It started with a conversation on a warm summer afternoon in 2015, on the balcony of Robin Wade’s bright and spacious apartment, overlooking St Katharine Docks, London.
Underneath, water lapped at the sides of the small boats, shiny and white, moored to the wooden wharf.
Robin was looking for the next big thing and, later, at home, I stayed up late thinking of ways to make it happen.
A writing competition was one way, a straightforward one. Organising it would be a matter of merely fitting it in, a matter of adding it to the activities of an already brilliant team of editors at Daniel Goldsmith Associates, the literary consultancy I had founded some eight years previously.
Two thousand and fifteen was a time when I could stay up all night and still be alive the next day, so I did. I thought about the kind of genres we could handle within the team, the best people to judge it, the best time in the year to run it. I wrote the terms and conditions. In the morning, I emailed Robin: ‘I have an idea.’ He liked it.
First Novel Prize opened for entries for the first time on the 1st of February 2016. The response was incredible – incredible number of entries, incredible quality of writing.
Robin co-judged the Prize with Carla Josephson, then commissioning editor at Simon & Schuster UK. A year from the initial conversation, we were back on Robin’s balcony, this time three of us, discussing the shortlist (photo above of Robin, Carla and me, from left).
There are many brilliant writing competitions out there, but our model of pairing up a literary agent with a commissioning editor was, and I believe still is, unique.
It went so well, Robin generously offered to judge the 2017 edition too, this time with Darcy Nicholson, then senior commissioning editor at Transworld.
In 2018, Sam Copeland and Phoebe Morgan judged a record number of entries. We discussed the shortlist over a working breakfast at DoubleTree near the Tower of London, an exciting and stimulating start to one of the most terrifying days of my life; in the afternoon, I sat the graduation exam for a PG Diploma in UK, US and EU Copyright Law at King’s College.
Rarely do planets align as they did in 2019, when we had a commercial fiction editorial director and a literary fiction agent on the panel, in Ed Wood and Emma Paterson. The week the shortlist was announced I was away on training – an intense, exhausting week of nothing but law, designed to be deeply immersive. I remember scrolling through my emails late in the evening, searching for updates from the wonderful Angel Belsey, the Prize manager, and trying to remember what my life was about prior to that week.
In 2020, we had great fun debating the shortlist with Eve White and Chris White, the judges, and Ludo Cinelli, junior agent at Eve White Literary Agency. There was a buzz across Zoom about the undisputed first winner – the ‘showstopper’, we all agreed – but both Eve and Chris were taking turns to advocate for their own favourites for the second and third place.
If we didn’t have things like the Sistine Chapel, publishing would likely be the world’s greatest show of passion.
We might not have found the great next book for Robin, but in the first five years of the First Novel Prize, winners and shortlistees went on to get signed up by agents and get astonishing publishing deals across the world.
Emily Itami’s FAULT LINES will be the first title of Orion’s new imprint, Phoenix Books, to be published in May this year. Laure van Rensburg’s THE DOWNFALL was sold at auction in over ten territories last year. Other successes are Clarissa Goenawan’s RAINBIRDS, Vicky Bradley’s BEFORE I SAY I DO, Carolyn Kirby’s THE CONVICTION OF CORA BURNS, Neemah Shah’s KOLOLO HILL and Sharma Taylor’s BUTTERFLIES OF LAZARUS GARDENS sold to Virago only a month or so ago.
This year, Juliet Mushens and Emad Akhtar are looking forward to reading the entries in the First Novel Prize 2021. The sense of anticipation about this year’s entries has reached a certain zenith here. The next few months in which, I’m sure, some never-before-read breathtaking novels will come through, will be frantic with excitement.
Over the last five years, the First Novel Prize has grown to occupy a distinctive space in the English-language literary landscape, so we feel the time is right for a small addition. More soon.
Authors can hire editors for a range of services, from editorial assessments to copy-editing and proofreading. On a spectrum from Basic to Complex, substantive editing would sit second closest to the complex end, just before ghost-writing. Sometimes there is confusion … Continue reading →
Writing comedy might seem like a mysterious art that only those born with natural comedic flair can master. The truth is, most people have a sense of humour and if you’re interested in writing comedy, then you’re probably someone who enjoys making other people laugh. But how to translate that onto the page? Below are some brief points to consider and practical tips you can apply to your comedy manuscript.
Watch stand-up comedy
You know how everyone goes on about comedy timing? Well, that’s because it’s probably the most important part of making someone laugh. I’ve written comedy scripts for tv and sketch comedy groups. I’ve done stand-up and now I’m writing comedy books for children. Even across these varied forms, I’ve found that timing remains pretty much the same and can be applied to different writing styles.
Watching stand-up comedy is a brilliant way to identify different modes of comedy timing and mimic them in your work. (Note: mimic the timing, not the content.) Do you prefer quick-paced, one liners that move quickly and catch the audience off guard? Or how about slow-burners that build up to a cracking punchline? Watch a mix of different stand-up comedians to really analyse the timing of their jokes and find what you like best.
Work out what makes you laugh
Your work should make you laugh. I know they say that laughing at your own jokes is in poor taste, but if you don’t laugh at your story then why would a reader? Working out your comedy style is key before you start writing. Do you like more casual, observational humour? How about an absurd or surrealist style? What makes you laugh should be what you’re writing down, because you’re far more likely to make others laugh too. A joke shared is better than a joke told.
For kids? Hang out with children
If you’re writing comedy for children then you should really be spending time around them. Whether it’s children of family or friends, or even children you work with, spending time listening to what makes them laugh is really important. Don’t just rely on toilet humour for your jokes. Kids have amazing imaginations and so their capacity to explore a funny idea is huge. They can stay with a joke for longer than an adult. Write comedy for children you know rather than the idea of a child in your mind, you’ll have a much higher success rate.
Don’t kill the joke
Something I’ve noticed a lot in comedy manuscripts is overdoing the joke. The writing will be building up perfectly to a punchline – then we get it, we laugh, but the writer keeps going. The laugh that the punchline elicited has worn off but the prose is still labouring the same topic. If you’re building on a punchline then do so for two more punchlines (or ‘ha ha’ moments) at most to stick with the rule of 3 that works well in writing generally. A joke is stronger without having to be explained. If you don’t think the joke is strong enough without two more pages of jokes about the same subject after, then cut the joke. It should be funny enough to stand alone.
Read your work out loud
This one helps with your timing. Reading your work out loud allows you to feel the natural rhythm of the text. It will highlight awkward phrases or sentences and help you to streamline the text better. Especially when you’re trying to make someone laugh, hearing the writing out loud will give you a better idea of whether the joke lands or whether you need to work on the build up a bit more. Extra points if you’re brave enough to read it to someone else – if they genuinely laugh, you’ll know the timing is on point!
Don’t punch down
Punching down is a phrase used to describe comedy that relies on making fun of people because of certain traits e.g. race, class, sexuality, disability. These jokes are only funny if you believe there’s something inherently weird about someone’s identity. It’s important to know the difference between jokes that cross the line between mocking someone for something we all do, versus mocking someone for a particular characteristic. That doesn’t mean you should avoid these topics in your comedy writing, just make sure you aren’t writing a joke that with a different context could be a cruel insult. If you aren’t sure whether something you’re writing is offensive, then cut it – it’s better to write about what you know anyway.
Keep a record of funny things that happen in your real life
Speaking of writing what you know… I have a list on the ‘notes’ app on my phone of funny things I’ve seen happen or have happened to me. Over the years I’ve realised something I find funny, and so like writing about, are embarrassing incidents. So if I’m in a situation that I find myself cringing about, I’ll make a note of it to work into a story later. You can even do this with memories. Do you have any memories of embarrassing, funny, or strange things that have happened to you that you could work into a story? Things with an element of realism make it easier for a reader to empathise with the character in the story, eliciting a better response and bigger laughs.
Share your work
At the end of the day, you’re only going to know if your writing is funny if you let other people read it! Give people copies of your work to take away and read. Standing over their shoulder when they’re reading won’t work unless you want to experience a lot of ‘polite’ laughter at the bits they think you want them to laugh at. Let them go away and read your work in their own time, but ask them to tell you which bits they find the funniest. I’ll get texts from people with certain lines from my books at random times of the day because I’ve asked them to tell me when they laugh. It seems weird, but it’s the only way to find out which jokes land the best across the board.
A conversation with Vicki Bradley on her debut, Before I Say I Do, the winner of the Third Prize in The First Novel Prize 2018 edition.
The manuscript left a strong impression on the judges, Phoebe Morgan, Editorial Director at HarperCollins UK, and Sam Copeland, Literary Agent and Director at Rogers, Coleridge and White, who described it as ‘Twisty, unpredictable, difficult to put down, a sure fire commercial hit’ and predicted a great future for its author.
Before I Say I Do is published in paperback and eBook on the 28th of May 2020 by Simon & Schuster.
Hi Vicki, huge congratulations on your debut! Tell us a little about the story and the characters in Before I Say I Do.
Thank you, it still feels very surreal!
The story is about Julia Talbot. She seems to have it all, a career she is passionate about and she’s about to marry the man of her dreams. But on her wedding, she’s nervous and it’s not just because she’s about to get married. There’s a lot that her soon-to-be husband, Mark, doesn’t know – and she is determined to keep it that way. As she walks down the aisle, spotting Mark is his tailored suit, she knows she is taking her first steps to happiness – her past can’t catch her now. But when he turns to face her it isn’t Mark in the beautiful suit – it’s his best man. Because Mark is missing. And Julia’s past is closer than she thinks.
We also get introduced to DC Alana Loxton, the detective assigned Mark’s missing person case, and she soon realises that there is more to this case than first appears as she starts to unravel the lies.
Tell us a little about you and your background. What inspired you to write this story?
I wrote my novel, Before I Say I Do, at the time I was planning my own wedding and when you’ve been in the police, I think it’s only natural that you get used to planning for the worst-case scenario. That’s what keeps us safe, preparing for the person behind the door with a knife, but it can mean that you constantly risk assess your life, which can lead to dark thinking. So for my wedding, I kept thinking what is the worst thing that could happen? And I eventually realised that it would be for your groom to go missing on the day. Being left at this pivotal moment in your life, this new beginning together, and you don’t know if something awful has happened to him or if he’s simply got cold feet. It is often the not knowing which is worse. That’s really where the story came from, me exploring that fear. Luckily for me my groom did turn up on the day.
What was the greatest obstacle in your journey to publication?
My greatest obstacle was keeping my writing to myself for too long. I’ve been writing novels since I was fifteen and I spent 10 years writing a fantasy novel without getting any professional help at all. I then sent it out to some agents and unsurprisingly I didn’t get anywhere with it. That knocked my confidence. I loved that book so much, it had been a complete labour of love, and I couldn’t understand why agents weren’t interested in it.
I’ve been in the Met for 14 years, 10 of those years was as a Detective Constable. I worked in Southwark CID and we dealt with serious crime and part of it was High Risk missing person cases. Out of everything I dealt with, the missing person cases used to be the most stressful. If there’s a stabbing, as a detective you arrive when the uniform officers have got control of the scene. The victim has often been rushed to hospital and is getting all the care they can, and as the detective you are now investigating what has happened. But when it’s a missing person case, the detectives are trying to find out what has happened to that person, where are they now and are they in danger? There’s a real urgency there, because every second can count as to whether that person is found alive and well or not. It’s often the missing person cases that come back to haunt me. And that’s often when we have to give families terrible news.
I started to doubt myself as a writer and whether I had anything to say and that can be fatal in writing.
It took me a long time to pick myself up from that. But I can now say that in my first novel I definitely made lots of mistakes which held back the story. I’ve gone on to do a Masters in Novel Writing with City University London and I wish I’d done it earlier. It made all the difference.
Writing is a skill that you need to practice and master, and the best and quickest way to teach yourself anything is to learn from people who have gone before you. I learnt so much in my master’s and it accelerated my writing. The book I produced for the master’s was Before I Say I Do.
Not everyone has the time to do a Masters, we all have commitments and life has a way of getting in the way, but there are now so many amazing courses you can take which run over a few weeks or a couple of months. Or if you already have a first draft of a book you can hire editors to review your work and an editor can make such a difference to your work. There is so much available now and I’m looking into enrolling onto another course myself, because there is always something new to learn. You never stop developing as a writer.
Do you have a writing routine? A separate space where you write?
I do have a writing routine and a tiny office that I write in. It’s important to get a space away from distractions (so for me away from the TV and away from the kitchen where all the food is!).
You need to be disciplined and motivate yourself to write. You don’t have a boss clocking when you start work and when you finish, it’s all on you so a routine is essential.
I’ve found The Miracle Morning for Writers by Steve Scott & Hal Elrod really helpful. It gives you a routine to follow which ensures that you prioritise writing.
The idea is that you get your writing done in the morning before life gets in the way to distract you, but it doesn’t have to be the morning, whenever you can carve out time to write be it 10 minutes or an hour. It teaches you how to set writing goals, how to make time for learning about writing and how to keep putting the words in even when you don’t feel like it.
So I get up at 8am and I’m ready to start working at around 9.30am, (I like a leisurely breakfast and a strong coffee!). I read a technical book on writing for 20 minutes (I’ve just finished Writing Down the Bones) and then I write down my goals for the day for the next 10 minutes in a writing journal. I also reflect on what went well with the writing yesterday and what didn’t go so well. Writing is such a strange thing and I’m trying to find out what helps me be productive and what hampers me.
I then start writing. If I’m writing a first draft, I try to aim for 1000 words a day. That usually takes around 5 hours. If I’m editing, I can do that for longer, so maybe 7 hours a day, although you can’t do that for too many weeks. I then try to read a crime book for an hour at the end of the day, as it’s so important to read other people’s work and learn from them.
When I worked in the police it was quite different, you have to snatch an hour here and an hour there, and I spent a lot of time writing on my weekends off. I now get to have my weekends off and I’m very glad about that.
How are you finding the lockdown and how has it impacted your writing?
Lockdown has been so hard for everyone. It’s been quite a shock to see it all unfolding and tremendously sad, but it’s also been inspiring to see so many people showing extraordinary courage and resilience.
I must admit that for the first few weeks I really struggled to find the head space to write or even read. I just couldn’t focus. I had to go back to my routine and force myself to stop checking the news every hour and to try to write and eventually I got back into it. I think everyone felt the same. It was hard to work in the middle of a Pandemic when such awful things were happening. But in the end, you have to keep going.
It has been quite challenging being a debut author with a book coming out at the end of May. All the promotional events I had been lined up to do were cancelled and my book launch event was cancelled.
The bookshops have been closed, which has had a massive impact, but all of that is out of my control. You have to focus on what you can change. So for me that was working on the sequel. It’s important to keep busy and focus on what you can do. And Before I Say I Do is still getting published on 28th May and I’m eternally grateful for that.
What’s your next book about?
The next book is a sequel to Before I Say I Do, so some of the police characters you meet in Before I Say I Do you will get to meet again.
I’ve just finished the first draft and sent it to my agent and editor, and I’ve started to plot out the third book. I love it when you have the seed of a new book and you start testing out different ways it could go. That is one of the best parts of writing for me. I’m hoping that I’m going to get to write a detective series, I certainly feel like there’s a lot more to come from some of these characters.
If there were one thing you could say to aspiring authors, what would that be?
You have to prioritise writing and give yourself permission to write. Finding time in our busy lives is so hard and it is so easy to put writing to the back of your mind, to see it as an indulgence – but it isn’t. You have to allow yourself the time to write regularly and believe that you can do it.
I was at a crossroads in my life in my early thirties, being encouraged to go for the Detective Sergeant’s promotion process when my sister sat me down and told me she thought I should really focus on my passion and pursue writing. She knew that I couldn’t do that if I went for promotion, I wouldn’t have had time to write, it is quite a gruelling process and then the new role would have kept me extremely busy as I learnt how to do it.
My sister encouraged me to do a Masters in Novel writing with London City University and I remember telling my DCI I was pulling out of the Sergeant’s process. Financially it was the wrong choice and for my career progression it was the wrong choice. He was disappointed, but he said that he could see that writing made me happy and told me to go for it. I was so surprised and that’s when I realised how much writing meant to me and that other people could see it too.
The Met has really surprised me at how supportive they’ve been with my writing journey, and they’ve given me a 5-year career break to pursue it.
The Masters gave me a goal to focus on. There were deadlines and it was a pass and fail course. I’d put money and time into it, and I didn’t want to let my tutors or the other students down. And I couldn’t let my sister down or myself. So I had to get on with it. I gave up my evenings and weekends when I wasn’t working. I had a very supportive partner and my family and friends cheered me on and understood when I couldn’t see them. In the second year you had to produce a novel, so every couple of months we had to submit another 10,000 words of our novel until we had a finished novel of 80,000 words. If I hadn’t done the Masters, I’d never have prioritised writing, other things would have got in the way, and I wouldn’t be getting published now.
‘Know your reader’ is a great mantra for any writer, published or unpublished, however, in today’s hugely competitive market, it doesn’t seem to be quite enough anymore. While ‘Know your industry’ is significantly less important, the extra knowledge can be to some extent valuable in an aspiring writer’s quest to getting published.
With a bit of time and patience, you can gain some good market insight, all in your spare time and without spending any money.
Set aside an hour a day for the next five days and follow the step-by-step guide below to increase your awareness of what literary agents, publishers and, ultimately, readers want to read next.
Decide the genre of your book and make a list of the top three all-time bestselling authors in your genre. Find out how they started, who signed them up and who published them when they were just starting out.
Make a list of as many debut writers as you can find, those who have been signed up by agents and published over the last three years, together with their titles. Here you will find the secret of what the industry expects from your book in terms of story, narrative, characters and style. Follow those authors on Twitter. Keep the list of all those agents and editors and follow them too.
Read as many online reviews real readers have left for the titles on your list. See what they loved and what they loathed about the books and imagine what they would pick on in your book.
Visit your local library and borrow one of the titles that look appealing on your list. Make notes as you read. Take a break from creative thinking and read the book through a critical thinking filter, questioning every decision the author made. For example, why would they introduce a character in a particular scene and not in another, or why would they choose a particular word over another?
Find out what’s going to be published in the next eighteen months in your genre by consulting The Bookseller and The Publishers Market and by looking at what the agents on your list sold to the editors.
At the end of the fie days, you’ll have a fairly good idea of what your readers will expect your book to deliver and you’ll also know what agents and editors are going to look for in the next manuscript on their desk.
There will be a lot of activity going on. Don’t let it discourage you and remember that the industry is always on the lookout for the next big book.
Take the weekend off to and on Monday go back to the writing desk with renewed confidence. You are now the fresh pair of eyes your manuscript needs.
I was so astounded and delighted when Lorena Goldsmith informed me that my novel, ‘The Binding Frame’, had won the 2017 First Novel Prize, that I had to wait until the next day before I could write a proper reply! It was an incredible feeling that the three judges – Lorena Goldsmith, Robin Wade and Darcy Nicholson – had read my work and believed it was something special.
Winning the competition has proved a huge boost to my confidence and has already opened up new opportunities for me as a writer. Three agents contacted me immediately afterwards, as a direct result and I was in the extremely fortunate position to be able to choose from several offers of representation. In the end, I chose to work with the wonderful Sophie Lambert at C+W.
For a new writer, entering a competition such as the First Novel Prize is an invaluable way of getting one’s work noticed and receiving feedback from literary and publishing professionals.
My novel, ‘The Binding Frame,’ is about the true meeting in Palermo in 1624 of two great portraitists: the young Sir Anthony van Dyck, and Sofonisba Anguissola, one of the few professionally trained female painters of her time, who by then was 92 and almost blind.
I am an art historian by training and my passion is bringing the past to life through writing. I became interested in writing art historical fiction as the next creative step after my career writing new media products for The National Gallery in London.
I began writing fiction in 2009. As a mother of three small children, I snatched any moment I could, mainly while my babies were asleep, and wrote notes on everything (even the backs of till receipts!) so as not to forget ideas between their nap times. Writing became a way of keeping my mind going through the exhaustion of new motherhood. Then it became a part of me.
I started the historical research for ‘The Binding Frame’ in 2014 and was very fortunate to write the novel as a student on the MFA in Creative Writing at UEA. Sharing work with tutors and other new writers at UEA accelerated my understanding of the craft of writing and allowed me to test my ideas on critical readers. The novel grew and developed in response to that feedback. Writing can be a lonely pursuit but there are many ways of making contact with other new writers and one can learn a huge amount and receive valuable support from them.
I completed the first draft of ‘The Binding Frame’ in February 2017, only a few months before submitting it to the First Novel Prize. At that point only a handful of people had read the full manuscript. It felt very much my own obscure obsession; but then writing the novel had always been about creating something for myself. I think that must be the case when committing oneself to such a big project over many years, and facing up to the challenges and self-doubt that inevitably entail.
I decided to enter competitions, such as the First Novel Prize, as a public sounding board for my work, and to always actively seek out feedback from the judges. The moment of pressing the submit button is both exhilarating and terrifying. One of the most wonderful aspects of these competitions though is the supportive online community of other new writers who enter them. So even when the news is not good, the blow is lessened by knowing there are others who will also be returning to their manuscripts to make them better and try again. Writing a novel is a long journey. It has been, and is still, a long journey for me. The most important thing is to enjoy the writing for everything it gives you and not to give up.
Winning this competition means that the world and characters I created have come to life in the imaginations of my readers, and I cannot ask for a better prize than that. I am immensely grateful to Robin Wade, Lorena Goldsmith and Darcy Nicholson for their belief in ‘The Binding Frame’ and for their kindness to me. I would strongly encourage other new writers to enter the First Novel Prize in 2018, and I wish them every success.
Entries in the The First Novel Prize are open between February and May of every year. The Prize is judged by a panel comprising a literary agent and a fiction commissioning editor. The First Prize is £1,000, Second Prize is £250 and Third Prize is £100. Full terms and conditions at www.firstnovel.co.uk
Young Adult (YA) fiction is limitless. It possesses a unique fluidity that is often absent in the world of adult fiction. Adult fiction restricts you to writing within a genre: crime, women’s fiction, literary etc. ‘Cross-genre’, though increasingly popular, is dubbed a ‘hard sell’. The writer of YA fiction, however, is free from these constraints. Genre suddenly becomes a much more fluid term. YA fiction still has genres, of course: fantasy, historical, magical realism; but anything falling in between is welcomed and celebrated in equal measure. YA fiction writers have the creative freedom to mix, say, a little bit of magic with a little bit of history and produce something entirely new. YA fiction is about setting trends, not following a well-trodden path. It is about exploration and expression.
It is, perhaps, because of all of this that YA fiction has transposed any concept of age and is read widely by adults, as well as teenagers. A quick glance around the ever-popular Young Adult Literature Convention (YALC) – hosted in conjunction with London Film and Comic Con (LFCC) – shows both parents and their children bustling around for signatures, carrying tote bags, and adorned with badges. YA fiction has become a movement, a community – it has developed a life of its own.
And why not? After all, YA is at the forefront of political and social thought. It allows the writer to introduce and tackle adult themes in a dynamic and accessible manner. Holly Bourne artfully tackles OCD, feminism, and friendship in The Spinster Club series. Louise O’Neill’s Asking For It questions society’s reactions to rape in Ireland, whilst Non Pratt addresses disability in Truth or Dare. Each of these authors have one thing in common: they devote themselves to the themes in their books beyond the written word. Non recently shaved her head after raising money for the Royal Hospital of Neuro-Disability. In her novel, her protagonist is dared to do the same. YA fiction is vocal, personal, challenging and tough.
YA fiction is all about invoking real change. Admittedly, it still has work to do regarding diversity and representation but, as a fledgling mixed-race author, I’ve been welcomed with open arms and I am wonderfully optimistic about the future of YA. Young adults are a remarkably forgiving, progressive and open-minded audience, and thus they pave the way for the consumption of progressive and open-minded literature.
So, what actually makes a book YA? It often features an adolescent protagonist who faces some sort of crisis. Alwyn Hamilton (bestselling author of Rebel of the Sands) summed it up perfectly when she spoke at the Heroines panel at 2017’s YALC. “If you put the same character in the same situation at different points, hopefully they react differently.” At its core, YA is about change, personal progression, and growth.
My experience as a reader, a writer, and through my work with literary agencies has allowed me to immerse myself in the world of YA fiction, from page to publisher. As a result I understand what it is that can help an author succeed, from searching for an agent, right through to securing a publishing deal.
A great hook: If you can pitch your novel in a sentence, chances are both editors and agents will pay attention to your story early on. You need to follow through with the quality of the writing and storytelling, but it’s important to try and stand out amongst the many submissions in the dreaded ‘slush pile’. YA fiction has the ability to offer new, bold and exciting genres and themes to agents and publishers; make sure your pitch expresses this.
Knowing your agent: It’s more important to spend your time trying to find the right agent than it is to search for any agent. Whilst, of course, you want to give yourself the best chance at representation, it’s worth considering your long-term career prospects, instead of just focusing on the current book you’re querying. I would recommend researching a select group of agents you admire, over sending dozens of blanket emails in the hope that one will request your full manuscript. Find an agent who works primarily with YA fiction. An agent who specialises in, say, adult literary fiction is less likely to pay attention to your submission and you risk your manuscript being needlessly overlooked. Agents who work with YA fiction are primed to venture into new and exciting territory and are more likely to take a risk and read your work! You want the agent reading your book to have appreciation for the medium, and YA fiction agents are among some of the most passionate and enthusiastic agents out there!
Understanding the difference between a covering letter and a synopsis: A covering letter should contain details about what attracted you to the agent and their agency, along with your personal accolades. It should also present a blurb-style paragraph about the novel – something enticing that advertises the atmosphere, key themes and protagonist of your book. This should be no more than three lines in length. The synopsis, on the other hand, should really be no longer than a page and contain the novel’s main events including spoilers. This last point is especially important as it can be frustrating, from an agent’s perspective, when a writer hasn’t told your how their book will end.
Editing: Once you’ve queried and secured an agent you’ll likely have already spent a lot of time, and occasionally money, editing your novel. However, this is simply the beginning of your book’s journey. Your agent may want to work on major edits with you which can involve some significant structural changes. It’s understandable that you might want to rush to submit to publishers, but just remember that editors have very few slots to fill and a lot of manuscripts to read. Often they are looking for something polished, even if it means they want to do edits themselves. Dedicating yourself to edits with your agent can be the make or break of your book deal, so consider the changes carefully and always try and be patient – a writing career is the ultimate slow burn.
YA is an appealing age category to write for in many ways, but don’t fret if you don’t secure yourself an agent or a book deal with your first novel. A lot of published writers have a novel or two hidden away somewhere. For some, you just need to get the first one out of the way to feel your way through the process, to learn your style and figure out the best way to edit. Then, the real fun can begin.
One of the most exciting parts of being an editor is receiving a brilliant pitch from an agent. For the most part, agents submit manuscripts via email. These emails vary widely from agent to agent – each one has their own style. But the intention of the email is always the same: to set up the manuscript in the best and most appealing way to the editor. This usually entails a brief, yet enticing synopsis (think cover copy on a book jacket rather than a blow-by-blow plot summary) as well as where they see the submission sitting in the market and what well-known or successful books they would compare it to. The agent also usually gives a bit of information about the author, highlighting any accolades such as awards or prizes won, as well as any writing courses completed, to give the editor an idea of the person behind the manuscript.
Email pitches can vary drastically in length and depth, but it’s amazing when you can feel an agent’s genuine love and passion for the manuscript they’re submitting, as this can be contagious and a real inceptive to read the manuscript sooner rather than later!
Depending on the agent, and how excited they are about a specific manuscript, they will call an editor to pitch over the phone. This is a really effective style, as it gives the editor a chance to literally hear the agent’s enthusiasm for what is being submitted. A phone call is then followed up with a brief email, with the submission attached.
Except in very rare occasions where an agent does an ‘exclusive’ submission to one particular editor, agents will submit a manuscript to a significant number of editors at different publishing houses simultaneously. Agents and editors network constantly, so the agent will have a good sense of which editors at which publishing houses might be right for each submission. In this way, crime novels will go to the crime editors, literary fiction to literary editors, science fiction to SF editors, and so on.
Editors often receive many submissions in a single week, so it can take a while to read and get back to agents with their thoughts. Because of the sheer amount of submissions received, an editor will have to turn them down far more often than not. An editor will reject an agent’s submission for countless reasons, ranging from not engaging with the writing to not having space on the list at the moment. But if an editor does fall in love with a submission, it’s still a long path to acquiring the book…
Editors always need to keep in mind where a book will sit in the market and who will buy it – because much like an agent pitches a manuscript to an editor, an editor must pitch it to the sales and marketing teams at their publishing house. The editor’s passion for the book does go very far, as the editor will be the main champion of the book from acquiring it to publishing it, a process that lasts around 18 months. But the sales and marketing team need to feel confident that they can position the book strongly and sell it well – as for better or worse, publishing is a business. However, it is a business made up of people who love books – and when all the stars align and the right agent has the right manuscript that is submitted to the right editor, it can be the best business in the world.
All agencies are run differently, and may attend to submissions in different ways. This can make it hard to know exactly how to pitch a manuscript.
In general terms, it is always wise to research the agent, their list and signs of preferred works or genres. Using sites (although some limited by subscription-only) such as The Bookseller or BookBrunch can provide a wider indication of industry trends, news and personnel. Within an agency of multiple agents, ensure that your submission is addressed to the agent whose tastes you think will most suit your work – misdirecting your enquiry may mean rejection from one, where another may have responded more positively.
In submitting, look to ensure that the following three points are attended to:
1. The Subject Line – The subject line of an email submission may seem trivial, but when a reader is presented with columns of unread emails, this can have significant bearing on which he or she is drawn to. Of course, most agencies will attend to emails in order – but drawing attention to your submission may lead the reader to open it out of curiosity. Vital in doing this is to include the relevant information: title, author, genre and word count. Genre should suggest whether the work is fiction or non-fiction, but include this if not clear. Any unpublished work should be placed within single quotation marks, e.g. ‘The Submission’. If to a general inbox, but aimed at a specific agent, include attn: NAME. Remember that the subject line of an email is the first impression given to the reader: the clearer and more straightforward this is, the easier the reader’s job is. The point here is that the reader’s eye is drawn not by broad statements or all-caps, but by a clear and concise demonstration of ability and understanding.
2. The Email – The email itself should be direct and simple in address, stating the details given in the subject line and briefly introducing yourself as an author – with any experience or information you feel relevant. Again, the more to-the-point this is, the more the reader’s interest will be maintained; stream-of-consciousness style addresses quickly lose the reader’s attention. Three short paragraphs would be an ideal length: the first stating the details about the manuscript (title, genre, word count) and a brief pitch (two or three lines); the second giving your information as an author (including experiences); the third signing off, i.e. ‘Thank you for your consideration, I hope you share my enthusiasm…’).
3. The Attachments – The standard when submitting to an agent is to attach a synopsis and first three chapters as Word documents. This is typically for ease of reading, so that documents (in my own experience) can be read as previews without having to be downloaded. To this end, it is helpful for the reader to have attachments as Word documents – endearingly so. The synopsis (and this is a debated issue) should be no more than a page in length. Its style is debated even more-so, with some preferring a cliff-hanger blurb-style and others opting for a direct beginning-middle-end. Try to strike a balance here, in giving a clear, causal structure of the plot whilst demonstrating its dramatic qualities.
In looking for an agent, you can use the Association of Authors’ Agents site and The Writers’ and Artists’ Yearbook as directories. In submitting, the main point to remember is that the reader is doing a job – likely, the easier it is for them to review your submission, the more disposed they’ll be to a reading.
Following on from the post on the action-consequence principle in building a strong narrative plot, in this post I’ll illustrate how to build a narrative mini-arc, by using one of the greatest examples of accomplished narrative structure, Ken Follett’s masterpiece, The Pillars of the Earth.
According to the action-consequence principle, every event in a story has to be either the cause or the effect of another event. Events can’t take place randomly, in the shape Character X did Action A, then he did B, then C and so on. A story is stronger when events are arranged in such a way that Character X does Action A either because of a previous Action Z or in order for a later Action B to become possible.
This might sound confusing, so I’ll use an example.
Towards the end of Chapter 9 in Ken Follett’s The Pillars of the Earth, there is a battle scene of crucial significance in the story: Lord William Hamleigh’s army attacks the small village of Kingsbridge causing devastating harm and human damage.
It is essential that Kingsbridge villagers find out about the imminent attack before it occurs.
However, they don’t just happen to find out about it by chance. The episode is masterfully built using the technique of the narrative mini-arc and forms part of the larger structure of the story arc.
The mini-arc starts with a reflection scene from Tom Builder, one of the main characters, in which he looks back over the last few years, what he had achieved, how he had overcome the loss of his wife, found love again and how content he now was with his life, especially for having his little son, Jonathan, around every day.
This short episode of reflection brings the reader into the first action scene of this mini-arc: Tom seeks out Jonathan to take him out to a fair in the village. Note that even the small detail of bringing the child into the scene is not random. The author could have chosen to say, ‘Mid-morning, Tom sought out Jonathan to go out to a fair in the village,’ but why tell when you can show?
At the fair, during a rather gruesome bear-baiting scene, Jonathan gets lost. Tom starts looking for him and spots him high up on the scaffolding of the cathedral they are building. He climbs the scaffolding and in a painstakingly slow and tense scene, he brings the little boy down safely.
And then, while climbing down the scaffolding, Tom notices the approaching army. ‘There was a cloud of dust on the road leading to Kingsbridge, about half a mile away. After a moment, he realised he was looking at a large troop of men on horseback, approaching the town at a smart trot.’ (The Pillars of the Earth, Macmillan, 2009, p. 484).
From here on, we are thrown into a fierce action scene that lasts for the rest of the chapter.
Note how the author builds momentum through a series of action-consequence episodes to bring us to the climax of this mini-arc, which is the battle scene. The battle scene is a major event in so far that it acts as the cause that sets in motion a series of consequence-events, which all form part of the overall story arc.
After reading The Pillars of the Earth, one could easily liken storytelling and page-turning narratives to the construction of a cathedral: brick by brick, wall by wall, arc by arc.