Tag Archives: editorial

11 Ways Not To Start Your Novel – No. 11

At the Wrong Time

At the Darley Anderson Agency we ask that any writers who wish to submit their work to us should provide the first three chapters of their novel as a sample of their writing. This is, as I understand it, standard practice in the industry.

However, at least once a week I hear from someone who takes issue with this.

Here are a few examples of the submission queries that we who work in literary agencies hear all the time:

  • “The first three chapters don’t really give an impression of what the whole novel is about. Could I send more?”
  • “My plot doesn’t really get going until about Chapter 14. I’ll send you Chapter 14 instead.”
  • “Those first chapters aren’t my best. I’m including Chapters Eight, 26 and 31 in their place. Those are the chapters I’m really proud of.”

Putting aside the fact that I really wouldn’t recommend quibbling about the harmless submission guidelines of your chosen literary agency unless there’s absolutely zero ways around it, this is worrying in an even bigger way. Saying something like this is akin to holding up a large neon sign above your head which reads:


Because, really, as a reader if you get to the end of Chapter Three and the plot still hasn’t got going yet are you likely to want to keep reading? If the first chapters of a new book aren’t that strong isn’t it just a huge struggle to carry on with it? And, let’s be honest, no one ever picked up a book and started reading from Chapter 14 onwards.

Readers start reading from page one. Publishers are the same. Literary Agents are the same. That’s how stories work. You start at the very beginning (a very good place to start).

My response to those three queries would be thus:

  • Well, they should
  • Well, it should
  • Well, you should be fiercely proud of your opening chapters too

If you don’t feel confident that your opening chapters are your best work then rewrite them. If your first chapters aren’t really capturing the essence of your overall novel then change them so that they do. If your plot doesn’t really get going until Chapter 14 cut out chapters 1 through 13. Open with whatever active, plot-developing scene it is that makes Chapter 14 so great.

You could always move that genius 31st chapter to the beginning of the manuscript as a flash-forward glimpse of what is to come, if you like. You can create a completely new character or obliterate an established one. You can move the events forwards in time or change the timeline to suit your whim.

You are the god of that page, time bows to your will. Take advantage of it. Own it. Be god.

The writers who make these queries have definitely done one excellent thing – they have recognised a problem in their manuscript. The real issue is that they’re complacent about it. Like it’s someone else’s problem. Specifically, it’s their reader’s problem.

When editing, I occasionally find myself suggesting some pretty drastic changes to some authors’ plots and their sequence of events. And, when I do this, I find that a lot of writers have a very understandable inclination to stick to the original plan. The phrase, “but that’s not how it happens,” is often uttered.

This is because good writers believe in what they’re writing. They can see each scene unfold like memories. Their characters are real people to them. And with real people you can’t just go back into their memories and say, “actually, you didn’t move house when you were 12, you moved when you were 15. And you only have one aunt, not two. And your hair’s blue now.” But with made-up characters you can, and sometimes you must.

This is why I think good writers often really struggle when making big plot changes. It’s all real to them. They’ve forgotten that they’re god.

In this respect, the space between being a good writer and a great writer is being able to step back and remember your godlike powers, remember that you are in charge. You can start your story whenever you want.

Choose the most opportune moment.

Wibbly wobbly timey wimey.

By Vicki Le Feuvre

What’s the Best Love Story of All Time, Vicki?

Well, it’s that time of year again. The week of love is here (otherwise known as the week when people everywhere in brand new relationships find themselves wishing that the rules were clearer as they wildly fluctuate between buying a gift which involves more than one diamond or tweeting their new significant other a picture of a giraffe in a bowtie).

We’ve been getting into the Valentine’s Day spirit here at the agency and we thought it was about time we asked Darley’s angels to decide once and for all what the best love story of all time is.

We’ll be posting a new answer every day this week and today our Agency Editor, Vicki Le Feuvre, tells us which she would choose:

Vicki, what is the best love story of all time?

The story goes that Gilbert Ryle was once asked if he ever read any novels and he replied, “oh yes. All six, every year.” Any of those six novels he was referring to, the lot of them written by Miss Jane Austen, might happily qualify as the greatest love story of all time.

But the one for me is Persuasion.

Gilbert Ryle - philosopher of Oxford, reader of Austen, sitter of deckchairs

Gilbert Ryle – philosopher of Oxford, reader of Austen, sitter of deckchairs

Anne Elliot, has always been overlooked by most everyone in her life, “her word had no weight, her convenience was always to give way – she was only Anne.” So much so that when she falls for the only man she will ever love, Captain Frederick Wentworth, and has the good fortune to find him returning her feelings she ends up being persuaded that the match is not in her or his best interests, the latter being all that concerns her.

Eight years of regret later and Anne is all of seven and twenty and it is generally agreed by anyone in her circle who cares to notice her that she has quite lost any bloom of youth she may have once had. When several twists of fate conspire to bring Captain Wentworth back into her life she finds herself just as in love with him as ever but he, it seems, cannot forgive her for allowing herself to bend to persuasion all those years ago.

Reading this novel with an autobiographical eye makes it all the more poignant with its strong focus on missed opportunities and the pain that can come from leaving only a few words unspoken.

Indeed, Anne says so little throughout the course of the novel that adaptions have often struggled to bring this story to life. All of Anne’s intelligence and kindness are shown in her reflections and actions which are ignored by those around her and even side-lined within the structure of the novel itself in favour of the trivial chatterings of all the supporting characters. Only Austen’s flare for satire could make this technique work so well and keep the reader so resolutely on the side of the shy, retiring (occasional doormat) Anne.

One of my favourite elements of this love story is how beautifully Austen captures Anne’s sensations of being in love. I don’t know about anyone else but when I’m around someone I’ve fallen for it feels like coming down with the flu combined with a prolonged panic attack. Not everyone feels like this but it was immensely comforting for me to see Anne’s sensibilities reacting in much the same way and she is such a sensible character (especially in contrast to those around her) that it didn’t make her or her feelings seem ridiculous.

I love too that it’s not simple, as it never is. A reader can simultaneously see that Captain Wentworth’s anger is entirely understandable, justified even, at the same time as knowing that he’s got it all wrong. Each character, no matter how preposterous, makes perfect sense and each have excellent depth which makes the whole easily correctable situation seem not only real but utterly insurmountable.

Every time I re-read this book, though I know what will happen, I can never quite believe that the solution really will come. Given that it could so easily go wrong at the beginning, that the chances to correct it are so fleeting and so much needs to be explained, it hardly seems possible that, “a word, a look, will be enough,” to put it right.

The Penguin Classic - for when all the other covers have sappy girls in silly hats on them

The Penguin Classic – for when all the other covers have sappy girls in silly hats on them

What do you think? Is Persuasion the best love story ever told? Let us know in the comments.