Literary Agent Interview: Eli Keren

Eli Keren at United Agents is the judge for the 2024 First Chapter competition and the winner gets feedback from him on their submission package and a 1-hour Zoom meeting to talk about their novel and upcoming career as a writer.

Eli started his publishing career at Curtis Brown before joining United Agents as an assistant in 2016. In 2021 he became an associate literary agent, representing a growing list of clients across fiction and non-fiction, actively seeking books that are going to make a positive impact in the world in some way, big or small. Before working in books, Eli was a research scientist designing and synthesising novel drugs (white coat and everything), and science books remain a particular passion of his. He is also very interested in LGBT-themed books in both fiction and non-fiction. In 2023 he was elected treasurer of the Association of Authors’ Agents.

Ahead of the January deadline, we grilled him on how you can impress him with your entries!

Eli, thanks for coming on the blog and for judging the contest. When reading the shortlisted first chapters, what’s going to make a novel stand out for you?

The first and most obvious thing is really simple – when I get to the end of it, do I want to keep going? Do I want more? Am I hooked, is there a mystery I need unravelled, a crime I’m emotionally invested in seeing solved, a dramatic situation I want resolved? By the end of the first chapter I want to know what it is that’s going to propel me to the end of the book, where the driving force is. This applies to all fiction, literary and commercial. If it’s commercial fiction then the driving force is going to be rooted in plot but if it’s literary I still do need a driving force of some kind to be there, it’s just more likely to be rooted in an emotional investment. Other than that, I want to see originality, I want to know what your book is doing that’s fresh and new and not like any other book on the shelf at Waterstones.

When you receive a three chapter submission what gets you excited enough to ask for the full MS?

I’ve got a big thing about audience control. I want you, as a writer, to demonstrate that you can put me in the emotional state you want me to be in for your work to have the effect you want it to have. I want you to manipulate me! I want you to cause me to feel something, and I want you to demonstrate that you can have me right where you want me for your work to have maximum impact. I want to feel your confidence, I don’t want to have to work to figure out what I’m meant to feel or what I’m meant to follow, I want you to make it easy for me, effortless, more than effortless, I want it to be impossiblenot to feel exactly what you want me to be feeling. There are other boxes to tick – I need to feel confident a book has a place in the market and all the rest of it – but that audience control is really vital for me.

What types of novels and writers would you love to have on your list?

I love a novel that is both commercial in terms of plot and pacing, but that also achieves something over and above that plot. Books with something to say that will get people talking about it. It could be an important message, or it could be a novel use of form and structure, or it could be a high-concept plot that changes what I thought you could do with your chosen genre. There are a lot of books on the market, I want to be working with writers who are producing the work that we’ll all still be talking about decades down the line.

When reading for pleasure, which authors do you enjoy and why?

I don’t represent fantasy or sci-fi, so when I’m reading for pleasure, I love fantasy and sci-fi. Reading the genres I don’t work with lets me really switch of my editor’s brain, I can relax into a narrative without thinking about how I’d have edited it or which editors I’d have sent it to if I was submitting it. I mostly read for pleasure in audiobook format so I can’t even be looking out for typos. It can be very hard to stop myself from working, but that’s the danger of turning your hobby into your job! I recently binged Neal Shusterman’s Arc of a Scythe trilogy, and am hugely enjoying John Gwynne’s Bloodsworn saga, as well as working my way through Sarah. J Maas’s and Leigh Bardugo’s fantasy worlds. I love the classics too, Arthur C Clarke and Tolkien. I’ve even read the Silmarillion in its entirety. I love books that can transport me somewhere, worlds built confidently with relatable human stories at their centres. Ultimately reading always comes down to the same things for me – I want to learn and I want to feel. The easier an author makes it for me to do both those things, the happier I am.

So there you have it! You now have a couple of months to get polishing those first chapters to submit and be in with a chance of winning the feedback and meeting with Eli. He’ll be reading the ten shortlisted chapters to choose the winner.

For an extra boost on creating a novel opening that readers can’t put down, you can buy the replay of Amanda Saint’s popular Fabulous First Chapters workshop.

*The link to watch the workshop is provided on the Stripe payment confirmation page.