Agent Interview: Catherine Cho
Last year, one of the biggest features in the first issue of our Literary Magazine was a great interview with Catherine Cho of Curtis Brown Books.
Catherine was gracious enough to give us some of her time (of which I took up far too much), and the result was an interview that provided serious insights into a changing market and genre sphere.
With the second issue of our magazine (and submissions for it) imminent, we thought we'd share some of the things that went into last year's edition, to get you pumped up for the coming season.
Read the full interview below.
Conducted: July 2018
Daniel: SFF - what a game to be in. Such a broad term, too, that encompasses so much. And, there’s so much pressure on writers to be aware of what’s happening in the industry - the trends, the fads, the way people are writing, what people are reading. It can be really tough for writers to strike a balance between original and safe - like Jonny Geller said in his TedX Talk - making that bridge between the familiar and unfamiliar. So, what do you think - should we write in the way our favourite authors do, or should we try to do something utterly original and unprecedented, or is it a happy medium?
Catherine: It’s really difficult. In the industry, it’s always easier to sell something people are familiar with. Readers want something familiar, but slightly different. And that’s always the question - what is different enough, what is too different, what is avante garde… but I always think, for writers, it’s such a creative process - thinking about the industry, thinking about genre… They’re thinking about all the things that should come later, when really the story should come first. Look at The Martian for example - that broke all the rules, and it’s done so well. So if it’s a great story, then everyone else will catch up. And I think in terms of emulating another authors - you don’t want to be derivative. I mean, of course there are going to be some classic sci fi tropes, or fantasy tropes, that you see in lots of authors’ work, but I think being original is never a bad thing.
Yeah - we’re all chasing that ‘original’ ideas with enough familiarity that readers immediately feel at home with your work. I write Sci-Fi myself, and I know a lot of other writers who do - and one thing we all struggle with is condensing our pitches. If we could sit down with an agent for a couple of hours, and take our time explaining our worlds and our universes, then we’d all be best-sellers by now. But, we don’t have that luxury. So, when you’re trying to cram 10,000 years of world-history and lore and storytelling into an elevator pitch - where the heck do we start?
I think it’s really hard, and I don’t envy writers who have to do it. To be concise is the most difficult thing, especially when you’re trying to talk about an entire universe you’ve created. Usually the first sign when I’m reading a pitch that it’s not going as well as it should is when they’re trying to explain everything… Like, this is story about a dwarf who… And they have all these explanations and definitions in the middle of the pitch… I think you just have to trust the reader. Ultimately, what is the story about?
I think that almost every story, without fail, no matter what universe it’s set in, has a central, core idea. And if you can communicate that, the ‘tagline’ - the thing that’s going on the move poster, then you’ve got it. Take Lord of the Rings - they have that. It’s a quest for the One Ring - and anyone can understand that concept, even without understanding all the characters, races, history, and dimensions. So, I would really work on having a one sentence pitch - a hook. And then worry about the one hundred words later.
As an agent, it’s just so frustrating to read one of those convoluted pitches, because you just want to know what the story’s about! You don’t need all the background right then. In the pitch, you just want to know about the story.
It’s something that a lot of writers tear their hair out over. They feel this real pressure to get everything in because they’re excited to tell you about it all. An editor told me, once, that it’s about that human element - that it has to take precedence over everything else, and the rest of the universe is there to give credence to it, and support it, rather than propping it up.
Yeah, exactly. Story first - everything else later.
Let’s stick with pitches for a second. Is there anything you see in pitches and openings, or in cover letters, that get sent to you that’s just an immediate put-off?
I think my main thing with sci fi and fantasy is when someone says this is a three hundred thousand word novel that’s about… Because as much as I love a long saga, if someone says their first novel is that long, I’m automatically like, really?
And, that’s unfortunate, because I think there are great works of fiction that are that long, but for a first time debut, that’s asking a lot of an agent - and of a reader as well.
A pitch that’s convoluted always strikes a wrong note, too. And as well, and this is just a general thing - a lack of confidence. With Sci Fi and Fantasy, but also for all genres - remember the pitch is a sales pitch. You’re trying to persuade somebody to give you their time, and their time is limited. Agents don’t read at their desks, they read in their free time. So I think the pitch should be as strong and persuasive as possible. You’re trying to convince someone to read your book.
It can be a lot to grapple with, especially for an author pitching their first book, for the first time. And so many blogs and articles say different things. I mean, there’s the almost ubiquitous opening to a cover letter that so many recommend that it seems like it’s going to be almost annoying for you to read for the thousandth time - Dear Catherine Cho, I’ve chosen to submit to you because I read your blog, or I visited your website and I think you’d be really interested in my work based on… xyz…
I think that’s a great opening, actually, but it’s not to say you can’t go a little off-book. You definitely want to tailor your letter to the agent, though.
The thing is, we know that writers are writers, and not necessarily sales people. And, we’ll give you the benefit of the doubt. If it’s not a flashy pitch, then it’s fine. So long as it’s well written, and persuasive.
Brilliant. One other thing I wanted to touch on was the necessity for comparisons in the cover letter. Because again, different blogs and articles say different things. Some say it’s a must, others don’t even mention it.
I think if your work lends itself to comparisons, then you should use them. It’s just a guideline for agents. It’s like, oh my fantasy novel is very similar to Robin Hobb, so we can draw parallels and get a sense of what kind of book it is.
I know that some agents really want it, but again we know that writers aren’t sales people. We’re not asking you to convince us that the book will do well in the market, we’re just asking you to convince us that people are going to want to read it because it’s a good story.
One thing I’ve always wondered is whether there’s an order that most agents tend to read a submission pack in in? Cover letter, synopsis, opening, say?
Most people read the cover letter first, skim the synopsis, and then read the first chapter. And then they go back to the synopsis. Some agents, though, only read the cover letter and synopsis. And that should be a scary thought for writers, because the synopsis is usually the weakest part of a submission.
It’s the hardest to write!
It’s definitely the hardest part. But, I think that’s why some agents do that. Because if you can cohesively tell your story in one page, and make it exciting - then they’re going to want to read the first chapter. I know some agents don’t read the cover letter and synopsis at all and go straight to the extract. But the majority read cover letter, synopsis, opening chapter.
Considering it’s the hardest part then, can we talk about the dreaded synopsis? Should we be sticking with hard facts and plot points - bam, bam, bam. Or should we be trying to bring our writing style into it to make it more like our novels?
I mean, you want it to be clear and easy to read - but you also want it to be interesting. It should be a combination I think. It has to be in a page, so, it needs to be both - clearly conveying the story, but also not boring to read. Bringing a little of your style into it isn’t a bad thing.
There’s so much pressure. As if the elevator pitch wasn’t tough enough. I guess a lot of writers will lose an agent on the synopsis alone, then?
Ouch. So, let’s say you read a cover letter, and synopsis, and you like it enough to look at the extract. Is there something you read on the first page of a manuscript that’ll just stop you dead in your tracks and make you reach for that big red ‘Rejection’ stamp?
It’s amazing how many start with a character waking up. I think that’s difficult because it’s only logical - So’n’so wakes up, and then you think ok, the story’s about to start! But actually, that just makes me go, Ugh… And it happens so often.
What about the classic standing up and looking in the mirror, and then seeing themselves and describing their features?
Yeah! And then they describe what they see in the mirror - and you just think… Y’know, come on… And a lot of people just start with a lot of setting and description. I personally like setting, and I think that’s a great way to start, if it’s done right, but you don’t want to get caught in the trap of over-describing it. You want to make sure you have some momentum in the first few chapters, for the reader to be interested.
It must be hard for you, too, to make that decision so early on. We always hope that an agent will give us the benefit of the doubt, but we know, during judging, that if something doesn’t grab you from the off that it makes reading it pretty difficult. If you’re reading in your free time, too, and you’ve got a huge slush pile, do you have to be pretty ruthless and just sort of say no after the first stumble?
I mean, I know a lot of more established agents do that, but, I think, because I’m just starting out - and I think this is one of the best things about working with an agent who’s still building their list - is that they’re going to give the benefit of the doubt. And I know it’s the same with my colleagues who are also building their lists - we’re usually the ones who read everything that comes in. So yeah, we’ll give the benefit of the doubt, and we’ll read everything… Which is partly why I’m always really behind on my submission pile! I’m terrible - but it’s because I am reading it. I always feel really bad, because I’m really behind.
I once heard an agent say that you shouldn’t give them a reason to say no - they’re reading to say no. So, if you think about it that way then, you’re trying to get someone to not put your book down. It’s like whatever that show is - Britain’s Got Talent - they want to say no so they can get onto the next one - and you have to get them not to say no.
So just keep the hits coming? Just keep the pace strong?
Is that one of the most important things you’d recommend for people looking to polish their opening chapters ready for submission? Addressing the pacing?
Pace - yes. Is it compelling? Have you set up the conflict? You know, I think beginnings are always difficult because you want to set up the world and describe it, and especially in sci-fi and fantasy that’s the case. It doesn’t have to be especially scene driven, or anything like that - but it’s so important that there is a momentum, and you start centrally and that it just continues to build, and the reader can tell that there’s going to be a rhythm there that’s going to just keep going. I think that’s probably actually the one thing I notice a lot about sci-fi and fantasy submissions, is it doesn’t have that central pace - that compelling, you know, something. There’s no clear thread to pull on. I think that one thing that sci-fi and fantasy writers find difficulty with, is just because you’ve created an amazing world, doesn’t necessarily mean it’s a great story. You need a story to fit into that world, and the world is extra. That’s why sci-fi and fantasy is exciting, is because they’re all stories that are escapist. Sometimes sci-fi/fantasy writers focus too much on the world itself, and not the story.
Do you find that there’s a trend of maybe a sort of self-indulgence, then? That writers are talking about the history, and the politics, and the lore of their world, not because it’s vital, but because they’re so proud of what they’ve created that they can’t stop talking about it?
That’s definitely what agents tend to think if something is over a hundred thousand words. We tend to think you could probably cut quite a bit of it out. And, as much as we like scene building and world building - is it really necessary for the story? That’s the question.
Do you think then, in that regard, it’s beneficial for writers to seek help from a professional editor, or from someone who has experience in editing at least - because I know it can a really tough pill to swallow when someone says this is great, but you need to lose about a third of it.
This is tough, because I actually discourage people from paying editors if they don’t have a deal yet. That’s my opinion. Because I feel like it’s so hard to get published, and it’s going to make you feel even worse if you’ve spent money. And I think if you’ve joined a writers group, or you’ve taken a course, then that’s one thing - but if you pay a professional editor, I think that’s another thing. And I think this is another thing in submission letters - never mention that you’ve worked with a professional editor. I mean - It’s fine - but it’s usually a red flag to agents, because as an agent you think oh why? Why have you worked with an editor? So I think a lot of times people say, I worked with an editor, and think that’s a selling point - but I don’t think that it is. And I mean, if an editor is going to work with you, and help you, that’s a great thing, but if you can join a writer’s group or have someone who’s going to be brutally honest with you - and it’s hard, I think, to tell a friend that you think they’re in love with their own voice - but if you can do that, then you might save them some heartache.
Yeah, there’s a lot of rejection going around because of that sort of thing. I mean, I know I’ve got loads of rejections in my inbox from years back because of just that. I didn’t see it then, but I do now. So many writers starting out think that they’re going to write a novel, it’s going to have agents fighting over it, and it’s just going to immediately rocket to the top of the bestsellers list And it’s a harsh reality check when they find that not to be the case.
I think rejection is inevitable.
It’s a part of being a writer.
It must be annoying for writers, because you spend so much time working on something, and then someone just rejects it, or you don’t get any response back at all. It must be the most infuriating thing - the waiting. And, I’m very sympathetic to that. And, I think, sci-fi and fantasy is one of the most challenging genres, because there aren’t many people who publish it. And that’s made worse by the fact that it’s one of the most popular genres for people to write in. The moment I say I represent sci-fi and fantasy, I get so many submissions coming in, because there aren’t many agents who do. And that just makes it all the more challenging as a writer of sci-fi and fantasy.
It’s not quite niche, but I think those who read sci-fi and fantasy will often read other genres, too, but people who read other genres primarily won’t stray into sci-fi and fantasy.
Yes - I was pitching this book that I love, this sci-fi book, and I was pitching it to a fiction editor, and he really loved the sound of it until I said it had AI elements - and he asked, what’s AI? And I was like, Oh God - I’m going to lose you.
So yeah, he uh, he didn’t go for the book. He was like what is AI? And, I was like Uhh… There goes my pitch.
Ah, well I hope that you managed to sell it in the end. And, speaking of selling… What do you think the next big thing in SFF is going to be? We had the vampire trend, and the YA dystopia trend, and now we’ve sort of circled back around to the AI and Android thing. It’s been ever-present, going right back to Asimov, and Dick, but now it seems to be coming back into its own again. What do you think - is it even possible to predict what the next trend will be?
It’s hard. I wish I knew! But yeah, I think the AI thing, like you said, because it’s becoming more prevalent in today’s technology, and people are aware of it being a real thing - and even in television with shows like Westworld, and Humans - people are really questioning what does it mean to be human?
But I think, there’s actually going to be more of a move towards feel-good fantasy. Just because, you know - times are dark. No matter what side of the spectrum you’re on, you know, times are dark. And, I think people, when that happens, they turn to fiction as a sort of escapism. And I think I can definitely see sci-fi and fantasy going that way. And I think in a way, people are much more open to sci-fi and fantasy these days, and speculative fiction in general. Things that blend genre are becoming really popular. I think we’re going to see a lot more blending of genre - and if someone has a really feel-good fantasy manuscript in the works, one that’s aware of the world right now - a female heroine, or something, that would do really well - I think we had a lot of really dark dystopian stuff, which is probably still very popular, but I think people are a bit tired of dystopia.
That’s great. I mean, that’s great to hear that it’s going that way. I know it’s always a big temptation for writers to write something that straddles genre, but it’s always scary because it becomes so hard to define and subsequently pitch. I tried to do it years ago with an early novel, and had a rejection - one of the positive ones, from an agent, who said I really like the writing, and the idea is really great - but what genre is this? What is it supposed to be? How am I supposed to pitch this to publishers?
I think that’s the thing. It’s a double edged sword. My favourite books are ones that blend genre. So the authors I love, like Margaret Atwood, or David Mitchell, they don’t fit into a genre. It’s true that that’s more challenging to pitch. So if you are going to look at writing from a purely marketplace mindset - if you want to be a marketplace writer, where it’s not so much about a story you have to tell, but it’s more about establishing yourself as an author before you do something more out-there… Then I would say, try to fit into a genre. That’s a good way to tempt an agent if the book is marketable, and of course, really good, too. If they want to take a risk on you, it’s easier for them to do that if there’s a clear genre there - something they can pitch.
Is that something that happens a lot? Where an agent is reading a submission, and they think Ah, I really like this, but I just don’t think I could sell it?
Yeah, I mean, well - hopefully it doesn’t happen that often. Our job is to make sure that good books that we love get published, but it’s just… It’s so frustrating, sometimes. Like the book I mentioned with the AI elements - it wasn’t really a sci-fi book, it was a book that had sci-fi elements. And I found that so many editors and publishers were like, who’s going to read this? And I thought - anyone? I mean, you know, anyone who doesn’t mind a bit of AI. But, it definitely happens that you get a book that you think this is a really great idea, but I have no idea where it’s going to go. I think most of the time, if an agent loves the book enough, they’re going to go with it anyway. And especially if you’re a super-established agent, you can sell almost anything.
I suppose that just sums up the industry. There are no guarantees. Original idea or not - great idea or not - great story or not - nothing is ever guaranteed. It’s reassuring to know, though that an agent with brilliant track record, is going to be able to sell an unsellable book! Give us genre-blenders some hope…
That’s a good thing about going for a very established agent - is that if your work is hard to sell or hard to define, then maybe they’re the one able to do it.
Sorry to take so much of your time, it’s just, these are questions that I really wanted to ask, because I think they’re ones that writers are sometimes afraid to ask - especially to agents. And it’s so enlightening to sit and speak to you in depth, and ask them. Because writers do want to know the answers to these questions, but just maybe don’t want to ask in case it makes them seem like they’re not plugged into the scene, or capable of being a professional writer if they don’t already know the answers - and they don’t want to come off like that.
I mean, I think that’s one of the bad things about the industry. As an agent, there’s no reason why we should be inaccessible. I think it’s just because what we do is very confusing from the outside looking in, and the industry itself is a bit confusing. I think, as agents, we want to find writers - and writers want agents - so technically, it should be a perfect marriage. But, somehow, it’s become… Muddled. I do notice this when I go to conferences, or writers’ events, that writers are scared to talk to an agent - I can sense that they aren’t asking what they really want to ask in case it makes them seem, like not writerly?
It is difficult, and there’s a very steep learning curve for people who want to become writers, and then look into it and see the scope of it all.
Yeah, it’s difficult. There’s no - and I’ve thought about this, actually - there’s no central, simple resource. The minute you Google ‘How do you get a book published?’, you suddenly get all these crazy results and resources, but there’s so much to just try and look at that it becomes almost impossible to figure out where to start.
Catherine will return this year as the judge of our 2019 Flash Fiction Prize. Full details on this competition can be found on our competitions page: https://grindstoneliterary.com/competitions
The second issue of our Literary Magazine will open for submissions this April. Keep an eye on our blog and on our Twitter for all the latest updates.
See you out there!