Monday, 9 November 2009

Guest: Joanna Swainson Slush Reader for a literary agency

Please welcome Joanna Swainson, reader with a literary agency, who has agreed to answer a few questions on this blog.

Please could you tell us a little about your job?

I read a lot! We get hundreds of manuscripts every week across the different genres. I read the women's and general fiction that comes in - so anything that isn't non-fiction, crime/thriller or childrens/YA comes to me. If there is something I think the boss will like, I pull it out of the pile and leave it for him to look at with a brief summary of why I think it's good. If he likes it we will request the full. If he really likes it, we will ring the author straight away.

Are you given a specific steer by the Agent of what he is looking for?
The agent is very, very clear about what he is looking for. He told me in no uncertain terms when I joined the agency and he repeats his mantra on a regular basis. For him, a great character(s) is the single most important thing. Next it's story and plot. The writing comes third because he's prepared to work with an author to fix that.
It's quite strange really - I am not reading for myself, so have had to reject things that I liked, knowing they weren't going to be suitable for the agency. These tended to be things that were more in the way of literary fiction which is not what the agency covers - we are out and out commercial. Luckily I love commercial fiction too!

We hear stories of how bad the quality of the slushpile is. In your experience is this true?

I heard those stories, too, so was surprised by how competent the slushpile is. It's not dire, no. That said, in order to get picked out a manuscript has to have something pretty sparkly about it and I'm afraid that's pretty rare. I can understand why the slushpile gets such a bad press - agents have so much to do - but since my job is to read and only to read I can look on it quite kindly. If it wasn't for the slushpile I wouldn't have such a great job!

What depresses you?
Manuscripts imbued with cynicism, arrogant characters that have no wit or verve or anything else going for them, and authors who for some reason don't like the characters they have created.
Sometimes the ideas can get a bit repetitive. The number of manuscripts I've read about internet dating, for example, which are the thinly disguised experiences of the author - but that's not so much depressing as... here we go again!

What gets you really excited?

When you 'hear' that elusive voice and you just know you've got something special. Then when others in the agency read it and we all love it. I've had really buzzy days in the office like that.

Have you made any ‘discoveries’?

Two of my 'finds' have been signed so far. That's two out of hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of manuscripts I've read, so it just goes to show. That said, sometimes I pick things out where the agent has thought it's not quite right for us, but we encourage the author to send us their next thing.
In the time that I've worked there, other authors have been signed, but they haven't come via the slushpile. They come through recommendations from existing authors or writers' conferences and such like. One recent author handed one of our staff a manuscript at a party. It turned out to be absolutely brilliant. So there are other ways.

Apart from reading the slush, what else do you do with the agency?

Sometimes an agent will ask me for a second opinion on something so I'll have a read of their manuscripts. I do readers reports and give editorial notes. I had some web designing skills from previous work I'd done, so I redid our whole website and I help keep it up to date.

Do you get to meet any celebrities or go to any fancy parties?

From what I can gather, big parties are a thing of the past but they do happen every so often. I did go to a glamorous book launch the other night where there were lots of recognisable faces. Our writers are writers proper, though, and we don't have 'celebs' on our books so it's perhaps not so relevant to our agency.

What advice would you give to the aspiring writer?

My advice would be pretty mundane: write and write and write, read authors who you want to write like and really study them. Above all be rigorous and ruthless with yourself.
If you can delight in the process of writing that's a bonus because I think that always comes across in the good manuscripts that I read.

Thank you Joanna.

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