When 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.
I 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 books 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.
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.
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