The final word: an agent can get your book over the line

How to Write a Book: In the conclusion to our 12-part series, agents give advice about what they look for in a book and how to attract a publisher. An agent is not the sole route into publishing, but the experience of a good one can be pivotal

Our final week of How to Write a Book deals with what to some is the best part (completing a work, having it edit ready) or the worst (showing it to others and getting it published). Few publishers have open-submission policies. The slush pile exists, but many agree that to gain access to publishing houses and editors, an agent is hugely useful. It’s tempting for authors to rush their work just to get it to an agent, but this can be counter-productive.

Marianne Gunn O'Connor is one of the best-known agents working in Ireland; her clients include Patrick McCabe, Cecilia Ahern and Shane Hegarty. "Editors don't have the time they used to have to invest in editing a manuscript, so I would suggest getting it into the best possible shape before you submit it."

Sallyanne Sweeney is Irish and works at the London-based Mulcahy Associates. She is well aware that enthusiasm can cloud an author’s judgment when it comes to deciding whether a book is ready to be shown to publishers. “It’s understandable that having finished writing a book, many writers are eager to start submitting, but it can damage your chances of publication if you send it out before it’s ready.

“The best writers are rewriters, and, although I love the editorial process of working with an author, I need to see the potential before investing this time, which will be mostly during evenings and weekends. I’d advise submitting only when you can no longer see how to improve your work. It’s also important to learn patience, as the publishing process is slow: even once you have a publishing deal, it usually takes at least a year for your book to hit the shelves.”


Seek obective feedback

Sheila Crowley works at one of the most high-profile literary agencies, Curtis Brown, and looks after best-selling author Jojo Moyes. "I always encourage writers to seek feedback, but not from a friend or family member. Some writers are trying the self-publishing route as a way to find an agent or publisher and, for all the success stories we read about, there are many who have not established a sales track record."

Both Sweeney and Crowley point out prerequisites for submissions: no typos, a clear outline, pitch your manuscript to the right kind of editor. Researching the publisher or agent you plan to approach is crucial. “It’s also difficult when an author doesn’t have a sense of the market or genre in which they’re writing,” says Sweeney. “Your conviction will carry through to your story, and if you don’t know what it is you’re writing, it’s harder for an agent to see where they can potentially place it.”

Agents don't always know what they're looking for in an ideal manuscript. Lacklustre openings put Sweeney off. "I've lost count of the number of submissions I've read that begin with an alarm clock going off or descriptions of the weather (if you do begin this way, make sure it has a narrative purpose, as in Jane Eyre). On the flip side, I've sometimes known I wanted to represent a writer from the first line ("To understand what it meant to be a Hathaway you'd first have to see our farm, Aurelia," in Nelle Davy's The Legacy of Eden). I'm looking for that magical combination of a strong voice, engaging characters and a great story. There's no better feeling, and as agents it's our job to make publishers as excited as we are. Most of all, I want to be moved in some way by the writing, or simply blown away by the prose."

Gunn O’Connor likens the experience of finding a dream manuscript as “hard to define, like falling in love”. Plot and characters are important, but “it really doesn’t matter what genre you write once you get the voice right”.

Crowley also says voice is crucial, but so is great storytelling. “When reading, I want to feel I am present in every scene with the characters. Readers today are more discerning, as book clubs have broadened tastes and brought literary work to a mass market; but they are also time-poor, and in some cases cash-poor, so writers must aim higher with their stories and challenge their readers in some way.”

‘Swept away’

Francis Bickmore, an editor at Canongate Books, describes what has excited him about work that has come his way. "Like love, the moments of feeling swept away don't often come according to plan. And without wanting to strain the analogy, the experience of meeting an author does require a similar sense of chemistry, and of falling for someone's voice and worldview.

"With a writer like Mary Costello, whose debut novel we publish this October, within pages I was reeling from a sense of wonder. How can she cast such strong spells with so few words?

"With Yann Martel, it was a stay-up-all-night-reading experience. The euphoria of finishing a script at 5am that you haven't been able to put down is exactly the kind of feeling that makes us excited to publish books. Gary Fisketjon, the great American editor, had it brilliantly: 'I'm looking for the thing I don't know I'm looking for.' "

Agents can't read every manuscript or agree to represent every writer who approaches them. They're also not the sole route into publishing, as writers such as Donal Ryan or Eimear McBride will attest.

Engaging in the act of imagination that is writing and getting the words down are important, but Crowley warns writers to not forget that it is also a job. “Writing and publishing are a business, and authors need to know and understand the amount of hard work it takes to get a book published, be a best-seller or win an award.”

Gunn O’Connor also points out that we are living in very different times in terms of publishing. “People have so much to entertain them these days that writers are competing with social media and computer games. So, when you are starting out, don’t write for critics or to impress a publisher: write to impress the reader. Readers today are time-poor, so if you want them to spend their free time with you, entertain them.”

Sweeney repeats the idea of taking a break when you finish a manuscript, returning with fresh eyes and being brutal in the editing process.

"Work on your pitch – how would you describe your book in one sentence, one paragraph, one page? This is important when submitting to agents, but can also help you to notice plot holes or flaws in your narrative. Practise by trying to write a pitch of a book you love. And I love this Philip Pullman quote: 'Read like a butterfly, write like a bee.' "

The full series How to Write a Book is available at books/how-to-write


"Start with something that happened in your own life, or the life of someone you know, but be aware that fiction is not written about the real world – it is written about a parallel imaginative universe." Dermot Bolger

"I began with a character, and the reader meets this protagonist in the aftermath of a catastrophic event. Oliver [the main character] was very clear to me – I listened intently to him even though I had no idea where I was going with him." Liz Nugent

"For a novel, you do need a big idea. By which I mean an idea that feels big to you; there are lots of successful novels that wring grand meanings from an apparently tiny incident (The Slap by Christos Tsiolkas, say, which turns on a single event). A novel is long both to read and to write: you need a strong thread to follow through the labyrinth." Emma Donoghue

"If you faff about planning or musing, you'll never begin. Start writing and see where it leads you. Don't be in too much of a hurry; take your time and write every day. The words and the genre will follow if you show up and work." Nuala Ní Chonchúir

"[Characters] should be nagging at you for a long and unpleasant while, to the extent that you can hear and then render their voice at will. It can be masochistic fun to have this sense of a monster lurking inside you screaming and clawing to be made flesh on the page. If you get this character out and established, they should be capable of dictating everything else about the story." Kevin Barry

"Character, to me anyway, is everything. The different elements that make up a story can be discussed separately, but in the creation of the thing they fuse together: character, plot and setting come together at the same time. It's important to trust that if you know your characters very well then your plot will take shape out of this." Ross Raisin

"When I feel swamped, I write scene lists and timelines and try to work out who's where, when, why and what happens next. File cards are great when you work in this disorderly way: one card per scene containing a very brief description. Then spread them out on the kitchen table or tack them to a corkboard and look at the order. Move them around to see if they fit better somewhere else. Shuffle them to see what happens." Lia Mills

"The biggest pitfall is the assumption that dialogue in fiction should mimic dialogue in real life. So there's lots of faithful rendering that should get left out. Another is exposition in dialogue, wherein the author has the characters provide information they would never in real life provide." George Saunders

"The best way of developing your dialogue is to listen. If you resist the temptation to put on your headphones, and keep your ears open, you'll soon find that you've amassed a much bigger archive of voices than you expected." Paul Murray

"I like giving the reader a character or situation, where they might think they know about the characters or that they understand the situation; then I gradually reveal or develop more detail so that the reader keeps having to revise their sense of what is going on." Jon McGregor

"I always have the place in mind years before I start a book. It's in the fabric of the first bit of the first idea. That's the most fun of the work, daydreaming about the place you're going to write about. If you're certain about place and comfortable with it, it'll just seep into your sentences." Willy Vlautin

"[The third-person narrator is] the God voice. It can be sweeping, cinematic, like an overhead crane shot, while first-person can be conversational, slippery, totally subjective. Free indirect speech – where the narrative is in third person but is fluid enough to flit in and out of the characters' psyches – can be a really flexible way to tell a story." Pete Murphy

"In the Banville book I'm currently writing, I began to write a section in the form of a letter written by one of the characters. After a few thousand words I decided to go back and read what I'd written, and was appalled by how bad it was, precisely because the tone was wrong. So bad was it, indeed, that I scrapped the idea of the letter altogether." John Banville

"Every time you put a fact into a novel, the novel dies a tiny bit. Insert the factual sparingly and atone for your sin by writing three really beautiful sentences for every fact. It's a sort of reafforestation system. The ecology of the novel depends on facts being hunted down and, ideally, made extinct." Joseph O'Connor

"It's not a brilliant idea to have a novel full only of gorgeous sentences that do nothing other than abut each other, showing off. The happiest scenario is a compelling plot that raises questions, which the writer meets and manipulates with the right, gobsmacking lexicon. I look for the moment a reader will say to herself, 'Yes. That is how life is. Except I've never heard it put like that.' " Jessie Burton

"Kill your darlings and take the time to allow a manuscript to evolve through editing. If people tell you it gets good at chapter six, cut the first five chapters. You should remember that no editor realistically has time to look at a novel twice. Make the most of your one shot." Francis Bickmore, editor, Canongate

"John McGahern's working methods were the same: write and write, and recast and rewrite, like reducing a fine sauce for a fine meal. The result is a novel in which every word counts and every sentence sings: that is the importance of rewriting." Lee Brackstone, editor, Faber & Faber