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Novel Prize Interview: Literary Agent Emma Finn

2018 Grindstone International Novel Prize: An Interview with Emma Finn - Literary Agent at Conville & Walsh

Not only is it the biggest competition we’ve ever run, but we’ve also gone and got an amazing special guest judge on board - one Emma Finn, Literary Agent extraordinaire. While Grindstone will be doing the lion-share of the judging and assembling the long and shortlists, we’ve brought in a heavy-hitter to crown our champion, and we couldn’t be more excited. And, not only have we snagged her for a judging spot, we also managed to convince her to give us an interview. Want to know what she’s just dying to see land on her desk, both in, and out of this competition? Well, better keep reading, then…

Emma Finn is a Literary Agent at Conville & Walsh, and is actively looking for new writers to add to her ever-growing list. Emma’s tastes are widely varying, but if you’re writing literary or reading group fiction with a leaning towards love, families, relationships, friendships, emotional rollercoasters, loss, loneliness, or any mixture of the above, then Emma should definitely be on your shortlist of agents. We sat down with Emma to talk books and pitching, and this is what happened.

Agenting is an interesting career - and apart from sounding like you work for MI6, Agent Finn, what’s your favourite part of your job?

I have a few favourites… I love the initial buzz of anticipation when I’m reading a submission and realise there’s something really special there. I love a really satisfying editorial process when everything is coming together and you start to see a novel taking shape and coming into its own. And I love the moment when an author finds out their book is going to be published. Those phone calls are pretty high up the list.

We all know that pitching is a really difficult thing for writers, and that the chances of getting picked up are slim - but just what is the ratio of passes to full MS requests?

The ratio will inevitably sound quite disheartening, but don’t pay attention to ratios! I might request 20 – 30 full manuscripts a year from my submissions, which at the busiest times of year can be close to 100 a week. But so much of that is down to me receiving submissions in genres that I don’t represent, or that sit too closely to an existing client’s work, or don’t chime with me for some reason. Of course a proportion of those submissions aren’t ready for publication but lots just aren’t right for me. I don’t think I know any authors who have never suffered a rejection (or many) so those passes are par for the course, it’s finding the right fit for your work that matters.

Do you have to be more selective these days because of how the market has been affected in recent years due to to the advent of eBooks, indie presses accepting unsolicited manuscripts, and the self-publishing craze?

I think agents have to be selective because the market is difficult: we’re seeing a few books do stratospherically well each year and so many others not quite taking off, or dropping off the radar altogether. But I do think – and hope – that we can respond to that creatively and find new strategies for launching our authors with purpose and vision. The rise of self-publishing hasn’t necessarily affected my decisions as an agent, but I do think it’s offered certain authors – and particularly genre authors – an interesting new way to connect with an existing, often voracious readership, which is no bad thing.

Do you think literary competitions are a good thing for the industry?

I do! I think they can be a fantastic way to boost the confidence of writers who might not feel ready yet to approach agents; a long- or short-listing can sometimes be the motivation someone needs to really commit to a project, but even more than that I think submitting for a competition or prize can be an opportunity for authors to come to terms with the idea that they’re taking their own work seriously, which is invaluable.

Is there a single trait that you feel all writers that are ready to break into the industry share in their writing? Something that a writer achieves after a certain amount of development that then sets their writing apart from the crowd?

I don’t think there’s a single shared quality in the writing itself (some are brilliant plotters but need closer guidance on their prose, and others write beautifully but without any great attention to plot, plus countless permutations in between) but I would say that most writers I’ve ever worked with have a similar commitment to hard work and openness to collaboration, both of which are crucial. Most write in their spare time, squeezing it in around jobs and families, so hard work tends to be in their nature, and publishing a book requires an awful lot of teamwork, so a willingness to trust other people – editorially and otherwise – with your writing is key.

What advice would you give someone intending to craft a cover letter and synopsis if they’re preparing to submit to you in the coming weeks or months?

For the synopsis, try to keep it to one to two pages, and give me all the spoilers. You don’t need to worry too much about prose style here – it needs to be clear and concise, but I’m not looking for artistry, I just want to know what happens. Avoid chapter-by-chapter breakdowns… For the cover letter, I have a rough formula that I always appreciate: firstly, get the name of the agent right. Introduce your novel with title, genre, length and a brief ‘about’ sentence that gives us an overall impression of what to expect. Then focus on your pitch, a few lines that offer up the central conflict or drama of the novel (reminiscent of a book blurb) and which will inspire an agent to take a look at the chapters straight away. Include a couple of thoughtful comparison titles if you think they’re relevant and genuinely helpful in positioning your novel, and then close with a brief, pertinent biography and a polite sign off.

Is there anything you’d just love to see land on your desk right now?

Right now, I would love to see a big-hearted, beautifully observed, character-driven love story (I’m still recovering from how much I adored Sally Rooney’s new novel, Normal People), an immersive book group novel with a brilliant pitch, or – my eternal favourite – a compelling family novel. Unfamiliar settings and great writing about food also get me in fiction every time.

What advice would you give to someone entering our Novel Prize this year?

Polish your extract as much as you possibly can, make sure you’re showcasing your best work in those opening chapters (test it out on readers before you enter if you can) and read your dialogue aloud. Most importantly, have faith in your work, press send and don’t panic about any typos once it’s submitted.

Is there anything you’d like to tell all writers to stop doing? Something you just want to scream from the rooftops, ‘Stop doing this, it doesn’t work!’?

My personal horror is dialogue that’s used exclusively for exposition or to advance plot. Long monologues intended to show us what’s happening or to indicate a character’s change of heart or mental state, which you could never imagine a real person saying, are a source of profound frustration for me. (Equally, brilliant dialogue can make characters step off the page and energise an entire novel, so it’s worth working on.)

A lot of our writers are so excited to share their work that they often send it off before it’s ready. Do you see a lot of this - submissions that have a lot of promise, but are just too shoddily executed to take a chance on?

It can be a problem, yes. I think authors tend to know when they’ve hit their own limit editorially and need a fresh pair of eyes, but I’d say it’s worth sharing with readers elsewhere – in a writing group, or similar – to get some feedback before you submit to agents, as they might point out something glaring that you’d overlooked because you’re too close to it. That said, I do a lot of editorial work with most of my authors so if I really fall for a voice or a style or an idea, but it needs more development, then I will happily commit anyway.

Thanks so much for sitting down with us. We’re really looking forward to seeing what this novel competition brings - hopefully the next stratospheric bestseller!

Emma is currently open to submissions. For more information on how to pitch to Emma, head to the Conville & Walsh website:

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