We are delighted to announce that the Caledonia Novel Award 2018 shortlist judge is Madeleine Milburn, Literary Agent and Director of Madeleine Milburn Literary, TV & Film Agency.
Welcome Maddy! Tell us a bit about your agency and what you’ve been up to recently.
I founded the Madeleine Milburn Literary, TV & Film Agency in 2012 and it has quickly become internationally renowned for launching exciting new and bestselling authors around the world. Big names include Fiona Barton (The Widow), Gail Honeyman (Eleanor Oliphant Is Completely Fine), C.L. Taylor (The Escape), C.J, Tudor (The Chalk Man), C.J. Daugherty (Night School) and Holly Bourne (Am I Normal Yet?).
Most recently, I sold the first adult novel by the YA bestselling author Holly Bourne, When The Music Stops, to award-winning publisher Hodder & Stoughton for publication in 2018. It’s a fantastically edgy, brave and topical book showing the chasm between the lives people project and the lives they actually have.
We’ve been celebrating the success of C.L. Taylor, whose most recent thriller The Escape went to No. 2 on The Sunday Times bestseller list, and her thrillers have now collectively sold more than a million copies. Fiona Barton’s The Child is currently in The Sunday Times bestseller list, and her debut novel, The Widow, was an international bestseller shortlisted for the Crime and Thriller of the Year at the British Book Awards. Eleanor Oliphant Is Completely Fine by Gail Honeyman was published in May, and has now spent six weeks in The Sunday Times bestseller list. The book has also been optioned by Reese Witherspoon’s new production company, Hello Sunshine, and will act as a star vehicle for the Oscar-winning actress.
We’re also tying up several exciting Film & TV options which we’ll continue to announce on our website.
What are the most – and least – rewarding aspects of your work, and what has been your proudest moment?
The most rewarding aspect of my work is spotting exciting new talent that no one else has read before. That, and telling my authors that I’ve sold their book to leading publishers worldwide! It’s an incredible moment to be able to change someone’s life like that and I’m so proud to be working with such an amazing list of writers.
On the other end of the spectrum, the least rewarding is having to turn an author down. Writing a book is an achievement in itself, so I never like to turn down something I know someone has worked so hard on.
What are the current trends in fiction that you are seeing, both in the UK and internationally?
The trend for crime and thrillers doesn’t seem to be dissipating but instead, there seems to be a trend for new ways of looking at them and telling those stories, whether it’s a unique narrator, an intriguing structure or an element of horror or paranormal.
We’re also seeing a lot of novels which cross the genres, which is really interesting. There’s a great desire for grounded sci-fi thrillers as well as an epic love story, and more upmarket ‘book-club’ fiction.
When you receive a manuscript, what encourages you to read past the first page? When assessing a submission, do you focus on plot, character, the storytelling, or on something else?
The first thing I look for is a stand-out covering letter, someone that knows where their book sits in the market, what is has to offer, and the ‘hook’ of their novel. That’s why I ask for an elevator pitch on all my submissions – that way we can immediately see what the draw of the book is and a strong hook will always make me want to read on. Once I’m reading the first page, the thing that draws me in is the voice. If I’m pulled in by a memorable, original and distinctive voice, I’m much more likely to want to keep reading. Then it’s a case of characterisation and plot which bring the book together and keep me hooked. I want to connect with the protagonist and I want to be intrigued by the premise whether that’s a mystery, an adventure, a character, or a theme.
What switches you off in a synopsis, and do you have any tips on avoiding pitfalls?
The biggest pitfall we see in synopses is the tendency to write a blurb rather than an outline of the story. You should focus on ‘telling’ rather than ‘selling’ in a synopsis as, in general, it’s what we look at after the cover letter and the chapters to see how the story is going to progress and if it’s going to maintain the promising start we’ve read. It should contain spoilers and it should be concise. It’s not a blurb from the back of a book, so avoid cliff-hangers like ‘and everything unravels from there’ or ‘but there’s a dark secret she isn’t telling anyone’ and give us more of a chronological telling of events so we know what happens in the rest of the story.
Which recent novels by new writers have you particularly enjoyed, and do you have any favourite ‘go-to’ recommendations?
I really enjoyed This Must Be the Place by Maggie O’Farrell, My Name is Lucy Barton by Elizabeth Strout, Missing, Presumed by Susie Steiner, Ragdoll by Daniel Cole, Good Me Bad Me by Ali Land, The Couple Next Door by Shari Lapena, and Behind Closed Doors by B.A. Paris.
My go-to recommendations would be In The Woods by Tana French, A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara, The Secret History by Donna Tartt, The Child in Time by Ian McEwan.
What exciting projects are in the pipeline for you and your agency? Will we be seeing any of your writers at this year’s Edinburgh International Book Festival?
I’m really excited about finding and developing new talent for submitting to publishers and film producers later this year, and seeing how the agency’s non-fiction list grows.
As for the Edinburgh Book Festival, I’m delighted that our author Gail Honeyman of Eleanor Oliphant Is Completely Fine will be speaking this year.
And finally, what advice would you give to prospective Caledonia Novel Award 2018 entrants?
Re-read your manuscript a few times before sending it in; the best writers are great editors. Don’t rush your entry – there’s so much time to get it into perfect shape to submit so give yourself the time to hone your pitch to make it stand out from all the other entries. Most importantly, good luck! I’m really excited to read all of the entries and find some budding new talent.