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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Hook an Agent Part III – The dreaded synopsis…

 

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.’ We’ll skim over the part where my teenage son now thinks that’s a fabulous quote to get tattooed on his arm and move swiftly on to nailing that synopsis, often the most feared part of the submission package.

Today I’m joined by the utterly fabulous Rowan Lawton, from the dynamic Furniss Lawton, who will share her top 3 tips to bear in mind when writing that synopsis.

1) Know the difference between a pitch blurb and a synopsis.

There is a big difference between writing a blurb for your pitch letter and putting together a synopsis. Your synopsis should be a plainly written description of specifics – what actually happens in your novel. There is no rule about length but I’d advise sticking to a couple of pages at most.

Approach the blurb as though you are writing your own jacket copy for the finished, printed version. Imagine your book on the shelf in a bookshop and what elements of your story would entice someone to choose your novel over another.

2) Do give away the ending in your synopsis.

When an agent is reading your synopsis they want to see how it’s all going to come together at the end. Will it be a satisfying read? Is the plot convincing? We get so many submissions that we often want to know how a story is going to end before we commit to reading a whole manuscript.

3) Don’t try to make claims about the themes of your novel in the synopsis.

This advice applies to your cover letter and blurb too, apart from possibly a line or two right at the end. I want to know who your main characters are, what is going to happen to them and where the action is going to take place, much more than I want to hear generalisations about themes. ‘This is an epic love story exploring themes of loss, human connection and forgiveness’ tells me nothing about what’s actually going to happen the book I’m about to read!

Fabulous advice Rowan, thanks.

Now I’ve pondered how to share my synopsis for The Sister (submitted as Buried Memories), as I did my covering letter, and have been advised not to as it would ruin the book for those who have yet to read. I will however share my opening so you get the general idea without giving away spoilers. For me, it only came together firstly, when I was able to put aside the rich, descriptive language I love to use when I write and keep it very basic and to the point. Secondly, I had to stop viewing it as an enemy. The synopsis is a friend we use to demonstrate the plot hangs together and an epic love story doesn’t suddenly fall apart when aliens randomly appear in chapter 43 and in the epilogue it turns out it was all a dream anyway.

 

‘BURIED MEMORIES’ is a domestic noir story featuring Grace Matthews, an anxious 25-year old woman who is devastated by her best friend Charlie (Charlotte) Fisher’s death and can’t understand why Charlie’s Mum, Lexie Fisher, would blame her. She feels until she discovers the meaning behind Charlie’s last words ‘I’ve done something terrible, Grace, please forgive me,’ she can’t move forward.

Struggling to know where to start unravelling the mystery Grace remembers a memory box she and Charlie buried as teenagers and digs it up. Grace realises that Charlie’s biological father might know what Charlie did and decides to trace him. During the search Grace is followed by a mysterious figure and becomes paranoid and dependent on medication.

Dan, Grace’s boyfriend agrees to help find Charlie’s father even though he’s struggled to cope with Grace’s misplaced sense of guilt, and erratic behaviour, since Charlie’s death. They begin an online campaign and Anna comes forward. Anna tells Grace she is Charlie’s half-sister and that their shared father is deceased. Lonely Grace seizes the chance to form a bond with Anna, keeping a link to Charlie. Without checking her out Grace readily agrees when Anna asks if she can stay for a few days…

 

I do hope that was useful. Take a deep breath, remember to stick to the submission guidelines (the synopsis might need to be anything from 300 words to one or two pages).

You’ve got this. Good luck!

For the final instalment we’ll be joined next time by Eugenie Furniss who’ll give her advice for tightening those all important first three chapters.

 

Curtis Brown Discovery Day

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Curtis Brown Literary Agency hosted a fabulous Discovery Day on Twitter last Friday. This was a great online event and they will be scheduling another one in the New Year so it’s well worth keeping an eye on @cbcreative to find out when.

In the morning there was an opportunity to pitch your book idea directly to the Curtis Brown team using the hashtag #PitchCB. If an agent liked the tweet that was an invitation to then submit directly to that agent.

In the afternoon there were opportunities to ask Antonia Honeywell (The Ship) and Kate Hamer (Girl in the Red Coat) about their writing process and get some writing tips. Some of the fabulous tips tweeted included: –

 

  • Make sure your first page asks a question which the reader wants answered. Every novel is a mystery story

 

  • Write your synopsis as though you’re recommending a book you’ve loved to a friend you think should read it – forget you wrote it

 

  • Scenes in novels rarely need to be longer than 1000-1500 words. If yours goes on pages & pages, do some cutting

 

  • To beat procrastination, glue self to desk with a promise you can stop after 20 mins. When the time is up, you won’t be able to

 

  • The stuff that you write that makes you go ‘uh oh, this is a bit unusual/strange/where did that come from?’ Go with that

 

  • Don’t be too SHOUTY. Less can be more. Lots of us write dramatic scenes in shouty ways – go back and calm them down in the edit

 

  • Don’t write to rules or what you think you *should* do, write what you want.

 

  • Keeping faith is important. Not always easy, but important

 

The last scheduled event was ‘ask the agent’ – some of the questions and answers were: –

 

I’m thrilled to have interest from several literary agents. How do I know which agent is right for me? Is there a key factor?



Check them out – twitter, online client lists, acknowledgements in books.

Meet up with them! It’s a long-term relationship & need to feel unambiguous trust, empathy, meeting-of-minds, inspiration…

 

If agents complement your MS, you’re targeting the right people, but you’ve yet to secure rep, what wld you look to resolve first?



Keep going – and make sure your pitch for the book is razor-sharp.

 

If an agent asks for the full ms, how long does it normally take to make a decision? Thank you

It really varies, but most agents aim for within a month. There are definitely busier periods though…

 

Does it help or hinder if an author has self-published before approaching an agent with a different novel

It does no harm (it used to be looked down on) and now can be very positive. However, publishers buy on the strength of book.

If you’ve proactively promoted it and used the process to develop your author ‘brand’ then it can definitely help

 

How does an author’s book become available to libraries?

The library has to buy them. Works well if borrowers ask for them!

 

 

 

A shrinking synopsis

Keep Calm and Eat Cake

I’ve loved every second of writing my novel. My sample three chapters are polished and sparkly, my query letter concise.

And then came the synopsis…

I devoured every piece of information I could find on the Internet, met fellow authors for coffee where I sat them under a bright white light and withheld their cake until they shared their tips. And if they were too slow forthcoming with advice and I ate their cake (shrugs) that’s their problem, interrogating is hungry work.

My first attempt made my characters sound certifiably insane. They were doing What??? Why??? I read it back and I didn’t understand the plot, a tad problematic considering I wrote it.

I bought Nicola Morgan’s ‘Write a Great Synopsis,’ Kindle book. It sounded so simple. I was sure my second attempt would be the one.

It was better, but still clunky and at 1½ pages, too long.

This morning I’ve read Nicola’s book again, slowly this time, and attempt three isn’t, well it isn’t terrible let’s put it that way. Watch this space.