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How to get your short stories noticed: tips from the literary agent Lucy Luck

Lucy Luck is a literary agent at Conville + Walsh and represents a long list of short story writers, including Kevin Barry and Colin Barrett. Here she shares her top tips for getting your short stories noticed and talks about what makes her notice a gem in the slush pile

  • What gems do you look for in the perfect short story?
    The first thing is voice – it’s very hard to define, but from the first line, I have to trust the authorial voice, which is different from who is doing the writing – I don’t want to sense the writer at all. And I have to be shown where, when and who the story involves within that first paragraph: a character should be introduced who will drive the action of the story. No words can be wasted in a story, there can be nothing superfluous, and a writer who has edited to the point that every word serves a purpose instils confidence in me. The world building is also essential – I can only focus on the characters if I can place them in their context. Then dialogue, it’s such a key part of achieving momentum and it needs to work perfectly and help build the characters, not distract from them. The final thing is the ending, if an author can land a story, and if I feel I’ve experienced something with the characters and can let them go, then I know I’ve read something special.

    How often do you discover a short story from an unknown author that utterly blows you away? What do those stories achieve that many others don’t?
    It is very rare. I think in my agenting career it has happened maybe 10 times. I’ve read many brilliant stories from authors who are known to me, but from someone I haven’t heard of, it’s not often at all. What those stories do achieve is having made me feel complete trust that I will be taken on a journey and the journey will be worth it, and once I’ve finished reading, I return to the real world with a bit of a jolt and a smile. A story that encompasses all those things mentioned above is rare indeed and very hard to achieve and I’m grateful to those who’ve managed it.

    What are the most important qualities you look for in a new author – do they have to have a certain number of followers on social media or have published extensively before?
    Social media has very little effect on my consideration of an author – the first and most important thing for me is their writing and whether the project they are working on is one I can agent with confidence and enthusiasm. If an author has been published in journals I know or is recommended to me, that always makes me want to read more quickly, but it always comes down to the words on the page.

    Who are the authors you’re pleased to have nurtured and the collections you’re most proud of helping to bring into the world?
    I feel extremely lucky to represent the authors I do, and all the collections I’ve worked on make me hugely proud, including those by Philip O Ceallaigh, Kevin Barry, Colin Barrett, Danielle McLaughlin and Stuart Evers. Kevin Barry’s first collections There are Little Kingdoms is now considered (rightly) a classic of contemporary Irish literature, but when he was working on the stories in 2005 and 2006 it wasn’t such an obvious proposition for publishers. The first story of his I read, See the Tree, How Big it’s Grown, was one of those gems mentioned above and I took him on for the quality it showed (the ending is perfect). More stories followed and Declan Meade at The Stinging Fly Press published the collection in Ireland in 2007. It has now sold over 20,000 copies throughout the world and Kevin’s work is amongst the most anticipated and lauded of contemporary writers. It was a brilliant moment when the story Beer Trip to Llandudno from his second collection Dark Lies the Island won the Sunday Times EFG Prize in 2012.

    What kind of enthusiasm is there in the industry for publishing short stories at the moment? Are publishers keen to accept story collections, or are they being “disguised” as novels?
    As much as I love short stories, they are not the most obvious commercial prospect for a publisher, and it’s rare that any collection can sell in the kind of numbers that keeps a publisher in business. In order to get any attention for a collection, a publisher has to commit to a campaign of attrition, they have to badger everyone ceaselessly to get any attention. This takes a lot of time and energy so publishers are cautious about committing to a new short story collection. But I’m glad to say that despite these commercial realities, we work in an industry where rules are made to be broken and all who love books (from publishers to reviewers to retailers to readers), would feel the world was a less good place without the work of Alice Munro, Raymond Carver, Chekhov or Somerset Maugham (and many others). So there are always opportunities for new voices to break through, and in a number of different ways. A straightforward collection of 10-15 stories with different characters in different places, but perhaps with a theme, or a more connected collection that might contain the same characters in different times, or be set in the same place with different people. A publisher would not want to disguise a collection as a novel but there are books that can be read as both connected stories or a novel in stories and in those instances a publisher can be allowed to let the reader decide.

    In what ways do you think short story competitions help to promote the form?
    They are essential for offering writers an outlet for stories and a reason to write them, and also for encouraging the recognition of the form in a broader context. Encouraging access to stories is a good way to break down the unconscious bias against the form in those who read and buy books.

    What are the challenges for authors writing a collection of short stories, compared to those who write a novel?
    A collection involves an author getting the tight-rope precision needed for each story right at least 10 times, depending on how long the book is. A collection has to allow a reader to be immersed in one story with a character, a situation, a resolution, a world and then land them precisely and satisfyingly so that, with a breath, they can be taken on a different journey. No word can be wasted in a story, economy is key and the shape has to hold. It requires immense discipline. A novel gives a writer more scope and allows for different registers and more complexity. It is also a skilful thing to control, but the two are very different skills.

    Can you share your best tips and advice for people who are hoping to get their short stories noticed – or thinking of submitting to an agent?
    The most important thing is to recognise when a story is working and when it needs to be set aside. Not every story will come out – many authors say one in 10 is not uncommon, so you should not feel that you’ve failed if something doesn’t come together. And you need to learn to be as ruthless an editor as you can. Effective dialogue is important, and reported speech, as it is the most efficient way to delineate character and to move the narrative forward. Reading is also key – read widely among those writers recognised for their stories and try and appreciate why those you love work so brilliantly and manage to take you into their world; see how effectively the author controls the narrative and your response to it.

    Once a story is as good as you can make it I would recommend submitting to competitions and journals who accept short fiction, and learn from any feedback you get. Finding a group to work with can also be useful as long as you’re comfortable hearing constructive criticism from them. A number of agents and publishers are aware of publications and prizes and will be looking out for new voices, or will have new voices recommended to them by editors and readers, so it is good to research in those areas, and also knowing a bit about the agents and editors who work with story collections is a very good idea. And finally, enjoy creating worlds and characters. Have as much fun as the form allows.

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    Interview by Sophie Haydock