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Advice for Authors Darley Anderson Authors On Writing Submissions Uncategorized

A. M. Howell on the highs and lows of the submission process and her journey to publication

In case you misseAM Howelld it (if you’re living under a rock, or have become a hermit, or get all your news delivered by snail), last week was the Frankfurt Book Fair. It’s where everyone announces their big books, and it’s easy to get lost in the buzzy deal headlines and general excitement. And that news is great – but it isn’t necessarily normal.

What we don’t talk about is how many titles don’t get published, or how long it can take agents to find a home for their authors’ books. Publishing is an industry peppered with failures and it’s safe to assume that every single author out there will have faced rejection at some point in their careers.  

Someone who knows this better than most is middle-grade author A. M. Howell. In this week’s post, A. M. Howell gives a brave and honest account of her experiences submitting to agents and of her sometimes difficult journey to publication, as well as some invaluable advice for aspiring authors.

I often think back to summer 2015 when my internet search history mostly consisted of terms like ‘how to get an agent’ and ‘my journey to publication’. I picked up quite a few tips when I was submitting my first book to agents, and since then, and thought it might be helpful to share them, as well as talk a little about my own (quite lengthy!) route to publication.

It’s really tempting to start submitting to agents as soon as you’ve written those magic words ‘The End’ on your manuscript. But it can be really helpful to put your book aside for a few weeks and then re-read with fresh eyes. You may find ways to tighten that tricky ending, develop a character a little more or correct some annoying typos, all things that will help make your story shine even brighter before it goes hurtling out into the world.

Buy or borrow a copy of the latest edition of the Writers and Artists Handbook. It contains a wealth of information on literary agencies and the types of manuscripts they accept. I created a spreadsheet of my top twenty ‘dream agents’ then also visited the individual agency websites to see what was required for submission – normally a full synopsis (detailing the ending), the first few chapters of the book, along with a covering letter.

Do your research and spend some time tailoring your submission – a little personalisation can make you stand out from the crowd. If an agent tweets that they are looking for a comedy about unicorns, and that is what you have written, then you can mention that in your covering letter!

As hard as it may be, try and prepare yourself for some straight rejections. I don’t know a single author who hasn’t received some. It’s natural to be upset, and by all means rant and rave internally, but try and resist firing off an email to the agent saying they are missing out on the next big thing. Agents do, of course, know other agents and word is likely to get around! Focus your efforts on taking on board any feedback you get, grit your teeth and send off another submission.

Many writers and authors I know have had their first book rejected by agents and/or publishers. Try not to be disheartened. If you have received positive feedback it might be worth re-writing. But the best thing might be to start something new. Don’t view that book as wasted work though, as every word you type helps to hone your skills as a writer.

If you do get a full read request from an agent it is time to celebrate! If this is followed up with an offer of representation, your instinct may be to accept immediately and go and eat lots and lots of cake. But perhaps take some time to consider if this agent is good fit for you and your book. When I began submitting my first book, I got some straight rejections, then one agent asked if we could meet. She offered to represent me and I was over the moon, but when we met there was something that just didn’t quite click.

I chased up the other agents who were still reading the full manuscript and then Clare Wallace from The Darley Anderson Children’s Book Agency, an agent at the very top of my wish list, asked if we could chat. We shared the same vision for the book and I didn’t hesitate in saying yes when she offered to represent me.

Clare went on to submit that book to publishers but even though it had positive feedback sadly it didn’t get picked up. I was very upset, but dusted myself off and got back to writing something else to take my mind off the disappointment. But then the very same thing happened with my second book! It wasn’t until my third book that I got to the stage of talking to an editor at a major publishing house on the phone, with the book subsequently going to acquisitions. Clare and I felt quietly positive, but then we got the sad news that while overall they loved the story, the sales team had concerns about sales of similar types of contemporary teen fiction and so they would not be making an offer. This was another real low point and I wondered what to do next. After a few weeks off and chatting things through with Clare, I decided to try something new – historical fiction, something I have always read and enjoyed. I remember sending Clare the first three chapters of what was to become The Garden of Lost Secrets and she emailed me straight back. ‘I love it – just write it,’ she said. So I did.

In the end it was my fourth book – The Garden of Lost Secrets – that was The One that eventually got me the book deal of my dreams with Usborne this year. I guess the moral of this is to stay determined – both at the ‘trying to get an agent stage’ and the ‘trying to get a publisher stage’ but also don’t be afraid to experiment with different genres and styles of writing if what you are writing doesn’t seem to be working. While my first four books will always have a place in my heart, the switch to historical fiction was the best decision I ever made and now I can’t imagine writing anything else!

The Garden of Lost Secrets was published by Usborne in 2019 and has gone on to experience great success. The Times chose it as their Children’s Book of the Week, calling it ‘an impressive debut … [with] an effective twist that goes off with a bang’. It’s also had rave reviews in the Telegraph, the Daily Mail, and the i, and it was picked by The Bookseller as One to Watch, who described A. M. as a ‘brilliant new voice’.

A. M. Howell’s latest book, The House of One Hundred Clocks, will be published in February 2020. It’s full of dark secrets, ticking clocks and mysterious ghostly figures, and you can read an extract here. You can follow A. M. on Twitter and Instagram or visit her website where she shares her future projects.

Fiction_GardenCover_edited

 

Categories
On Writing

On Writing: Cesca Major talks Plot

For any writer, first time or otherwise, you are inevitably going to come up against some issues with your plot: Is there enough drama in the second half? How do I get from A to B in an exciting and original way? Who should I kill off next?

In the first of our ‘On Writing’ blog posts, Cesca Major, author of the evocative and beautifully written The Silent Hours and The Last Night gives you 3 Top Tips on how to get yourself out of a plotting rut.

The Last Night is out in paperback on Thursday 4th May. 

Categories
Newsletter

Agency Newsletter

Hello!

There’s always a lot going on at the agency, with authors, rights, submissions etc. but we always want to keep you in the loop.

The newsletter is, again, packed with news. August is usually a quiet month in publishing – but not for the DA Agency.

Our debut authors are enjoying immense success around the world, our much-loved established authors continue to grow from strength to strength and we welcome new faces to our DA Children’s Book Agency.

We have a brand new Twitter account for DA Children’s so make sure your following (and on Facebook too).

Enjoy the rest of sunny summer days!

Kristina

 

  • Make sure you download as a PDF for the best quality.

 

Categories
Editorial Submissions

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:

“I’M NOT THINKING ABOUT MY READER!”

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

Categories
Editorial Meet the DA team Submissions

11 Ways Not To Start Your Novel – No. 10

With Extended Dialogue (or in a car)

“What do you mean you’re not going to do a blog post about not starting your novel in a car?”

“Well, it’s just that we’ve already attacked airports and that’s led people to anticipate further attacks on modes of transport. Also to be honest I think the opening-in-a-car craze is starting to tail off a little. I haven’t had one starting during a motorway traffic jam in a week or so now.”

“But a car journey isn’t a great way to start your novel.”

“You’re right but there are just too many variables to consider.”

“Like what?”

“Ok so having your protagonist caught in a traffic jam is generally not an action-packed way to start your novel but what if they were really funny or it was a creepy situation in some way or it wasn’t about the traffic jam at all, like maybe it was about the day the family dog Bessie jumped out the car window and was never seen or heard from again? Any of those variables might make the scene work.”

“It would still feel a bit unoriginal during the opening lines. It would be hard to immediately establish that this situation was special. I just think a lot of agents and publishers are probably growing tired of this setting for opening scenes.”

“True. But what about a high speed car chase instead of the usual stuck-on-a-motorway scenario?”

“That has been done too.”

“But has it been done enough for us to actively discourage it? What about if there was a really funny guy in a high speed chase in a creepy situation with the family dog Bessie riding along? You might forget there was even a car involved.”

“I’d still discourage opening right at that point in time for most authors.”

“Yeh but maybe some could pull it off?”

“Maybe.”

“Perhaps instead of discouraging car journeys we could discourage any journey? At the moment I seem to be getting a lot of manuscripts that open on trains. I’m getting a little biased against trains.”

“But isn’t that a bit over restrictive?”

“You’re probably right. How about not starting with a big move? That’s how about half of all children’s submissions start, I find. They’re either going to spend the holiday with an estranged family member, being evacuated or their cruel parents are pulling them up at the roots and moving them to an entirely new place where they’ll be bullied at their new school for being different and they’ll miss their friends.”

“It doesn’t really apply to adult fiction as much though, does it?”

“No. Also I like a good evacuee opening chapter, name cards and crying mothers and all the kids crammed into an enclosed space, emotions running high. It really gets you on the protagonist’s side and it’s an excellent breeding ground for tension. Also the thought of having to move did used to terrify me as a child.”

“You lived in Jersey. How big of a shakeup could moving from one part of a tiny island to another part of a tiny island have caused your life?”

“If we’d been moved to the wrong parish I was scared I might end up having to go to Beaulieu.”

“What’s Beaulieu?”

“Rival girls school to mine.”

“If you’re going to upload a transcript of this conversation aren’t you worried that no one will get that reference?”

“My friends who read this might.”

“Do many of your friends read this?”

“Probably not.”

“I feel like this conversation has gone off track.”

“It’s definitely gone on for longer than it should have.”

“Aren’t you afraid people will think this is just lazy? I mean it doesn’t really count as a proper blog post does it?”

“Well, it’s proving difficult to make your voice sound a bit different to mine considering that this is just an argument I’m having with myself. I like to think I’m employing some dialogue skills here.”

“But are you using any other skills beyond that? You’re not being descriptive, you’re not taking the characterisation any further and you’ve not given your reader a shred of exposition yet.”

“I’m being mysterious. Creating intrigue.”

“Yes but surely there’s a limit? I mean how many people do you think are even going to read this far? They might as well just go to a coffee shop and eavesdrop on strangers’ conversations if this is all you’re going to give them.”

“Hey now. I’m doing other stuff too. There’s a lot going on.”

“Such as?”

“Well I’m creating conflict.”

“People argue in coffee shops too you know.”

“It’s the caffeine.”

“What I mean is you’re not giving anyone reading this very many reasons to care about whether we have conflict or not, are you? Who are we? What does it matter if we have conflict?”

“Well I think I’ve established that I’m me.”

“And I am?”

“Um… Clare?”

“Is Clare this confrontational?”

“No. Clare’s really nice. But my first draft where we were just being really nice to each other and having a reasoned discussion wasn’t interesting enough.”

“And why’s that?”

“… Because opening with extended dialogue isn’t a great idea?”

“Precisely.”

“So could we just do the post about that then?”

“I guess. But could you find a way to at least touch on the idea that starting your novel in a car might not be a great idea either?”

“I’m sure I’ll think of something.”

By Vicki Le Feuvre

Categories
Editorial Submissions

11 Ways Not To Start Your Novel – No. 9

With Too Much Exposition

Compare and contrast the following two potential openings to my pretend debut novel:

    They were going to catch her.

    When she first started running Lauren had felt sure she’d make it. After all, who would have thought they’d be faster than her? But they were, and now each time she looked back they were snapping ever closer at her heels.

    The breath burned in her chest as she hurtled round another filing cabinet, knocking a stack of contracts into their path.

    They were going to catch her, Lauren knew this now, the only question was when.

And:

    Lauren Taylor, who had turned 25 last year, worked at Lawyers Lawyers Lawyers, which was quite a good law firm. Although the work was hard and excessively stressful it was all experience for when she became a qualified lawyer herself.

    Usually one of the last people to leave the office at the end of the day, Lauren was the only one left in the office by 6 o’clock that night. She was still there two hours later when the Gremlins (creepy looking, little aye-aye type creatures with a thirst for mayhem and a worrying interest in Lauren) attacked. When she first noticed them watching her from their home in the vents she was down in the archives doing some filing.

    She started to run immediately. Lauren was quick-thinking like that having always excelled academically. As an Olympic level water polo player, she thoughts that surely she would easily make it to the safety of the toilets faster than the Gremlins but then they proved to be quicker on their feet than she had thought and soon she started to worry that she wasn’t going to make it. Strands of her brunette hair whipped across her brown eyes as she ran.

    The Gremlins were gaining on her and unfortunately the archives were especially large, even for a firm as sizeable as Lawyers Lawyers Lawyers. Eventually, they caught her.

Which one draws you in the most? Which one is more likely to grab you and pull you into the action? If you had to pick, which one would you keep reading?

I really hope your answer was: “the first one,” (otherwise I might be out of a job).

In your opening chapters it is true that you will need to include a certain amount of exposition. The more seamlessly you can slip that exposition in the better, of course, but at some point relatively early on your reader will need to understand what is going on, who they’re looking at and why.

The excellent thing is you don’t have to do that immediately. Actually, you’re more likely to grip a reader if you don’t.

I often read submissions where I can sense a certain level of anxiety in the way the opening paragraphs are written, as if the author is highly conscious of the fact that they need to explain things fast.

New writers will often tend to shoehorn in snippets of information wherever they can during their first lines (hair and eye colour as well as age and occupation of the protagonist being the most popular culprits). Sometimes relationships are hurriedly summarised in the first few lines (married five years, it wasn’t going well) or interesting character traits are hastily listed for the reader (smart, funny but lovingly clumsy with a tendency to overwork). Even important plot details that could have served as great points of interest later in the narrative are sometimes quickly revealed in the first few pages in a bid to get the reader caught up.

I would not recommend including any of this information in your opening lines if it is not absolutely necessary. Here are three reasons why, in increasing order of importance:

    1. Readers are wise to it. Especially agents and publishers. This is the point of your novel when too much exposition will stick out like a sore thumb. Leave it until you’ve lulled your reader into not noticing that you’re hiding behind the scenes pulling all the strings.

    2. If it’s not 100% essential to the action it gets in the way of the action. You want your opening scene to spring to life. You don’t have to open with a fight or chase scene to do this; even if your protagonist is quietly reading when you first introduce them you want the focus to be on the action of them reading rather than on their backstory. You want to pull your reader into the moment – that way it will be all the easier to sneak the backstory past them while they’re looking the other way.

    3. It’s throwing away one of the best weapons that you have in your arsenal at the beginning of any story – intrigue.

Intrigue is what will make your readers want to keep reading past the first paragraph. Intrigue is what will make them want to get to know your characters and find out more about their situations and relationships. Intrigue is your best friend.

To use a slightly tortured metaphor, I recently climbed an indoor ice wall. Oh yeh, I climb ice walls now. If you’ve ever done any sort of rope-assisted climbing (I’m not going to lie, I don’t know the official terms) you will know that one of the best ways of curing the perfectly logical fear of a horrifying fall is to lean back in your harness and reassure yourself that you are in fact held up by it.

I got to the point halfway up this wall of ice where I, well, I panicked. I mean it’s exhausting and why do things look so much higher up when you get up on them than when you’re safe on the ground? It’s silly.

Anyway, I wigged. I manfully said I was coming back down (and when I say manfully I mean tearfully). I disengaged my ice picks, I sat back in my harness and I immediately realised that I was in no immediate danger.

Not to sound like a particularly naff inspirational speaker but in this admittedly quite stretched analogy your story is the ice wall and the harness is intrigue. Lean back on it, test it, bounce up and down a bit on it. Feel that it is not going to let you fall. You are safe to hold back information from your reader.

The understandable instinct is to want to cling to the wall and by cling to the wall I mean tell your reader all of the important information about your protagonist and their situation as quickly as possible lest they… what? Aren’t intrigued?

Without that harness I wouldn’t have gone anywhere near that big, tall wall of ice (the least grippy of Earth’s substances). But with it I reengaged my ice picks, took a deep breath, pretended I hadn’t been crying (I never cry, I climb ice walls) and I eventually rang that little bell at the top of the wall with pride.

Without intrigue your reader might not take the risk of giving up the time necessary to keep reading past your opening pages. Without it they might give up halfway, manfully or otherwise, and if they do that they won’t get to the fun bell ringing bit otherwise known as narrative payoff.

Feel safe to hold back basic information in your opening lines. The very start of your novel is not a time when the pressure is on you to tell the reader everything you know. Quite the contrary, the most important thing to let your reader know in your opening lines is that there is something they don’t know.

(p.s. see, Lauren, I promised I’d get you in the blog eventually. Sorry you got eaten by Gremlins though. Or did you…?)

By Vicki Le Feuvre

Categories
Editorial Submissions

11 Ways Not To Start Your Novel – No. 8

In An Airport

Whenever I get gloomy with the state of the world, I think about the arrivals gate at Heathrow Airport. General opinion’s starting to make out that we live in a world of hatred and greed, but I don’t see that. It seems to me that love-

Oh no wait. That’s the opening monologue to Love Actually.

What I mean to say is, at half-past six on a Friday evening in January, Lincoln International Airport, Illinois, was functioning, though with difficulty.

Wait no. That’s the opening line of Arthur Hailey’s bestselling 1968 novel, Airport.

What I really, actually meant to say was, “I’m walking as fast as I can,” Stacey squealed hitching up her miniskirt and hobbling after Constance in her nine inch, Louis Vuitton stilettos. “Just because your case has wheels.”

“No, I am walking at a proper pace because my suitcase is regulation size,” quipped Constance, scanning the departures board for any sign of their flight. “It also helps that I’m wearing sensible footwear and managed to set my alarm for the right time this morning.”

“Oh babes, you really need to chillax. We’re going to Las Vegas, get in the holiday spirit!”

“This is not a holiday, Stace. This is the opportunity we’ve been waiting for and you better not-”

“THIS IS OUR FINAL BOARDING CALL FOR PASSENGERS WISHING TO TRAVEL TO LAS VEGAS WITH BUDGET AIRLINES.COM.”

The girls looked at each other. “Oh no, that’s us!” they somehow managed to gasp in unison, before accidently dashing off in opposite directions.

No, hang on. That’s just a strangely popular scenario for the opening scene of quirky, fun, women’s fiction. Very shortly one of Stacey’s ill-chosen heals will break, I can guarantee it.

Airports. A place of new beginnings, of possibilities, of returning home and going off on adventures. Where you can buy anything from snow shoes to flip-flops and drink at whatever time of the day you feel like because everyone knows that time is at its most relative in an airport. You might have just come from Australia and be all jet lagged and confused for all anyone joining you in the airport bar at 9am knows.

What better way to introduce a wide expanse of characters too? There are meetings and partings galore at airports.  Fathers and sons, mothers and daughters, husbands and wives, boyfriends, girlfriends, old friends. Wait. Again, that’s Love Actually. Darn, that film is quotable.

Not to mention, setting your opening scene in an airport works well in almost all the possible genres. You need a thrilling chase scene to kick-start your thrilling thriller? Why not set it in an airport? Writing a kooky caper about a nine year old’s first trip to Canada? How else are you going to get him and his family over there, eh? Need to establish that Stacey and Constance don’t actually live in Las Vegas full time? That sounds like a job for an airport to me.

And, as ever, that is the exact problem with opening your novel in an airport. It’s popular. It spans genres. It’s been done. A lot.

Granted, if your novel takes place exclusively in an airport or you are Richard Curtis then you are off the hook but make sure that you do something exceptional in the opening lines to show off your writing skills.

Otherwise, try to avoid the airport as a taking off point for your novel if at all possible. Doing so will help you rise up above the crowd and hopefully land that literary agent you have your eye on.

And remember, if you look for it, I’ve got a sneaky feeling you’ll find that love actually is all around. Which is irrelevant as to whether or not you should start your novel in an airport but it might be a nice thing to think about while you’re… rewriting. Sorry.

Categories
Editorial Submissions

11 Ways Not To Start Your Novel – No. 7

With Something Aimed Primarily to Shock

It’s not uncommon for an, “ew,” to interrupt the everyday workings of the Darley Anderson Agency. It’s not even unheard of for one of our readers to be heard exclaiming, “that word again,” when first opening a submission. You know the one I’m talking about.

And believe me, none of us are all that sheltered or naïve. Or if we were when we started reading the submission piles we certainly aren’t anymore.

Now, I am absolutely not saying that you shouldn’t be shocking your reader. Twists, turns, violence, swearing, getting your reader to appreciate something raw and real that they might never have even wanted to think about before but maybe should; these all have an excellent place in a good novel. Keep your reader on their toes, open their eyes, address difficult subjects. Please do all of these things, they’re exactly what storytelling is for.

But never do any of these things purely to shock and definitely not in your opening lines.

Why?

Three reasons:

1.       It probably won’t shock anyone.

If you leap out and shout, “BOO!” at someone once you’ll probably get a jump out of them. Do it a second time a few minutes later and they might still flinch. Become known as that slightly strange individual who can be counted on to yell, “BOO!” at least twelve times in any one conversation? Well then, people will probably stop inviting you to parties eventually.

Think of a literary agent as a person well-accustomed to jump scares. You won’t shock them by barging right into your story midway through a graphic sex scene or opening with a four letter word.

If you’re going to do these things make sure you have a much better reason for doing them than to shock.

2.       It’s transparent more than it is gripping.

Imagine if you met that serial BOO-er for the first time at one of the last parties they were ever invited to. Imagine if their opening line was an aggressively loud, “BOO!”

Would you instantly warm to them? Would you be driven to find out more about them? You might be worried about them but you are unlikely to think, “I want to hang out with this guy.” I expect the best-case scenario is that you would interpret their behaviour as a misjudged overcompensation for their own social awkwardness and feel a bit bad for them.

Opening your novel with an obvious scare tactic has a similar effect. It feels like a distraction technique, as if you might be trying to move the attention away from your writing and maybe don’t feel that confident of your own abilities.

Instead of going in for a friendly handshake and perhaps trying to think of something witty to say to break the ice you’ve shouted, “BOO!” at your reader.

3.       It can come off as a bit disrespectful.

In this case I am referring to manuscripts that open right on to, say, a violent rape scene or an instance of child abuse, for example. Something innately upsetting and very real to a lot of people.

You never, ever want to give anyone the impression that you are exploiting sensitive issues in your writing simply to get a rise out of them. Bear in mind that going straight into a shocking scene can give your reader this impression. If you are doing this make sure that the shocking nature of the scene is not the reason you are placing it there.

We know the shock tactic opening line doesn’t come from a bad place. Any writer that uses it is trying to do exactly what you should be trying to do in your first line – gripping the reader. But I think they’re probably trying to grip them with the wrong thing.

Grip a reader with your characters, your storylines, your interesting view of the world, your wit, your carefully perfected firm-yet-not-too-firm handshake. Have confidence in your writing style and your ability to impress, there’s no need to rely on shock value and it’s more likely to push a reader away than pull them in anyway.

Never opt to shock for the sake of shocking. Surprise your chosen literary agent with something special and particular to your writing in your opening lines; don’t introduce them to your novel with a scare tactic.

Unless, that is, you happen to be Dawn French. Dawn French can start a book with a big ol’ swear word and people will still love her. Come to think of it, if Dawn French came up to me at a party and shouted, “BOO!” right in my face for no conceivable reason I’d still want to be her best friend. As so often is the case, it’s one rule for Dawn French and one rule for everybody else. She’s just a little bit too marvellous to hold it against her, isn’t she?

 

By Vicki Le Feuvre

Categories
Editorial Submissions

11 Ways Not To Start Your Novel – No. 6

With Your Protagonist Waking Up

The submission sits in front of me on the desk. I’ve read this scene about a hundred times before and here it is again. I’ll probably read it at least three more times before the day is up. The words spin in front of me and I search for the coffee I thought I had left just out of reach.

That’s when I notice the snakes. Only one at first then a couple more catch my eye as they come slithering down the bookshelves towards me. Suddenly they are everywhere, thousands of snakes writhing all over me. How can this be happening?

One of them lifts its head and glares at me across the tottering submission pile.

“Breakfasssssst,” it hisses, knowingly.

“What?” I reply.

“Breakfasssssssssssst.”

One of them is coiling itself around my neck. I can’t breathe. I can’t think. The room is fading around me.

BEEP BEEP BEEP. BEEP BEEP BEEP.

“Vicki, hurry up! Breakfast is ready!”

I sit bolt upright in bed, clawing at the serpents that have dissolved along with the dream.

BEEP BEEP BEEP. BEEP BEEP BEEP.

“Vicki! You’re going to be late! And it’s your first day of school/that new job/going into the outlands to fight the half-human half-snake race that has taken over this hellish dystopian reality that we unfortunately live in.”

The stuff of nightmares, isn’t it? Well it’s certainly the stuff of literary agent’s nightmares, I can tell you that.

It makes perfect sense to start your novel with your protagonist waking up. That’s how each day starts, after all. Beginnings are inherent in mornings.

That’s why it should be avoided. It’s the place where the majority of people think to start their story. It’s the logical thing to do. So a lot of people do it.

For example, I would probably be surprised if I read just five submissions in a row and none of them started with the protagonist waking up. Moreover, I would be delighted to read ten submissions on the trot without a single protagonist waking up from a dream in the opening pages.

Starting with a dream makes sense too. Waking up is the sensible place to start a story but a person’s morning routine can often be mundane. How can you spice that scene up? Well with a crazy dream, of course, preferably including a hefty bit of foreshadowing but failing that just throw in a lot of snakes. People love snakes.

Again, starting with a dream makes perfect sense. That’s why everybody is doing it.

It’s not just the unpublished authors either. Writers have been kick-starting their novels with their protagonist waking up for as long as people have been waking up and other people have had the capacity to write about it.

Here’s a fun game. See if you can identify the authors who are responsible for these opening lines. Bonus points if you can tell us the novel they belong to:

  1. When he woke in the woods in the dark and the cold of the night he’d reach out to touch the child sleeping beside him
  2. Even before he got electrocuted, Jason was having a rotten day. He woke in the back seat of a school bus, not sure where he was, holding hands with a girl he didn’t know
  3. As Gregor Samsa awoke one morning from uneasy dreams, he found himself transformed in his bed into a gigantic insect
  4. The bedroom is strange. Unfamiliar. I don’t know where I am, how I come to be here. I don’t know how I’m going to get home
  5. The regular early morning yell of horror was the sound of Arthur Dent waking up and suddenly remembering where he was

Remember, Googling is cheating. Leave your answers in the comments below.

Did you get them all?

They weren’t that hard to come up with either because waking up really is a common starting point for many stories.

Although, you will notice that none of these waking up scenarios place the protagonists in an everyday, mundane situation. When this is the case the waking up part of the scene effectively becomes one of the least important things about it, rather than the most.

This is good.

Yet, still I’d advise you to find another point of the day to focus your opening lines around if at all possible.

If you must, however, these are the main constructs which I’d advise you to avoid:

  • A dream. Particularly a dream that starts out like a normal scene and then weird things begin to happen before, oh twist, it turns out it was all just a dream
  • Anyone ‘sitting bolt upright in bed’, ‘burying their head deeper into the pillow’ or the sheets being ‘drenched with sweat’
  • Onomatopoeia. Alarm clocks, ringtones, knockings on doors – leave them out
  • Any of these phrases: ‘Breakfast is ready’, ‘you’re going to be late for [x]’, ‘sleepy head’, ‘wakey wakey’, ‘rise and shine’, ‘up and at them’, ‘just five more minutes’ and any variations thereupon
  • The smell of breakfast rousing your protagonist from their slumber/bed
  • Your protagonist getting out of bed to look at themselves in the mirror (assuming they look the way they would on any other day and haven’t, say, aged several years from the last morning they remember)
  • Your protagonist being even slightly hung-over
  • Your protagonist waking up on the first day of anything in particular

The problem is that the waking up opening scene has been done so many times by so many writers that it’s almost impossible to avoid the clichés.

At this point you’d need to do something extreme like having your protagonist wake up to discover he’s transformed into a colossal creepy-crawly overnight to make the scene feel original enough that your chosen literary agent won’t even notice what you’re doing.

Although I should warn you, even that one has been done already.

Categories
Editorial Submissions

11 Ways Not To Start Your Novel – No. 5

By Summarising

A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away (May 25th 1977 and this one, to be precise) George Lucas used a (by no means new) technique called an opening crawl at the start of a little space movie he’d been working on. In this opening crawl he summarised all the basic information that the audience needed to know if they were to grasp what on earth was going on and what a ‘Death Star’ was anyway (an armored space station with enough power to destroy an entire planet. Duh).

It became pretty iconic and worked well enough to grab his audience. I mean, until he started including choice phrases like ‘taxation of trade routes’. No one wants to read about that.

Shakespeare wasn’t afraid to summarise at the beginning of the odd play here or there either.

Two households, both alike in dignity, 

In fair Verona, where we lay our scene, 

From ancient grudge break to new mutiny,

Where civil blood makes civil hands unclean

Or in other words – the play’s set in Verona, alright? These two families live there and they have been fighting for, like, ages.

That prologue summarises major plot point all over the shop and it includes some pretty important spoilers too. Come on Shakespeare, keep it together.

Indeed, the summarising prologue is a particular baby of sci-fi and fantasy writers and has been for as long as wizards have worn dresses and laser guns have made that PEW PEW sound.

One of my favourite series of fantasy sci-fi books uses this technique as the series progresses, prefacing each book with the same stock summary explaining how the planet was trying to kill everything on it and what the deal was with all the dragons. (The Dragonriders of Pern series by Anne McCaffrey. Read them. They’re all kinds of fun and there are dragons.)

At this point I’m going to stop listing the many examples of when this technique has been used successfully because it’s starting to feel like I’m shooting myself in the foot here.

Ultimately, like all of the other techniques I’m advising you against, there isn’t really anything wrong with opening by way of a summary, especially if you’re partway through a series that has earned enough notoriety to justify the use of a quick and easy ‘previously on…’ but not enough that you can assume the reader already knows exactly what went on previously.

It’s those two words I just used that are the problem – quick and easy. Opening with a summary feels like another literary shortcut and it gives you a lot less chances to immediately show off the strength of your writing.

We meet Katniss Everdeen as she is sneaking out into the woods to hunt with Gale (it should have been him) and discussing the Hunger Games. This opening establishes the protagonist along with three other main characters, it creates intrigue about this society and the concept of the Hunger Games as well as giving the reader a basis of understanding about what is actually going on. There’s a little fluttering of romance, some suspense, archery, delicious bread and Gale (it totally should have been him).

Imagine if the novel had just opened with a quick and easy summary of the situation instead.

One thing this definitely would not have done is encourage the reader to invest in this reality. It also would not have established these characters and beyond that it would have taken away the intrigue of the scene when we finally did meet the main characters. It would not have been active and would have told, rather than shown. The bread wouldn’t be there to evoke the reality of hunger, the archery wouldn’t have been there to establish Katniss as a survivor or to show the reader that the kids of this reality are a little more (shall we say) resilient than you might expect and Gale wouldn’t even have been there (I cannot stress enough how much it should have been him).

Not to mention that this first line would have been lost:

When I wake up, the other side of the bed is cold.

That’s a good first line. It establishes a perspective, plants the idea of them not living in luxury and most of all evokes the feeling that there is someone missing who should be there. Ok it sort of breaks one of my 11 rules that I have yet to write a post about (can you guess what it is yet?) but you can’t have everything.

What if instead the first line had been something like:

In a place called Panem, a shining Capitol ringed by twelve districts, it is the 74th annual Hunger Games where two child tributes from each district are imprisoned in a vast outdoor arena and, over a period of several weeks, they fight to the death.

No. It’s just not as good.

A summary expects your reader to care about this information and be invested rather than working to make them care, grabbing them and pulling them right into the story and giving them characters to invest in.

In summary, a summary is not an impressive way to open your novel and you’re trying to impress the person you’re sending your work out to. So impress them.

And avoid anything about taxation of trade routes. No one wants to read about that.

Categories
Editorial Meet the DA team Submissions

Getting Into Publishing – Vicki Le Feuvre Agency Editor

Graduation day! 2 - Copy (2)

What do you do with a BA in English?
What is my life going to be?
Four years of college
And plenty of knowledge
Have earned me this useless degree.
Opening lines of Avenue Q

As I sat in the Noël Coward Theatre part way through my first year at Royal Holloway University of London listening to these words I felt a cold chill run over me. I hadn’t even opted for the full English degree. I’d gone half and half with Drama of all things.

“What have I been thinking?” I thought. “What on earth am I planning to do with two halves of two frankly useless degrees? What am I expecting someone to hire me for? Is there much calling for someone who can convincingly look like they’re sword fighting while simultaneously quoting the opening lines of every Jane Austen novel? Surely not.”

So I did what any sensible grown-up trying to ready themselves for the sensible world of grown-ups would do:

I took a summer job at a trust fund type serious grown-up place.

You can tell by the fact that I can’t even remember the official title for this place of employment that I was not a great fit for it.

Seven weeks I worked there. Monday to Friday. That’s 35 days. 9.00am ‘til 5.30pm with a consistently full lunch hour. That means I worked there for a total of 262 hours and 30 minutes. I counted.

It wasn’t that the people weren’t all lovely. It wasn’t that I didn’t earn some essential office experience. It was just a terrible, terrible fit for me. An awful terrible horrible awful terrible fit.

The good news is it galvanised me. I knew that I had to avoid that place otherwise known as The Finance Industry. (In my mind ominous chords accompany those last three words, possibly followed by a crash of thunder.)

One thing I did with this galvanisation was to go on a proofreading and copy-editing course. It took up four days of my time and it was invaluable experience. It didn’t hurt my CV either.

After this, however, the problem was that I come from Jersey in the Channel Islands, home of (ominous chords) The Finance Industry (thunder crash). My first summer after university I got a job in Jersey handing out leaflets. For me this was preferable to the previous summer’s job to the extent that walking around with a small stone in your shoe is preferable to jumping off the Empire State Building and landing on a bicycle with no seat. Yet it still wasn’t quite where I wanted to be.

I needed to get out if I wanted to use my useless degree. I needed to head to (drum roll) London (jubilant chords). The place where the musicals lived and, as it happened, the publishing industry.

So I did what any less than sensible grown-up trying to ready themselves for the less than sensible world of grown-ups would do:

I moved in with my cousin and her husband in Croydon to look after their two toddling kids for them while they moved into and pretty much rebuilt their new house.

It was great. I spent my days watching Disney films and catching up on the latest picture books. My lovely cousin’s lovely husband even got me some proofreading experience where he worked. Ok he worked in The Finance Industry and it was unpaid work experience but there it went on my CV telling potential employers that I really, really wanted to edit, pretty please with a cherry on top.

When the wind finally changed I moved to extort hospitality off another lovely family member, this time my lovely Auntie Cathy. I rocked up at her Buckinghamshire flat in late November and didn’t leave for just under a year.

Thus began the time of sitting around in my penguin pyjamas and sending endless CVs off to every corner of the publishing industry I could think of. This earned me a total of not two, not three but one interview for an actual job. Which did not exactly go well. It was for a foreign rights position and this happened:

Interviewer A: “So you can speak Spanish and Italian, was it?”
Interviewer B: “And French, I think was?”
Me: “Um… actually just French and not exactly… fluently.” (I cannot speak French.)
Interviewer A: “Who speaks Spanish, Italian and French fluently then?”
Interviewer B: “Oh wait, that’s the next person we’re seeing.”

Do you ever get that creeping sensation that things aren’t about to turn in your favour? Yes? That.

Still it’s all experience. And that’s the point I’m gradually working towards here. It’s all experience.

Over the course of that year my lovely Auntie Cathy helped me get some work doing something close to editing for the Salvation Army and I snapped it right up. Someone very helpful who worked in publishing got me in touch with someone who needed someone to input information onto excel from what was effectively a phone book for musicians. It was a tedious job but someone had to do it, I needed the money and most of all I wanted that helpful person in publishing to know they could count on me.

As I say, I sent out about a gazillion letters carefully crafted for each individual who might read them, politely asking if I could come and do their filing for free. Sadly, there was a recession on and the best thing I gained from this was a lot of experience writing covering letters and receiving rejection. But hey, it’s all important experience.

The contact that finally got me my ‘in’ was actually a lovely friend of the lovely cousin whose lovely daughter I had sometimes helped look after while in Croydon. She knew two equally lovely people in top literary agencies to whom she mentioned me and gave me their contact details. I sent them each my most carefully crafted covering letter and by the New Year I had two unpaid internships set up at two of London’s best literary agencies.

The experience I gained there was worth the world. Both agencies were so helpful and gave me such great opportunities to learn what makes this business go.

Yet, the most important thing I learned from these internships was this one important phrase:

“Oh not at all, please let me know anything else I can do to help.” Preferably accompanied by the widest, most enthusiastic grin you can muster.

Your two main goals at an internship are:

  1. to extract as much knowledge and experience as you possibly can.
  2. to make yourself as useful as you possibly can. Ideally make yourself so useful that the thought of you leaving fills them with dread. Failing that, make yourself useful enough that they might think of you in the future if a job comes up, any job.

My first bit of paid work in the publishing industry was working in the accounts section of David Higham Associates. Yep, I’d stumbled towards The Finance Industry side of things again but I was so close to where I wanted to be and I was still learning things and being useful.

So I was there when they needed someone to cover reception for a few weeks. They knew they could count on me when they needed someone to keep the foreign rights department running during the London Book Fair. I was around when someone wanted a second opinion on a submission and when they liked what I came back with they started to use me as a reader from time to time.

It was the same at the Darley Anderson Agency, the place where I found my home.

I was there when Camilla Wray needed a bit of feedback on some opening chapters. I had just finished a huge stack of photocopying and was about to get lunch when Madeleine Buston asked if I could take a look at the children’s submissions for that day. And they liked my feedback and I found some exciting talent and eventually they gave me the opportunity to try my hand at writing my very own reader’s report on a full novel.

Interning in publishing can be tough and I am so lucky that I was able to keep my head above water financially and rely on the hospitality of various lovely family members for long enough to be available when my potential employers needed me.

On top of this, moving from an internship in publishing into a job in publishing can often be about doing both jobs at once. If you’re there to do admin you have to keep getting the admin done while simultaneously taking every opportunity to show off your knack for talent-spotting or what you hope are your keen editorial skills.

It’s hard work and you have to be in the right place at the right time ready to work hard on the off chance that this might be the moment when things will turn in your favour. But when they do, if you’re ready, it’s all worth it.

I don’t think anyone can ever really be that good at a job they hate. They certainly won’t be a joy to be around anyway; as I’m sure I wasn’t at that trust company type serious grown-up place.

That’s my second favourite thing about publishing; I don’t know anyone who is here just because they were pressured into it or they didn’t know what else to do or they just needed the money. (Incidentally, if you are going into entry level publishing for the money you might want to reconsider.) Everyone is here because they want to be. Everyone in publishing is here because they were at the right place at the right time ready to work hard and hopefully show off their talent.

So if you’re sitting in a crowded theatre somewhere thinking that it sucks to be you and worrying that you don’t have the right degree or experience or contacts then stop. All you need to get started is to want it. After that all it takes is to go out there and do whatever it takes to get all that other stuff so that when your moment does come you’ll be ready.

Oh and read. Getting and keeping a job in this industry requires an awful lot of reading which, as it happens, is my first favourite thing about publishing.

Categories
Editorial Submissions

11 Ways Not To Start Your Novel – No. 4

With Onomatopoeia

EEEEEEEEEEEEEEEOOOW KER-SPLAT!

I’m really sorry to have to tell you but that is the sound of a literary agent’s expectations plummeting at the sight of onomatopoeia in the first few lines of your novel. Especially if it’s written in capitals, as they so often are.

This is not to say you cannot describe a character mumbling or have someone delight at the clip clopping of horses’ hooves if you so please. You can even say that the water came whooshing down the drain or dripping out the tap if the fancy takes you. In fact, please don’t hesitate to capture any particular sounds you want within your opening lines. The use of sound is a great way to conjure up an image or capture a particular sensation for a reader.

No, I’m talking about separating out onomatopoeia and using it instead of describing a particular sound.

Buzzers, bells and door knockers are the most frequent culprits.

For example:

Terry was just about to take a bite out of his lovingly crafted BLT when the telephone suddenly burst into life.

BERING BERING! BERING BERING!

Or even:

BONG. BONG. BOOONG.

“Oh that clock,” moaned Cinderella, “yes, I hear you. ‘Get up,’ you say, ‘time to start another day.’ Even he orders me around.”

It’s not uncommon for a Bang! to interrupt the narrative flow of an opening page either. Sometimes it’ll be something more peculiar like the noise of an exceptionally tired person finally sitting down on their familiarly sagging couch at the end of a long day – flump, sigh. Come to think of it SPLASH and Tick-Tock-Tick-Tock are other uncommonly common ones too and I’ve even read a couple of novels that start in a way reminiscent of Private Baldric’s poem, The German Guns.

It’s a different story if you’re writing a picture book, of course. This use of onomatopoeia is all types of fun in a picture book. But if your novel is aimed at an even slightly older readership I would recommend avoiding any BUZZZZZs , RING RINGs  or KERPOWs in the opening.

Why? Well it’s a bit like taking a shortcut in a marathon and still hoping for kudos. It wouldn’t show off your marathon-running skills at all. Your time would be irrelevant, whether you could give Mo Farah a run for his money or not.

Use your opening lines to show off your ability to capture a moment or communicate a certain sensation. Don’t let your chosen literary agent get the impression that you might not be a skilled enough writer to adequately describe a sound or that you are prone to taking the easy way out.

No shortcuts. Show them you’re in it for the long haul.

NEH-NEH NEHH-NEH, NEH-NEH NNEH-NEH, NEH-NEH NNEH NNEH NNNEH.

Oh sorry that’s my old Nokia 3310 ringing, I’d better take that.

Categories
Editorial Submissions

11 Ways Not To Start Your Novel – No. 3

With a Description of the Moon

Quick! Pick a card, any card.

Now think of a number between 1 and 10.

Next think of a colour.

And a vegetable.

Got them all?

OK?

Carrot, red, 7 and either the Ace of Spades or the Queen of Hearts, failing that something with a 3 or a 7 in it (almost definitely not the Nine of Clubs).

If any or all of your answers match these then you have just fallen prey to cognitive bias. It’s a funny little quirk of human nature that has long been taken advantage of by street magicians. Our brains collectively tend to follow similar pathways and for some reason these are the answers that those pathways most often lead us to. I’m not sure why this is but Derren Brown would probably know.

Not everyone will come up with these answers but if you ask enough people you will start to see a definite trend.

Incidentally, I have noticed a similarly hard to explain and seemingly random trend in how new writers choose to start their novels. I can’t explain this one either (maybe even Derren would fail to) but after some time of reading the opening lines of submissions I found myself thinking, “wow, people really like the moon, don’t they?”

And they do.

Once I had noticed this particular submission phenomenon the moon suddenly seemed to be everywhere I looked in opening paragraphs and spooky prologues. It makes a certain amount of sense, granted. Mentioning the moon in your opening line immediately lets your reader know that it is night-time, which is useful. I suppose it also creates a certain gothic atmosphere or maybe suggests that something clandestine might be happening but overall I can’t quite fathom why it pops up so very often as an opening image.

But it does.

It’s not even as if new writers are emanating a popular narrative technique in this case, not as far as I can tell. I personally couldn’t think of any examples of this one from well-known novels. Can you think of one? There must be at least one published novel that begins by describing the moon.

Because there are definitely a lot of unpublished novels that start that way.

There’s nothing wrong with it at all, just as there is nothing amiss if you immediately visualised 7 red carrots sitting on the Ace of Spades. It’s just not original. Oddly.

So, in the interest of standing out from the crowd avoid describing the moon in your opening line. And maybe next time go with aubergine.

By Vicki Le Feuvre

Categories
Editorial Submissions

11 Ways Not To Start Your Novel – No. 2

With Your Protagonist Looking Into a Mirror

The other day as I stared at my reflection in the bathroom mirror of my north London flat I recalled that my hair is fine and dyed a darker brunette then it would naturally grow to match my darker than average brown eyes. The shadows under my eyes were also darker than they should be but I reminded myself that they were probably there because of all the reading I do for my job as an editor at a literary agency. The image looking back at me was quite pale now that the spray tan had worn off from my sister’s wedding but for the most part I looked just how a female human of twenty five years should look on her way to play laser tag.

And I thought to myself, “Vicki,” because that is my name, “Vicki,” I thought, “this is a transparent narrative technique to communicate basic character information to your readers and you really aren’t fooling anyone.”

OK, so the having-your-protagonist-look-into-a-mirror trick is not the worst literary device ever used. I mean most authors have used it to some extent at some point.

If I’m not mistaken J K Rowling has Harry look into a mirror at the beginning of Goblet of Fire. Oh for those heady days when saying the words ‘Harry’ and ‘Potter’ still did not immediately drum up a clear image of the glasses, the hair and the lightning bolt scar.

To use a more recent example, a certain sadomasochism bestseller starts thusly:

“I scowl with frustration at myself in the mirror. Damn my hair – it just won’t behave, and damn Katherine Kavanagh for being ill and subjecting me to this ordeal. I should be studying for my final exams, which are next week, yet here I am trying to brush my hair into submission.”

Again, there’s nothing wrong with this. I suppose. I mean, personally, it doesn’t make me immediately want to spend any more time with this character but there’s a lot of information crammed in there, fair dos.

However, Wikipedia tells me that 70 million people have bought this particular book and assuming that most of them got past the first paragraph we can safely assume that a lot of people are now familiar with this narrative technique if they weren’t already.

Beyond this, one demographic that I can say for certain will be familiar with the mirror technique would be literary agents. I would estimate that I come across some version of this technique at least twice a day when reading submissions. Although, I think my record is reading eight submissions in a row that had a mirror scene somewhere in the first chapter.

It might be a useful way to communicate information but it is not the way to go if you want to wow an agent. It’s just too familiar.

So, if you have started your novel with this technique my advice would be to take a long, hard look at yourself in the mirror and think of another opening line to really show off your individual writing style.

While you’re at it consider how weird it feels to take a long, hard look at yourself in the mirror. How often do we actually do that in real life? And how weird are eyebrows when you really take the time to look at them?

By Vicki Le Feuvre

Categories
Editorial Submissions

11 Ways Not To Start Your Novel – No. 1

Oh hi! How have you been? Crikey, what sort of weather have we been having? And the traffic on the way here? Absolute nightmare. Especially with these petrol prices, don’t even get me started. Still, that’s a lovely cardigan you’re wearing. Did you happen to catch the game last night?

There’s nothing wrong with small talk, is there? It fills the silences, it gets us acquainted with what everyone else does for a living and it would be a horrible thing if all our lovely cardigans were to go uncomplimented. But at the same time it’s hard to be really dazzled by small talk, isn’t it?

Because small talk isn’t meant to be exceptional. It’s meant to be safe.

However, the opening to your novel is not like the beginning of a conversation. If you are trying to grab a reader’s attention you don’t want to ease them in with something familiar, especially if this reader is a literary agent who probably spends much of their time reading familiar opening lines.

You want your opening line to stand out, to be exceptional (for the right reasons, of course). You want your opening line to dazzle your reader, to make them sit up and think, ‘this one’s interesting.’ You want to do something really special with it. The first page of your first novel is, after all, probably the most important one you’ll ever write.

The funny thing is there is definitely an equivalent to small talk when it comes to opening lines in novels. As someone who reads an awful lot of unedited opening lines it often surprises me that when given the opportunity to say anything we want so many of us say the same sort of thing.

Maybe it’s something in the zeitgeist, maybe it’s something in the water. I have no tested theories myself.

But I can give you the inside scoop, if you’d like? Just a few little pointers of what to avoid if you really want to impress your chosen agent with your stunning individuality?

Between me and you here are 11 Ways Not To Start Your Novel.

No. 1 – By Talking About the Weather (incidentally)

Rain, drizzle, hail, snow, fog, wind, sunshine, scorching sunshine, general mugginess, grey skies, blues skies, dark stormy skies, a thick cloud covering, a spattering of fluffy white clouds, a strange formation of tufty clouds, not a cloud in the sky; I’m pretty sure I’ve read about every weather condition there is in the first line of a novel by now. It has been a long time since I have gone, ‘oh that’s a new one,’ anyway.

I suppose it makes sense as one of the most famous opening lines in the English language does go right in talking about the weather:

It was a dark and stormy night…

My good friend Wikipedia tells me that we have Edward Bulwer-Lytton to blame for this and old Wiki is really quite nasty about this innocent piece of purple prose. I don’t think it’s all that bad myself but maybe that’s because it makes me think of a little rhyme my Auntie Cathy used to say to me when I was exceptionally small which ended with someone falling in a toilet. The nice memory may be making me biased but I always assumed that whoever had created it had their tongue at least edging into their cheek.

Even so, if I’m entirely honest I have to admit that one of my favourite opening lines ever concerns the weather:

There was no possibility of taking a walk that day.

In fairness to Charlotte Bronte, the weather really is firmly in the subtext here and there is a lot more going on about disappointed hopes and creating a general feeling of confinement and things being out of your control. Oh Charlotte, I loved the beginning of Jane Eyre. Why did you have to go and ruin it all by trying to make me like Mr Rochester? He locked his wife in the attic! I mean come on.

If you are doing something exceptionally clever like Charlotte was and you don’t actually mention the weather you might get away with it. But, at this juncture in English literature I would still recommend avoiding any mention of the weather in your opening line, whatever the particular conditions may be. Neither is your opening line the time to have a little fun at the expense of literary conventions so no describing the weather ironically either.

Just like using a discussion of the weather as an icebreaker there’s nothing strictly wrong with choosing to do this. But I can assure you that literary agents will all be so familiar with opening lines that describe the weather that no matter how cleverly or ironically or even beautifully you conjure up the image of a pastoral field fresh from a recent spattering of rain with delicate wisps of a new fog drifting across it and burying the short green blades under its misty embrace your first sentence could well elicit a tired sigh or a barely stifled groan or, if it’s just one of those days, a cry of, ‘why always the bloody weather?’

Have you ever had to spend a lot of time meeting new people soon after a particularly notable spot of weather has happened? Then you understand a literary agent’s pain.
Don’t start by describing the weather. Don’t let your innocent opening line elicit that sigh, groan or angry diatribe. Do something that draws gasps, approving nods or the thing any writer is ultimately aiming for – rapt silence.

Now I better dash, it looks like it’s going to start snowing again and I’m wearing foolishly unsuitable shoes. Call this spring do you? Tsk.

By Vicki Le Feuvre

Categories
Covering letters Submissions

Our Top Ten Tips for Writing a Tip Top Covering Letter

No.10: Be helpful

The thing that I feel compelled to start off by moaning about today isn’t directly linked to covering letters but it is very close to them, too often it is pressed right up against them. I’m talking about my personal nemesis. These are the bane of my working life. A scourge on a literary agent’s very existence known as:

The plastic folder.

You know those thin envelopes of translucent plastic? Most of the time they have a strip attached with holes in it so that they can fit into ring binders but not always. Having looked them up on Wikipedia I found out that they are also known as plastic wallets and plastic pockets. Even deciding what to call them is an irritating process.

Plastic folders.

They seem entirely harmless, helpful even. I know that anyone who has ever included them in their submission has only done so in the interest of making the reading process as painless as possible for us. What bad could possibly come from a little strip of thin plastic, right? But don’t get taken in by the plastic folder propaganda, my friend.

It is when they are introduced to the carefully balanced ecosystem of a submission pile that they turn nasty.

Plastic folders ruin the integrity of any submission pile. They play tricks on them, slipping out from underneath, slowly sliding to the right so that the tower of stories leans nearer and nearer to oblivion, even lying in wait within a small pile to skid out from between the fingers of an unsuspecting agency editor.

They are clever. They are organised. They must be stopped.

And so we seamlessly segue into the final piece of advice I have to impart about how to write your covering letter. If you take nothing else away from these top ten tips (although I hope you do take a few other titbits with you) let it be this:

Be helpful.

As much as you can, be as helpful as you can, in any way that you can.

Make the basic information about your submission immediately available to anyone even glancing at your covering letter. Have your name and the title, genre and target audience of your novel right up there at the top either in your very first paragraph or right underneath your elevator pitch (if you have decided to take my advice on that front).

Something like this would be great:

Dear Vicki,

My name is Hugh Jass and I am submitting a fantasy novel aimed at the young adult market entitled THE UNFORTUNATE NAMES PARENTS GIVE THEIR CHILDREN.

For one thing, an agent could pick that covering letter up and immediately recognise that it is a submission. This may sound like a very simple distinction but when you are dealing with hundreds of submissions at a time a large portion of your week can end up being spent just on working out whether a letter or an email is a submission or not.

Another deceptively simple piece of advice that I can offer to make your covering letters as helpful as possible would be to make it easy to read.

Handwritten letters do bring a certain personal touch, granted, but the other thing they often bring to the table is being at best a challenge to decipher, at worst completely illegible.

Similarly, using a tiny and/or confusing font won’t help your would-be agent. Neither will overly bright coloured paper/backgrounds, using a font colour that is difficult to see or any formatting in an email that might go wrong (such as pictures that jump in front of the text or gif logos that have a tendency to stop the email from opening successfully).

While we’re on the subject of formatting, consider how the layout of your covering letter can help the whole reading process run smoothly. Simply using the traditional structure of a letter (whether you are sending your submission by post or email) is a world of helpful.

Name, address, phone number and email address up in the right-hand corner, everything else neatly spaced along the left-hand side of the page beneath a ‘Dear So-and-so’ and above a nice sign off ending with your name written out in full once more for posterity. Beautiful.

Including that inverted section in the right-hand corner with your contact details is particularly helpful too. Your contact details are the thing you want your chosen agent to be looking for in a heady haze of excitement – make sure they can find them immediately.

Ideally, you want to make it as easy as possible for an agent to get in touch with you, giving them as many options of how they can contact you as possible. Just in case.

Of course, in the body of the letter you can put your paragraphs in any order you think is best. Still, try as much as possible to make each point naturally move into the next, if only to show off your writing skills. Particularly avoid jumping about thematically between personal information and talking about your book only because this can be confusing and does not present the best impression of your writing abilities.

Last of all, keep it compact. If you do have to go over to the second page it is not the end of the world but a covering letter that stays under one page always looks better (especially in postal submissions) and is generally about the right length in most situations. Besides this, it is helpful too if your covering letter gets to the point quickly and doesn’t bury important information. Not to mention that keeping your covering letter compact and focused (all together now) shows off your writing skills.

And showing off your talent as a writer is what your whole submission is really all about.

Well, there we have it then.

In the interest of being helpful, here’s a summary of Our Top Ten Tips for Writing a Tip Top Covering Letter –

1. Don’t self-deprecate – be positive and endlessly enthusiastic about your work

2. Include one or two concise paragraphs about yourself, leading with any writing-specific information and letting them know how fantastic you are in general

3. Open with an elevator pitch of your story to grab the agent’s attention. Make your work the focus of your covering letter

4. Address your covering letter to your hand-picked agent personally

5. Avoid email addresses and formatting choices that make it look like you aren’t really taking this all that seriously

6. Avoid covering letter clichés like the plague

7. Proofread until the letters start jumping around the page taking turns to dance with each other

8. Save discussing your pseudonym ideas and marketing vision for another day

9. Only include reader feedback if it is positive and comes from a source that the agent can assign weight to

10. Do everything you can to make reading your covering letter a smooth ride for your chosen agent

Do all this and your covering letter should act as the perfect virtual handshake to your future agent.

Oh and just for me, please don’t send your covering letter inside a plastic folder if you can possibly avoid it. The plastic folders are not on your side. But we are.

By Vicki Le Feuvre

Categories
Covering letters Submissions

Our Top Ten Tips for Writing a Tip Top Covering Letter

No.9: Never judge a book by its Amazon review

Whenever I want to know anything about anything I look it up on Wikipedia.

I love Wikipedia. I could spend hours on there clicking from page to page.

Incidentally, if you ever do happen to be surfing through any of the pages dedicated to Roald Dahl’s books: you’re welcome. A lot of that stuff is put on there by me. You know I mentioned that time when I was looking for a job in publishing? Well let’s just say that updating my CV and writing perfectly crafted covering letters to prospective employers proved insufficient to fill every hour of my day.

Anyway, that aside, Wikipedia is definitely one of my favourite things.

Indeed, whenever I was researching anything for an essay or a similar sort of project my standard practise would be to firstly Wikipedia it then to take that initial notion of understanding to the library. At the library I would search through the tome-like dusty books for what my teachers/lecturers termed ‘actual proof’.

Sometimes Wiki let me down. Sometimes what my beloved Wikipedia had told me turned out to be complete doohicky. Sometimes it came through. But it was always my first stop. And still is.

The thing is, as much as I adore Wikipedia, I take everything it tells me with a pinch of salt. It’s just not 100% reliable. Often it’s not even 2% reliable.

The information could have been put there by a learned professor or a 14 year old prankster pretending to do his homework. The person telling you the plot to Matilda may only ever have seen the film or, on the other hand, they might be someone who has read Matilda at least a hundred times and even visited the Roald Dahl museum recently because she’s between jobs at the moment and has a lot of extra time on her hands.

It’s the same with a lot of the covering letters we receive and the readers’ reviews people choose to include in them.

A vast amount of new writers use up a lot of space in their covering letter outlining the feedback they have received from readers. So much so that at this point in my career I suspect I have read every variation of these phrases that there can possibly be:

‘My friends and/or family love my book/s…’

‘I’ve showed it to several people and they’ve all asked to see more…’

‘My children/grandchildren always demand to hear the next chapter at bedtime…’

‘I read it to my class and there was such a positive response…’

‘People say this is exactly the sort of thing they wish was available on the market…’

‘My writing group/people online have been really supportive…’

These are all lovely things and if anyone you know has been this positive about your work you should totally take it as the compliment it was intended to be. Nothing I am going to say on this subject should detract one iota from that.

However, the person you are writing to doesn’t know these people. They cannot judge the weight that they should assign to their feedback. Just like on Wikipedia they don’t know who has provided these opinions.

Therefore, these opinions can’t really inform their opinion of your work.

Some of the people whose opinions literary agents can assign weight to include: already published authors who have done well and/or gained notoriety, publishers, editors, other literary agents, literary critics and creative writing professors (particularly those who are known in the industry).

If any of these people have specifically agreed to support your work or have provided an impressive review of your writing definitely include this in your covering letter, the more glowing their praise the better.

Be sure to keep your rendition of their feedback nice and compact. If one of these people has given you an in-depth critique of every aspect of your narrative I would recommend simply pulling out a representative quote from them and mentioning that they have provided feedback which you have worked on.

Something like ‘Sir Salman Rushdie described my work as ‘literature at its best’ and has been immensely helpful with his feedback throughout the redrafting process’ would be mind-meltingly ideal (provided it is true, of course).

As ever, avoid including anything negative even if it is constructive. Agents do value honesty, of course, but presuming that any criticism you have received has been worked on accordingly there isn’t really any need to divulge. Omitting the heckles whilst singling out the applause is absolutely acceptable in this case.

All of that said, I would urge you not to worry if you don’t have any complimentary quotes or flattering feedback from people of note in the book world just yet. Many people who approach us have never shown their work to anyone before they send it to us; others just don’t have the contacts at their disposal. None of this works to your detriment.

If you do find yourself without anyone of note to vouch for your work at this early point in your career just let your work speak for you. Make your writing and your story the focus of your covering letter and in the interest of keeping things positive don’t even worry about mentioning whether anyone has read it yet or not. The agent is reading it – that’s what is important.

Positive reviews are a bonus to your covering letter, not a prerequisite.

By Vicki Le Feuvre

Categories
Dictionary Corner

New Adult – Dictionary Corner – Publishing Terms Translated

Have you ever spoken to someone in publishing or browsed the submission portion of an agency’s website and wondered what on earth we’re all talking about?

Well, wonder no more. Here in Dictionary Corner we will strive to shed some light on the technical jargon and industry lingos that often confuse new writers.

New Adult

It’s the readership category that has taken the publishing world by storm recently.

Which is odd, because the term has been around for at least three years. The earliest use of the term that we can find was in 2009 when St Martin’s Press launched a competition looking for fiction that was ‘kind of an older YA or “new adult.”’

And that basically sums up what ‘new adult’ is: fiction for older young adults. Specifically it’s fiction aimed at 14-35 year olds (quite a wide spectrum you might think).

It will have storylines that will be enjoyed by older teenagers, twenty-somethings and the people newly into their thirties alike but which might include themes that would not be appropriate for the tweenagers and younger.

They will largely be coming-of-age stories and will cover the difficult in-between years that have yet to really find their place in the market.

Often the protagonist will begin as a teenager and will grow up over the course of the plot, encountering events that will be of interest to all people across this age bracket but which might be less riveting to your average reader fast approaching or fondly remembering their 40th birthday. Accordingly, books set during the university years appear to be at the epicentre of this new genre.

It seems to be generally agreed that novels which can be called ‘new adult’ will include scenes of a sexual nature. They may also have themes of violence and the characters are allowed to swear as much as they want.

There has been much debate on the issue already. You should check out the articles and discussions online for more information because it is quite interesting how this is dividing opinions.

As far as we can tell ‘new adult’ fiction is basically akin to a movie rated 15 rather than PG-12. When publishers call something ‘new adult’ they will basically be saying: people in their late teens will love it, young professionals will love it, but maybe keep it away from the under 14s until they’re a little older.

By Vicki Le Feuvre

Categories
Covering letters Editorial Submissions

Our Top Ten Tips for Writing a Tip Top Covering Letter

No.8: My name is Bob, but you can call me B S Goodwriter

Did anyone else notice that lots of people’s names changed, at least for a little while, once they left school?

After our last long summer together a selection of my friends and I flitted off to the lure of university placements. It was when we all returned at Christmas that I started to notice the effect that the change of scenery had had on some of my friends’ previously stalwart forenames. Ellen, who had always been Ellen as far as I was aware, was suddenly Elle. Annabel was Bella. Sophia had distorted into a Sophie overnight.

If I’m totally honest I had quietly considered a name change myself.

It felt like a rare chance to reinvent the old, tired Vicki format that I’d been using for years. I even had a name in mind. I was going to go with Tora, a nickname given to me in early childhood owing to the fact that my elder sibling had trouble pronouncing the challenging V sound.

But I chickened out at the last minute.

Remembering all these new names was quite enough to think about without having to remember to call myself something different as well. The cringe-factor of the whole business got to me too. To introduce myself with a different name felt like a lie. I wanted to explain, to let my potential new friend know that I wasn’t duping them, but I could not find a way of saying ‘I’m Vicki but I’d actually quite like you to call me Tora instead,’ without sounding at least a little bit unhinged.

So Tora wasn’t to be. Vicki’s fine though. I’m used to Vicki. It fits. And anyway, almost all of the Ellens, Annabels and Sophias reverted back to what worked eventually so I suspect that Tora never would have lasted either.

Perhaps not surprisingly, I often detect this same effect in covering letters. It seems that people have a similar instinct to tweak their own names when they become authors as they do when trying to reinvent themselves at university.

Of course, this must be largely influenced by the fact that so many authors use pseudonyms (Erica Leonard being a particularly topical example of this) or employ their initials rather than their forenames (as Joanne Rowling was advised to do to make sure boys were not discouraged from reading her books. I think it worked okay, a fair few boys read Joanne’s stories eventually as I understand it).

The thing is, as with making your first introduction during freshers’ week, in a covering letter your time is precious. And I would strongly recommend not wasting that precious time discussing something like pseudonyms.

Besides using up valuable space on your (hopefully no longer than a page) covering letter this is also one of those approaches which tends to say the wrong thing about you. Just as my instincts towards explaining my personally assigned nickname would have done, all it achieves is to tell the person you are approaching that you have spent time self-consciously dissecting your own name. The image you want to feed agents is of you diligently applying your creative genius to your writing, rather than to your name.

On top of this, in suggesting a pseudonym for yourself you are somewhat jumping the gun, in the nicest sense. Discussing potential pseudonyms with new writers is something that any agent worth their salt will do before sending their work out to publishers. After that the publisher may even wish to stick their oar in. Pseudonyms, at the heart of it, are a bit like nicknames; it’s a bit embarrassing to try to choose your own.

We’ve all met that sort of person at some point, haven’t we? The stringy teenager who awkwardly insists that his friends call him ‘Playa’, no really, because he has totally gone out with loads of girls, honest. The middle-aged business man who, before regaling you with tales of how many people tell him he should be a stand-up comedian, demands that you call him ‘The Gavinister’ because (apparently) ‘everybody does’.

Sadly, it gives a similar sort of impression if you immediately suggest pen names for yourself.

I often hear the same vein of complaint being made about covering letters that include detailed descriptions of how the writer envisages marketing their work. This, again, is getting a bit ahead of the game.

It can produce the same effect as the ‘it would make a great film/tv series’ cliché, I’m afraid.

It is great to briefly mention that you are excited to market your work and to tell us if you are good at public speaking or have the charisma and rugged charm of, say, George Clooney. These are helpful things to mention. It is also brilliant to let agents know that you have thought about your reader and where your book will fit on the shelves/bestseller charts.

However, if your book has potential for blockbuster success a good agent will see this from your synopsis. If you have professional respect for the agents you are submitting to you can rest assured that they will have a detailed understanding of the book market and will be instantly aware of the marketability of your work, or they wouldn’t be trusted with reading submissions in the first place. And if you are unfortunate enough to have a name like Eugene Bogdrifter any agent you acquire will almost certainly discuss pseudonyms with you in due course.

Use your precious time to tell them something they don’t know. Like your amazing idea for a bestselling novel which you have brought to life through your fantastic gifts with the written word.

There’ll be time enough for nicknames and readership demographics later. Believe me.

By Vicki Le Feuvre

Categories
Covering letters Editorial Submissions

Our Top Ten Tips for Writing a Tip Top Covering Letter

No.7: Pobody’s Nerfect

I’m just going to come out and say it.

I am not a fan of grammar bullies.

In my opinion, picking on someone for a brief grammatical slip or a badly placed apostrophe is not big and it certainly isn’t clever. It particularly gets my goat when anyone is publicly pulled up on their spoken grammar. If you are correcting someone’s spoken grammar outside of the classroom then you are only revealing your own basic misunderstanding of the nature of language itself, namely that it evolves and most of that evolution occurs orally.

Leave the ‘would of’ers alone. They’re not hurting anyone and everyone knows what they mean. We wouldn’t have ‘don’t’ or ‘can’t’ or ‘you’re’ or indeed ‘wouldn’t’ if it weren’t for trailblazers like the ‘would of’s. Just because whoever makes The Rules has decided to draw the line there for now doesn’t mean that what you are saying is ultimately more intelligent because you scrupulously over-pronounce all your ‘h’s to the extent that even Henry Higgins would be satisfied with your pronunciation of his own name.

Indeed, one of my favourite extracurricular activities is to catch out these sorts of people who are forever hooting ‘whom’ at their friends and family by hiding intentional exceptions to The Rules in my conversation. For me there is nothing quite so satisfying as getting the chance to explain The Rules to someone who is trying to show off their own superior grasp of them to someone else’s detriment.

“On the contrary, my learned friend,” it is an endless joy to parry back at such people, “I think you’ll find that in the sentence ‘Clare asked Mary and me to go to Hay Literary Festival with her’ that ‘Mary and me’ are the object, not the subject, of the sentence. If you find it difficult to remember simply try to remove Mary from the sentence and see if it works or not. Don’t worry, sometimes even I get confused.”

Herein ends my rant.

I just want you to know that I am not, never have been and never will be, a grammar bully. (I may indeed be a grammar bully bully but that is quite another thing entirely.)

However, these creatures are not without their uses. In fact, I might recommend that you even enlist the services of your friendliest neighbourhood grammar bully when you write your covering letter.

If, on the other hand, you are one yourself I hope I have not offended you. I am told that grammar bullies can be perfectly acceptable human beings in all other aspects of their lives. Indeed, some of my closest friends are grammar bullies, and I’m sure you’re one of the lovelier grammar ‘instructors’ of this world. Now here at last is your chance to use your powers for good.

The fact is, little niggling mistakes in a covering letter stand out and they don’t create the best impression.

More to the point, there is an increased probability that your covering letter will be read by someone with at least a vague inclination towards the grammar bully end of the spectrum. In my experience a larger percentage of publishing types have leanings of this persuasion. That is not to say that they aren’t also all perfectly lovely people but you can be sure that they almost all understand The Rules thoroughly and will probably be used to keeping an eagle eye out for mistakes on a daily basis.

These are the people who you want to impress.

So proofread. Proofread until you begin to lose sight of what this letter you’re writing is even for. Look up the word ‘particularly’ so many times that it loses all meaning and goes a bit weird. Check every ‘your’ and ‘you’re’, don’t let a single ‘too’ sneak past you masquerading as a ‘to’ and make sure that there are only ‘would have’s to be seen.

And then proofread some more. Get your friends and family in on it. Everyone likes to be helpful and we all secretly enjoy the chance to point out someone else’s mistakes, don’t we? If we’re all entirely honest? That’s where grammar bullies come from, after all.

Send out a covering letter that you are confident is not going to show you up. Do not give the grammar bullies a chance to get one over on you. Together we can defeat them with our impeccably placed commas and our appropriate use of the semicolon.

Don’t let the grammar bullies grind you down. Proofread instead.

Oh and one extra, very important thing I have to add. Take particular care to ensure that you spell the agent’s name and the title of the agency you are submitting to correctly. Nothing says, “I have not put much thought into this,” like a covering letter addressed to Mrs Darley at the Darling Anderson Agency.

By the way, it’s Vicki with a ‘ck’ and an ‘i’. I wouldn’t dream of pulling anyone up on it but just so you know. Vicki. Vicki Le Feuvre. Much appreciated.

p.s. to any grammar bullies reading this please be aware that any and all mistakes you may find in this blog post are entirely intentional and were only put there to annoy you personally. Go on, resist the urge to point them out to me. I dare you.

By Vicki Le Feuvre

Categories
Covering letters Editorial Submissions

Our Top Ten Tips for Writing a Tip Top Covering Letter

No. 6: There are plenty more clichés in the sea

Clichés exist for a reason. Because they generally work. They usually make a good point and/or have been borrowed from Shakespeare. And they don’t really do anyone that much harm.

But you should do all you can to keep them out of your covering letter and here’s a slightly convoluted story to explain why:

One September when I was still at school my drama teacher returned after a long and arduous summer to dispense some irreplaceable advice. This teacher was one of those brilliantly sparky people who never seem to run out of energy but she greeted us that morning with an uncharacteristically deflated air.

It turned out that while we had been lazing about in the sun our lovely, sparky teacher had volunteered to spend her summer marking the nation’s exam papers. From what I know of this job it is not particularly exciting, rewarding or well-paid work. Accordingly, I imagine that after the fifth hundred child has illegibly trawled out a panicked list all of the instances of light and dark imagery that they can remember from watching Baz Luhrmann’s Romeo and Juliet an examiner’s sanity must start to wear thin.

‘Please, girls,’ our drama teacher begged as she slumped on the hall floor before us, ‘think of the people who have to read your exam papers.’

The funny thing is I’d never thought of them before, except maybe as a Machiavellian figure lurking in the shadows somewhere. Or even some form of test marking automated machine, the Gradetron 3000 perhaps.

From then on, if I had any spare seconds at my disposal, I used to round off all of my exam papers with a cheery note of thanks and on one occasion an apology. This was totally self-serving and stomach-turningly sycophantic in its way but I hope it helped at least a little bit to break up the monotony of a long day of marking. I did, of course, also strive to make my essays themselves more of a delight to read.

It strikes me that this sort of thinking could well be applied to many facets of our lives. It would be good to remember that our letters of complaint will likely be read by someone unconnected with the initial affront who probably spends a large portion of their day reading hurtful things and being shouted at on the telephone. The CV that you send out will likely not be the only CV the person hiring will look at that day and by the time they get to yours they might be feeling a little under the weather or slightly fed up or it might almost be lunchtime and they forgot to eat a proper breakfast that morning.

The same goes for your covering letter to literary agents.

It is a vast understatement to say that readers at literary agencies, like myself, read a lot of submissions. Furthermore, it is somewhat stating the obvious to assure you that they will all be real life human beings (until we work out the design quirks in the Readatron 3000 that is).

So, be kind to them.

Your covering letter may well be the tenth or twentieth or hundredth covering letter that your chosen agent has read that day. Their eyes might be getting tired, maybe their reading light is on the fritz, it might simply be one of those days that feels like a Thursday but is actually, depressingly, only a Monday. You know how it is.

Make sure that your covering letter is a breath of fresh air.

The best way of doing this is to avoid the covering letter clichés.

But how can you possibly know what these are? You don’t read covering letters all the live long day. How on earth are you to know which perfectly innocent statements are so ingrained in the zeitgeist that literary agents find themselves reading them at least twenty times a day?

Well luckily you are reading this blog and this blog happens to have a helpful list of the top five covering letter clichés to avoid. Which are, in no particular order:

  1. ‘My friends are always telling me that I should write a book’
  2. ‘Ever since I was a little girl/boy I have always wanted to be a writer’
  3. ‘This would make a great film/television series’
  4. ‘I hope you enjoy reading this as much as I enjoyed writing it’
  5. ‘You probably won’t read it anyway’

Don’t worry if you have already sent out covering letters in the past with any of the statements 1 through to 4 on them. If you have you are certainly not alone and this won’t have worked to your detriment. It is rather that not including them will definitely make your letter feel fresher.

In the interest of keeping your covering letters positive, however, I implore you to avoid statement number 5 at all costs. As I have said readers read a lot of submissions. And a lot of submissions hint at the suspicion that no one is reading them. Ignoring the irony of this, from the point of view of the real human being reading these covering letters it is very disheartening to keep being accused of not reading them.

We understand where this suspicion comes from but it is unwise to waste precious space on your covering letter voicing it. Logically speaking, if you are right then no one will read it anyway but if you are wrong someone will. No good can come of it either way.

I cannot speak for other literary agencies but I can speak for us here at the Darley Anderson Agency when I say that if you submit your work to us we will read it. It wouldn’t make sense if we didn’t. How would we find exciting new writers otherwise?

So, to paraphrase my drama teacher of times gone by: ‘Please, prospective authors, think of the people reading your covering letters’.

Make them exciting, make them sparky, avoid clichés and don’t imply that no one is reading them or you might hurt Readatron’s feelings.

By Vicki Le Feuvre

Categories
Dictionary Corner Editorial Submissions

Literary Agency – Dictionary Corner – Publishing Terms Translated

Have you ever spoken to someone in publishing or browsed the submission portion of an agency’s website and wondered what on earth we’re all talking about?

Well, wonder no more. Here in Dictionary Corner we will strive to shed some light on the technical jargon and industry lingos that often confuse new writers.

Literary Agency – We often receive calls from prospective authors asking what a literary agent actually does.

Well, to put it as simply as possible, we sell our authors’ work to publishers.

A literary agent basically acts like an actor’s agent or an estate agent but for authors instead of actors or reasonably priced two bedroom apartments, fully furnished within walking distance of the number 42 bus and other local amenities.

More specifically, here is what being a Literary Agency means to us at the Darley Anderson Agency:

The first step in our process is talent-spotting. That’s where you come in. We actively search out the most exciting new talents around by reading hundreds of submissions on a weekly basis, attending writing events and by doing things like creating this blog to help fledgling writers to find their feet (and to find us).

If we sign you to the agency we may well offer editorial support first of all to make sure that your work is at its very best before we take it to the publishers.

Then comes the deal-making. Our agents have expert knowledge of the publishing industry (which as you can tell from the sheer size of the Writers’ and Artists’ Yearbook is very large and potentially confusing from an outsider’s perspective). They will know exactly who to approach on your behalf and, as skilled negotiators, they will always get the best deal for you and your writing.

On top of that we will handle the foreign rights of your work. This means that we will take your writing to publishers all over the world. Our foreign rights team works tirelessly in foreign markets to fill our authors’ bookshelves with editions of their work in every known language (keep an eye on Dictionary Corner for more on this at a later date).

In addition to all of that we provide advice and author care which can be essential to an author’s long-term career. We can act as a sounding board for new ideas, support you at publishing events and basically fight your corner in any disputes or issues that you face as a writer. To summarise, we’ll have your back.

Are there any terms we use that befuddle you? Please do let us know by leaving a comment or emailing assistant@darleyanderson.com and we’ll respond with our own personal definition just for you.

By Vicki Le Feuvre

Categories
Covering letters Editorial Submissions

Our Top Ten Tips for Writing a Tip Top Covering Letter

No.5: takemeseriously@sillybilly.co.uk

Today I would like to share a story about something that happened to one of my closest friends. We’ll call her Ellen, because that is her name.

When Ellen was a fresh-faced 14-year-old she decided it was about time she got herself a personal email account. But what to pick for her address? After much careful consideration, she settled on the timeless statement ‘Ellen Forever’. Of course, it being the golden age of text speak she felt she had to tweak it a little to fit in with her peers.

Accordingly, later that day we all received an email from ellen4eva@hotmail.com.

To her credit, she did try to stick with it. If I remember rightly she kept this email address for at least a year. But once the thousandth person had asked her who Eva was she gave up and created a nice sensible account, hoping that the whole debacle could be resigned to the past and thoroughly forgotten.

As you can see her hopes were in vain. We will never forget. And now anyone reading this knows all about it too.

The point is silly email addresses have happened to the very best of us. I myself have an email account which I, in my teenage wisdom, chose to base upon Dr Evil’s infectious laugh. I still employ it to order pizza and other such homely uses where I do not have to worry about anyone judging me.

However, when I started applying for jobs I decided it might not be the best idea to greet potential employers with a maniacal laugh. So I created my own sensibly chosen address.

It takes about ten minutes maximum to create a new account and I would recommend doing so for any serious correspondence. You can even link your silly account with your sensible one if you like, which is what I did.

The problem is, as fun as it might be, if the first thing a literary agent learns about you is that your email address is nippleumbrella@gmail.com then it won’t create the most advantageous impression. As much as it might be an accurate description of yourself badgerface@aol.com just doesn’t say ‘I am taking this seriously’ to the recipient of your email. No matter how well it represents all the quirks and zany personality traits you possess smellybrainfart@me.co.uk is not a good opening line.

If your email address is anything like these make a new one this instant. It’s free, it’s easy and it’s worth it a hundred times over. Something with your full name is ideal. Do it now. It’ll be ten minutes well spent.

While we’re on the subject of making sure that your covering letter lets literary agents know that you are taking your submission seriously I would also like to make a brief point about font.

Curlz Mt and Comic Sans are all very well to brighten up a fun email to friends or a Christmas card to your aunt. A little word art on an invitation to a child’s birthday party never hurt anyone. But maybe keep it away from your covering letter.

I’m afraid that these have the same effect on your submission as including a silly email address does. They just don’t say ‘I am serious about being a writer’. The message they are much more likely to communicate is ‘I spent more time selecting kooky fonts than I did choosing my words’ and if this is not the case make sure you are not communicating it.

Times New Roman or even a cheeky little Arial are much safer choices. Also sticking to normal sized headings and keeping the ink black is a good idea too.

I do not want to imply that we want all your covering letters to be bland and uniform. Not at all. We want to see something unique and individual! We just want to see it in your writing. Not the font your writing is written in.

Do not let the formatting of your covering letter speak for you. Let your words do the talking.

p.s. to the person who submitted to us about six months ago with the email address theangelshavethephonebox@genericemailprovider.com, I’m letting you off as an exception to the rule on account of you being brilliant. But you’re the only one. No silly email addresses on important emails. Starting from now.

By Vicki Le Feuvre

Categories
Darley Anderson Authors Interviews

An Interview with Michelle Harrison

Today is the publication day for Michelle Harrison’s hotly anticipated and chilling new YA standalone thriller, UNREST. Michelle is the award-winning fantasy writer of the THIRTEEN trilogy. THE THIRTEEN TREASURES won the Waterstones Children’s Book Prize in 2009 and THE THIRTEEN SECRETS was shortlisted for the Independent Booksellers Award 2011.

Sophie Gordon, the Children’s Book Agent at the Darley Anderson Agency, interviewed Michelle about UNREST and her journey to publication.

In a tweet can you tell us what UNREST is about?

Since a near fatal accident, 17-year-old Elliott suffers sleep paralysis and out-of-body experiences in which he connects with the dead.

Where did the idea come from?

The idea came to me through my sister, who’s lived with sleep paralysis and out-of-body experiences since she was a teenager. I’ve always found her recollections both horrifying and fascinating, and one day I wondered what would happen if someone who was having an out-of-body experience returned to their body to find it had been possessed by another entity.
 
How and why did you first start writing?

I’ve always been an avid reader and got a lot of pleasure from other people’s books, so I wanted to try creating my own. I began writing short stories when I was about fourteen and attempted a novel that only progressed to a few chapters before I gave up. I also kept diaries for a few years although I eventually had the sense to destroy them – I’m sure my mum was reading them while I was at school. It was all good practise.
 
How did you go about getting published?

I’d seen The Writers’ and Artists’ Yearbook mentioned on a couple of authors’ websites so once I was about halfway through my first manuscript (The 13 Treasures) I bought a copy and started to read the sections on how to submit work to agents and publishers, then made a list of all the agents who dealt with children’s books. Over the next four years I worked my way through that list, collecting rejection slips and reworking my novel as I went along. Ironically, I avoided submitting to the Darley Anderson Agency for some time because I felt intimidated by its high-profile clients, but after a significant rewrite I had the confidence to submit. I couldn’t believe it when I was taken on.
 
What do you like doing when you’re not writing?

When I’m not writing I’m usually thinking about it. But I also love reading – obviously, binge-watching a good DVD box set (although I rarely watch ordinary TV), visiting old or spooky places, watching live bands, bookbinding, drawing, and recently I’ve been getting mad urges to bake.
 
What are your favourite books?

There are so many but here are a few:

The Merrybegot by Julie Hearn

Leaving Poppy by Kate Cann

Rebecca by Daphne Du Maurier

A Kind of Intimacy by Jenn Ashworth

Faeries by Brian Froud and Alan Lee

The Witches by Roald Dahl

Wideacre by Philippa Gregory

Road to Nowhere by Christopher Pike
 
What is the maxim that you live by?

Every now and then I read Max Ehrmann’s Desiderata, although it’s probably too long to be considered a maxim. So, along the same lines, this is something I ‘liked’ on a friend’s Facebook page a few days ago:

Always be a first-rate version of yourself, and not a second-rate version of someone else.
 
And finally, what would be your top tips for aspiring authors hoping to get published?

Don’t rush it. My first mistake was sending work out before it was ready to be seen. Try to leave a few weeks between finishing something and editing it, the space makes mistakes and slow parts much easier to weed out.

Forget querying one agent/publisher at a time. If they take three months to respond that’s only four queries a year. Query half a dozen at a time with your sample chapters and synopsis. If an agent is interested and requests a full manuscript, that’s the time to offer it on an exclusive basis.

For a while I kept a file of other authors’ ‘how I got published’ stories. As well as being inspirational it helps to read about other writers’ struggles and to know you’re not alone.

Finally, don’t give up, however long it takes. Success is sweeter when you’ve worked hard for it, and you never know if it’s just around the corner.

From all of us at the Darley Anderson Agency – Happy Publication Day Michelle!

You can visit Michelle’s fantastic website here.

Categories
Covering letters Submissions

Our Top Ten Tips for Writing a Tip Top Covering Letter

No. 4: To Whom It May Concern

Everyone who has ever been on the internet has Googled their own name. Bands and stand-up comedians alike know that they will get a big response if they simply shout out the name of whatever town they happen to be performing in that night. And I have a hoodie that I paid an extortionate rate for on my graduation day simply because somewhere on the back amongst hundreds of other names it has my name on it.

There’s no getting away from the fact that everyone likes to feel acknowledged.

Literary agents are no different.

I cannot stress enough that the literary agent you will be submitting your work to is a real person just like everybody else. They too will have Googled their name. They will have cheered to hear someone well-known mispronounce the place of their origin. They may not have fallen into the hoodie extortion scheme but they’ll probably have at least one of those bookmarks, key chains or coffee mugs that provide a complimentary character reference for everyone who shares the same first name as them.

So my advice would be to address your covering letter to a real person.

Dear Sir/Madam is always going to be a slightly disappointing opening to any letter. It feels so impersonal and is a difficult tool to communicate excitement through. Most of all it indicates that the covering letter you are sending out to us is almost definitely being sent out to other agencies without even a swift name change being employed.

Ideally, you want to make the person you are writing to feel special, like they have been carefully chosen out of the crowd.

A good way of communicating this is to make it true. After all, you are sending out your work, your writing, your talent. Choose carefully. Look into what books an agency represents. Are they similar to your work? Or do they seem to like representing new writers like you? Visit their website. Find out about their ethos and what their authors say about them. Visit their blog, if they happen to have one.

Once you’ve found that chosen person let them know why you selected them in your covering letter. Include a short paragraph telling them all of the reasons why you think they are great. If you’re a fan of any of the agency’s authors say so. If you found out something impressive about them, such as any particular deals they’ve done in the past, do tell.

Ultimately, as I said in Top Tip No. 1, what you are trying to do in your covering letter is create a positive impression. The personal touch will always achieve this. Tell us why you have chosen us and it will give us a little lift. After all, we’re only human.

Of course, judging by the fact that you are already reading this it is possible that I am preaching to the converted. So, well done. You’re already on the right track. Now go out there and use your covering letter to show your chosen literary agent that you took this initiative.

You want to Google your own name again, don’t you? Me too. OK, quickly do that first and then go and show off your initiative.

By Vicki Le Feuvre