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 insider knowledge 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 – scribbling away in the corner …
The visiting speakers were Curtis Brown Chairman Jonny Geller and his client Jane Fallon, the author of nine top ten best-selling novels including her debut novel Getting Rid of Matthew and her most recent novel Tell Me a Secret.
In this dynamic session our students got an invaluable look at the agent-author relationship, and how to navigate the ups and downs of the publishing industry. Here are some of the highlights:
On how they started working together …
Jane Fallon: It was only when I was forty-five that I really got going with novel-writing. Before that I’d never told anyone of my ambitions to be a writer. Then I felt a flash of bravery, I quit my job (this wasn’t too impulsive – I was freelance) and I told people about my ambition to write a novel so that I was held accountable.
Jonny Geller: Someone told me that one of their colleagues had left to write a novel and that they thought I might be interested. I knew of Jane from her brilliant work on TV shows like This Life, and I’d had luck with a scriptwriter before (with David Nicholls), so I asked Jane to show me what she had.
On finding your voice …
Jane: I’d never been able to find a writing voice I was comfortable with. Previous attempts at novel-writing always felt forced or pretentious. But Getting Rid of Matthew felt like a story I could really tell well. I wrote it exactly in the way I was thinking about it. It was just like telling a story to a friend.
Jonny: I know I’m enjoying reading something when I forget about my job – then I start scribbling notes in the margins about editors who I think will be a good fit – and then I start working out how I’d pitch it in my head. I respond well to books that don’t announce themselves but just tell the story.
On cover art …
Jane: It sounds like a luxury to be able to talk about what will be on the cover of your book but actually it’s very important. People do judge books by their covers. I will pick up books I’ve never heard of because of the cover and actively not pick up others. Listen to the publisher because they will know what works and what sells.
Jonny: Trust the publisher but also stay true to your book. Work hard on the title because often the title dictates the cover – and our job is to help the publisher sell the novel. Everything has to work in a straight line from the title to the image to the author name, it all has to be in sync.
On female characters …
Jane: I always wanted to write women that I’d be interested in hanging out with (not that I would necessarily like). I’m very interested in central female dynamics. The key with writing – whether your novel is contemporary, or set in 2062 or in the eighteenth century, is to stick to relationships and emotions that you know. Emotions and feelings don’t really change, in the most fundamental sense.
Jonny: The great thing about Getting Rid of Mathew is that it’s about the friendship between the wife and the woman that her husband is sleeping with. The husband doesn’t matter – he’s irrelevant. That gave it an edge and differentiated it from the majority of books being published at the time.
On success …
Jonny: You have to be able to survive your own success and the pressure of having a successful first novel. As a writer you need to take a longer view and manage your expectations. You write because you can’t not write.
Jane: I like to build a strong plot with interesting twists and turns, and I have to be able to take control of the story. If I put pressure on myself to write too quickly the story will unravel – this is what started to happen when I was writing my most recent book, but I then managed to reel it back in. It’s important to know when to slow down – there’s no point in forcing a book out to meet a deadline. You’ve got to be in control of your career.
On genre …
Jonny: Publishing tends to think in very black and white terms when it comes to genre. A few years ago, everybody who was writing women’s commercial switched to writing psychological thrillers – apart from a few authors like Jane. Publishers will look at what is popular – mine that seam until it’s exhausted and then move on. If it’s on television, it’s probably already over for books – book readers tend to be ahead.
Jane: The ‘chick-lit’ label drives me mad. I know my strengths and write what I know feels true for me. Publishing trends are cyclical – what might not be popular now will always come back around.
On editing …
Jane: Don’t write yourself into a corner. Plough through that first draft and then you can go back and edit. You’ve got to be brave and know when to throw parts of your story out and rewrite it.
Jonny: A novelist fits into two bubbles: the ‘author’ and the ‘writer’. The author must have the commercial mindset and the writer focuses on the process and the craft. An agent’s job is to help writers become authors.
If you’re currently writing a novel, and would like to the opportunity to attend a visiting speaker sessions like this with a select group of fourteen other committed writers, take a look at our upcoming Six-Month Novel-Writing Course in London with Laura Barnett based in our offices in Haymarket. Or, for a flexible online course which you can take anywhere in the world, check out our Six-Month Online Novel-Writing Course with Lisa O’Donnell. Both courses close for application this Sunday, 27th Jan at midnight.
Or, if you’re writing YA or children’s fiction why not take a look at our selective entry online course for Writing YA and Children’s Fiction with Catherine Johnson.
We also run three shorter online courses designed to help writers at different stages of their novel-writing journey, you can enrol today: Starting to Write Your Novel, Write to the End of Your Novel and Edit & Pitch Your Novel.