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 Curtis Brown literary agent Lucy Morris. Lucy 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 CBC's founder Anna Davis.
You’ve been working at Curtis Brown since 2014. What is the most rewarding part of being a literary agent?
There are so many rewarding moments: that phone call to tell an author that their book will be published; opening a box of freshly bound hardbacks; spotting an author’s book in a bookshop window and snapping a quick photo to share with them; learning that a book has hit the bestseller lists or refreshing the Amazon chart as it climbs! But before all that, much earlier in the process, I love those moments of connection: reading an intriguing cover letter; highlighting favourite lines in a manuscript; talking to an author and realising that we share the same vision for their book; an editor phoning to say they simply have to publish this novel.
Can you tell us a bit about the first book you ever sold?
The first novel I sold was Fran Cooper’s debut These Dividing Walls– about the residents of a Parisian apartment building over the course of a hot and politically troubled summer. It plays to our innate neighbourly nosiness and is truly transporting. Fran wrote the very bones of the city she knew so well (far from the version of Paris we usually read about, or see on our screens) and populated it with a cast of vividly drawn, memorable characters. All against a tense backdrop of roiling political tension…
What does a typical day in the life of a literary agent look like?
Overall it’s a very varied job: negotiating deals, musing on taglines and cover designs, analysing royalty statements, writing pitches, speaking with authors and editors, drafting contracts. And, of course, reading!
What is your number one tip for new writers starting to pitch their novel?
Know what you are writing. By which I don’t mean that it’s vital to have an all-encompassing knowledge of the market (though those comparative titles can be really useful in a cover letter), more that you’re rock-solid in terms of knowing your own work, what it is that you’ve wanted to really get your teeth into, what’s inspired you to explore or create. It might be a world you wanted to build, a particular relationship that intrigues you, a ‘what if’ question that you couldn’t help but try to answer, a fresh perspective on a historical event…
Who is your favourite fictional character?
There are a number that stroll around in my head, including Georgia Nicolson, Mrs Danvers, The Twits, the entirety of the Walsh family as created by Marian Keyes, the Defendant in Imran Mahmood’s You Don’t Know Me -- with the latest addition being Clare Chambers’ wry and affectionate portrait of Jean’s mother in Small Pleasures.
What’s been your favourite book of 2021?
I tore through Seven Days in June by Tia Williams, about two writers (each successful in a very different genre) who are reunited on the New York literary scene many years after falling head over heels for each other as teenagers. They have been secretly writing to each other through their own books for years and when they meet again, that gut-wrenching raw power of attraction just leaps from the page.
You were a judge for the inaugural Discoveries prize last year and now you represent the winner – Emma van Straaten. What made Emma’s writing stand out to you during the judging process?
Emma’s 10,000 words showcased a true singularity of voice. Intense, acerbic, acutely observed – and original! An ‘unlikeable’ character who is also utterly sympathetic is not an easy thing to create, but so interesting to read…
Do you have any advice for aspiring authors getting ready to submit to Discoveries 2022?
I heard a very eminent writer say that so much of the creative process actually takes place away from her desk and laptop. Carry a notebook with you to scribble down those sensory details in the moment, they’ll bring life to the page! And remember that it’s not just about tapping away to hit that word count, it’s about taking yourself for a walk to think through that tricky bit of plot, taking the extra time to research your character’s niche hobby – all invaluable contributions to your novel.
I also want to say to writers who entered Discoveries 2021 but who didn’t make it to the longlist – submit again! We hope that the extra time (and the Discoveries resources online) will have provided some space to develop your work, to clarify your vision ahead of the programme’s second year.
What will you be looking for from entrants when reading for Discoveries?
I am always drawn to clever observation and inventive storytelling. I love structural conceits and deftly woven plots, writing with purpose – and a sense of mischief. But, above all, it’s that triple threat: imagination, originality, and potential.