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07 May 2020

Viola Hayden: ‘Give your manuscript to people you trust to read’

Viola Hayden, associate agent
by Katie Smart From the Agents, Writing Tips

Viola Hayden joined Curtis Brown as an associate agent in Jonny Geller’s office after working in publishing at Cornerstone, Michael Joseph and most recently as a commissioning editor at Sphere, an imprint of Little, Brown.

We caught up with Viola to find out more about her love of books, how she’s adapted to working from home and what’s on her wish list to see from debut authors …

You joined Curtis Brown as an associate agent in Jonny Geller’s office after working in publishing, most recently as a commissioning editor at Sphere. What inspired you to switch from the publishing side of the book world to agenting?

At the risk of sounding like a suck-up, the idea came partly from Jonny. I went to a seminar at Hachette called ‘What agents want’. It was a panel discussion between Jonny, Rowan Lawton and Lizzy Kremer, and something in the way they spoke about their relationships with their clients struck a chord with me. An agent’s interests are completely aligned with those of their client, and both the fact and simplicity of that reality appealed greatly. I loved being an editor; working with authors, editing manuscripts, teaming-up with all the hundreds of people it takes to make a book a tangible thing. But editors work for the publishing house, and I realised I wanted to work with and for authors.

The current lockdown has changed the way everyone is working. How has your day changed? Do you have any working from home tips?

The commute is a lot shorter! For the first month working at home was busier than office life, and it’s still full-on. You hardly have time to stop and think, which is a great motivator. Zoom calls are a daily thing. Back-to-back, they can be tiring, but it’s lovely to see and speak to people – and they’re an essential reminder to check in on one another.

My tips are unoriginal, but they’ve kept me sane: coffee break in the morning, trying not to work through lunch (unless it’s reading), tea break in the afternoon; getting outside in the fresh air (only one hour a day, chaps!) and keeping active. And I’ll try to keep hold of these habits when we’re out of this – a silver-lining life lesson from coronavirus…

Can you tell us a bit about the first book you commissioned when you were an editor?

I acquired others before this, but the book that felt like the first was The Other Mrs Miller by Allison Dickson. I’d received an excited email from our literary scout on a Friday afternoon: this was one to take seriously, unputdownable – she’d send me the manuscript. Well, cut to Saturday afternoon, I’d not moved from the sofa for three hours – not since I excused myself from the friend I HAD STAYING WITH ME to read. It was the voice, the break-neck pace – the crazy twists and turns that were so good and satisfying I didn’t stop to question them. The manuscript needed significant work, but there was a shining kernel of brilliance, and I just knew the book was worth it.

Do you remember the book that made you fall in love with reading?

Will I lose you if I say Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone? In fairness, that was the book that confirmed and cemented my love of reading – but there were key forerunners. The Butterfly Lion and War Horse by Michael Morpurgo; The Wind Singer by William Nicholson; Pongwiffy by Kaye Umansky; and I listened to the Just William books by Richmal Crompton and anything by Agatha Christie on repeat. Honestly, I grew into reading. I wasn’t a very fast reader, and it felt like an activity for other children for whom it was ‘their thing’. Those books showed me I was wrong.

Which books are you most excited about this year?

So many! Some that are out already… Hamnet by Maggie O’Farrell, Such a Fun Age by Kiley Reid, Exciting Times by Naoise Dolan, My Dark Vanessa by Kate Elizabeth Russell, Pretending by Holly Bourne, Inferno by Catherine Cho.

Some that are coming… The Lying Life of Adults by Elena Ferrante, Ghosts by Dolly Alderton, How Do We Know We’re Doing It Right by Pandora Sykes, The Thursday Murder Club by Richard Osman.

Do you have any advice for writers struggling with the rewriting and editing process as they prepare to submit to agents?

Give yourself a break, metaphorically and literally. If you feel like walking away from the page/screen for a while – do. You’ll regain perspective and come back to your book with fresh ideas.

Give your manuscript to people you trust to read and be open to their comments. Constructive questions and probing is what will get you to the bottom of those niggling doubts and help you edit.

Don’t sweat the small stuff. I’ve never turned down a book because the writing and voice were brilliant but the punctuation was off. I mean, don’t be slapdash – but don’t use final tweaks and edits as an excuse to procrastinate submitting your manuscript. If you know deep down it’s ready, send it.

What excites you about a submission from a debut author and what is currently on your wish list?

Confident writing that puts me at ease from the first page, a captivating voice or character, an exciting style, an unusual structure, an original premise or fresh take, a book that can’t be replicated. If you have written a book like that – fiction or non-fiction – then it’s on my wish list.

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