Emma Curtis is the author of three brilliant psychological thrillers: One Little Mistake, When I Find You and The Night You Left. She is currently working on her fourth novel and in this week’s blog post we interviewed her about her writing process and any advice she had for querying writers.
How did you get into writing?
It’s a terrible thing to admit, but it was boredom. It was 1991, I had a two year old and a three month year old, I had given up work and for the first time in my life I felt as though I had no focus. I sat on the sofa and watched Sesame Street followed by Neighbours and lived for six pm when I could bath the kids and get them ready for bed. I was wasting my days. Then I read an article in the Sunday Times Magazine about a highly successful romance writer. I loved reading, it looked easy, so I started. The writing came easily, I was quickly addicted, but the getting represented and published bit didn’t come at all! I carried on for several years without getting anywhere, then gave up. I was working and enjoying the job, family life was fun and fulfilling.
Race forward ten years and my son had started University, and I suddenly saw my future, or lack of it. As a school secretary, I had a job, not a career; I had nothing that felt like me. I was forty-four years old. I started writing again and soon wondered why I’d ever stopped. I loved it. My earlier attempts had provided lessons in story-telling that I hadn’t forgotten. It took three books and four years, but I eventually made it through the door of a Literary Agency, and on to publication.
I really enjoy the originality of your plot ideas. I thought that in When I Find You the twist about facial recognition added a really ingenious, but also sinister, element to the text. Where do you get your inspiration for your plots?
From all over the place. A lot, I have to confess, from things people tell me. An ability to listen is crucial. People love to talk about themselves. The truth is though, ideas come along frequently, but ideas that can sustain an entire novel are much rarer. I can spend weeks mulling over the plot for what I think is a fabulous premise, only to give up because I can’t work out where it’s going to go. It’s why I don’t write anything down until I have that Eureka moment. I’m looking for one right now!
You mention that you like to meticulously plan your novels, can you describe how you do this?
Once I have an idea for a plot and I’m confident that it’s enough to drive the narrative across three hundred pages, I expand that into an 8,000 – 10,000 word detailed proposal. I don’t do chapter plans. I’ve done them before and have found that they’re impossible to stick to, that I’m putting things in for the sake of it and that they sap my enthusiasm for the story. In my view, they are a waste of an author’s and editor’s time.
Once my editor gives me the green light, I write a chapter a day. That way I can get a first draft down in under two months. I work at speed during the early stages because I write better under pressure and I have a poor short-term memory. If I don’t get the story down, I literally lose the plot. Once the MS has gone to my editor I just have to hope that the changes aren’t going to be structural, because that is always tough. The proposal is supposed to ensure that the structure is in place before I start, but it’s impossible to know how things are going to work until it’s written. Suspense is a challenge, and it should be because the reader needs be surprised and predictability is a killer. If you are at a crossroads in your novel and are not sure what to do with your characters next, think about what the reader will be expecting and subvert those expectations.
“If I don’t get the story down, I literally lose the plot.”
Do you have any tips for writing a psychological thriller?
I’d say be absolutely clear about characters’ motivations and make them convincing. When you need to factor in twists and surprises it’s all too easy to make someone do something because it’s convenient/shocking etc; but characters need an iron-clad reason for their actions otherwise the whole thing feels far-fetched and contrived. These books tend to be about ‘ordinary’ people, so ask yourself, would someone really do that? Ask yourself why they’ve done something so outrageous, and don’t fudge it.
You are represented by Rebecca Ritchie at A M Heath, can you explain your process of getting agent representation?
It’s a well-known fact that getting an agent is the hardest part of getting published. Agents are sent around two thousand submissions a year, of which they may take two, so the odds are against unpublished authors from the start. I sent my first and second novels to half a dozen agents and after getting half a dozen refusals, lost heart in the books and stopped submitting. I had a feeling in my bones about the third, a quirky book club story about a woman whose imaginary friend reappears after eighteen years, and by that time I was well aware of my tendency to give up after rejection. To prevent this, I scoured the Writers’ and Artists’ Handbook for suitable agents, created a spreadsheet and set about submitting three a day across a period of three weeks. That way I couldn’t be tempted to dump the novel once the rejections started coming in. This strategy paid off with four requests to see the entire MS. I would encourage authors to make multiple submissions. You never know whether the next one on the list might be the person who falls in love with your novel. As long as you’re clear in your covering letter that this is what you’re doing, then no one is going to be upset.
As far as your covering letter is concerned, less is more. Be businesslike, professional, and not over-familiar. Be aware that agents can spot a chip on a shoulder from a very long distance. Tell them who you are, what your credentials are as an author and give them a couple of sentences explaining the premise of your novel, (no more than that). Find out what you can and tell them why you submitted to them so that they know you’ve bothered. If you’ve cut and pasted your letter – which you will if you do go for multiple submissions, go over it with a tooth comb. It’s scarily easy to leave something unchanged – like the agent’s name! Only submit what the agent has asked for. Tell them your book is a comedy, but don’t tell them it’s hysterically funny. That’s for them to decide.
As far as credentials go, I had none. I wasn’t an MA student, journalist or connected to the publishing world. Once I realised I needed them, I started to enter Short Story Competitions. (Another spreadsheet!). By gaining a respectable collection of first and second prizes I had something to show agents that I was serious about my writing career.
“Tell them your book is a comedy, but don’t tell them it’s hysterically funny. That’s for them to decide.”
How is the fourth book coming along?
My editor at Transworld is reading it at the moment! Fingers crossed.
The paperback of Emma’s latest novel, The Night You Left, will be out on the 5th September.