Discoveries, Writer's Toolkit

‘An exercise in precision’ – a literary agent’s tips for writers

Discoveries judges Lucy Morris

In October, Lucy MorrisDiscoveries judge and literary agent at Curtis Brown – joined our panel event celebrating our 10th Grazia First Chapter Competition (watch in full here).

Alongside Hattie Brett, author Diana Evans and editor Kish Widyaratna, Lucy discussed what it takes to build a literary career, demystified the publishing process, and revealed exclusive insider tips on how to seek, and work with, a literary agent.

Here are some of crucial pieces of information Lucy gave to unpublished writers at every stage of their journey:

What is the role of an agent?

 “At the core of the agent’s job is selling rights and negotiating a good deal for the author. From the moment you begin working with an agent  they are absolutely in your corner, holding your hand through every step of the process.

The agent is Team Author, all the time, so they can be your dragon at the gates and have tricky conversations on your behalf!”

How do I find an agent?

“[Finding an agent] is about research and targeting, it’s not about finding ‘an agent’, it’s about finding the best agent for you. The best author-agent relationships are partnerships with shared goals, and they are relationships which can last an entire career.

Getting a really good sense of what kind of agents they are, what sorts of authors and books they represent. There are lots of resources – the Writers’ and Artists’ Yearbook, many agents have their own blogs, you can look through literary agency websites – and you can find lots of them on Twitter. 

Another tip: look in the Acknowledgements sections of novels and see if an agent is mentioned; it might be that a novel is tonally similar to yours or resonates in some way, so that might be someone you want to approach. 

From all this you can get a sense in as broad a way as possible of who you think you’d like to work with.

The first time you have a conversation with an agent, it is really important to get a good sense of whether that agent is right for you and your work. Having that shared vision is crucial to a happy and fruitful working relationship.”

What do I send to an agent?

“As a rule of thumb, a fiction writer should prepare a cover letter, a synopsis (giving away all your spoilers, which can be a hard cross to bear!) and the first three chapters or 10,000 words for an agent. One golden rule is: never submit your first draft.

A cover letter is an exercise in concision and persuasive prose. You want three or four paragraphs, in which you should pitch your novel, give an idea of genre, perhaps include some comparisons to other books, authors who inspire you, films and TV series which could further illustrate the story that you’ve written. 

And you need to include a bit of biography. Keep it short, and if you can get a sense of your voice across in the letter – even better!”

For more information about writing a synopsis for your Discoveries submission, read Curtis Brown Creative’s 14-step-guide

How long will an agent work with an author before taking a book to the next stage?

“Frustratingly, that is a ‘how long is a piece of string?’ question.

When I start working with a new author, I write them an editorial letter, which would be at least 3-4 pages, thinking about the various elements of the book — structure, plotting, character — and I would work out with the author how long they might need to let those changes percolate and to input them. Many writers have full time day jobs, so it can be a long process.

I don’t think I’ve ever submitted a book to a publisher without having done three drafts of the manuscript with the author beforehand. Sometimes it can be more, because books do change as they’re edited. 

The editorial process might be three months, it might be eighteen. The more you edit something, the more you need to spend time away from it, so it doesn’t feel like a slog, and you can feel that thrill of it coming together on the page.”

Where does Discoveries fit into this?

“With Discoveries, we want to really help demystify the publishing process, and are offering bespoke prize packages, tailored to each individual writer’s needs, with long periods of mentoring. 

We want to really help writers to develop their work towards that full, finished draft. We’re really excited about it, please do submit to us!”

Submissions are now open for our 2022 Discoveries writing development programme. Find more information on how to enter, plus our programme of free content and events, here > > > . The programme is open to all women aged 18 and above, residing in the UK or Ireland and writing in English. The programme accepts novels in any genre of adult fiction.

Find out more information on how to enter on the Curtis Brown Creative website > 

Make sure you follow the @WomensPrize channels on Twitter and Instagram to get the latest Discoveries news and writing inspiration.

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