Beth Underdown, our author judge and lecturer in creative writing at Manchester University gives writers some tips to get their entries noticed.
What will you be looking for in the competition line up?
Somebody who really wants to tell me a story. If it’s a story unlike any I’ve read before, even better.
Any advice for the first page?
Make sure you’ve got tension there. The first page should open up a question in your reader’s mind – it can be a big question, or a small one, but it must be there.
Top three tips for the first chapter.
- Let a sense of your main character come through – don’t crowd them out with back story told too soon.
- Begin at the beginning – in early drafts, try to begin where you really think the story gets juicy. You can always add a prologue later if you really need to.
- Don’t withhold too much from the reader. Some first chapters end up so mysterious that it can be hard to tell what’s happening. Trust that your later chapters will have enough to keep the reader interested, and don’t be afraid to reveal some things at the beginning.
How long did it take to get published?
From when I first started spending a lot of time writing, to the day the book came out, about 8 years. From when I started the novel that became my first published work, about 4 years.
The Witchfinder’s Sister was your debut novel, how has being published changed your life?
I now write and teach writing for a living, which is a complete dream. I never in a million years thought it would happen, and I’m grateful for however long it lasts!
How important do you think it is to get an editor before submitting your novel to literary agents?
This is a tricky one. There are a lot of freelance editors and book doctors out there who are great and could make your book better. There is also a lot of opportunity to spend money on services that really may not help you that much. I think if you know that your spelling or grammar are bad, then asking for help to create a clean draft of your first few chapters for submission could be a good plan. But I don’t think it’s by any means necessary to pay for editorial services before submitting to agents. I didn’t.
What advice would you give to writers submitting to agents?
Remember that they’re horrendously busy people. Work on your submission so that it tells them what they need to know, without wasting their time. Cover emails should be brief and friendly, with a couple of lines pitching your book and a couple of lines on you/any background you have in writing. Check their website, and send them what they’re asking for, both in terms of material and in terms of quantity/formatting of that material. Lastly, don’t take a few rejections as a sign that you should give up. There are so many reasons why you might not fit on a particular agent’s list at this particular moment, but that doesn’t mean you won’t find a good fit somewhere else.
What are you reading at the moment?
We Have Always Lived In The Castle by Shirley Jackson. Now there’s a novel with voice!
Top five favourite novels?
Wolf Hall, Wolf Hall, Wolf Hall, Wolf Hall, and Wolf Hall. Seriously, top five is too hard. But I’m a big Hilary Mantel fan. Right from the moment you meet Thomas Cromwell, lying on the pavement in Chapter 1 having the living daylights kicked out of him, you are swept along in his story.