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:

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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