CBC and Curtis Brown are proud to be partnering with the Women’s Prize Trust and Audible to run Discoveries, a writing development prize and programme, which offers practical support and encouragement to aspiring female novelists of all ages and backgrounds, from across the UK and Ireland.
This week the Discoveries team talk books and writing advice with Anna Davis. Anna is the founder and Director of Curtis Brown Creative and the author of five acclaimed novels which have been published in twenty languages. She has been a journalist and Guardian columnist, as well as a Curtis Brown literary agent. Anna is on the Discoveries 2022 judging panel – she will be joined by chair of judges and founder of the Women's Prize Kate Mosse, acclaimed authors Ayisha Malik and Irenosen Okojie, and Curtis Brown literary agent Lucy Morris.
What first inspired you to start Curtis Brown Creative?
On my own journey to becoming a published writer, I took an MA in Novel-writing, and found it immensely helpful – so much so that I later became a creative writing lecturer at a university myself. I did this for quite a while, but ultimately became frustrated with working in an academic setting – particularly with the rigmarole of having to ‘mark’ people’s novels. Against this backdrop I came up with the idea of starting a creative writing school at the Curtis Brown literary agency, where I also worked. I felt we could teach writers in much more practical ways at the agency – working with their own intentions and ambitions for their novels rather than any criteria established by a university, and valuing commercial and genre writing as highly as literary fiction. I was also keen to bring the agents in to our classes to talk to the students, along with publishers and authors – to demystify the publishing industry, and to empower our students to pitch their work with confidence. We started out with a three-month Writing Your Novel course that took place in our board room at the agency, and from that very first course came Jessie Burton, Catherine Chanter, Antonia Honeywell, and more recently Ben Creed. We were off and we’ve never looked back!
What’s your favourite part of running the writing school today?
I’m sure you’d expect me to say that it’s when we hear from students who’ve just got publishing deals – of course that’s great. But actually what I like best is the ‘Aha’ moment when you’re talking to a writer about their work, and the conversation helps them to realise something important that then unlocks a problem they’re struggling with. You can almost see something click together in their imagination and their eyes light up. I love that!
Actually, I need to have two more favourite things – is that allowed? In the last couple of years we’ve been developing shorter online courses that anyone can enrol on (and which are cheaper and easier to take part in than our more well-known selective courses). These courses are genre-based, and we’ve commissioned some fantastic authors to write the course material and to present it to be filmed as teaching videos. I get to be the editor for these courses, and I absolutely adore working with the likes of Cathy Rentzenbrink, Cynan Jones, Vaseem Khan, Jenny Colgan etc – to develop courses that I’m really proud of, and which I feel offer a complete and satisfying writing journey for those who take part.
Lastly, I want to mention the Breakthrough Writers’ Programme, funded by the Curtis Brown agency and external sponsors. We launched this major programme earlier this year, with the aim of offering free mentoring, courses and scholarships to talented under-represented writers. I think it’s so important for us to do this – our writing school has a long way to go when it comes to diversity and inclusion, but it’s a vital first step. We’ve already worked with more than 50 talented writers this year via the programme, and I’m excited to see what comes of their work. We’re just about to unveil our opportunities for Spring 2022, and I would encourage people to join our mailing list or keep an eye on our website to hear more about what’s coming up.
Can you talk a bit about a common obstacle that your students face and what advice you give them?
Lots of writers get lost somewhere in the middle of their novels – and find that they’re not sure where they’re going any more. It’s all too common to lose faith in your work at such a time, and to abandon the project in favour of a new idea that feels more exciting. Thing is, new ideas always feel more exciting because you only discover the problems and pitfalls with a novel once you’re well into the writing. I’d say that unless you’re absolutely sure that your current novel is doomed (and you’ve come to understand why it can never be made to work), you should really press on with it. It’s often said that writing a novel is a marathon and not a sprint, and that is just so true. Everyone struggles at some point, and it’s those who can dig themselves out of the hole and keep going who will ultimately succeed. We have a short online course – Write to the End of Your Novel – which includes lots of strategies to help you keep going, solve problems and get to the end of that first draft.
One of the pieces of advice I give is to keep an ‘active plan’. What I mean by this is that the process of plotting and planning your novel isn’t just something you do before you write (and actually many writers don’t do it at all at that early stage). When you’re stuck in the middle of the novel, go back to your planning stage and see if you can figure out what it is that’s not working and what you need to do to fix it. It could be, for instance, doing some more work on character development, finding a new twist for your story – or just cutting a chapter that you can’t get right and that’s tripping you up.
But yes – the main thing is to keep going!
You previously worked as a literary agent, and you are also the author of five novels. Did you always want to work in the world of books?
I always wanted to write – and initially I was drawn to literary agenting just as a way to pay the bills. But then, once I’d found my way into that, I discovered that I love working with other writers to help them get the best out of their work. And that has very much led me to where I am now.
Your ‘Rewrite Doctor’ method of editing a novel is hugely popular with your students. What is your number one piece of editing advice?
The End is just the beginning! I think pretty much every writer sits down to read all the way through their complete first draft in a state of excitement – and then gradually gets a sort of sinking feeling as they’re reading. By the end you’re in a state of existential PAIN, and convinced that the whole thing is a disaster. But I DO want to give reassurance that all writers feel this way. This is the time to then take a little break (not too long – but long enough to let you get some perspective and distance), and then to embrace the idea that you’re going to analyse every aspect of your novel to see what’s working and what’s not – and then construct a plan for your edits that will help you to stay on track and make your novel the best it can be. That’s what my Rewrite Doctor is really – a system to help you to plan your edits. If you’d like to find out more, you can enrol on our Edit & Pitch Your Novel course – but really the important thing is to develop a way of working that suits you, and to have confidence that if you keep at it, you’ll get there.
What’s been your favourite book of 2021?
I’m going to cheat because it’s not actually out until 2022 – but I was given a proof ofLessons in Chemistryby our former student Bonnie Garmus – and I thought it was absolutely magnificent. Grab it when you can!
Who is your favourite fictional character?
Undine Spragg in Edith Wharton’s The Custom of the Country – she is just an absolutely delicious monster!
Do you have any advice for aspiring authors getting ready to submit to Discoveries 2022?
Make sure your story gets going right from the off. Don’t just give us descriptions of weather or landscape – put a person into the picture. We want to meet your protagonist straight away, and get to know them even as things start to happen to them. Hook us in with something intriguing or funny or mysterious or disturbing. Don’t let me put it down!
What will you be looking for from entrants when reading for Discoveries?
I want to encounter exciting new voices, compelling characters, dialogue that zings off the page, and stories that make me want to read on. The work doesn’t need to be finished and polished – I don’t expect to see work that’s ‘publishing-ready’ but I’ll be searching for something with a spark. I’ll know it when I see it.