With a three-book deal with Hodder now in the bag for her debut novel Plague Land, a 14th-century murder mystery, and two further novels featuring the same hero – SD Sykes is Curtis Brown Creative’s latest success story. It’s been a long journey from the moment she was first accepted onto our Spring 2012 Creative-Writing course, as she tells us here…
(1) What stage was your novel at when you joined the Curtis Brown Creative novel-writing course?
I was only about 4,000 words in, back in March 2012. I did, however, have an outline for the whole story, so I knew roughly where it was going.
(2) We talk a lot about the importance of the one-line pitch here at Curtis Brown Creative. Can you sum up your forthcoming debut novel in one pithy sentence?
‘In the aftermath of the Black Death it is murder, not plague, which terrorises the Kent village of Somershill.’ I hope that whets the appetite!
(3) Did the sessions with your tutors and fellow students make you doubt the direction you were taking with it?
I was clear about the type of book I wanted to write and where it sat genre-wise, so the direction of the novel has remained constant. But I did make a big change with my main character, Oswald, following the workshopping and tutorial process. After lots of advice, he went from being a rather arrogant and jaded 18-year-old, to becoming a more reserved and thoughtful boy struggling to cope with unexpected responsibility. I hope the reader will now identify with him, even if they don’t like him.
(4) What was the most memorable piece of advice you took away from the course?
To persevere. This came across time and again from the authors we met. I also rather liked Harriet Evans’s advice to develop a splinter of ice in your heart – it’s so easy to be distracted and not achieve your goals. Of course, I’ve lost touch with most of my friends in the process and my family think I’ve died, but it’s been worth it!
(5) What happened when the course finished and how did you motivate yourself to finish the novel?
I have a background in scriptwriting, which means I set off with a detailed outline. I know some writers feel this stifles imagination, but I found it allowed me the framework to be creative – and, of course, I didn’t stick to it rigidly if a better idea struck me. My main motivation was that I left the novel-writing course with 80,000-plus words of the novel, a coherent plot and a set of believable characters (something I’d never managed before), and I steadily wrote 5,000 words a week until the first draft was finished. But I also had a lot of support from my fellow novel-writing course students, who very kindly read and critiqued my work once I’d finished. If I had a tip for any aspiring writer it would be to find yourself a group of trusted readers who will not only be supportive, but will also be honest.
(6) Can you take us through how your book deal happened?
After the novel-writing course finished, I attended the Curtis Brown Creative Crime-Writing Weekend, run by the excellent Meg Gardiner. And, at the end, we had a chance to pitch to Curtis Brown agent Gordon Wise and I made a good enough job of this for him to contact me a few days later and ask to see the whole novel. I didn’t feel it was ready at that point but committed to send a polished draft to him by the end of January. In the event, I only felt comfortable sending him the first 45,000 words and a detailed chapter-by-chapter synopsis but, luckily, he liked this enough to still want to see the rest of the book, which was with him by early May. Gordon offered me representation on the basis of this draft, and started to speak to publishers almost immediately. Things then happened very quickly and – after receiving offers from two publishers – I accepted a three-book deal with Hodder.
(8) Which other debut novels from your fellow Curtis Brown Creative novel-writing students should we be looking out for?
There were so many great novels being written in our 2012 writing group, but two of my favourites were by Julie Walker and Laurinda Luffman. Julie’s novel Bonny & Read: A Tale of Pirates is a wonderfully observed and very comic novel about two real-life female pirates. Laurinda’s novel The Harlequin Girl is a Young Adult crossover novel with lots of pace and attitude about a girl who doesn’t let looking different stand in her way. Laurinda plans to e-publish in Autumn 2013.
As well as expert teaching from published authors, all our novel-writing courses offer dedicated modules on submitting your novel to literary agents – and include sessions on writing a synopsis and preparing a covering letter. Click for more information or to apply for our creative writing courses.