Susan Armstrong: First Chapter Advice

Welcome to Susan Armstrong today – senior literary agent at Conville & Walsh and judge of the December 2015 First Chapter competition. I’ve met Susan in 1-1s at the York Festival of Writing and the feedback and advice she gave on my first chapter was excellent so I knew she’d be a great choice of judge. So you can have the best chance of making the shortlist, and getting your opening three chapters read by her if you win, here’s her insights into submissions that stand out.

When you get submissions of three chapters and a synopsis through from writers what is it that gets you excited enough to ask to read the full MS?

When you’re receiving about 100 new submissions every week as I do, the ones that catch my eye are the ones that immediately offer me something different. This can be the voice or the setting or the circumstance, but whichever it is it always has to be coupled with brilliant writing.

Can you give us some idea of what makes a pitch good and also what makes a submission fail?
A good pitch should be concise and delivered confidently. I want to hear something that draws me in – a great hook, a striking premise – and which immediately fires up my imagination as a reader. It’s often a case of really pinpointing what’s at the heart of your novel and where its appeal lies. When you’ve put so much work into a book it can be difficult to condense it down into few lines because you’re tempted to mention everything, but a succinct, convincing pitch can really make an agent’s ears prick up – and that’s the first hurdle.

Broadly, a submission might fail because it just isn’t strong enough in terms of writing, voice or plot, but smaller, more typical pitfalls are things like unrealistic dialogue or character motivations, which can sever suspension of disbelief and stymie even the best ideas. In other cases, it simply may not suit an agent’s taste or list, which is why it’s always worth doing your research and trying to target your submissions carefully. Also, I want to dive into, not wade through, a manuscript so take care not to over-write.

If a writer is sending out their first three chapters and getting repeated rejections, but encouraging ones, what advice can you give them to up their chances of getting the full MS in front of agents?
I always advise writers to view rejections are a rite of passage and not to be discouraged. If you are given any editorial feedback then take that on board (as long as it rings true), polish your chapters as much as you can, and keep trying. Try to make sure the best elements of your work shine through as soon as possible: the first few chapters are how a reader will judge your book so they should be compelling and quickly convince a reader they’ve picked up the right book! For instance, I often receive submissions that say the book doesn’t take off until chapter 6 and few readers will plough through five chapters in the hope things might start happening in the next chapter.

Finally, if the feedback you’re getting specifically commends your prose then it may be that the story itself isn’t connecting with the reader. I sometimes find that the writing in a submission is great but the book that author has written doesn’t do justice to their prose. It helps to remember that many ‘debut’ authors will have penned a book or two before they get published.

When you read the shortlisted entries into the First Chapter competition what is going to make a story stand out for you?
I’m a real sucker for a great voice so a strong narrator/protagonist is a good way to hook me in early. Given that I’ll only be seeing the first chapter, I’ll also be looking for assured storytelling without lengthy exposition or unnecessary detail at the beginning. You only have a little time to show me what you can do so use it well!

What types of writers and writing are you looking for to build your list?
My list is very broad and when taking on a new writer there’s only one prerequisite, which is that I have to adore their work. As a result my list is both broad and boutique. For instance, I represent Ali Shaw who writes accessible literary fiction with a touch of magical realism; ML Stedman whose New York Times bestselling novel THE LIGHT BETWEEN OCEANS is a favourite of book groups; Simon Wroe’s novel kitchen coming of age novel, CHOP CHOP, has been compared to Irvine Welsh; and Tasha Kavanagh writes incredibly unique crime. So it’s a real wonderful mix of novelists with about half coming from the Talent Pool (aka Slush Pile, but we prefer Talent Pool).

In terms of the writer themselves, for me it’s important they want to work towards establishing a long-term career and are open to working closely with me both editorially and throughout the publication process. For me working with an author should be a collaborative, mutually dedicated and enjoyable experience!


Many thanks, Susan. I prefer Talent Pool too! So, if you’d like to get your work in front of Susan you have until 6th December 2015 to polish and submit your First Chapters. Get all the info on the competition here. Keep an eye on the Retreat West Facebook and Twitter pages too as there will be a special 2 first chapters for 1 entry fee offer coming soon!

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