Nikki Smith took not one but three Curtis Brown Creative writing courses back in 2017, starting with two of our six-week online courses before applying to and then securing a place on our three-month online novel-writing course. Nikki initially 'met' her agent – C& W's Sophie Lambert– during an online agent feedback session on this longer course and decided to send her completed manuscript to Sophie after the course ended. Now Sophie has sold Nikki's debut novel, All in Her Head to Orion in a two book deal.
Nikki, your debut novel All in Her Head was the novel that you worked on during our three-month online novel-writing course back in 2017. Can you tell us a bit about how the novel has changed?
NIKKI: Apart from the central theme of the book, which has remained the same, it’s changed in almost every other way! I’d originally written it in the past tense, but quickly realised that didn’t work - and so I had to re-write it in the present tense. A painful exercise, but necessary. I also realised the timeline needed to change – I’d included chapters that ‘flashed back’ into the past. They told stories about my character's history, but they weren’t needed in the final novel. I also tightened up some of the flowery prose. Anna frequently told us on our course, “Brush it until it shines,” so I ruthlessly cut out a lot of waffle.
You also took two of our 6-week online courses (Starting to Write Your Novel and Write to the End of Your Novel), before joining us for the 3-month course. What was the most valuable lesson you learned whilst studying with us?
NIKKI: That I love CBC Courses!! Seriously though, I learned so much from the courses - they were really invaluable. I started with the 6-week online courses after a ‘now or never’ moment – I’d wanted to write a novel for many years (I actually wrote one when I was much younger but it was pretty dreadful) and, despite getting an English degree, I’d ended up working in finance - which doesn’t leave a lot of room for creativity. Someone I’d been at school with and hadn’t seen for over twenty years contacted me via Facebook to ask if I’d ever done anything with my writing, as she remembered the stories I’d written and read out at school. This prompted me to take that first step. Signing up to a course that allowed me the flexibility to write around my other commitments and to connect with other writers and amazing tutors really appealed. I realised how much I loved it quite quickly, so signed up for another course and, after that, applied for the longer 3-month course. I learned more than I could possibly summarise here, but one of the most valuable features was that it enabled me to find other people who I trusted to bounce ideas off, and who listened and supported me through the writing process. The CBC course tutors, other course attendees and the writing community on Twitter are all incredibly supportive. Also, one of my tutors, Nikita Lalwani, gave me some great advice - which was to act like a writer and go for it. I realised that if I didn’t have confidence in my writing, no-one else would.
It's great to hear that you found trusted readers on our courses. How do you keep in touch and continue to help each other?
NIKKI: I have Facebook groups where we check in on each other every once in a while, and I’m also connected to several people from my courses via Twitter. Most significantly, I've become great friends with someone who I met on my first online course - Kate - and we meet up in London every couple of months for dinner and a few drinks.
When the time came, what was it about Sophie Lambert that attracted you to submit the novel to her?
NIKKI: I’d done masses of research about agents – reading their profiles on their agency websites, looking at other authors who I admired and finding out who represented them, and following them on Twitter. Sophie stood out to me because she said she liked upmarket commercial fiction and she was willing to work editorially with debut authors. She also represents former CBC student Jenny Quintana, whose book The Missing Girl I absolutely loved, and which is in a similar genre to my own novel. We had a ‘pitch to agents’ day on the CBC course where we had the opportunity to send one agent our cover letter. I sent mine to Sophie and she gave me some good feedback. I knew then that I’d approach her again when I thought the book was ready – which I did a couple of months later. She emailed me to say she loved it and asked if we could we meet up. It was one of those ‘dance round the room’ moments.
Sophie, what struck you about Nikki’s submission when it first landed in your inbox?
SOPHIE: After having read three pages of Nikki’s novel I requested the full manuscript. Nikki’s prose stood out from the start, and her confidence at juggling multiple voices as a debut writer was incredibly assured. I was also immediately drawn to the overarching themes that Nikki tackles. Like almost all manuscripts I read on submission, I felt it required further work - but I had clear ideas and editorial suggestions, which is key with every book I offer to represent.
Do you have any advice for writers about the often-dreaded cover letter to an agent?
SOPHIE: Every agent approaches submissions slightly differently, but the cover letter is important. We all like to feel special, so make sure you personalise each submission letter and make it clear why you’ve chosen to submit your work to each agent. Be sure to capture the essence of your novel in a pithy and intriguing paragraph. If there is anything relevant that connects you to the subject of the novel, include it. It’s helpful to provide a couple of titles that you would envisage your novel setting alongside – being able to imagine your prospective reader is essential.
You worked together editorially before you sent the book out to publishers. Can you tell us a little bit about the process of rewriting and editing?
NIKKI: Sophie is an amazing editor. We worked together for over six months, with the novel going through three rounds of structural edits, and a couple of more minor edits. As a debut author, I hadn’t realised the amount of work involved in structural editing (this can be A LOT - and to start with it can be really painful to cut out huge chunks of pages!) - but each time I could see the improvement in my novel and I knew I was making progress. I think it’s essential to be willing to accept constructive criticism in order to improve. How your book is seen by other people can be very different to how you see it as coming across.
SOPHIE: I only submit manuscripts when they are in the best possible shape so that it gives each author the chance of a great deal. This usually means working closely editorially, which is one of my favourite aspects of the role. I tend to suggest broader structural edits initially - and then later edits are about finessing the writing. There’s no set pattern, as every author works differently. Nikki worked exceptionally hard.
What one thing does every new author need to know about the author-agent relationship?
NIKKI: Before I found Sophie, I’d read comments from people who said it's really important not just to find an agent, but to find the right agent for your novel. I would echo this 100%. You need an agent who not only passionately believes in your book, but who can offer constructive advice to push you to make it the best it can possibly be. I’m so lucky to have Sophie – she does both of these things (and so much more!) - and also answers all my daft questions about the whole publishing process.
SOPHIE: It’s essential that you have a shared vision for the book. The author/agent relationship is one that will hopefully last for many years and books, and there must be an underlying sense of trust and ambition. And more than anything, your agent must be your most passionate champion.
Finally, what’s next – any new writing projects coming up?
NIKKI: I’m already concentrating on writing my next novel. It’s in the very early stages at the moment, so I can’t give too much away, but it’s in the same genre as All in Her Head - and full of suspense!