Advice From A Publisher: A Q&A with Mary-Anne Harrington

Tinder Press publisher and editor Mary-Anne Harrington called into our online classroom to answer questions from our Writing a Novel: The First 15,000 students on when to work with an editor, where to find an agent, and how to avoid the common mistakes many new writers make.

Mary-Anne-HarringtonQuestion: Can you tell us about Tinder Press, Mary-Anne?

Mary-Anne Harrington: Tinder Press is Headline’s literary imprint. We launched in 2013 and publish 8-10 new titles a year, mostly fiction, and it’s a mixture of brand authors, and authors we’re working to establish. They’re books we’d enter for prizes, and target at high street and independent bookshops.

Q: Tell us about the journey to being published: should you get an agent first, or go direct to a publisher?

MH: This is an interesting one. I have to say the usual route is to get an agent first – all the debut authors I’ve published recently came via that route. It’s not the only way – more houses are doing open submissions, some of the indie houses want authors to go direct to them, and there is always the self-publishing option. But the agent route is the most established, and has quite clear benefits.

Q: How should a writer search for an agent?

MH: Think about writers you love and try their agents with a carefully worded letter about why you loved their client’s work, and why you think they might be interested in yours. Then look to see who some of the younger agents are, on Twitter, etc. These agents tend to be very active and are perhaps more likely to be taking on clients than the agents who have their names on the door at the agency, who will have very big and time-consuming clients, and might be more tied up with managing/running the business than a new agent might be.

Q: At what stage should a writer work with an editor?

MH: I know some authors do work with editors before they approach an agent, or even via an agent before their book goes out on submission. That’s really a case-by-case thing. You want your book to be in the best possible shape when an editor first reads it. But editors also quite like editing, so they don’t necessarily want to feel that an author has come to the end of the road with a book when it lands on their desk – they’ll usually want to work with the author to refine and improve it. At least I know I do.

Q: What makes a novel proposal stand out to you and avoid the slush pile?

MH: As an editor, I am almost always submitted complete scripts rather than proposals, but it is helpful if somewhere in the letter there is a two or three line summary of the book that I know will grab readers’ (and indeed booksellers’, and in the first instance, my colleagues’) attention. These two or three lines don’t need to encapsulate the entire reading experience, they’re just a steer, but in an industry like this we have to depend to a certain extent on shorthand, so a pithy and preferably original pitch stands out a mile.

A really strong title also helps. Borough Press are publishing a debut by Faber Academy Writing a Novel alumna, Joanna Cannon, called The Trouble With Goats and Sheep, and I can’t think of a single commissioning editor who wouldn’t have been stopped in their tracks by that title.

Q: When pitching your book, is there a requirement to reference it to previously published material?

MH: I don’t see the requirement to reference the book to previously published material. Yes, that’s shorthand we use as an industry, but actually I find when I’m pitching books to colleagues and booksellers they want to hear what this author/book is offering as a reading experience that they won’t have encountered elsewhere. So it’s the differences that are important, more than the similarities. I hate the ‘Curious Incident meets Love in the Time of Cholera’ style of pitching. It makes no sense!

Q: How do you feel when you read a new writer?

MH: I think there is something so fresh about reading new writers – it’s very special, and discovering a writer who is genuinely special and at an early stage in their career is an incredibly privileged experience. I wonder how Jeanette Winterson’s agent and editor felt when they first read Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit, which has the kind of exuberance I think you only ever get in first fiction.

Q: What are the common mistakes you see from new writers?

MH: The main mistake I think is not being brutal enough about whether a book ‘delivers’ in the sense of having a narrative or offering a reading experience or a hook that can be summarised or hinted at or alluded to in some enticing way. To ignore that is to ignore so much about the way this industry works.

Other than that, I think it’s important that the opening pages are gripping and propel the reader in some way. Too many authors – even experienced authors – can squander their reader’s attention in the early stages of a book, with set up that doesn’t necessarily have to come right at the very beginning. Take us into the story at an engaging and readily intelligible point, it doesn’t necessarily have to be the beginning chronologically speaking. I’ve seen so many novels turned around by breaking up this linear sense of ‘X happens then Y’, it’s definitely something to consider if you’re finding your book feels slow to get going.

Q: Are there any particular themes or genres that there’s a glut of at the moment and you don’t want to see again – and conversely are there any genres and topics that are particularly popular and you’d like to see submissions on?

MH: There is an awful lot of psychological and domestic suspense around – there’s still room for it, but the bar is now very high in terms of quality/originality. Readers love that genre, and I don’t see it going away soon, but you’re going to need to really put your stamp on it quite boldly to make an impact in that area. That said, look at the success of The Girl on the Train, which has such a simple hook.

In terms of genres I’d like to see, for me it’s less a question of genre. I think so much of life and current affairs is bleak I love to read books that dare to be funny about serious or quite dark things. But that’s quite personal!

Q: Are there any stylistic writing features that you feel have been overdone?

MH: I do now find endless description makes me feel impatient rather quickly, no matter how beautifully it’s done. It’s certainly still out there; I have just become more demanding over time. I do hear editors moan about endless first person child narrators, but if these are done well, I still have a soft spot for them.

Q: Are there any recent books that you would have liked to publish yourself?

MH: I would have loved to have published Sathnam Sanghera’s memoir, Boy With A Topknot. It’s a painfully funny book about an incredibly dysfunctional but loving Sikh family in Wolverhampton in the 80s/90s. Also Dept. of Speculation by Jenny Offill, which I think is a work of genius.

Q: Tinder Press partnered with The Reading Agency in March 2015 to accept open submissions for un-agented manuscripts. Was this a success and do you think it’s something Tinder will do again?

MH: In all honesty, we’re still reading. I think we anticipated we’d get about 500 entries and we got over 2,000, so we’ve done an initial sift and have given ourselves the rest of the summer to look at everything else in more detail.

I’m very happy that we’ve tried it, and still hopeful that we’ll find a novel or stories we can publish. If that doesn’t end up being the case, I’m hoping there will be one or two authors we could mentor or start to build a relationship with, and that a ‘gem’ might surface a couple of years down the line.

Will we do it again next year? No, I think it’s a resource issue. But if not we will ensure we’re finding other ways of championing new writers and trying to source new writers more proactively than sitting back and waiting to see what agents send our way. I think agents do a really important job, but publishers need to be seen to be more proactive than that.

Q: To qualify those 2000 submissions, how many new titles do you publish a year?

MH: We publish 8-10 new books a year. We’re small by design; each Tinder book has it’s own slot in a particular month so it can be the focus of our marketing and PR activity. We find it really helps, particularly in terms of making a mark with debuts.

Q: Did you get a different type of book to the sort that agents send you, or broadly similar in terms of style, genre, etc?

MH: It was more scattershot than we’d expected. We hadn’t been that explicit in terms of genre, we simply asked for writing that would likely sit well on our list. It was pretty clear to me that not everyone had put much research into that. We got a fair amount of romance/fantasy/thriller, and that’s not what Tinder Press is really about.

But I also think it’s understandable – there are a lot of people writing, and it’s a good opportunity. If we’d seen one that was brilliant, we’d have pinged it to one of our colleagues on the main list, so I could see why the authors thought it was worth a try.

Q: Was there a particular thread that ran throughout the open submission entries that is not commonly found in agented manuscripts?

MH: I wouldn’t say there was a thread. I was amazed by how diverse the submissions were. I also felt that there were a good number of authors who could clearly write well and thoughtfully, but who hadn’t given a great deal of thought to genre and where their book might sit. For instance, there were a number of submissions that were somewhere between literary fiction and YA, which can work, but can also be a headache as booksellers don’t know where to put the books.

But the whole experience reminded me how gloriously unpredictable writers and people are, and I loved that sense of not knowing what to expect when I opened a file, and I imagine that’s what’s going to keep us going over the summer.

Q: How would you define literary fiction?

MH: We could debate this for hours, but for me it’s writing where the author’s style or voice is at least as significant as, or perhaps more significant than, the genre in which the book is written.

I’m very clear that genre fiction is in many cases every bit as finely crafted as literary fiction, and to write a completely page-turning genre manuscript demands huge energy and skill. But in literary fiction I think readers are looking to encounter something unique – the author’s voice, their words on the page, have a level of prominence they don’t necessarily in genre fiction. All of that said, I have to confess that even in literary fiction, I like to see a plot, or at least a very strong narrative arc.

It’s very interesting to look at the way quite literary lists are now publishing some out and out commercial fiction, and how a number of commercial houses – including Headline – are breaking into literary fiction. There’s a lot of redrawing boundaries just now! Sometimes I think it’s more a question of which publishing style fits a book best, whether it would get reviews, and where it would sit in a shop.

I think there’s a lot to be said for mixing things up a bit – if a book stands out on your list, everyone you talk to will remember it.

 

Mary-Anne Harrington heads up literary imprint Tinder PressThe next iteration of our online course Writing a Novel: The First 15,000 starts on September 23.

This article was originally posted on the website of the Professional Writing Academy, our online partners.

The Weekend Read: How To Find A Literary Agent

Literary agent Charlie Campbell popped into our online classroom to answer questions from our Writing a Novel: The First 15,000 students about when and how to approach an agent. The conversation was so useful, we thought we’d share it here with you.

Charlie-Campbell-450x677Q: What are the top three things you look for in a manuscript, Charlie?

Charlie Campbell: What I’m looking for is quality of writing first and foremost. Then if it’s good enough, I will wonder about the market for it. A really well written history of snails might be hard to sell to a publisher – but you never know. And lastly, it’s very important that the writer and the agent get on well because it is usually a pretty close relationship. But the writing is what really matters.

Q: Could you elaborate on what you mean by well written? Are you talking about voice, structure, plot, strength of characters or all of these?

CC: We all know good writing when it’s there in front of us. Structure and plot are all things that can be worked on.

Q: Is it true that a novel needs to be finished, polished and oven-ready before we approach an agent?

CC: Other agents feel differently, but I don’t think a novel has to be finished before you approach an agent. But what you do send has to be as good as it can be. So polished yes.

Q: Are the cut-throat stories accurate – that one spelling or grammar error in the first line or para of your novel submission and you’re out?

CC: That’s a good question. I do think that a typo on the first page does leave a bad impression. You’d be unfortunate if the agent stopped reading there and then. But we are usually looking for a reason to say no. And a few sentences early on that don’t really make sense might be a reason to move onto the next manuscript. With non-fiction I might give the author more leeway. If someone has a unique experience, you might find an editor to help them tell it.

Q: So if the theme grabs you but the writing needs some editing and you like the story as it unfolds would you read beyond page 3?

CC: With a novel, I would look past what I thought were flaws, if I really liked the rest of it. Agents don’t expect manuscripts to be perfect and will be looking for potential. But publishers will tend to favour the projects that are already nearly there.

Q: Lots of Faber Academy writers are based outside the UK, so would you say they would be best represented by agencies in the UK?

CC: I don’t think you need to be represented by someone in the same country. I represent an author who lives in Berlin, another who lives in Cyprus, and one who is in Africa much of the time.

But if a writer is based in the US, I would wonder why they would be submitting to me – unless the book was very UK focused. I would assume that they’d struggled to get representation there and were now trying UK agents. Perhaps that’s uncharitable.

Q: Is it best to try and meet an agent face to face?

CC: Meetings are much more constructive once someone is already interested in your work. If I’m submitting to a publisher, for example, I don’t expect to organise a meeting between an editor and the author, unless the editor has already expressed strong interest in the manuscript.

Q: Charlie, you said you represent fiction and non-fiction writers. Is it better as an unpublished author to pitch a novel and mention, say, a children’s book and short stories too? Or should we stick to one form at first?

CC: I think that it is best to pitch one thing at a time. Otherwise you might lose focus.

Q:  Charlie, what are you looking for in a covering letter?

CC: I think covering letters should be short and to the point. Add anything that you think might be interesting to an agent or publisher: why you decided to write the book, if there was a particularly interesting story behind it. The marketing departments of publishers will like that. Marketing is more and more important in publishing – working out how to get the book to a reader/market. So if you can think of angles that would appeal, then great. But that is our job – to help you with that aspect. One last thing: I would never criticise another writer in a covering letter. A surprising amount of people do.

Q: Should the writer compare their work to an established writer – saying ‘it’s a bit like’?

CC: Yes, I think that’s helpful. Think of Amazon recommendations: people who bought this might like this. That sort of thing. It’s not totally scientific yet. But it does help readers.

Q: What do you think about authors submitting to several agents at once?

CC: It’s fine. Perfectly normal. But if an agent does like your book it’s best not to keep them waiting too much, if you can help it. But equally it’s a big decision to make.

Q: If an agency asks to see the first three chapters of a novel on their web submission outline, is it being too cheeky to send through the entire manuscript?

CC: You can send through the whole manuscript but I think it’s best to stick to the first three chapters, if that is what was requested. Also, these chapters should always be the first three. Not 7, 23, and then 48, even if they are the best ones. Because no one reads like that. Except BS Johnson fans.

We have a form that writers have to fill in to submit to us, so that does ensure a better quality of submission, in my view. We don’t get the cut and paste ones, where writers try 100s of agents in one go. It’s much better to really focus on a few very targeted submissions – to agents who represent books you have liked, that sort of thing. The Writers’ and Artists’ Yearbook is a good place to start looking for suitable agents for your novel.

Q: When you say you should target not spam agents, what would be targeting and what spamming? If I were to send 10 submissions to different agents is that spamming?

CC: Ten is fine, as long as they’re not all at the same agency. It’s worth taking your time. Try sending out one round and see if you get any helpful feedback. Sadly agents don’t always have time to offer constructive feedback. We usually spend that amount of thought on the books we are hoping to handle. But if more than one agent says something about your book, then it’s worth listening to. Maybe.

Q: What would be the ways of telling that I have approached a bad agent? Are there signs like them asking for a fee?

CC: No agent should charge a fee for reading your book. As for bad agents – there are busy agents, who might seem too occupied with their existing clients, but the right one should make time for your book. You have to be patient sometimes.

Q: Given that you are building a relationship with an agent and they are taking time to respond, does one send them a reminder and if so after what period of time?

CC: I would avoid chasing an agent too quickly. We’ve all had calls on the day of submission, which never make you want to work with that person. Obviously it would be nice if we all acknowledged receipt, but few agents have time. I think it’s nice to chase people with (good) news if you possibly can.

Q: What is a good timeframe in which to chase? Six weeks? Three months?

CC: I think it’s ok to chase after 4–6 weeks. But silence usually means someone hasn’t read something – rather than that they hated it and didn’t tell you.

Q: What are your pet hates in submissions?

CC: Pet hates: people who describe their novels as fictional. It’s sweet when writers talk about their mothers having liked their book. (I’m not totally sure mine liked the one I wrote….) But it isn’t that helpful for an agent.

Q: Q: Do you have a particular genre or area of interest you’re looking for?

CC: I’d like more thriller writers. Good lively literary fiction is something I enjoy. Accessible general non-fiction, too. But most agents will look at most things. We don’t tend to specialise as much as editors do.

Q: Finally, can you tell us a bit about the market? How is literary fiction doing compared to other genres and what’s hot right now?

CC: I would say that literary fiction is doing pretty well, with the successes of Nathan Filer, The Miniaturist, and so on. Trends are hard to spot. Obviously. There’s a lot of luck involved. No one saw 50 Shades of Grey coming. If a trend has passed but I liked the writing, I would try to think of another way of pitching the book. To be honest, trend following isn’t really what I do. And I think there are lots of people like me in the industry.

 

Charlie Campbell has been a literary agent for over a decade, and now heads up literary agency Kingsford Campbell

Writing A Novel: The First 15,000, our online novel-writing course, starts again in June. If that’s too soon, you can also sign up now for September.

This article was originally posted on the website of the Professional Writing Academy, our online course partners. 

Writing a Novel: Beginning at the Beginning

kriskenwaybeginnings

The beginning of your novel is everything. You’re in a fight: a fight for the attention of your reader in a world full of distractions. You can’t afford to do anything that will give them an excuse to put your book down.

Jeffrey Eugenides says he puts his entire novel in his opening line. A quick glance at Middlesex and The Virgin Suicides confirms that. The benefit of this is obvious – you’re immediately signalling to the reader what your story is going to be about; perhaps some information about the main character, the tone of the piece, the central conflict, and so on. Maybe it sounds crazy to put so much emphasis on the first of what will be thousands of lines. But think of it as your first building block: a great opening line, a great opening page, a great first ten pages. These are the first three markers a writer needs to be thinking about.

So what makes an effective opening? An agent once said to me, ‘Start with a punch in the face.’ This is good advice, but it isn’t saying you must open your historical romance with a bar brawl. Unless you really want to, of course. Because while that punch in the face can be some kind of external struggle, it could also be something very subtle, full of nuance, and linked to the emotional life of the character. Whatever you choose, I think what the agent was getting at was making sure you have an answer to the question ‘Why now? Why start the story now?’

There are some great opening lines to novels. Is the most famous of them call – Call me Ishmael – famous because we keep saying it’s famous, or is it arresting because the narrator is full of authority, grabbing us, and taking us on this journey?

Here are three more examples from three very different writers:

Someone must have slandered Josef K, for one morning, without having done anything truly wrong, he was arrested.

A merry little surge of electricity piped by automatic alarm from the mood organ beside his bed awakened Rick Deckard.

Once upon a time, there was a woman who discovered she had turned into the wrong person.

Franz Kafka, Philip K Dick, and Anne Tyler are not three names that you usually find together, but their ‘punch in the face’ first lines each ask the reader a powerful story question. And that’s what you need to keep in mind as you work on the opening of your novel: What question are you going to ask?

Kris Kenway is the tutor on our online Writing a Novel: The First 15,000 course, which is currently accepting applications. 

Deadline Day

Deadline Day | Faber Academy writing courses

Footballers rolling around on the floor like edited sentences.

Have you noticed a certain airborne charge? A certain franticity? A wibbliness of spirit in your colleagues & loved ones? Well, don’t panic. It’s just Deadline Day. And we all know what that means.

In Arsenal Town, and in the poachers’ huts of Queens Park and all through the City of Manchester United, men and women are perusing their manuscripts, editing a novel, looking for dead lines.


Dead lines? What dead lines?
My every idea is silver snowflake.

This is not the case. Every writer, however experienced, writes a dead line or two on occasion. Maybe you were tired. Maybe you listened to Capital FM in the shower, and the whining, repetitive, super-funky cadences of a pop song had caught their burrs on your brain-fur, causing you to pack a single paragraph with 12 five-word sentences. Maybe you couldn’t be arsed. Maybe you just wrote any old guff in the gap. “I’ll go back,” you said. Maybe you never went back.

Dead lines exist. Luckily, so does Deadline Day.


Why do they need to go?
Readers will forgive me my sins.

Deadline Day is about going back through your work and singing it to yourself – does the tune hold? Or does it burp sometimes? If your manuscript burps, you may have a dead line. What’s more, if it burps for you, it will surely burp for your reader, and there is nothing more likely to throw a friendly reader out of the world of your creation than a burp in the ear. You might be happy to burp in your own ear, but you should not burp in the ear of your reader. It’s impolite. Stop it.


But how? How can I ever be rid of them?
Dead lines haunt the living.

Sometimes it can feel like every sentence is a playing card in a tremulous house – one fat-fingered intervention and it’ll all come tumbling down. But don’t panic. Your #DeadlineDay brain is the same brain as the brain that wrote the dead line. Nothing has changed about these words just because they are now on the page. You just made a mistake before, is all. Plus, lines die all the time! That thing about the axolotl you thought was really resonant? It’s not! It’s guff! Get rid of it! No worries! If you see a dead line, get rid of it right now. Because you’re a better writer now than when you started – and you’ll be betterer again tomorrow.