We asked author Fiona Mitchell, author of The Maids Room to give some tips to writers entering the 2018 competition:
What will you be looking for in the competition line up?
I’d love to see a brilliant character-led novel with a dynamic, original voice. I adore uplifting fiction, but am also a sucker for a book that turns me into an emotional wreck. Give me tight plots and a beautiful writing style and I’m a satisfied reader.
Any advice for the first page?
This is your moment to sell your style and your vision, so read your first page aloud several times to see how the words sound and flow. Make it sing. Oh, and a killer first line is always welcome.
Top three tips for the first chapter.
I don’t want to be too prescriptive, because everyone has their own inventive style, but writing an inciting incident with a hint of the conflict to come will help to tip us into your story.
Show us something that makes your character special too – make her or him lift off the page and live and breathe in our heads.
Try not to do cliches – waking up from a dream for instance – and watch the number of times your character fiddles with her hairdo.
You’ve been very successful in all the major writing competitions and awards – what advice would you give to writers out there working the competition circuit.
Read the work that makes it to the shortlists. Note the little tricks that writers use, the beautiful lingering over particular moments, for example. Don’t expect the first draft of anything you write to be all that good. It’ll only be good once you’ve reworked it dozens of times. I had lots of misses before I had any hits, but when the successes arrived, what a feeling. Being placed in competitions buoyed me up when I had a folder full of rejection letters from literary agents, and helped me carry on even when things got really tough.
How long did it take to get published?
It depends how you look at it. I started writing a book about modern-day servitude back in December 2010, but gave up on it after lots of rejections from agents. I kept on writing though – another novel and lots of short stories – then in June 2015, I began writing the novel that became The Maid’s Room. A year later, I signed with my wonderful agent Rowan Lawton, and The Maid’s Room was published by Hodder & Stoughton in hardback in November last year.
‘The Maid’s Room’ was your debut novel, how has being published changed your life?
I write full-time now which is fantastic although the isolation can send you slightly stir crazy, so I do talks whenever I can, and enjoy cheering on writers who are struggling through the submissions process. Encouraging other writers is probably the best thing about being published – my experience shows that even when you’ve been deluged by rejections, if you just keep going, you really can get there.
How important do you think it is to get an editor before submitting your novel to literary agents?
It’s not always possible for people to get an editor because cost can be an issue, but if you can afford it, it’s massively helpful. When you give your novel to friends, they might hold back from telling you what they don’t like about it, plus they’re probably not going to be experts in story and narrative drive. For me, finding an editor who got what I was trying to do with my novel changed everything. I was too close to my book to see its faults, but Sara could. It’s thanks to her that Rowan fell in love with The Maid’s Room and championed it.
What advice would you give to writers submitting to agents?
Don’t submit to lots of agents at once. An agent might give you useful feedback which you can use to improve your book before you submit to anyone else. Submit to a maximum of seven. Not all of them will reply, but wait for the ones that do, then try again. At times, you might feel destroyed – I know I did – but all that upset is energy; use it and keep going.
What are you reading at the moment?
I’m reading my first ever Helen Dunmore – Birdcage Walk which I’m loving. I’m very excited about having an advance copy of Bitter by Francesca Jakobi which is going to be my next read. I’ve already dipped in, and wow – what a strong voice. I have a feeling I’m going to fall in love with this book.
Top five favourite novels?
This is always such a difficult question, and my answer changes every time someone asks me it.
Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine by Gail Honeyman. My Name is Leon by Kit De Waal. A Thousand Splendid Suns by Khaled Hosseini. The Red Tent by Anita Diamant, and Elizabeth’s Strout’s Olive Kitteridge.