LAURA MARSHALL started writing her psychological suspense novel, Friend Request in November. Within five months, Laura had been shortlisted twice and accepted agent representation from Felicity Blunt at Curtis Brown. Laura tells us about her whirlwind few months…
Congratulations, Laura, on placing second from over a thousand entries. How was it, waiting to hear how Friend Request was progressing through the competition?
Increasingly agonising! I was really surprised (and utterly thrilled) to be longlisted, and even more so to be shortlisted. After that, no matter how many times I told myself that winning didn’t matter, to be shortlisted was amazing etc etc (which it was, of course), it did feel very tense. I spent the morning of the winner’s announcement on tenterhooks.
What’s the reaction been like from friends, family, colleagues?
Brilliant. Everyone’s been really pleased and excited for me. I hadn’t told that many people that I was even writing a novel, so it was quite a surprise for some people when I “came out”. My dad keeps sending me responses from a round robin email he sent out to all his friends on the day of the Bath Novel winner’s announcement!
It’s been a whirlwind few months for you, in an industry which can be famously slow. From starting Friend Request in November to being twice shortlisted, agented and now out on submission. Has it sunk in yet?
Not really! It still seems like a dream, or as if it’s happening to someone else. It doesn’t seem like the sort of thing that would happen to me.
Describe Friend Request in a line…
A forty year old woman receives a Facebook friend request from a girl she bullied at school; a girl who died 25 years ago.
I’ve always wanted to write, and in 2015 I decided it was finally time to do something about it. I’d had the idea for Friend Request kicking around in my head for a year or so, but realised I had no idea how to structure a novel and didn’t know how or where to start. I needed help, so I googled “Creative Writing courses”. Anyone who has ever done this will know that it throws up about a million search results. So I asked the only person I knew who had written a novel (a friend from university) if she had any recommendations for courses I could do, and she suggested Curtis Brown Creative. My initial reaction was “I’ll never get on to the course”. You had to send in a 3000 word excerpt and synopsis, neither of which I had at the time, having not written a word of the novel. But my friend encouraged me to try, suggesting the deadline for submitting the 3000 words (just a few weeks away) would be helpful, if nothing else. When I got accepted onto the course, I couldn’t believe it. I hadn’t considered looking at the different tutors but I really lucked out as the course I got onto was taught by Erin Kelly, who writes fantastic psychological thrillers, so as well as being a fab teacher anyway was perfect for the genre I wanted to write in.
What were the best 3 things about the course?
- The teaching/tutor: Erin was a brilliant teacher, encouraging and always constructive, and taught me so much about structure, inner monologue, showing not telling, dialogue … the list goes on. People say you can’t be taught to write, and whilst that may be true, you can certainly be taught to make your writing better. The feedback I got from Erin, and from Anna Davies who runs CB Creative, not only gave me the confidence I lacked, it genuinely improved my writing.
- The other students: not only in terms of their feedback in the workshopping sessions, which was immensely useful, but also they are a brilliant bunch of people. We’re all still in touch and meet up every month, and they have been some of my biggest cheerleaders throughout this process. I didn’t really know any writers or aspiring writers, so it’s great to have people to yak on to about the minutiae of writing without seeing their eyes glaze over. They’ve been a huge support throughout this crazy journey.
- Industry knowledge/ access to agents: I didn’t know anything about the publishing industry before I started the course, so having the sessions where agents, writers and publishers came in to talk to us gave me an invaluable insight into how it all works.
You accepted an offer of representation in April, just after our longlist was announced, with Felicity Blunt of Curtis Brown. Did you meet her through the course?
Yes. She came in to talk to us at one of the sessions with one of her authors, although we didn’t really meet as such then. Then at the end of the course, there is an Agents Drinks evening, before which you submit your first chapter and synopsis for the agents and their assistants to read, and then you meet them at the drinks. Felicity wasn’t actually there as she wasn’t well, but I met her assistant and then afterwards I heard from Anna at CBC that Felicity had liked my extract and would be interested in seeing it when it was finished. I couldn’t have been happier to have signed with her.
Tell us about meeting Felicity, what you asked and how you knew she was the right agent for FR / you…
Felicity was absolutely top of my agent wish list. I’d met her briefly when she came to talk to us as part of the course, and she represents some amazing authors writing in my genre such as Tammy Cohen and Rosamund Lupton, and of course Renee Knight, whose novel “Disclaimer” was one of the big debuts of 2015. I knew that her experience with these authors would mean she would know how to make my book better, and also how to (hopefully!) sell it.
What editorial changes have happened since you signed with Felicity?
The book went through three sets of edits with Felicity until she felt it was ready to submit to publishers. She suggested various changes including changing the ending to make it less predictable and more interesting. Everything she said was right and has made the novel so much better.
How nerve-wracking are you finding the submissions process?
Oh my God, unbelievably so. I’ve worn my fingers down to bleeding stumps by refreshing my email approximately every 5 seconds. Which is ridiculous as I’m sure if there is good news my agent will phone rather than email. It’s SO nerve wracking. My life is pretty busy with work and children, so it’s not like I’m not sitting around twiddling my thumbs, but to be honest nothing can distract me from the constant, tense waiting. Obviously I’ve done a huge amount of googling about being on submission and I’m well aware that this could go on for months before there is any news, so I really do need to try and find a way to put it out of my mind. I’ve not found it yet.
Friend Request is such a hooky book. What sparked the idea off?
It’s an idea that had been rolling around in my head for at least a year before I actually started to write. The bullying storyline and the teenage experience as a whole definitely came out of my own experience, although none of the characters are based on real people. I’ve been contacted by many people from my past on Facebook, with whom I would otherwise have completely lost touch, and I wondered what if you heard from someone you really didn’t want to hear from, someone who brought up memories you had buried? The story grew from there.
We had a huge upsurge in number of psychological thriller manuscripts entered for this year’s award. Were you conscious of writing in such a competitive field?
It’s not really something I thought about – I just wrote what I wanted to write/read. As a reader, I love crime and psychological thrillers and it feels natural for me to write in the genre. I’ve never considered writing anything else.
There’s been a great buzz from people who have read your extract, all desperate to know when they can read the full. How does it feel to have people talking about your book and characters?
Absolutely extraordinary. To have people who don’t know me reading it as if it were an actual, real book, and enjoying it, makes me so happy.
Your book was championed from the get go by one of our professional thriller readers who is also a private investigator. She stayed up until the small hours unable to stop reading Friend Request. What do you think is the secret of propelling readers through your book?
I think foreshadowing is very important – that sense that something dramatic is going to happen. Dropping those little hints that keep the reader guessing, and needing to know how the story plays out. I think also you need to care about the characters. I read a lot of psychological thrillers and the ones that have me hooked are not only great at foreshadowing, but also have characters that you actually care about.
Our panel also especially loved your depiction of a teenage girl desperate to fit in, willing to do or say anything to gain acceptance and described this as “gut churningly” accurate. Was this based on personal experience?
Yes, there’s definitely a bit of me in there, although I never went as far as Louise does in the novel! I’ve always been interested in the teenage years, and how all the emotions are heightened when you are that age, both good and bad. Even though I am forty-one, it seems like no time since I was a teenager and I remember how it felt very clearly.
We also loved your internal dialogue, several times pausing to think ‘finally, someone has put that feeling into words’. Any tips on writing internal dialogue?
Internal dialogue was something I had never thought about before I did the Curtis Brown Creative course and was definitely something I learned to do better as the course progressed. I try to use it to highlight the gap between what your character is saying and what they are feeling but not saying; that’s often where the most interesting story lies.
What kind of Facebook user are YOU?
I do use it, but don’t post very much. It makes me slightly uncomfortable when people live out the intimate details of their lives out on it. I also think it can contribute to your own anxieties about how well (or otherwise) your life is going, forcing you to compare yourself unfavourably with other people. It’s hard but important to remember that people only post what they want the world to see, and that it’s not necessarily a true reflection of the reality of their life. I do value it though, especially for keeping up to date with friends whom I might otherwise have lost touch with.
Have you ever been to a school reunion?
No. There was one for my year I think, a couple of years ago but I didn’t go. I’m still very close to my four “best friends” from my teenage years and I really value those long-standing friendships, but apart from them I haven’t really seen anyone else since I left school and I suppose I just felt a bit awkward about going.
How did you plot Friend Request?
Before I started the Curtis Brown Creative course I read an extremely helpful book called Screenwriting Tricks for Authors by Alexandra Sokoloff. She talks a lot about the three act structure, which was something I knew nothing about and had never even considered. I didn’t have the whole novel plotted out in detail, but I knew basically where I was heading which really helped as I wrote.
Where and when do you write?
I work more or less full time and have two children and little free time, so I get up at 5 in the morning to get a couple of hours writing in before everyone else surfaces. I’ve never been a morning person but I actually love it in a strange way. It’s the only time of the day where no one is making any demands on me either professionally or personally, so I can focus exclusively on writing.
This is your first finished book, but you also have an abandoned unfinished manuscript. Why did you abandon it and what did it teach you about writing this book?
I started writing it in 2004, and came back to it now and then over the years. I think in the end, life just got in the way. I looked at it recently and it’s not great. The writing is OK but it’s not a particularly original idea and I had no idea about how to structure a novel so it’s quite meandering. I think it probably helped me to think about character and plot. I guess there were some common elements with Friend Request – it was a crime novel, and some of the ideas/themes were similar, but it’s definitely staying in the drawer!
Tell us about you…
I’ve been working as a conference producer since 2000, first on a permanent basis and for the last six years as a freelancer. I research topics for conferences, put the programme together, identify and invite speakers and write marketing copy. Currently most of the events I work on are for the healthcare industry but I’ve also worked in telecoms and finance. It’s something I used to do on a permanent, full-time basis, but since having my second child it’s been great to be freelance and have the opportunity to work more flexibly. I live in Kent with my husband, who is an actor, and our two sons. I’ve always wanted to write, so getting to this point really is a dream come true.
What are you writing now / next and who do you let read your work?
At the moment my focus is really on what’s going to happen with Friend Request. I have got a few ideas for another book, but they’re just ideas at the moment. I’m still in close contact with my course-mates from the Curtis Brown Creative course. A few of them very kindly read an early draft of Friend Request and had some very insightful notes. Two of my friends who are not writers, but are avid readers also read it for me and again had some great insights. My husband also went through it with a red pen!
As runner up, you won Cornerstones Literary Consultancy’s prize of £400 editorial services. Have you ever worked with a professional editor? Any thoughts on how you’ll use the prize?
No, I’ve never worked with a professional editor so I was delighted to win the Cornerstones’ prize. My plan at the moment is to wait and see what happens with Friend Request being out on submission, and then I’ll decide what to do with the vouchers. It may be that I use them in the planning and first draft stages of a (gulp) second novel, if I ever get the chance to write one.
Oh there’s so many. My favourite all-time book is Cold Comfort Farm by Stella Gibbons.
I love psychological thrillers, especially Sophie Hannah and Nicci French. Recently in that genre I was gripped by Apple Tree Yard by Louise Doughty and When He Was Bad by Tammy Cohen. I also enjoy crime fiction generally, especially Ian Rankin, and I have huge love for Agatha Christie who is real comfort reading for me, especially ones I’ve read before.
Outside of crime, I love Kate Atkinson, Sarah Waters, Anne Tyler, Margaret Atwood, Sebastian Faulks. I could go on. I’m also VERY excited about the new Jilly Cooper.
Lastly, any advice for anyone thinking of entering their novel for a future award?
Do it! You never know where it could lead. I know the winner Kim Sherwood has said she almost didn’t enter because she didn’t think she was good enough, and I never dreamed I would get as far as I did. What I’ve realised since starting this whole process is that agents are actually looking for good novels, even if it doesn’t feel like it from the other side of the fence. They look to these competitions for potential clients, because they know that the competition organisers are great at spotting potential. Even if you don’t win, being longlisted or shortlisted for a prestigious award like the Bath Novel will attract the attention of the industry. You’ve got nothing to lose and everything to gain.
Read the opening chapters of FRIEND REQUEST by Laura Marshall here
Follow Laura on Twitter @laurajm8
Read The Bath Novel Award 2016 Winners Announcement in full here
INTERVIEW by CAROLINE AMBROSE, JULY 2016