Discovery day with lit agents Curtis Brown & Conville & Walsh

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20160227_132234_resizedWhen I heard back from @Foyles bookshop in London that I’d got a slot at #DiscoveryDay organised by literary agents Conville & Walsh and Curtis Brown Creative I felt I’d won the golden ticket to Willy Wonka’s factory. These agents were going to listen to me pitch my novel,  read my first page and give feedback.

The rules were simple but excruciating. We had a maximum of 30 seconds to pitch. This needed to include background on myself, my novel, genre, and of course the plot of the whole story. 30 seconds? How was that possible? Luckily I had my writers group, Bristol Novelists, and even better, the chance to compare notes with talented Bristol writer, Mel Ciavucco who co-runs Talking Tales story-telling night to compare notes with ahead of the event.

Over the next few weeks I tried out endless pitch variations but some of the best feedback came from people at work who knew nothing about my novel and not much about me so there were in a similar position to the agents.

My colleagues all commented on my delivery. I was nervous and my passion for writing wasn’t coming across. I needed to slow down but the discipline of making every single word work as hard as possible was very satisfying. What to leave out was the trickiest – what would carry the most weight. When I compared this pitch with submissions I’d sent out last year I realised how much sharper I could be.

Curious? Here is the pitch:

I’m Grace, I founded Novel Nights to inspire writers in Bristol, I’ve read stories at Bristol Festival of Literature and National Flash Fiction day and I’m leaving my job as a press office to study the MA in Creative Writing at Bath Spa.

My novel, THE WISH BONE’s commercial women’s fiction  about childhood leukaemia and family breakdown told from three points of view. Mum, Caroline, tames her anger and anxiety, husband Will, chooses duty over his lover and against this background 13 year old Freddie laughs in the face of cancer, determined to live in case he dies.

Although called #DiscoveryDay it was clear that they weren’t expecting to sign anyone up on the day and my expectations were that I could use the day to test out my pitch, my first page and make improvements before my next round of submissions.

20160227_111335_resizedI got there about an hour early, nervous as hell and went up to the fifth floor cafe area where we checked in and waited with coffee until I had our slot. Writers and their supporters were everywhere – a cool woman in buttoned up blouse and high waisted trousers, a natty chap with spectacles, tweed jacket and black flower. I wore a green dress, but decided against my trademark hat for once. Game on. The queue snaked up two sets of stairs. Writers of children’s books on the left of the stairs and adults IMG_20160227_120141books on the right.

At the head of the stairs I was delivered to one of the 10 tables with waiting agents. I was delighted that out of all the agents in the room I was ushered towards Anna Davis. Anna is the founder and MD of Curtis Brown Creative, the only creative writing school to be run by a literary agency. When I was thinking about my MA I was considering either the course run by CBCreative or the MA. What swung it for me in the end was the fact that I wanted hands-on tuition and face to face tuition and that wasn’t practical for me to travel to London. Whilst Curtis Brown do run an online course I’m not so keen on remote studying so the Bath Spa MA suited me better.

Aware of my 30 seconds disappearing quickly I went straight into my pitch as I shook Anna’s hand. She listened intently to me and then asked to see my first page. She laughed on the second paragraph, and nodded her head throughout.

Wonderful!

I began to relax and feel more confident. She gave some feedback on a couple of things such as language appropriate to a 13 year old boy, picking out the words ‘little Chloe’ as a description which perhaps was an adult phrase and said that the first page gave a sense of something being awry. The first page was the prologue and although right in the heart of the action I had written it as if Freddie was looking back to a particular day. She advised that at the start of a novel you need what she called ‘ forward facing action’, in other words, no flash backs, however much it was rooted in the story.

Anna asked about my market and said that because it was aimed at women’s market rather than a teen audience I needed to have the adult voice first, and no I couldn’t fudge it with a teen prologue! This confirmed my suspicions and means that I need to go and rework the first three chapters again which is not easy when you have three stories intertwined.

At the end of the session she said when I It was a real confidence boost to have the tricky decisions about my book echoed back to me by Anna. ‘Whose story is it?’ may seem trivial but as I’m writing the stories of three characters it becomes important in terms of chapter order,

Then she said if I was going to submit to her agency she suggested a couple of agents she thought would be the best contacts within the agency. Fantastic! I was so chuffed and also got an email address from her for an agent speaker for Novel Nights. Result!

We were then ushered though in groups to sit on a round table with another agent, Jonathan Lloyd and ask questions in a 5 minute session. The things I learned from him as a result of the group questions were;

  • Don’t ever address an agent as Dear Sir or Madam and proof-read your submission for typos
  • 180,000 words is too long – around 100,000 is about right
  • He’s looking for something that makes your story stand out from other similar stories
  • Qu: Are you looking for concept or great writing from an unpublished author?
  • A: Mostly concept, the writing is a given, but the concept is what will sell it. “It’s got to be something I know I can sell, so I’ve got to be excited about it. When I pick up the phone to a publisher I’ve got 30 seconds to pitch the story – I may have ten stories that day about the same subject – so what is it that makes this story stand out?”
  • The average time to wait until you ask for feedback from an agent is 4 weeks – after this time you can enquire again.
  • In his opinion multiple submissions are ok. Send out to 5 agents at once but don’t tell them you are submitting to more than one, unless of course they want to talk more or see the m/s at which point you can go back to the others and explain that to them. As he pointed out why should an author wait  4 weeks before submitting to another agent. It just holds the whole process up.
  • If the cover letter doesn’t grab him he won’t look at the synopsis.

From listening to the range of questions I realised the range of knowledge that writers had varies from not much to more in depth. Running Novel Nights has certainly given me loads of insight over the last couple of years.

AAAbbott, Grace Palmer and Maithreyi Nandakumar

Bristol Writers at #DiscoveryDay

So that was it – I returned to my long suffering friend and then bumped into AAAbbott and Maithreyi Nandakumar, other Bristol writers that I know from Novel Nights and we compared notes.

On my way out I took a few screen shots of pitching tips from the day. Might have been useful earlier to see but I wasn’t complaining.

So, now the work begins (again, again) to polish up the novel before I send off to the agents. My children can’t understand the endless delays with the book. it is a long process but I feel like I’m inching closer to publication.

My top tips for #DiscoveryDay are

  • Research the agents and agencies
  • Prepare to talk about your novel and your key questions if you have a chance
  • Relax and enjoy it

Sanctum – don’t leave us Bristol

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Sanctum


20151110_180959The joy of Sanctum is never knowing what’s on – 24 hour performances of art. It’s addictive. On  a wet Tuesday we turned up and were unable to gain entry through the stone arches into the structure. We discovered the joys of the King’s Head with its original panelled snug complete with Victorian gas lamps and hard benches to sit at.

When we gained access to see a band it was the wooden structure built by the Theaster Gates team that overwhelmed us. Built from recycled windows and, large floorboards it resembled an upturned boat or a Cathedral, 20151117_183007and given that we were in the bombed out Temple Church, it seemed appropriate to see the innards of the building on show.  Galvanised bolts, and long struts thrust down into the guts of the structure. The windows leaked water. Inside this intimate space, backlit by recycled windows is a perfect showcase for art performances

It took me less than 5 minutes to decide this one wasn’t for me. But on Saturday night I took a chance and got there early. The queue was ominously long and I waited for an hour or so. I’m good at waiting.

In the queue was a man with blue glitter on his eyelids, a waistcoat the colour of a Turkish cushion. A Performer? I wasn’t disappointed – he was and he didn’t disappoint. Sanctum offers a queueing system at busy time. Once you get in you are stickered and politely asked to leave after a certain time.

20151107_205025The band, Ushti Baba were amazing. I caught a glimpse inside the honey colour wooden Sanctum space. A woman in Turkish style costume swirled shot green silk around her head. She jumped on a wooden box and belly danced. It was a sexy, sweaty, gusty performance from the wonderful Ushti Baba with fiddle, guitar, jazz and gypsy folk notes that made Ushti Babayou glad to be alive. The man with glitter on his eyes in his velvet trousers did not disappoint. Everyone danced and although I was only there for the last two songs I was glad to be alive, picking up on the riotous energy of the performers. What followed was a big brass band, the Presidents of Parp. The tuber player, balding, bearded, pork pie hat moved his 20151107_211407whole frame as he played.

It was a great night.

 

 

 

20151107_204419The following morning I got up at 7 to see the dawn rise over the church. The bombed interior of Temple Church is so poignant. During the November raids on the city in World War Two the ancient church took a direct hit and the faded picture outside with firemen standing ankle deep in ash is a reminder of the trauma. The grey light filtering through Sanctum structure and beyond through the sturdy stone pillars reminded of what was lost and forgotten. So many of my friends weren’t aware of Temple Church’s existence or location.

The music that cold wet morning was plinky plonky, and after the excitement of a 7 am start it left me cold, staring at a bearded youth cross legged on a work bench rocking back and forth and nodding to his computer as he twiddled with the buttons. Synth music isn’t much fun to watch. The music was soothing but like me many people left when the storm clouds and angst noises began to disturb the pace

We were told to come back at 10 for ‘something special’, but were surprised by tea and papers on offer with a group which described this as a meeting similar to the Quakers. I was rather apprehensive that I was in the hands of religious gathering but had to stay as I’d dragged friends and family along. We were asked to read out headlines that made us angry or moved us. A bearded young man facilitating the event read out his headline and encouraged us to speak. After very British silence someone spoke out about the John Lewis Christmas ad, kids being streamed at 8 years old, tax avoidance, refugee crisis, Calais camps and so on. Anger and sadness built in the space and were given space. Suddenly we stopped observing and became contributors.

It seemed fitting to remain quiet for the 11th November remembrance day. Our silence was interrupted by that urban ubiquitous sound of the ambulance siren, all the more poignant for its warning sound of danger.

20151108_105505 Then we had a bit of role play with the organisers pretending to be politicians. What would you say to Theresa May?  In the background some rude guitarists began practising for their next set whilst we wrote our headlines on bits of paper and handed to the organisers. Suddenly flames leapt from the archway outside as our headlines were burnt and the guitarists began strumming angrily. I’d been had. It was all part of the performance and these were not religious or social activists but actors.

I’ve started going after work and pre or post social events. I’ve heard stories – notably a wonderful piece from a woman in North Bristol Writers Group about a homeless man who died in the cold, tricked by a mysterious woman into lying still, and wonderful music. I’ve had the opportunity to listen and experience music I’d never normally come across and have the freedom to leave if I want to or stay if I can. People have told me they’ve cried.

“It’s the randomness of the programming that delights – the ability to be in an audience and listen or to leave if you want. In this way performers find their own audience and the audience find their performers.”

I write short stories and flash fiction and novels and put my name down in a big blue book to see if I could perform. No-one’s called yet, but some writing friends who know my work have given me a 5 minute slot with North Bristol Writers’ Group. I couldn’t be more delighted. It will be a highlight of my year.

Please don’t leave us, spirit of Sanctum.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

On starting an MA in Creative Writing

Decades after my first degree I have the freedom to study an MA. Both children graduated; one with a job and the other just setting out on finding a path in the world

Corsham Court

Corsham Court, Bath Spa Unviersity

Corsham Court Campus at Bath Spa University is very Jane Austen. Hobbling on crutches up the long driveway as peacocks squawked and sheep gazed beyond the ha-ha I felt as antique as the surroundings.

As a mature student I wasn’t in the minority; there is a great mix of ages though with any gathering of writers there are egos and anxieties to be managed. I was surprised at the distance students were travelling to the campus; London, Taunton and someone from Moscow – who suggested that I should have Gucci crutches or at least decorate them. I said I’d think about it.

We met in ‘the Barn’ around the back of the building, and to my delight Fay Weldon was there – one of the first writers who challenged and gripped me as a reader.

The grand piano was full of lecturer’s books – I was in the right place. These academics are writers who have grafted and worked and lived their craft combining this with teaching others. One by one they spoke about their first memory of writing and read from current work. We heard extracts from Fay Weldon, Gerard Woodward, Richard Kerridge, Nathan Filer, Gavin Cologne-Brooks and Tim Liardet.

I’ve written down scraps of insights/ discussions which I won’t attribute as my notes aren’t good enough to be accurate.

  • Keep your reader in mind at all times. Surprise them. Keep them hooked (Fay Weldon)
  • In your novel have a cosmic statement. What is it really about?
  • Are you writing about your father or your mother?
  •  It’s important to read aloud, to pace your novel, and to hear that (Nathan Filer)
  • What do you need to say in your novel?
  • (When thinking about subject matter for a novel) What do you care about ?
  • When writing get’s hard that when the work starts – and you need a great deal of hard work and application (Tim Liardet)

On re-writing: The essence of re-writing is being able to see why and clarify again and again and again.

On poetry: When poets try and put a collection together sometimes they have enough poems to fill a book, but that doesn’t make a great collection. ‘Poems need to hear one another, to run as a smooth sequence. Be aware of silence and how it is used in a book of poems. (Tim Liardet)

Favourite quote of the day; When Flaubert was asked where he got his ideas for Madame Bovary he said: “I thought of a woman in a dress the colour of a woodlouse” He didn’t think of the great sweep of things. But I think writer’s work in different ways and that’s allowed.

This quote led our seminar group to a discussion of observing precise objects and how we could use these in our writing. In our group we looked at black and white photographs from August Sander. Everyone spotted something different but the quality of the observation marked some students out. My old anxieties returned. The students who had just come from the BA course being good at this game.

Overall a very satisfactory first day, despite the hobbling up the myriad staircase.

 

 

Choosing titles

The Wish Bone has been the title of my novel for years and I’ve driven that title into the heart of the text like a brand. But, like sheep marked with a blue stain on their wooly white coats it now looks out of place.

The grand plot arc was to include ‘wishes’, but the novel pulled away from the 20 point plan on it’s own sweet journey with my character’s refusing to blindly follow me.

And in any case, looking through the titles of other books using the word bone they are mostly psychological thrillers or murder mysteries. My book is neither of these and for this reason the title, like a favourite armchair or comfortable but worn coat,  must be sent for recycling.

I don’t have any ideas for a new one but one must emerge as I prepare for this last bout of editing following my review from The Writers’ Workshop. 

A cupboard-full

You’re hungry again for knowledge, the sort that will shrink-wrap your tongue, leave your nose in a book for hours, wrinkle your brow, set coffee spoons stirring.

Cupboard’s not bare; there’s beans; lots. A rind of cheese and flour. Christmas pudding if you’re desperate to entertain.

The garrett is stirring with hope and itchy fingers.Get set for your Masters. Freedom to write and confidence to be.

No monthly pay-cheque to worry over, squander or save. Bills now scythe through your bank account. Something will happen; cupboards full, keyboard’s busy.

 

 

A late Valentine

Roses he supposes are for love; chooses thornless plastic-sheathed ones for his love. Purchases three chocolates in a box lined with William Morris design.  Hadn’t guessed she hated flock; what she wanted was meadow-sweet, a finger-tip trace on her face, garlic’s starry flowers.

Gadgets she imagines so his oil stained fingers can work through sweet grooves of tin, something practical to put in his pocket, to turn over and hold in his palm. He looks at it. Nods and places it on one side. Wonders why women never understand. Pats her back to steady her.

 

Giving up the day job for self employment

I’ve resigned from my well paid job !

So, I resigned; last Friday colleagues and friends (sometimes they’re both the same) joined me for a pint in the pub on my last day in Swindon. I was quite overwhelmed with the messages of support, encouragement and excitement that people expressed when they heard that I was going to try self-employment and to start an MA in Creative Writing.

The voice of doom

So many people were cheering me and the only negative cautious voice was my own trotting out tired vicious comments such as, what about your pension? What if you fail? What if you get depressed working alone? You haven’t got the right skills  / personality / sticking power to see this through.

Strategy?

Over the years this vicious internal voice has stopped me doing many things. Through practising Cognitive Behavioural Therapy techniques I’ve learned to recognise this voice more easily but it still crops up like a nasty dog nipping relentlessly at my heels.The first thing is to recognise that it’s only one version of my life, but as a novelist if I can create narratives, then surely I can create a ‘success narrative’ for myself? So, that’s what I’m doing; focusing on ‘doing’ ‘creating’ and practising counter arguments when I’m filled with doubt or worry.

Do what you love

A few years ago I started a ’30 day challenge’ to try out an idea I’d had for a long time – to create a literary event for novelists in Bristol. It didn’t exist so I created Novel Nights, putting into practice my years working in marketing and PR. Nearly three years later it is a roaring success and has taken over my life. I’d return from work in Swindon, have some food and then  feed the beast of Novel Nights, often up until midnight to finish some task.

Clearly something had to change as my energy was draining away and my health was suffering. I could have chosen to given up the thing that wasn’t making any money – Novel Nights – but I chose to give up work.

Income streams

As I see it, I am the same age as some women who are already retired. If I can find a sustainable income or income streams from different activities then that feels more secure to me than a salaried job which could end shortly, especially given the current climate. And, I need to find an income to support me during my MA.i don’t want a loan, so some other occupation seems a good plan.

Read my next blog to find out about my first week of self-employment

 

 

Redcliffe Future Way Story Walk

As part of Redcliffe Future Way Story Walk, writers were asked to imagine a future Redcliffe: bristolstorytrail.wordpress.com/redcliffe-future-way/.

3 linked short stores of mine about Redcliffe were accepted as part of the trail. The stories are all linked by a sense of smell and this first story takes the point of view of a fox.

You can follow the trail and find the QR trails around the harbourside. (Unless the codes have been taken off – they will gradually fade away……)

STORY 1

Fox stops by the lamp post and sniffs the air on the cool night breeze. He smells man, rancid and sweet from the meat that’s been eaten. Again, he sniffs, nose high; there’s food beginning to turn. He trots to the gates surrounding the flats; too many lights. The pavement is hard on the pads of his paws. The food is in there. He pushes against the gate but there’s no give, no space for digging either. He can’t get in.

Seagulls squabble over-head arching over the harbour. Restaurants and high rise flats block out the stars, the light begins to thin at dawn, he needs to hurry. He turns towards the stink of man’s piss and checks a yellow polystryrene box on the ground. He nudges it and is rewarded with the soft pap of a burger. He hears a rat skitter away, sees a silver scaly tail drape into a hole.

He trots to the back of a building on the water’s edge. Next to a big red box lie some stinking black bags. He rips them open and rummages amongst the stuff to get to the food  – finds a whole cooked chicken. He cracks the bones and gnaws, then pads back to his den in the caves next to The Ostrich. Rich pickings these days.

Grace-Palmer-by-He-Smells-ManJudy Darley and David Rodgers stories also feature on QR codes on objects around Redcliffe.

Judy writes an excellent blog at Sky Light Rain and her description of the trail is here: http://www.skylightrain.com/scattered-stories/

David Rodgers is a sci-fi novelist http://www.davidjrodger.com/ and his work features on the trail too. His latest novel, Oakfield is a taut, creepy and frightening.