I am late for my interview with Faith O’Grady, having got lost en route, and when I arrive, all huffing and puffing and wielding an enormous scrapbook to take notes in rather than a regular notepad (long story) I feel like Ireland’s answer to Bridget Jones.
But Faith, who heads up the literary division of the Lisa Richards Agency, couldn’t be nicer about it.
“It’s a tricky area around here, the door numbers tend to jump. Don’t worry about it.”
It’s funny she should mention tricky areas because that’s exactly what we’re here to talk about: breaking into fiction as a debut author. I’ve spoken to quite a few agents and publishers at this stage, so I know the situation is bleak, but what’s her take on it?
“It is difficult,” she acknowledges. “There are only a few of us [agents] in Ireland and we do get a huge amount of manuscripts in – for me, it’s around 75–80 a week.”
Faith represents a mixture of fiction and non-fiction talent: in the former camp, the likes of ChristineDwyer Hickey, Paul Howard (aka Ross O’Carroll-Kelly) Tara Heavey, Anna McPartlin, Sheena Wilkinson and Amy Huberman; in the latter, Matt Cooper, Nicholas Roche, Des Bishop, Declan Lynch and John Giles.
However, she’s become more cautious about signing up new clients in the past few years.
“When I first started in 1998, I would have taken on quite a few authors initially – a lot more fiction writers certainly. But it has become really difficult to break new authors through. That means if I’m taking someone on I have to know exactly where I’m sending their book; who it will be of interest to. It can’t be vague.”
Increasingly she says manuscripts have to be pristine – “there is just less and less time to work on submissions these days” – but she’s not dogmatic about it. If she spots talent, even if it’s a little raggedy around the edges, she won’t dismiss it out of hand.
“I have taken on authors where they’ve had to go back and do quite a bit of work. Other times I won’t take them on but I’ll ask them to send me in a revised manuscript so I can take a second look. It doesn’t happen that often, but it does happen.”
In any event, real talent hits you instantly, she says.
“I know that’s quite clichéd, but it’s true. Something strikes you very quickly about the voice; the world they’ve created, the confidence of the writing.”
The problem is sustaining it, she adds. “The other problem may be that the writing is solid and the characters are intriguing, but I don’t know where to place it – it may not have a strong enough storyline or fit into a particular genre.”
And then we come to that much-hyped, often misunderstood term: the hook. In reality, how important is it?
“I don’t want to overemphasize hook because you can add one in or make something very concept driven when it doesn’t actually fit and doesn’t feel like a true part of the story.
“However, on the flip side, an editor will have to pitch your manuscript to maybe fifteen other people at an acquisitions meeting and get across, in a few sentences, what’s so special and unique about it. So, for example, Artemis Fowl by Eoin Colfer was pitched as ‘Die Hard with fairies’. That’s the hook.”
She also mentions the likes of The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas and One Day, as well as her own client Paul Howard, whose latest book, Triggs, is an autobiography of Roy Keane’s dog. “It has a great twist, a great hook and is hilarious, obviously.”
She says the best ones are often quite simple. “But they need to have depth too. Something like The Help had a great hook, about the American south, but from the black servants’ perspective, which was quite original. And obviously the writing was good too.”
Ultimately she says, this latter credential– “the super duper writing that will take your breath away” – is what it’s all about, but it’s rare.
“I’ll get in something maybe once or twice a year that makes me feel like that. It mightn’t necessarily be literary; it could be an author doing something brilliantly in their specific genre: a crime novel you just can’t put down, for example. But, yes, it is a rare thing.”
Fifty shades of imitation?
And what of commercial fiction – what position does it occupy in this brave new world?
“Well, it’s all about erotic fiction at the moment, isn’t it?” She says, with a grin, referencing the e-book sensation of 2012, the Fifty Shades trilogy. [Thus ensues a rather amusing and detailed ten-minute ‘analysis’ of the books, with much guffawing on both our parts.]
“I think the way they have packaged and marketed that trilogy is quite interesting. It doesn’t look like erotica – it looks quite arty. I think that has been very carefully done.” She believes there will be “millions” of imitators but isn’t quite convinced it’s more than a flash in the literary pan.“Everyone is a bit bemused by the scale of its success and it is interesting to try to understand why it has suddenly got so huge.”
I ask her whether she thinks the Kindle effect has had something to do it.
“I suppose people were able to read it privately on Kindle, and then it became this e-book phenomenon. When Random House bought it, they were afraid the e-book would have gobbled up the physical book market but it hasn’t.”
Faith puts it down to our desire for pure escapism –“Twilight was exactly the same” – and says, even though it’s a different genre, crime also taps into this need to escape. “Crime is massive. Think of all the Scandinavian crime around at the moment. I have recently taken on children’s writer Mark O’Sullivan, whose new debut crime novel is comparable to The Killing – really beautifully written and really gritty. It will be published in spring 2013 by Transworld.”
The message she keeps hearing from publishers and booksellers is that people don’t want to read anything too depressing, she says.
“Crime is far enough away from our ordinary lives to be escapist, even if it’s dark. And readers are also going for purely uplifting books, as well as accessible literary fiction and nostalgia. Nostalgia is big at the moment.” However, she adds that it’s too easy to get bogged down with categorization: “A good book is a good book. And agents and publishers generally – but not always! – know when it turns up. If an author can make me laugh and cry in one book, I am immediately captivated.”
Recurring plot lines
Although Faith receives thousands of manuscripts a year, she says certain ideas re-occur. “I get a lot of stories about men having nervous breakdowns. There will be a lot of hangovers, but not much happening. And they tend to be very depressing.”
She also says (quite amazingly, given the liberal times we live in) that people are still writing about subjects more attached to our past, such as the stigma of getting pregnant out of wedlock. “The canvas can be quite small here. Those books are not going to find publishers unless they’re brilliantly written or have some brilliant new insight into these subjects. I think people need to be a little more ambitious in terms of what they’re writing. For that purpose, I would encourage them to read lots. And read as a writer. Analyze what makes a good book work. Look at what is doing well in the market, and why that is.”
Turning from macro to micro, I ask Faith about the conventions of submitting, with particular focus on every writer’s enemy: the synopsis. What’s the point of it? How long should it be? Is it okay to throw your computer at the wall while trying to write one?
“I know writers find them almost impossible,” acknowledges Faith. “I ask for them so that when I’m finished reading the opening chapters I know where the book is going. All I want is a brief one-pager.
She says that while a synopsis is merely a factual accompaniment to your manuscript, if you can write it “in an interesting way that is not too tricksy, that is good”.
However, she underlines it is your two-sentence pitch that is really crucial.
“I just don’t think people are getting it right. I’m talking about the short pitch paragraph in your cover letter, which essentially should be a pithy, intriguing blurb. People often confuse it with the theme, and say something like ‘this is a story about passion and loss’, which, unfortunately, doesn’t tell me much and is far too vague.
“What I need to know is, what is the plot catalyst? What sets off the dramatic conflict? This usually happens in the first 30 or so pages, so you need to think about what that is. Who are the main characters and what is the setting? I really recommend looking at the blurbs on the back of published books to give you an idea of what I am looking for.”
Now and into the future
Currently Faith says she is receiving “a huge amount of every type of novel” though the door: crime, literary, commercial, and a lot of children and young adult (YA) books too.
“I also handle a lot of non-fiction, for example: memoir, humour, sport and current affairs,” she explains. “But this often comes about through word of mouth or recommendation.
“Sometime I pitch ideas to a non-fiction writer, sometimes publishers ask me to find someone to write on a particular subject or a well-known person might approach me to find a publisher for their memoir, but I do sometimes get unsolicited non-fiction submissions as well.
Within the children’s and YA category, she says Irish writers display strong talent.
“There are a lot of twenty-somethings writing teen and children’s fantasy, including my own client, Laura Jane Cassidy, whose latest novelEighteen Kisses is just out. And adult writers like Pauline McLynn, also a client, are turning to YA too. [Her latest book, Jenny Q-Stitched Up was published in June, read her interview with writing.ie here.] It’s a growing scene.”
Faith believes that new markets are going to open up in Irish fiction, such as books that reflect our multicultural diversity. “I think in the future there may be an Irish White Teeth or Brick Lane, and I look forward to that.”
In terms of taking on new fiction writers, Faith acknowledges that times are tough and that she has to feel completely passionate about both the book and the person before she will sign them up. “There’s no point in me taking on somebody if I’m not quite sure. These days, if I feel like that, I just have to say no.” It’s seems pretty unforgiving for those writers out there who have genuine talent but aren’t the finished article yet. However, on this note, Faith offers a nugget of hope.
“I’ve turned down authors who’ve come back to me with a second or third novel that’s absolutely brilliant. It’s just taken them a while to find their voice, which is totally understandable.
“The thing is when I take on an author, I work closely with them, stick with them and try to maximize their writing potential. Their book may be considered a bit quiet – it mightn’t have a huge hook – but if I choose to take someone on, it means I have total belief in them, will be behind them one hundred percent and will do my absolute utmost to find the best home for their work.”