As a writer fairly close to submitting my first novel to literary agents, I was delighted to attend BPA’s session with Nelle Andrew from Rachel Mills Literary. Nelle secured a three-book deal for Neil Daws, who was highly commended in the 2019 Blue Pencil First Novel Award, just days before she sat down with thirty-or-so of us (over Zoom of course) to advise on submitting to agents.
Her first tip, or rather, rule, was FINISH THE BOOK BEFORE YOU SUBMIT.
‘There are very few things more frustrating, as an agent, than when you receive a submission, you like it, you ask to see the rest of it, and the author says that it’s not finished. It doesn’t inspire confidence.’
HOW ON EARTH DO YOU FIND AN AGENT?
Nelle thinks that things like The Writers and Artists Yearbook are out of date. Now every agent is on the internet and has social media (Nelle’s Twitter is well worth a follow). It can be good for telling you who the big agencies are, but other than that, writers should be looking online for specific information about agents of interest.
‘Take your time looking for agents to submit to,’ she encouraged us. ‘This is the one part of the process you’re fully in control of. You’re trying to find someone who is a good partner for you in your career. It should take time.’
She encouraged creating a diverse list of agents to submit to, saying you don’t just want to look at big, umbrella agencies but should submit to individual agents as well. She also advised submitting to agents at different stages in their careers. The advantage of someone further along in their career is that they have a lot of prowess and a name. Publishers know and respect them. They have experience. Someone at the beginning of their career will be able to give you more attention. They might be able to take more editorial risks with the authors they choose. Nelle shared that she took on authors at the start of her career who had very embryonic manuscripts.
One of my biggest takeaways was Nelle’s suggestion that writers build their submission lists in tiers. ‘If you submit to 30 agents and receive 30 rejections, that’s it. When they say no, they’re saying no forever to that particular book. Start off with your first list of 10 agents. See what the response is. Take time to work on it and then send it out to the next tier.’
PREPARING YOUR SUBMISSION
We enjoyed some stories about terrible submissions. Nelle has received cover letters saying, ‘I know you’ve asked for the first 3 chapters, but I’m actually sending you chapters 2, 13 and 27.’ This tells the agent it’s someone who thinks they know best. She also mentioned submissions addressed ‘Dear Sir/Madam’ and ones where you can see the thirty other agents they’ve submitted to in the email’s ‘To’ field.
‘If you wouldn’t do it for a job interview, don’t do it for a submission.’
Talking all things cover letters, we discussed the best way to compare your work to that of a published writer. I’ve often wondered whether to do this, as it seems many agents like to know you’ve thought about where the book sits in the market, but it can come across presumptuous or irrelevant. Nelle assured us that comparisons are not arrogant. Phrasing is important though.
She gave an example of hubris: ‘This book is as good as Margaret Atwood.’
She said phrases like these, on the other hand, can be helpful to an agent: ‘This is a book for reader who liked…’ ‘This has echoes of …’ With this kind of language, you’re positioning the book.
Nelle advised that the synopsis should be one or two pages, preferably one. ‘Give us a clear sense of direction. You want it to be another showcase for your writing, to draw people in.’ She suggested thinking about it like a treatment for a TV show. The overall impression I left with is that you have to put effort into it. Some agents won’t read your synopsis, some will read it before your submission and some after. ‘You can’t anticipate how important it will be to each individual agent, but you need every element of your submission to be as pristine as possible.’
‘Openings should stand out, but you don’t have to throw everything from the kitchen sink at it.’
Discussing the 10,000-word novel opening most agents ask for, Nelle suggested writers go and read the first chapters of their favourite novels and note down how much information they give. It’s important to establish setting and voice and to set up the core story – you don’t have to introduce every storyline in the first chapter.
Nelle put it like this: ‘You need to be clear about what it is tonally that you’re trying to establish in your work. You need enough enigma that we want to read on but enough drama that we’re engaged.’
Let’s end with some Nelle inspiration:
‘You have to write the book that you want to read and that you think isn’t there.’
‘Don’t be upset if only one agent puts their hand up. You only need one agent to change your life.’
Nelle Andrew joined RML in 2020. She previously worked as an agent at Peters Fraser and Dunlop for eleven years, and prior to that at Macmillan publishers. Nelle represents an array of internationally bestselling and award-winning authors across both fiction and non-fiction. Among those on her list are Sara Collins (winner of the Costa Debut fiction award), Jing-Jing Lee (a longlistee for the Women’s Fiction Prize and Walter Scott prize), Beth Underdown and Cecilia Ekback (HWA Goldsboro Award winners) and six Richard and Judy book club picks such as the bestselling Heidi Perks, Bryony Gordon and Elizabeth Day.
Nelle was a Bookseller Rising Star in 2016 and was shortlisted for Agent of the Year in 2018. Nelle also became a published author in her own right under the name Nelle Davy. She helped to build the Lucy Cavendish Fiction Prize for Unpublished Authors into one of the most eminent prizes for unpublished voices, and sat on the original board for The Sunday Times/PFD Young Writer’s Award.