10 Questions With… Russel D McLean

Hi everyone, and this morning on the blog I’m delighted to welcome Glasgow based crime writer Russel D McLean.

Russel is the author of five novels and has been published, over the years, in a vast number of magazines and anthologies. I was delighted when he agreed to join me to discuss his writing journey into how he got published and more recently, what he has been up to during lockdown.

Over to you, Russel…

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

I don’t know that I had just one favourite author — I was an absolutely voracious reader. I would read almost anything and everything. A few stand outs though, from various ages, include a long fascination with the Alfred Hitchcock and Three Investigators books (Although not so much the later ones where they were mentored by a fictional film director… and I also far preferred them to the Hardy Boys, who I found pretty dull), an absolute love of Roald Dahl’s books, a slight addiction to the Target Doctor Who novelisations, Anthony Horowitz’s Diamond Brothers books (which later fed into my love of crime fiction)… and the one book I always recommended when I became a bookseller in later life, The Phantom Tollbooth by Norton Juster. That one had the most lasting effect on me, I think, in the way it really created this world that was both logical and insane, and embraced imagination in a way that felt absolutely celebratory.
Wait… you asked for one, didn’t you…?

2) Did you enjoy English at school?

Yes, I guess I did. Mostly the creative writing side, though. I think it helped that I already read massively outside of the classes, of course.
I wasn’t so keen when I did a couple of years of undergrad English at uni; that more advanced English is more akin to criticism than it is to considering what it is to be a writer, and how to create a story. I read less when I was going English at uni than at any other time of my life. If you’re going to be a writer. you’re better taking something that perhaps speaks to the experience of people more than text — the practical art and skill of writing a novel is very different to the analysis of the novel (although knowing how people do that can be useful).

3) What is your writing process like, from idea generation right through to typing the end?

Varied is the best way to put it. Lots of people claim to be plotters or pantsers, but I’ve kind of done it differently from book to book. More recently, I’ve become much more of a plotter, not only because the books have become more complex, and also because I found new methods that worked for my brain and opened up my ideas of what plotting or planning a novel could be.
Back at the beginning, I kind of “winged” my first book, The Good Son, plotted out The Lost Sister, did a half and half process for Father Confessor (Now available in a revised version, because that half and half process didn’t work as well as it could have at the time, and it was the only book I wanted to have a mild redo of when the rights came back to me).
But most books start with an idea or a feeling or a scene for me. The Good Son didn’t fall into place until I could picture the opening sequence with McNee ready to kill a man and feel that anger in him. Ed’s Dead started with with me watching an old noir movie where two men are disposing of a woman’s body, and I kind of wanted to gender flip the idea a little– it became something else entirely, but that’s where it started.

Once I have that key scene or idea, the rest of the story slowly forms around it. These days, I use post it notes, three/four/five act structures and so forth to help me through the initial process.
I tend to write a fast first draft, and then its about going back and making sure the story is experienced rather than told– something that crystalised to me after reading Robert Olen Butler’s book From Where You Dream is that the most effective stories are told through sequences of sensations, emotions, action, rather than summary. The less filters between the experiences of the characters and the mind of the reader the better.

4) Can you briefly describe the editing process before submitting to agents?

For me, it’s about really looking hard at the manuscript with my reader hat on and honestly reporting back to myself: does this stand up to other published books? That’s the thing you need to get really good at doing, I think. Part of my day job has involved me reading slush piles or teaching writing etc, and the one thing that trips people up is that they can’t read their book with any kind of distance. They don’t see how it translates to a reader who doesn’t have access to your thoughts. It’s perhaps the hard thing about writing fiction — you need to convince someone you’ll never meet that this world and these people you have created are real. And you can’t be slapdash about that, and you can’t make assumptions that the reader will just “know what you mean”. You need to be exact and you need to be harsh. Because readers will always be even harsher.

I see a lot of people out there saying how no one can “teach” you how to write, and all writing advice should be ignored etc. I think this is both right and wrong at the same time. I do think that some people have an instinctive understanding of how storytelling works and how to manipulate language, but I also think that if you close yourself off to trying out new ideas, techniques and so forth, you limit your writing. So I read a lot of writing guides and I take what works for me, and discard what doesn’t. That’s what you need to do — find the things that work for you in order to help you write the best story possible. It might take trial and error, but it will be worth it. And even when you know what works for you, keep looking, keep learning and keep loving the process.

5) Once you got your agent, what was the editing process like before pitching to publishers?

I love my agent because he’s tough when he reads. There are three manuscripts down the years he told me just to stop right there, and he was right. One of them eventually matured into AND WHEN I DIE (one of my most sorely under-read books for reasons I’ve never understood, but one I’m pretty proud of). Others have become parts of other stories. But when we have a manuscript we both agree works, he’s really good at helping me get into the nitty gritty of it with a mix of line level and story questions that help me crystalise and hopefully anticipate (as much as you can) reactions before it goes out.

My first agent had an in house editor. But they also wanted me to write a different kind of book than I felt comfortable doing, which was why we eventually parted ways, but I loved that idea of an in house editor.

6) If you had to choose your favourite book of your own that you have written, which would it be and why?

Obvious, I’m most proud of THE GOOD SON because it was the first, but my absolute favourite is ED’S DEAD. Why? I adore Jen Carter as a character — she’s at once the most normal and the most messed up character I’ve ever written. That book also allowed me to get geeky, to dive into dark humour, and just kind of let go for a while.

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

Why do you keep limiting me to just one? But, hey, I’m a rulebreaker, so let me pick two!
If there is a writer who had an early and electric effect on me as a reader and writer, it would likely be Elmore Leonard. That ease of prose, that way he has of just letting the story unfold so comfortably, so that you can’t separate character and plot… oh, its perfection!

But I also wanted to pick a slightly newer name as well, as well as a UK based crime writer (because my bias is very much towards US crime writers!) and so someone newer who has impressed me greatly is Eva Dolan. When I started reading her Zigic and Ferriera books, I was really impressed with how she made the procedural feel dynamic and modern, dealing directly with issues that other crime writers had nodded towards but not dived into quite the way these books did. Not only that, but the books had real pace and the prose was spot on. If you haven’t read her, you really need to change that right now.

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

I’ve just finished SA Cosby’s Blacktop Wasteland, which is deserving of every word of praise it gets. Writing car chases in prose is usually a pretty dull affair, but Cosby’s tale of a reluctant getaway driver is more thrilling than most action movie car chases, and on top of that it’s a cracker of a story, too, with a superb protagonist and a genuine, empathetic understanding of what it means to be stuck in an impossible situation.
And since I finished that, I’ve just started Sylvia Moreno-Garcia’s latest, Mexican Gothic. It’s been nominated for a Stoker award by the Horror Writer’s Association, and it looks fantastic. Horror is one of my secondary loves in fiction, particularly when done well. I’m just two chapters in, and I know this one’s going to be fantastic!

I’ve actually read more during lockdown, and that’s been deliberate. It’s easy, when you’re an editor, to get bogged down in the manuscripts you’re working on, but as Lockdown began I realised that was almost all I was reading. I missed reading for genuine thrills and pleasure, and so I resurrected my old #russelreads on Twitter, where I witter on about whatever I’ve just read, and set aside a certain amount of time each day to read books that called out to me from the TBR pile or whatever.

9) What are you currently watching on television? Have your television habits changed throughout lockdown?

We’ve just finished Call My Agent on Netflix, a brilliant French series about a group of film agents in Paris. It’s brilliantly funny, even if you know nothing about French cinema (although a few international actors crop up– Sigourney Weaver makes an incredible impression during a guest appearance in the final season). Up next? Well, we’ll see…We’re waiting for the next seasons of Lupin and Money Heist especially!

I think the main thing that’s changed through lockdown for us here is that we’re watching things faster, binging much more quickly, just because we aren’t getting out to the cinema or for a meal out. I’ve also taken to watching a lot of older films on Blu Ray from cult outfits like Arrow Video, Eureka Video and Powerhouse. Lots of seventies crime films that deserve rediscovery, and a surprising amount of horror films, like the Edgar Allen Poe adaptations by Roger Corman and Vincent Price…

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

In real life, none of the above, really. I did go through a brief Queen phase when I was younger, and Freddie had such an incredible voice; love or loathe Queen, you cannot deny his talent and his ability to really get a crowd going. And pre Do Ya Think I’m Sexy, Rod again has this amazing voice. And you know… I know nothing about AC/DC at all…
My record collection is a lot of jazz and blues (Classic and newer artists), a smattering of seventies soul and funk (Gill Scott Heron, Curtis Mayfield), and the likes of Tom Waits etc (making me a very cliched crime writer, that last one!)

But… but… if I can pick only one of the above… Let’s go for Freddie since at least I’ll be able to sing along with him (Some of the right notes, not necessarily in the right order!)

Thank you for your time today Russel and for visiting the blog, it has been a pleasure to interview you. Good luck with your writing! 🙂

Bio: Russel D McLean is the author of five novels featuring Scottish private Eye, J McNee, and two further standalone novels, the latest of which is the darkly comic thriller, Ed’s Dead.

He has written short stories for a number of magazines and anthologies including Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine and Maxim Jakubowski’s Book of Extraordinary Amateur Sleuth and Private Eye Stories. Russel worked as a bookseller for over a decade, before branching out into freelance editorial work. These days, he splits his time between working on his own writing and work as a developmental editor for various publishers and organisations.

He lives in Glasgow with his wife, and their three cats. And, yes, he really did once live in a flat which came with its very own cursed mask on the wall…

Find out more at russeldmcleanbooks.com, or follow him on Twitter @russeldmclean.

Ed’s Dead is available NOW from Saraband Books (UK) and here’s a note from THE Martina Cole, author of the DCI Kate Burrows series and various novels on gangland crime. MC: A really authentic and remarkable read! I loved it! Wow – with a testimonial like THAT, I will definitely be ordering on Amazon!!

Thank you again Russel! 🙂

Safe And Sound… A Q&A with Philippa East

Hi everyone, and today on the blog I’m delighted to welcome Philippa East. I’m chatting to Philippa about her new novel Safe and Sound which is released TODAY!!! Today, people!! Go to Amazon!

I was delighted when Philippa agreed to answer some questions on her writing approach.

Over to you, Philippa…

1) Where did the idea come from and how did you first begin to flesh it out?

Safe and Sound centres on the discovery of a young woman’s body in a flat in the middle of London. All indications suggest this tenant was pretty, charismatic, sociable. But somehow, her body has lain there undiscovered for ten whole months.

Through my protagonist, Jenn, the book explores how such a heartbreaking situation came to be.This book was actually inspired by the true-life story of Joyce Vincent, a charismatic and attractive woman in her late thirties who died and lay undiscovered in her bedsit for almost three years. A very moving docu-drama (called Dreams of a Life) was made about her by Carol Morley; the film stayed with me for years, and eventually became an idea I wanted to explore in my own writing. However, fleshing out the idea has involved a lot of trial and error, and false starts! I ended up writing three completely different outlines, and the manuscript has already gone through at least one major rewrite. I think I had to work out what themes I was trying to explore in the novel in order to settle on the shape the story would eventually take.

2) How did you create your main character Jenn? Did you enjoy writing her?

My protagonist Jenn is the housing manager who discovers Sarah Jones’ body in the bedsit, and takes it upon herself to investigate the circumstances around this tenant’s life and death. In doing so, she finds her own life unravelling as she is drawn to confront her own painful past. Jenn’s character developed over a few drafts, as I tried to work out exactly what made her “tick” (lots of brainstorming and musing and trying-on-and-scrapping ideas). But I remember writing one scene where Jenn deals with her feelings of guilt and anxiety in a rather extreme way – and that’s when she came alive for me. I have enjoyed writing her, though she is a complicated character, so it has been challenging at times.

3) How is Safe and Sound different to your previous novel, Little White Lies?

Both books focus “one step to the side of a crime”, exploring on the fallout of an event on the characters surrounding it. My focus in both is the psychology of the characters, their relationships, and the way they handle the most difficult aspects of themselves.

In terms of differences though, Little White Lies (which is about a missing child being found alive and coming home) is set in Lincolnshire in the claustrophobic environment of the family unit, whereas in Safe and Sound is set in the anonymity of London, and Jenn is a fairly isolated character, who struggles to make connections in the world. Hopefully though both are exploring complex situations and characters while also having that great page-turning quality!

4) What was your research process like? Did any of the research surprise you at any point? Did you refer to it during the process of writing?

I got a lot help on the police procedural side of things from a local ex-police Detective, which was extremely helpful. I also had to do a lot of Googling into what exactly happens if a tenant dies in a property – something that happens more often than you might think. For Jenn’s character, I drew on my own background as a Clinical Psychologist: Jenn suffers from an anxiety disorder and must grapple with this as she is drawn deeper and deeper into the mystery surrounding Sarah’s fate.

5) How did your writing process for Safe and Sound differ from Little White Lies?

To be quite honest, with Little White Lies, I didn’t have a clue what I was doing! I wrote completely blind, created a horror of a first draft, and had to go through about 20 further drafts before it was finally ready to publish. I really didn’t want to go through the same pain with Safe and Sound – plus I now had a deadline. So, as mentioned above, I wrote a detailed outline for Safe and Sound before embarking on the writing itself.

However, when I showed that draft to my agent, we both agreed that it wasn’t working, even though it matched the outline! Cue a major rethink and rewrite… I’ve come to accept that I can only really discover the story I’m telling by exploring it on the page, so multiple rewrites will probably always be inevitable for me.

6) Lastly, do you use Scrivener or MS Word? Which do you prefer and why?

I use both actually. I often use Scrivener for a first draft, because it is so easy to move scenes around. For example, with Safe and Sound, I wrote 2,000 words – roughly one scene – per day and plugged each day’s writing into Scrivener, without worrying too much about their order. Once I have a complete Scrivener draft, I generally work in Word from then on. I still haven’t worked out all the functions on Scrivener, and tend to do things like my scene index cards, character profiles etc. by hand – lots of scribbles and crossings out 🙂

Thank you for visiting the blog today Philippa, it has been a pleasure to interview you! Happy Publication Day for Safe and Sound! I can’t WAIT to read it!!

Bio: Philippa East is a fiction writer who lives in Lincolnshire with her husband and cat. Her debut novel Little White Lies was published by HQ/HarperCollins in February 2020 (http://b.link/littlewhiteliesamazon) and her second novel, Safe and Sound, will be released in February 2021. In her day job, Philippa works as a Clinical Psychologist and therapist, and her writing draws deeply on this psychology background. You can find her on Twitter: @philippa_east.

Little White Lies:

An Interview With… Joanna Swainson

Hi everyone and today on the blog, I’m delighted to welcome Joanna Swainson. Joanna is a co founder and literary agent at Hardman Swainson.

I was delighted when she took some time to divulge what she looks for in submissions, as well as what she has been up to during lockdown.

Over to you, Joanna…

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 didn’t have a clue what I wanted to do when I left school. While at university I’d done some summer holiday work at a publishing company, Boxtree, which mainly did TV tie-ins (I’ll never forget the day Ricky from Neighbours walked through the door) but it never really occurred to me to work in publishing after I left university. I thought film might be an interesting area to go into so my first job was as a runner but I soon realised that it wasn’t the career for me. There are so many people involved in making TV and there was an awful lot of hanging about. I had my family quite young and I was getting by doing copy editing jobs, but it wasn’t until my youngest was in primary school that I started thinking seriously about a career again. I’d always been a big reader, so something to do with books appealed to me and I was interested in writing, too, so it made sense to go into the agenting side of things. I wrote job-prospecting letters to some agencies, sent them off and was lucky enough to get a reading job quite quickly. All in all I was quite a latecomer to the business but have been here for 12 or 13 years now, with my own agency (with Caroline) for getting on for nine years.

2) How did you find your degree in French? What was your experience at university like?

I loved my degree! I spent a lot of time partying (or let’s call it raving. It was the ‘90s!) at university and if I were to do it again, might concentrate a bit more on the degree itself. We covered a range of French literature, history, politics and philosophy as well as translation and linguistics. It was a single honours degree which allowed me to study a number of modules in another subject, so I chose some English literature ones, including a crime fiction module. Doing a language course meant I had a third year abroad, which I spent in Aix-en-Provence, but the highlight was venturing off (with a backpack and very little money) to Senegal. I had the Lonely Planet Guide to West Africa and it seemed like the only French-speaking West African country that was a safe bet. An absolutely incredible experience.

3) What attracts you to a submission? Is it the cover letter, the synopsis or the sample writing? How does an author leave you wanting more?

The cover letter is important – it’s the first thing we see so if it’s professional and well-written it’ll make us well-disposed to reading the chapters. There does seem to be a correlation between a good cover letter and good chapters. Ultimately, though, it’s the chapters themselves that matter. It can be any number of things that leaves you wanting more – an interesting character, a question raised that you have to know the answer to, good insights, brilliant writing etc. The synopsis is the last thing I look at – they’re hard to write and hard to read but important to get an overview of the book if I’m interested in the submission.

4) When you take on a full manuscript, what is the editing process like with the author?

It really varies. Most authors appreciate a fresh set of eyes on their work and are open to editorial suggestions and discussion. Sometimes there’s a lot of work to do, sometimes it’s just tweaks. Sometimes there’s nothing to do but that’s rare. I’m really open to working in whatever way the author prefers – whether that means working on the book in sections or whether they just want to crack on with it and send over the revised version at the end. If you take something on, even if it’s not quite ready for submission, it’s because there was something good there and it’s incredibly satisfying seeing a manuscript come together into something you think you can finally sell.

5) How many rounds of editing do you do with an author before pitching to publishers? Does the approach vary from book to book?

Again this varies from book to book. But whether it’s fiction or a non-fiction proposal, it’s as many rounds as it needs to knock it into shape to give it its best possible chance. It’s a really tough market and editors have all sorts of hoops to jump through in order to buy something, too, so it’s worth taking the time to get it right. We want to make the editor’s job as easy as possible and, as much as we can, minimise the opportunity for them to say ‘no’.

6) Do you have a view of the crime/thriller market at the moment? Is there anything that you haven’t seen in a book before?

I saw somewhere that crime and thriller is the widest read genre. I also get a lot of submissions in this area and represent a whole range from stand alones to series, from police procedurals to amateur sleuths, from cosy to psychological to speculative. It’s quite rare to come across something very different but ultimately the genre is a backdrop to exploring human nature. So even if most stories have been told in one form or another, something can really stand out by having an unusual character and/or setting. A distinctive voice helps, too. If you’ve got an original turn of mind there’s so much scope for really carving out your niche.

7) 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?

At the end of every working day I take the dog out for a walk. It clears my head and is a good break between the working day and the evening / weekend. A big part of my weekends and free time is spent out and about, walking, soaking up the landscape and when possible visiting Neolithic sites, stone circles, Iron Age hill forts and so on – all these really special places with so much history and energy. I live in Oxfordshire close to the Ridgeway so go up there a lot, or just walk by the Thames. Last summer, when we didn’t have such stringent lock down rules, I took off in my camper van – it was my home office! Little did people know whilst I was emailing them that I was gazing out over a Dartmoor tor or a Scottish loch! I also have a little folky electronic music project on the go with my husband – we do that on weekends and sometimes in the evening. I love the day job but it’s nice to have a hobby doing something completely different. I read to relax, too, if you can believe it.

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

I rarely re-read books, although perhaps will listen to an old favourite on audio. For some reason I’ve been turning more to non-fiction in lockdown. My most recent read was Steve Roud’s Folk Song in England – a huge tome, relevant to a book I sold recently about folk song collecting. I’d been meaning to read it for ages. I’m currently dipping into The Time Traveller’s Guide to Regency Britain by Ian Mortimer. Other than that, a range of commercial and literary fiction. I do a lot of podcast listening, too and am currently working my way through The Fall of Civilisations podcast. It’s really good.

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

I’m not a huge telly watcher but we did recently get sucked into Vikings so that’s the one on the go at the moment. I’m definitely susceptible to the odd binge watch of something (Line of Duty springs to mind) but I don’t really watch any telly religiously. There is one thing I have gone back to time and again, though, and that’s Detectorists. I absolutely love it.

10) In lockdown, have you been missing live music? What is the best band or artist you last listened to or wish you had seen live?

I’ve very much been missing live music! We go to a good few gigs and festivals every year, and we’re really missing them. Obviously it had to be done but it was horrible seeing festival after festival cancelled last year (not least because both my son’s and sister’s livelihoods depended on them), and likely this year too. I love a wide range of music but especially folk music in all its guises. If we’re talking a banging set then Depeche Mode headlining the Isle of Wight Festival a few years ago was particularly memorable. For totally weird, wonderful and spine-tingly, I loved Current 93 at Shepherds Bush Empire when they performed their album The Light Is Leaving Us All.

Thank you for your time today Joanna! 🙂 It has been a pleasure to interview you!

Bio: After a degree in French I ran a business for several years, providing a range of copy writing and editing services. My love of books and an interest in writing led me to freelance for a number of literary agents, including one of the most commercial agencies in London.

Submissions are the life blood of publishing but many need further work and development. I really enjoy the editorial side of agenting and am endlessly fascinated by writing – what works and why.

I met Caroline while working as a reader and in-house editor for Christopher Little. When the opportunity arose to set up Hardman & Swainson it was too good to miss.

Growing up I read an unhealthy number of Agatha Christies and hard-boiled detective novels and I love crime fiction from both sides of the Atlantic. After school, while travelling through France and Spain and living in a tent, I read all the novels of Charles Dickens. So I guess I’ve always been a bookworm.

What I’m looking for:
I read widely and aim to reflect that in the authors I represent. In fiction, I’m looking for complex, larger-than-life characters and stories that will stay with me forever.

Some of my favourite recent reads are Booker winner Douglas Stuart’s Shuggie Bain, Sarah Moss’s Ghost Wall, Patrick Gale’s A Place Called Winter and Andrew Michael Hurley’s three novels, The LoneyDevil’s Dayand Starve Acre. I found Bernadine Evaristo’s Girl, Woman, Other exhilarating. And Emily St John Mandel’s Station Eleven will always be a favourite (I didn’t want it to end!) I adore the work of Ali Smith and Kate Atkinson never fails to entertain me. It’s a lot to do with humour and heartbreak.

I love crime and thrillers at both ends of the commercial / literary spectrum. I’ve recently been enjoying Elly Griffiths’ Ruth Galloway series and Cara Hunter’s  DI Fawley novels and I’m always on the look out for a hero like Robert Crais’ Elvis Cole

I also love a good ghost story and accessible speculative fiction, as well as a bit of horror, especially folk horror. Michelle Paver’s novels, Dark MatterThin Air and Wakenhyrst are amazing.

Whatever the genre, whether literary or commercial, historical or contemporary, thriller or crime, I’m looking for originality and distinctive voices. I especially like fiction threaded with humour – not necessarily of the laugh out loud kind, it’s often much subtler than that, but you can’t have too many arresting observations and insights.

On the non-fiction front, I enjoy narrative non-fiction, especially popular history (and prehistory) and science. I’m very partial to a memoir. I also enjoy nature writing and am interested in folklore.

While it’s all very well drawing up a wish list, ultimately I’m a fisherman. So send me what you’ve got. Take me by surprise, and keep on surprising me. I’ll know what I’m looking for when I see it.

An Interview With… Kate Burke

Hi everyone, and on the blog today I’m delighted to have Kate Burke, a literary agent at Blake Friedmann. Kate answers my questions on how she started out in the industry and what she looks for in submissions.

Over to you, Kate…

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

I never really considered publishing as a career until I was at university. I went to a Media Careers Fair in my last year (up until this point, I thought I would go on to do an MA in journalism!) and heard about the industry and thought that it sounded amazing. Working with books, my favourite things – what could be better?

2) You have a background in being an editor. What prompted the move to becoming a literary agent?

After ten years of working at big publishing houses, I felt experienced enough to try something new and moving to the other side of the business didn’t seem so radical! I knew the publishing process inside out, I had worked with authors for many years, I enjoyed editing but I started to feel as though something was missing. Becoming an agent and starting a list from scratch put the pep back in my step and I haven’t looked back since!

3) When you read sample chapters from a perspective new client, what do you look out for?

This is a tough one to answer! I suppose I look for something that engages me immediately in that first chapter – it could be the voice of the character, the tone of the writing or just an exciting, attention-grabbing plot incident – but it has to be something intriguing and different. If opening chapters are just full of description then I find that hard to connect with – there needs to be an incident or a character, something or someone to hook you in and make me want more. It’s so hard to describe! I just know it when I see/read it (sorry if that’s a waffly answer!).

4) Can you describe the first initial phone call with a client? What would lead to you offering representation?

I always have that call before offering representation as this job (and this industry) is so much about personal connections and relationships.

If I’m going to invest my time into developing someone’s book and, of course, their writing career, then we need to be on the same page about most things. If an author is receptive to edits and constructive criticism is prepared to put in the work and to work together, then that’s usually a great start to a call. We also need to have a shared vision about the book and the future, as well as just clicking on a personality level as we’re going to be spending a lot of time chatting over the next few years!

That first call is usually full of excitement and promise – I love it! – but I’m also a straightforward and honest person so I will share my editorial thoughts or concerns in that first call in order to put all my cards on the table. If an author is receptive to my ideas and feedback, and is willing to put in the work, then it’s that attitude that usually leads me to offering them representation.

5) Is there anything in the crime/thriller genre that you haven’t seen before? What would make you keep turning the pages?

I get so many crime and thriller submissions, and it’s quite rare that I see something truly original and different.

If something has an unusual setting or a unique character then I’m definitely going to be turning those pages!

I see a lot of novels with an alcoholic/divorced/messed-up lead detective with lots of emotional baggage who is searching for a missing child and, while I like those types of novels, I think the market is ready for a different type of hero or heroine. For me to turn the page, the novel has to offer a great character, a strong sense of place and a great plot.

I realise that I’m asking a lot but it’s a competitive market and, for books (especially debuts) to stand out, they must have a point of difference! On a personal note, I would like to see more diverse characters being represented in crime fiction (be that cultural, religious, racial or sexual backgrounds) and for a plot twist to truly catch me off guard.

6) What would make you reject a submission and not progress to reading the full manuscript?

Manuscripts with no clear plot or hook, long, descriptive pages about very little and bland characters are usually the reason I don’t call in the full manuscript. Also, if the submission is not within a genre I represent (ie, children’s fiction, science fiction or fantasy), then it’s not something I would usually call in to read more of. My and my colleagues’ areas of interest and representation are on our website so, if someone hasn’t taken the time to read those, then it’s unlikely that we’re the right fit!

7) What is the editing process like with an author, before you send it out to publishers?

It varies from author to author and depends on how much work and polish I think the novel needs before I put it on submission to publishers.

For some authors, it’s a couple of rounds of edits (usually done on screen after an initial phonecall or two, discussing them) and, for others, it’s a bigger and longer process or deconstructing the novel and replotting or restructuring it. Every book I work on is different – that’s what keeps my job so interesting! – and some books just take longer to polish than others.

On the whole though, the editorial process is done over the phone and on the screen (Word), and, once the author and I have got it to a place where we feel confident about it, that’s the time to put it on submission but there’s no precise timeframe for this process. All the hard graft pays off though!

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?

At the moment, with homeschooling and work, there’s very little downtime, I’m afraid but, in a normal, non-pandemic year, Friday nights would involve a nice meal with my husband, a glass of wine, catching up on our weeks and watching an episode of something on Netflix/Amazon/Disney Plus! I love TV shows (my other great love aside from books) and watch everything from crime/detective shows to romcoms.

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

My subscriptions to Netflix, Prime Video and Disney Plus have been a godsend during lockdown! I have loved thriller shows such asMoney Heist, Criminal and the first two series of Sinner, as well as enjoyable, escapist romps like Bridgerton, Home for Christmas andYounger. I have been waiting two years for the return of Call My Agent (one of my all-time favourites) and I’m really enjoying WandaVision at the moment.

10) If you had to choose any favourite song between Rod Stewart, Freddie Mercury (Queen) and Brian Johnson (AC/DC), who would you pick and why?

I would go for Under Pressure by Queen (I know, I know, it features David Bowie too!) as it’s just a brilliant song with two of my favourite singers (Freddie and David) which I have loved since I was a kid. Also, the bassline is the basis for Vanilla Ice’s Ice Ice Baby as song that I was obsessed with (and owned the tape album of) when I was ten! How embarrassing…

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

Bio: Kate Burke was born in Dublin but grew up in Brussels. She joined Blake Friedmann as Senior Agent in January, 2019, and was previously at Northbank Talent Management for six years where she worked with many award-winning and Sunday Times bestselling authors.

Before becoming an agent, Kate was an editor at Headline and HarperCollins, and an editorial director at Penguin Random House. After ten years of publishing fiction, she moved to the agency side to pursue her passion for discovering new writers. She still loves to edit and works very closely with her clients on all aspects of their writing and publishing.

Her clients include Will Dean, Will Carver, Dani Atkins, Paul Finch, Mary Torjussen, Kate Thompson and Allie Reynolds. Kate is open to submissions from authors anywhere in the world and is particularly looking for crime and thrillers, romantic women’s fiction and historical fiction (but no children’s/YA, science fiction or fantasy, thanks).

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