There’s a prize for the best second novel isn’t there?

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I’ve just been to collect my dog from her country seat (she stayed for a few days to keep my in-laws company when all the noise and children and fun suddenly disappeared a few days after Christmas).  I could have asked another member of the family to go to get her, but secretly what I really wanted was two lovely train journeys to finish the book I was reading.

This was a book I knew terribly well – but it transpired, as I read it, not at all.

Vigilante by Shelley Harris is published on January 8th.  I’m trying to remember when I first heard of Shelley’s wonderful idea of a woman who is so determined to be someone that she creates an alter ego for herself, but it may be as long ago as July, 2010, when Shelley’s debut Jubilee was the subject of a four-way auction in a two book deal, and Vigilante was just a twinkle in its author’s eye.  I  read an early draft  in the autumn of 2012, and I could tell then that it was going to be fantastic: Jenny Pepper was such a straightforward and loveable character, who was so determined to matter… very recognisable.  And her husband Elliott with his cool job (he’s a designer), and his apparent confidence was instantly likeable and recognisable too.  But like every early draft of any book I’ve ever read, it needed work.  We discussed the book in Patisserie Valerie over coffee and cakes, and then I didn’t see it for a while.  The next edits were done by Shelley’s very sharp editor, Kirsty Dunseath at Weidenfeld and Nicolson.  Shelley and Kirsty kept me in the loop as to what changes were being made, and then suddenly last month I had a finished copy in my hand.  I wanted to read it before Christmas, but didn’t want to read this precious book through a mulled-wine addled filter.

So I waited for my train journey.

What is so extraordinary is that the book is the same book I read a while back, and yet it felt utterly different.  Jenny hadn’t changed in her essence, but now she is fully fleshed out, I’m with her every step of the way.  Where once I was admiring the concept, I’m now fully engaged, so much so that the author (‘my’ author) falls away, and I’m just galloping through the pages.

Shelley would be the first to say that the second book is a difficult thing.  As an agent you’re very privileged to be party  to that difficulty, but though you try to help, there’s really not much you can do other than offer tea and gags and thank God you‘re not an author.  So isn’t it ridiculous that I’ve come away from reading Vigilante feeling … incredibly proud.  I’m proud to be associated with the book, proud to see what Shelley has achieved, and excited to see that the very first national review sees the book as a bestseller.

There IS a prize for the best second novel: it’s The Encore award.  I’m not saying Shelley should win it (though that would be dandy) but it’s great that such a prize does exist.  It’s a huge thing to follow up a big successful debut – and very very satisfying to see that challenge NAILED.

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If I were an octopus, but eyes wise not tentacles wise

JoUnwin

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I love getting post.  I love getting signed contracts, proof copies, invitations to parties… and I love receiving unsolicited submissions, because there is always the possibility that one of them is going to change the course of my career (and the author’s, obviously!)

I don’t think I’m alone amongst Literary Agents when I say that the working day starts the moment I wake up and check my phone for overnight emails from abroad, or early risers, or night owls – and there are always several.  I’m certainly not alone when I say that the working day ends when I turn off my bedside light.  

If you follow this blog, you’ll know that I absolutely love my job, but there is never enough time.  I would love to be able to hold down a full time job, and read four or more novels a night, but sadly that is not possible.  I have a…

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I love getting post.  I love getting signed contracts, proof copies, invitations to parties… and I love receiving unsolicited submissions, because there is always the possibility that one of them is going to change the course of my career (and the author’s, obviously!)

I don’t think I’m alone amongst Literary Agents when I say that the working day starts the moment I wake up and check my phone for overnight emails from abroad, or early risers, or night owls – and there are always several.  I’m certainly not alone when I say that the working day ends when I turn off my bedside light.  

If you follow this blog, you’ll know that I absolutely love my job, but there is never enough time.  I would love to be able to hold down a full time job, and read four or more novels a night, but sadly that is not possible.  I have a house, a husband, teenagers, a dog, parents, friends, siblings, sibs-in-law, nieces, nephews, a garden, laundry… and there is very, very rarely time to read during office hours.  

We have to give priority to the authors we already represent, because they pay our wages, so sadly the unsolicited submissions gets smooshed into a very short reading window – almost always in my case an hour or two over the weekend.  

Now you know what it’s like when you go into a bookshop:  you have a fairly good idea of the shelves where you are likely to find something right for you.  You can flick through a book and pretty quickly get a sense of whether you’re interested or not.  Like it or not, that is often how I prioritise my own reading.  Something will grab me, quickly get under my skin, excite me. Something else… just won’t.  I’ll read a few pages, and if the book isn’t getting to me, then I recognise that I’m not going to be the best person to champion it through the publishing process.  So it goes on my ‘no’ pile.

And then, because of the aforementioned teenagers, great-uncles, dog and laundry (just checking how closely you’re reading this  – he’s ninety-nine) I send a fairly standard ‘rejection’ letter.  I try to be very clear that what doesn’t grab me may well thrill someone else: there are hundreds of books in my own house that I’d never dream of reading, my sons and husband just don’t share my taste. But there simply isn’t time to write and tell you why it’s not for me.

 

Now I know – honestly I do – what courage it takes to send your work off to agents at all, and I can well imagine how disappointing it must be to get a response that hasn’t been personalised to you. The good news is that if you are looking for feedback, there are other places to try.  Try critical but supportive friends, consultancies, freelance editors, writing workshops, writing groups… anyone who reads A LOT and will be honest (so not your mum, or someone who owes you money)

This isn’t an apology but I do wish I could give every unpublished author who approached me  some personal feedback. It feels discourteous not to do so.  But it’s just not possible.  There are pants to wash.  And I STILL haven’t read Wolf Hall.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Writers’ and Editors’ Retreat in Burgundy – August 2nd-9th 2014

 

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Are you starting a new book, working on your second draft, grappling with an edit? Do you need to escape somewhere to spend a week on it?   I’m running a Writers’ Retreat in France for the first week of August.  The venue is Le Manoir de Thoires in deep rural Burgundy. It’s incredibly peaceful, with lots of space to daydream, write, sleep, swim… There’s a river at the bottom of the garden where kingfishers dart about the little rowing boat, there’s a swimming pool surrounded by roses.  There’s very little to do, and lots and lots of space to do it in. We’ll have the whole place to ourselves.

I’ll provide all food and drink (breakfast and cold lunch, cooked supper) so you really can concentrate on what you want to think about, and I will offer each course participant a one-to-one session on any aspect of their work during the course of the week, as well as group talks and activities.  (Nothing is compulsory – if  chatting about writing and books isn’t your bag there is enough space to avoid all of that!)

There are seven spaces, or more if you’re happy to share a room.  There won’t be more than twelve people, and I’ll try to put a nice group of people together.   It’s not the height of luxury, but it’s comfortable and peaceful and very, very beautiful.

The price is £600 per head or £400 per person for two people sharing.  You need to get there, but you shouldn’t have to spend much money once you’re there, though there is plenty of sightseeing and nice market towns nearby.

Get in touch if you’re interested – jo@jounwin.co.uk – it would be lovely to see you there.

 

 

 

 

 

Hats off and Legs up

I could never write a book. I don’t have the determination, the tenacity, the confidence in my idea… in fact don’t have an idea in the first place. 


It’s a pity because, let’s face it, I am incredibly well-connected in the book world. I work all day long with authors, agents, editors, marketing experts, sales gurus, publicists, designers. And if I WERE to write a book (which we’ve established I’m not) I would have a pretty good idea of what to do with it.


So wouldn’t it be great if the people who were writing the books could have a leg up occasionally. They’ve earned it, and deserve it. And let’s face it, there are people who are going to get that kind of leg up just because of who their parents are. My kids for example. If they were ever to write a book. Which isn’t looking likely just now as they’re not out of bed yet, but who knows?


So I’m very proud – and interested – to be part of the WoMentoring Project. Kerry Hudson has inspired women across the publishing industry to try a new approach. It’s taken her own determination, tenacity and confidence – AND she’s written at least one superb book.  Hats off to her.  

 

Read about the WoMentoring Project here:

 

http://womentoringproject.co.uk

 

 

BOOK FAIRS!

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Looking at my own and other tweets, you’d have thought the Bologna Children’s book fair was a massive jolly for publishers and agents every year.  And yes we are jolly in the main, but waking up this morning to no meetings but the literally hundreds of emails that have arrived over the last three days, I thought I might have a quick go at trying to describe what a book fair actually is.  (The sharp-eyed reader will spot the issue at the heart of the previous sentence – ok yes – I’m procrastinating)

Discussing with colleagues, admittedly over a bowl of particularly delicious pasta and on to our third glass of wine, but I’m sticking with ‘discussing with colleagues’, we started to identify the particular feeling of cheery excitement and utter dread that takes over as you approach a fair.

For a few days you will be sitting at a little table as every half hour, on the half hour, from 9 until 6, with no gaps for lunch or even a wee, publishers from all over the world come to you, hoping that you are going to make their fortune.  Are you the agent that has the book that is going to make their sales soar, win them awards, help them keep their jobs?  There’ll  also be discussions about books that are already ‘out there’ – could they be doing better?  We agents will be pushing the publishers to be sure that they are doing everything they possibly can to get the attention our beloved books deserve, and they’ll be courting us in the hopes that when we have the next big thing – they’ll be the first to hear about it.  So as an agent you need to be nimbly diplomatic, and terrier-like in your determination and enthusiasm.  (Note to self: well done me, have managed to include a dog)  Publishers are being sent hundreds and hundreds of books at this time of year.  How to be sure that yours won’t get overlooked, merely glanced at, put to one side?

This year is particularly horrendous for people who represent both children’s and adults books as I do, because we have a week off and then go straight into the London Book Fair.  At this time of year editors are being sent SEVERAL BOOKS A DAY.  It just isn’t humanly possible to read them all. So whilst submitting a book before a fair can result in a storm of international auctions, it can also mean that a perfectly crafted gem gets overlooked by a louder, more immediate book.

And ‘normal work’ goes on.  Existing clients deliver their drafts, and anxiously await feedback.  Prospective authors keep sending in the manuscripts that they’ve been working on for years.  Two have popped into my inbox in the twenty minutes I’ve taken to write this.

But I’m not complaining – I’m really not.  I’m staying in a lovely hotel, I’m meeting up with friends from all over the world, and I’m working with the books I love. My excitement and determination for them is utterly genuine, but there is an actual limit to how much you can fit into one day. So far, going for a morning run has curiously not featured.

Don’t nod off – I’m talking about my book – it took me three years to write. It’s really good…

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This is a very quick post.  I went out the other night, to an event where authors read some of their work to a few interested agents, editors and other authors.

Some people read electrifyingly well, made their work sing, but other authors were so shy that before you knew it the audience was chatting over their pints.  It felt so unfair – an opportunity for authors to have their hard work appreciated, and they simply didn’t have the skills to make themselves heard.

So I came up with this workshop.   I hope it’ll be fun.

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