Literary agent interview: Simon Kavanagh

Whether you're writing a story for our Pulp Idol competition, or in the throes of completing your first novel, we've been lucky enough to get a variety of industry insiders to offer their tips on the fiction-writing life.

We continue this week with Simon Kavanagh, an agent at the Mic Cheetham agency whose clients include Iain M Banks, Paul Cornell and China Miéville. We quizzed him about his experience of working with authors, what their expectations are and why they might need an agent.

SFX: What's the most powerful lesson you've learned about the writing business?
"That plot is everything. I once heard an editor say that 'character' was the most important element of a novel. Tosh. Dickens creates great characters - but Oliver Twist would be a bloody short book if Oliver lived with his mum and dad. It's a constant curiosity to me that this element of fiction is so ignored by literary critics. Stephen King and Peter F Hamilton, for example, are Paramount Grand Masters of plot - but that aspect of their work is never given the 'literary' credit it deserves. Then again - who cares? They sell well and the public get their money's worth. So bear in mind that publishing exists in a world dominated by sales figures. It has to in order to survive and compete with film, TV and games. It's not exactly 'three strikes and you're out' but you have to sell copies in order to survive."

SFX: What's the biggest mistake that inexperienced writers make when trying to break into the SF scene?
"The biggest mistake is trying to be someone else. Don't try to be Tolkien. Don't try to be Neal Asher, JK Rowling or Ken MacLeod. All writers steal ideas, scenarios, inspiration, characters from each other - how could they not? But they have to find their own voice in which to tell their story. If I'm in a bookstore and want to read something like George RR Martin then I'll buy George RR Martin and not the chap who's like him. That's easy advice to give, but incredibly hard to implement when you're staring at a blank page."

SFX: What does an agent do that an author can't do for themselves?
"Broadly speaking, an author with an agent will probably get a larger advance, a better royalty rate and a slightly more precise distribution of rights when it comes to a contract since the agent is aware of what the market rate is and whether it's normal, for example, to sign over film rights, merchandising, audio, radio, television and so on. That's the contractual side. An agent also has a 'fast-track' to a publisher (unless he's forgotten to return the editor's copy of Halo 3, sorry Mr Lavery) when it comes to submitting a novel. Some publishers refuse to read new submissions unless they're sent by an agent and others have a 'slush-pile' mountain under which it is reported, though not by reliable witnesses, that several generations of interns lay buried."

"A good agent will also give editorial comments on a manuscript and take it through as many revisions as needed until it's at a high enough standard to be sent in. Editors are swamped by manuscripts and they also have to go to editorial, sales, marketing, publicity and production meetings: the pressure upon them is immense and so the more polished the submitted script is then the happier they tend to be. An agent can also, assuming the novel is published, help out with the publicity side of things. I've asked reviewers if they'd consider giving space to such-and-such a writer, I've asked for cover quotes from other writers. Finally - if the relationship between author and publisher gets a bit tense, delays in delivery, delays in payment, whatever - the agent becomes the Evil One and the author remains saintly."

SFX: How should a new author approach an agent? Do you need to see evidence of published work?
"Well, published work (stories in Interzone, for instance) is handy if it's in the field the author wants to write in. Not so handy if they want to write hard SF and their publishing background is 87 articles in 'Jugs and Jug Men'. The point is that everyone starts somewhere. Personally, I like a short letter, three chapters (or 50-odd pages if they don't write in chapters) and a one-page-ish synopsis."

"I don't actually read the synopsis until I've read the sample pages (synopses are slightly mad things anyway - the Lord of the Rings one would go, 'Four furry-footed people-things try to chuck jewellery into volcano and have adventures on the way. Have enclosed SAE.') and only then if I want to read the rest of the book. Don't Panic. Concentrate on the manuscript. If it's good enough you can write the covering letter in crayon and the synopsis in Attican Greek."

"Don't, however, submit your novel on a Thursday and ring the editor or agent on a Friday to see what they thought. The response may be swift but not entirely what you wanted. Please bear in mind that I get hundreds of submissions a month. We're running a business and reading your work for free. Please be patient."

"Lastly: don't ever, ever, ever pay an 'agent' to read your work. Never."

SFX: Is there a perfect way to start a short story that will catch an agent's eye?
"If I knew the perfect way to start a story I'd be a bestselling writer! One suggestion that occurs is to keep it short, keep it snappy and use the text to establish the plot and the tone rather than a lengthy discourse on the weather. Iain Banks' The Crow Road begins with, 'It was the day my grandmother exploded' and so tells the reader that the narrator has a family, has had a death in the family, establishes a tragicomic tone with a hint of the darkness to come and snares the reader into wondering how the grandmother came to explode and so gets them to keep reading. Not bad work for seven words."

"Having said all that short'n'snappy isn't, however, necessarily great just because it's short'n'snappy - 'It was a dark and stormy night' being the classic example of a dodgy opening. More interestingly, perhaps, is the idea that that there is any way to get anybody interested in a short story. Agents tend to avoid representing short stories because publishers aren't interested in publishing them. The market for short fiction in book form is virtually non-existent, unless the author has a backlist of successful full-length novels. For short fiction Interzone is probably a better bet."

"Can I also add one personal plea? Please, please don't begin with the 'I heard the ringing of the alarm clock' or 'I reached out to turn off the alarm clock'. I've had 57 of those this morning and I think I'm going to cry."

SFX: Should an author write what sells? Fantasy's popular at the moment, so does that mean an aspiring author should keep their nose out of hard SF?
"In order to sell they have to love what they write. If a writer's great at SF but can't write fantasy then, for God's sake, stick with the SF. I know a couple of successful writers who started with fantasy because they thought they had to and never got anywhere. They then dispensed with the elves, cannoned-up their starships and never looked back (unless it was to shoot stuff)."

SFX: If you could give one new writer any single piece of creative advice, what would it be?
"Be yourself. Write what you love. Write in your own style. If you get rejected - keep going. Agents make mistakes. So do editors."

Thanks Simon!

Find out more about the Pulp Idol 2008 competition here , or in the pages of SFX magazine. You can find out more about Simon Kavanagh and his clients over at www.miccheetham.com . Come back next week for more tips and advice.