Tag Archives: vicki

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

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

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.

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

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.

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.

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.