SPOTLIGHT FEATURE – Clara Foster from Aevitas Creative Management UK

SPOTLIGHT FEATURE – Clara Foster from Aevitas Creative Management UK

Good morning, everyone!

This week, we’re joined by Clara Foster, who has recently joined Aevitas Creative Management UK after 18 months as an agency assistant at The Blair Partnership. Clara is building her list and is looking to represent authors of adult fiction and select non-fiction. She is especially looking for upmarket fiction with a literary spin, stories driven by the complex emotions of the women at their centre, and anything that draws from historical or folkloric narratives in a new way. In non-fiction, she is looking for practical but not prescriptive guides aimed at women.

Clara is active on Twitter @cla_foster where you can learn more about her work.

Clara Foster

“The relationship between author and agent is a partnership … It’s important to me that authors know they can say no to their agent. At the same time, I want authors to recognise that our goal is to use our expertise to help them create the careers and lives that they want.”

Hi Clara, thanks for speaking with us today!

What brought you to agenting?

That’s a long story but put simply: a long process of elimination. I went to university to study Classics but ended up switching to English. I always say that editing is like reverse engineering an English degree, so I thought being an editor was what I wanted. I had some great experience and spent a summer as an assistant at Harper Collins – but it taught me that while I did want to edit, being an editor wasn’t quite what I wanted.

Being an editor is a really hard job! There’s a certain way you have to approach a book: not just “How do we pitch this as a brilliant piece of writing?” but “How do we pitch this as a commercial object?” You still have to think about that as an agent to an extent, but you’re not quite so bound by those ‘straight-to-consumer’ strictures. There’s more freedom being on the outside and selling inwards. As an agent, you edit, you pitch, you sell, you talk to people, you find talent, you negotiate contracts, you work out how everything is going to look holistically… I’m biased, but to me, it’s the best job there is.

What’s your favourite thing about being an agent?

It’s hard to pick! For the pure fun of it, I love an auction. There is no greater fun to be had in the workday than when you have four people bidding on the same book. Because you pretty much know that whatever happens, you’ll get to bring great news to an author. And it really shows the work that you’ve put in, that the author has put in, plus all the help you’ve received from the whole team at your agency… Auctions are a fairly good sign that it’s all paid off.

But then, there’s something endlessly exciting about discovering new writing. I think that might just tip it as my favourite part of being an agent. Unless you’re competing with other agents – which sometimes you are! – it feels like you have found something really important that nobody else has seen. I think that’s really thrilling.

Then again, ask me in six months and you may get a completely different answer. I have a sneaky feeling that my favourite part of the job is just whichever great thing I’ve had the chance to do most recently.

What’s at the top of your fiction wishlist?

I’m looking for contemporary upmarket or accessible literary fiction, led by what I call ‘intensely emotional women.’ I want to find something that feels like Luster by Raven Leilani or The Guest by Emma Cline – they are driven entirely by character and emotion, with a constant vacillation between despair, anger, and hope. Authors who do this really well often play with genre so you don’t quite know where these books sit. Take The Guest, for example. It’s marketed as a commercial thriller but when you look at interviews with Emma Cline, she talks about wanting to create a narrative with the tension of a short story stretched over the length of a novel. I think it’s a masterpiece of craft, and I’m looking for something that plays with form, character and genre in the same way.

On the other side of things, I love book club fiction that pulls from different genres. I especially love anything grounded in history, folklore or mythology, especially if it includes new takes on old ideas or twists on familiar tropes. Overall, I’m looking for a great story. Strong prose and interesting characters are pretty crucial, because when push comes to shove they are as big a part of the story as anything else. But if I find something with a high-stakes plot that gets me invested, I’ll be happy.

How about non-fiction?

What I really want at the minute is a practical non-fiction book by women, for women. I want to see a how-to or practical guide that’s not necessarily prescriptive but fills a gap in knowledge that we don’t have. Something that gets me to think about how my life could look, where problems in my life lie, and how to fix them.

Is there any genre you would rather not receive?

I’m not really looking for memoir or narrative non-fiction; if I want a story, I tend to look to fiction instead.

I’m not a huge rom-com fan, and I’m not looking for general women’s fiction. A lot of other agents handle women’s fiction really well, and I think it’s always best to let those who really truly love a genre champion the stories within it. I’m also not personally into horror or crime and thriller.

But with that said, I do like to be surprised. Sometimes writing will land in my inbox or I’ll stumble across something in an anthology and realise that it’s nothing like what I was looking for and still exactly what I wanted. That’s the great thing about agenting: you can put out all these rules but a good manuscript can have you breaking every single one.

What does the average day in the life of an agent look like for you?

The order may change, but the things that we do on a day-to-day basis are usually the same. When you work as an agent, you’re always scouting for talent. That means being in the submissions inbox, reading anthologies, going to author events and book launches, or doing pitching sessions with organisations set up to help writers.

There’s also a lot of admin involved: managing contracts and royalties, for example, or setting up meetings with editors and scouts since you always need to stay in contact and keep an eye on what they’re looking for. It’s always a good idea to get to know as many people in the industry as you can—publishing is really a business of relationships. Not only is it useful to be on good terms with an author’s publishing team, for example, in case something somewhere goes wrong (because that’s life and inevitably at some point something will go wrong somehow, somewhere) and you need to step in, but you just never know when someone will step out of the woodwork with a brilliant opportunity or idea or introduction. Plus it’s fun. Publishing people, for the most part, are a pretty sociable bunch: we like to chat!

Speaking of which, you need to talk to your colleagues about what’s going well (or not), what’s selling in the market, maybe ask for advice on a specific manuscript or sale-in-progress. Aevitas is especially great because it’s a hugely collaborative environment; everyone is in constant conversation about their projects and that’s an incredibly useful and productive way to work. If I’m not talking to my agent colleagues in the office, I’ll need to be in conversation with our brilliant rights director, or our fabulous contracts manager, or our superstar book-to-screen team. And then we have twice-weekly meetings with our American colleagues, which is a complete boon because there’s such a huge wealth of knowledge there—not just in terms of years of agenting experience, but also in knowing a market that may use the same language but is actually pretty different. Publishing is so global now, and US deals can be crucial for some authors, so you want to know that you’re always on the right track.

Then of course, when you have manuscripts on the go (which is pretty much always), you’ll spend time reading and editing. I also like to be in touch with my authors on a regular basis. I don’t just want to know how the book is coming along, I want to make sure they feel supported. Every so often, we’ll take a look at how things are progressing in an author’s career and discuss how they feel about it: Are things going the way they expected? Are they heading in a direction that suits them? If not, how are we going to change that? Again, it all comes back to relationships.

(And, of course, there are lots of emails. Lots and lots of emails.)

What do you think makes a good agent-author relationship?

As agents, I’m sure we all think about the right way to have a relationship with our authors. Everyone will do it differently because everyone works differently and I don’t think that’s a bad thing. For me, what’s absolutely paramount is that the relationship between author and agent is a partnership. That’s how I want to work with my authors.

Agents spend years learning how to be useful to our clients, and that means that by trade, we have knowledge that is useful and – I hope – should be listened to. That doesn’t necessarily mean that an agent and an author are always going to agree. It doesn’t even mean that the agent will automatically have the right of it. It’s important to me that authors know they can say no to their agent. At the same time, I want authors to recognise that our goal is to use our expertise to help them create the careers and lives that they want. If an agent says something you disagree with, it can be helpful to circle back and question whether their advice is useful, even if it’s not something you wanted to hear.

It’s a fine balance, there’s a lot of give and take, and I think it’s important to have regular communication so you can build a relationship where no one is going to feel unheard or uncomfortable speaking their mind.

Is there anything you like to see in a query letter, or anything you don’t like?

Query letters are so difficult. They’re like one small piece of an author’s heart and soul that they’ve had to put onto a page to grab an agent’s attention. There’s a weird balance where a query letter does not and cannot count for everything, but at the same time as an agent, you’re reading so many queries that you have to make use of them. For me, a great query letter counts in your favour much more than a poor query letter counts against you, because I know how hard they are to write.

I like query letters to be short and sweet. I don’t mind the order too much – you can open by explaining why you’re querying me, or you can launch straight into the blurb. I do want to see both of those details though. If I’m taking time out of my day (often outside of working hours) to read your submission, I do want to feel that you’ve contacted me for a reason. So, put my name in the query letter and show me somehow that you know who I am and what’s on my wishlist. I also want a taste of what I’m going to be reading – not a full synopsis, just a blurb like you would see on the back of a book.

Then, give me a little bit of information about who you are and why that’s relevant to what you’re sending me. If you’ve written a book on Welsh folklore and you’re Welsh, that’s relevant. If the main character is a classical pianist and you’re also a classical pianist, that’s relevant. Anything about your background that will help me understand why you’ve written what you’ve written is great. It’s also good to let me know if the book has been long-listed for a prize or anything like that.

As for things I don’t want to see… Sometimes I’ll get queries where the author says: “This is the most extraordinary piece of literature you’ll ever see,” or “This is going to win a Pulitzer.” On the other end of the spectrum, I’ve seen queries include lines like: “I’m sorry for wasting your time.” If you don’t believe in your work, why should I? At the same time, don’t be arrogant. It’s always a balance.

Some agents love synopses, others don’t. Where do you stand on them and are there any things that you look for?

Usually, my method is to read the query letter, read the sample, and then if I like the sample, I’ll go back and read the synopsis to see where the plot is going. For me, the synopsis is only relevant if I’m already hooked and think the query is something I might like to represent.

A synopsis, in my opinion, should not be longer than one side of A4 paper. I don’t want to see fifteen pages detailing everything that happens; a synopsis should be more like the bare bones of the story, including the ending.

Is there anything in the opening pages of a manuscript that grabs you? Anything you don’t like to see?

I’m always looking for voice and that can manifest in all sorts of ways. It’s difficult: you can try to give pieces of advice such as getting straight into the action, but sometimes an author will do something that you ordinarily don’t like, and they’ll do it so well that it really works. So, I try not to be too prescriptive about what I do or don’t want.

There are some openings that you see cropping up time and time again. If you’re reading 50 queries in a day and you read the same opening scenario several times, it’s going to lose impact. As an example, I’ve seen a lot of YA and adult fantasy that opens with a girl stealing something, or a thief down on their luck. I read four openings like that just the other day. Or in thriller and mystery – not really genres I represent so I haven’t personally experienced this, but I’ve heard that a lot of those manuscripts open with a character vomiting…

Some authors have questions about submissions etiquette: how long to wait for a response, what to do if they want to resubmit their work, etc. Do you have any guidance for authors trying to navigate the process?

Yes, check the submission guidelines on an agent’s page. If you’re submitting to me through QueryManager, it will send an automatic response that receipts the submission and says I aim to get back to everyone within 30 days. If you haven’t heard from me within the timeline I set out, feel free to come back and nudge me. Just don’t email me expecting a response two weeks after you’ve sent me something.

As for resubmitting… I think before you send something out, you should make sure you’re really ready to do so. It’s possible to withdraw a submission on QueryManager so you can revise it, but it’s going to make me wonder why you submitted it in the first place if it wasn’t ready.

Are there any books that you’ve enjoyed recently?

I’ve finally gotten around to reading Julia Armfield’s Salt Slow. It’s been on my radar since it came out but I was just too busy to get round to it. I spend a lot of time reading romantasy for work so I was looking for something different, and I’m lucky enough to live close enough to BookBar that it’s become my favourite haunt. One of the great booksellers in there suggested Salt Slow which is now out in a really beautiful, teeny paperback, and so I had a fabulous time reading that!

I’m also finishing something a bit unusual for me: Super-Infinite by Katherine Rundell. I don’t read a lot of non-fiction but she’s stunningly brilliant and I love her middle grade fiction. Also, I studied Renaissance literature for my degree so I couldn’t help coming across John Donne. I think anyone who studies Donne ends up having a difficult relationship with him because he’s a brilliant poet but such a strange guy. Having someone as erudite and passionate and thoughtful as Katherine Rundell take you through his life is, I think, a reminder of how far that thoughtfulness and passion can get you as a writer. How brilliant it is to hear from people who really know their stuff. I think that applies across the board, even in fiction; when you are writing something that you really know and understand, it always shines through. I think that’s something so important for writing.

Outside the world of books, what hobbies and passions do you have?

I used to bake a lot, now I just make cookies. I have this one cookie recipe and every time anything goes wrong, you’ll find me in the kitchen baking cookies.

One thing I’m hoping to get into more – because finding the time is an issue – is ceramics. I’ve always been slightly obsessed with them and I’d love to spend time throwing pottery. Publishing is so cerebral and there’s something incredibly meditative about working at the wheel with your hands.

Do you have any last pieces of advice for authors going through the querying process?

Have grace for yourself and for others. It’s a really tough process, so please know that as agents, we know you’re doing your best and please remember that we are also doing our best. A lot of the querying process, particularly reading submissions, gets done outside of our working hours in our free time so we can give the best chance we can to every query that comes our way.

It’s hard, but stick to your guns. If someone comes to you with a vision for your book, consider whether or not it aligns with yours. Sometimes it won’t, other times it will: an agent might suggest a new direction to take and you’ll realise you hadn’t considered it before but it really works. So keep an open mind – but at the end of the day, know that it’s your work.

If you’re struggling with your query letter and synopsis, do check out our free resources on our website. We have lots of info to help you on your way. Or, better still, if you’re a member with us, our lovely Writers Support team will be happy to offer you a free query letter review!

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