Be Bold â€“ keep going, keep striving, keep learning
by Catherine Palmer on 16 May 2016
You have been involved in the Fiction Prize for a number of years – what has been noteworthy about the 2016 Prize?
It has been wonderful to see the range of stories this year. It reminds me of when I was first involved in 2013 and though the lists have been stellar every year since, I am delighted by how different and varied the topics are. As an agent I see so many submissions which, unfortunately, feel very reactive: as in they seem to be versions of what is already being published. So it was refreshing beyond belief to find challenging, original and therefore incredibly special entries which show that there are authors out there unafraid to be brave in their writing.
What makes the Lucy Cavendish College Fiction Prize special?
It seems to attract the kind of female author who doesn’t realise how good they are. And so I find that this is a gentle experiment from would-be authors who are fiercely talented, but also incredibly humble and are looking for a push before they make an approach to the industry. It is wonderful because we get to see these new voices emerging when they are still fresh in their talent and most importantly, uninfluenced in terms of voice. Every year I find something which makes me just gasp out loud and that is incredibly rare for a Prize – that level of consistent talent.
For you, who has been a ‘stand-out’ Fiction Prize winner or shortlisted entrant to date?
Well I am biased – for me it was The Well in 2013 – it just punched me in the gut when I read it. It was a true lightning moment and it went on to do so well – sold in so many countries at auction and then became a Richard and Judy Book Club pick last year. And the author was so clever and talented and just a complete gem. I would never have found her without the Prize. I couldn’t believe she was un-agented when I met her – that this hadn’t been scooped up and treasured immediately. And I know it has repeated that experience for others since.
You describe the Fiction Prize as a: ‘wonderful snapshot of the secret drawer in the desks of women all over the country’. What encouragement would you give to women with work still lurking in that drawer?
Perseverance and revision is key. It may not be right the first time, or the second or thousandth time. But look at Dyson – it took him years and thousands of versions before he hit on the model that made his fortune and the same is true of writing. I think women by nature follow that Bluebeard axiom – Be Bold But Not Too Bold – and so if they don’t get it right the first time, or feel rejected, they see it as confirmation of an existing flaw. Instead Be Bold – keep going, keep striving, keep learning. It is never perfect the first time – it is always a work in progress but it cannot progress if you don’t work at it.
What advice would you give to writers striving to get their first work published?
I would tell them that emotional resilience is key. Talent is one thing and cannot be taught but the ability to keep going, to keep pushing is what separates successes from failures. How can you be in the right place at the right time if you don’t show up? So yes rejection is part of it, but look at it as the tool to get you closer to what it is you want to do. Learn and move on.
What are your three top tips for catching the attention of a busy literary agent?
- Write a sparkling cover letter – if you can’t pull it out the bag on a sheet of A4 why would I have faith that you can do so over 300+ pages?
- Think about who wants to read the book? Not what will sell but who would want to buy it? What are you doing that is different? What are you talking about that people want to discuss? The act of writing is like starting a conversation at a busy party – people will drift away from you if they feel they’ve heard it before or it isn’t interesting. So what is keeping them at your table
- And finally, be prepared to work for it and work hard.
Women with an interest in the written word may also be interested in finding out more about studying English at the University of Cambridge.