An Interview With… Gordon Wise

Hi everyone, this morning I’m delighted to welcome literary agent Gordon Wise to the blog. He was kind enough to answer my questions as to what he looks for in submissions.

Below the Q&A, you can find what he’s currently looking for.

Over to you, Gordon…

1) Did you see yourself becoming a literary agent after you left school? Did you have any other career plans?

I’d never heard of a literary agent when I left school! I only discovered publishing (as opposed to writing, or bookselling) existed when I was working in a bookshop when I was in my third year of university, and that agenting sat inside a series of Russian dolls within that. My childhood dream had been to be an architect, until I discovered you had to be good at and like maths (I threw in the towel on maths after calculus nearly killed me) and that it was a seven year course. Now I am told that the maths is all dealt with by computers. But then you have to like and be good at computers… So I think I ended up in the right place.

2) How are you drawn into a submission? Is it the covering letter, synopsis or sample writing? What can an author do to leave you wanting more?

It’s a synthesis of all three. I want the cover letter to invite me in and give a good reason to spend time on this book – it has to be an enticing pitch in itself. I’ll probably then fast forward to the sample writing, to see if I like the tone. Then if I like what I am reading I’ll wind back and look at the synopsis, to see what I’d be learning if I read further. I need to feel I’m going to enjoy and be excited by the experience of spending 3-5 hours reading the whole book, and have a sense that others would, too.

3) What do you consider a standout query letter? On the other, what wouldn’t attract you to a submission?

A good query letter will give me a great hook for what the book is about, why you’ve approached me (expressed originally, not just lifted from our website), who you think might enjoy it (perhaps a couple of authors you’d like your book to sit alongside – but don’t choose pretentious or incomparable ones – to give me a sense that you are aware of the market). I’d put down immediately something that got my name wrong, started with Dear Sir or Madam, or gave me any sense that just because you’ve written it, it’s special and that I’m obliged to read it. Win me over!

4) How do you know when you have connected with a manuscript? Is it prose, plotting or pace of the narrative?

Well, you’ve missed out character – that’s critically important. Obviously the prose must be good, but there’s many a successful book where the prose isn’t amazing. However, bad prose will be an impediment to understanding and enjoyment. Plotting is crucial, certainly in commercial fiction, but there’s no literary novel that isn’t going to benefit from having a good plot. Pace: well, get the plotting right and that should follow. In editing, you can address pace, and to some degree plot – but you have to have a good starting point, and the writer has to be open to feedback and take criticism on board. But it’s very hard to improve prose. So you do need to get your voice right.

5) Once you finish reading a manuscript submission in full, what prompts you to offer representation?

If I like the author, and I think they like and trust me, and that I think I can sell it. I see myself as a switchboard operator at that point: do I know the editors who will be the right match for this book and this author? If I can’t envisage that, then I’d need to stand aside. And if I can’t see myself working with that writer for the long term and for us to go the distance together, then we shouldn’t go forward.

6) What are your views on the crime and thriller market currently? In your view, is there a sub genre you think is in need of more representation?

Buoyant! And always looking for new voices. But the big brands are strong, so new entrants to the market really have to be offering something special to do business against the established competition. Diversity and inclusivity in all senses of those words needs far more representation in terms of setting, characters, voice. In books, we’ve still got an awful lot of catching up to do with TV in terms of not being self-conscious about this, and being confident about it.

7) Do you have a genre that you read for pleasure? Is there any genre of book that you wouldn’t read?

Books about architecture, design and gardens! An ordered antidote to the day job I suppose… I won’t read misery lit, and I find it hard, other than the classics, to get into sci fi and fantasy. Reality is interesting enough.

8) What was the last book you read, that wasn’t one of your clients, and if so, did you enjoy it?

Me by Elton John. By turns hilarious and self-deprecatingly frank.

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

Walk home, and have a drink. Probably a stiff gin and tonic. The challenge is to get as far as taking your coat and shoes off first rather than stick your head straight into the fridge. Weekends are TV, newspapers, walks, garden, sea swimming in the summer (nothing very wild though), catching up on manuscripts and planning a few good meals. With wine.

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

Rod. I think that one-of-the-lads persona is very appealing; Freddie is almost a mythical figure and I just don’t know what it would have been like to hang out with him. Although one of my clients, Cleo Rocos, did – and even took Princess Diana to a gay bar with him!

Thank you for visiting the blog today Gordon. It has been a pleasure to interview you!

Bio: I joined Curtis Brown in 2005, but began working in the book industry in 1989 as a bookseller when I was a student. In between I was for nearly fifteen years an editor and, later, publishing director, at companies including Pan Macmillan and John Murray/Hachette. On the industry side of things, I’ve been Agent of the Yearat the British Book Industry Awards, President of the Association of Authors’ Agents, and featured in the Booksellermagazine’s list of the 100 most influential people in the publishing trade. A Guardianinterview, ‘How do I become a … literary agent’, explains the way in which I approach my work.

The catalogues on my profile page feature clients whose work represents the range of my current activities. I am assisted by Niall Harman.

What I’m looking for: My tastes and expertise in non-fiction embraces history and biography, entertainment and the world of ideas. In the worlds of fiction, I focus on two strands: literary writers whose storytelling crosses over to reach beyond just the ‘literary’ reader; and both new and established terrific writers who happen to write crime.

To read more about what I am up to at the moment, read my blog at Curtis Brown Creative, and our submissions portal tells you what I am looking for right now and how to send it to me. I’ve got a reputation as a trusted collaborator, a developer of original ideas, an agent with an eye for reinvention and brand management, and a gift for editor-writer matchmaking.

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