31 May 2018

Susan Armstrong: I’m looking for an original love story – and a dark ghost story

Sue Armstrong, Agent at C+W
by Katie Smart

Susan Armstrong is an agent at C+W with a reputation for taking great care over the astute and intelligent editorial work she does with her clients before sending their manuscripts out to publishers. Amongst others, she represents former CBC student James Hannah , who took our second-ever novel-writing course back in 2011 and wrote The A to Z of You and Me – plus the much-loved CBC tutor and award winning author Simon Wroe. Here we catch up with Sue to find out how she became an agent and what she looks for in a submission.

Can you tell us how you became an agent and what you love most about your job?
The first time I heard about literary agents was when I was doing work experience at Bloomsbury and heard Christopher Little’s name (JK Rowling’s agent at the time). I couldn’t imagine anything more wonderful than being the first person to read a writer’s work, to discover new talent and nurture their career. So I started cold-calling agencies to see if they had any positions, and C+W (then Conville & Walsh) offered me an internship. That was 13 years ago, and from there I became Clare Conville’s assistant, and then an agent in my own right. I’ve never looked back and feel very fortunate to work for an agency of C+W’s calibre.

There’s a wonderful variety of work involved in being an agent, which I love: negotiating a new deal, monitoring a publication plan, editing a manuscript, reading through the Talent Pool (aka Slush Pile), working with the translation rights team and a film agent on a book etc. But one particular joy is the moment you tell an author that they have an offer on the table and are going to be published for the first time. It can be life-changing and is always delightful.

What was the first book you ever represented and sold to a publisher?  
The wonderfully imaginative and brilliant Ali Shaw was the first author I ever took on, and his debut novel, The Girl With Glass Feet was the first novel I ever sold. We had an auction, which was rather fun for my first deal and the book was a great success – winning the Desmond Elliott Prize, being shortlisted for the Costa First Novel Award, and longlisted for the Guardian First Book Award and the Dylan Thomas Prize. Ali has since published two other novels and is now writing his first book for Young Adults called The Folded World (it’s amazing!).

What are you looking for at the moment, and what grabs your attention when a submission lands on your desk?  
There are two things in particular that I’m really hungry for at the moment. The first is an intelligent, original, contemporary love story. Nothing mushy but perhaps a bit dark and surprising, or warm and smart. It must be original and have great characterisation, writing and emotional impact.

The other type of novel I’m looking for right now is a dark (I like dark) high-concept ghost story – ghosts or witches. I adore speculative fiction so anything that has a touch of the ‘other’ about it (fantastical, SF, supernatural, magical etc) gets me interested – but I like it to stay grounded i.e. it would need to be a book that could sit on the general fiction shelves rather than genre.

When it comes to what crosses my desk/lands in my Inbox, it’s vital that the first few pages grab me. I receive over 100 submissions a week and they all come directly into my Inbox. I look at every single one and pull out those which catch my eye to look at in more detail (around 15 a week). As to what it crucially is that makes a novel catch my eye – well, for me it tends to come down to voice and pitch. I’m always excited to find a writer with a unique and engaging voice – so when I discover one, I immediately pull it out of the pile. And given how many books I read (both published and in submissions) it’s very refreshing to see a new pitch/idea. It doesn’t have to be super high-concept (though I do love this!) – but it needs to be fresh and distinctive, and to open my eyes to something I’ve not seen before.

Personally I don’t care if there are spelling mistakes/grammatical errors in a submission. We all make those. It’s a writer’s ability to spin a great yarn that counts.

You’re a judge on the e-harmony/Trapeze ‘Write Your Own Love Story’ competition. What are the kinds of qualities you look for in romantic fiction?
A love story doesn’t have to be romantic, does it? I wouldn’t describe Wuthering Heights as romantic, but that’s the wonderful thing about a love story – it can be romantic or fiercely gothic; gentle or wildly intense; happy ever after or heartbreakingly doomed! I think you can tell which I prefer here, but I’m also a sucker for a warm, uplifting love story if it’s smartly done.

The voice and characters have to be vivid, intriguing and sympathetic, despite their flaws (and they must have flaws) – I have to want to spend a significant amount of time with them (likely a few hundred pages). I also want to be moved by their story whatever it may be – tears are good! Ultimately I want a story I am desperate to share with everyone I know. A must-read.

Do you think, with the general sense of a beginning of a decline for domestic noir, and the rise in so called ‘up-lit’, that readers are hungry for contemporary love stories?
I think there’s a real hunger for love stories, and particularly for inspiring, contemporary ones. My sense is that they went a bit out of fashion, it’s been all about the dark and the deadly and I suspect that’s not going anywhere, but I know lots of readers who are longing for something that asks ‘will they, won’t they?’ rather than ‘whodunnit?’.

Are there any particular love stories/romantic novels from recent years which have particularly stood out for you, and why?
I really adored Happiness For Humans  by P.Z. Reizin, which is incredibly fresh, razor sharp, unexpected and witty. The Man Who Didn’t Call by Rosie Walsh is also very good. It has a wonderful warmth, sense of intrigue and great characters. A love story debut that I’m looking forward to reading when it’s out next year is The Flatshare by Beth O’Leary and that’s entirely based on the brilliantly original pitch (see Quercus’ website).

What’s your top tip for new writers who are searching for an agent?
Top tip(s): Really think about what you want from an agent and then do your research. Approach agencies who clearly pay attention to the Talent Pool and have a strong track record at launching new writers. Keep your submission letter succinct and engaging, and make sure your first chapter is distinctive. Remember that every writer receives decliners; that there’s always a level of subjectivity and that it’s about finding the right agent. This can take time – so believe in yourself and persist.

Check out the Write Your Own Love Story competition that Sue will be judging here.

If you’re currently writing a novel, take a look at our 6-week online courses for all-comers at different stages of the novel-writing process: Starting to Write Your NovelWrite to the End of Your Novel and Edit & Pitch Your Novel, all starting in June (these will be the last courses until the Autumn).

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