I wrote a piece about saying goodbye to my dad for Grazia UK. Read it here.
Setting is so important to me in fiction. I love books that take me to a fascinating new world and wrote an article about it for Women Writers, Women’s Books. Read it here.
I wrote a feature for CrimeReads.com about my favourite snowy thrillers.
Read it here.
I found my agent, Kate Burke of Blake Friedmann Literary Agency in London, through the slush pile. Here’s how I went about it.
I was born and raised in the UK but moved to Australia fifteen years ago. There aren’t many literary agents in Australia, and many weren’t currently accepting submissions, plus Australia’s smaller population means a smaller book market. Since SHIVER is set in the French Alps and most of the characters are British, I hoped it would appeal to the UK market, so I decided to look for a UK agent rather than an Australian one. Fortunately, UK agents didn’t seem to mind that I didn’t live in the UK.
To find suitable agents, I headed to Jericho Writers’ website. Using their excellent Agent Match search tool, I searched for UK literary agents, who accepted my genre (thriller) and who were actively taking on new clients. The tool brought up about 250 agents.|
For years, I’ve been reading the acknowledgements section in the backs of novels, and blogs and interviews of my favourite authors, so there were a few familiar names amongst this list of agents. I researched each agent individually (giving priority to the agents of my favourite authors) by going to their agency website to learn exactly what they were looking for, and checked their client lists to see if I’d read and enjoyed any of the authors they represented. If they still sounded suitable, I googled them to find interviews with them or their clients, and checked their twitter feeds. I even went as far as reading some of their clients’ books – if I liked the books, I could mention that in my query letter.
This research took several days. I thought about what I most wanted from an agent and decided that most of all, I wanted someone who was hands on editorially. Someone who would read my work and help me improve it. Agents get 15-20% commission on writers’ advances and royalties, so it made sense to me to look for an agent who could add value to my work. I also wanted an agent with enough experience that I felt I could trust their judgement, but preferably someone without a massive list, so they would have enough time for me. I ended up with a shortlist of about 30 agents who I loved.
I felt fairly confident about my query letter thanks to a course I’d done with Curtis Brown Creative a year earlier. I did three short online courses with Curtis Brown in total. (See my interview on their blog where I talk about my experience of their courses.) Their Edit and Pitch course is a 6-week online course that looks specifically at your query package: the query letter, synopsis and first chapters. Following the advice on the course, I’d put together a query letter with three paragraphs including an enticing blurb about my novel, a paragraph about why I was submitting to that particular agent, and a paragraph about me and my writing background.
Literary agents may receive up to 10,000 submissions a year, so I deliberately kept my query letter as short as possible – 200 words in my case. My query letter wasn’t something hurriedly drafted. I spent ages on it, forming it weeks before my manuscript was ready, asking writer friends for feedback and revising it over and over. (See the end for the actual query letter that got me my agent.)
The synopsis is widely regarded as the hardest page you will ever have to write. I must have done hundreds of drafts of the synopsis for SHIVER, seeking help from my long-suffering writer friends, who suggested revisions. UK agents commonly ask for a 1-page synopsis. One page in size 12 font with single line spacing and a line gap between each paragraph gave me about 450 words. It’s incredibly hard to condense the plot of a novel into just 450 words – particularly a thriller with lots of twists. It doesn’t help either, that there’s no consensus on whether or not your synopsis should give away the ending of your story. Looking back, I probably spent too long on my synopsis. I went in circles and pulled my hair out over it. Eventually I conceded there’s no ‘perfect’ synopsis and settled on a 1-page document that gave the main plot points.
In February 2019 I submitted my first chapters to four literary agents. I promptly received three form rejections. Two of them arrived within 24 hours of my submission! Devastated, I trimmed my first three chapters, questioning every single word, to see if I really needed it. I was absolutely ruthless. I cut adverbs where possible and made my verbs stronger. If I’d used two adjectives before a noun, I cut the weaker one – or even both. If I had one sentence that meant nearly the same thing as the next, I cut the weaker one.
There are some excellent books available on editing. My favourites are:
The First Five Pages by US literary agent Noah Lukeman
Self-Editing for Fiction Writers by Renni Browne and Dave King
Thanks, But This isn’t For Us, by Jessica Page Morrell.
Kate Burke at Blake Friedmann apparently liked thrillers and cold, bleak settings, so in March 2019, I sent my revised manuscript to her and three other agents, on what I thought was the day after the London Book Fair. Except in my sleep-deprived, mum-of-two-little-kids brain, I’d muddled the date and it was actually the first day of the book fair – the biggest event in the UK book industry. You’d think it was the worst possible time to submit, but amazingly, just four hours later, an email arrived. One of the agents wanted to see the full manuscript! It was lucky my manuscript was edited and ready to submit. If I’d been impatient and submitted earlier, thinking I’d have time to edit, I’d have been in a huge panic! Crossing my fingers, I sent off the full.
If an agent requests to see the full manuscript, writers are advised to inform any other agents they’ve submitted to, so I tapped out an email, but before I hit ‘send,’ an incoming email from Kate arrived, requesting the full. I informed the remaining two agents, and one immediately requested the full. I didn’t get much sleep that night. I woke up to a full request from the fourth agent. And an email from Kate asking if she could phone me my evening – her morning. (There’s a massive time difference between the UK and Australia.)
It was another nail-biting wait. My hand shook as I answered my phone. Kate, in her lilting Irish accent, told me how much she loved SHIVER. I asked about her experience, and what changes if any, she’d suggest making to my manuscript. She asked about my writing, my plans for future novels, and offered to represent me.
Another agent also wanted to phone. I had the same conversation with this agent, then accepted Kate’s offer. One of the reasons I chose Kate was her editorial experience – she’d worked in publishing for ten years before she switched to agenting, and she was very hands-on editorially.
A few people have asked me what changes I made to my manuscript between my first batch of submissions to agents and the second batch. The answer is not much. Mostly just tightening and trying to be very specific and thoughtful about word choice. Maybe I hit the first batch of agents at a busy time of year: they were trying to clear their inboxes ahead of the book fair? Reading taste is so personal. Perhaps the first batch of agents just happened not to be as keen on SHIVER as the agents in the second batch?
Anyway over the next two months, Kate took my manuscript through several rounds of revisions, to make it as commercial as possible, and went on to sell SHIVER in a ten-publisher auction. The first round was a ‘big picture’ edit which pushed me to my limit as a writer and involved me writing 12 new scenes. The other rounds were smaller detail.
Something I found confusing as an aspiring author was knowing the ‘best’ word count for a novel. Each genre (and sub-genre) has a different ideal word count, and if a manuscript is way shorter or longer than the norm, agents (and publishers) may be put off. I’d researched word counts for thrillers and thought my manuscript was about the right length. It was 77,000 words when I submitted it to Kate, but she said it was a bit short. After I’d made the revisions she suggested, she submitted it to publishers at 83,000 words. After several more rounds of revisions from my publishers, SHIVER ended up at around 92,000 words.
My tips for authors who are searching for agents:
1. Edit like crazy. Trim and polish your work to try to get it perfect. Little mistakes may put agents off and look unprofessional. From talking to Kate, I get the impression that agents receive many submissions that are full of typos and other mistakes.
2. Read like crazy. Read recent titles in your genre. You need to know where your book sits in the market: the genre and subgenre. For example, if it’s a thriller, is it a crime thriller, techno-thriller, domestic suspense or psychological thriller? In the query letter you need to mention comparable titles and/or authors (preferably recent big sellers) and reading widely will help you find some. This helps make your book seem marketable.
Here’s my query letter, as I submitted it to Kate. Kate later said it was one of the best query letters she’d seen and used it as an example in a workshop she taught on querying.
And Then There Were None… on a glacier, with snowboarders.
THE ICEBREAKER is a thriller (77,000 words) that I hope could sit beside CL Taylor, Ruth Ware and Laura Marshall.
Secrets are crawling out of the ice. Friendships are turning glacial.
And everything’s about to crack…
When ultra-competitive ex pro snowboarder Milla Anderson joins four former friends for an isolated mountaintop reunion ten years on from tragedy, a twisted icebreaker suggests one of them is a killer. But the cable-car isn’t running. There’s no easy way down.
I heard you love strong female main characters, cold and bleak settings, dual timelines and psychological suspense with a mystery at its heart, so I hope The Icebreaker with its feisty heroine and theme of female rivalry in sport might appeal. I see my ‘brand’ as female-led psychological thrillers set in dangerous natural environments, from high mountains to remote surf beaches.
I was once a freestyle snowboarder in the UK top ten like my protagonist. For fifteen years I taught English. Now I’m a freelance writer with 100 sales of short commercial fiction to women’s magazines in the UK, Australia, Sweden and South Africa and thirteen romances to anthologies.
I attach the synopsis and first three chapters for your consideration.
You’ll notice several lines in italics, which are like the straplines you see on book jackets. This was something I learnt in Curtis Brown’s Edit and Pitch course. Note that when I originally submitted it, the title of my novel was THE ICEBREAKER but Kate didn’t feel it was a strong enough title and came up with the suggestion of SHIVER which I loved. It’s just one of many reasons why I’m so grateful to her.
Here are some of my favourite books on writing. I’ve arranged the shelf above in order of how much I like them (L-R), though some of the ones I talk about below are missing because one of my best writer friends has borrowed them. (Yes, that’s you, JODIE!!)
Story by Robert McKee is a must-read for every story writer. It’s full of inspirational and thought-provoking quotes about story, and I love how it dissects classic movies to explain how and why they work their magic.
QUOTE: “We go to the movies to enter a new, fascinating world, to inhabit vicariously another human being who at first seems so unlike us and yet at heart is like us, to live in a fictional reality that illuminates our daily reality.”
I’m a massive fan of John Truby. He’s a story genius! I found his book Anatomy of Story SO helpful even though it’s heavy reading. He places a strong focus on the main character having a moral weakness which drives the plot. I’d heard about this from other writing books, but hadn’t implemented it much in my own writing until I read his book.
Milla Anderson, the protagonist in my thriller Shiver, is hypercompetitive. In the ’10 years ago’ timeline, she’s a professional snowboarder competing at halfpipe. Her desire to defeat her rivals drives the story. Her competitive behaviour causes the predicament she finds herself in, in the present day. Deciding Milla’s weakness from the start had a magical effect: my story almost seemed to write itself.
I particularly love listening to Truby talk about story. He has some brilliant videos available to watch free on YouTube. Here’s the video where he talks about his book Anatomy of Story.
Scene and Structure by Jack Bickham was eye-opening for me because it taught me, amongst other things, to think in scenes, not chapters, and to start scenes late and end them early, ideally on cliffhangers, for maximum narrative drive.
Into The Woods by John Yorke is a fascinating explanation of how stories work, as well as a critique on many other books on story.
I’m also a massive fan of US literary agent Donald Maass. His book The Emotional Craft of Fiction blew my mind when I read it a few years ago. I’ve reread it a few times since and still only feel I can apply a fraction of his advice. The book focuses on the psychology of the reader and what they experience, and details what writers can do to give their work more emotional impact.
QUOTE: “Readers fundamentally want to feel something, not about your story but about themselves… They want to anticipate, guess, think, and judge… They want to feel like they’ve been through something. They want to connect with your characters and live their fictional experience.“
I love the idea that what matters most of all to a reader is how the words make them feel. His book on Writing the Breakout Novel is great when starting off a new project, for evaluating your premise.
Save the Cat by Blake Snyder is a short, accessible and entertaining read with some nuggets of gold. It’s written for screenwriters but the principles apply just as much novelists. Many writers swear by Blake Snyder’s ‘Beat Sheet’ for plotting a story.
These are my favourite books for the editing stage. The First Five Pages by Noah Lukeman is full of straight-talking advice. Read it and forever after you’ll hear in your head his no-nonsense advice about what to cut and what isn’t good enough.
Self-editing for Fiction Writers by Renni Browne and Dave King, is written by a pair of highly experienced fiction editors. It’s particularly good for pointers on how to tighten your writing. The first time I read it, I immediately slashed twenty percent off the manuscript I was working on.
Thanks, But This Isn’t For Us by Jessica Page Morrell looks at common pitfalls of querying writers and it’s another extremely helpful read. I plan to reread these three books after finishing each new project, to keep the advice fresh in my mind.
I’d like to dedicate my first post to my dad, Andrew Leslie Reynolds, 1939-2018.
Mountains were my dad’s greatest passion in life. He despised flat areas – “Boring!” Work and city life were necessary evils to be endured until he could be in the mountains again. The Lake District, the Peak District, Scotland and – when he could afford it: the Alps.
He was a member of the Lincoln Mountaineering Club, met my mum in the mountains and had a huge group of mountain-loving friends. After his retirement, he assisted fellow walkers and climbers as hut warden every summer on the Scottish Isle of Skye.
In his army green cagoule and technical hiking trousers and boots, he looked out of place in a city. But when I started doing snowboard seasons, he fit right in and often came out to visit, bombing down the black runs right behind me on his skis. He gamely tried snowboarding himself when he was in his sixties. Then I began competing at halfpipe. Many dads might have worried about their daughter doing such a dangerous sport, but my dad made no secret of his approval.
He was always encouraging about my writing and was a fountain of ideas for my previous novel – another mountain-set snowboarding thriller (still incomplete). We spent many a happy hour discussing ways my villains (or the mountains themselves) could kill my characters. I can still hear his shouts of laughter down the phone at my latest gruesome idea.
My dad didn’t write – he could barely read his own handwriting and certainly nobody else could – but he was a brilliant oral storyteller with endless tales to tell. One of my favourites is the story of how, a few years before I was born, he and my mum escaped death by a millimetre on the Matterhorn. My parents, both experienced and proficient mountaineers, were roped together climbing a steep rockface in parallel, five metres apart, when someone above them shouted a warning. My dad looked up to see a boulder the size of a small filing cabinet plummeting downwards. As it neared him, my dad realised it was going to land on the rope between him and my mum. Instinctively he slackened the rope, letting it lie flat against the rockface. His quick thinking saved their lives. If the rope had been taut, the boulder would have landed on it and pulled my parents clean off the mountain. When my parents inspected the rope later, they saw a little nick from where the boulder had scratched it.
My dad passed away in 2018 so he never got a chance to read Shiver, but it seems fitting that my first published novel is set in mountains he knew and loved.