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A one day festival advising aspiring writers how to pen a bestseller looks set to answer all those burning questions.

Lucy Cavendish College (6164995)
Lucy Cavendish College (6164995)

Lucy Cavendish College in Cambridge is running its Fiction Prize Festival on January 19, which will offer talks, workshops and one-to-ones with experts from the writing and publishing industries and published authors.

The aim is to giving unpublished writers an opportunity to be inspired and learn how to write their debut book. It comes a couple of weeks before the submission deadline for the college’s famous women’s fiction prize for unpublished female authors, giving writers a last minute chance to ask the experts about their stories.

Nelle Andrew, literary agent at PFD and a judge for the Fiction Prize, will run one-to-one advice sessions on the day. She said: “The Fiction Prize Festival is the best opportunity for would-be writers. If you want to be published but don’t want to spend hundreds on courses and are looking for real insight, join us for a day that could change your life.”

Guest speakers include critically acclaimed and award-winning authors Sophie Hannah (an internationally bestselling crime writer), Lesley Sanderson (The Orchid Girls), Frances Maynard (The Seven Imperfect Rules of Elvira Carr), Kelleigh Greenberg-Jephcott (Swan Song), Laura Marshall (Friend Request and Three Little Lies) and Sara Collins (The Confessions of Frannie Langton, coming soon).

Literary agents from Fiction Prize sponsor Peters Fraser and Dunlop (PFD) will also be involved, as well as publishers and editors, the journalist, broadcaster and former Lucy Cavendish President Jackie Ashley, and award-winning novelist and journalist Allison Pearson, who is chair of the Fiction Prize judging panel.

The Lucy Cavendish Fiction Prize itself has been the catalyst for numerous bestselling debuts and emerging literary talent - with almost all those shortlisted in 2016 now having secured publishing deals. The deadline for entries is 12 noon on Friday 9 February 2018.

Find out how to submit a manuscript for the prize here: lucy-cav.cam.ac.uk/fictionprize

Literary agent Nelle Andrew’s tips for getting published.

Nelle Andrew, literary agent with PFD (6165059)
Nelle Andrew, literary agent with PFD (6165059)

Nelle is a literary agent for PFD, one of the speakers at the festival and a judge on the Lucy Cavendish Fiction Prize. She will be giving her tips on what agents are looking for in a novel manuscript and how to get published.

What is on your wishlist?

“I like to be surprised by submissions,” she says. “The books on the Lucy Cavendish Prize shortlist have always challenged me as a reader, been incredibly entertaining, had a phenomenal story and very clever, complex themes.

“They have been stories that were gripping and compelling. But they also had something to say - they are never disposable fiction. The ones that stand out always have really strong talking points. They are very emotionally rich pieces of writing and it’s amazing that they could just be could be sitting in someone’s kitchen drawer.

“There are a lot of books that academically seem interesting but it is quite hard to make me feel emotionally invested. If you do that you are onto a winner and I think that is why Eleanor Oliphant (shortlisted on the Lucy Cavendish prize) did so well.”

How can I make my book stand out?

Nelle explains agents are always looking for something new and different, which can be tricky.

She says: “Publishers and agents read a lot, far more than the general public. I can say that with confidence because the public are only reading what we have allowed to get through to them. We read all the things that didn’t make it to publication as well.

“It is a bit of a hurdle for authors to stand out when there is a swathe of literature that we have been privy to that you, as a writer, haven’t. People say ‘I’m writing this kind of fiction that keeps being published, why isn’t that enough?’.

“But you have to see it within the context of all the other books that are trying to do similar things; books we have rejected because they are not as complex, as rich, as fulfilling, as plausible as the ones that get published.

“Often people pitch a book to us and I have to tell them a novel with the same plot came out two months ago. They may not have heard of it but I have because it is my job to read widely.”

What’s one of the biggest flaws in debut fiction?

Many times I read things there will be a character who does something I don’t believe is plausible. Psychologically speaking, I don’t think they would react in that situation like that."

What’s your best advice for people entering the competition?

“Be brave. Don’t think ‘I can’t do this’ or ‘I’m not ready’. Too often women talk themselves out of things because we feel under qualified.

“Put that aside and try it,. You don’t know how good you are and you might change your life. You do have to risk failure for success.

“This prize only asks for the first three chapters of your novel, so it doesn’t have to be finished. Applying at this early stage means you can get really important feedback to improve your book and your chances of being published."

Why is the Lucy Cavendish Fiction Prize only for women?

The prize has been amazing at introducing women writers, whereas most of the other major literary prizes are heavily dominated by men

“It is usually women who find it a struggle to juggle writing and their other commitments - they are still usually the drivers of the home as well as their work life.

So it is usually them who suffer creatively.

The prize is about finding, celebrating and championing those women’s voices because there aren’t many vehicles for them to get to publishers and find that level of encouragement.

“It’s such a wide age range of women who apply - women in their 50s and 60s getting the chance to be published. It’s not just about 25 year old ingenues. It’s about the talent.”

Success story

Kelleigh Greenberg-Jephcott (6164910)
Kelleigh Greenberg-Jephcott (6164910)

Kelleigh Greenberg-Jephcott’s novel Swan Song, which has just been chosen as one of The Times’ Books of the Year 2018 alongside titles by Sebastian Faulks, Pat Barker and William Boyd, was shortlisted for the Lucy Cavendish Fiction Prize in 2015.

As a result, she was signed to her agent, Karolina Sutton, and Swan Song was sold in a six figure deal; in the UK, it was published by Hutchinson this summer. Swan Song tells the story of Truman Capote’s ‘Swans’, the beautiful, wealthy and influential women who confided in him, and his betrayal of them when, in his story ‘La Côte Basque’, he published all their secrets, destroying his place in an elite New York society. The novel has been called a dazzling debut, defined by elegance and tragedy.

Kelleigh says: “I am so glad I entered the Fiction Prize and was shortlisted with six astonishingly talented women!

“Even though I was a screenwriter for many years, I still didn’t think I was qualified to write a novel. Swan Song took me ten years ro research and another four years to write. I was circling the pool for some time. I asked myself what is the story that is too big, too epic, too voice driven to be a feature length film? And I had the germ of an idea for this story.

“From the moment I was shortlisted, Lucy Cavendish thave been astonishing champions of this book. These fiction prizes, especially ones for books before they are published, have been my passport from a world of aspiration to realisation.”

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