Florence Hazrat gives us the highlights of this year’s Fiction Prize Festival and offers invaluable advice to budding writers on how to get published.
If you’re a budding writer wondering how to get published, the Lucy Cavendish Fiction Prize Festival is a must. A day of talks, workshops, and one-to-one sessions has authors, agents, and editors describe the process from idea to published book, answering all the questions you’ve always wanted to ask.
Nine years since its founding by former college president, Professor Janet Todd, the Lucy Cavendish Fiction Prize is a now well-established prize in the landscape of literature competitions based in the UK. It offers first-time authors the chance to be discovered by agents and publishing houses. Winners and short-listed writers include the late crime writer Eva Hudson, Frances Perkins, Laura Marshall and Lesley Sanderson. But how did they do it? How did they write those opening chapters, the persuasive covering letter, the dreaded synopsis?
The event on Saturday 18 January was the first of its kind offering advice and assistance to those seeking to submit to the prize (whose deadline is 8 February 2019), and to all others interested in learning about the winding paths from proposal to publishing.
Advice from the Best in the Publishing Industry
After an initial friendly coffee and cake breakfast, ghost-writer and editor Gillian Stern, Peters Fraser and Dunlop agent Nelle Andrew, and Editorial Director at Viking UK Katy Loftus kick-started the day with a panel discussion demystifying the process of securing an agent and getting published; while Sarah Savitt, Deputy Publisher at Virago, gave a workshop on common problems in first novels.
Nelle Andrew emphasized the importance of agents who act as filter between author and publishing market, championing the author and negotiating contracts. Receiving several hundreds of submissions per month as well as representing active clients, Nelle was upfront about the need for a literary agent to be ruthlessly selective when it came to accepting manuscripts. She stressed the role of the covering letter, claiming that ‘if you can’t write a covering letter, you can’t write a novel.’
The covering letter, Nelle suggests, needs to be believable and convincing, including an address to a specific agent and why they are the perfect fit for the book’s genre. It needs to include a blurb advertising the book’s originality and an estimation of the competition; that is, an awareness of where your book would be placed and which company it would keep in a book store. If convinced by the cover letter, Nelle will read on, giving the first paragraph a go in the hope that your book has a strong and compelling opening. If she still believes in the story, Nelle calls the author in for a chat in order to discover how approachable they are, since the professional relationship between author and agent is also always a personal one. Once she offers representation, she sends the proposal to 10-20 editors from her pool of contacts who could be interested in the book.
This was the point when Katy took over, describing what happens with the proposal at the publishing end of the process. Reading takes place in her spare time at home, so that she, too, needs to be immediately convinced of the book’s feasibility and value, to a great degree owing to the agent’s description who has passed it on. Quite what makes her like a book is often ineffable: ‘You know it’s the book for you, when you can see the editorial process. There’s something about the writing that just speaks to you.’
Like Katy, Nelle has plenty of submissions, publishing around eight books per year, two of these from debut authors, an over-seeable number, since she seeks to support them, and the relationship is potentially life-long. Once Katy has accepted the book, she takes the proposal to an acquisition meeting which includes marketing and sales colleagues to whom she pitches. This is a nerve-wracking experience, but, as she phrases it, ‘what gets you through is a book you’re really keen on’.
The subsequent questions and answers session picked up on recurring themes, such as the advantages of having an agent as middleman: it turns out that the reach is bigger, including publishers who do not accept unsolicited submissions, and that navigating publishing contracts is difficult for the uninitiated. As Nelle Andrew put it: ‘the author’s job is to be an author, and not to do everything. Because the writing will suffer.’
Invaluable Talks & One-to-Ones
Participants then dispersed to either individual one-to-one sessions during which they had a chance to discuss their pre-circulated original material with editors, agents, and experienced writers; or, to two separate events, a lecture with acclaimed authors Sophie Hannah and Allison Pearson on questions of debut novelists, or a workshop on how to submit to agents with Peters Fraser and Dunlop agent Laura McNeill.
Laura McNeill shared a helpful sample of a successful covering letter together with a hand-out on its most salient elements (touched on by Nelle earlier), stressing the importance of quality writing style and a sense of direction and control over one’s work. Sophie Hannah’s talk focussed on the emotional well-being of a writer, advising participants to find suitable agents and like-minded people in support groups for writers in order keep oneself motivated and excited, a thought which one participant found particularly relevant, commenting ‘as someone who lived the ups and downs of a writer’s life, that’s important to hear.’
Behind the Scenes of the Fiction Prize
Lunch was followed by three parallel sessions including: a panel discussion of former Lucy president Jackie Ashley in conversation with recent Fiction Prize authors Laura Marshall and Lesley Sanderson; a workshop on the role of the editor with Lucy Malagoni, editorial director at Little Brown UK; and lastly, a workshop on the Fiction Prize from the point of view of a judge and entrant with Gillian Stern and novelist Kelleigh Greenberg-Jephcott.
Gillian, a judge for the prize since it first began in 2010, describes the process of long-listing: the 400 and more entries are being read by a representative of PFD and of Lucy Cavendish College, bringing together the commercial as well as the literary side of publishing a book. From 20 long-listed items, Gillian chooses 7-8 which are being ranked and then read by high-profile judges who change from year to year. A (sometimes combative) meeting of all judges at the college establishes the winner.
Advice for Applicants to the Lucy Cavendish Fiction Prize
Swan Song novelist Kelleigh Greenberg-Jephcott encouraged participants to submit to literary competitions, since being short-listed already attracts agents’ interest. She is fervent that her ‘book family’ at Lucy has made the difference: ‘I would not have a career if it was not for prizes,’ adding that ‘prizes are your passport from a world of aspiration to realization.’
Kelleigh gave useful advice on both the writing and submission of your manuscript. She advised applicants and unpublished authors to hone those first chapters which are part of the sample, and to create a strongly individual voice. Both Kelleigh and Gillian emphasized this aspect, adding that the synopsis for the prize differed from that submitted to agencies which needs to function as summary of the whole novel. The Lucy Fiction Prize, however, does not require entrants to have a fully-fleshed plot as long as synopsis manages to conjure an ambience, a world, and a central conflict sending out its ripple effect through the novel. The synopsis for the prize also showcases the prose, indicating the prize’s emphasis on style and literariness. Samples of synopses from successful entrants can be found on the college website.
Owing to a technical glitch and her perfectionism, Kelleigh almost missed the deadline. Her advice was therefore ‘do not leave a submission to the last minute.’ The close of the session was marked by such generous insights and openness to questions on the part of the authors. Or as Kelleigh perfectly summed it up: ‘do yourself a favour: turn it in early, and get yourself a martini.’
The Importance of Strong Characters
After a tea break followed a panel discussion with fiction prize authors Sara Collins, Kelleigh Greenberg-Jephcott, and Allison Pearson, as well as a workshop by Nelle Andrew on the importance of strong characterization in novels. Amid plenty of evocative literary and cinematic examples, Nelle gave manifold advice on the topic, such as writing biographies for one’s characters, interviewing them as if they were real people, or to reveal their traits through actions and dialogue rather than omniscient narration. ‘Characters drive books,’ Nelle impressed on participants, adding ‘without them, there is no story.’
The day was concluded with a Q&A session on everything you ever wanted to ask but were afraid to, including key speakers from writers to agents. Participants enjoyed the opportunity to ask away on the pressure of producing a second book after an initial success, on being involved in literature events, reading widely in one’s chosen genre, writing groups, and writing routines to which one of the participants wittily answered: ‘writing daily is like cleaning your teeth. Not something fun, but you will feel bad if you don’t.’
Advice to Prospective Authors: ‘You are Wanted’
After a long day full of precious and heartening advice that yet also clearly stated the long way towards publication, Nelle Andrew rounded the event off with an encouraging address to the audience of potential writers: believe in yourself, you are a writer, take time to develop your own style, and get to know yourself. She recommended perseverance, claiming that ‘you are wanted. You are needed. It is so hard to get published, because the ‘yes’ is so brilliant.’
Applications for this year’s Lucy Cavendish Fiction Prize are now closed, but to learn more about how to apply for next year click here. To read more about Lucy Cavendish Student Fiction Prize, click here. To find out more about how to apply for the Lucy Cavendish Creative Writing Course, click here and here.