Carole Blake is the doyenne of literary agents. She has worked in publishing for 50 years, started her own literary agency in 1977 (now Blake Friedmann) and has a star-studded list of clients that includes the likes of Peter James, Barbara Erskine and Sheila O’Flanagan.
She’s also the author of From Pitch to Publication: Everything You Need to Know to Get Your Novel Published, a must-read for writers. Carole is currently writing an updated version, due out in 2015.
At this year’s Chipping Norton Literary Festival Carole teamed up with Wannabe a Writer author Jane Wenham-Jones to present a literary-style Dragons’ Den event. The session was entitled Wannabe a Writer – Pitch the Agent and challenged aspiring writers to submit 1,000 words of their novels for Carole to critique. Five brave individuals were shortlisted and Carole gave her verdict in front of a live audience.
Carole is second to none when it comes to giving advice and guidance to authors and the audience scribbled feverishly as she spoke. Writers agonise about their synopses when submitting work to agents but Carole said that she always reads the chapters first “to find out if someone can write.” She emphasised, however, that a synopsis must include the ending of the novel.
As she talked about the shortlisted writers’ work a host of dos and don’ts emerged along the way. Here are some of them:
* “If you are a genius you can break all the rules but be sure that you are a genius before you break them”
* Beware of using coincidence as a key part of your plot
* “We don’t necessarily need a shining, sparkling hero but we need to admire him rather than think he’s a twerp”
* “You need a bit more drama and a bit less melodrama”
* “Characters are more important than plot”
* “If you try to please too many people you will end up with something that doesn’t appeal to anybody at all”
The session ended with Jane asking Carole for one key “nugget of wisdom to take away.” Carole, who receives up to 25 submisisons from writers a day (including Saturdays, Sundays and even Christmas Day) didn’t hesitate. Do your homework, she said, pointing to the wealth of information on literary agents’ websites about what they are looking for. Carole herself takes on few new clients these days but states on the Blake Friedmann website that she is interested in “good quality commercial and literary fiction, contemporary or historical.” The guidance couldn’t be clearer yet writers still persist in sending her everything, from children’s books to science fiction.
“Given how easy it is to find out information these days do a lot of homework first,” she said. “There is nothing more guaranteed to get a fast rejection than if you enrage the agent.”