Tuesday, 8 November 2016

NCW Graduate Fair 2016 - Part 2: Pitching to Agents by Sophie Claire

On Friday, Sophie Claire and Louise Marley attended the National Creative Writing Graduate Fair at Manchester Metropolitan University. Organised by Comma Press and The Manchester Writing School, there were panels and workshops on a variety of subjects, AND the chance to pitch to a literary agent!

In this post, Sophie shares her experience of pitching to two literary agents.

Pitching One to One:

I must admit, I couldn’t concentrate on the talks and workshops (which Louise blogged about here) because I was so nervous about pitching to agents! I've never pitched 'live' before, so I spent the morning rehearsing in my mind what I wanted to say and trying to anticipate questions the agents might ask. Which was a shame because there were several workshops which looked good – for example,  perfecting your elevator pitch and using social media to support your writing career.

Those of us who chose to pitch to agents were each given two slots – 15 minutes each – with an agent relevant to our genre. It all looked a little intimidating: rows of tables laid out as for school exams, and an organiser blowing her whistle to signal when the 15 minute slots were over. But it turned out that my agent meetings weren’t half as terrifying as I’d expected. Agents are human, after all, and I got the impression I wasn’t the first nervous writer they’d had to deal with! 

So what did we talk about? We discussed my French ancestry and how I draw on this in my writing. We also talked about why I use a pseudonym, what agents are looking for at the moment (they don’t always know until they find it, a compelling hook, voice, heart), and our shared admiration for Jojo Moyes’ books.

I took written copies of my pitch because I tend to muddle my words when I’m nervous, and one agent reassured me that an author isn’t often – if ever – required to pitch their work verbally, and these things are usually done in writing. The only question which I found tricky was ‘sum up the plot for me’. Yikes! I wish I’d answered this more concisely and not missed out some key elements.

When it comes to preparing a pitch for your book, the main thing I took away with me was to look at the blurbs and covers of books in your genre and learn how to tempt your potential reader into wanting to read your book. There are key words and questions in each genre, and common hooks which readers seek out. For example, in psychological thrillers, questions often revolve around ‘Can the protagonist stay alive/solve the puzzle before time runs out?’ (I noticed a lot of fellow writers were working on psychological thrillers). Also, a pitch isn’t about condensing your plot into two lines; it’s about setting up the story, then throwing in a point of intrigue to make the reader want to know more. Here’s a condensed version of the blurb for Paula Hawkins’ Girl On The Train to illustrate:

Rachel catches the same commuter train every morning. She knows it will wait at the same signal each time, overlooking a row of back gardens. She’s even started to feel like she knows the people who live in one of the houses …

And then she sees something shocking.

Approaching an Agent:

We were told several times throughout the day how important the cover letter is when an agent receives your submission, and the key points for a successful one are:

a) Tailor your submission to that agent. Tell them why you’ve chosen to approach them specifically (eg you think your book would fit with their client list, or you've heard they’re looking out for the type of book you’ve written)

b) A concise and compelling hook, which makes them want to read your book

c) Put yourself in their shoes – if they like your book, what will they need to sell it to a publisher? The hook we’ve already mentioned, but also a unique feature which makes your book different from the rest, a description of where it fits in the market (eg: name other books in the same category) or who your potential readers are 

d) Keep it short and relevant.

In Summary:

Chatting to other writers on the day made me realise that we were all nervous about pitching, but I'm so glad I took this opportunity. It was a rare chance to get feedback on my pitch, to make a personal connection with the agents, and to learn more about the business side of publishing.

Have you ever 'live pitched' to an agent? What was your experience like? 


Monday, 7 November 2016

NCW Graduate Fair 2016 - Part 1: Panels and Talks

On Friday, Sophie Claire and Louise Marley attended the National Creative Writing Graduate Fair at Manchester Metropolitan University. Organised by Comma Press and The Manchester Writing School, there were panels and workshops on a variety of subjects, AND the chance to pitch to a literary agent!

In this post, Louise summarises the main points from the panels she attended on digital publishing and social media. In Part 2, coming tomorrow, Sophie will share her experience of pitching her novel to two literary agents!

Reaching Your Audience:
Creating a Presence in Public and Online

Tom Ashton: Literary Assistant, Kate Nash Literary Agency, founder of The Writers Quibble
Kate Field: Director of Openstories
Sarah James: Poet, Blogger
Chaired by:
Joe Stretch: Manchester Writing School

Tom: Encourages his authors to try and spend around about an hour a day using social media. Sometimes this can be a struggle but he suggests reviewing a book you’ve enjoyed on Goodreads, or blogging, or creating and sharing content on Twitter. He recommends using Facebook and LinkedIn, but particularly Twitter. Publishers will look up an author on Twitter, and if an author already has an online presence it saves them work. However, as it can take time to build up a presence, he recommends starting now. Follow people in the publishing industry and engage with others – don’t just retweet. Make full use of hashtags to share content and find the kind of things you’re interested in. Ask yourself, ‘Is there anything I love that can be shared on the internet?’

Kate: Blogging is great but ask yourself if it is a good investment of your time. In the past, when there were fewer bloggers, it did break down barriers into publishing; now, not so much. Quality is very important. Start small and then, when you are established, expand. But don’t tie yourself in knots trying to do everything. When will you have time to write the book? Publishers and agents will love it if you blog, but accept that you won’t have so much time to use Twitter, for example. Use your judgement about what is best for you. Follow writers you love on social media and see how they do it.

A question was asked about the importance of having a website.

Kate: It is very important to have your own website. A publisher will create one for you but it is better to have one of your own that you can control. You can set them up for free. It is the perfect place for people to find you, find out about you and your work, and for them to get in touch with you. But you must regularly update it.

A question was asked about what to do if you feel you have failed to connect with others on social media.

Tom: These things take time. Try different things to see what works.

Kate: We’re writers, we’re used to rejection! Failure happens! Yes, you might screw it up but that’s the only way you learn.

Sarah: Sometimes it might be just because it’s a quiet time on Twitter. Find stuff you like that works for you. You will always find more energy for sharing the things you love on social media.

Kate: Be kind and generous. Think carefully about the public persona you are creating. People like to see the personal stuff, to see that you have a personality and a sense of humour.

Joe: Shut up the voice inside you that says you’re too old, too young, whatever. But if you’re not enjoying using social media, and know that you are not coming across as ‘you’, then stop doing it. But yes, you might be ignored, but if you are honest, humane, and animate your writing, the audience will come.

Disruptive & Digital Publishing
The Short Way Round (Panel)

Tracy Bloom: Self-published Author
Valerie O’Riordan: Senior Editor, The Forge
Dr Lyle Skains: Co-investigator of the Reading Digital Fiction Project
Chaired by
James Draper: Manchester Writing School

Tracy Bloom

In 2012 Tracy self-published her first novel, No one Ever Has Sex on a Tuesday. It got to #1 and sold over 250,000 copies. In 2012 sales relied on heavy discounting, and traditional publishers didn’t want to know about ebooks; now they are very keen. The cost of producing an ebook is low and there is the opportunity to make a lot of sales. Now there are a lot of ebooks discounted to 99p, including new novels by established authors, and all publishers have digital imprints.

Asked if she preferred traditional or self-publishing, Tracy explained that there were pros and cons to both. With self-publishing the author has control over everything, including the title and the book cover. This doesn’t happen in traditional publishing and it can be hard to hand over the control. But with traditional publishing the author has the opportunity to work with great editors and see their books on shelves and in shops. Self-publishing takes a lot of time and energy, and success can depend on genre (literary fiction does not sell so well).

Valerie O’Riordan

The Forge is an online magazine set up by a group of writing friends who had submitted stories to magazines for years and decided they could do better. They chose to set it up as an online magazine, partly due to the cost of producing a physical copy. This meaning they can afford to pay their authors.

They have a lot of submissions and a reach they wouldn’t have achieved with print. They give feedback where appropriate (usually a couple of lines of constructive criticism) unless the submission is completely wrong for them (something they wouldn’t publish). 

Lyle Skains

Inter-active digital fiction is a good experimental technique for a writer but perhaps not so much for a reader. Different links going different ways can mean the reader is pulled out of the story by having to make a choice what to read next. Would the reader like an informed decision about where the story is going, or prefer it to be random? Then there is narrative arc satisfaction. When you read a book, you are on a journey with the characters and worry what will happen to them. Non-linear stories sometimes repeat and take that experience away. But from a writer’s point of view, it is interesting to see what can be done with it.

Writing Life & The Next Step
(A series of 15 minute talks)

Unfortunately Louise missed Andrew’s talk, arriving only in time for the conclusion:

Just write a good story. Don’t worry about selling thousands of copies. Write because you are passionate about writing. But if you think you’re going to make millions you’ll be sadly disappointed.

When Monique asked her students what aspect of writing they were struggling with, it wasn’t plot or characterisation but ‘Am I good enough?’ and ‘Can I do it?’

Cultivate patience when it comes to learning your craft. Don’t send out your first draft. If approaching agents, try six at a time but then wait for feedback before sending it out again. Work on the premise that one day you will get published.

Accept that you are going to have do some research, even if your story is about something you think you know.

Keep your old work. If you have a story which is not working, sometime in the future you might learn how to fix the problem and get it published.

Writers are still working in solitary confinement. Make friends with other writers – not just ‘Facebook friends’ but writers in real life. No one understands a writer like another writer!


The National Creative Writing Graduate Fair

Related Posts:
Manchester LitFest 2015 by Sophie Claire
Writing: Getting Serious by Louise Marley

Wednesday, 2 November 2016

Structural Edits for the Faint-Hearted by Juliet Greenwood

When I first started writing, it was simple. Write book. Go back over it, fiddling and twiddling, and perfecting those beautifully-crafted sentences. Check spelling. Send the finished masterpiece out into a breathlessly waiting world.

It wasn’t until I began to work with an editor that I realised why the world hadn’t been breathlessly waiting. Basically (and to be brutally honest) I hadn’t even started to write the book. I’d got a first draft, and it didn’t matter how much I fiddled at the edges, it was never going to make it past the first draft, before sailing into oblivion and my bottom drawer for all eternity.

I should have known. After all, I’d been successfully writing short stories for years, bashing them around and tearing them apart until they worked. The trouble with a book is that it’s so big, so unwieldy, and takes so long, and so much emotional energy, to write, that the thought of tearing it up and starting again is beyond depressing – especially if, like most of us, you are also trying to do the day job, run a home and family. Oh, and a life.

But, in the end, a long, cold hard look that finished masterpiece (ahem) is the only way to go. That was what I learnt with my first book for Honno Press, Eden’s Garden, and it’s a process that I’ve been learning ever since. The hardest thing is to step back from this world you have been passionately living in for months, even years, and put on the cold, hard, practical, head. But your reader will read the same thing in days, or even non-stop over hours, and they don’t have that world living in their own heads and their hearts, so you have to capture them and persuade them, and transfer that magic inside them. Ballet looks effortless, too.

That is what structural edits are about. It’s taking your book out of your head to hold it in your hands and look at it dispassionately to see what is working and what is not. It’s when you use all the skills you’ve learnt from reading books and knowing what makes you keep on reading or throwing it against the wall. Are there too many characters? Is the heroine a wimp, who throws a strop at the slightest excuse, or a doormat to all and sundry? Are there enough holes in the plot to swallow the Titanic? Everything is thrown into the air, and anything can be thrown out (however beautifully crafted, however long it has taken to write) to make the book as gripping and emotionally engaging as you want it to be – in other words, the story that lives in your head. None of this is destructive. It can feel brutal, but it’s the paring down of a book into the best it can be. It’s the painter going through version after version of the same subject, the dancer practising until their feet bleed.

Above all, you need to listen to your gut. When I sent in the first version of Eden’s Garden, I knew something wasn’t working. Deep inside I knew the Victorian element of the story needed to be far more vivid by being told in the voice of the Victorian heroine. I felt defeated by starting again, rewriting a whole new element of the book, and unceremoniously chucking out hours of work. And, to be honest, I thought I didn’t have the skill and was afraid of making a fool of myself. It was an editor who taught me that yes, it was a vital part of making the book work – and yes, I was capable of writing it. The story didn’t change, but that simple structural change made the book come alive. It was definitely worth it, and I learnt so much about writing, and the kind of writer I want to be, in the process.

I still made mistakes in my latest book, but not nearly as many, and most I spotted along the way. Writing is, after all, a process of constantly learning, developing and improving. And, at the end of writing The White Camellia, understanding how much I had learnt and developed as a writer was the greatest buzz of all.

Structural edits? Feel the fear and do it anyway. You’ve nothing to lose and everything to gain. Bring ’em on!

Juliet Greenwood is published by Honno Press. Her books are set in Cornwall, London and Wales in Victorian and Edwardian times, and follow the lives of strong, independently-minded women struggling to find freedom and self-fulfillment. Her novels have reached #4 and #5 in the UK Amazon Kindle store, while Eden’s Garden was a finalist for ‘The People’s Book Prize’. We That are Left was completed with a Literature Wales Writers’ Bursary.

Juliet’s great grandmother worked as a nail maker in Lye Waste, near Birmingham in the Black Country, hammering nails while rocking the cradle with her foot. Juliet’s grandmother worked her way up to become a cook in a big country house. Their stories have left Juliet with a passion for history, and in particular for the experiences of women, so often overlooked or forgotten. Juliet lives in a traditional cottage in Snowdonia, in the UK, and loves gardening and walking.