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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Hooking an agent part II – Agent Rory Scarfe shares his top tips for perfecting that submission letter

 

Last week I shared my submission letter for The Sister (originally titled Buried Memories) in the hope it might help those putting together submission packages. If you missed it you can read it here. Today I’m joined by agent Rory Scarfe, of Furniss Lawton, with his three top tips to give your submission letter a head-start.

1) Attention to detail 

As boring as this might sound, you would be amazed at how many letters fall at the first hurdle. This doesn’t just mean spelling the agent’s name correctly (though please don’t address me as Ms Scarfe), but also showing an understanding of what the agent/agency is looking for and why you have selected them particularly. That way you come across as focussed and thoughtful, rather than scattergun in your approach.

2) Show knowledge of the market

More than ever, it is the role of the author (as well as their publisher and agent) to have a commercial instinct and a long-term publishing plan. If you can demonstrate an understanding of publishing trends and give examples of recent comparable successes that you hope to emulate then you prove yourself a potentially winning proposition. And remember, agents want to publish authors, not just books, in the longer term.

3) Have a point of difference and originality 

The great irony of publishing (and frustration) is that publishers are constantly on the look-out for something that is exactly like a recent success but also completely original and totally different. But that is not as impossible as it sounds. If you have a killer concept that can be pitched to an editor while they have a million other things to do and get their attention, even though the lunch hour beckons, then you are on to a good thing. Never let your ideas be ordinary.

The best of luck to everyone subbing.

In the next instalment agent Rowan Lawton will be giving her top tips on tightening that synopsis. 

I never thought I’d see my book in print in English and now…

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I am so excited to share the Hungarian covers for my first two novels, ‘The Sister’ and the forthcoming ‘The Gift’.

Ten months ago, being published seemed such an unachievable dream and yet not one I was quite ready to let go of, picking myself up after each rejection and trying again. Having my debut published earlier this year was phenomenal, but even then it never occurred to me that my story might one day be translated into different languages.

The rights to my first two novels have now been sold to several territories and I can’t wait to see the different covers. Hungary have chosen to use the same artwork as the UK versions.

I am so glad I never gave up. As C.S. Lewis said ‘You are never too old to set a new goal or to dream a new dream.’

Novel Writing – The Mentor and the Mentee

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In May 2015 I was lucky enough to be offered a place on The WoMentoring Project and receive a few weeks of mentoring from the lovely Louise Walters, author of the fabulous Mrs Sinclair’s Suitcase, and the forthcoming ‘A Life Between Us.’ (Due to be published February 2017). The support I received was invaluable and really helped shape me as a writer.

It was thrilling to recently get together with Louise to celebrate my book deal, and amongst the coffee, cake and talk about books, it was great to compare our experience of the project.

 

LJ: How did you hear about the WoMentoring project?  

LW: Twitter! I hear most of my bookish news through Twitter.

LJ: Me too – I’m using it more and more. Why did you want to be a mentor?

LW: I wanted to help other women to write. As soon as I heard about the project I knew I wanted to be involved. I know how hard it can be to find the time to write, to find the money for a critique, and perhaps most importantly, to find the self-belief. I also thought it would be beneficial to my own writing, and it has been. When I spot something that isn’t working, I often react with “OMG, I do that!” So critiquing others’ work is I hope mutually beneficial.  Why did you apply to the Womentoring project?

LJ:  I’d gone to a local writing group with the view to writing a non-fiction book. At the beginning of the meeting we were given a couple of words and ten minutes to write something. The bare bones of what is now Chapter One of The Sister was born. I spent the next few days thinking about Grace, my main character, and when someone from the group sent me a link to The WoMentoring Project and suggested I should apply and develop my writing I checked it out, and then discounted it straight away. I thought it was aimed at ‘proper’ writers. Not someone with no experience or qualifications, who had only scribbled down a few lines on a torn out sheet of a notebook. I bookmarked the page though. I’d noticed you on the list of mentors and having just finished, and fallen in love with Mrs Sinclair’s Suitcase, I felt really drawn to apply. It took days and days and a few glasses of wine before I felt brave enough to email, and I never dreamed I’d be accepted. Why did you pick me as your mentee? 

LW: I liked your writing and it was easy to spot your talent. I also spotted areas for improvement and I thought we might be a good match. The fact you live not a million miles from me helped too, as I thought it would be lovely to meet up. Also in your application you stuck to the word limits and applied as per the Womentoring Project instructions. I turned down other applicants because they didn’t do this.  How did the mentoring help?

LJ: Firstly, it gave me the confidence to try. When we first talked and I said I wanted to write a short story you asked ‘why not write a novel?’ as if I could, and I felt a real spark of ‘could I?’ That spark grew and grew until I scrubbed out the title of my story and wrote ‘Chapter One’ instead. Your offer to critique my first 10,000 words drove me forwards but I never quite believed I could write so much – having never written more than 200 words before, but I wrote and wrote until I had the first few chapters. I was euphoric! I sent them over to you half-expecting you to call and tell me they were so brilliant you’d sent them to your publisher! Of course, they weren’t good, as first drafts often aren’t.  You told me, so kindly, they’d be great as individual short stories but they didn’t flow like a novel should and I didn’t hesitate in deleting them.

LW: I had no idea you’d deleted all those words! I hope I wasn’t too blunt… it’s so important for writers who want to publish their work to grasp that a novel is more than a series of events… it’s the tale you weave around those events that makes a story, and makes a novel.

LJ: I went back to basics. I’ve always been an avid reader but I started to read like a writer instead, noticing the flow, the sub-plot, those subtle undercurrents and then I tried again, frantically trying to write another 10,000 before our mentoring period ended. The relief when you liked my second attempt was immense and I think that’s where mentoring was so beneficial. Getting that flow, that balance, is so critical. I feel so lucky I got the advice I did, 10,000 words in and didn’t spend the next 18 months writing a book that no-one would want to read. Did it take long to read and critique my work? 

LW: Longer than I thought it would, to be honest! I had to concentrate really hard!

LJ: You were very thorough. Were you comfortable with criticising?

LW: Yes, I think so. I know only too well how painful it can be to receive criticism, so I tried to remain constructive and positive, while at the same time be honest enough to be of decent help. I didn’t want to demoralise you. I was relieved to find that you were sure enough in your own aims and abilities to not necessarily agree with everything I suggested… Mittens, anyone??!!

LJ: Yes! You really didn’t like the cat in Chapter One and although I took most of your advice on board, the cat you didn’t like, stayed. I think building enough confidence to develop my own voice, trust my own instincts and not take things that aren’t working personally, has stood me in good stead to cope well with the inevitable rejections, and now the publisher’s edits. Writing in present tense is something I wouldn’t have dared try at the beginning as so many people don’t like it but by the time I’d finished the first draft in past tense, I knew I hadn’t written a book I’d love to read. That meant going back to the beginning and changing the tense, and then losing the last 40,000 words completely to change the genre. I feel like I’ve written more than one book during this process but I’ve honestly loved every second of it.

LW: Would you recommend the WoMentoring Project to other writing women?

LJ: Absolutely. It’s hard to believe that 18 months ago I’d never written any fiction except a couple of 100 word stories and now I’ve signed a three-book deal with Bookouture. My first novel, The Sister, will be out in July 2016 and I feel so grateful to Kerry Hudson for founding the WoMentoring Project and all the women who volunteer their time to help fledging writers find their voice.  I’m indebted to you for helping make my dream come true and I’m fully intent on paying it forward.

 

You can read my previous posts tracking my experience of the project here,  here and here.

 

The WoMentoring Project is still open for applications and offers free mentoring by professional literary women to talented up and coming female writers who would otherwise find it difficult to access similar opportunities.

Their mission is simple: to introduce successful literary women to other women writers at the beginning of their careers who would benefit from some insight, knowledge and support.

The hope is that new, talented and diverse female voices emerge as a result of time and guidance received from our mentors.

 

 

The moment you see your first lot of edits…

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It was with great excitement I received my first lot of edits back from my publisher. My fingertips drummed impatiently on my desk as I waited for the document to load, and when it did – Oh. My. God.

Nothing could have prepared me for seeing the slash of red lines that crisscrossed over my beautifully crafted prose. The comment bubbles that spewed over page after page of a manuscript I’d thought was in pretty good shape.

My laptop lid slammed as I forced it closed and with my heart thumping I did what any self-respecting author would do. I crept downstairs to the kitchen and opened the hobnobs, chomping down three before I felt able to go and face the horror that was once my novel.

Back at my desk I opened my laptop, millimetre by millimetre. The screen illuminated. The document flashed open. The red lines were still there.

It was time to put my big girl pants on and read through the comments and, dusting biscuit crumbs from my shirt, I did just that.

I’d never used the track changes feature of Microsoft Word before but once I’d got past the anxiety of learning something new I trawled through the file accepting the basic changes, formatting, font, that sort of thing and it didn’t look quite so scary any more. Not quite so red.

On the second read it struck me there’s not much to do at all and I breathed a huge sigh of relief, but I’m keeping the biscuits next to me. Just in case.

How I REALLY felt when I got a book deal

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I’d envisaged the moment so many times. Receiving THE call. Someone believes in me and wants to represent this novel, along with the million other books I’m bound to write.

I thought I’d float around the garden in a giant bubble of happiness while birds tweeted their congratulations in my ear and rabbits frolicked at my feet.

Instead what happened was after a fraught few days exchanging emails with Bookouture, a proposal dropped into my inbox offering me a three-book deal. No fanfare. No dancing unicorns or rainbows stretching across the sky, as the sun smiled down on me. And what I felt, instead of the euphoria I’d expected, was sheer dread.

They want two more books? Are they crazy? I’m not a writer. I’m a mum who bashes out a few words on a laptop between the school run, work and cooking dinner. What if I never, ever have another idea again? This. Can’t. Be. Happening.

I seesawed between intense gratitude and a churning panic. Lydia, my editor, called to discuss the deal and she was patient and kind, but my mind was fuzzy and I couldn’t makes sense of the words she was saying. Couldn’t think of anything sensible to ask. Numb with shock I found myself agreeing and a contract was quickly emailed over. Pages of terms I’d never heard before and didn’t really understand. I waited for the excitement to kick in. And I waited. And waited.

Fear gripped me and for the rest of that week my word count stood at zero. My ideas dried up and the second book I’d started screeched to a halt. By Friday I was crippled with self-doubt and still hadn’t told my family or friends, or signed the contract. Stricken at the thought of letting Lydia and Bookouture down I poured all my concerns out in an email, trying to explain that although I was incredibly grateful, it was what I’d always wanted, but the process of writing another book, in a specific genre, with a looming deadline, was terrifying. Believing I’d blown my chance I went to bed for the rest of the day with the covers pulled over my head.

On Saturday I left the house for the first time in days. It was freezing, but as I sat by a local lake, my fingers blue with cold, idea upon idea juggernauted towards me. What if I put this twist in my new book? What if the main character did this? I scrambled in my bag for my ever-present note-book and scrawled page upon page of bullet points. Sunday was spent typing up my notes. My novel was back on track.

Lydia rang me Monday morning and alleviated every single fear I’d had, and even some I wasn’t even aware of.

And that’s when I felt it. That frisson of excitement.

That I can.

I will.

I am.

 

It took a while to fully sink in but I can now genuinely say I’m utterly thrilled with the opportunity and so, so thankful to be signed to such an innovative and dynamic publisher. I can’t stop smiling.

So if you look out of your window and happen to see a woman cartwheeling down the street while simultaneously screaming with happiness and necking champagne, well, that would be me.

The thing you should NEVER say when you’ve finished writing your novel

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Last year, I’d edited, revised and rewritten like crazy until my manuscript was so polished it gleamed. It was finished. My beta readers heaped glowing praise upon me while I put my feet up, ate a chocolate hobnob and contemplated my next step. I’d written a novel!

That evening, I went to dinner with a friend.

‘You’ve finished your first book, how exciting,’ she said. ‘Is it any good?’

‘Yes,’ I topped up my wine, ‘but my next one will be better.’ What? Where did that come from? I smiled and nodded my way through the rest of the meal, while the inner me covered her face with her palms and shook her head. What was wrong with my book?

At home, I sat and thought. What wasn’t I happy with? Nothing too major, just……..the plot. Oh dear. It was time to pull it apart, ditch 50,000 words, and have another go.

Fast forward a few months and I was finished. I’d written a novel!

I met my sister for coffee.

‘Is it any good?’ she asked.

‘Yes.’ I bit into a chocolate muffin. ‘There are a couple of chapters that are a bit slow, but the rest is great.’ Arrgghhh! The inner me wrung her hands and cried.

By November I’d weaved in a new plot line and ramped up the suspense. I was finished. I’d written a novel!

Christmas Eve I had an idea. I tried to ignore it, I was finished after all, but I was itching to rewrite, and Boxing Day found me sitting at my desk, not moving for days, until. I’d written a novel! Only this time I felt something I hadn’t felt before. Pride, satisfaction and the urge to open a bottle and celebrate, and so I did.

It finally feels complete.