13 tips for getting your first book published

16 January 2017

With four weeks remaining to enter the Lucy Cavendish Fiction Prize, judges and previous winners and shortlisted authors have written 13 top tips to help writers reach the shortlist, the first step to a guaranteed publishing contract for the winner.

  1. “Make a plan first. Separate the writing process into planning (constructing the story's architecture) and writing (bringing the story to life in best way possible).” Sophie Hannah, panel judge and internationally bestselling writer of psychological crime fiction (pictured top right).

  2. “Make your opening as compelling as you can. Don't feel you have to start at the beginning of your character's story, or supply lots of backstory. That can come later. Make sure your first chapter leaves the readers with plenty of unanswered questions about your character and the story, so that they want to read on to find out the answers.” Laura Marshall, Shortlisted in 2016 and will publish’ Friend Request’ later this year.

  3. “Look at each scene and make sure you know why it is there - what is it doing, is it moving the story along, and is it posing questions that the reader wants to find out the answers to? There may be a central question or dilemma in your story that won't be solved until the end of the book, but try to keep up a rhythm of other, smaller questions that are asked and answered as the reader goes along, to keep them turning the pages.” Laura Marshall, as above.

  4. “Just give it a go. I entered the competition after seeing a tweet about it, not expecting anything at all. I'd forgot that I entered until I got the email about appearing on the longlist. You've got very little to lose and everything to gain by believing in your hard work and putting it out there.” JA Micheline, Shortlisted in 2016 (pictured 2nd on right)

  5. “Become a connoisseur of synopses. Read synopses online. Read blurbs on dust jackets. Try to imagine pitching your novel in a similar vein. Think to yourself, if I plucked this synopsis at random from a stack, would I be excited to begin reading this submission…? Put yourself in your readers’ shoes and welcome them into your narrative world.” Kelleigh Greenberg-Jephcott, Shortlisted in 2016 and has now been offered a six-figure deal for her first novel ‘Swan Song’.

  6. “For me, the best way to determine if the flow and rhythm of an extract is working is to hear the work read aloud. I use a free software program/ application called NaturalReader, into which I insert selected text and hear the words read back to me again and again, tweaking my prose with each pass (it’s also a brilliant way to catch wayward typos before submitting).” Kelleigh Greenberg-Jephcott, as above.

  7. “Save yourself stress and don’t wait until the last second to hit ‘send’, as you never know what technical difficulties might arise. I’ve had plenty a panicked moment I could have spared myself had I not invited last minute glitches by submitting at five-to-midnight what I could have submitted at noon, if not days earlier!” Kelleigh Greenberg-Jephcott, as above.

  8. “If you’re writing to a deadline, know your own writing pace. If you’re someone who needs a lot of ‘bottom drawer’ time then the earlier you get started the more time you’ll have for editing, and the more polished your results will be”. Joanna Merifield, Lucy Cavendish Fiction Prize Winner in 2014 for ‘The Second Garden’ (pictured 3rd on right).

  9.  “Remember your market. A Literary Agent needs to believe they could sell your work, so it helps to be aware of who you’re writing for.” Joanna Merifield (as above).

  10. “Perseverance - it isn’t always the first time or the second time or even the third time. But if you don’t keep trying and learning it will never happen. It took Kathryn Stockett 60 rejections and five years before she brought THE HELP to publication. And millions of copies later and an Oscar winning movie behind her, it was all worth her perseverance.” Nelle Andrew, Judge and agent at Peters Fraser and Dunlop (pictured bottom right).

  11. “Remember your reader - the books that don’t work for me often forget that books are a dialogue between the author and the reader. When the author forgets about the reader and that communication is lost, the book suffers greatly.” Nelle Andrew, as above.

  12. “Write as if no-one will ever read it. Then sculpt." Frances Perkins, Shortlisted in 2016 and her novel 'The Seven Imperfect Rules of Elvira Carr' will be published in July 2017.

  13. “Above all tell a good story - that’s key above all. Even 1984 for all its political allegory is a great story. Bottom line.” Nelle Andrew, as above.


The Fiction Prize is the only one of its kind run by the University of Cambridge and it has gone from strength to strength, with a record 484 entries in 2016 from female authors aged 21 and over.  The Prize costs £12 to enter and it provides a unique opportunity for unpublished authors to launch their literary careers (many of the previous shortlisted authors and winners have now published novels).

Jackie Ashley, President of Lucy Cavendish College, prolific writer and high-profile political journalist and commentator adds:

“My favourite of these tips is from JA Micheline to ‘Just give it a go. You've got very little to lose and everything to gain by believing in your hard work and putting it out there’. Alongside our outstanding panel of judges, I am excited to see new writing talent emerge and to celebrate it once again."


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Notes to editors:                           

About the Lucy Cavendish Fiction Prize

The Lucy Cavendish Fiction Prize was founded in 2010 by Professor Janet Todd OBE, then President of the College. Aspiring authors are invited to submit an opening to a novel (up to the first 50 pages), accompanied by a synopsis of how the novel progresses and concludes. Entrants must be female, aged 21 and over and resident in the UK. The shortlist will be announced on the College website on Friday 27 April 2017. The winner will be announced at a dinner on Thursday 25 May, attended by representatives from the publishing industry hoping to sign up the literary talents of the future. The winner will receive a cash prize of £1,500 and the offer of a publishing contract with Peters Fraser Dunlop.


About Lucy Cavendish

Lucy Cavendish is the only women's college in Europe exclusively for students aged 21 or over, and a unique part of the University of Cambridge. Its undergraduate and postgraduate students come from over sixty countries, and a wide variety of educational and professional backgrounds. Many have changed careers or overcome significant challenges in order to reach University. The College is particularly strong in Medicine, Law, Engineering, Veterinary Medicine, Psychology, the Social Sciences and English.

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