Hook an Agent Part IV – Tightening those first 3 chapters

In Part I of my ‘Hook an Agent’ series I shared my submission letter for The Sister which you can read here. In Part II, here, Literary Agent Rory Scarfe told us ‘Never let your ideas be ordinary.’ Part III was Rowan Lawton sharing her top 3 tips for writing that synopsis & I shared part of my synopsis for The Sister. You can read that post here.

Today I’m joined by Eugenie Furniss, from Furniss Lawton Literary Agency and this instalment is her tips for tightening those important first three chapters.

  • There’s a temptation to overwrite that I note frequently – particularly in the first few pages of any novel.  Be sure that the density of your prose at the opening of your novel chimes with the rest of the book, unless, of course, you are making a conscious decision to do something different with it – you open with a diary entry, for instance.
  • I would argue that in our time of short attention spans, it’s critical to engage the reader from the first page or two.  It’s tough, in your opening chapters, to get the balance right between action and scene setting.  If in doubt, I’d always recommend focusing on action, and keeping exposition to a minimum.  Character’s backstories can be drip fed into the narrative later, for instance; you don’t need all the information you wish to impart about someone up front.  It’s particularly important in your opening chapters that you’re showing not telling.
  • Keep it simple.  While I love a surprising prologue or alternative point of view, before forging forward with the central narrative, you don’t want to make the reader have to work too hard.  I’d avoid setting up more than two (max three) story lines in your narrative in the first few chapters.
  • If there’s a prologue you can send that in addition to your first three chapters.

Thanks so much Eugenie. That was really helpful. Next time we’ll be looking at how to find the right agent for you and some bestselling authors will be sharing their ‘how they hooked an agent’ stories.

Below is my opening chapter for The Sister. Good luck to everyone submitting!

Stepping out of my car with heartbreak-heavy legs, I zip my jacket and pull on leather gloves before hefting my spade and bag from the boot: it is time. My wellingtons slip-slide across the squelching mud to the gap in the hedge. It’s been there for as long as I can remember. I shiver as I enter the forest; it’s darker than I’d thought and I take deep breaths of the pine-scented air to steady myself. I fight the urge to go home and come back in the morning, remind myself why I’m here and drive myself forwards.

My smartphone lights the way as I look out for rabbit holes I might fall down. I take giant steps over fallen limbs of trees I’d once have hurdled. At twenty-five I’m not too old to run, but my load is cumbersome; besides, I’m in no rush to get there, I was never supposed to do this alone.

I stop and rest the spade handle against my hip, splay my fingers and shake out my pins and needles. There’s a rustling in the bushes and I have a sense of being watched. My heart stutters as two rabbits dart out, bounding away when they see my light. ‘I’m OK,’ I reassure myself, but my voice seems loud and echoey, reminding me how alone I am.

My rucksack feels tight across my shoulders and I readjust the straps before marching on, snapping twigs underfoot. I’m beginning to think I’ve taken the wrong fork when I reach the clearing with the lightning-struck tree. I wasn’t sure it would still be here, but as I look around it seems nothing has changed – but of course, everything has. Memories of the last time I was here hit me so hard I feel winded. I sink to the ground. The dampness of the leaves and earth seep through my trousers, as the past seeps through to my present.

***

‘Hurry up, birthday girl, you’ll be sixteen at this rate. I’m freezing,’ Charlie had called. She’d been perched on the weathered gate at the edge of the cornfield, plastic bags strewn around her feet, blonde hair gleaming in the weak coral sun. Never patient, Charlie kicked her heels as I trudged towards her, cradling the box that contained our hopes and dreams.

‘Come on, Grace.’ She jumped down, scooped up her wares and dashed into the trees. I shifted the box under my arm and tried to keep up, following flashes of her purple coat and wafts of the Impulse body spray she always stole from her mum’s bedroom.

Branches and brambles grasped at our denim-clad legs, snagged our hair, but we kept going until we burst into the clearing.

‘Your red face matches your hair,’ Charlie laughed as I dropped the box and hunched over, resting my hands on my knees as I tried to catch my breath. Despite the cool early evening temperature, sweat beaded on my temples. Charlie upended the carrier bags: snacks, drinks, matches, a trowel and a small present, wrapped in sparkly purple paper with a ‘Fifteen Today’ sticker on it, all scattered over the crumbling earth. Smiling, she handed the gift to me. I sat cross-legged, carefully opening the ends without tearing the paper, and inched the box out. Nestled inside was half a gold heart on a chain engraved with ‘BFF’. Tears pricked my eyes as I looked at Charlie. She tugged the neck of her fleece down, revealing the other half of the heart. I fastened the chain around my throat as Charlie began to dig a hole. Always the Girl Guide, I lit a small fire. It would be even colder when the sun went down, and the evenings were drawing in quickly now. By the time the hole was deep enough, Charlie was breathless, her fingernails caked in dirt.

I carried the memory box over to the hole and placed it in the ground. We’d spent a whole Saturday choosing the contents and decorating the outside of the plastic tub, sticking on pictures from magazines of supermodels and pop stars we wanted to emulate. ‘You can never be too rich or too thin,’ Charlie said. She scooped an armful of dirt and began to cover it.

‘Wait!’ I cried. ‘I want to put this in.’ I waved the birthday wrapping paper in the air.

‘You can’t now, we’ve already sealed it.’

‘I’ll be careful.’ I slowly peeled back the Sellotape and popped off the lid. To my surprise, sitting on top of a stack of photos was a pink envelope that definitely hadn’t been there when we’d filled the box earlier. I glanced at Charlie, who was looking secretive.

‘What’s that, Charlie?’ I reached towards the envelope.

Charlie grabbed my arm. ‘Don’t.’

I pulled free, rubbing my wrist. ‘What is it?’

Charlie wouldn’t meet my eye. ‘It’s for us to read when we come back for the box.’

‘What does it say?’

Charlie snatched the wrapping paper from between my fingers and scrunched it inside the box, banging the lid on top. When Charlie didn’t want to talk about something there was little point trying to pursue it. I decided to let it go; I wouldn’t let her furtiveness spoil my birthday.

‘Drink?’ I grabbed a cider; it fizzed as I pulled back the ring, and froth spilled over the side of the can. I wiped my hand on my jeans and took a gulp; it warmed my stomach, washing away my unease.

Charlie packed the earth into the hole and pounded the surface with her trowel until it was flat, before coming to sit by my side.

The campfire crackled as we leaned against the horizontal tree trunk toasting pink marshmallows on sticks, and it wasn’t until the embers burned out that I realised how late it was.

‘We should go. I’m supposed to be home by ten.’

‘OK. A pinkie promise we’ll come back and open the box together?’ Charlie proffered her little finger and I curled mine around it before we clinked cans and drank to a promise that we didn’t know would be impossible to keep.

***

There is only me now. ‘Charlie,’ I whisper. ‘I wish you were here.’ Charlie’s half-heart, forever on a chain around my neck, spins around as I lean forward, as if it’s searching for its partner, desperate to be whole again. I gently lay down the wreath. The overwhelming panic that has plagued me since Charlie’s death four months ago bubbles to the surface, and I tug my scarf away from my throat so I can breathe a little easier. Am I really to blame? Am I always to blame?

Despite the January chill I feel hot, and as I pull off my gloves I think I hear Charlie’s last words echoing through the trees: I did something terrible, Grace. I hope you can forgive me.

What did she do? It can’t be any worse than what I did, but I am determined to find out what it was. I know I won’t be able to move forwards until I do. I hadn’t been sure where to begin until this morning, when I received a letter in the post in a pink envelope, which triggered a memory of the letter hidden in the memory box that Charlie hadn’t wanted me to read. Perhaps the letter will hold some kind of clue? It will be a start, anyway. Asking people who knew her hasn’t been getting me anywhere, and besides, I’m the one who knew her best, aren’t I? I was her best friend.

But can you ever really know someone? Properly know someone?

I sit back on my heels, remaining motionless for an indeterminable time as the air cools around me. Branches swish and sway as if the trees are whispering their secrets to me, encouraging me to unearth Charlie’s.

I shake my head, scattering my thoughts, and pull my sleeve down over the heel of my hand before wiping my wet cheeks. Picking up the spade with arms that feel too heavy to be mine, I grip the handle so tightly, rockets of pain shoot through my wrists. I take a deep breath and begin to dig.

 

 

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Soaring High #FlashFiction

Image courtesy of Douglas M. MacIlroy

 

I’m free and yet I’m not. Not in a cage but still trapped by bars of my own making, but they bring me comfort, these bars. They keep me safe. They stop me flying because if I were to flutter my wings where would I go? Who would I be? What’s to stop me falling? The world is so huge and I feel so small. So insignificant.

I screw my eyes up tight, blocking the voices telling me I can, my own telling me I can’t. I try. There’s a shift. A movement and then it happens. I’m rising, soaring, flying. Free.

 

How joyous I was when I saw this perfect prompt. This weekend I conquered a lifelong phobia of public speaking and appeared at the Althorp Literary Festival. You can read how I got on here and see the photos.

 Yesterday I had a great time on the radio chatting about Friday Fictioneers, the way it’s helped me tighten my writing and my love for the WordPress writing community. You can listen to that here.

 Soaring High was written for Friday Fictoneers. A weekly 100 word story challenge inspired by a photo prompt. Read the other entries and join in over at host Rochelle’s blog here.

 

 

 

One terrified writer, one HUGE literary festival, one big mistake?

 

Over the past year I’ve been asked to speak at several events, some big, some small, but all have one thing in common – I’ve said no. I think I can pinpoint exactly when and why my phobia of public speaking started, but knowing that, understanding that, hasn’t made it any easier to cope with. On the occasions I’ve tried, I’ve ended up in such a state I’ve not been able to sleep or eat in the weeks preceding and have been physically sick and unable to talk on the day. Shaking, dry mouth, fainting, you name it, I’ve suffered with it.

Althorp Literary Festival is in its 14th year and when an email dropped into my inbox I assumed it was asking me to buy tickets as I’ve attended most years as a guest. Instead, it was an invitation to take part in a panel event. I felt equally honoured and disappointed. There’s no way I could possibly take part, or could I?

Unusually, I didn’t rattle off a polite ‘thanks, but no thanks’ straight away. Althorp is a very dear place to me. I grew up 10 minutes down the road and have many happy childhood memories of our Sunday afternoon drives through the beautiful grounds after a roast lunch, my parents in the front of the car, me playing eye-spy in the back with my sister, ending with tea and cake and the more I let the memory cover me like a blanket, the more it grew – the urge to say yes. My fingers hovered over the keyboard before I quickly punched out an acceptance. And then I cried. And then I set about finding a solution, painfully aware I wouldn’t just be representing myself but also the festival, both my publishers and my agent. No pressure then. My google research resulted in me booking a course of hypnotherapy. I genuinely enjoyed every second of my talk and I’ve since signed up for various events and I honestly can’t wait. Next week I’ll be interviewing my hypnotherapist, Carmen, and she’ll share her thoughts on why public speaking is such a common phobia and give her tips on giving a great performance and I’ll be talking about the things that worked for me.

Today though I want to share my memories of what was an amazing weekend.

On arrival I was escorted to the Green Room, the library. The sight of all those books was instantly calming, admittedly so was the sight of the gin…

It felt so surreal at first and I had to remind myself to focus and pay attention to the other panellists as initially I was sitting there thinking ‘I’m on a stage at Althorp! How did this possibly happen to me?’

IMG_2026

There were books everywhere and at my first official signing I had a touch of anxiety I’d scratch the beautiful desk. I didn’t, and chatting to readers was one of the highlights of my weekend.

Umm there’s always one, lowering the tone, photographing the food. That would be me…

The grounds are absolutely stunning.

And no festival would be complete without a champagne bus. thankfully the sun shone and it became open top. 

I met some amazing people, caught up with old friends and made some new, and whether I’m invited back as a speaker or not, I can’t wait for next year’s event.

Huge thanks to everyone involved in putting together such an amazing festival and leaving me with memories I shall always treasure.

 

Hooking an agent part I – Sharing my submission letter for The Sister

Writing a book was initially a distraction from the chronic pain I was in, a hobby once I suddenly found myself with severely restricted mobility. Even now, I still remember the utter disbelief and excitement when I realised I had an actual finished novel and it was only then I started to think about putting together a submission package and sending my debut, Buried Memories (later retitled The Sister by my publishers) out into the world.

I devoured books, blogs, Googled endlessly for tips on how to write the perfect submission letter, and word by painful word, crafted my offering, almost editing it more than my manuscript. My palms were clammy as I sent off my first submissions, only to two agents at that time, and sat back to wait the alleged 6-8 weeks I’d read about. To my surprise both agents replied within a few hours, they’d loved my letter, been hooked by my elevator pitch, thought the premise was brilliant and and would start reading straight way. Do keep them informed of any offers. What happened to an 8-week wait? Cue total panic (never sub before your manuscript is ready – but that’s another story).

I’m no expert, and neither do I claim to be, but I’ve a few friends at the moment who have reached submission stage and so for them, and everyone else putting together a package, I wanted to share my letter. I do hope it’s helpful.

Next week, for Part II, I’ll be joined by fabulous literary agent, Rory Scarfe, of Furniss Lawton with his guidelines to giving your submission letter a head start.

Good luck to all those subbing!

 

Dear

I enclose the first three chapters and synopsis of my domestic noir novel, ‘BURIED MEMORIES’ a book about a grieving girl who thought there was nothing as frightening as being alone – she was wrong. The novel is complete at 80,000 words.

‘I’ve done something terrible, Grace. I hope you can forgive me.’ Grace Matthews, an anxious young woman is devastated when her best friend, Charlie, dies and feels that until she discovers the meaning behind Charlie’s last words, she cannot move forward. As Grace becomes sucked into the mystery surrounding Charlie’s family, her association with them, especially with Charlie’s sister Anna, threatens to destroy Grace’s career, relationship and ultimately, end her life. Grace’s hunt for the truth forces her to confront the childhood she desperately wanted to forget and she realises she can’t trust anyone, especially those she loves.

I am submitting to you because

This, my debut novel, began life as a flash fiction piece in a writing group challenge last year. I was given three words and ten minutes and the bare bones of Chapter One was born. I couldn’t sleep that night for thinking about Grace and Charlie and felt compelled to write their story. I’ve written non-fiction for various publications and websites for several years. I’ve had a column in Holistic Therapist Magazine (LJ’s Journal) since April 2012 and was a contributor to Tiny Buddha’s 365 Love Challenges (HarperOne/Harper Collins.) I attend writing workshops, evening classes and retreats whenever I can – I don’t think I’ll ever stop learning; show me a literary festival and I’m there! I’m currently working on my second novel, ‘Second-hand secrets.’

Kind regards,

 

Louise Jensen

Daylight Fading – #FlashFiction

Image courtesy of J Hardy Carroll

Shadows loom from all corners of my room as daylight fades like hope. Insects scratch-scratch-scratch, scuttling under my creaky metal bed frame. I’m trapped in a spider web of shattered memories.

Fluttering. A moth. Gossamer wings translucent in the moonlight. Fragile. We’re all so fragile. Easily broken. I should know.

Footsteps thud outside my door.

‘This place is so cool.’ The excitement in the boy’s voice is palpable. ‘Are you sure it’s deserted?’

‘No-one’s lived here for years.’

‘I’m here,’ I scream. But they don’t hear me. No-one ever does.

Oh that scratching. The endless scratching.

Help me. Please.

 

I had SUCH a great publication day yesterday for my third novel, The Surrogate which you can find over on Amazon here. Yesterday evening I took part in a live Facebook chat with Kim Nash, the publicist of Bookouture, which you can now view here if you missed it. We chatted about the writing process, how I approach novel writing, editing and getting published. Of course I gave Friday Fictioneers a plug as it’s often the highlight of my week. 

‘Daylight Fading’ was written for Friday Fictioneers. A weekly 100 word flash fiction challenge inspired by a photo prompt. Do join in over at Rochelle’s blog here

Blogger & author shenanigans- it’s more than just drinking


Yesterday, I bid my husband goodbye & jumped on a train to Birmingham for a day of drinking hanging out with bookish peeps. Writing is absolutely my dream job. I wouldn’t change it for the world but sometimes even dreams can have cracks in them and I admit that going from a hustle-bustle-busy working environment, to spending long days talking to creating characters, can feel a tad isolating at times. 


It was fabulous to catch up with old friends and have the chance to make some new ones. The book bloggers I haven’t met before, but feel I already know, were just as warm in person as they are online. I’m now even more excited about The Surrogate Blog Tour next week (and receiving my toad in the hole recipe from Joanne Robertson!


For me, the chance to grill other writers about their approach to novel writing is invaluable and after a long conversation with the lovely Barbara Copperthwaite, I came away feeling much better about something that had been troubling me about my own approach to writing a first draft, which had felt quite slap-dash. Slowly, and largely due to events like these, I’m realising we all have our own way of doing things. There is no right and wrong.

It was wonderful to hear the news that several I’d met last year had finished their novels, some  were submitting and there were 2 book deals to celebrate. Each and every writerly success I hear of gives me a warm fuzzy feeling that had nothing to do with the wine. There can never be too many books.

On the journey home, I was exhausted but happy. Feeling incredibly grateful to be a part of such a friendly and supportive community. 


Huge thanks to Kim Nash & Holly Martin for organising the event.

Publishing my 3rd book – here’s what I’ve learned so far…

 

In a few days my third novel, The Surrogate, will be published. A new author asked me if I still feel nervous, as I’ve done it twice before. Yes! I still remember vividly the way I felt before my previous books The Sister and The Gift were published, and although I know what to expect this time, those feelings haven’t changed. Here is what I have learned: –

 

1)        It’s okay to feel vulnerable and scared. The story you’ve put your heart and soul into, your precious words, the book you’ve lovingly crafted, line by line, chapter by chapter, is about to be released into the big wide world and there is no predicting how it will be received.

2)        You should feel proud and excited. The blank document you started with is now a novel and sticking with it through the sticky middle, ironing out plot holes, developing characters, is an incredible achievement and possibly a lifetime dream.

3)        There will be readers who will love it and those glowing five-star reviews will boost your confidence and keep you writing on the days the words don’t flow. These reviews are lovely but they don’t mean there’s no room for improvement. Never grow complacent.

4)        There will be readers who hate everything about your work. Those scathing one star reviews are often written to hurt, and they do. Never let these reviewers make you feel you can’t. Go back to point 3, dust yourself off, and write some new words.

5)        There will be constructively written reviews and you can glean a lot from these. I love to learn what readers like and don’t like and it really helps with future books, but bear in mind you can’t please everyone and your next book must be written much as your first was, as one you would love to read, not one that you think will please every reader out there. It won’t.

6)        It’s normal to have a last-minute panic, to wonder whether your editor was right, to want to reinstate characters, cut entire chapters, and generally write the whole thing again from scratch. Relax. If it wasn’t good enough it wouldn’t be published.

7)        Most writers find themselves obsessively checking the Amazon rankings around release date. My husband is now the one who checks the charts, that way I don’t get distracted, disheartened or too excited to write.

8)        Publication day is often like a wedding. Full of the best intentions to relax and enjoy it, but in reality often much to do with interviews and social media. Find time in the day to celebrate. You deserve it.

9)        It’s normal to want to hold on to your characters, they have become as real to you as your friends. Don’t be reluctant to start something fresh, you have a whole host of new people to get to know.

10)      It’s okay to question whether you can ever write another book, but you can. You will. And then you’ll go through all this again.

 

The Surrogate will be released on 27th September, you can find it on Amazon here.