Meet the Agents: An Interview with Shelley InstoneHarry Bingham
This is an interview with literary agent, Shelley Instone. Shelley grew up in Leeds, West Yorkshire and comes from a family of storytellers. She moved to London to study Classics: a subject that still greatly interests and inspires her. She travelled the world and had lots of fantastic adventures before having her two children, Florence and Arthur. She then went on to gain an MA in Children’s Literature and wrote for many academic journals and websites before working for the Eve White Agency. She swiftly moved on to launch her own literary consultancy and through her insightful edits, had immediate success with this. She is directly responsible for discovering and developing new voices in children’s literature. These include; Sarah Naughton, Kim Slater, Rupert Wallis, Lara Williamson and Emma Haughton. Shelley has been warmly acknowledged in numerous novels. You can see the Shelley Instone Literacy Agency here, follow her on Twitter here and of course view her Agent Hunter page here!
What books/authors do you love in commercial fiction?
I found the Stieg Larsson Millennium Series utterly compelling. These novels had a strong and very confident authorial voice and this guides the reader through an absolutely thrilling plot. Larsson achieves this by cleverly weaving controversial themes such as the exploitation of vulnerable women into his story. His protagonist is fully rounded; neither good nor bad. Indeed, it is her human frailty that makes her such a proactive and courageous heroine. I read all three novels very quickly and simply couldn’t put them down. Larsson’s talent is to create page-turning scenes that quickly draw the reader in and hooks them through insightful and formidable storytelling.
Last year I read Nathan Filer’s The Shock of the Fall. I found this a powerful and moving account of one person’s descent into mental illness. Filer aptly shows the reader through a series of events, how a single trauma can have so many aftershocks. His ability to create unpredictable twists and turns in his plot helped to create one of the best denouements in contemporary fiction.
Louise Doughty’s Apple Tree Yard also stands out for me, due to the level of research regarding setting and location. This, alongside memorable and moving characters created authentic scenes and locations that gave this novel extra gravitas. She told a very human story with devastating consequences. A good novel has to somehow resonate with a reader.
What would you be interested in, and what’s a big no?
I’m not a fan of dystopian or sci –fi, so I do not really wish to receive submissions for this genre. I adore humour in children’s fiction, so something funny with an original premise alongside a rollicking plot for the 7-9 market would be very welcome. I am also on the lookout for commercial women’s novels and thrillers. Both need to have strong authorial voices with a clear and compelling premise, in order to gain my attention.
On the non-fiction side, are there particular areas that interest you. What would you not want to see?
Lifestyle, fashion and cookery all interest me. However, it really has to be an interesting, quirky and engaging take on these subjects, as the market for such books is saturated. I am also interested in inspirational life stories and travel journals. I think the misery memoir has had its time, so I do not wish to receive submissions for this.
Is there anything you would love to see at the moment?
I simply adore anything with dark humour. This can be applied to both children’s and adult fiction. It really isn’t easy to create comedic scenes, but if a writer can do this, they have achieved a lot!
Do you look for social media and online presence?
Yes, I do. It has become increasingly important for authors to have a platform for their books, ideas/concepts. Novelists have to find the capacity to reach out to their audience – social media allows them to do this. Engaging and connecting with the public through social networking has become the norm; writers can create an online presence quickly and efficiently, if they know how to use and apply these tools.
What single piece of advice would you most want to give writers?
Write about something that inspires and moves you and avoid doing this in clichés! Research thoroughly. You will only become a great writer through reading.
What’s your biggest turn – off in a covering letter? What would you really hope to see?
I often feel a sense of bewilderment on receiving over- confident covering letters! I completely understand that a writer wants to catch my attention, yet telling me that they are the next JK Rowling just doesn’t bode well. Writers should always present their work as something that is highly original. They should aim to inform me that their narrative will set trends rather than follow them. I am never on the lookout for novels that imitate. Also, a covering letter should be succinct and professional. I really don’t need to know about anything personal. In in doubt, just follow the Shelley Instone three D rules and omit divorce, disease and death!
What are your biggest peeves in an opening page or opening chapter. And what do you love to see?
The overriding annoyance in an opening page or chapter just has to be clichés. I simply detest them, and I am like a bloodhound when it comes to sniffing them out – I spot them a mile off! Please think carefully about any pounding hearts and sweat that trickles down the neck of your characters! The list goes on and on.
The first paragraph of an opening page often speaks volumes. I want suspense, mystery and intrigue in order to keep me reading. All too often, the narrative starts with a howling cliché. I can guarantee that any weaknesses in style, structure, plot or character in the opening chapter will almost certainly run throughout the entire course of the story. It is really important to hook the agent immediately. The writer has to remember that literary agents in UK are receiving dozens of submissions each day. My advice is to ensure your submission stands out by creating a narrative that is both compelling and convincing.
Do you have any predictable loves?
I have an MA in Children’s Literature and specialised in the literary theory of intertextuality. I just love it! Basically, this is a story set within a story. It often occurs in children’s fiction. A good example of this is Michael Ende’s Neverending Story, or more recently, Marcus Sedgwick’s The Foreshadowing. It is an incredibly sophisticated literary device. In October 2014, I had a submission from a writer who had done just this. It took me seconds to offer her representation!!
What character from a book would you be and why?
It would have to be Du Maurier’s Mary Ellen from her novel, Jamaica Inn. She’s feisty and isn’t afraid to stand up to people, even when she faces danger. I love the fact that ultimately, she has free-will. She moulds and shapes her own destiny. I can relate to her need for independence.
What three famous people would you invite to a dinner party and why?
The first person would have to be the ancient Greek playwright, Aristophanes, as he would know how to get the party started with his sharp satirical wit. The second person would be Winston Churchill – he’d provide compelling stories of WW2 and the champagne! The third person would be Emily Bronte, as I would like to know how she managed to create such stylistically sophisticated narrative structures. I’m not sure my three guests would all get on!