Interview with Sarah Manning, judge of 2019 First Chapter comp
Today, we welcome literary agent at The Bent Agency, Sarah Manning. Sarah started out as an assistant to Juliet Mushens at United Agents before becoming an agent to develop the adult fiction list at the Bent Agency’s UK office. Her taste is varied and she’s looking for commercial and accessible literary adult fiction, YA and nonfiction, including uplifting women’s fiction in the reading group space as well as love stories that make her cry. She represents high-concept thrillers and crime books full of twists and turns with interesting settings and speculative fiction – but nothing that feels too unrecognisable from our own world. Sarah is our judge for the 2019 First Chapter Competition which is currently open (!) for submissions.
Thanks for coming on the blog, Sarah. When you receive a 3 chapter submission, what gets you excited enough to then ask for the full MS?
Really this is a combination of two things! Firstly, an interesting commercial concept so I can already start to see where it sits on a shelf is very important and goes a long way to me wanting to read more to see how the story develops. Most crucial of all though, and can trump my first point if that’s not quite there yet, is the tone of voice. Plot points can be edited, and in some instances I’ve even called writers up and said I think their writing is excellent but that they have gone about telling the story the wrong way, and they’ve then gone on to become clients and secure book deals. However, it’s much harder to teach someone to write — it’s that natural voice that I’m really looking for and is at the heart of an excellent submission. If it transports me and I fully believe in the characters depicted, and can visualise the scenes they are depicting clearly and authentically, then generally I’m interested in seeing how the story progresses.
Writers repeatedly hear from agents they submit to that you like it but you didn’t love it enough, how does a MS make you love it when you have requested and read the whole thing?
This is a very hard question to answer as frustratingly the business is subjective by nature and that ‘love’ is the experience you have as a reader. If I were to try and break it down, I think that a unique voice that really has its own sense of self is really important to me — lots of submissions are well-written but they ‘sound’ the same and as such the characters feel too generic. I don’t mean I want crazy off-the-wall voices, but a natural tone of voice that has personality and gets under the skin of the characters is very exciting to find. I also like a strong sense of pace, though never at the expense of character. If I have to work hard to keep on turning the pages I’ll stop! So a good idea of what the book is about and what we are reading to find out can make a real difference. This doesn’t just apply to crime or thrillers and some really good examples of stories I’ve enjoyed where I also haven’t been able to stop turning the pages in other genres are The Rosie Project and You, Me Everything. I think this is because they were characters I just could not bear to leave.
When reading the shortlisted first chapters what’s going to make a story stand out for you?
A sense of character and a good balance between show and tell. There’s a fine line between ‘good confusion’ and ‘bad confusion’ and you want to lure us in with intrigue but not being too abstract that we don’t engage at all because we feel too lost. I need to be upset when the chapter ends, desperate to read on. What is it about that chapter that’s going to make me feel like the story continues in a way I just can’t miss out on? Try to think about where you are starting to tell your story to make the most of that first chapter, so something important to note here is that we don’t need every waking moment of our character’s day (so no waking up to alarm clocks please!). My advice is always to enter a scene late and leave it early.
What types of writers and novels are you looking for to build your list?
I’m open to anything that I fall in love with! Generally that is in the commercial to book club/reading group space and covers crime and thrillers, family drama, women’s fiction, young adult and non-fiction. I’d love to find a layered romantic comedy in the vein of The Notes and The Flat Share. I’m also looking for something which is richly atmospheric with a gorgeous setting in the vein of Fanny Blake and Santa Montefiore. I’m also on the lookout for more uplifting fiction which has a great quirky cast of characters and real depth and heart to it at the same time; something that would sit perfectly in the reading group space. I’d love a new historical fiction but more on the family secrets of the time rather than battle-led narratives. In terms of YA, I’m looking for contemporary issue-led stories with really relatable characters. In answer to the type of writer I’m looking for, anyone and everyone as long as you’re excited to work collaboratively and open to editorial ideas — you’ll get these from me but also an editor (fingers crossed!) further down the line and it can be quite a change from working alone before you are signed by an agent!
When you’re reading for pleasure not work, who are your favourite authors?
So many it’s difficult to list just a few! Ok here it goes; Liane Moriarty, Holly Bourne, Michael Connelly, Jodi Picoult, Stef Penny, Rainbow Rowell, Sarah Waters, Donna Tartt, M.J Arlidge, Sophie Kinsella… The list goes on!
Thanks, Sarah! Lots of great advice there, especially for anyone entering next year’s comp!
You can keep up with Sarah on her Twitter page: