“In my day job, I got used to summing up the ‘elevator pitch’ of a feature to busy editors who will only have seconds skim to your email, so I did spend a long time honing my pitch letter.”
JO LEEVERS lives in London and has spent most of her career working on magazines. Her debut novel Tell Me How This Ends is out 1st May 2023 and tells the story of Henrietta, who has a new job transcribing cancer patient’s life stories. Henrietta vows not to get emotionally involved but finds herself inextricably drawn into one client’s unsolved mystery from the murky past. Here Jo describes her writing journey, how she perfected her pitch to literary agents and what it’s like to be a 2023 BBC Radio 2 Book Club pick.
Congratulations on the publication of Tell Me How This Ends. We first fell in love with Henrietta when an early draft longlisted for 2020’s Bath Novel Award. How many drafts have there been from first to final draft?
Thanks very much. I first started writing properly at the start of 2019. I entered the Bath Novel Award in May 2020 and I sent it to agents in February 2021. The book went on submission in September 2021 and, by that point, I guess that it had been through about eight major drafts, maybe more.
When I was longlisted, the full version I sent in had been finished in a bit of a rush, so I had to redraft that several times. Every time I finished a draft, I’d think, ‘This is it, I’m done.’ And then, gradually, I’d realise I was far from done.
When you are close to a book and it’s a story that feels personal to you, it’s hard to see it clearly. But a trusted reader, agent or editor is in a better position to say important things like, ‘Yes, that’s all very interesting, but how does it move the plot along?’
My agent was the person who asked all those tricky questions. I did three rounds of edits with her and, each time, a little less work was needed until we were ready to go on submission.
Did your experience as a feature writer help you to write your query letter? And any tips for nailing a great pitch?
Yes, in my day job, I got used to summing up the ‘elevator pitch’ of a feature to busy editors who will only have seconds skim to your email, so I did spend a long time honing my pitch letter. I looked at examples of query letters, read different agents’ websites and followed their advice for what to include, eg including ‘comps’, which are your comparison titles. For my ‘comps’, I wrote, ‘Think Eleanor Oliphant meets Elizabeth is Missing, with a 1970s soundtrack.’
I also mentioned in my query letter that I’d been longlisted for the Bath Novel Award and I’m sure that helped – it’s something that makes you stand out from the hundreds of submissions agents get. I would recommend following each agency’s specifications exactly, down to the right word count, and being realistic about whether your book would sit well with the other books they represent. I’d also recommend having some other book ideas brewing because my agent asked if I had any other ideas up my sleeve. I guess they want to know that you are a long-term prospect.
So my pitch letter included:
- Where my book would sit in the market, eg ‘This is a big-theme reading group novel that covers themes of xxx and xx’
- My two ‘comp’ (comparison) titles
- A two-line synopsis – the elevator pitch
- I mentioned that I was longlisted for the BNA
- A bit about my day job and my background and how they fed into the book’s themes.
“Entering a competition also makes you focus on your reader, because while writing creatively is a pleasure, a book needs to written with your readers in mind.” Jo Leevers
You’re represented by Hayley Steed at Madeleine Milburn Literary Agency. How did that come about and how did you know she was the agent for you?
Immediately after being longlisted, an agent did get in touch but didn’t follow through, as my book was very rough and ready back then. In February 2021, I sent my novel out to a handful of agents. I’d narrowed down a list of people who were actively looking for contemporary/book club fiction and represented books that I admired or that I felt were in a similar market as my book.
Hayley came back to me very swiftly to ask for my full manuscript and was approachable, enthusiastic and instilled confidence. Madeleine Milburn is the agency that launched Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine and, as I mentioned above, there is a hint of her in my main character, Henrietta. So it seemed a great fit. We did a Zoom call and we got on really well and I felt I was in great hands.
Tell us about becoming a BBC Radio 2 Book Club pick…
I was unbelievably happy to be chosen. Whittling down the long list of books that are put forward is done by a group of experienced librarians and I was so gratified and touched that they ‘got’ the book’s themes and said lovely things about it.
I was nervous in the run-up to the interview, but Zoe Ball is such a warm person and a true professional, so she put me at ease so that it felt like having a really good chat. She’d clearly read the book and asked great questions that really got to the heart of its themes: grief, hope, unexpected friendships and the idea of preserving and sharing life stories. Oh, and dogs. I think I probably talked about my dog Lottie, the inspiration behind Dave the dog in Tell Me How This Ends, for a little longer than is socially acceptable…
Any advice for anyone who is thinking of entering this year’s Bath Novel Award?
Just do it. I entered several competitions in 2020 because I knew that it helped me to feel that I was working to a deadline: I had to hit a certain number of words by a certain date. Otherwise, it’s easy to get disheartened and feel that you’re writing in a vacuum. I wasn’t in a writing group, so this was my way of making myself accountable and setting a writing goal.
When I was longlisted by the Bath Novel Award, it was an incredible feeling. I can clearly remember getting the email while I was on a photo shoot for my day job, which is writing about houses and interiors. I looked on my phone and I swore – several times. The photographer, who is a friend, thought something terrible had happened. ‘No,’ I said, ‘something wonderful!’
Entering a competition also makes you focus on your reader, because while writing creatively is a pleasure, a book needs to written with your readers in mind, incorporating pace, plot and all the elements of a story that will make people want to turn the next page.
Lastly, what’s next for you?
I’m writing my second book. While Tell Me How This Ends centres on grief and the end of a life, my next book is about birth and motherhood. But, like my first book, it has a mystery at its heart. And it might even feature a dog, too…
JO LEEVERS grew up in London and has spent most of her career working on magazines, most recently writing features about homes and interiors. Whether writing fiction or interviewing people for articles, she is fascinated by the life stories that we all carry with us. She has two grown-up children and lives with her husband and their wayward dog Lottie.
Picture credit: Charlotte Gray Photography.
Tell Me How This Ends
Henrietta has a new job transcribing the Life Stories of cancer patients – and she vows to carry it out without getting emotionally involved. But then she meets Annie, whose life story hinges on an unsolved crime from 1974 – and Henrietta finds herself drawn into a murky past. Can she solve the mystery before it’s too late?
Tell Me How This Ends is out now at all good bookshops including via this link at Bookshop.org.
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