10 Questions With… Louise Fein

Hi everyone, and this evening on the blog I’m delighted to welcome Louise Fein. Louise writes historical fiction and is based in Surrey. I was delighted when she agreed to answer a few questions. Links on how to contact her are below the Q&A.

Over to you, Louise…

1) Have you always wanted to write? When you were a child, did you have a favourite author?

Like many authors, I have always wanted to write. I wrote ‘books’ aged around seven, stapled pieces of lined paper, which usually involved adventures with ponies. My favourite author as a child was Enid Blyton. I absolutely loved The Famous Five series. I remember one of my teachers sniffily telling my mother I should be reading better quality books, but my mum told her she didn’t care what I read, as long as it was something! I personally think she was absolutely right – I came to the classics and other genres when I was ready.

2) What sort of fiction do you write? How do you come up with your ideas and why did you choose this genre?

I write historical or bookclub fiction, chiefly 20th century to date. I didn’t set out to write historical fiction specifically, although I do love reading and writing it! My interest is in exploring ideas, human psychology and behaviour, and what better source for these than history? My first two novels were inspired by issues which involved my family. In the case of my first novel, fleeing Nazi Germany as refugees, and in the second, the stigma of having epilepsy and the treatment of those considered ‘unfit’ in the 1920s. In both cases, my novels are entirely fictional, but they are based on, and true to, the sentiments and historical events of the time. My third novel is set in the early 1960’s and is about society’s unquestioned expectations of women, in particular mothers, and what happens when they don’t fit the expected mould.

3) What comes first for you when you write? Is it plot, character or theme you would like to explore?

For me, it is always a theme I want to explore first. I then look for an appropriate time in which to set the story and begin some preliminary research – lots of general reading around the subject and the time and place of the setting. That will be both non-fiction and fiction. As much as possible I try to read contemporaneously written work as it gives a better flavour and feel of the time, without any slant of hindsight. A nub of a story is usually swimming around in my head for sometime, and a basic idea of characters. Usually I know the beginning and end when I start to write, but not much idea of what happens in the middle when I start to write. My first draft is extremely messy, and really is just me finding the story. It is really only by the time I get to second or third drafts that it begins to take shape and I get to really know and understand my characters. At this point, I also have to do more detailed research, which as I drill down becomes more and more specific. I don’t recommend my method, it requires many drafts!

4) Was it daunting finding an agent for your work? How did you find the submission process?

I didn’t know any other authors when I started out, nor anyone in the publishing industry, so I was quite naïve, but also had little expectation that my book would find an agent. I thought I would give it a go, and if I was unsuccessful I would approach independent publishers directly, or self publish. My first round of submissions to perhaps eight agents resulted in rejections, although some were promising in the sense that they said there was much to admire about my work. This gave me hope, but also made me think I could improve my book. I therefore decided to get a report from an editor at a literary consultancy as I wasn’t sure what I needed to do to make it better. This resulted in another complete rewrite of the book followed by more editing which took around a year. I sent the book out again, and this time I received some requests for the full manuscript. Then everything went very quiet for a few months! A couple of the agents who asked for the full then went on to reject the book, but one said it was a close call and I should send it out more widely as I had only sent it to a handful. So I sent out another few submissions and the very next day, one of those agents responded, saying she had started reading the book and was really enjoying it. She finished it over the next couple of days and loved it. She is now my agent. The author/agent relationship is an important one as hopefully it will be long lasting and ideally will help you to build your career. I really liked the fact my agent came back to me so quickly and was so enthusiastic about my work. It is key that the agent loves your work.

5) What is your planning stage like before you start writing? A brief synopsis does it for me, but every writer is different.

I am absolutely not a planner! I wish I was because I think it would shorten the writing process, but it just isn’t how I create. The only way I can work out my characters is by writing them, and character and plot for me are so intertwined, the plot really doesn’t get worked out until I have my characters fully formed and real to me. All of it also depends on my research – ideas come as I’m researching, or equally, they might have to change because of something my research has turned up.

6) After your manuscript is finished and sent to your agent and editor, how do you feel? Can you describe it?

Relieved and terrified, in equal measure!

7) What is the post publication process like? How soon would you start writing the next book?

There is always a very extensive gap between submitting a book and publication date, plus edits to be worked on in the interim. I am usually thinking about my next book, even when writing the current one. For instance, I have a fantastic shiny new idea for my next book, even though I’ve not yet finished my current novel. The shiny idea can seem very appealing at this stage, because it is new and perfect, while the draft of my current work in progress is flawed and doesn’t (yet) match up to the shiny, wonderful new idea it once was. This is fine though, and part of the process. I now know that at some point, once I have begun writing it, that the next book will also become imperfect! It will improve with each round of edits. As soon as I send my current book off to my agent/publisher, I’ll begin work on the next one. I will have to stop and break for each round of edits, but my aim will be to get the bulk of the first messy draft done by the time the current book is published.

8) What was the last fiction book you read? What did you enjoy about it?

The last brilliant book I read was Cloud Cuckoo Land by Anthony Doerr. I loved his previous novel, All the Light We cannot See, but his latest novel is extraordinary and a masterpiece in my view! It is so far reaching, utterly beautiful in terms of prose and story telling and I savoured every single word. It is definitely my book of 2021.

9) As a writer, how has the pandemic affected you? Has your writing process changed at all?

I wrote my last book during lockdown which was a challenge as I was also homeschooling and suddenly had a houseful of five people, when previously I was used to having the house to myself during the day! I had to put in quite a lot of late nights and early mornings. With schools back, things are more normal in terms of my hours, but the travel restrictions have curtailed my favoured method of going to the places I am writing about. But we are also so lucky these days with the research potential of the internet. I have even had a zoom call with an American farmer, all in the name of research!

10) When you write, do you listen to music or do you prefer silence? Do you have a favourite band or artist that you like to listen to? Would you recommend them and why?

I can’t work to music, unfortunately. I have to have silence, which is a shame!! When not working though, I love jazz and reggae music which is relaxing and uplifting.

Thank you for your time Louise, it has been a pleasure to interview you!

Social media links: https://www.louisefein.comhttps://www.facebook.com/louisefeinauthorhttps://twitter.com/FeinLouisehttps://www.instagram.com/louisefeinauthor/

Bio: Louise writes twentieth century historical fiction, based around unheard voices, or from unusual perspectives. Her debut novel, People Like Us (entitled Daughter of the Reich in the US/Canada edition) was first published in 2020 into 13 territories and is set in 1930’s Leipzig. The book was shortlisted for the RSL Christopher Bland Prize 2021 and the RNA Historical Novel of the Year Award, 2021.

Louise’s second novel, The Hidden Child, was published in the UK in September 2021 and the US and Canada in October 2021, and will follow in other territories soon. This book is centred around the eugenics movement in 1920’s England and America. It is a Globe & Mail bestseller in Canada.

Louise, previously a lawyer and banker, holds an MA in Creative Writing from St Mary’s University and now writes full time. Equally as passionate about historical research and writing, she also loves to look for themes which have resonance with today’s world. Louise lives in the Surrey countryside with her family, and is a slave to the daily demands of her pets.

An Interview With… Imogen Pelham

Hi everyone, and today on the blog I’m delighted to introduce Imogen Pelham. Imogen is a literary agent for Marjacq Scripts. As well as chatting all things submissions and what she looks for, Imogen also gives some brilliant advice for writers who aren’t yet published. Read on to find out more.

Over to you, Imogen…

1) How did you first become involved in the publishing industry? Did you always want to be a literary agent when you left school? Did you have any other career plans?

Full disclosure – my parents met in a publishing house, when my mother was a Publicist and my father was the Art Director at Penguin. I spent stretches of my school holidays in Macmillan’s offices, while my mum worked, reading, and at some point her colleagues would keep me busy by giving me YA manuscripts and asking me to let them know what I thought. It was a huge privilege to have insight into an industry which I know is often kept very opaque to so many. I only ever wanted to go into publishing – it was the only thing I knew!

I landed on wanting to be a literary agent aged 17; I liked the idea of working directly with authors on their work editorially and creatively, but that it would also give me the opportunity to be involved in the business side of things. I loved maths andI’ve always been interested in the mechanics of contracts. So I didn’t have any other career plans (though I worked in Art Insurance in my gap year and University holidays, which I really enjoyed).

2) What particular genres of novels stood out to you when you were younger? Do these tastes reflect your current list?

I would read any novel I could get my hands on. For a good few years I was obsessed with Goosebumps and Point Horror, and while I have a couple of authors in a somewhat similar vein (Jo Jakeman who writes brilliantly twisty thrillers, and Kylie Whitehead who does really smart contemporary body horror), it’s a shame I don’t have more!

The more marked difference between then and now is that I never considered I would ever represent non-fiction. To me, non-fiction was just fusty, lengthy biographies of someone long-dead. It was only when I started working in an agency that I realised the multitudes that term “non-fiction” contained and fell in love with it; now my list is about 50% non-fiction.

3) What would you say that you look for in a covering email? What would capture your attention in particular?

The main thing is predictable – a really great pitch. Whether that’s a really clever idea, an interesting protagonist facing a compelling problem, or something incredibly evocative. I think pitches get very associated with thrillers in particular, and authors sometimes veer off the pitch in the submission if they feel like their book isn’t very pitch-friendly. But no matter the novel, there should be some central tension which keeps us reading(even in a literary novel where perhaps, objectively, not that much happens!), and the pitch needs to communicate roughly what that tension is.

Otherwise, the main things are that it needs to be concise, courteous, and clear. Don’t overthink it. As long as the letter doesn’t set off any alarm bells (incredibly high word count; grand claims of author’s own genius; completely incomprehensible), it’s really all about the book.

4) What is it that initially attracts you to a submission? And what is it particularly that makes a submission stand out to you?

When I read a submission, I will very quickly read the email to get an overview, and in particulartrying to pick out the pitch (as mentioned above). In an ideal world that will already pique my interest, so that would hopefully be the first thing to attract me to the book.

I then open the material immediately, and start reading. I cannot overstate how important those first pages are. Again, like the pitch, you want to be setting up some tension or questions from the absolute outset. Regardless of the genre, you need to grab us with those opening pages and keep us reading. Why have you started where you have; is it the best point in time? Are you trying to answer the who/what/where/why for the reader rather than letting them uncover it or have some questions lingering? There’s often too much exposition, or relying on dialogue to explain the situation and recent past to the reader – resist those. Hone every sentence on those first few pages, and make sure every word has impact.

5) Do you have any advice for the unpublished author? How polished would you say their manuscript has to be?

I keep slightly jumping ahead to your following question in my previous answer! As above, the opening pages should be especially polished. But really, if you’re writing fiction, the whole novel should be of a polished standard. Related to your other question, my advice is that the writing of the book isn’t just getting roughly the “right” number of words down, some scenes, a bit of shape. A huge part of the writing is what comes after that, and I think you almost learn more about writing a novel – how to do it, what works and doesn’t work – after having written a first draft.

Other advice is to always be reading other contemporaneous books in a similar genre and to consider how they’re written. What tense and person do they use, where does the principal tension first get introduced, what does the author hide and what do they show and to what effect. I would also recommend trying to read your own work in a different format to how you work on it (so, generally speaking, that means not on a computer screen in a word processing programme). Reading a print-out, or even sending the manuscript to your Kindle to read there, allows for a little distance from it and you can hopefully see much more about what’s working and what’s not with a little more objectivity.

6) As an agent, how has the pandemic affected your job role? Is there anything that you have missed from the day to day routine of being in the office?

In the whole publishing ecosystem, other than authors, agents were the best set up for the sudden pivot to home working. So much of our work is on our own, anyway!

But a huge part of my job is in-person meetings with my authors and prospective authors to discuss their work, and also meeting and catching up with editors to find out what they’re looking for, and then with overseas editors at Book Fairs. It was difficult to go from having such a social rhythm of work to none, and I think it sometimes made it hard to feel like we were all fully abreast of the industry in quite the same detail as we normally would be. On the other hand, the wide adoption of Zoom has normalised virtual meetings with authors and editors further afield, which I think is really helpful for removing some of the London-centricity of the industry.

I’ve really loved working from home, and now use both the office and home to their strengths. It’s great to be able to bounce around ideas and discuss issues in the room with colleagues, but much easier to get a lot more reading done when I’m working from home.

7) In the commercial fiction that you represent, what are you looking for? What kind of novel would you be gripped by? And what would you like to see more of?

As I hinted at before, I would love to find some more brilliant voices in the thriller area, or even veering towards some smart, light horror. I love relatable characters, psychological twists, and contemporary issues. My dream would be to find a British Megan Abbott.

But I’d also love some more really smart women’s fiction, in the vein of Dolly Alderton, Daisy Buchanan, and Bella Mackie.

8) What is your guilty pleasure genre, that you wouldn’t normally admit to reading?

If you’d asked me several years ago, I probably would have said thrillers. I found they were great at getting me out of a reading rut, but I would perhaps not consider them part of my usual diet. But I now read even wider and I try not to consider anything a guilty pleasure. My list is primarily quite literary, and the non-fiction often tends to be relatively serious, so it might be a bit of a surprise that I like reading much more fun things, too!

9) What are you currently watching on television? Do you have a favourite programme that you religiously watch?

I’m currently watching the new seasons of Succession, Insecure, and You, and I can’t wait for the new season of Euphoria. I’ve religiously kept up with all of them across their seasons, and I think those four are a relatively accurate representation of the sorts (and range) of stories that I love most.. And unlike books, television is an area where I definitely still have guilty pleasures, but I’m keeping those ones close to my chest…

10) What is your music taste like? I favour the classics such as Slade, Queen, AC/DC and some standout seventies bands, but what do you like to listen to? And what band/artist would you recommend?

I’ve been listening to less music lately, which is something I want to change in 2022, but I mostly listen to electronic music of various stripes. Some of my favourites are Four Tet, Nils Frahm, andModerat. The album I’ve listened to most recently is Wake Up Calls by Cosmo Sheldrake, which uses recordings of endangered birds. It’s beautiful, and great to work to.

Thank you for your time today, Imogen. It has been a pleasure to interview you.

Bio: Imogen Pelham is a literary agent at Marjacq Scripts where she represents both fiction and non-fiction. Her list includes bestselling author of The Secret Lives of Colour, Kassia St Clair; Wellcome Prize shortlisted, Emily Mayhew; and multi-prizelisted Yara Rodrigues Fowler, as well as notable journalists such as Hattie Crisell, Sam Diss, Jimi Famurewa, and Marie Le Conte. She is interested in literary and upmarket commercial fiction, and a range of non-fiction, including history, memoir, psychology, sociology, culture, and food.

10 Questions With… Stuart Turton

Hi everyone, and today on the blog I’m delighted to welcome bestselling crime writer Stuart Turton. Stuart is the author of The Seven Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle and The Devil and the Dark Water. He joined me for a quick chat about his writing journey.

Over to you, Stuart…

1) Did you always want to be an author? What is your earliest memory of writing?

My earliest memory of writing is making up stories for my sister. I’d read them across the hallway at night, from my bedroom to hers, just before she went to sleep. She’d be able to amend the story as we went along, and I’d have to adapt it. It was good training, now I think about it.

2) Did you have a favourite subject at school? Do you think it made an impact on your writing?

I didn’t enjoy school terribly much. I loved RE with Miss Moorhead, because that was about philosophy and big questions. We got asked our opinions on things, and that wasn’t happening to me a lot. Miss Moorhead was one of the first people who told me I was bright, and a bit different. That gave me a lot of confidence. I definitely think that class had an impact on my writing. A lot of the stuff we talked about in RE ended up being contemplated in Seven Deaths.

3) Are you a full time writer? If so, what was your ‘life’ before turning to writing full time?

I’ve been a full-time writer since Seven Deaths. Before that I was a freelance journalist. I actually quit a high paying job in Dubai so I could move back to England and write Seven Deaths. It was a bit of a risk, but I knew I had to have a go or I’d always regret it. I moved from a beautiful 30th storey apartment overlooking the marina in Dubai, to a dingy little flat above a children’s nursery in London. I used to write with the smell of dirty nappies wafting up the stairs. We were permanently skint because I only took enough work every week to pay the bills, then I’d focus on writing my book. It was stressful, and tiring, and horrible. Life’s much more pleasant now.

4) What appealed to you about writing? Why did you choose to write crime fiction?

The first books I fell in love with were Agatha Christie novels, and I’ve always wanted to try my hand at writing something like that – with the tropes, and the fair play, and the clues. When I started writing crime I realised I could mash it up with almost any other genre, which was fantastic. I just feel comfortable in this genre.

5) When you start writing, what normally comes first for you? Is it plot, character, theme or a mix of all three?

It’s the murder usually. I work out an impossible crime, then work backwards. Who died? Why did they die this way? And who wanted them killed? After that my plot is pretty much worked out, and I start thinking about the characters who’d surround the victim. The substance of the characters is always the last thing I think about, because I find that in the writing.

6) The Seven Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle is a striking, unusual stand out title. How did you come up with the title?

Oh thanks. The title of that book was the very last thing I thought about. I just looked around at titles that I’d enjoyed and nicked The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August. That’s a great title, so I changed it a bit for mine.

7) How many drafts of Seven Deaths did you write before getting your agent?

It took me three years to write Seven Deaths, and I’ve lost count of the drafts. There were at least 27 major revisions that altered plot points, character motivations, and even the ending. That book was forever shifting beneath me.

8) For Seven Deaths, what was your agent hunting process like?

I was really lucky. At that time, crime publishers were looking for something new, so agents were on the lookout for unusual crime story. I sent off five submissions and three people wanted to see the full thing. Two requested a meeting, and I went with Harry Illingworth. He just got the novel, and wasn’t too terrified when I started telling him how weird I wanted my future books to be.

9) How does the writing process differ for your future books? Are they different to Seven Deaths at all?

Yeah, every book I write is different. My aim is to obfuscate the author as much as possible. If I could take my name off them I would. I truly want each book to feel like it was written by a different person, so I plan them completely differently. Seven Deaths was planned down to the minute. Devil was much more loosely plotted – to reflect the way a ship in that period would find its way across the ocean. The writing wasn’t as ornate, but it was grimier. There were fewer metaphors.

10) I find that specific pieces of music help me to engage with my characters. Do you listen to music when you write? Do you have a favourite band or artist that you enjoy?

I make a playlist for each book when I first start planning it. There’s usually fifty songs on there, or so. Each one reflects the tone of the book, or the characters, or has something going on acoustically that I’d like to reflect in the writing. That’s my playlist for the duration of the novel, which is handy because after a while it disappears into the background, which allows me to focus on writing.

Thank you for your time today Stuart, it has been a pleasure to interview you. All the best with your writing.

Bio: Stuart Turton is the internationally bestselling author of The Seven Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle, which won The Costa First Novel Award, and the Books Are My Bag Reader Award among other accolades. His second novel, The Devil and the Dark Water was the Sunday Times Historical Fiction Book of the Year in 2020, and the Daily Mail’s Book of the Year.

Before becoming an author he was a travel journalist. Before that he did every other job you can possibly imagine. Working as a Goat farmer was the best. Cleaning toilets was the worst.

How I Got My Agent… Adam Simcox

Hi everyone, and today on my blog, I’m delighted to feature crime writer Adam Simcox. Adam has written The Dying Squad and discusses his journey to getting a literary agent.

Over to you, Adam…

Getting a literary agent

Trying to land a literary agent – an act which seems to me part job interview, part online dating trauma, part launching your hopes into the void — can seem like an unobtainable dream. It’s not impossible to get published without an agent, but it’s a damn sight harder; it took over 150 rejections before I found mine. Here’s how it happened.

It’s a long, winding tale, filled with pitfalls, pratfalls and shortfalls, and it begins three books before my debut novel, The Dying Squad, was published. I’m a filmmaker by trade and had shot a documentary about three regular people who were hoping to be chosen to go on a one way mission to Mars. I thought it would make a great novel. Luckily, one of the agents I wrote to agreed, and I worked with her on it for a couple of months. The working relationship fizzled out though, and we agreed to go our separate ways. 

Book number two was polished while I studied at Curtis Brown Creative. During the six-month course you critique the work of fellow students and have your work critiqued in return. For me, one of the most rewarding aspects of the course was being inside an agency for six months. Getting an agent (and ultimately a book deal) can often seem like an intangible, enormous thing, particularly if you don’t know anyone else who’s been published. The Curtis Brown Creative course showed it be a living, breathing, achievable 3-D goal. 

I got a few full manuscript requests from the agents there but ultimately no offers of representation. It was a massive blow. I thought that book was the real deal (I still do!), and really believed in it. So, it was onwards with book three which felt throughout like going for a tinder date after you’d been jilted at the altar on your wedding day. Unfortunately, it was a strike out once again – I got one full manuscript request out of fifty or so submissions. 

I believe to succeed in pretty much anything, you need a combination of self-belief, blind delusion, and a smidgen of unhinged arrogance. Never fear reader – when it comes to writing, I have all three things in spades. So, when the opening chapter of The Dying Squad came to me in a dream (I know – the cliché of it offends me too), I knew I had no choice but to press on and write it.  

The Dying Squad was a bit of a genre-hopper: part crime, part urban fantasy, part horror, so I knew it would take a special sort of agent to sell it. Harry Illingworth was top of my hit list from the start. I’d loved The Seven Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle by Stuart Turton, one of the writers he represented, and knew Harry specialised in genre-bending, high concept titles. In theory, The Dying Squad should have been just the sort of thing he was looking for. He was young too, which was just what I was after – give me a hungry fighter with something to prove any day. Harry was the one. 

Then, when the book was almost finished, a stroke of luck; I learnt that Harry was taking part in a how to get an agent/pitch session, run by a writing group. You got the chance to pitch your synopsis to him, and this was one of the ways the CBC course came into play; I’d learnt to craft a mean synopsis during the six months I’d studied there. I even learnt it off by heart. 

I don’t mind admitting I was nervous as hell on the day of the pitch. I knew there was no guarantee of anything — there’d be plenty of other people there with strong material. I just knew deep down that this pitch was important. It was the sort of gut feeling I’ve learned to trust. There’s an enormous amount of luck that goes into getting an agent — anyone that tells you differently is lying — and I knew this was an opportunity to stand out from the pack, so that when it came to submitting, there’d be a degree of familiarity to it for Harry. 

The night went well. Like the irritating swot at school, I was the first to stick my hand up when it was time to pitch, and I delivered it fairly well. I’m one of those distrustful freaks that enjoys public speaking. Harry seemed to like the ‘Line of Duty meets Ghost’ comparison. It took me several hours to come down from it, but I’d done it.  

A few weeks later, it was time to submit. The accepted practice is to not put all your eggs in one basket and submit to several agents at once, so I sent The Dying Squad out to five, including Harry. Whereas the other submissions had been a long wait for generic rejections, it was apparent pretty much straight away that this was going to be different; within twenty-four hours, I’d had five full manuscript requests. 

Then, on the Thursday, I got the momentous call. Harry loved the book and wanted to meet the next day. This coincided with a night out I’d already planned, which was fortunate in terms of celebrating, but unfortunate for my hangover the next morning. We met at a coffee shop, Harry outlined what he thought the book could do and offered me representation. I thanked him and accepted the next day. 

OBVS. 

It was very tough getting to that point. I had to swim through a sea of rejection. For a good while afterwards, I almost didn’t trust that it had happened, especially when Harry sold the book to Gollancz, a mere five weeks afterwards signing with him. I was happy, of course, but I was also a little wary. It was something I’d wanted for so long and I almost couldn’t believe that I’d got it. But I had, and The Dying Squad was released on July 22nd. Going into Goldsboro Books to sign 250 limited edition copies (and discovering they’d all sold out) was one of the greatest moments of my life. That moment wouldn’t have happened without the help of Harry.

Thank you for your time today, Adam. It has been a pleasure to find out all about your journey to getting your literary agent!

Bio: Adam is a London-based filmmaker who’s shot commercials for brands such as McLaren, Primark and Vice, and music videos for Britpop veterans as well as fresh on the scene alt-country stars. He began his film career by writing and directing three features: the first sold to Netflix; the second and third won awards and critical acclaim at festivals worldwide. A graduate of the Curtis Brown Creative novel writing course, The Dying Squad is Adam’s debut novel.

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