Felicity Blunt first trained as a barrister before joining Curtis Brown Literary Agency in 2005, where her clients include Laura Marshall whose 2017 bestselling debut Friend Request (Little, Brown) was runner-up in the Bath Novel Award 2016.
Thank you for judging this year’s prize. What kind of manuscripts would you love to find?
A lot of the fiction I see feels quite derivative of something that has already been seen to work in the market. The books that feel special are the ones with an original plot, unique and developed characters, a specific sense of place (please don’t forget that your location IS a character to all intents and purposes). Also pay attention to time. How you handle time can be so key, it is your driving force in a book whether you are specifically aware of it or not. The pacing of a book is, I believe, tied to how you handle time as well as plot.
What do you look for in a first page and do you have any first page no-no’s?
A good first page must intrigue. There should be some question posed that I need to find the answer to. That can be related to character, place or event. It really doesn’t have to be a dead body! Think about Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca and her opening line, ‘Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again’. Already as a reader you are curious.
I think the first page and indeed the first chapter can be a very awkward beast to get right. There is a tendency to over explain and to throw too much onto the page to try to nail your set up, your main character, their back story etc. My advice would be not to try too hard to cram in every detail but to trust your reader and set up the first pages like a trail of breadcrumbs.
Where and when do you read manuscripts?
Anywhere and all the time! In bed, on the tube, at my desk, in the chair in my son’s room, literally everywhere. I am lucky that if I love a book I can block out pretty much anything and immerse myself in a text. (Not so great for my loved ones). I also find it incredibly hard to put something down that I am enjoying. It means I’m always connected to my e-reader and always making notes as I read. It’s so important to me to remember my first reaction to a book and to note precisely what I loved or felt needed work.
When reading agency submissions do you read the extract or synopsis first?
If it’s a short blurb on the book (akin to what you find on the back of a published novel) I’ll read it as a taster for what I’ll be getting. However, if it’s a full length synopsis I’ll skip it and the spoilers and just go to the extract right away. Usually a great cover letter will give you a sense of the novel and will be enough to have me dipping in straight away.
You describe your fiction tastes as broad, with specialisms in crime, psychological suspense, and literary/commercial crossover. Are there any genres you would not represent and/or pick to win?
I don’t think so. I suppose I might feel less confident about extreme sci-fi (planet Zog etc…!) but then something in the vein of THE MARTIAN would have me jumping up and down with excitement. I read for pleasure just about anything I can get my hands on and my list reflects that. A great book is a great book regardless of its genre.
What did you love about Friend Request?
I loved that amongst all the psychological suspense novels out there this one felt like it was rooted in a scenario we could all relate to. Being contacted by someone from your past on Facebook. There is something unnerving is there not even in the everyday requests from people you have no present-day contact with? Now imagine that request is from a girl you wronged terribly 20 years ago, a girl who disappeared soon afterwards and who you have always believed to be dead.
What do you look for in a literary / commercial novel?
I think there is this misconception that great writing matters less in commercial novels. For me whatever the genre it is so important that your writing is fluent and engaging. Clunky bad writing is what causes me to put down a book above all other things.
Favourite crime and psychological suspense novels?
My Cousin Rachel by Daphne du Maurier. The ultimate enigma. Did she or didn’t she? We never really know.
The early Kay Scarpetta novels by Patricia Cornwell. A number of others followed but those first five books were in my mind unmatchable.
Missing Presumed by Susie Steiner, as an exercise in fantastic characterisation and how to breathe new energy into procedurals.
Disclaimer by Renee Knight, for cool sophisticated prose and a book that truly thrills and surprises. The writer turns our assumptions about her characters on their heads, and in a way that has us uncomfortably examine our own subconscious prejudices.
Sister by Rosamund Lupton, the brilliance of her double helix narrative aside the searing insight and elegance with which she handles the relationship between Bee and Tess is wonderful. The book will hit you but never slides into something overwrought.
You’re also a fan of historical novels. Do you have a favourite time period?
Honestly no, the joy of a historical novel is being plunged into a time I’m not necessarily familiar with and absorbing it through a great story. I recently read Sally Magnusson’s The Sealwoman’s Gift in proof form, set in 1627 Iceland during the Barbary pirate raids. A wonder! I loved the Arianna Franklin novels, particularly Mistress of the Art of Death, set during Henry II time. The story is what ends up being critical.
You’ve said that you love novels set in far flung worlds, are there any particular settings you’d love to see?
Honestly, whatever an author wishes to write about. If it’s exciting to them it will be far more likely to thrill me.
Do you represent any previously self-published authors?
One of the authors I’m preparing for submission has published work on Wattpad, but I represented her even before that. I have no issue with self-published authors or considering their work, some of it is wonderful.
You enjoy working editorially with debut writers. How polished does a manuscript need to be to win?
I would say before submitting a novel you must at least have pushed it to that point where you can do no more. As a reader you only get to be truly objective on that first read. After that you are shadowed by what you already know and are less helpful. If something can be fixed, fixed it. If a character jars, think about why, if you tend to get excited only on chapter 3 of your book ask yourself what function the first two are really serving. Once you’ve gone back over your work, interrogated it and edited it, then release it! You can edit and polish for months and months all of which will be for nothing when you must do a huge structural edit because a professional pair of eyes asks for changes!
Any other advice for entrants?
Try to nail a great title, it’s the first thing we are given about your book. So definitely no Untitleds! Do not be disheartened if you don’t get longlisted, the joy of reading is its subjective quality and the list will reflect that. Get someone else to read your entry material before it goes off, if you’ve already read it multiple time it’s so easy to skip over the spelling mistake in the first line…! Remember too what first prompted you to write the book, it didn’t start with a 100k word idea, it started with one thought. Recall that and see if it works as the basis for your pitch.
NOW OPEN: The BATH NOVEL AWARD 2018
Judge: Felicity Blunt
1st Prize: £2,500
Closing date: 30th April 2018
Shortlist: manuscript feedback & literary agent introductions
Longlist: NEW for 2018, an online professional editing course worth £1,800 from Cornerstones Literary Consultancy
The writer of the most promising longlisted novel will receive a place on Learn to Edit Your Novel the Professional Way, Cornerstones’ new 18 week online course. During the course, leading editors Kathryn Price and Helen Corner-Bryant will introduce the techniques used by professional editors to diagnose and fix problems in your own work and how to prepare your submission package to present to agents, with individual tutor feedback.