We have all the top London agents speak at London Writers’ Club and each time we love ’em for sharing something different. Federica Leonardis kicked off the new year at LWC Live with debut novelist Sonya Lalli. I would want her to be my agent if I were shopping for one. It is such a personal thing, you want to be sure that either their obsessions match yours (as hers do) or they complement yours. So in which case you might choose an agent who is good at things you are not.
Federica who is obsessed with character, and intelligent editing. Watch our video for the full benefit of her wisdom if you’re a member. If you aren’t a member, join now with our special offer and you’ll receive the full videos.
Federica explained that it is vital to get the ‘right agent’ – whether at a big or small agency and she goes further: ‘The size of the agency matters much less than who you choose as an agent.’ How do you choose one of our audience asked? Federica quipped, ‘Well how did you fall in love? Yes it’s that important.’
What most impressed you about Sonya’s writing?
‘That she had a ‘rare instinct’ for narrative. She knew what to leave in and what to take out. And to focus on the pivotal moments, in comparison to the lesser details.’
Were there any surprises for you Sonya as a first-time author going through the publishing process?
‘I learnt patience and humility. I received lots of rejections before I connected with Federica and during the process I learnt the lesson that as a writer you must not get too attached to your work. It is crucial to find someone who you can trust; someone who you trust enough to let them edit your baby.’
Federica nodded vigorously at this. ‘Edits are an important part of the process – learn to structure a novel and also to trust one another.
It is often said that there are 3 edits – firstly for yourself, secondly for the reader and lastly for the agent or editor.’
Her top tips:
- Feel empowered – find out as much as you need about the publishing industry and don’t wait to be chosen, don’t be passive.
- Read great books about writing. Try, Into the Woods by John Yorke and The Art of Character by David Corbett.
One of the audience asked Federica, what is the difference between agent and editor’s edits?
‘Agents must make it good enough so that an editor can see the value and commercial potential in the manuscript. Also as editing is not usually an agent’s core expertise an editor can make it even better. Agents should make a book structurally sound and the narrative clear. It becomes a relay – the editor will then take it the next step.
With Sonia’s book there were just a few things that didn’t make sense. Federica raised these inconsistencies and they also discussed motivations for characters and together they worked on the last third as the plot needed to be tightened at the end. Her characters were already nailed.
So by the time it got to Sonia’s editor not a huge amount of edits were needed, just a few scenes were added.
An editor will shape the novel for the market they are selling into. In the case of Sonya’s book, it was sold to a commercial imprint – so geared more into the direction of a rom com.
And then it moves on to the copy-editor who will do a line edit and check grammar etc.’
I asked Federica the question, should we try to do all things well as an author or let some go?
‘Yes it is worth being realistic about what you can do and decide what is worth learning. Working on novel structure and editing is really important.
Learn to develop the muscle used to edit a novel. Be able to kill your darlings or slash 10k words from your novel, the fact that you can learn that is so empowering.
Do you research, use book shops, submitting a pitch is really hard, sit and look at blurbs, you need to describe the essence of your book.’
(but explain what happens when pitching and don’t leave cliff hangers unlike a blurb.)
Her view was that ‘being able to fix anything that disrupts the flow or stalls the reading should be learnt. Bad grammar can pull a reader out of the narrative.’ So the advice to take away there is to fix whatever you possibly can and get help if you know grammar is your weakness.
Federica is obsessed with character motivation which she thinks very important. One of the audience asked her to clarify what she meant by character motivation.
‘Why are your characters doing what they are doing? Characters in fiction are the most imp element in a novel in my view. Their characters must have a consistent psychology – if their behaviour is not consistent, it doesn’t make sense. If characters behave strangely, you must give them a motivation.’
‘I believe in practice, practice, again and again. You can develop over and over. Pull a book apart. Movies are great for narrative. Read with an open mind. Practice with your synopsis, get it right.’
As with every London Writers’ Club event, Federica was kind enough to offer authors the chance to skip the slushpile and get read by her if they’d met at the Club. Find out more about joining London Writers’ Club.
Her experience in publishing is broad-ranging: it includes four years in the Foreign Rights department at Ed Victor Ltd, a prominent literary agency representing among others Nigella Lawson, Frederick Forsyth, John Banville and Edna O’Brien, and three years in the contracts department at the Orion Publishing Group. More recently she spent two and half years at Rogers, Coleridge & White Literary Agency, where she worked alongside David Miller and Peter Robinson with authors such as Victoria Hislop, Kate Summerscale, Ian Rankin, David Starkey and Joanne Harris, while at the same time building her own list. In July 2016 she set up Martin Leonardis Literary Management.
Sonya Lalli is a Canadian writer of Indian heritage. She studied law in her hometown of Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, and at Columbia University in New York City. She completed an MA in Creative Writing and Publishing at City University London last year, and currently works as a journalist at a legal magazine in London. She has a black belt in Tae Kwon Do and loves travel, yoga, piano, reading and cocktail bartending. Her debut novel The Arrangement will be published by Orion in Summer 2017.