Results: 2017 First Chapter Competition

Thanks to our judge, Laura Williams, literary agent with PFD, for choosing a winner and two runners-up for the 2017 First Chapter Competition. Laura has asked to read the full MS from all three of the writers in her top spots; and has provided short feedback on each shortlisted chapter below too. Many congratulations to the winner and runners-up, and to all of the writers that made the shortlist. Hopefully Laura’s comments will help with your editing.

Winner: The Moonscape by Eirill Falck

I love the first paragraph. It sets the scene, introduces the key characters, teases the plot – it does absolutely everything you could ever hope a first paragraph would do. The set up works so well in this first chapter, and I’d be very interested in reading more.


Runner-Up: Bouzouki Nights by Emily Kerr

I was instantly on side with the protagonist from the very beginning here, she’s hugely likeable. The writing is very lively and reads so naturally in the way that the best commercial fiction does. It definitely made me want to find out what happens next.


Runner-Up: Fallible Justice by Laura Laakso

There’s a really good flow to the writing here and some absolutely devastatingly beautiful images. I did find the drama of the opening chapter to feel a little too quiet, almost underplayed, so I think there needs to be a focus on packing a punch in the narrative as well as in those really arresting descriptions. I’d very much like to see where the storyline goes.



Click. Bang. by Dave Wakely

A very intriguing premise, I love the dreamlike feel. Be careful to give the reader something solid to latch on to before too long though, otherwise the abstract style can become a little bit confusing.

The Virgins of Salem by Fiona Mackintosh

The opening certainly grabs the reader’s attention. The scene setting and vivid description of early 20th century India is very well done. I have absolutely no idea where the story will go from here, but it certainly is a memorable opening chapter!

Naked Gardening for the Over Fifties by Catherine Edmund

I admire the very lively writing style in this, but I did find the stream-of-consciousness style here a little bit too frenetic when the reader is settling into the story. Obviously you want to grab the reader with action, but in this case the pace of the main character’s racing thoughts can afford to be slowed down a little. Watch out for tenses too, as sometimes these were inconsistent.

The Uprising by Ahize Mbaeliachi

The premise is interesting and unusual, and I would have liked a little more description in these early pages considering the location and historical setting – I wanted the landscape to play a larger role so that the story could really draw me in.

A Minute’s Grace by Laura Tisdall

The little crumbs of exposition that are revealed as the chapter goes on are tantalising, and certainly makes the reader want to keep turning the page, although I still felt really in the dark at the end of the chapter about what was going on. The bombshell of the last line doesn’t really land with confidence in the mechanics of the world that’s been created by that point.

The Weight of Stones by Ruby Speechley

There’s a good gradual build up of tension here, but some of the dialogue for me towards the end is a little unnatural, and I’d be careful about introducing too many secondary characters too soon, at the cost of keeping the reader’s focus on the protagonist in these opening pages.

Soliciting in the City by Isabel Powles

The first day of a new job is a quite common inciting incident in the opening of a story, and it wasn’t clear enough to me from the off what was going to make this storyline stand out above other openings that could be similar, despite good writing and a really relatable protagonist. I sense there’s more here than is currently being let on!


Well done to everyone that made the long and shortlist for this year’s competition.

If you’d like to be in with a chance of getting feedback on your work from a top literary agent, then the 2018 First Chapter Competition is now open for entries.

The judge for 2018 is Diana Beaumont with Marjacq. You can find out about Diana and her list here. Deadline for the 2018 competition is 28th January and you can get all the info here.

Guest author: Vicky Newham – Having my novel optioned

Welcome and congratulations to Vicky Newham today. Vicky’s debut crime novel has been picked up by a publisher and also optioned for TV so I asked her to tell us how it all came about…

Many thanks, Amanda, for inviting me onto the Retreat West blog to talk about having my novel, Turn a Blind Eye, optioned for television.

Like many of us, I’ve watched crime dramas on telly. I’ve grown up with Inspector Morse, Prime Suspect, Rebus, and DCI Banks. The Swedish Wallander is my Netflix treat, along with Hinterland and The Bridge. In my wildest dreams, though, I never imagined my debut novel would be optioned for a TV series – because that sort of thing happens to other people.

So, how did it come about?

My agents, Peters Fraser & Dunlop, have a UK rights team, an international one and a film/TV agent. At the beginning of September my manuscript was submitted simultaneously to editors, scouts and production companies. Rather than sitting at my laptop, clicking refresh on my email every half hour, I decided to busy myself with important things like painting the garden fence and decorating. Within three days, and just as I was off to the beach to meet some pals, I received an email saying two production companies wanted to meet me. I shoved a bottle of prosecco in my bag and skipped off with my towel and the dog, muttering ‘it’s bonkers’. A couple of weeks later, I accepted a pre-empt deal on the book rights with HQ, a new imprint of HarperCollins. Then PFD set a deadline and three further production companies bid. I begged the hairdresser for a cancellation appointment, got my roots done, and headed into Covent Garden for the meetings. These were amazing, slightly surreal but great fun. It felt strange that high-flying TV people were talking to me about my book. It wasn’t even published, nor had we even announced the publisher!

My agent gave me the low-down on expectations. In addition, I’m lucky to know a couple of authors who have had work optioned, so I pestered them for information and the message was the same: it’s important to see any adaptation which might emerge from a novel as separate, and to accept that the project might not get into development. The first hurdle is recruiting a good screenwriter, then getting a TV channel to take it on. I decided that if nothing came of the meetings, or any option which arose, they would be a good way to learn about the industry and get feedback on my book. However, I knew I could talk about writing, psychology and teaching but didn’t feel equipped to talk TV lingo. The first meeting went so well it gave me confidence. The producers wanted to discuss the origins of my main character, who is a female Bangladeshi detective, and my experiences living and teaching in the East End of London. Given the lack of diversity in crime fiction and drama, and gender and ethnicity being considerations in the police too, I was relieved to be able to explain that I hadn’t done a tally of detective nationalities and simply plucked one which hadn’t been used before; when I was teaching in Tower Hamlets, many of my students were Bangladeshi. Gender is one of the things which interests me, and it made sense to have a female perspective. Thus, DI Maya Rahman was born!

As it turned out, I ended up with what my agent called a ‘high class problem’. We had five production companies bidding for the option. I found this astonishing and flattering but a tad overwhelming. One meeting was with a company set up by a well-known actor with some thespian chums. Nine minutes before they arrived at PFD, I dropped chocolate tart down my top. Cue much dabbing and strategic scarf-placing. Then it came to deciding who to go with. TV option contracts are extremely complicated. The science degree, list-making, ex-teacher in me made a table of figures in my Pukka pad, then stared at them, wondering how to decide. Contrary to what people imagine, option fees aren’t huge at all, and payments kick in at various stages of the development process. The problem was each company offered something different, and they were all terrific proposals. I chose Playground Entertainment who have been involved with Wolf Hall and The Missing. Sophie Gardner’s ideas for the adaptation sat well with me and I love their productions. Now it’s over to them to recruit a scriptwriter while I get on with the second book in the series, and help with any background information that they need.

I still have to pinch myself. For an author to have their debut novel optioned, is a dream come true. Of course, nothing may come of it. Who knows? I’ve spent years chewing over themes, characters and the setting so I’m thrilled about the response the book has got. If I’ve learnt one thing in the last few months, it’s that if you believe something is possible, it can happen. And then other opportunities open up. Having spent ten years teaching, I wanted to put all my energy into writing stories. It might sound daft or obvious, but the novel stemmed from things I feel passionately about and I simply tried to write it to the best of my ability. Because after that, you can let go, send it out into the world and see what happens. And then begin writing the next. I’ve been very lucky.

What I do believe, though, is that if I can do it, so can you.


Thanks for coming on the blog and sharing your inspiring story, Vicky. Look forward to reading the book and watching the series!

Literary agent interview: Laura Williams at PFD

Great to have Laura Williams here today revealing what she’s looking for in the fiction submissions she receives.

Laura is a literary agent at Peters Fraser and Dunlop and the judge for the 2017 First Chapter Competition. She is actively building a fiction list and is looking for literary fiction, edgy commercial fiction, psychological thrillers and high-concept contemporary young adult.

Laura, when you receive a 3 chapter submission, what gets you excited enough to then ask for the full MS?

I think it has to be a combination of things – a good initial covering letter and instantly intriguing pitch, which is then followed through on with a compelling and well written opening chapters. As with all things, it’s impossible to say exactly what will grab my attention – the projects I call in are never quite what I expect! But they’re normally something a bit different, that are both pitched and written well.

Writers repeatedly hear from agents they submit to that you like it but you didn’t love it enough, how does a MS make you love it when you have requested and read the whole thing?

Again, this is such a hard question. For starters, if I’ve actually read the whole thing having called it in, that’s a good sign – there’s so much on all our reading piles that making it the whole way through a submission means that we’re invested enough in the story to want to see how it plays out. There are moments when I find I’ve read a whole manuscript in an afternoon and I haven’t noticed the time going by – when you read for a living, that’s when you know it’s something a bit special.

When reading the shortlisted first chapters what’s going to make a story stand out for you?

The first paragraph is crucial. I want to be instantly gripped by the character or situation introduced, and I want to have an instant sense that the author is in control of their writing, and knows how to put a sentence together. The best feeling in the world is being swept away by a first chapter and thinking, yes, I want to read more, because it doesn’t happen every day!

What types of writers and novels are you looking for to build your list?

I’m mostly looking for literary fiction, as well as contemporary reading group or crossover fiction. I don’t really do anything too commercial, but you just never know – the first book I sold was a really boysy thriller that I didn’t see coming for my list at all, so never say never. I’m also building a list of some non-fiction and YA as well.

When you’re reading for pleasure not work, who are your favourite authors?

All time favourites: Chabon, Updike, Atwood, Patchett, Salinger, Carver, Hammett, King, Jackson. My favourite books of this year so far: The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead, Jakob’s Colours by Lindsay Hawdon, The Girls by Emma Cline, Moonstone by Sjon, Thin Air by Michelle Paver. Also I’ve just finished Lincoln in the Bardo, the first novel by George Saunders, which is out next year, and I can’t stop thinking about it, it’s astonishing.


Thanks for these insights into your wants for your list, Laura, and for being the judge of the 2017 competition.

So, writers of crossover, reading group, YA and literary fiction get polishing those first chapters! Then enter them here to be in with a chance of getting detailed feedback on your submission from Laura, and who knows maybe a full MS request too!