Literary agent tips: Nicola Barr at the Bent Agency

We’re delighted to welcome Nicola Barr to the blog today and as the next guest judge of our annual First Chapter competition, which closes in January 2022.

Nicola has been a literary agent for about ten years, and has been with The Bent Agency for four years now. She represents a range of writers across fiction and non-fiction. She has previously worked as an editor at Flamingo, the literary imprint of HarperCollins, a scout for European publishers and a book reviewer for the Guardian and the Observer.

We asked her some questions about what’s going to impress her both as judge of the competition and when submissions land on her desk.

When you read the submissions you receive at The Bent Agency, what is it about a story that gets you excited enough to request the full manuscript?

It’s more voice than story that makes me want to continue reading. But also an author who knows the genre they are writing within and has a set up that I haven’t come across before.  

After a full manuscript request, writers often then get their novel declined so can you give us some insights into what makes you take the next step with a novel and offer the writer representation?

It’s at this stage that the difference between good writing and a good novel becomes so important. That fresh voice that got me to request it has to be maintained but I also have to see that the author can structure a novel, create a satisfying arc that doesn’t become outlandish or — probably worse — dull.

When reading the shortlisted first chapters in this competition what are you going to be looking for and what will make it stand out for you?

I will be looking for natural flowing prose that is a pleasure to read and invites me to read more. Prose that isn’t trying too hard to get my attention but demands that I read on.

What types of novels are you looking for to build your list?

Upmarket thrillers, upmarket commercial women’s fiction, literary novels of any description. I like novels about families, about different generations, about big houses, siblings, secrets from the past having an impact on the present. I also love a good childhood narrator and haven’t fallen in love with one of those for a long time.  

When you’re reading for pleasure, who are your favourite writers and what is it you like about their work?

I love smart women who write about relationships, with other women, with their families, with the world around them. I love Anne Enright, Elizabeth Strout, Emma Straub, Bernardine Evaristo, Rachel Cusk, Katherine Heiny, Anne Tyler, Sue Miller, Anna Burns. Debuts I’ve loved recently – Snowflake, Shuggie Bain, Exciting Times.

Thank so much for your time and insights, Nicola.

So if you’ve got a novel that sounds like what Nicola is looking for, polish up up your opening chapter and send it in to be in with a chance of getting detailed editorial feedback on your submission package from Nicola. The deadline is 30th January 2022.