Nelle AndrewPFD The Peters Fraser and Dunlop Group
Nelle Andrew is a novelist and literary agent. As a novelist (under the name 'Nelle Davy'), she both fulfilled a dream and made her aware of life from the other side of the slushpile. "It made me so much kinder as an agent," she tells us.
Her tastes are generally for literary fiction -- and we urge AH users to read her very full and useful interview in full below -- but she does handle both commercial fiction and non-fiction as well.
Of her literary tastes, she cites Donna Tartt's The Secret History as a novel in which "Beautiful writing meets unbelievable plot meets fantastic characterisation. It is a tour de force." She also mentions The Help, Tom Rob Smith's The Farm, and Sarah Waters's Fingersmith. Trying to find a common thread, she says, "they all have magic in them and the nature of magic is it cannot be explained or even repeated, only stared at with shock and delighted awe."
Those themes carry through into her (relatively recently found) fondness for classy commercial fiction. Names she mentions there include JoJo Moyes ("so much more clever and unexpected than I anticipated ... the characters left me sobbing on Hampstead Heath"), Tana French and Sophie Hannah. She doesn't look at out and out SFF work, but has a keen interest in stories with fantastical elements. She's not a natural agent for many genres of non-fiction -- don't come to her with standard military history or books on economics -- but likes narrative-led non-fiction that takes the reader into new, surprising and novelistic places. She cites Truman Capote's In Cold Blood as an outstanding example of that genre.
Nelle is still relatively new as an agent and is relatively keen to add quality clients to her list. Nelle, by the way, is short for Janelle, but don't use that name as she doesn't like it. "Nelle" will do just fine.
Nelle Andrew has a BA from Warwick University in English with Creative Writing and an MPhil from Trinity College Dublin in Creative Writing with Publishing. She worked at Pan Macmillan before joining PFD. A published author herself (under Nelle Davy), she is particularly interested in debut novels and launching talented fiction writers into what she hopes will be long and productive careers.
***See the interview below, or on our blog with Nelle, as that gives a very rich picture of her reading tastes.*** "But in summary, authors and books loved include: Donna Tartt for her beautiful prose and fantastic narrative hook, Joyce Carole Oates for her prolific work and hard hitting themes, Jeffrey Eugenides for his versatility and writing, Gillian Flynn for her amazing plot structure. Those writers tell you all you need to know re: my taste, books that are a pleasure to read, edifying without trying, fantastic characters and incredibly smart. Books you want to share as gifts, books that linger on in the mind. I love literary fiction with a commercial hook especially but I need a book with a set narrative structure, beginning, middle and end. I am looking for authors to grow and nurture with a talent I truly believe in. They can be historical, saga, literary/commercial cross over, YA etc but they all must be books that are underpinned by a great story and impressive writing. Re: non fiction, I like books that are for readers like me who generally don't read non fiction so they have to be timely, interesting, zeitgeisty and vey narrative. My favourite non fiction work is Truman Capote's IN COLD BLOOD, that is non fiction but reads like a novel with a real story and incredibly interesting characters. Journalism and writing at its best. Why are you sending it to me? What is it about my list or interests that you think means I would be a good fit for you? Also please please give my a short pracis of your novel in the sample letter, and make sure in it that you have written a fantastic cover letter because if you cannot write a letter then frankly I wouldn't look at your novel because I have no faith you can carry a longer form if you've failed at a mere side of A4. Also manners are big with me, rudeness is never acceptable whether I have signed you or not and it is my deal breaker. Also sarcasm, edgy jokes etc are fine if we're friends of ten years but I've just encountered you and that's a familiarity I don't take kindly to in the first instance. I am not the right agent for chick-lit, science fiction, fantasy or young children's. I don't have anything against them but I just don't get them and so don't feel I can do them well. I have to be passionate about things in order to sell them. Likewise I don't like getting on board a train that's already pulled from the station so if there are lots of vampire books around, I don't want to do a vampire book because that market is already saturated. I want original story-telling, not books that are just for one market only."
I love being opened to a new experience and world I have never seen before, I am not a fan of flying so the most travel and escapism I prefer to do is in the safe confines of the tube with a book in hand. Mostly I love things I can get really passionate about. That's my remit, once you have hooked me in, I don't sell, I proselytize. But I don't want to get into my personal tastes too much really, because this isn't about me as a person, this is about my authors: finding them, building them and helping them achieve. Who I am and what I like socially is really secondary, it isn't about me; it's about you. Nelle has only recently started building a list, so she describes herself as "fully committed and eager to find and build my list with fresh and exciting new voices." She also describes her biggest thrill in a new submission as "quality of writing and brilliant characterisation. When writers know that it is characters and their decisions which drive plot rather than the other way round they create something very special indeed. I am looking to be enthralled and compelled to read on and when I find something like that I will stop at nothing to give them the best of my time and expertise and most of all care."
INTERVIEW WITH NELLE:
Q. What books/authors do you love in commercial fiction? (Crime, women's) Give us some examples and say why you liked these books/authors.
Nelle: I have only recently come to understand how great commercial fiction can be having been a real literary snob for years (blame my masters). But then as an agent you realise that beautiful writing means nothing without a strong plot and characterisation and also that some novelists like Wilkie Collins would have been considered very commercial in their day. The book which utterly changed my opinion was JoJo Moyes ME BEFORE YOU - it was so much more clever and unexpected than I anticipated and the characters left me sobbing on Hampstead Heath. That was a genius piece of writing even if technically it wasn't going to win prizes. Also I discovered Tana French and Sophie Hannah for crime and I discovered with storytelling that the labels we put on books of commercial or literary really don't matter - what matters is being moved and affected and that can happen in any book. Now I don't put labels on books in the same way anymore. I don't enjoy the populist throw-away fiction you can find in really commercial fiction but good writing is good writing anywhere, regardless of the label you decide to place on it.
Q. What books/authors do you love in literary/historical/book group fiction? Examples and reasons, please!
Nelle: The best version of all three is THE SECRET HISTORY. My god that was a novel which even now I remember the first time I read it. Beautiful writing meets unbelievable plot meets fantastic characterisation. It is a tour de force and while I am always loathe to name my favourite novel of all time this would be in my top 3x. If I found a book like that now I would give up agenting because after such a feat nothing would be as good to me. I also loved THE HELP because it was heartfelt and utterly original and more recently THE FARM for its shockingly simple premise which gave so much room for drama and tension I stayed up all night reading it. FINGERSMITH is still to my mind, the best example of how to do a twist that takes your breath away. WHERE'D YOU GO BERNADETTTE is also a book I love to foist on people because it is funny and smart but also the way it plays with interviews and letters makes the novel such a wonderful reading experience. THE ROSIE PROJECT is up there with THE PURSUIT OF LOVE for being one of only 5x novels in which I have laughed out loud and to be honest I could go on and on and on with titles published over the last 500 years that made me fall in love over and over but they all have one thing in common: they all have magic in them and the nature of magic is it cannot be explained or even repeated, only stared at with shock and delighted awe.
Q. How about sci-fi/horror/fantasy/paranormal/YA dystopian/erotic? What would you be interested in, and what's a big no?
Nelle: Sci-fi and horror are a no - so is fantasy for the sake of it too. But I love stories with fantastical elements. We all grew up on fairy tales and magic and so for me I still look for it in stories even now. Dystopia has had its day and anyone writing it should stop right now because it's not going to sell until there's enough breathing space in the market. Erotic is also a no - I wouldn't know what to do with it. YA I love. I can only sell or fall for books I read and it's not that I dismiss this genres but in the buffet of literature I prefer to go foraging somewhere else.
Q. On the non-fiction side, are there particular areas that interest you? Does your non-fiction list have a particular slant to it?
Nelle: My non-fiction slant is for people like me who don't read non-fiction. It has to speak to me, introduce me to a new world, a new idea, or make me look at my life and feel less alone in its troubles. THE WRONG KNICKERS came from the latter because I was sick of people saying how amazing your twenties are while the older generations lamented why we hadn't emulated their golden footsteps. I wanted something which told the truth and I loved the book for that. My favourite non-fiction is still IN COLD BLOOD and because of that I always look for a strong narrative with storytelling properties in my non-fiction. I want to feel as if I am reading a novel or being given amazing insight. I judge it more harshly and expect more because I am not used to reading it - a bit like your expectations in the theatre rather than when you pop to the cinema.
Q. And are there any areas of zero interest to you in non-fiction? What would you NOT want to see?
Nelle: I am sorry to say this but too many people think their general life experience makes amazing non-fiction and honestly it doesn't. Unless it has phenomenal writing, I personally just find it boring. I also don't want anything generic. I want magic. Every time.
Q. What (very roughly) is the balance of your list between literary fiction / commercial fiction / non-fiction?
Nelle: My list is very literary/commercial fiction more than non-fiction. I was made an agent to bring in fiction so non-fiction makes up a very small percentage of my list. Fiction is my heart and home.
Q. You're relatively unusual amongst agents in being an author yourself. Tell us a little bit more about your own writing. And what has it been like working with an agent and a publisher from the other side?
Nelle: I became an author before I became an agent because it was always a goal of mine. And I was a slush pile author so it taught me a great deal about what it's like from the author's side and sometimes how unfairly or dismissively they are treated. It made me so much kinder as an agent than I may have been because I really know what it's like to be messed around as slush pile authors sometimes are. I had amazing experiences and not so amazing experiences and I learned three important things: that you need to be honest with yourself about what you want and what your expectations are; that being published is the best feeling in the world and that patience is key but perseverance is more important. I think sometimes we can see things from one side and forget we are on the same team and that's what I took into my role as an agent, to find someone to be on my author's team to help them achieve their goals.
Q. Is there any submissions in particular you'd love to see at the moment?
Nelle: I would love to see submissions with a heartfelt story that really moves me, really affects me. It doesn't have to be sad or melodramatic, just transport me and give me emotion, give me a reason to really care. Or on the other side a really clever crime thriller where the writing is still very taught but the plot makes me feel like I am on a mental rollercoaster or a slow creeping chill that builds to toothache proportions. I want a really good story and a really great character to root for. I suppose I treat novels like doors to a party - I open one and a good hostesses will make me want to stay. What I do not want is this: I am so tired of female characters who quite frankly are crazy dysfunctional nut jobs. I think the whole "complicated hot mess" character is just annoying to me now. I finish the book and feel such a wave of irritation at these people who just cannot get their act together. So I would like to see a character who is flawed yes but still a good person. I would like someone I could take this journey with into their story and root for them. I still want peril, I still want substance but I want to leave the novel and think "I wish you well," not "You need intensive therapy, and now so do I for being in your head for the last 400 pages."
Q. What's your biggest turn-off in a covering letter? What would you really hope to see?
Nelle: Well I think authors make the mistake of thinking that because their novel is such a personal thing, that they need to be overly personal in their letters. Some letters I read and think, I don't know you - have never met you and yet you're telling me your wife left you, or cracking self-conscious jokes that just feel cringe worthy. It's important to remember that at this stage you want us to read the book, so keep it light, keep it simple, talk about the plot and what the hook is and anything relevant. Don't be self-deprecating, but neither should you sell yourself as the next Dan Brown because really what evidence do you have to make the statement that you're the next multi-million bestselling author when no one has read your novel in the industry yet and given you their feedback. Likewise you have some authors who obviously find the whole submission process awkward because they "just want to write and don't want to do the self-promotion thing" to which I say, you can write but then don't seek to get published because publishing now involves huge swathes of promotion for the novel and the author, so if you make the choice to seek us out, do so wholeheartedly and humbly.
Q. What are your biggest peeves in an opening page or opening chapter? And what do you love to see?
Nelle: Typos. If people cannot be bothered to proof read their own work I think it just isn't that important to them. People who send me chapter 1, chapter 15 and then chapter 20 - I just think really?! How am I meant to judge this? Small font and no spacing - not a pleasing reading experience. What I love is clean, fluid, evenly spaced writing. Size 12, no nonsense font. The package is simple because it is the writing which will blow you away.
Q. Do you have any unpredictable loves?
Nelle: I like to be surprised. I like daring and I like risk. I think I have always had a thing for an unreliable narrator and I have always adored a story with strong female characters. I love a novel with catharsis.
Q. Would you take on an author who had self-published? What kind of self-pub sales would make you sit up?
Nelle: I don' t know honestly! I debate a lot within myself about this. On one hand I cannot deny that success has been found from self-published authors, but on another, maybe because as an author myself I felt if my book wasn't taken on that meant it needed work and I needed to go away and do that, not proceed regardless. And so because of that I wonder sometimes if self-publishing stops authors from really examining the issues in their novels editorially and making it stronger. So I am still in two minds about it. I's something I watch from the side-lines and change my mind about every week.
Q. What single piece of advice would you most want to give writers?
Nelle: Hmmm - so many. Okay to condense it down to one and this is the most important one, believe in yourself. Because you will be rejected a lot. You may then get an agent and be rejected by publishers. You may then get published and be rejected by reviewers or the public or both. Rejection is part of the package, it is the price for your goals. So the only way to deal with it is to believe that this is the right path for you, that even though it may hurt, even though you may get tired and want to give up, you are right to continue because it will happen eventually. Jessica Tandy won an Oscar at 80, there's always time for the marvellous to occur. Believe in yourself because if you don't, no one else will.
Q. How many submissions do you see annually? And how many of those submissions will end up on your list?
Nelle: Too many to count and about 5 end up on my list.
Q. Do you look for social media and online presence? Do you care?
Nelle: Nope and nope. It's all down to the writing. I had an author who wouldn't even give me her photograph for our website. I then sold her novel in 16 countries.
Q. When people are pitching the concept for a book to you, what do you find is the most common failing?
Nelle: They try to say too much and they make it so dry rather than like the back of an actual book. Condense it down to a paragraph. If you can't perhaps that's because it is too diffuse or you don't have a real handle on what the novel is yet. There's a short precis and a longer one and anyone can condense a novel or story into a few lines. Here's an example: "Anna Karenina tells two stories: Anna, a married woman has a volatile affair which tears her family apart, at the same time as Leon, a young graduate struggles to find his place in society. In their dual narratives they explore the ramifications of 19th century Russian society as the traditional and the new struggle together for balance at a terrible cost." If I can do it for Tolstoy, you can do it for yourself!
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