CBC and Curtis Brown are proud to be partnering with the Women’s Prize Trust and Audible to run Discoveries, a writing development prize and programme, which offers practical support and encouragement to aspiring female novelists of all ages and backgrounds, from across the UK and Ireland.
Jess Molloy joined the Curtis Brown literary department in October 2019 having previously worked at Curtis Brown in the talent and comedy department and within talent management for over eight years. She assists Cathryn Summerhayes with her brilliant and eclectic list. Jess is also one of the team working behind the scenes on Discoveries 2022, and is a reader for the prize.
We caught up with Jess to find out more about what it is like working at a literary agency, what she enjoys reading and her advice for writers submitting to Discoveries 2022.
You joined the Curtis Brown book department in 2019 after previously working in the talent and comedy department. What inspired you to make the transition from talent management to the book side of agenting?
I always had a soft spot for the book department – whenever I used to walk through it I would stare longingly at all the shelves of lovely books, it felt like a magical and mythical place to me! I loved working on the talent side of things, and TV and Comedy remain huge passions of mine, but for a long time I had been aware of having a keen desire to have more of a hand in making something tangible. My background is in technical theatre and design so I’ve always enjoyed collaborating on and making creative projects and the work I now do in the literary department allows me to have much more hands on involvement in the creation and publication of books – my favourite tangible object! As a literary agent you can be involved from very early on in the process, and sees things right through to the end, taking such pride in supporting an author on that publishing journey. The process has really satisfied that urge in me to collaborate and help create things.
Can you describe a typical day of work in a literary agency?
The great thing about the job is that every day is so varied, and no two days ever really feel the same. There are many different elements to the job: client care and development, networking and relationship development with publishers, contract drafting, deal negotiation, editorial, cover art consideration, marketing and PR conversations and reading… a lot of reading! It speaks to people who thrive at multitasking and enjoy jumping from one project to another, using different parts of your brain in quick succession. It’s very engaging and for me, a key thing I have always enjoyed about agenting, is the communication and opportunity to forge strong, mutually beneficial relationships with all sorts of different people.
What are some common errors you’ve noticed in submissions from new writers – and do you have any advice on how they can be avoided?
There are a few key things you can do to really polish your submission. Doing some proper research on the agent you are submitting to and explaining why you think they will like your idea goes a long way to piquing interest in the first instance and keeps your submission from feeling like you have done a blanket approach. It also helps you get the agents name correct! After that, a really killer and succinct elevator pitch and a punchy cover letter that offers shades of your personality makes me excited to read a synopsis. You shouldn’t really be repeating yourself between your cover letter and your synopsis. They are two different pieces of writing that offer different opportunities to sell your writing, so make sure they feel clearly defined and complement each other well.
Many new writers struggle with writing a synopsis, do you have any top tips to help them communicate their story effectively?
You need to be able to pinpoint your key plot points and important characters so that we don’t get bogged down in minutiae and over-complicated exposition resulting in an overly long and confusing synopsis. I think it can help to practice refining your two-line elevator pitch and then expanding one or two paragraphs at a time, each time thinking if I only have two paragraphs to get the key information across, which elements would be essential, and then as you increase your paragraphs you can expand on the essential elements until you feel comfortable that you’ve succinctly highlighted everything that a reader needs to understand about your book, without holding them by the hand through the entire detailed plot.
Who is your favourite fictional character?
This is such a hard question… when I was younger it was a running joke among many of my friends that I had a new fictional obsession every week, and nothing has really changed so it’s impossible to choose just one. I’m definitely drawn to complicated, slightly broken characters, who have a good heart but are caught in difficult circumstances and are just trying to do their best. A perfect example of that would be Ryan Cusack from Lisa McInerney’s ‘Unholy Trinity’. I also love a grumpy but noble detective… Jackson Brodie has my heart, especially because he was so perfectly brought to life by Jason Isaacs in the BBC Case Histories series. Perfect casting!
What was your favourite book of 2021?
Another tricky one – I think probably Open Waterby Caleb Azumah Nelson. I read that in early 2021, when we were coming out of another miserable lock down and the weather was awful. It was almost painful how evocative the writing was, especially of warm summer nights and parties where anything feels possible, which at the time of reading felt like a distant memory. There is so much tenderness in his writing, it taught me a lot about trauma and communication and how to practice being compassionate and kind to yourself. I also really enjoyed Roddy Doyle’s short story collection Life Without Children which is set during lockdown in Ireland. I thought reading pandemic stories would be draining but it was completely the opposite. I related to every single one of those middle-aged men and it reminded me of what a strange and universal experience we’ve just lived through.
You are part of the Discoveries team and one of the readers. What will you be looking for from entrants?
I did both rounds of reading for Discoveries 2021 and found it so enjoyable so I’m delighted to be part of the team this year, and to be returning to the reading. I’m looking for stories with big heart and emotionally accessible characters who stay with me long after I’ve finished reading. It doesn’t need to be too polished or perfect, quite the opposite, I love the feeling of reading work where you can instantly feel the buzz of potential and get excited about talking about it with others and imagining the path for that author and their story.