An Interview With… Eli Keren

Hi everyone, and today on the blog I’m delighted to welcome Eli Keren. Eli is an associate literary agent at United Agents, and I was delighted when he agreed to accommodate some time for an interview.

Read on for how he got into the industry, the advice he offers to unpublished authors and what he is on the lookout for in those all important submissions (which are below the Q&A).

Over to you, Eli…

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

My journey was a weird one. I studied the sciences at university and decided to pivot to the arts quite late in the day. I knew that I needed some kind of qualification in the arts to be competitive for jobs in publishing, but I didn’t want to start from scratch, so I did a masters degree in Creative Writing – the advantage here was that you could do one of those no matter your background, whether you had a relevant first degree or no degree at all, so long as you could write. Two years later and armed with that I secured an internship at Curtis Brown’s in-house creative writing school, Curtis Brown Creative, which was a great position from where I could start figuring out what I wanted my next role to be.

I decided pretty quickly that I wanted to be in agency, but I also knew that a sideways move from another part of the industry would probably get me there faster than only applying for the few agency roles that came up, so I applied for literally every entry-level job that was posted in commercial publishing. I actually got really lucky – after months of applications I only received one job offer, and that was to be assistant to literary agent Sarah Ballard here at United Agents, where I’ve very happily been for six years now and counting! I spent four years as Sarah’s assistant, starting to build my own list of clients towards the end of that time, and am now her associate agent, continuing to build my list while I support her and her clients.

2) Does your research science background help you in your current job role? If so, how?

Definitely, I do work with fiction but a big part of my list is non-fiction, expert-led smart science, social commentary, social history, interesting books that want to change the world for the better. A huge part of what I do is drawing on my scientific background to work with academics, researchers and experts to bring their work to a commercial market. It’s often about getting them out of their academic voice and into their commercial one, or taking their work and making it as accessible as possible.

3) What attracts you to a submission? Is it the cover letter, the synopsis or the sample writing? What are you drawn to first out the three?

The cover letter is always my way in – I skim it when it plops into my inbox and decide whether to drop the submission into my submissions folder and get to it when I can, or keep it in my main inbox and read it ASAP. If if’s a non-fiction proposal that sounds interesting, authoritative and like it will make a positive impact, or if it’s a novel with a hook, premise or overview that makes me wish I could pick it up off a shelf and start reading straight away, it stays in the main inbox.

Either way, I’m looking for something that sounds original, exciting, and worth betting my reputation on. I need to be able to put my name on the line for every one of my clients, because if I’m sending editors a book that’s not up to standard, then next time I send them a book, they’re not going to make reading it a priority, if they read it at all. The bar is high, but it has to be if I want to stay in business!

4) If you have asked to see a full manuscript, what would make you ultimately reject it? Would you offer editorial feedback at all?

If I’ve called a manuscript in it’s because the writing is good and the premise is interesting. If I reject it after that point, it’s usually because the writing didn’t continue to live up to the premise. Maybe the book slowed right down after the opening chapters, maybe the plot ended up not being sustainable over the long term, or maybe I called a book in expecting it to sit firmly in one genre and the writing ended up, later into the book, veering into another, in such a way that made me doubt where I’d place it in the market.

When I pass on a book that I’ve called in, I do always try to explain why, I feel like I owe the author that at least.

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

Mostly I feel nervous! When I offer representation, I’m asking an author to put their writing career in my hands, and telling them I’m confident I can make a success of it. It’s a lot to offer and a big commitment to make, and ultimately the end result will be out of my hands. I can work my hardest polishing a manuscript or proposal, do my best laying the groundwork with editors and building the buzz in the lead-up to a submission, coordinating with the various teams at UA to give a book the absolute best chance of landing with a splash. But when all that’s done, how a submission lands with the editors is part of the process I don’t have any control over.

Sometimes books sell in huge flashy auctions for eye-watering amounts of money and that’s lovely, but sometimes books don’t sell at all, and that’s part of the job that I have to deal with too. I always hope for the former, and I wouldn’t take a client on if I didn’t think a decent deal was achievable, flashy auction or none, but I need to stay grounded and keep half a thought on the latter. The job isn’t always as glamorous as it can look from the outside.

6) What advice would you give to the unpublished author, and how can they make a submission stand out?

Know your selling points. Are you writing a coming of age novel? Great, there are a million of them out there, tell me what makes yours different. A crime/thriller? Show me the hook, that gripping premise that nobody else has thought of. A vital, world-changing non-fiction? Tell me how you intend to change the world, why it needs to be changed, and why you’re the person to change it. If you can get me excited about your book, then I can see myself getting editors excited about your book.

7) What do you look for in a character that leaps off the page? When do they start to become real for you?

For me, it’s often the voice. The writing I love best has characters that sound so distinctive that, as soon as a few chapters in, I don’t need you to tell me who’s saying what, I can tell who’s speaking by the words and phrases they’re using. That’s what makes people feel real to me. Maybe it’s a leftover from my roots in theatre, but on stage, dialogue has to feel human or the action won’t be believable, and I think the same applies to prose.

8) Once you decide to represent an author, what happens next? How do you find editorial work on a manuscript?

Before I decide to represent someone, I like to make sure we’re on the same page, that our vision for their work is shared. I’ll normally have a call/zoom to talk them through how I’d want to edit their work (if at all) and make sure they’re on board with that. I never want to be editing someone in a direction they don’t want to go in, so if my feedback doesn’t resonate with an author, then I’d want them to tell me and I’d want us to decide that perhaps I’m not the right agent for them, rather than going along with it because they’re so keen to be represented by anyone, and then us clashing down the line.

What I’m saying is, I don’t decide to represent an author, an author and I mutually agree that we’re going to work together. After that comes, usually, the edit! I love getting stuck in, especially with a writer whose work I love and whose craft I respect. Reading a good book should feel like swimming, I should be able to glide through the work – it’s my job to flag anywhere the writing snags, catches and slows me down. I aim to do a big-picture edit first and a line edit later, but I’m a hopeless pedant and usually line edit while I’m doing my big-picture edit too. It’s probably annoying but I like to think the work is better for it eventually.

9) Do you get nervous pitching to publishers? What is this process like for you? How do you feel when you ring an author to say their manuscript will be published?

I’m at my least nervous when I’m pitching to editors, I love it, I think it’s the part of the job I’m probably best at. I don’t represent books that I don’t love, and there’s nothing I like doing more than talking (often unceasingly) about books I love. I don’t usually pitch from notes, I’ll make sure I’ve written down the few key details I want to get across, but I base my written pitch on the verbal pitches I made to editors, rather than writing a pitch and working from that.

I’m at my best when I’m talking – you’re lucky this is a written interview or it could last for hours. The nervousness sets in later, once I’ve pitched to an editor and sent the manuscript over, and then just have to wait for someone to jump on it. And then when they do, every agent will tell you it’s the best part of the job. As a junior agent I work with more debuts than established writers, and there’s nothing better than telling someone who’s always wanted to be a published author that they’re going to be. It makes all the nerves worthwhile.

10) What is a typical weekend for you and what do you enjoy doing away from work?

I moved out of London to find more green spaces. I’m not a fan of city life, the city’s too loud and busy for me, and this is going to sound super dull but I’d rather go home of an evening that go out. I’m a house mouse! I like to read at home or in the park, I like to spend time with my family outdoors.

My ideal weekend is a picnic in the park with my family and friends on one day and absolutely nothing on the other. I have a disability that sometimes means I need a fair bit of rest but I can’t complain because resting is my favourite thing to do so it’s almost convenient that I have to do a lot of it. I also spend more time than is healthy playing video games, which I class as rest and therefore is basically medicinal.

Thank you for your time today Eli, it has been a pleasure to interview you.

Bio: Eli Keren is an associate literary agent at United Agents, whose growing list includes writers of fiction and non-fiction. Originally trained as a research chemist, Eli spends a lot of his time working with experts and academics to bring their areas of expertise to a commercial audience. He has a particular interest in non-fiction that communicates positive ideas effectively as well as LGBT-themed books in both fiction and non-fiction.

An Interview With… Marina De Pass

© Andrew Hayes-Watkins.

Hi everyone, and today on the blog I’m delighted to welcome Marina De Pass. Marina is a literary agent at the Soho Agency in London and very kindly answered my questions on her journey to becoming a literary agent, what she looks for in submissions and the all important advice for authors wanting to submit.

Over to you, Marina…

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

I actually wasn’t quite sure what I wanted to do when I left university, but fortuitously found a month-long work experience placement in children’s publishing, which opened my eyes to the world of books. I completely adored my time there and thought that meant I wanted to become an editor.

After various other editorial placements and internships, working across a real variety of genres and books, I ended up working in adult editorial at two of the big UK publishing houses – Little, Brown and HarperCollins. I learned so much about the editorial process and how publishing worked as a business, but even though I had a very covetable job (I think about 500 people applied to take over when I left!), something didn’t feel quite right. I was always instinctively on the author’s side of the argument; I loved the human side of the job. When I made the jump to agenting, everything clicked into place.

2) Can you describe your day-to-day job role as an agent?

One of the things I love about this job is that no day is the same. I do try and start each day reading submissions with my morning brain, but anything could happen.

A call with an author, a meeting with an editor, editing or pitching a new project, negotiating deal terms, drafting contracts, talking to our translation rights colleagues or a US agent… The list goes on, but there is never a boring day.

3) Do you have any advice for the unpublished author wanting to submit to you? What stands out to you in a covering email?

If I can see that a writer has looked me up online and tailored their cover email so that it speaks to me and the genres I work across, it makes a huge difference. It is worth taking the time to do this.

4) What is it in a submission that you are drawn to? Is it the character, plot, pace or theme? How do you know when you have connected with a submission?

In the end, it comes down to gut feeling. One of the agency’s directors once described it to me as ‘the shimmer’. This captures it brilliantly – when I’m reading something I connect with and want to work on, the words literally shimmer on the page.

The feeling is a bit like butterflies. But this could come from any number of things – an affinity for an author’s writing style, an unforgettable setting, a connection with a character, or scintillating chemistry between the main characters. It’s thrilling when it happens and is the signal I need to know that I have to talk to the author ASAP.

5) How do you feel when you email an author to request the rest of their manuscript? How do you feel when you offer representation and think ‘I really want to represent this writer!’ 

Excited!

6) Do you have a view on the crime/thriller market at the moment? What would you love to see in a crime submission in particular? 

I adore crime and thrillers, and it is an area of the market that continues to do really well around the world and has a huge readership. However, is also true that it can be difficult to make a submission stand out.

I am very much on the lookout for writers to represent in this area: literary and upmarket mysteries and thrillers are top of my wish list. Among other things, I am looking for unique hooks, great writing, characters who are not what they seem, gothic undertones, twisty plots and original settings. And even better if the book has an unusual structure. I recently loved Joseph Knox’s True Crime Story, for example, which is very original; I also loved the structure of Alex Pavesi’s Eight Detectives.

7) What do you look for in a character that leaps off the page? When do they start to become real for you?

I am always looking for three-dimensional characters in fiction. I don’t want them to be model citizens; for me, real characters, like real people, are flawed. They have shades of light and dark; they don’t always make the best choices or say the right thing. But if they are well drawn, we will root for them even if they are avatars or from another century.

8) When you sign an author, what happens next? How does the process evolve once you have accepted their manuscript?

This depends on the project, but my editorial background means I tend to work with my authors to get their manuscripts into the strongest possible place before I go out on submission. Editors receive lots of submissions and I think it worth doing everything we can to really make a book stand out. 

I normally have a good idea of which editors would love the chance to consider a book when I first read it, so I start working on my list early on in the background and also start writing my pitch letter…

9) How do you navigate pitching to publishers? Do you ever get nervous? How do you feel when you let the author know that their book is going to be published?

I’m more excited than nervous, but I sign authors whose books I adore, so I am certainly emotionally invested. I genuinely want to match authors with the right editors and help them build long an exciting writing careers. Telling an author their book is going to be published is truly a magical part of this job.

10) What is a typical weekend for you, and what do you enjoy doing away from work?

Weekends are for family and friends – and reading submissions!

Thank you for your time today Marina, it has been a pleasure to interview you.

Bio: Marina has been at The Soho Agency for over five years, after previously working in editorial at Little, Brown and HarperCollins. She adores great storytelling in all its forms and is building a list of upmarket commercial, reading group and accessible literary fiction – and is actively looking to take on clients in this area. Marina especially loves launching debuts – the last three she has sold have been bought by UK publishers as lead titles – and enjoys working editorially with her authors. Marina is a trained copyeditor and proofreader and, in addition to her agenting work, she has a rare insight into the publishing industry as a published author and graduate of the Faber Academy’s creative writing course.

An Interview With… Imran Mahmood

Hi everyone, and today on the blog I’m delighted to welcome crime writer Imran Mahmood.

Imran’s first novel You Don’t Know Me was released in 2017 and was adapted for BBC by Tom Edge.

I was delighted when Imran agreed to discuss his road to publication for the book and the TV adaptation. He also offers some advice for unpublished authors.

Over to you, Imran…

1) How did you get into writing? What was your road into the industry?

My day job is as a barrister. Closing/opening speeches are a way of telling a story. These have a way of staying in consciousness in the mind of the jury.

2) What comes first in your writing? Is it plot, character or theme you want to explore?

The most important thing for me is the story, but I’m looking at exploring the theme of justice. This is important in You Don’t Know Me. The theme of the second book I Know What I Saw looks at memory. It is a question of exploring how to develop the story using the theme. The character in You Don’t Know Me, originally didn’t have a name, but he was referenced as Hero in the script. You don’t want the viewer to think that the person going through the trial is one defendant; this is every defendant going through this criminal justice system if they come from disadvantage.

3) How did you navigate the agenting/publishing process?

I was lucky. Most literary agents will say send in 50 pages, in physical paper. I picked five agents from the internet, and they all got back to me, saying that they would like the full manuscript. I met a couple of them, and I went with the one who was enthusiastic from the start. One agent I met suggested I change it and I was too lazy. With my current agent, we kept the skeleton of the book the same.

The editing process – agent suggested adding 20,000 words, which I did. The publishers then bought it and said they wanted to do a structural edit – how is best to structure the novel. Stylistically what the narrative voice is as well. What bits should go where and that the pace fits in well. A line edit and copy edit, and proof edit follow that. There are probably six big edits to do before it is in the bookshops.

4) You Don’t Know Me is a brilliant book – where did the idea come from?

I was writing a closing speech in a murder, see question one. I was wondering whether the defendant needed me – am I taking away more than I am adding. I thought it was more important for the human element to come through. What is the point of a speech? The point of it is to persuade a jury about your case and your client. Your personal experience counts for a lot, too. This can carry more weight if you are speaking in a kind of detached way.

5) What was your reaction to it being made into a television series? Did you have any input in the production process?

The screenwriter was called Tom Edge, the joint best screenwriter in Britain today. He can write the voice of a teenager as convincingly as anyone. He’s very collaborative, the courtroom scenes – he would have a go at it, and then I would alter it to make it appear more authentic. The director Sam Masud would speak to the actors and say ‘we wouldn’t say that we would say this’ – the shooting script would go through rigorous edits; up to fifty, possibly more. An adaptation isn’t a book and vice versa. You get different things from different experiences. You can’t binge read but you can binge watch. The experience is different, and your thinking time is different. with TV, you are relying solely on visual cues. You can paint a scene in a TV show, by showing what the room is like. You can’t do that in a book; you must constantly elaborate. There is also no internal dialogue in TV, but you can have that in a book. For characters thinking, it is also very different. The TV and the book are completely different, and I very much enjoyed it.

6) What’s next in terms of writing for you? Do you have any advice for authors wanting to break into the industry?

Book three, All I Said Was True is out in July. I’ve just delivered the first draft of book four to my agent. Advice wise, if I had to, even though I don’t feel qualified – write some of it every day, if you can. The failure point tends to be, 20,000 words comes out like a shot, 30,000-40,000 words is still good. You lose hope after 50,000 words. It’s like taking a journey; get the first draft done. Don’t go over the first 50 pages until you have left them. This is what the agent will read, so make a good impression.

There are so many writers and so many submissions. How are they going to choose which ones they read in full? There must be something in the first few pages, so an agent can say ‘This is special, where’s the rest?’ You must earn the next turn of the page. Some people never, ever half finish books, that is worse for a reader, for them not to carry on reading, or get to the finish and think I hated it.

Thank you for your time today Imran, it has been a pleasure to interview you.

Imran’s third novel All I Said Was True is OUT NOW!!

10 Questions With… Jen Faulkner

Hi everyone, and this evening on the blog I’m delighted to welcome my writer friend Jen Faulkner. Jen’s debut novel Keep Her Safe launches this Friday. I highly recommend you go and buy. Jen and I met on Twitter, and I was thrilled when she agreed to come on the blog for an interview about her writing. Her advice for unpublished authors, like me and you, is an absolute must read.

Over to you, Jen…

1) Did you always want to be a writer?

When I was really little I wanted to be a librarian. I loved books and my favourite lesson at primary school was always a trip to the local library. I wrote stories and poems from an early age. I even made up my own language, and embarrassing though it is to admit, I spent so long filling out notebooks full of this new language that I actually became fluent in it for a time. I also wrote diaries from the age of ten, although I’m not sure anyone else should ever read them! So that’s a very long winded way of saying, yes. Yes, yes, yes I always wanted to be a writer, and I always have been.

2) When you were a child, did you have a favourite author?

Unsurprisingly, I read a lot of Enid Blyton when I was a child. I loved the Faraway Tree and Magic Wishing Chair stories, as well as the Famous Five and Adventure stories too. Another one of my favourite books was The Magic Finger, by Roald Dahl and I read and re read The Twelve Dancing Princesses by Jacob Grimm over and over again.

3) What made you decide to settle on crime fiction as a genre?

My debut is psychological suspense, and so comes under the crime/thriller umbrella – spoiler, no-one gets murdered! I don’t think it was an active choice to write in this genre, but I read a lot of crime and thriller novels, and am fascinated by people and their behaviours and actions. Plus, I am a hideous over-thinker and so I can never fail to see the threat or danger insomething or someone, which definitely helpswhen plotting a thriller!

4) What comes first for you? Is it plot, character or theme? How do you then progress to planning?

Good question! It varies from novel to novel for me. My debut is actually the third novel I’ve written. For the first, I knew the theme I wanted to write about and then found the right characters for that theme, and with the second the protagonist was the part that came first. For Keep Her Safe it was a mixture of both. I knew the theme and then saw a painting of a woman and just knew she was the daughter of the main character. It all fell into place from there. I use the Save the Cat beat sheets to help me plot and plan and then adapt if needed. My first two novels were pansted and it shows. From now on, I am without doubt going to be a planner.

5) How did you find the querying process? Do you have any advice for the subbing author?

Querying is hard. There is no getting away from that fact. It is a long, painful process filled with numerous rejections and even the odd ghosting and it can be exhausting to keep picking yourself up from it all at times. One thing that helped me was following Elizabeth Gilbert’s advice from her book, Big Magic – for every rejection I received I immediately sent out another one. I was lucky enough to receive some really positive and encouraging rejections and held onto them, they helped keep me going. Plus, the writing community on Twitter have always had my back and I am also fortunate enough to have some amazing writer friends who just would not let me quit. My advice to a subbing author would be set up a spreadsheet (it can be very easy to lose track!) and send to at least five agents at a time and be patient. Do your research, there is no use sending a science fiction book to an agent who specifically says not to send them science fiction. Also, persist. Just bloody persist. It’s the only way.

6) What was your first draft of your novel like? How long did you leave it before you read it back?

Well, all first drafts are a mess, right? At leastmine are. I kind of see it as me getting to know the real bones of the characters and their stories. I don’t dwell on the rubbish writing or poor plotting (although I do often have a rough plan outlined) during a first draft and I power on through to the end, making notes of questions that arise or things I might want to look at in more detail on the way. For me, I simply have to get to the end and have something to play with and mould into an actual novel. Mostly I leave it for at least a few weeks before looking back and going in for an edit. It’s always good to give you and your manuscript some space I think.

7) What was your revision process like, first on your own and then with your publisher?

I always send my first draft out to beta readers before I revise and edit and am blessed with some lovely authors and friends who read my novels for me and are honest and constructivewith their feedback. I usually find after reading their comments that my gut knows what bits I need to work on and then I get cracking. I also did a Curtis Brown selective novel writing course when writing Keep her Safe and the feedback from my peers and tutor on that was incredibly helpful in shaping the final draft. Withmy publishers it has been a really enjoyable process and I am very lucky to have the editor I do. First there were structural edits, then more detailed line edits, and then a proofread. Thewhole journey with Bloodhound has been brilliant and I’ve felt very supported by them.

8) What is the post submission process like? How does it feel when you have a deadline and edits?

Post any submission I always try and start to write something new while I wait to get my edits back, or I read as much as I can, both fiction and non-fiction. Then, when editingdeadlines are looming, I can enjoy coming back to the novel again. I work well under pressure, thankfully and relish a deadline!

9) Do you enjoy the editing of your book? Is rewriting fun for you?

Hmmm sometimes I love it, especially when I know I’ve improved the writing or fixed a plot issue, and sometimes it can be frustrating. Also, I’ve found that reading your novel a million times during the editing process can get a bit tedious! And you can lose perspective;hence it’s good to get distance whenever you have the opportunity to. Personally, my favourite bit of writing is the first draft; it’s where I am most creative and most excited.

10) What was the last fiction book you read and did you enjoy it?

The last book I read and loved and am banging on about to everyone was a proof of Amazing Grace Adams by Fran Littlewood. The main character, Grace, resonated with me so much and I found her utterly compelling. Plus the writing is brilliant. It’s out early next year and so keep your eyes peeled.

11) When you write, do you listen to music? Away from writing, do you have a favourite band or artist that you like to listen to?

It has often been said that I don’t have the best taste in music – the first concert I ever went to was Chesney Hawkes, which I think says it all – but yes I do listen to music if I need some motivation and energy when writing. Part of my current work in progress is set in the 1990s and so I am having fun revisiting my favourite tunes from then, mostly boybands and a bit of 90s rave and dance music. I listen to such a huge variety of music that I don’t have one favourite band, but Pendulum always put me in a good mood and Dire Straits are epic. I am off to see The Backstreet Boys in November, purely for research purposes for the next novel, of course.

Thank you for your time this evening Jen, it has been a pleasure to interview you.

Follow Jen on social media/website link:
@jfaulknerwriter
www.jenfaulkner.co.uk

Bio: Jen Faulkner completed an MA in Creative Writing at Bath Spa University in 2015, where she was shortlisted for the Janklow and Nesbitt Prize. Since then she has run creative writing sessions for a charity in Bristol and volunteered at MothershipWriters, a year-long programme of writing workshops for new mothers run by the novelist, Emylia Hall. She also teaches English Language to college students. When she’s not writing or teaching she enjoys karate. She is currently plotting and writing her next book, about how a shared traumatic event can affect two people in very different ways. Keep Her Safe is her debut novel.

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