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03 May 2018

Agent Sophie Lambert and author Fiona Cummins: “Stay true to your instincts”

by Jack Hadley Author Interviews, From the Agents, Writing Tips

Our London-based novel-writing courses all feature sessions where the literary agents from Curtis Brown and C+W come in as visiting speakers with their author-clients or leading publishers. These evening events give our students a great chance to find out about the reality of publishing and pick up some really good tips on writing and pitching. There’s always plenty of time for questions, and the students are encouraged to ask anything and everything they really want to know, in a safe environment – with just their student group (of 15), the two speakers and the session host in the room. Except that at last week’s session for our current 6-month course, I was there too – notebook in hand …

The visiting speakers were C+W agent Sophie Lambert and her client Fiona Cummins, author of the bestselling Rattle and its sequel, The Collector. Fiona’s been acclaimed by the likes of Val McDermid and Lee Child as one of the most exciting new voices in crime fiction.

In an entertaining session, our students got a real sense of the close author-agent relationship between Sophie and Fiona, and of how important that bond can be for a novelist navigating the choppy and often-fast changing waters of publishing. The session ran for a lively 90 minutes, but here are some of their key pieces of advice …

When to send out a novel to agents …

Sophie: NEVER rush a submission. Only start working towards an approach to an agent once you feel you’ve got your writing as good as it can possibly be on your own.

Fiona: Find trusted readers who will look at early drafts and offer feedback. Don’t waste your chances of snaring an agent by sending out a rough draft.

Choosing who to approach …

Sophie: It’s best to send to more than one agent at a time so you’re not stuck endlessly waiting, and so that you potentially have some choice if you get interest from more than one. But don’t send simultaneously to more than one agent at the same agency.

Fiona: When I had a draft I was happy with, I sent it to a number of agents who I felt would be a good fit. I got a lot of interest pretty quickly, so I was able to choose. I was particularly drawn to Sophie because I liked the feedback she gave me on my work. It was so honest and astute – she talked to me properly about what still needed to be done, and I knew she was right.

On submitting to editors … 

Sophie: I sent Fiona’s novel out to publishers ahead of the Frankfurt Book Fair (the big publishing trade fair which happens in October every year). Although the response was incredibly enthusiastic, editors still felt there were changes that needed to be made. So we paused the submission to do a further round of edits and rewriting on the novel, and re-submitted it the following year. This time there was an auction, with lots of editors desperate to snap it up. In the end we decided to go with Tricia Jackson at Pan Macmillan.

On titles … 

Sophie: Rattle was Fiona’s first choice title. One-word titles are uncommon in crime, and in fiction more generally for that matter, but its punchiness and originality really helped to grab editors’ attention and made the submission stand out.

On Planning … 

Fiona: There are two different types of novelists : planners and pantsers (ie: ‘flying by the seat of your pants…’). Those who prepare heavily and often painstakingly in advance, and those who ‘just write’. I’m most definitely in the ‘pantsers ’ category – I don’t plan in great detail and I love the joy of discovery that comes from writing without ever having a clear sense of what’s in store for my characters.


On research …

Fiona: Instead of drowning in piles of research, it’s better to focus on the small areas you can really get your teeth into, and which will help you get going on your novel. Don’t get mired in reams of research which is unlikely ever to reach the page.

How often should you write? … 

Fiona: I write every day – even it’s only 200 words. This helps keep me present and locked into the novel I’m working on. I even write on Christmas day.

All in all, the session was direct and inspirational. Fiona emphasised the importance of grit and determination. The road to publication can be long, and there are always bumps in the road – but both agent and author told our students they should hold their nerve: “Stay true to your instincts – and to the novel you’re writing…”

For a chance to get involved in our courses and enjoy guest sessions with authors like Fiona, have a look at the courses we’ve got open at the moment…

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