They came, they queued, they pitched.

With pitches and first pages of novels in hand, Elaine and Francesca travelled up to London last weekend for this year’s Discovery Day at Foyles bookshop, to speak with agents from Curtis Brown and Conville and Walsh.

IMG_0166 cropped ERElaine: Saturday the 27th February 2016 had arrived. The nerves had suddenly come to the fore. Hundreds of unpublished writers travelled to the Curtis Brown Discovery Day at Foyles Bookshop in London. Everyone of us excited to have the first page of our novels critiqued by one of their agents.

I sat, with paperwork in hand, and spoke to the lovely Sophie Lambert who is an agent with Conville and Walsh Literary Agency. I give my thanks to her because my nerves disappeared and I was able to talk about my Victorian Saga with ease. Sophie showed a great deal of interest in my novel and pointed me in the direction of another agent, Rebecca Ritchie of Curtis Brown, whom she thought would be interested in my genre.




A glimpse into the pitching room.

IMG_0171 cropped

Were they trying to tell us something?

IMG_0780Francesca: I must admit, I wasn’t as nervous this year, maybe because I knew the agents weren’t there to snap people up but to give sound advice. I was lucky to land Clare Conville of Conville and Walsh. Although not representing my genre, she had some good suggestions about what to add to the opening. She also said it was ‘sharp and funny’, which was encouraging. She gave me the name of two agents from Curtis Brown, so I’m storing those up for when I’ve finished the novel.

After the one-to-one, we were sent in groups for the surgery session. Here we had an opportunity to ask any questions about writing, submitting and publishing. 


Claire, on the stairs ahead of us.

Rosemary, pitch in hand.

Rosemary, pitch in hand.

Elaine: At the end of the pitching and surgery sessions, Francesca and I, along with our writing friends, Rosemary Goodacre and Claire Verillo, stayed for the panel talk. This was chaired by Anna Davis.  Also on the panel were Emma Healey, author of Elizabeth is Missing, Karolina Sutton, Emma’s Curtis Brown agent, and Venetia Butterfield, from Emma’s publishing company, Viking. Anna informed us that the agents had spoken to over seven hundred writers, which is a staggering figure.

The panel discussion was mainly about how everyone has to pitch to sell the novel, from the author, agent and the buyer of the publishing company, who then has to try and sell it to the Sales Team and the Marketing Department. They also talked about what attracts them to a novel. The answer can probably be broken down into three words; Emotion, Characters, and Plot, but not necessarily in that order.

All relieved now it's all over. Surgery session in the background.

Relieved it’s all over. Surgery session in the background.

IMG_0180 cropped

Giovanna, asking which queue she should join for YA.


Anna Davis, MD of Curtis Brown Creative, introducing the speakers.

Francesca: I think the location within the store and the queueing system worked a lot better this year (Foyles has been refurbished since we were there last). We didn’t have to wait around for so long and there was a cafe to hang out in until your time slot arrived.

I understand the experience of those pitching Young Adult novels wasn’t quite as smooth. My daughter, Giovanna Burgess, was there to pitch a YA fantasy and her queue did move a lot slower. To speed it up, some of the writers ended up seeing non YA agents and even an agency reader. Despite this, Giovanna was more than happy with the advice she received.


It’s pretty safe to say we all had a good day and it is definitely something we would recommend. The opportunity to meet with agents and get feedback on your first page is priceless.

Were you there? What was your experience?

Twitter: @RobertsElaine11            @FCapaldiBurgess


Character Assassination

Francesca considers the tricky problem of using real people in fiction

In novel class this week, someone brought up the subject of using people we know in our novels. One of the students had received several requests from people to be included in her latest novel, real names and all. An in-depth discussion on the matter ensued. Our tutor (novelist Elaine Everest) pointed out that even if the person concerned gives you permission to use them as a character, DON’T. At some later date they may decide they hate your portrayal of them and sue. Or, if they unfortunately die, their family might sue instead.

One person in this family photo has featured in a story, but which?

One person in this family photo has featured in a story, but which?

It’s possible to get round this by changing their names of course.  I believe it’s something writers do all the time in any case. I know I do. Sometimes I’ve chosen the person concerned because they are interesting or their story is fascinating. Sometimes it’s that I have that person in mind as I’m creating a character, because they’re similar. Or bits of different people end up in one character.

My own children have come in very handy, particularly when they were younger and I wanted to create a teenager for a short story (don’t think they’ll sue!) My parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles and cousins and occasionally past friends (or ‘friends’) and acquaintances have all played their part in my make-believe world. Many are long dead or well in the past but I’ve still changed their names. Currently I’m writing something which is based, albeit loosely, on when my parents met.

The original 'Cosmo' who is actually in a 'woo woo'!

The original ‘Cosmo’ who is actually in a ‘woo woo’!

Now it’s the grandchildren’s turn. Luca was the inspiration for little ‘Cosmo’ who liked his ‘woo woos’ in a long story I nearly had published recently (sadly the anthology didn’t go ahead). His distinctive phrases and facial expressions are easily recognisable in the text. He is cute in the role, so I’m quite happy to tell you it’s him, though I was at pains to point out to my daughter that Cosmo’s mum isn’t her!

The examples I’ve used so far have been, for the most part, nice characters. But what about when we turn a person into someone who isn’t very nice, or even a villain, even though it may not be much of a leap?  When I’ve done this it hasn’t been about revenge, (well, maybe a teensy weensy bit) but more because they’d simply make a darned good ‘baddy’. I always find myself looking for reasons why they’re like this, a background that has informed their present, which isn’t necessarily the reality. A lonely. impoverished or abusive childhood? Let down by a lover? Bullied at school? We should do this with all our main characters of course, but it’s particularly poignant with the rogues. They’re often much more fun to play with than the more virtuous characters.

The one thing I would never do is give the ‘bad’ character the real name of someone I knew, however tempting that might be. There’s a good reason why works of fiction start with a disclaimer about the characters in the book being fictitious. We’d all do well to take heed of Elaine’s advice: DON’T!


You can read more about my adventures as a grandmother on my occasional Nonna Blog

Mirror, Signal, Manoeuvre…

Elaine Roberts compares her driving lessons with her writing structure.

The clear road ahead

The optimism of the clear road ahead

It was over forty years ago when I took my driving lessons. It was a struggle for me to take in the process of working my feet, hands and eyes all at the same time. I often hear people say how they passed on their first driving test. It took me three attempts before I passed, admittedly the second examiner had just come back from having a nervous breakdown, and no, I didn’t have him the first time.

You might be asking why I am talking about driving lessons and tests; well, I’m going to tell you. When I was learning to drive, there was always a lot to remember. I’m not going to go into getting your feet to hit the right pedals in the right order. However, the term that has always stayed with me is “mirror, signal, and manoeuvre.”

The question I ask is, can you relate it to your writing?

Wing mirrors give a different view to the rear view mirror

Wing mirrors giving a different view.


When sitting in the driving seat and you look at the rear view mirror, or the wing mirror, you are looking at what is behind you. Hhmm, could that be the back story of your characters? Do you need to know where they have been, or what they have been through, to be able to move them forward?


Before pulling away, or turning, the driver flicks on the indicator to signal to other drivers where they are going.

Signalling where the reader is being taken

Signalling where the reader is being taken

When we write a story, should we be signalling what could be coming? I believe that, in this context, it could be called signposting. It amounts to the same thing. We have our characters acting out, but the reader doesn’t necessarily understand why until much later in the story, but when the penny drops, the reader gets an “ah” moment.




In driving terms, this could be reversing round a corner, doing a three point turn, hill start, an emergency stop or just basically moving forward.

The grey sky and busy road of the conflicts along the way.

The grey sky and busy road of the conflicts along the way.

In writing terms, the manoeuvre is the twists and turns of the story. It’s the plot, sub plots and the conflicts. It’s the twists and turns that the characters take when they hit a traffic jam, or something that stops them from getting to their end goal, or destination.

Perhaps, for me, the way forward isn’t to remember all the acts, scenes, chapters and saggy middles in writing, but just trying to remember mirror, signal and manoeuvre and then I’ll reach my destination.


The Tip Of The Iceberg

This week Elaine Roberts talks about where she went wrong with her work in progress.

This week I have sent my manuscript off to the Romantic Novelists Association (RNA) New Writers Scheme (NWS), to be critiqued. It is the first time I haven’t sent a completed manuscript. I have only sent the first seven chapters, which is just under 39,000 words. I thought I would send it now so I can go to the RNA Conference with a clear conscience and allow myself to enjoy the talks and workshops that are laid on. It is an exhausting but fun time with lots of writerly talk with writerly people. When the talks are finished, a copious amount of wine is drunk, although not by me of course (just in case my husband is reading this). If you can only do one event each year, this is it.


My Saga Family Tree

Anyway, I’ve digressed. My current work in progress is a saga. Part of my preparation involved creating a large family tree to help me remember who is related to whom and their ages. All this preparation will hopefully see me over three novels. Although they will not be a series, some of the characters will be carried forward as the generations grow.

It was only when I got to chapter five that I realised I didn’t know enough about my main character’s backstory. As you can imagine, I was livid with myself and it brought my writing to a standstill. For anyone who is reading this but isn’t a budding writer, I’ll explain what the backstory is, without trying to bore you too much.

The backstory of a character is basically what makes them tick and why they react to things the way they do. So it is all about action and reaction. An example of this is when a child has been spoilt. How they react when they are told no is different to how someone reacts who is used to hearing the word no. This is a very basic example, but one I hope paints the picture. When I think of backstory, I relate it to an iceberg. The large amount of unseen ice is below sea level, that is the bit the readers do not read, but it forms your character’s underlining traits. The tip of the iceberg, the part that is above sea level, is what the readers will read and, hopefully, enjoy.

© Mopic | - Large Iceberg Floating In Water Photo

© Mopic | – Large Iceberg Floating In Water Photo

I had to brainstorm further into my characters backgrounds and delve into their childhoods and their standing within the family. Lots of scribbling took place and then I returned to chapter one and filled in the gaps, right through to chapter seven.

Now, I just wait and worry. I wait for the readers report to come back from the RNA NWS and worry in case they find big plot holes in my story. The good news is that if they do, it will be in the report and I can think about how to improve my work.


Character Building

Elaine and Francesca consider their methods for creating characters.

Elaine: I start with their age and when they were born. This gives me a star sign, which in turn gives me some character traits as a starting point. Once I’m happy with that, I do a character profile. This will involve interviewing them; it’s what I call getting to know my characters. It will involve some simple questions such as:

Forgotten Love - Main Character's Profile

Forgotten Love – Main Character’s Profile

Do you prefer to drink tea or coffee?

Do you prefer the Rolling Stones or The Beatles?

What would be your idea of a perfect day/night?

Do you believe in God?

What is your happiest memory as a child?

What is your worst memory?

And so it goes on. They are not all deep and meaningful questions but the answers will help bring out the characters back story, and that in turn will bring understanding about their actions/reactions.

I have an interview sheet that I complete, but sometimes I add extra questions, which could be relevant to the story I am writing at the time. Think of your own questions and things it might be useful to know. Type it up and you have a template for all future characters. It is also useful if you suddenly forget any detail of your character. I have been known to unwittingly change the colour of my character’s eyes before now.

Another thing I find useful is to keep a picture of someone that reminds me of my character, fictional or real. It may not be the look, but it could be a reminder of character traits. I do keep pictures of houses, streets, people and even front doors. It all helps me with my writing.


Francesca: The main characters in my novels tend to come to me reasonably well formed. I can only imagine my subconscious has been building them while I’ve been doing other things, because I usually know exactly what they look like, hair and eye colour and all. 

IMG_6562I start a new notebook for each novel, so the details of the female and male protagonists are the first two entries, taking up around twenty pages each. That notebook is my reference book throughout. I then start to flesh out their personalities, jobs, past life, education, home life, relationships, family and their secrets. Often it’s like they’re telling me their stories. Fanciful maybe, or just an over-active imagination!

Next I move onto their abodes. From time to time these also arrive fully formed, but often it’s a case of deciding roughly size and location and going onto something like Right Move to see what there is. For the current WIP, I picked a seaside village in West Wales as a template for my imaginary village, then ‘walked’ along the streets on Google Street View, until I found the perfect house for ‘Tori’.

During the course of the novel, certain problems or questions might arise that cause me to consider some aspect of the character’s life or personality. I always leave plenty of pages free in the notebook for this. Yes, it would be easier to put it on the computer, but this works for me. It also means I can take that notebook anywhere if I want to write a scene by hand, say, if I were having a coffee somewhere or on a train. Occasionally, if I’m not sure where a scene’s going, I’ll have an imaginary conversation with the characters to see what they think!

Secondary characters also get several pages in the notebook, especially if they turn out to be trouble makers as I need to work out their motivation.

IMG_6564Characters for short stories are a different matter. I tend to have an A4 sheet or two  for each story (based on a sheet from Elaine Everest’s classes) which outlines major aspects, and that will include a short paragraph about them that’s relevant to the plot.

Like Elaine, I collect pictures of people who contain some aspect of my characters. I tack them to my study door along with a plan of the main house and a map of the area. Then I’m ready to go!


Visit my Nonna Blog to catch up on my adventures as a ‘reluctant’ grandmother

It’s As Simple As…

Elaine Roberts talks about how a whole new world opened up when she decided to write her novel.

report_writingMy writing is never far from my thoughts. Thank goodness typewriters are a thing of the past, I hate to think how much Tippex and re-writing would be involved. My laptop goes practically everywhere I do. My husband and I recently drove to North Wales to visit an elderly aunt and I even tried to write in the car, but travel sickness took over. A week later, I took it to Worcester when visiting more relatives. I don’t like to miss an opportunity to move my work on a stage. To be honest, I think I’m a little obsessive. As soon as people know I’m writing, I’m constantly being asked when my “best seller” will be published.

If only life was as simple as that.

I was asked recently how I manage to write enough to produce a novel when working full time and that is a problem, especially as my job requires me to use the logical side of my brain and my writing needs me to exercise my creative muscle. I am lucky to have a very supportive family and a husband who has relieved me of any household duties, which obviously gives me a very precious commodity, time.

My time used to be spent writing short stories for women’s magazines and while it wasn’t something I ever wanted to do, it was a quick win and helped keep my belief that I was a good writer. Time wasn’t an issue either because I could write a short story in a couple of hours, then I would let it sit for a while and then return to edit it. However, it is a totally different skill, as some writers will admit they struggle writing within a strict word count and vice versa. For me it’s working an apprenticeship. If I learnt to play the piano, that wouldn’t make me a concert pianist or maybe more appropriately, a GCSE in history doesn’t make anyone a historian.

Francesca and I At An RNA Event

Francesca and I At An RNA Event

Anyway, before I start ranting, back to the writing. It is underestimated how much work is involved in writing a novel. When you first start writing seriously, you hear phrases like: show don’t tell, the five senses, ensure that your plot, characters and your sub plots all work. Then of course there is the issue of avoiding the saggy middle, haha, that’s a bit late for me. Seriously, the saggy middle is all about making sure something happens halfway through your story, to carry your reader on, so they don’t put it down and never pick it up again.

It’s simple, if only.

I plan my chapters and the structure of my novels and that makes it easier to pick up and put down.


When I begin writing, it’s always difficult to know exactly where to start, so my first chapter usually gets rewritten about a dozen times, and then I also have a habit of changing the order of my chapters. This causes another problem because I then have to check if moving a chapter has a ripple effect to something I have already written. I once had a character discussing an argument that hadn’t happened because of such a move. It’s all about the attention to detail.

What I’ve discovered with my new work in progress is that I write in layers; that wasn’t planned, it just happened. I think that is because I’m trying something new and it is much more complicated than anything I have ever written before.

So the next person that says to me “I could write a book, I just don’t have the time,” I say go for it, even if it takes years. As with all work, until you’ve worked in somebody else’s shoes, you have no idea what’s involved.

Now where was I?

Once upon a time there was a….



“Can I, Can’t I?”

Elaine Roberts discusses her new venture.

So February’s here and my daffodils are rising high in my garden.Where did January go?
Sinceimages_2 Christmas, my nose has been buried in my new project, and I do mean buried, hours upon hours of research, taking copious amounts of notes and bookmarking. Thankfully, we have it easier these days than the writers of yesteryear. What I can find in an hour on the Internet would have taken days and several reference books, I’m sure. I’m beginning to think there’s nothing you can’t find on there, why didn’t we have that when I was at school? Homework would have been so much easier.

ThinkerHaving said that, my decision-making lets me down, my problem is I keep changing my mind about where my characters are going to live and what they are going to be called.

I’ve been looking at old maps to see what roads existed at the time I’m writing about images(have you noticed I’m not saying the time it’s set in, it’s a secret, even to me!) How long will it take them to get from A to B. Then there are character names. A name can tell you a lot about a character and their family history. For example, if a lady is called Fleur, then she is likely to be French or, at least have a French connection. I’ve read lists and lists of names, not just trying to find some that I like, but also trying to find ones that my readers won’t say “What!” to. At this point, more out of frustration than reality, I think maybe I have too many characters. Perhaps I could drop some, but no, I’ve planned eleven of my twenty chapters and all my characters are accounted for. So they stay and that’s final. Back to the name searching then.

I have given myself a deadline of getting ten chapters completed by the end of August, so the Romantic Novelists Association New Writers Scheme can critique it. I’ve never handed in an incomplete novel before but I’m wandering into uncharted waters. Well, they are uncharted for me anyway. The big question is can I write it, the answer is I don’t know, but I’m definitely going to try. There was a time over last weekend when I did get myself in a tizz over my abilities to write it, so against all my own rules, I started writing the opening scene. Only five hundred and ninety words but psychologically they were probably the most important words I have ever written, mainly because I was chuffed with the result. It’s only the first draft but my confidence has been lifted. I’m actually beginning to think I can do it and, when I do, you’ll all hear my screaming from the rooftops.

PlanningYou know, when I used to just read books, I never realised how much work and planning went into them.

Let us know what your scariest ‘can I, can’t I’ moment was, whether it’s applying for a job or trying something new.

Share it so I know I’m not on my own, please…

Twitter: RobertsElaine11


Francesca Burgess explores the value and pitfalls of research

Write what you know. That’s good advice for someone just setting out as a writer and something most writers do, to some extent, their whole writing life. I’ve certainly rummaged through the events of my life for plots. For instance, one of the first short stories I ever had published called New Beginnings (which consequently ended up in the charity anthology Diamonds and Pearls) had a plot based on my experience of the family Easter.

I’m sure I’ll go on using things I’m familiar with in my fiction, but as endlessly fascinating as my life is (cough cough), there comes a time as a writer when you need to break out, delve into something a little different, something you don’t have experience of.

The first two novels I wrote were Young Adult, which brought its own problems. Yes, I was a teenager once and I remember it quite vividly. However, if I had one of my characters dressed in loons exclaiming, “Groovy!” I might find myself accused of being a tad out of date. Some of the research for this was first hand, watching and listening to my own teen children and their friends. Then there was ‘Yoof’ TV and other YA novels.

I know some writers find research tedious but I am both lucky, and unfortunate, in that I love it. I discovered my penchant for research thirty-six years ago during a module for my history degree. It involved studying an area of Kingston-upon-Thames. Wading through microfiche files full of census data and tithe maps turned out to be really quite thrilling as the history of the streets I’d walked emerged.

Microfiche files! Those were the days. Thank goodness for computers. Much of what I write now is contemporary, but it’s amazing how much research I still have to do. The time of a train journey somewhere, the geography of a town I can’t get to visit (I so love walking the streets on Google View!), it’s all there on the internet for the viewing public.

For my novels I’ve had to research things like tide tables, the effects of cannabis, prison sentences for GBH, the laws for divorce and tenancy agreements. When adapting short stories for abroad, among the areas I’ve checked are Christmas traditions, the climate at certain times of year and the school system. Three of my four novels have required research into hospital procedure for certain conditions (I seem to enjoy heaping medical emergencies on my characters!).

As I hinted earlier, loving the research is also a problem. It’s very, very easy to get carried away and forget to do the writing. And that’s the danger of it: you’ve got to know when to stop, not to research beyond what you need. Maybe the answer is to set the timer, give myself only so long to do it? I’ll have to try it and see if it works.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m just going for a walk around Whitstable on Street View…

D&P show page