The 4 December 2018 was the day when ‘successful’ writers were to be informed about the Novel Fair, just 2 months after the closing date. I checked my email furtively, but obsessively all day at work, and was very disappointed when I heard nothing by 6pm. I assumed I hadn’t been made the shortlist or been selected as a finalist.
Then around 7.30pm, when I was cajoling the kids to bed, I had a missed call on my mobile. My husband made me call the unknown number back – an act that for me is akin to answering the door naked at 2am (i.e. something I don’t do, as a rule).
Within a few seconds I knew I was a finalist. I experienced 1 minute of pure excitement before I learned that I wasn’t allowed to tell anyone until the end of January, when the official press release was to go live. This was a dilemma as I’d told EVERYONE I know that the Novel Fair results were due that day, and had promised to text, email and tweet about it. Whoops. So I climbed back down off the roof of my house with my megaphone and kept the news in the house. I celebrated quietly with the kids and my husband, before I got into the next steps of the process.
CONFIRMING YOU REALLY DID WRITE A NOVEL
First, I had to submit my manuscript to the Irish Writers Centre, so they could ascertain I really had written 50,000+ words. Luckily we could do this via email, so I sent that off as quickly as possible so I could be ‘verified’ as a finalist.
COMMITTING TO THE SCHEDULE
I then focused on the 2 important dates we were given:
- 2 February: Prep Day (OPTIONAL)
- How to give a good pitch, prepare synopsis, receive judges’ feedback.
- How to give a good pitch, prepare synopsis, receive judges’ feedback.
- 15 February: Novel Fair Day (MANDATORY)
- Pitching novel to approx 15 agents and publishers.
The Novel Fair would be super cool if it were conducted in an amphitheatre, where the author presides as emperor, and the publishers and agents fight to the death in the arena for the right to read your novel. But that’s not what it happens.
Instead the authors and publishers/agents sit on chairs at little desks in rows in a gorgeous Georgian drawing room, and the authors have 10 minutes in which to pitch their novel in the hope the publisher/agent might read it. Which is also cool, but obviously the power dynamics are a little different to the scenario above.
NOTE: The fact that the publishers/agents don’t read your novel in advance of the Novel Fair pitch day was a revelation to me. I had thought that the agents/publishers would’ve read at least the first 10,000 words, and the ‘pitch’ was their chance to explore the rest of the novel and learn more about you as an author. But no. The agents/publishers come in ‘blind’ and you have around 10 minutes to pitch and sell your novel.
During my time in start-ups, I frequently had to pitch my start-up to VCs and Angel funders, so I was excited about preparing my pitch and the day itself. I knew that the 2 month lead time was enough time to
- research the agents/publishers
- create a compelling pitch
- prepare my documentation
- polish my manuscript yet again
- continue working full-time and parenting 2 little kids.
Yeah. Can you see where this is going?
Let’s start with the documentation you need to pitch:
- 1 page author biography
- Novel Synopsis (300 words)
- Novel extract (50 pages)
- Full novel
I found this easy enough to put together – though the formatting and printing (yes, printing…we’ll get to that separately) were a time suck. Every time I got stuck on preparing my ‘pitch’ I used the time to work on the documentation.
During my time in start-ups I learned it’s not all about you. It’s not enough to have ‘your stuff’ ready. It’s hugely important to research the people you are pitching to. With the publishers and agents, I decided I wanted to learn:
- who they are
- what they’ve published
- what they wished they’d published
- what they’re looking at in terms of future trends.
First I made a list of the attending publishers and tried to work out who I had already read from their list. Next I created a reading list of novels they’d recently published or found great success with.
Obviously, with the 8 weeks I had to prepare to pitch, I didn’t have time to read 30+ novels. So I picked the agents/publishers I felt I had the best ‘chance’ with, and read something from their list. And for the others, I, ummm, cheated(!). I downloaded sample chapters to my Kindle, and read the opening scenes of the novels they had published or found great success with. This was super useful in terms of getting the ‘feel’ for what certain agents/publishers were enjoying. It was also a very good chance to learn what ‘works’ when opening a novel in various literary genres.
WRITING A PITCH
I will create a separate post about this. Suffice to say, if the documentation and research are the tip of the iceberg, I think the pitch – short as it is – is the huge, unseen, submerged mass that can sink you.
POLISHING YOUR MANUSCRIPT ONE LAST TIME
I really do suggest you try to do this, in addition to preparing your pitch, documentation and doing your research. The level of attention you paid to your first 10,000 words should now – in this compressed timeframe – be applied to the rest of your manuscript.
ACCOUNTING FOR CURVE BALLS
My good intentions to polish my manuscript came to nothing. On the 14 December, my family and I were driving to Tyrone to visit my parents. I’d kept my news a secret since finding out, because I wanted to tell my parents in person, so I could enjoy their reactions. It was a stormy night, but my husband is a careful, safe driver. The kids and I fell asleep in the car. At around 11:30pm I awoke to the noise of an impact which set my ears ringing. The crash reminded me of a bomb going off. I noted that the air bags had deployed, which meant that the impact was serious. When we came to a stop, I could heard only 1 of my 2 kids crying, which I knew was a bad sign, but my husband was conscious and said he was ‘OK’. Because I could smell burning I knew we had to get out of the car. I asked my husband to get our younger son (who was crying) out, while I tried to reach the elder one. When I got out of my seatbelt I could see he was sitting dazed in his car seat, not crying, not speaking, but apparently unhurt. I tried to make it out of our side of the car, but we were lodged in a ditch and the doors wouldn’t open properly. When I got him out over the back seats to the other door, I saw a car had stopped behind us, with a shocked looking driver slumped over the wheel. I asked her if my kids and husband could take shelter with her, out of the storm, while I searched for the other driver. She took them all in. Another car pulled up behind her, and three young people got out and helped me find and check over the other driver. Somehow, miraculously, everyone involved walked or (in the case of my younger son, who fractured his leg) hopped away with relatively minor injuries.
Later on that night I can remember sitting in an ambulance, wondering why there was such an odd atmosphere – a kind of holiness that I just didn’t understand, that felt at odds with having had a car accident. Then the policeman said that the tractor driver wanted his silage shear back. Though I grew up in the countryside, I wasn’t exactly sure what a silage shear was, so I said yes, but why’s he asking us for his shear? The policeman replied that the shear was ‘in’ our car. I couldn’t understand how a silage shear had gotten into our boot, and thought there was some mistake. So I said I’d photograph the car before any vehicles were moved, for insurance documentation. The police man opened the ambulance door and for the first time I saw our car from the front and my legs almost went from beneath me. I turned back to the ambulance crew, to the policeman in shock. They nodded at me. They said ‘you’re lucky, you are so lucky’.
A silage shear is a brutal piece of equipment. It weighs around 400kgs and is designed to slice through thick blocks of compacted silage. It looks like a giant metal dinosaur mouth. It had ‘bitten’ through the front of our car like it was made of tin foil. The teeth marks had punctured our windscreen, inches from our faces. The front of the car was crumpled with the force of the impact, and the weight of the device. It was a complete write off. As front seat passengers, my husband and I had been inches from decapitation.
We were discharged from hospital with minor injuries and spent that weekend in deep shock. I didn’t tell my parents or siblings about the Novel Fair. Instead, we dealt with the admin of a car crash – insurance claims, car scrappage, finding a new car, buying new car seats for the kids, helping them process the crash and deal with their shock. We drove back to Dublin in a lot of pain, all thoughts of pitching and writing driven into the background.
We hoped we would have a restful Christmas, in order to heal and recover. We had planned to join Mehdi’s family in France, so on December 22 we drove to Dublin port. We knew it would be a tough journey – we were all still in pain, and feeling traumatised from the crash. But we felt it would be best to stick to our plans, and the kids were desperate to see their French grandparents, aunts and uncles and to enjoy Christmas in France.
We did everything we could to ensure our journey was slow, safe and low risk. But on December 23, just 1 hour away from Mehdi’s mother’s house, the car in front of us in the fast lane of the motorway emergency braked and came to a full stop. While we were able to brake in time, the car behind us was going too fast to stop and rear ended us. Though the crash was high impact, our car had a tow bar fitted, which took the brunt of the impact. But our car engine cut out on impact, leaving us stranded on the motorway, with heavy traffic weaving all around us, and 2 screaming kids in the back seat. The only thought in my head was that we were at high risk of another impact (various statistics put your survival time on the hard shoulder of the motorway at between 11-20 minutes. It’s my guess that those durations are shorter if you’re sitting stationary in the fast lane). My husband managed to restart the car, and somehow crossed three lanes of traffic to get us off the motorway. I brought our crying kids into McDonalds, where they calmed down over a Happy Meal. That’s where we stayed until the ambulance crew picked us up and took us to hospital for the second time in 10 days.
For the next few weeks, the novel fair wasn’t just driven into the background, it disappeared completely from my life.
Next in the series: Irish Novel Fair Phase 3: Preparing to Pitch (2/2)