There’s something particularly memorable and incredibly exciting about a successful debut. First albums by the likes of The Undertones and The Stone Roses were the seminal points in many a music fan’s adolescence; the moment sous chefs Gordon Ramsay, Ferran Adrià and Angela Hartnett stepped out from their mentors’ shadows and took charge of their own kitchens still have food critics salivating; and football supporters will always remember the three goals Wayne Rooney banged in for Manchester United the first time he donned a red shirt.
But – EL James aside – exciting debuts have been largely absent in the literary world over the past couple of years. You can blame the recession and the effect this has had on publishers previously willing to take a gamble on an unknown author; or you could point the finger at a dearth in exciting manuscripts landing on agents’ desks. The inescapable fact, though, is that the publishing market has recently been dominated by tried-and-tested big hitters – think JK Rowling, Hilary Mantel, John Grisham and, er, Cheryl Cole.
But the thrilling literary debut is back. Two of the biggest stories to come out of the recent London Book Fair were about new novelists. The first – ex-Curtis Brown Creative novel-writing student Jessie Burton – secured six-figure deals with Picador in the UK and HarperCollins in the US for her debut novel The Miniaturist; the book she was working on throughout the Curtis Brown Creative course. The second, Emma Healey, only completed her first novel Strange Companions at Easter before finding herself the subject of a bidding war between nine major UK publishers.
‘I met Emma at the UEA creative writing course,’ says Curtis Brown agent Karolina Sutton. ‘She sent me her novel a few months later and I fell in love with it. I read it overnight and wrote to Emma immediately hoping to meet her.
‘The novel is about 70-year-old Maud, whose quest to find a missing friend is thwarted by her fast-progressing dementia. As Maud can no longer recognise her family and carers, her mind takes her back to the 1940s and another disappearance. The novel has a great concept but, more importantly, it feels real and relevant. It will make you cry and it will make you laugh, and it will change the way you see things. The story has true emotional depth. Once you’ve read it, you won’t see someone with dementia in the same light again. It has that transformative power.
‘Emma is a terrific writer. Editors have been stunned to learn she’s only 28. She has created a very ambitious narrative structure that a lesser writer wouldn’t have been able to realise.’
These success stories point to a new trend within the industry. And there are several other debuts to look out for. Gordon Wise at Curtis Brown is particularly delighted with Claire Hajaj‘s debut Ishmael’s Oranges – the story of the lives of Jewish and Palestinian youths intersecting in post-Holocaust Jaffa – which, after securing a translation deal for the novel at the London Book Fair, he is about to submit to publishers here. ‘It’s a totally absorbing family tale, with massive reading-group potential, and both enormous poignance and, ultimately, hope,’ he says.
Felicity Blunt highlights Bone Dust White, a crime thriller by Karin Salvalaggio, in which a detective must uncover the dark secrets that led to a shocking murder 11 years in the making. She also enthuses about Gytha Lodge’s The Butterfly Catchers, a literary novel about an outsider being drawn into the glittering 1920s social scene, and the blurring of the lines between truth and falsehood.
‘I’m really excited about Donald Houman’s debut Spellbinder, which will be published next year by David Fickling/Random House,’ says Curtis Brown’s Children’s and YA agent Stephanie Thwaites. ‘It’s such a different and original idea, about a teenage boy who is a forensic sorcerer living in an alternate Oxford. The opening scene is one of the most gruesome and compelling you’ll find in teen fiction.’
‘Chaplin and Company by Mave Fellowes is a compelling and sparkling debut about a young woman obsessed with Charlie Chaplin, and her ambitions to become a mime artist,’ says Curtis Brown’s Alice Lutyens. ‘In the vein of When God Was a Rabbit, it is the perfect blend of quirky and commercial. I simply couldn’t stop reading, and it wouldn’t let me go until I reached the last sentence and fell back to earth with a thud. And that’s what a debut is all about, the absolute excitement of discovering a new voice.’
Basically, there’s never been a better time for a good first-time writer to approach an agent with a good story.
As well as expert teaching from published authors, all our novel-writing courses offer dedicated modules on submitting your novel to literary agents – and include sessions on writing a synopsis and preparing a covering letter. Click for more information or to apply for our creative writing courses.