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Want #QueryTip from a Literary Agent ? #MSWL

By 10/06/2016July 25th, 2016Fiction, guest post, novel, writing

Publishing professionals have often appeared on this blog as part of an ongoing guest post series. After a bit of break, it is my absolute pleasure today to welcome Kirsty McLachlan, an established literary agent at David Godwin Associates.

Their incisive comments helped me cut through the waffle, and as a result I not only received multiple offers of representation, I'm also now signed up with the wonderful Ed Wilson from the Johnson & Alcock agency. Writing a publishable book is hard, but it is often harder still to bring it to the attention of the right people in the publishing industry.

Meet Literary Agents: London Writers’ Club

I met her at the London Writer’s Club, a venue and organization I can’t praise highly enough. The atmosphere is relaxed, but it was the workshop with Kirsty McLachlan and Jacq Burns that helped me polish up my one-line and single paragraph pitch to high sheen. Their incisive comments helped me cut through the waffle, and as a result I not only received multiple offers of representation, I’m also now signed up with the wonderful Ed Wilson from the Johnson & Alcock agency. Writing a publishable book is hard, but it is often harder still to bring it to the attention of the right people in the publishing industry.

In the interview below, literary agent Kirsty McLachlan gives very to-the-point, practical insights for writers seeking representation for their work. I’ve highlighted some of it for you in blue. Please leave any questions you might have in the comments.


Literary Agent Interview David Godwin agency

Kirsty McLachlan from DGA Agency

1. How and why did you become a literary agent?

Telling stories has always interested me – in whatever medium (books/radio/film etc) so I was always going to head in that direction. Being a literary agent satisfies my passion for books – but also my natural – and quite obsessive – need to follow something through – from the start to the finish (and often well beyond). I also have a talent for making a good deal – and for picking apart the details.

2. What are you reading right now? Which books from 2015 would you recommend?

I’m going to the Baileys next week so am reading A Little Life. My own writers aside, I would recommend Diana Athill’s Alive, Alive, Oh!, The Outrun by Amy Liptrot and Grief is the Thing with Feathers by Max Porter. All non-fiction.

3. You represent various genre. Is there a thread that runs through all your choices? What sort of stories are on your wish-list right now?

Yes, I do but I feel all my authors write in an accessible way – they tell stories (even if they are writing non-fiction). It may seem the most obvious thing to say but many books forget to focus on the story. I don’t have a wish list but I have a few people who are in my head at the moment who I’d really like to represent.

4. You represent narrative non-fiction submissions as well. Do authors of this genre have to have a platform? What would you call a good author platform?

Many will tell you that you need a platform but it would never stop me taking someone on (or persuade me to take someone on). What you need to find are ways to communicate your ideas – ways to talk about your concept and in time, your book. Tell me those ways and I’ll be convinced.

5. What do you look for in a Query Letter and Synopsis? What resources would you recommend to an author attempting to write these?

For me the shorter the letter the better. But you need to capture the essence of your book in both the letter and the synopsis. I recently told a workshop that a synopsis should contain emotions/feelings – don’t make me bored, make me sit up and smile.

6. What is the one thing you are tired of seeing in queries?

Shadow-books, books that are written purely to repeat another book’s success.

7. What qualities do you look for in a prospective client, other than a good story and writing? What would be a deal-breaker?

Like any agent, I like to think an author/agent relationship will be long term so I need to feel that we are both on the same page – meeting face to face is important. Nothing is really a deal-breaker, apart from a lack of trust.

8. Will you be at any upcoming writers’ events, festivals, or conferences where writers are able to meet/ pitch you?

I don’t go to a lot of events – I find my writers in other ways, so go largely under the radar. A secret agent! However, I do run the London Writers’ Club so am always there every month.

9. Would like to talk to us about your role at the London Writer’s Club, and how the club benefits writers?

I’m a co-director of the Club with my colleague, Jacq Burns. We wanted to start a club which wasn’t intimidating, wasn’t formal or frightening, where writers could come to monthly events and meet agents/publishers in a very easy setting. Writers are able to network with other writers, and get the help they need either in the form of a quick fire question – or in a more long term, tailored way.

10. Could you tell us about recently published books whose authors you’ve represented?

My author, Suzanne O’Sullivan, won the Wellcome Trust Prize in April and will be published in over ten countries, another author, MG Leonard’s book, Beetle Boy, is a children’s book writer and her book has sold to more than 30 countries. It was Waterstones book of the month two months running this year. Another author, Julia Shaw’s book, The Memory Illusion, will be published next month and has already sold to over 12 countries.

Kirsty McLachlan is a literary agent at DGA Ltd.  and co-director of London Writers’ Club with over twenty years publishing experience. She also brokers the film/TV/stage deals for DGA Ltd. Her list ranges from narrative non-fiction, children’s novels, graphic novels and crime writers. Full list here. She tweets: @thestormboy

Literary Agent Interview Memory IllusionI would urge everyone to drop your burning ‘agent questions’ in the comments. To the reader whose comment or question Kirsty finds remarkable, she will be giving away a copy of The Memory Illusion, a non-fiction book by Dr Julia Shaw.

Memories are our most cherished possessions. They make us who we are. And yet the truth is they are far from being the accurate record of the past we like to think they are. In The Memory Illusion, forensic psychologist and memory expert Dr Julia Shaw uses the latest research to show the astonishing variety of ways in which our brains can indeed be led astray. To be published on 16 June and already sold in 12 countries.

Do you have questions for Literary Agent Kirsty McLachlan? Are you querying a book, and would like an agent’s advice on how to make it work better? Have at it in the comments!

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Damyanti Biswas

Damyanti Biswas is the author of You Beneath Your Skin and numerous short stories that have been published in magazines and anthologies in the US, the UK, and Asia. She has been shortlisted for Best Small Fictions and Bath Novel Awards and is co-editor of the Forge Literary Magazine. Her literary crime thriller series, the Blue Mumbai, is represented by Lucienne Diver from The Knight Agency. Both The Blue Bar and The Blue Monsoon were published in 2023.

I appreciate comments, and I always visit back. If you're having trouble commenting, let me know via the contact form, or tweet me up @damyantig !

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  • I’m new here, having just met D this morning! I write non-fiction only (my fiction reserved for bedtime stories) – and I like the advice here about having emotions in my synopsis. It makes sense because so much writing is fueled by emotional energy arising from a passion of the memory or subject. I wonder where I could see samples of such queries. Thank you!

  • Hello and thank you so much for this opportunity.
    I am wondering about querying a series for a first time author. When pitching book one, I do understand that I should query as a stand alone, but should I mention that it is part of a series?

  • aj vosse says:

    Hi Kirsty and Damyanti,

    Firstly, Damyanti… thanks for bringing us another insightful and interesting post. You raise so many valid points that I don’t really know where to begin. But… I’ll keep it as brief as possible!

    Hello Kirsty,

    – do you take on short story compilations?
    – do you ever visit Dublin, Ireland?

    I believe I’m a story teller, focused on the telling the tale and would love to think my tales are unique and never a shadow of someone’s work.

    It would be great to meet with you and show you a story or two… or, send on a synopsis, if you looking for a bit of varied, “out there” reading to get you through the dark nights… or lazy train rides!

    Thanks for an interesting read!
    AJ 😉

    PS – Congrats Damyanti!! It’s fantastic to hear a friend’s success stories!!

  • Mark Murata says:

    “a synopsis should contain emotions/feelings.” I’ve never heard that before.

  • oops – hit “enter” too soon! Meant to end with, “Congrats on finding representation you are excited about (and for having several choices available to decide among).

    Onward and upward!

  • Wonderful interview – thank you to both of you. Since I am an American, I won’t “enter” your question contest – but I will, no doubt, read the book. The machinations of memory is one of my particular fascinations.

    It will also be of interest to read it with this interview in the back of my mind, since my writing is of a similar genre: non-fiction with a large helping of science smack dab in the middle. LOVE the cover, btw.

    (Madelyn Griffith-Haynie – ADDandSoMuchMore dot com)
    – ADD Coach Training Field founder; ADD Coaching co-founder –
    “It takes a village to educate a world!”

  • cleemckenzie says:

    I liked what she said about “focusing on the story.” We’re story tellers, but I think we become caught up in trying to reach for quirky or unique and often sacrifice the good old-fashioned heart of the tale.

  • sumandray says:

    There are many who like to write but could never gather the courage to write a complete novel. With the future of the novel uncertain, this appears quite a daunting task. But short stories are relatively easier to handle. Could an agent play a role in getting a collection of stories by multiple writers published within the premises and constraints of multiple author – agent relationship.
    In this age of super connectivity, is this still mandatory to have face to face meetings and handshakes or a long distance relationship could also be worked out.

  • Great interview. Wonderful to get the direct thoughts on what an agent looks for. This makes complete sense 🙂

  • Useful and informative blog, Damyanti. I had a bad experience with a well known, London based agent ten years ago. Since then I’ve published two of my own books with good reviews, modest sales and virtually no exposure, but then, self publishers sacrifice the exposure for the return. Good luck with your own work.

  • dgkaye says:

    Thank you for sharing this wonderful and informative interview with Kirsty,. 🙂

  • I hadn’t heard of a Shadow-book, but once it was explained it totally made sense.

  • Kev says:

    I found this rather insightful… Thanks so much for shring!

  • Very good to read this post. your previous post on finding a literary agent was also good to read, this two will help me in future.

  • cleemckenzie says:

    It’s always interesting to read what someone from the agenting side of things has to say. Thanks for this.

  • I’m curious as to the criteria that determines whether the agent (Kirsty) answers questions. I see that some have been answered and others (including mine) were not.

  • Julia Lund says:

    That you have found representation for your novel still makes my smile wide, Damyanti. You were one of the first people to visit me when I started blogging, and you’ve continued to be an encourager even with all your commitments. Can’t wait to hold your book, open it and begin reading.

    The book on memory sounds fascinating, though I rarely read non-fiction. My own memories are rooted in emotion; I remember because I felt. My daughter has dyslexia and her short term memory is poor, but the past is a detailed place, full of description and moments the rest of the family would forget if not for her. My husband’s memories are, largely, pragmatic. My son claims to remember little, yet his anecdotes frequently reduce us to laughter.

    In my writing, and arguably in any work of fiction, it’s memories characters draw on to tell their stories. I’m working on one novel where the narrator, now in his eighties, recalls the summer of 1940, when he was a twelve year old evacuee. Ostensibly, it’s a ghost story, but it’s the losses he experienced that summer that are the reason he remembers. My other work-in-waiting has a main character with Aspergers – a girl. It’s not through her emotional memories that she makes sense of the world, but facts she doesn’t forget, and the stories she builds to make the world hers. Perhaps we all do that to some extent, make the world ours by the way we remember?

    Looking forward to seeing the next stage in your writing unfold.

  • Thanks for posting this interview, Damyanti. I’m pleased to learn querying strategies from an agent.

    My question for Kirsty concerns the need for remaining within one genre. I’ve completed three adult novels, each a different genre, am working on a fourth, and in the planning stages for a creative non-fiction book. I’m reminded often that readers want to be able to count on a writer to deliver within the genre by which they’ve been introduced. How do you feel about representing a writer who works within a variety of genres, and would you prefer that a writer stick to one successful genre?

    Thank you for the tips presented here.

    • I represent several writers who write in different genres. I don’t think it matters hugely – but there are some exceptions such as crime where a publisher will expect a new book each year – or perhaps, where the publisher will want to create a very clear brand for the author.

  • Sharon says:

    In the past three years, I have completed three novel manuscripts from fast draft to “get it off my desk” stage. The first two I pitched and queried to agents, got page requests from the pitches but “no thank you” from the queries. The genre is YA fantasy which I understand is flooded with submissions and hard to break into.
    I have published several short stories with a small publisher in anthologies and have an interesting concept for an adult fantasy novel that springboards from one of these. Should I focus my attention on the “less flooded” adult market? I hear fantasy is often a hard sell as a debut novel.
    Thanks for the insight. As I am American, I won’t be able to drop by the London Writer’s Club and meet you.

  • I appreciated this post, thank you! I have a question for Kirsty. I have taken more webinars on query letters and had more private critiques of my queries than I can count. The letters I end up with still bring me polite “not for us” responses. How can anyone judge my writing/novel if I can’t get past query rejections? I can’t figure out what I’m doing wrong.

    • Kirsty says:

      I realise that standard responses from agents are frustrating – the only advice I can give, is to keep going, but also to keep looking at your query letter, keep revising it and ensure that it is always tailored to the agent in question

  • I like Kristy’s reminder about making sure a synopsis contains emotions and feelings. Making the reader feel something is key, even if it’s in a synopsis for an agent.

  • A question for the agent: I am completing my second novel. Because I write for myself, first and foremost, I never start a story with a ‘market audience’ in mind. This is partly because my writing does not fit a particular ‘genre’, and partly because I want to write about topics that interest me (and these are not necessarily mainstream). As with my first book, I am writing about the journey of a marginalised woman of colour in a difficult situation (a survivor). The book is set both in developing countries and in Europe.
    How far is this lack of attention to the ‘marketplace’ holding me back? My debut won a literary prize and was published by an independent press house, a stroke of luck, probably, given that I was originally told it was not ‘marketable’. My problem is, I can’t write ‘marketable’ literature. But, is this is a problem? What do you think?

    • Kirsty says:

      Its tricky isn’t it – but the important thing is to be aware of the market place. Books are products and you want them to sell within that market place. so yes, write the book you want to write, but ask yourself who your reader is – and where in a bookshop it would be placed. These are questions agents and editors have to continually ask themselves before committing to an author and their book.

  • Good questions–and answers. I’m going back to rewrite my syopsis!

  • Estacious says:

    You are so right that writing a novel, short story or anything is difficult. My biggest issue is not ideas, but completing one to the end. Do you have advice on how to stay focused and not flit from one idea to the next? hard to stay focused when you are the father of three and work full time. Thanks for your sage advice. It’s real brings to prospective.

    • I think the best way to keep going is to really plan your work – make sure that you know what is going to happen next before you begin writing, that way you can keep on track.

  • hilarymb says:

    Hi Damyanti – what an interesting post and great to meet Kirsty – good luck to one and all. The Wellcome Trust winner sounds a great read … cheers Hilary

  • Chris White says:

    Great post and very useful to me. All the best. Kris.