books, as well as the first Marah Chase book, were written at a desk, during set office hours each day. Since then I’ve been back on a laptop, writing when the mood takes me. It feels like the next book wants to be written in the office again, and I’ll be going back to laying out set office hours during the week. Not least because I don’t have a television in the office, so there are less distractions than trying to write on the sofa.

Thank you for your time today Jay, it has been a pleasure to have you on the blog. All the best with your writing.

Bio: Jay Stringer was born in 1980, and he’s not dead yet.

His crime fiction has been nominated for both Anthony and Derringer awards, longlisted for Not The Booker, and shortlisted for the McIlvanney Prize. His stand-up comedy has been laughed at by at least three people. He’s English by birth and Scottish by legend; born in the Black Country and claiming Glasgow as his hometown.

Jay is dyslexic, and came to the written word as a second language, via comic books, music, and comedy. Along the way he’s worked as a zoo keeper, a debt collector, a supermarket shelf stacker, and a bike courier. Alongside Russel D. McLean, Jay was the first to bring Noir at the Bar to the UK.

Jay won a gold medal in the Antwerp Olympics of 1920. He did not compete in the Helsinki Olympics of 1952, that was some other guy. 

Jay has led workshops on writing crime fiction for Scottish Book Trust, and mentored creative writing students for City, University of London. He is available for events talking about crime fiction, dyslexia, and Romani issues.

An Interview With… Sile Edwards

Hi everyone, today on the blog I’m delighted to welcome literary agent Sile Edwards.

Sile is a literary agent at Mushens Entertainment, and joins me today as I ask her all about her road to her current role, what she looks for in a submission package and what she has been up to during lockdown.

Guidelines on how to submit to her and what she is looking for, are below the Q&A.

Over to you, Sile…

1) How did you first become involved in the publishing industry? Did you always plan to be a literary agent when you left school? Did you have any other career plans?

At first I wanted to work in Marketing & Publicity! My first foray into publishing was through a short work placement that I got through the amazing team at Arts Emergency, but I got my first “proper” internship through a chat with a literary agent actually. Jo Unwin very kindly gave up some of her time to chat to me and answer my many many questions. After interning at RCW, I knew that I wanted to be a Literary Agent but was content with working in any area of publishing I could get in to! 

2) You studied Creative Writing at university. What was your experience like of the course and how has it helped you in your current role?

Studying Creative Writing was a lot of fun, but it also helped me realise that I enjoy the process a lot more when I am assisting the writer. I was the only Black person in quite a few of my classes and I found that sharing was quite exhausting at times but the experience definitely made me a better advocate.

3) How did you become involved with the mentoring charity, the Arts Emergency? What is your role within the charity?

I was on Question Time and the question I asked went viral, Neil from Arts Emergency got in touch and from there, I enrolled in the programme, was connected with a mentor and the wider network! Towards the end of my final year at university, I worked with the service team and then when I left, I became a trustee. I am still a trustee, I sit on the board of trustees now and my role there is to jointly supervise the charities activities. They do such wonderful things at Arts Emergency, and make a real difference to the lives of young people.

4) Where do you start with the submission package? The cover letter, the synopsis or sample writing? What would make you want to request the full manuscript?

I always start with the cover letter as it tends to be in the body of the email, and gives me a real sense of who the writer is. I love it when I get a sense of the personality as well as the project. If I’ve read all of the sample writing, the synopsis and still want to know more about the story or project I will request the full manuscript.

5) Can you describe the first initial phone call with a client? How do you feel when you offer representation?

That first phone call with someone who I want to sign is usually full of hope, and sometimes a little bit awkward at first! For me to offer representation the call has probably gone well, and there has been a lot of enthusiasm from both sides about the project they’re working on and any future projects.

When I offer representation, I always feel excited and a little nervous. Saying you want to work with someone and you believe in them is exciting, but also slightly nerve wracking because they may say decline the offer! When I offer representation and the person accepts, the next phone call is always really lovely.

6) Across the genres of both fiction and non fiction, what would you like to see more of that hasn’t been submitted before to you?

For Fiction: I would love to see more well plotted commercial fiction, with a Black protagonist. It’s a genre I love reading in so I would love to see more of it in my submissions inbox.

For Non-Fiction: I’d like to see more Pop Science, I love learning, and I love understanding why things are the way they are so I’d like to get some more projects that cover popular science topics in a accessible, interesting way.

7) When you leave your desk, on a Friday afternoon, what’s the first thing you do?

Usually it is give my baby or cat a huge huge cuddle – whoever is closer at the time. Then I will usually do some reading, especially if it is raining outside!

8) During lockdown, what have you been watching on television?

A lot of game shows, and children’s TV. We are basically alternating between Hey Duggee, Baby Club, Richard Osman’s House of Games and Taskmaster.

9) During lockdown, what have you been reading? Have you found that your habits have changed?

My reading habits haven’t changed much during Lockdown, and that’s mainly down to the fact that I’m working.

I read a lot of thrillers (quietly to myself) and children’s books (out loud to my daughter) when I am not reading submissions or client manuscripts.

10) What is your music taste like? If you had to choose between Rod Stewart, Queen or AC/DC, who would you choose and why?

My music tastes are really broad, my Repeat Rewind on Spotify looks like someone who doesn’t quite know what kind of party they want to go to on a Friday night. If I had to chose between Rod Stewart, Queen or AC/DC….I’d probably choose AC/DC for the t-shirts.

Thank you for your time today, Sile. It has been a pleasure to interview you and have you on the blog.

Bio: Silé began her career in publishing with several internships across the industry whilst studying for a degree in English with Creative Writing at Goldsmiths University. After graduating she worked at the Publishers Association supporting their campaigns and other communications functions. She then moved to Curtis Brown as an assistant in the Book Department, where she supported deals for a large and eclectic list of clients including Adam Kay, Deliciously Ella, Alys Fowler, Viv Groskop, Katy Brand and Lucy Foley. She is a trustee for award-winning mentoring charity and network Arts Emergency.

Contact: You can find her on twitter as @sileloquies and email her at sile@mushens-entertainment.com. Her submissions email is sesubmissions@mushens-entertainment.com and you can view her guidelines here.

An Interview With… Juliet Pickering

Hi everyone, and today on the blog I’m delighted to welcome literary agent Juliet Pickering. Juliet works for Blake Friedmann Literary Agency and represents literary and commercial fiction. Details on what else she’s looking for are below the Q&A.

I was delighted when she kindly took the time to answer my questions on alongside what she looks for in submissions, how she started out in the publishing industry.

Over to you, Juliet…

1) How did you first come to be involved in the industry? Did you plan to be a literary agent? Did you actually have any other career plans?

I worked in Waterstones, and had no idea that literary agents existed. One of my fellow booksellers was a writer and I met his agent at a gig, realised agents are the middle man between authors and publishers, and loved the idea of all the reading!

I took two weeks’ annual leave from my Waterstones job to do work experience with this agent, then sent my CV to every agency listed in the Writers & Artists’ Yearbook, begging for a job. Luckily, A P Watt was looking for an assistant and called up to offer me an interview.

I had no real career plans after university; I was mostly hoping to avoid becoming a teacher, after doing work experience in a school as a teenager and finding it exhausting!

2) What was your experience moving from A P Watt to Blake Friedmann?

It was both nerve-racking and exciting. When A P Watt were acquired by United Agents, I discovered that my role would be diminished (I had a list of around 15 authors at that point, and UA seemed to want assistants rather than Associate Agents) so I took a massive gamble accepting redundancy and hoping another agency would take me on.

Every one of my authors stuck with me, despite not knowing where I would end up – and I will always be deeply grateful to them for their faith in me. I met with lots of different agencies – which largely reinforced my suspicions that this is one of the friendliest industries; so many people met me for informal chats and supportive advice – and when I met Carole and Isobel from Blake Friedmann, we hit it off straight away.

You have to go with your instincts a lot in this job. They welcomed my authors so warmly, and I’ve always been very grateful for their mentorship and encouragement.

3) What are you mostly attracted to in a submission? The character voice, the tone of the narrative or the freshness of a strong voice in an author?

All of those are key, but probably the freshness of a strong and convincing authorial voice is most appealing to me. I love to read something surprising in my submissions, and I get very excited by precise, engaging writing. There are definitely themes that I return to again and again – coming of age, identity, sexuality, love and friendships – but it’s often the writing underlying the story that convinces me that this is an author I want to work with on this book, and many more.

4) What are you currently looking for in submissions? From the sample writing, cover letter, or synopsis, what draws you in first?

I don’t think I’m alone in wanting to read a warm, emotional, fun novel to make me completely forget what is going on around us. They’re rare to come across, but something like Curtis Sittenfeld’s ELIGIBLE or Maria Semple’s WHERE’D YOU GO, BERNADETTE would be perfect.

I’m first drawn in by a persuasive cover letter, then I go and read the chapters/proposal before looking at the synopsis.

Sometimes you can tell that an author is going to be promising from the tone and style of the cover letter alone (I’ll always remember the cover letter for THE MERMAID AND MRS HANCOCK, which immediately stood out, even though traditionally historical fiction and mermaids wouldn’t be my thing! I loved that book.)

The first time you meet an author on the page is via the cover letter, and often it’s a reflection of an author’s personality and writing. But then, of course, the chapters are the really exciting part of the submission!

5) Can you describe the feeling of ‘I really want to represent this author’? How do you feel when you offer representation?

It’s a growing excitement as you read a submission, and often begins with a great cover letter, then continues as you read the first three chapters/proposal and ask for the full manuscript (if a novel).

If you finish the novel or proposal and know that you HAVE to work with this author, and are already envisaging which editors will be similarly excited about this book, which prizes it will win, all the opportunities you might be able to find for it, that’s the most thrilling feeling. When you offer representation it feels brilliant but you’re also a tiny bit nervous: what if they say no?! And we’re often competing against other agents, so I want to convey how much Blake Friedmann can offer alongside my own efforts: I work very closely editorially with my authors, and my colleagues and I cover US, translation, and film & TV markets directly in addition to the UK, and we collaborate closely with each other and with our authors, so a new author gets lots of champions here!

I always meet an author or at least have a chat to them before we might start our author/agent relationship, as I rely on my instincts about working with them. Both have to feel that this is a person they like, can trust, and can work with editorially. The hope is that you’ll work together for years and years, so it’s essential to ‘click’.

6) What are your views on the fiction market currently across the genres you represent? What would like to see more of, or what do you think hasn’t been done before?

I work with contemporary fiction across literary, bookclub and commercial, so keeping up with changes in the market keeps me busy! At the moment we’re all looking for that uplifting story with a lot of heart, whichever category that falls into, and I’d like to see more of those stories. I’d also like to read a bold, beautiful and rich love story between two friends; female friendship can be the deepest, truest love, and outlasts many romantic relationships.

I think it’s a challenging time for literary fiction, perhaps, and especially for literary authors who are more than a couple of books along in their careers.

I tend to think that most stories have been written before, it’s the way a new novel is written and what the author brings to the party, that has to be fresh and intriguing!

7) Can you name one fiction author that you like, and why you admire their style of writing?

One of my recent favourites is Elizabeth Strout. She’s wonderful at observing the most human behaviours, writes in spare, succinct prose, and her women are real, fierce and vulnerable. I worship her!

8) In lockdown, what are you currently reading? Are you finding that your reading habits are changing at all?

I’ve just finished Marcia Willett’s REFLECTIONS, which my mum read and loved, and recommended to me. It was a great escape to Devon, and I admired how she writes from several character perspectives and gives them all full stories; it’s quite rare to pull that off, and make each character as interesting as the others. I’ve just started James Baldwin’s GO TELL IT ON THE MOUNTAIN, for Blake Friedmann Book Club.

9) In lockdown, what are you currently watching on television? Are you finding that your habits are changing? Do you have a favourite drama that you enjoy religiously?

I watched Selling Sunset, Indian Matchmaking, The Duchess. I’ve re-watched a lot of comforting TV: Modern Family, Motherland, Grace and Frankie. Anything that was easy on the eye and the brain! I loved Crazy Rich Asians, which I watched for the first time, recently.

10) If you had to choose between Rod Stewart and Freddie Mercury, who would it be and why?

Freddie Mercury. Queen’s Greatest Hits was the first album I ever had, and his voice is just incredible. One of a kind!

Thank you for your time today Juliet. It has been a pleasure to interview you.

Bio: I worked for Waterstones as a bookseller and fiction buyer, before joining the agency A P Watt in 2003. I moved to Blake Friedmann in 2013, becoming Vice Head of the Book Department in 2017, and my authors have been shortlisted for Booker, Costa, and Guardian First Book Awards, won the Whitbread and Green Carnation Prizes, and the Prix Femina Etranger. I regularly visit literary festivals, courses and events, and enjoy giving talks and holding workshops for writers. I have been a judge for the Bristol Short Story Prize 2016/2017, and for the Manchester Fiction Prize 2016.

What I’m Looking For:

I am proud to represent a list of intriguing, conversation-starting, diverse writers, across both fiction and non-fiction. Many of my authors write contemporary stories, often led by themes of identity, coming-of-age, class, gender and sexuality, to name a few; for me, vital qualities to a good story include emotional depth, authenticity, an engaging voice and irrepressible energy. I want to be surprised, and to have everyday experiences and relationships told with nuance and colour.

I love to bring an under-represented experience to both editors and readers, and some of my most enjoyable moments have been campaigning for authors who have looked for a book to reflect their experience and, not having found it, have written their own to provide that space for others. I’m a proud feminist and love books that empower us, or that make us feel recognised and heard.

Favourite authors include Kate Atkinson, Curtis Sittenfeld, Elizabeth Strout, Shirley Jackson, Zora Neale Hurston, Nora Ephron and Elizabeth Jane Howard. I’m drawn to rich and multi-layered stories of women, families, friendships and relationships, and love small communities with a strong setting and lots going on beneath the surface; I prefer the small and intimate to the epic and world-affecting.

Alongside literary, book club and commercial fiction, I represent non-fiction writers across the board, including memoir, pop culture, social history, writing on issues of race, gender and class, and cookery and food.

In case it’s helpful to know what I don’t represent, I don’t work with the following genres: Young Adult or children’s, fantasy, supernatural, dystopian, sci-fi, thriller, horror or crime fiction. I tend to enjoy historical fiction only if it’s set after 1900!

An Interview With… Megan Finney

Hi everyone, and this evening on the blog I’m delighted to introduce to you my co ML for NaNoWriMo Liverpool.

Megan has been a real help to me and my fellow WriMos for the past three years and I’m delighted to announce that I am now co ML alongside her for this NaNoWriMo year.

I was delighted when she kindly agreed to answer some questions about how she got involved in NaNoWriMo, what the community is and how her writing is going.

Over to you, Megan…

1) How did you first become involved with the Liverpool NaNo community?

An old friend introduced me to NaNoWriMo in 2012. We both wrote for leisure in high school, and would often send each other chapters to proof-read. She messaged me one day, saying there was a website I “might be interested in”. She was right! I signed up but didn’t start attending write-ins until two years later, when exigent circumstances forced me out of the house more. I’ve made many close friends in the community, including my boyfriend and D&D group. It’s a great community, and I’m thrilled to be part of it.

2) How has it helped your writing?

Honestly? Discipline. Before joining, I never finished anything. I’d spend so long working on unimportant aspects of a project that I’d get bored and abandon it, and start something new. The time limit NaNoWriMo sets really helps me knuckle down and focus. It also taught me the importance of not editing as I go. NaNo is about getting words down – your first draft doesn’t have to make 100% sense, be grammatically correct, or even spelled right. You can always fix it later.

3. What does the ML role entail?

It’s mostly about cheering people on, and making sure things run smoothly in the background. During November, we arrange meet-ups for participants to gather and write together. We usually meet in-person – but for safety amid the current pandemic, everything is online this year. I also try to host more casual gatherings every month, so folks can socialise outside of crunch-time.

Keeping participants informed is another big role for MLs; we manage our regions’ social media accounts, to let people know about anything happening in the community.

4. What does the NaNo community do for writers?

Being part of the community brings a sense of solidarity. You’re working alongside similar minds, encouraging each other and sharing this grand artistic experience. It’s a positive space full of kind, creative people. It also builds confidence, I’ve found. You can get feedback on your ideas, voice your struggles to sympathetic ears, and seek advice on any writerly stumbling-blocks.

5. Do you have any advice for authors who are just starting out?

Something I often say to my fellow writers is: “progress is progress”. Any amount of words that you write today, is more than you had yesterday. And, as I mentioned earlier, those words don’t have to be perfect. Just get your ideas down; you can always smooth any rough edges later.

Also? Take breaks. Be kind to yourself, reward your accomplishments – no matter how small – and try not to compare yourself to anybody else but you. Everyone has their own style, and works at their own pace!

6. What are your plans for when you finish your current work? What routes are you looking at – traditional, indie, or self-publishing?

Right now, I’m tying up some old pieces of fanfiction that have sat unfinished for far too long. After that, I might return to my original urban fantasy series. It’s been stuffed in the metaphorical drawer for a while; I sent the first book some time ago to a handful of agents and traditional publishing houses, with no success. The rejections stung, but I think I’m almost ready to give it another shot. That’s another piece of advice, folks – don’t give up!

Thank you so much for your time today Megan. It has been a pleasure to interview you. All the best with your writing!

Bio: Alongside being co ML of NaNoWriMo Liverpool, Megan lives with her family in Widnes and is beavering away at her fantasy series of novels.

Twitter: @Liverpool_NaNo

10 Questions With… Amer Anwar

Hi everyone, and continuing my new combined interview approach, I am chatting to crime writer Amer Anwar about his writing journey and drafting process.

Amer took some time away from writing to answer my questions on how he started writing, his writing process and what happens post representation, once your manuscript is with an editor.

Over to you, Amer…

1) Did you always want to be an author? As a child, did you have a turning point with a novel that made you go ‘Wow!’

I always loved to read as a child and write stories but it wasn’t until I reached my teens that I knew I wanted to be an author. I’d just read a novel called “Magician” by Raymond E. Feist and when I finished that book, I really did think, “Wow!” It made me feel so many different things: happiness, sadness, excitement, fear, joy, etc. I just thought it was an amazing thing to be able to do – to make people feel all of that just by putting words on a page – and I knew right then, that I’d love to be able to do that too. Of course, back then I didn’t see many people like me being authors, so it wasn’t something I really saw myself actually doing, but the desire never left me and, 20 years later, I gave it a go. 

2) Did you enjoy English at school? Was there a set book you had to read that you loved?

Yes, I loved English at school, reading and writing stories to me was just so much fun – and writing stories was encouraged early on but in secondary school, the creative aspect was pretty much disgarded in favour of factual writing and essays, which wasn’t quite as enjoyable.
There wasn’t any set book to read that I particularly remember loving but then, by about the age of 10, I’d already moved on to trying to read adult fiction, horror novels by James Herbert and Stephen King. I didn’t always understand everything that was going on but I really enjoyed them all the same. I had a dictionary to look up any words I didn’t know, which helped me understand better and also did wonders for my vocabulary.

3) How did you find your literary agent? What was your journey like to becoming published?

Actually, I guess my literary agent was the one who found me.
When I started to write fiction again, as an adult, roughly 20 or so years after school, I began by taking writing classes. I’d had an idea for a crime thriller knocking about in my head for most of those two decades and during one of the writing courses, I had a go at writing the opening and didn’t think it was too bad. I’d heard of the Crime Writers’ Association Debut Dagger competition for unpublished writers and decided to enter the first chapter. I had nothing to lose and, if nothing else, I’d get my first rejection, something I’d have to get very used to on the road to publication.
Anyway, long story short, that first chapter actually won the Debut Dagger award and brought me to the attention of agents, including the one I signed with.
Getting published wasn’t as straight forward. Even having one an award and with a top agent, once the book was finished it went out to about 30 publishers, all the big publishing houses and imprints – and it was turned down by every single one. Not because it was a bad book – all the feedback was good. It had great characters, a great setting, great action, great dialogue, great plot etc. etc. but no one wanted to publish it. What it ultimately came down to, and what no one really wanted to say, was that the book was just too “Asian.”

The closest anyone came to articulating that was with the comment, “I could never visualise it breaking out to a broad audience.”
I disagreed. I’d written it very much to try and appeal to a broad audience, anyone who enjoyed a fast-paced, exciting crime thriller. So I decided to self-publish it because I wanted people to read it and see what the reaction would be. Turned out, it was very favourable indeed. I was hustling the book around at various events, and at one of these, I met my publisher. I’d run out of copies that evening but I told her all about the novel and she asked me to send it to her afterwards.

I did and she read it and, within a fortnight, I had signed a two book deal with Dialogue Books.
When ‘Brothers in Blood’ was published, it went on to be picked by both the Times and the Guardian as one of the thrillers of the year.

4) What is your idea generation? How do you think up your ideas?

I had about 20 years to work on the idea for my first novel, Brothers in Blood. It started with the location. The book is set in Southall, west London. I knew I wanted to set a book there, it’s a place I know well and a prefect setting for a crime thriller. In fact, I’d been wanting to read something like that but no one had done it, so I thought I would.

Next came the main character. Then I needed a story for them. The germ of that was provided by a news story. Once I had those elements, I worked on weaving them all together.
For my latest book, Stone Cold Trouble, I actually had two separate story ideas I’d thought up but they weren’t really strong enough individually, so I tried putting them together which worked much better.

5) When you first got your agent, how did you feel? What can a writer expect through the editing process?

It was a great feeling to sign with an agent. I’d read a lot about the whole publishing process and knew how hard it could be to find an agent, so I was prepared to go the submission route and wait for the inevitable rejections – only I managed to sidestep that whole part by winning the Debut Dagger.

I signed with one of the most well respected agents in the country, which was amazing. Getting an agent gave me a lot of confidence in the novel I was writing and it really helped to spur me on, knowing that she believed in it enough to have signed me.
But … I’d only written the first few chapters when I won the award and it took me another five years to write and rewrite it until I felt it was good enough to send to her. Well, I might have thought it was good enough, and there were many things that were good about it – but it still needed work.

With the feedback I received, I went through the whole book again, editing and rewriting. After that, it went through another thorough edit and then it was finally ready for submission to publishers.

6) Once the editing process is finished with your agent, what it is like working with an editor?

I’m very fortunate in that my agent employs a very experienced in-house editor so that, as I mentioned above, the first couple of rounds of major edits were done there. Working with the editor was a really useful and valuable experience. I really saw how a good editor can improve your writing, not by making you change things necessarily, but by showing you how you can cut and trim bits to make the whole book read better. I really learnt a lot from it.

When the manuscript was eventually bought by my publisher, there wasn’t all that much they wanted to change. There were some minor things and it went through line edits and copy edits to really try and get all the little detail right, which was all very painless. I have to say, I really enjoy the whole editing process. It’s the first draft I find the hardest part.

7) What is the publicity process like? How do you feel when you go on tours promoting your novel?

I love the whole publicity part of promoting a book. You spend so much time on your own when you’re sitting writing it, that it’s great to get out and meet people and talk about it. I was a bit nervous at first, as it felt quite alien to get up in front of lots of people and talk about myself and my work but I think I managed to get used to it fairly quickly and now I love doing events. I also have a fantastic publicist who really looks after things and makes sure everything is OK.

8) What is the marketing process like? Do you get given covers and titles to choose from for your books?

The marketing process was really inetersting. It’s really great to work with a team of people whose job it is to help promote your book. They really know what they’re doing and have great ideas.

I originally self-published my first book, briefly, before it was bought by my current publisher. The book went through edits with them and then got its new title, ‘Brothers in Blood.’ My publisher came up with the new title. I didn’t really have a hand in it – but, fortunately, I love it, and it fits the book really well. I was able to give some thoughts on the cover too.

With the second book, I came up with the title, ‘Stone Cold Trouble,’ quite early on, and everyone loved it, so it stuck and I had a little more involvement with the cover, thanks to my editor and the fabulous designer who worked on it.

9) When you sit down to write, what is your planning process? Do you have a set word count?

I didn’t have any plan or process when I started my first novel. About halfway through writing it, I found I needed to know what had happened and when in the story, so I wrote out a retroactive plan. That led me to roughly plan ahead for the rest of the novel, or at least, as far ahead as I could. I didn’t know what the ending was going to be. Fortunately, when I got to the end, I managed to come up with a way to tie everything together.

For ‘Stone Cold Trouble’ I decided to plan the things out from the start. It was a very loose plan though, only a sentence or so, for what I thought might happen in each chapter. Because it was so loose, I didn’t have to stick to it and just chopped and changed it as I went along. It also allowed me to work out some of the story beforehand, so I was a bit more confident during the writing process.

I try and aim for 1000 words a day when writing, though it doesn’t always happen. Some days I manage less and on others I can keep going past the target. I don’t beat myself up about it if I don’t make the 1000, just as long as I manage to get something done.

10) During lockdown, how has your writing changed? Are you currently working on a new project or editing your last novel?

I was actually in the final editing stages with ‘Stone Cold Trouble’ when lockdown happened, so it didn’t really disrupt my writing much in that sense. Once that was all done and dusted, I wrote a short story for an anthology, which was good fun. It was the first short story I’d written in about 10 years.

Then, I went back to work on a standalone thriller I’d started before ‘Stone Cold Trouble.’ Somehow I found I had less time to write during lockdown than I had before. I think maybe my routine and rhythm had been thrown off. Anyway, I was trying to make progress on the new thirller and then things came up around the publication of ‘Stone Cold Trouble,’ after which I found out that what my publisher really wanted next was another Zaq & Jags book.

So I’ve shelved the standalone again and am now working on ideas for the thrid book in the Zaq & Jags series.

11) During lockdown, what have your TV habits been like? Do you have a favourite drama that you watch religiously?

I think I have actually been watching a little more TV during lockdown. A lot of it has been catching up on stuff I missed while I was busy working on my books, so I’m quite behind on some things. I’ve always been a massive film and TV fan, and enjoy watching a whole load of different things. I really couldn’t pick any particular favourite show but things I’ve really enjoyed and am realliy looking forward to new seasons of include; Better Call Saul, Kingdom, The Mandalorianand most recently Cobra Kai.

12) When you write, do you listen to music or do you prefer silence? If you only listen to Rod Stewart, Freddie Mercury or Brian Johnson (AC/DC), who would you choose and why?

I need silence to write, so that my imagination can fill it with both words and pictures.

I listen to quite a lot of music doing other things though and especially when I’m thinking about writing but not during the actual writing itself. I tend to listen mainly to music without words though, so film scores, classical and now even video game scores, some of which are really amazing.

My go to radio station is an internet station called Cinemix, which plays film scores from around the world. I’ve discovered so much great music though it.

Thank you for your time this afternoon Amer, it has been a pleasure to interview you.

Bio: Amer Anwar grew up in West London. After leaving college he had a variety of jobs, including; warehouse assistant, comic book lettering artist, driver for emergency doctors and chalet rep in the French Alps. He eventually settled into a career as a creative artworker/graphic designer and spent the next decade and a half producing artwork, mainly for the home entertainment industry. He started taking writing classes in the evenings and wrote the opening chapters of a novel which he entered for the prestigious CWA Debut Dagger competition, in order to receive his first rejection – only to win the actual award.

Signing with an agent, he went on to gain an MA in Creative Writing from Birkbeck, University of London. Amer’s critically acclaimed debut thriller, Brothers in Blood,was published in 2018 by Dialogue Books and was picked by both the Times and the Guardian as one of the thrillers of the year. The eagerly awaited follow-up, Stone Cold Trouble, was published in September 2020 and was a Times, Observer and Living Magazine Thriller of the Month and a Sunday Times Crime Club pick of the month.

Website: http://www.ameranwar.com

An Interview With… Julia Silk

Hi everyone, and on the blog today, I’m delighted to welcome literary agent Julia Silk. Julia is a literary agent at Kingsford Campbell and previously worked at MBA Literary Agency and as an editor for Orion.

Along with a couple of questions about what she’s been up to during lockdown, she was kind enough to answer my burning questions on what she’s on the lookout for in submissions.

Over to you, Julia…

1) How did you first become involved in the publishing industry? Did you always plan to be a literary agent when you left school? Did you have any other career plans?

I first became interested in working in publishing in my final year at university, in the 90s. Then as now it was hugely competitive, and I spent several years working in academic publishing before I landed my first editorial job in a small trade publisher.

I then worked freelance for some bigger publishers alongside that part time job, as well as working in a bookshop two days a week for a couple of years (which was so much fun – I still miss handselling the books I love). I honestly don’t think I was even aware of agenting as a career option when I first started working in publishing – and then it was years before it occurred to me that it was something *I*could do.

But aside from wanting to be a vet aged 12, and then having no clue for the next decade, there was no career other than publishing that I ever considered.

2) You studied a Masters Degree in Comparative Literature. What was your experience like of the course and how has it helped you in your current role?

I’d been in publishing for nearly 10 years, getting shortlisted for editorial commissioning roles in bigger publishers so many times, it became very frustrating. So I looked at all the people who had been hired, and honestly asked myself what they had that I didn’t. And it turned out that was an MA. I have no idea really if that was why they got the jobs over me, but I decided to find out. I actually ended up really loving the MA for its own sake, and, as it happened I then did get a jobwith Orion at the end of that year. In terms of how it has helped in my current role, I think it made me more analytical, and I’m also very good at research, which is definitely a skill I strengthened during my MA.

3) You were an editor at Orion for 15 years. How did being an editor compare now, to being a literary agent?

I chose to make the move from editing to agenting because I was feeling an increasingly strong sense that I was on the wrong ‘side’. Ultimately, no matter how nurturing and sympathetic an editor is, they work for the publisher – they have the publisher’s interests at heart, and rightly so, but I found my sympathies and instincts always lay with whatever was in the best interests of the author, and so I concluded that I probably wasn’t in the right job! I also love the variety, whether it’s working on a project from inception, contract nitty-gritty or strategizing with my authors, I love it all. And I have a short attention span so it suits me to have so many different strands to my daily working life.

4) Where do you start with the submission package? The cover letter, the synopsis or sample writing? What would make you want to request the full manuscript?

A strong concise cover letter that speaks to my interests and tells me an author knows what they have written and has some market awareness will always pique my interest. But the voice is crucial. It can have the greatest hook in the world, but if the writing doesn’t appeal to me then I won’t want to read on. I also don’t tend to read the synopsis unless I’m dithering about asking for the full, as generally I don’t want to spoil the reading experience, especially if it’s a thriller. 

5) Can you describe the first initial phone call with a client? How do you feel when you offer representation?

I like it to feel like a natural conversation rather than a two-way interview, but ultimately the aim is to identify whether you share a vision for the project specifically and their writing and future career in general and think you would work well together. And very often there will be more than one agent who wants to work with that person, so I always say that the most important thing is to remember that it’s about who they feel is right for them, according to their priorities. Different agents have different strengths and approaches, so I talk with them about what they are looking for in an agent, and hopefully leave them in a position to make an informed decision. There’s definitely also an element of chemistry. Usually you quite quickly have a sense of whether you’re a good match. And I’ve learned not to be too attached to the outcome when I offer representation, because you can’t win them all.

6) What are your views on the crime/thriller market currently? Across the genre, what would you like to see more of that hasn’t been submitted before to you?

I’m a big crime and thriller reader and I think the genre is becoming more diversified and interesting every year. I like to see a bit of boundary pushing – my client Charlotte Philby is a good example of this, her central characters are flawed and ambiguous and she combines domestic noir and espionage in a way that you rarely see. What I’d also love to see more of is dark humour in the vein of Oyinkan Braithwaite’s My Sister the Serial Killer. She pulls off this incredible combination of over the top crazy in concept and elegant restraint in execution that I’m in total awe of. I also love upmarket true crime with something of the author in it –The Fact of a Body and I’ll Be Gone in the Dark, for example, are very human investigations into *very* dark corners of the human psyche. I’d love to see something like that, particularly if it’s set somewhere other than the US or UK.

7) When you leave your desk, on a Friday afternoon, what’s the first thing you do? On a Friday evening/the weekend, what do you do to relax?

Pick up my youngest daughter from school then come home and either cook for the evening, try to do some more work or relax with my children. Weekends are mostly taken up with family stuff, seeing friends and trying to cram in some reading. I’ve found this year I’ve had to take up regular exercise in order not implode, so I either run or do yoga (or both) most days and that means I’m actually capable of relaxing for brief periods, rather than being an irascible, jittery mess.

8) During lockdown, what have you been watching on television? Do you have a favourite drama that you watch religiously?

I love watching teen/YA drama with my oldest daughter – we are very into Ackley Bridge at the moment. She is obsessed with Stranger Things, which I introduced her to (all the tweens watch it round here – we’re very sophisticated in Lewisham). And Dead to Me and Schitt’s Creek have also been favourites over the past few months. (Please don’t tell the TV police, though – she’s only 11!) I’ve also been watching Harlots (not with my daughter!); I’m obsessed with Samantha Morton. I love TV – I would watch for hours a dayif I could.

9) During lockdown, what have you been reading? Have you found that your habits have changed?

Apart from the first couple of months of lockdown when I couldn’t focus very well, I don’t think they have changed that much, apart from the fact that I have been buying more hardbacks direct from independent bookshops and small publishers in an attempt to keep the industry afloat. Onehappy result of that was my discovery of the writing of Heidi James, when I bought The Sound Mirror straight from her publisher, connected with her on Twitter, discovered she was unagented and took her on. She is an astounding writer; The Sound Mirror has been my favourite read this year and I am beyond excited to be working with her. I’ve read a bit more non-fiction that I usually do as well – I fell in love with Hadley Freeman’s House of Glass, a memoir of her Jewish family, in which I saw some of my own family history. It’s a wonderful book, full of heart and the result of a decade of research, detective work and huge empathy, and I felt bereft when I’d finished.

10) If you could only listen to Rod Stewart, Freddie Mercury or Brian Johnson (AC/DC), who would you choose and why?

Is that a trick question? Errm, Freddie Mercury because my best friend at school and I used to listen to Queen’s Greatest Hits when we were 13 or 14 (it was 1986) and I am sentimental like that. But I do secretly quite like Rod Stewart. My aunt had a thing for him and he reminds me of her. Are you only asking Gen Xers this question? 🙂

Thank you for your time to visit my blog this afternoon Julia. it has been a pleasure interviewing you.

Bio: JULIA SILK was an editor for 15 years, latterly at The Orion Publishing Group, where she worked for nine years. She has an MA in Comparative Literature from UEA and loves to read stories that expose universal truths in new ways. She has broad-ranging taste and welcomes submissions of fiction across the spectrum from commercial to literary, particularly when they feature unpredictable characters making unexpected choices.

Julia is currently particularly keen to see reading group fiction with a strong hook, upmarket crime/thriller and narrative non-fiction/memoir. Please don’t send her children’s, YA, or SFF. She regrets that she is unable to respond to every submission but aims to be in touch within 8-10 weeks if she would like to take your submission further.

Her favourite recent reads include Crazy Rich Asians by Kevin Kwan, The Dry by Jane Harper and Lullaby by Leila Slimani.

An Interview With… Clare Coombes

Hi everyone, and on the blog this afternoon I’m delighted to welcome author and literary agent Clare Coombes. Clare founded the Liverpool Literary Agency in August 2020 and I was delighted when she agreed to answer some questions for me – one part as a literary agent, one part as an author on her writing journey.

Over to you, Clare…

1) How did you first come to be involved in the publishing industry? Did you have any other career plans?

I trained as a writer and editor first, and through this, I discovered inequalities in the publishing industry, and thought, what can I do? 

When I say, ‘trained as a writer and editor’, this can be different paths for different people – from beta reading to writers groups, short courses to masterclasses or formal education. If you look around, there is always some support, and I think this is getting even better now that more publishers are opening offices in the north. I was lucky that Writing On The Wall (WoW) has been there throughout my career, helping me to get published and giving me editing experience. They are the reason so many underrepresented writers and editors from Liverpool and the north get published and have creative careers.

2) What prompted you to set up Liverpool Literary Agency?

We were editors first, and our writers came from many different walks of life, with accountants, security guards, taxi drivers, labourers, sport scientists, NHS workers, hospitality sector workers, parents and retired grandparents among their number. But even those who had degrees in creative writing or literature-based subjects often felt that they have no real way into the world of publishing. We wanted to do something about this and then I saw the Common People: Breaking the Class Ceiling in UK Publishing report and many of the points it made, including this one, gave us the confidence to start up an agency: …there has never been a more vital point at which working-class stories and voices needed to be heard in mainstream culture… It talked about Imposter Syndrome as a big part of a working-class background, even through your parents and grandparents. We realised that through our experiences, we could help to address this within the UK publishing industryby acting as agents, mentees and delivering training to underrepresented groups.

3) You did a Masters in Creative Writing. What was your experience of the course like?

It was life-changing. I improved as a writer, and picked up so many skills, but it was also about friendships with other writers, connections and publishing industry insight. 

4) When did you have that moment with a book where you thought ‘Wow!’ Did you know that you always wanted to write? 

I’ve had so many wow moments with reading! Most recently was another local writer, S.E. Moorhead, with Witness X, when I was (nicely) jealous of how clever the plot and themes were. Being a literary agent now, I also have the chance to sign up and represent the books that make me feel like this. Working with the writers that I do, can be summed up in this JoJo Moyes quote from One Plus One:

“You know, you spend your whole life feeling like you don’t quite fit in anywhere. And then you walk into a room one day, whether it’s at university or an office or some kind of club, and you just go, ‘Ah. There they are.’ And suddenly you feel at home.” 

5) What is your reading taste like? Has it changed since you did your Masters?

I read all genres. I like to stretch my own reality when I read and write, going beyond my own world and experiences. That’s the best thing about writing – however difficult the subject is, you feel like you’re learning more about life as you go along. 

6) Do you have a favourite genre, or a guilty pleasure genre?

I love historical fiction, especially World War Two resistance stories. It’s where I found my voice as a writer. I think it’s because that period in history shows the life and death decisions people had to make, and raises that question of – what would you do? There are too many parallels of war, refugees and prejudice, between then and now, and I think writing in this genre can help to open people’s eyes. 

7) What is your drafting process like when you write? How many would you do before that final edit before sending it out?

I’m a plotter. I have a spreadsheet, colour codes and character sheets. I start each chapter with a short overview of what I want to do and extend that into bullet points, which I then start filling out.

I advise the writers I work with to put together a synopsis first (not a book blurb but an account of what happens with all the spoilers). It might change but having a plot outline makes such a difference and can be what’s needed for a book to get finished.

8) When you leave your desk on a Friday, what’s the first thing you do? On a Friday evening/the weekend, what do you do to relax?

There’s no leaving the office on a Friday for me anymore, but I really like having a more flexible way of working. I can choose my hours. Well, the kids choose first and then I do, but it’s so good to have the freedom to break up work time. 

I still read to relax (it’s the dream day job), going on family days out  – parks, farms, beaches, cafes – all the classics, but it helps you switch off. I talk about starting regular running again a lot, and one day I’ll go back to tapdancing. 

9) In lockdown, what are you currently reading? Are you going back to old favourites or reading new books?

I re-read Adrian Mole because I will never get bored of Sue Townsend’s books; she was a genius. I loved the political and social commentary, alongside how funny they are. The Mrs Thatcher poem is a great example: https://www.theguardian.com/politics/2014/apr/11/5-political-lessons-learned-from-sue-townsends-adrian-mole-books

I discovered local writers Caroline Corcoran and Hayley Doyle, continued reading Andie Newton who has a new book out and found the brilliant Boy Parts by Eliza Carr.

10) In lockdown, what are you currently watching on television? Do you have a favourite drama that you watch religiously?

This Is Us. Best series ever. The way multiple storylines from different time periods are managed is amazing. I’m learning so much from it as a writer and editor.  

I also thought the new The Babysitter’s Club was a great interpretation, with some pertinent political and social points.

I’ve re-watched The Gilmore Girls and discovered The Marvellous Mrs Maisel

I’m working with a team on a TV adaptation of my book, We Are of Dust, following a grant from the Liverpool Film Office, so I’m studying a lot of what works in a popular series.

Thank you for your time today Clare. It has been a pleasure to interview you. I wish Liverpool Literary Agency all the best!

Bio: With more than 15 years’ experience of writing professionally, including the publication of my debut novel Definitions in 2015 and my second We Are of Dust in 2018, I have developed an in-depth knowledge of what commissioning editors and publishers expect to see from a submitted manuscript. I have been through the full process of drafting, editing, pitching, publishing and marketing a novel; using my background in PR and marketing to analyse what a book needs to get the attention of a publisher and reader.

My creative writing Masters and postgraduate teaching included how to pitch to agents and publishers, as well as good social media practice for writers. I have judged fiction competitions and spoken in schools and at high-profile events on writing as a career. I received development funding from the Liverpool Film Office in July 2020 to adapt We Are of Dust for TV, working with award-winning television drama writer, Roanne Bardsley, and award-winning creative producers, Julia Berg and Ruth Spencer, of Untamed Stories.

My commended short stories and novel extracts feature in a number of publications, competitions and journals. In my PR roles, I have worked on everything from art to astrophysics, used by national media, with nominations including ‘Breakthrough Story of the Year’ from Science News. I am a member of the Chartered Institute of Editing and Proofreading.

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