As the National Creative Writing Graduate Fair on the 3rd November draws closer, we asked literary agent Jonathan Ruppin to share some insights into what exactly he is looking for from a pitch.
Tickets are still on sale for this dedicated event for emerging creative writers. Join us for a full day of panels, talks and workshops exploring topics like working with agents and editors, writing the perfect synopsis, and digital opportunities for writers. Plus, pitch your work to two literary agents – you could even be pitching to Jonathan!
Full programme, more info, and tickets available on the National Creative Writing Graduate Fair website now.
My inbox as an agent in 2017 is very different from what used to turn up in the post when I first worked as an agent’s assistant nearly 20 years ago.
In those days, when email was new, when would-be authors sent printed-out pages in jiffy bags, with stamps inside for the manuscript’s return, the book world was fundamentally different from how it is now.
That majority of submissions could be discounted with the most cursory of reads, for a number of reasons: they weren’t the sort of book the agency handled, they constituted an out-of-date view of the market, or the inadequacies of the writing or the synopsis were blatant.
But in the years since, writing courses have burgeoned, and the internet has swollen with advice and forums, meaning that writers need not make a pitch without feedback on their writing, or informed insight on the viability of what they’re sending. As a result, by far the majority of what is being submitted these days is of good quality.
So, if I have an inbox full of novels with enthralling plots and engaging characters, what is it that makes something stand out?
Well, after checking that the writer has the sense to ensure that the opening few lines aren’t loaded with clichés, the first thing is dialogue. As legendary American agent and editor Noah Lukeman notes in The First Five Pages, his invaluable book for writers looking for agents, dialogue is an extremely reliable guide to a writer’s skill: it’s essential, it’s very difficult to get right and it stands out when you don’t.
But what then? Most of all, it’s a sense that the story being told is part of something larger. The time and place of a novel isn’t just a backdrop, offering up descriptive details to colour the story – it is its context, the guiding force that shapes the possibilities of characters’ lives. I’m looking for the world that the writer has imagined beyond what’s on the page.
I want to understand why the writer has chosen these people and this scenario – why does this story need to be told? Do you feel like Maya Angelou when she wrote in I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, ‘There is no greater agony than bearing an untold story inside you’?
This is a valid principle for commercial fiction as well, not just books of a more literary stripe. Readers are sensitive to the subtlest of nuances, even if they don’t always consciously consider them, and they will weary quickly of what is cynical, disingenuous or lackadaisical.
When it comes to non-fiction, I’m in the position of having been in the trade long enough to observe the way that categories reinvent themselves to stay fresh and relevant.
For example, where once history books were all about wars and kings and empires, now they are as likely to tell the readers what life would have been like for them had they lived as an Ancient Roman proletarian or a mediaeval serf or a civilian in the Blitz. Travel writing, meanwhile, has left behind the postcolonial accounts of intrepid white men; now it draws from other disciplines such as nature writing, politics and confessional memoir.
Non-fiction requires more than just expertise; the books that resonate do so either because they reveal the wonder of the particular, or because they place their insights in the greater firmament of human understanding. Whether writing autobiography or cosmology, capturing a moment or surveying deep time, I’m looking for authors who combine intimacy with ambition.
The link between what I’m looking for, with both fiction and non-fiction, is scope and scale. In her essay collection The Writing Life, Pulitzer Prize winner Annie Dillard, offers two discrete metaphors, the path and the ladder, for the evolutionary nature of writing, how what at first seems a central tenet is often left behind as the book grows.
She uses the image of the path to show how redrafting incorporates the shedding of ideas that are revealed as simplistic or misguided. ‘The path’, she says, ‘is not the work. I hope your tracks have grown over; I hope the birds ate the crumbs; I hope you will toss it all and not look back.’
The ladder, she explains later in the book, is climbed in darkness, one careful step at a time. But at the top, ‘The sun hits you. The bright wideness surprises you; you had forgotten there was an end. You look back at the ladder’s two feet on the distant grass, astonished.’
Writers who are bold enough to have set out upon a journey from certainty to terra incognita are those who produce the sort of books that I zealously recommended as a bookseller, that have become part of me as a reader, that are what I am seeking as an agent.
Jonathan Ruppin founded The Ruppin Agency in 2017, offering representation to authors of adult fiction and non-fiction. He spent nearly two decades in book retail, working for chains and indies, developing close relationships with all of the UK’s major publishers. He’s been a judge of numerous literary awards, including the Costa Novel Award, the Geoffrey Faber Memorial Award, the Desmond Elliott Prize and the Romantic Novelists’ Association awards. His journalism encompasses television, radio and print, including The Bookseller magazine’s Paperback Preview, and he has interviewed authors including Eleanor Catton, David Mitchell and Sebastian Barry at the Southbank Centre and Foyles. He sits on Engilsh PEN’s Writers in Translation committee.
Jonathan Ruppin, The Ruppin Agency
http://www.ruppinagency.com, Twitter: @tintiddle