So. I had this idea for a post about how, as a writer, to come across as a safe pair of hands. How to communicate, as quickly and clearly as possible, the following message to your reader, like a subliminal mantra intoned from beneath the actual text: "Don't worry, it's going to be all right. You can trust me to tell you this story. You're going to love it, you lucky lucky reader, you."
It's easier said than done. I know I often close a book forever, as early as page two, because I haven't been filled with the confidence I need, in order to dedicate myself to ingesting a marathon tale. These hands just don't feel safe and I want out.
When planning this post, I remembered discussing this very topic with my agent Oli Munson when we first met in November 2013, before he represented me. Of the Safe Pair Of Hands feeling, he said, "That's the difference between the writers I represent and the writers I don't represent". So I dropped him a line the other day and asked for a quote on his thoughts on what constitutes A Safe Pair Of Hands. What does he look for in a submission?
Not being a man to do things by halves, Oli sent me back more than just one quote. He wrote a whole piece and wrote it so well, sharing so much of his outlook as an agent and a reader, that I don't want to chop it up. So I'll run it in its entirety now, then return at a later date in a second post to add my own thoughts, from a writer's perspective. Take it away, Oli...
"One of the reasons I love being an agent is because, quite frankly, I can represent whoever and whatever I choose. I don’t have to do anything by committee: that’s unfortunately the modern-day editor’s lot in life. If I think I can sell a book I’m passionate about, I’ll give it a go. All I have to lose is time and reputation whereas of course publishers have more immediate financial concerns to worry about.
"Firstly, I’d say it’s a real accomplishment for anyone to start and finish a novel. It requires dedication, perseverance and most of all a real passion for the art. You can’t start out doing it for money. Writers write because they have to let the stories out. That’s fundamental. And then we get to the tricky bit. Will people want to read what I’ve written? Some people may not care at all if anyone reads what they’ve written. The act of writing is enough in itself. But if you take the time to approach agents for representation, it’s fair to say you would like to find a readership for your work.
"Taste is such a subjective thing. I would say that I know within the first five pages of receiving a submission whether or not it’s for me. You can tell rather quickly whether an author can actually write, whether they can craft sentences and draw a reader into a story. I’d say that’s not subjective. That’s pretty universal. The next consideration is whether they writing has me turning the pages. I operate on the more commercial side so that ability to hook a reader and drag them through 350 pages is crucial. And that’s a combination of well-paced writing, compelling characters and an intriguing plot. I’ve turned down books where the actual storytelling aspect falls flat although the writing is of a high standard. And I’ve turned down books because I’ve just not seen the commercial potential in the story itself. That’s when the subjectivity really comes into it. I never begrudge anyone any success and if another agent sees something in those books that I’ve missed, hats off to that author and agent.
"Sometimes the whole crap shoot aspect of what works and doesn’t work can drive all of us up the wall but in another sense it’s that random element that keeps it interesting. So far this year I’ve sold new books by authors writing psychological suspense, historical crime, police procedural, sci-fi and horror. All wonderful books with one thing in common – I didn’t want to put them down. Hopefully the wider reading public will feel the same."
Oli is at AM Heath Ltd. He is currently open to submissions in Crime, Suspense, Speculative Fiction and Non-Fiction.
And here's How To Be A Safe Pair Of Hands: Part Two, in which I share my own thoughts on what keeps us reading to the very end of a book...
I'm a writer of stuff, including Doctor Who, Black Mirror, Friday The 13th and Beast In The Basement.
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