Isn’t this gorgeous?
After a 9 day stay in hospital due to pneumonia and sepsis, I made it to London for the John Murray Press Fiction 2020 preview event. It was a delicious breakfast in the lush Greenhouse in EC1. I was thrilled to meet Sally Magnusson, Jean Kwok and Shahnaz Ahsan at the event – I highly recommend grabbing a copy of their novels if you can.
Loving this cover – trying to resist scrawling the title and my name on the front…
I’m thrilled to see an enthusiastic trade announcement covering Big Girl, Small Town in the Bookseller, which also reveals the gorgeous cover designed by John Murray’s Sara Marafini. I can’t wait to experience how this book feels in my hands. Thankfully it won’t be long, as the first proof run will be out in September!
After the novel fair, I stayed in touch with several publishers who were considering my novel while I tried to imagine who would be best fit for me and the book.
I started to read Elmet – Fiona Mozley’s debut novel (which was shortlisted for the Man Booker prize 2017). After a few chapters, I knew I wanted to work with the team who had helped bring such a striking and atmospheric novel into publication. I hoped the team at John Murray Press would feel the same about my work. And they did. One Friday morning, an email from Becky Walsh popped into my inbox. The subject line included the word ‘Offer’.
I was thrilled. And terrified. As I’ve said before, I have an irrational belief that bad news shadows good. My husband was in San Francisco. I tried to erase the picture of his plane falling from the sky on his way home and responded to the publisher’s email as quickly as I could, asking for time to process the news. And to find an agent!
I thought first of Marianne Gunn O’Connor. I’d felt intimidated before meeting Marianne in person at the novel fair – she has a mighty reputation and had already said no to representing me twice before we met. But when we spoke in person for the first time, Marianne said something that handed me the key to finishing my second novel. We connected over authors she represents whose work I love. Then she declined to represent me (again!)…
But the creative dynamic I’d experienced when we met, coupled with my respect for her deep professional experience made me approach her a fourth time. After talking, Marianne said she’d think things over the weekend. She needed time to process things, to make sure she was the right person to take me further in my career.
Later that day I was ambushed by celebratory flowers sent by a friend and mentor – which made the offer feel real. So I let myself celebrate getting this far with 2 friends I do not see enough of (the stars aligned so that these people – who have supported my writing for years – were both in town). But it was only when my husband’s plane touched down in Dublin airport the next morning that I breathe again.
I rang Marianne Gunn O’Connor back the following Monday. She reminded me that this was the fourth time I had knocked at her door. I said that this time it was different – this time I had a book deal. Marianne then said that she doesn’t represent authors just because they have a book deal – she has to believe there’s a good fit between her and the author – a very strong policy that I respect.
A silence stretched out between us as Marianne thought things over. Then she said that she’d loved the last version of my manuscript, but felt it was too close to another book she had been trying to place (one she’d just sold). She said that she was moved by my tenacity in coming back to her. And she said that this time she’d felt a rush of adrenaline and knew in her heart that she wanted to represent me: there was no way she could say no this time. I thanked her for saying yes, and she thanked me for not giving up. Then we got down to business.
I was worried that Marianne would consider my desire to work only with Becky from John Murray naive and limiting. Clearly, in order to get the best publishing deal, we should have tried to whip up a bidding frenzy between publishers. But Marianne supported my decision to go with the team at John Murray. Three days later, she sent the deal she’d negotiated.
That was April. All through May and June I’ve had my head down, working with Becky on editing the manuscript of Big Girl, Small Town. The novel is due for publication on 20/02/2020, which is just about one year on from the Irish Novel Fair 2019 pitch day.
Entries for the Novel Fair 2020 close Friday 27 September. I highly recommend entering. I believe there is value for writers at every stage of the process not just the later stages. And I know from hearing about other book deals and agent contracts from this year’s alumni, that being selected as an Irish Novel Fair finalist gives you a very real opportunity to achieve your writing dream.
Becoming a Novel Fair finalist is not a guarantee that you will be published. It’s not even a guarantee that an agent or publisher will read your novel. It’s simply your chance to pitch to 15 agents and publishers in one day.
The value I’d already gained from the process was enormous, so by the time it came to Phase 5 – following up with the people who’d asked to read my novel – I felt I was greedy to hope I’d clear the last hurdle and achieve a dream I’ve held since I was a child. But I decided to approach this stage as methodically as I had the other stages.
Here’s my system for following up with agents and publishers.
- Create a list of agents and publishers and note the date on which you met.
- Send your MS out immediately.
- Add any notes you have from your conversation on the day to your list – anything that will make a follow up easier (did they mention an upcoming holiday? Did one of their authors win a prize? Was their dog sick? Were their kids trying something new or scary? Were they attending the London Book fair?).
- Add any specific deadline or waiting period you were given by the publisher. Respect that. Don’t ping anyone earlier just because you got an itchy trigger finger.
- Add a 6 week follow-up timeline.
- Follow up with people who gave you specific timelines inside those timelines, follow a 6 week timeline for everyone else.
- Keep. Following. Up.
Your follow up has to start right away. The night of the novel fair I emailed my manuscript to as many agents/publishers as I could before exhaustion made me stupid. I got up early the next day, and followed up with the final people on the list.
Once I’d emailed everyone, I went through the list again and added notes beside each agent/publisher, recording what we’d discussed, reading recommendations they made to me, any dates they’d mentioned for following up. This technique is one I started using in the early days of recovering from my brain injury, when my memory was dreadful and I needed as much support as I could give myself. But this technique is also taught in business and start-ups, because most people can’t remember who said what after a few days, never mind weeks.
Waiting for news from the novel fair was not the only ‘verdict’ I was waiting on during this period. In the month before the novel fair, my sister told me she’d found a lump in her breast. I’ve been through this. Several people I love have been through this. We tried to find comfort in the fact that over 90% of women who find a lump discover it’s benign, even while fear sank deep into my bones. My sister had a scan scheduled for the next Thursday. The following Tuesday she underwent surgery. The fast timescale suggested to me that she wasn’t in the 90% of women who have a benign lump. She was promised a diagnosis the following Thursday. That Thursday came and went. And the Thursday after that. And the Thursday after that. Over the weeks we learned that her tissue sample had been sent to London for analysis as the lab in Belfast ‘hadn’t seen anything like it before’. I Googled the name of the lab who held the sample. Its strapline read: “Europe’s Largest Soft Tissue Sarcoma Unit”. One of my thoughts was how lucky we were that she was in the hands of the best.
While we waited for a diagnosis, I also waited for the verdict on my novel. I felt I’d done good job at the pitch – my hope was that the novel would deliver on the promise. Over those same weeks I received a few rejections from agents. One was a pretty flat no (a no I’d been expecting as the in-person dynamic didn’t work at all when we were focussed on my novel – we only connected when we left writing behind and talked of real life). The other agents were very encouraging about my novel, and constructive with their advice. Oddly, each rejection gave me a sense of relief. That’s because I hold a completely irrational belief that if something good happens, something bad will happen to keep the balance. In an strange way, like a child, I felt that my ‘bad’ news was keeping my family safe from my sister being given bad news.
In early March my sister was given a diagnosis. She had a tumour that is so rare it is seen in only 1% of all cancer cases. And she had the rarest presentation of that tumour. Before her diagnosis I had thought that you either have cancer, or you don’t. That a growth is either benign or it’s malignant. That, like what I learned about gender at school – you’re either a boy or girl – there’s nothing in between. But my sister was diagnosed with a ‘borderline’ phyllodes tumour, which is a fast-growing tumour with a leaf-like pattern of cells (“phyllodes” is from the Greek, meaning “leafy”). These tumours are usually either benign or malignant. But hers presented with features of both. It wasn’t snow, it wasn’t rain – it was slush. Luckily, even a full-on malignant phyllodes tumour will grow fast, but rarely spreads. The tumour doesn’t respond to chemo, but once diagnosed, can be excised. For the rest of her life my sister will follow up annually to check her excision was 100% successful. This diagnosis, coming after so many weeks of uncertainty, felt like one of those once-in-a-decade lottery wins you read about in the newspaper.
After that, a river of energy freed up in my life. Though I was still struggling to balance my writing, my full-time job and manage my ongoing back pain from our car accidents, I returned my focus to the Novel Fair follow-ups. I had a system (of COURSE I had a system).
I felt most confident contacting the agents/publishers who’d responded to my initial email – at a minimum I knew the email address I’d used worked. But most agents/publishers didn’t respond to my first email, and so I felt a little uncomfortable – and insecure – emailing them. I’d no way of knowing if the address I had was right.
I found the black hole of a non-response harder to process than the hard outcomes of an outright rejection.
I think from when we are babies we like to explore cause and effect. A baby throws a ball – and even before they can crawl they track the ball’s arc and resting point with full attention. Lobbing your novel at someone who doesn’t confirm receipt feels a little like dropping a pebble down a well and never hearing the splash. The solution is of course to be a baby, and keep dropping pebbles in the hope there is water down there somewhere.
This. Isn’t. Easy.
When I worked in start-ups, most of my time seemed to be spent emailing or ringing people (mostly men) who didn’t respond to my query. I often turned up to meetings only to have a last-minute cancellation pinged into my inbox, letting me know the investor or advisor had something more important to do than speak to me. Worst of all was sitting in an office or coffee shop waiting for someone who never cancelled, but never arrived. I remember returning to our startup hub once after the 3rd cancellation from a VC I really wanted to meet. I figured it was Game Over with this particular VC and said so to an advisor. He gave me some advice that I’ve tried to work with ever since. He said that I could only consider a query as a ‘no’ if I had tried to contact them 10 times and heard nothing in response. And to call it quits if 5 in-person meetings fell through. While I consider many aspects of the start-up investment world to be toxic – and I’m glad I’m no longer in it – I like the way this technique depersonalises the void. Here’s how I see it:
You have 10 pebbles. Drop 1 down the well. Listen for a splash. Repeat 9 times. Walk away if you don’t hear a splash – that well is not bottomless – it’s dry.
Getting the tone of a follow-up email just right is not easy. In my emails, I included the following:
- Who I was and how we met
- The title of the novel I had sent to them
- The timeline since then
- A ‘personal’ note, e.g. a thanks for a reading recommendation they’d made.
I have no evidence or research to prove this approach is the best to take. It’s based on how I’d like someone to contact me. I am assuming the agents and publishers are so busy that their inbox is bursting with unopened emails and unread manuscripts. I imagine the recipient has zero time to waste, and prefers to use their brain to read manuscripts, negotiate rights, and pitch the novels they love at editorial meetings – they do not want to spend their time wondering who you are and why you’re contacting them.
I have always appreciated people taking the time to keep their communication clear, short and friendly – which takes more time than something long and rambly, or short and angry. So I tried to give the information in a succinct, yet personable manner. Instead of:
It's been 6 weeks since you met me, Michelle Gallen, at the novel fair in Dublin. You promised to read my novel Big Girl, Small Town. What's the story?
I aimed for something like this:
Time flies - it's been 6 weeks since we met at the Irish Novel Fair in Dublin. I hope you weren't too swamped by the London Book fair and that you enjoyed the Bologna Book fair!
I was wondering if you've found the time to read my MS, Big Girl, Small Town?
PS I've read the book/ate at the restaurant/climbed the hill you recommended - it was wonderful. Thanks for the tip!
Following up takes persistence. If someone doesn’t reply to your initial email, then it makes the next email a little harder. And the one after that harder still. It takes real grit to persist for as long as it takes to get an answer. And as noted above, answers don’t always come.
I deeply appreciated the fast, warm rejections I had from a number of agents. And I tried not to feel frustrated by the slower responses. The act of writing a novel can be the work of years, and considering the barriers many of us face in completing a whole book, the ‘final’ product can feel like a miracle to many of us writers. We want – understandably – to reach an audience, and the agents and publishers we reach out to are the the gate keepers. After investing so much time and energy, it can be frustrating when the agents/publishers we reach out to don’t read our MS immediately (or at all), and respond inside 48 hours (or years).
But agents and publishers aren’t yet robots. They’re people just like us, with a finite amount of time on this planet, with stuff happening at home and in work. Research shows that human brains are moulded by the books they read. It’s an amazing privilege, really, to have another human read your story, even if they don’t do that as fast as you like, and don’t go any further with it. When I consider that a study has shown that average readers read just 12 books a year, voracious readers (me!) read 50 books a year and super readers might read 80 books. Agents and publishers receive hundreds or thousands of manuscripts every year. I can’t help but feel that if one of these super busy, book professionals found the time to read my MS and feedback, I am very privileged.
Following up again and again…
If you’re lucky, each and every agent or publisher you contact will reply to your first email to confirm receipt. They will give you a clear timeline for following up, and they will contact you in due course to let you know where you are in the process. Of course the reality is a mixed bag of silence and sporadic contact.
The possible trajectory from the follow ups seems to be this:
- Silence – the agent/publisher simply never replies to your emails.
- Follow up 10 times. Then either walk away or progress to one of the steps below.
- Thanks but no – the agent/publisher emails to say I read your novel, and while I thought X, Y or Z, we do not think it’s a fit for our list. We wish you lots of luck with your writing career.
- I recommend replying as quickly as you can to thank the agent/publisher for their time, attention and feedback.
- You’re still in the game – Agent/publishers says I read your novel, and now it’s been shared with more of our internal readers. I’ll follow up in X weeks.
- Reply as quickly as you can to acknowledge receipt and let the agent/publisher know you’re waiting to hear more.
- You can see the finish post – Agent/publisher emails to say we’ve read your novel and we’d like to discuss it further here in the office. We’ll follow up in X weeks.
- Reply as quickly as you can to acknowledge receipt and let the agent/publisher know you’re waiting to hear more.
- WINNER! – Agent/publisher says we’d like to publish your novel.
- Reply while weeping tears of joy.
- WINNER EXTRAORDINAIRE!!! – After a fierce 5 way auction handled by your hotshot agent, a publisher buys world rights to your first novel and the next 5 novels.
- Reply after scraping yourself off the floor.
I view each of these results as a win – they all teach you something. But outcomes 2-6 rest on a scale that moves from winning £1 on a scratch card that cost you £1 to buy, to I’ve only bloody won the 12-week rollover Euromillions jackpot….!!!!!
So what was my outcome? Was it a £1 win or a Euromillions rollover?
The morning of the Novel Fair dawned, bright, cold and sunny. A blue sky stretched over Dublin. And I still wasn’t ready.
I hadn’t got the clips I needed to put my handouts and extracts together, and I didn’t have a container for the 2 copies of my full manuscript. But I had scheduled time to get these last bits together over a coffee in town. So I left the school and creche runs to my husband, then jumped on the Luas and stopped at Jervis so I could walk over to Easons. Within a few metres I felt the truth of an old Irish proverb:
Is trom cearc i bhfad.(Even a hen becomes a burden on a long journey).
I knew I’d pay for walking with such a heavy bag on my still-injured back. But I also knew I’d enough painkillers to see me through the day – pain wasn’t going to hold me back. I had just arrived at Easons when I heard someone say “Michelle Gallen”. Dublin is such a small place that for local people, bumping into someone is an unremarkable event. But after years away from the city, this doesn’t happen me much outside of my school run. Yet on the steps of Easons I met someone I’ve known from home since the age of 5. We hugged and she asked what I was doing. I explained I was on my way to the Irish Writers Centre to pitch my novel to a room full of agents and publishers. She asked me to pitch to her, and I did. And she laughed and said ‘That doesn’t sound like fiction.’ She wished me luck, and I ducked into Easons, feeling there was some kind of magic swirling in the early Spring sunshine, that brought us, natives of a tiny border town, to meet steps away from O’Connell street on that particular morning.
I clipped my work together while necking a coffee, then walked up to the IWC. Outside was strung with rainbow bunting, my name was one of those written on the chalkboard announcing the Novel Fair outside. The granite glittered in the sunshine. Everything felt crystal clear and marvellous. I stepped into the building and went upstairs to find my place.
Going up the stairs I realised that perhaps I should’ve asked for a quiet place to sit. I have sensory issues, and struggle with noise and movement. I am easily overwhelmed in crowds, and get exhausted trying to filter the faces. I have had prosopagnosia since my brain injury at 23. This condition is more commonly known as ‘face blindness’. I struggle to recognise faces, even those of friends and family. I find this is much worse in crowds, where I can only compute around 3 people at a time. Often, at family social events, I recognise people by zoning out on the visuals, and listening to voices. At professional networking events I have been known to spend half an hour speaking to a new person, only to reintroduce myself 5 minutes later, as if they have never met me. I have been accused of being aloof, or snobby, of not paying attention to people or caring enough to recognise them. It causes me huge anxiety and stress before any social event where I am expected to recognise faces. It’s the reason I cofounded a tech start-up way back in 2010, when apps were in their infancy, designing Shhmooze – a mobile app that helped me and other people ‘cheat’ our way to recognising who was around us.
But when I arrived in the room I found the seat I’d been assigned once again it felt like a magic was at work behind the scenes – I had a seat tucked away at the back of the room, beside the window. I knew right away it was the ‘best’ seat for my brain – I had a blank wall beside me, and the Garden of Remembrance to one side, and fellow Northern Irish woman Sue Divins to my other side.
I was trying to conserve my energy so I sat in my seat and tried to arrange my reams of paper neatly, so I could grab what I needed with as little fuss as possible. The event started on time, and I launched into pitching my dream.
Let’s start with the stuff I’d do differently next time around:
- I’d bring less paper. As pointed out in the previous post, you only need:
- 18 colour copies of your author bio (with photo).
- 18 black and white copies of your synopsis.
- Around 5 copies of the first 50 pages.
- I’d condense my research findings on the agents and publishers into a few bullet points.
- I’d bring business cards.
Let’s talk about point 2 first. Shhmooze – the networking app I built – was designed to identify who was attending and event or conference. It created a ‘cheatsheet’ of information about your connections – and the strangers – around you. The vision behind the app was that anyone could use it to quickly identify the people they knew, and those they needed to know. The app provided everyone with information they could use to kickstart a conversation because we wanted everyone to make the best use of their most precious time – face-to-face interactions with other humans. We even built a prediction engine that pinpointed not just where your contacts were at a particular event, but where they were likely to be. Unfortunately we discovered that humans are a lot more interested in stalking than talking. Sales people and recruiters – those with a real business need to find and speak to new people – loved our app. They just didn’t tell anyone they were using it. They preferred to use the app to put together a list of people they wanted to talk to, then used our cheatsheet to open compelling conversations, but never admitted that all this research had been done on the fly by our app.
In the weeks before the novel fair I had done a lot of research on the agents and publishers, had read books from their lists, or at least downloaded and read free Kindle chapters to get a ‘feel’ for their authors, and had trawled through social media profiles and posts in the hope of being as prepared as possible. I had amassed a lot of information, but I hadn’t distilled it down, like our app would’ve done. So in the short transition between one agent/publisher leaving and another arriving, I had seconds to glance at a sheet of words to pick out the key facts. I would’ve done better to create something like this:
- Agent/Publisher name, organisation and where they grew up/live.
- 5 books/authors they have found success with.
- 1 recent news story/scandal associated with the publisher/agent or their authors.
- Something personal I connected with.
In the end, I found the ‘something personal I could connect with’ the most valuable piece of information from my research. For example, 1 of the agents noted that she was a Sweet Valley High super fan. I had first read Sweet Valley High books when I was 13, staying with my cousins in upstate New York. My mother had sent me and my 14 year old sister there for the summer, to people we’d never met, hoping we’d learn there was more to life than the Troubles and our small town. At 13 I was an avid book reader, but my cousins weren’t. The only books in their house were the entire Sweet Valley High series, and Gone with the Wind. I remember thinking Gone with the Wind looked more promising than SVH, but the novel was snapped from my hands by an adult when they noticed what I was reading. And so I spent my summer reading Sweet Valley High from start to finish. Those novels were a world apart from the one I was growing up in – and I consumed the SVH series in much the same way I consumed the horror novels of Stephen King and James Herbert and the science fiction I found in the adult section of the library at home, and that long hot summer in the USA. They were sheer fantasy, a world I immersed myself in, before resuming life as I knew it. I had a strong impression that the agent who said she was a Sweet Vally High fan was not a strong fit for my novel. And rather than club her over the head with a relentless pitch, I opened the conversation talking about Sweet Valley High. And we spent 5 glorious minutes talking about those novels and what they meant for us as teenage girls – how she read the novels coming from where she did, how they read to me from my background. I did in the end pitch my novel, which she passed it to her assistant to read. The agency didn’t take me on, as I’d anticipated, but their rejection email told me that they had really enjoyed the manuscript, and it had been a close thing. The whole interaction – from pitch to rejection – felt a lot more positive from having been rooted in our connection over SVH than if I’d simply banged on about why my novel was the ‘right’ thing for their list.
Finally – I didn’t bring business cards as I wasn’t sure that it was the right thing to do. But if I had to do over, I would. When handing over my bio, synopsis and sample to interested agents/publishers, I didn’t expect anything in return. So quite a few times I forgot to get contact information from people I needed to follow up with. Running a start-up, I learned the hard way that 99% of the time, no matter how ‘hot’ you are, you will be the one doing the chasing. I advise you to get a head start by having the agent/publisher’s direct contact details, rather than ‘firstname.lastname@example.org’). If I’d had a little stack of business cards, with the name of my novel hand-written on the back, I would’ve done this methodically.
Now let’s look at the stuff that worked well:
- Pitching the novel.
- Passing on my bio and synopsis.
- Taking breaks
- Hanging out with the writers afterwards
Pitching your novel effectively is not something you achieve on the day. All the work should have been done in advance. I found that between my own preparation, following the advice of the IWC and the advice of former novel fair finalists I knew, my pitch was strong. I still benefited from practicing out loud and the pitch got stronger as the day progressed. I’ve seen time and again in start-ups that a great pitch can sell a crappy product. But I’ve also seen a poor pitch sink a brilliant product. Preparation and practice are key to you making the most of the opportunities you will have on the day.
Having a 1 page bio and 1 page synopsis for the agents and publishers was practical. Tip: ensure your bio includes links to where the recipient can download your full MS (I also included a link to the opening chapters of my second novel, which is in progress). Very few people were interested in taking away the 40 page sample. Nobody took the full MS. This left me with a heavy rucksack full of paper that I had to haul to the pub, then home. So focus on having a sharp informative bio and synopsis that will help the agent or publisher remember you and your pitch when they come to the novel again – weeks – or even months later.
Taking breaks is something I needed to do to make it through the day. And instead of doing what I would’ve done in London, using my ‘break’ to connect with other writers and the agents/publishers, I nipped outside to the Garden of Remembrance, where I walked in the sunshine, focussed on breathing, and tried to contain my energy. I also ate chocolate peanuts because I crave sugar when doing high-intensity interactions. I highly recommend working with your natural energy – take quiet time outs if that’s what recharges you, get a walk if you need to re-energise, speak to the people around you if that’s your thing. Do whatever you can to pace yourself.
Finally, going to the pub and spending some time with the other novel fair finalists was a very valuable experience. Not only was it fun to hang out with everyone and learn more about their work and lives, we had the opportunity to do what is normally the privilege of agents and publishers – we compared notes. One of the problems I’ve encountered in publishing is that the power lies very firmly with the agents and publishers. You, as a single person, submit your manuscript (most likely the solitary work of years), to agents or publishers who will read and assess it on their terms. I know many agents and publishers do not accept what is called ‘simultaneous submissions’. In part, I believe this rule helps them protect their very finite time – nobody wants to invest time reading a novel and making an offer, only to find the author has gone off with someone else. But in part the ‘no simultaneous submissions’ rule helps the publisher keep the power on their side. If you can only approach one publisher at a time, you have no leverage when it comes to making a deal. If that agent/publisher decides to offer you a deal, you can’t return to another publisher to try and push the price higher. And it’s here where agents can do a spectacular job in achieving the holy grail of publishing deals – a 3 or 4 or 5 way auction, where they have submitted a book to a range of publishers, some of whom express interest, and they are forced to bid for the book’s rights. While professional agents can do this, authors are not encouraged to take this approach – indeed I have seen publishers state that they will ‘know’ you have made a simultaneous submission because they talk to each other, discussing what’s popped up in their inbox. The novel fair provides the finalists with a very rare opportunity to do what publishers get paid to do – compare notes and take the temperature.
I was one of the last of the finalists to leave the pub. As I stood at the door saying goodbye to a fellow writer, I spotted a 20 euro note on the floor. I picked it up and the writer said to me that my luck was in. I agreed. I had woken up that morning with the ambition of having a 50% hit rate at the novel fair – I wanted half of the agents and publishers to want to read my manuscript. By the end of the day, every agent and publisher had asked for it. I had never had a better chance of publication. On my way to the Luas I dropped the 20 euros into a paper cup held by someone crouching on the street. It was a paltry way to share some of the luck of that day, but it was better than nothing. I hobbled down O’Connell street with my rucksack, and made it home just in time for the kids’ bedtime. I bathed in the afterglow of a day spent with writers, talking about my writing, and connecting with people whose passion is books. I didn’t allow myself to think of the weeks of waiting – and probably rejections – ahead.
In a big way, the novel fair was a welcome distraction from the aftermath of 2 car crashes. It was an exciting thing to look forward to, something that I hoped would be a great experience, even if nothing came out of it. So in late January – much later than I had hoped – I knuckled down to prepare.
Here’s what I planned to do:
- research the agents/publishers
- create a compelling pitch
- prepare my documentation
- polish my manuscript yet again
Here’s the documentation I needed:
- 1 page author biography
- Novel Synopsis (300 words)
- Novel extract (50 pages)
- Full novel
With the optional prep day looming in early February I focussed on refining my synopsis and drafting a pitch. We were given a list of questions in advance of the prep day to help us prepare to pitch:
- Tell us a bit about your writing background to date?
- Tell us about the work/novel?
- What is it that compels you to write?
- What writers do you admire?
- What other writers would you compare your work to?
- What have you read lately that you’ve enjoyed/found inspiring?
- In what genre would you categorise your novel?
- Who do you think would be your readership if your novel were to be published?
- Do you think your book has a ‘hook’ or USP and if so, what is it?
- How would you imagine your novel would be marketed?
- Why do you think your book would suit our publishing house?
- In what ways do you think you might be helpful in promoting your work? (Social media etc)
- Are you working on any other writing projects/another novel? Or have you ideas for future writing projects/your next novel? Or are you already working on it?
- Which would you prefer, to be a respected, commercial writer and sell loads of books, or to be a writer who is highly regarded in the field but who doesn’t have a huge commercial appeal?
- What do you think about the state of contemporary Irish writing at the moment?
This is a LONG list of questions. And as I learned, the agents and publishers don’t work from it. On the pitch day, most agents and publishers asked these top 5 questions:
- Tell me about you.
- Tell me about your novel.
- What genre is it?
- What author/book is most similar to you?
- Who will read this?
But here’s the key point: while most agents/publishers asked those top 5 questions, the other questions were not predictable. Some agents/publishers wanted to know what I thought of specific books similar to mine. Some asked me why I would fit with their list. Others asked me why I write. Some wanted to know about where I grew up. Others asked about the novel’s hook or USP, or asked me to differentiate between my novel and others in the same category or genre. Nearly everyone asked the same 5 questions. But the ‘curve ball’ questions came from anywhere on – and even off the list – e.g. 1 publisher asked me how my family and friends might react to the publication of my novel – a question I’ve been asking myself for years…
That’s why I think the best way to prepare to pitch is to ensure you’ve got short, compelling, clear answers to those top 5 questions, and make sure you’ve got strong answers for every other question on the list.
Instead of starting at the top and working my way through the list, I started with the questions I found easiest and shortest – e.g. in what genre would you categorise your novel. I’m not sure this is an evidence-based approach widely recommended by productivity experts. It’s just how I used to pick blackcurrants or apples – start with the low-hanging fruit.
I struggled with some questions – e.g. identifying your book’s USP or selling point can be hard when you’re oxter deep in the word soup of your work. I found it difficult to liken myself to other authors – it felt incredibly presumptuous. I dodged that question by turning the answer into a joke (when asked to liken myself to an author I said that I had no proof, but thought it was probable I was the love child of Elena Ferrante and Irvine Welsh). I strongly disliked the question pitching commercial success against critical acclaim – I made a list of writers who have both.
I entered the pitch prep day quite well prepared. Or so I thought. Turned out that the words written down on paper had to come out of my mouth, and that was hard. After we had been introduced to the judges – Catherine Dunne, Anna Carey and Anthony Glavin, and heard from former novel fair finalist Kevin Curran, we were split into smaller groups to practice our pitches with specific authors.
I was in Anthony Glavin’s group. Anthony has an incredibly calm, almost zen presence, which was very reassuring. And I’ve pitched to some very tough audiences in the tech world – it takes a lot to ruffle my feathers. Yet when it came to pitching my novel, I was trembling and on the verge of tears. I really struggled to hold myself together and give coherent answers. The words on my prep pitch doc had flown from me. And this was the huge value of the pitch day for me – it unmasked a storm of emotions that I needed to process in private before being ready to pitch in public.
After the pitch prep day, I went away and worked on 2 things:
- practising my pitch out loud
- printing and collating the documentation.
There was a great emphasis on the day on having the ‘right’ amount of printed material to give to any agents/publishers who might ask for it. That’s because it would be awful if you missed your moment simply because you didn’t have a print out with you.
But my experience was that only a few agents/publishers asked for printouts of my novel sample. NOBODY took a print out of my full manscript. Every agent/publisher took my biography and novel synopsis (2 pages total). So I was left to tote a heavy bag full of paper around on the day – which did my back injury no good, even if my kids are delighted I brought home lots of ‘scrap’ paper for drawing on.
So here’s what I recommend:
- Print 18 colour copies of your author bio (with photo).
- Print 18 black and white copies of your synopsis.
- Print around 5 copies of the first 50 pages.
If anyone asks you for the full print out, give them the first 50 pages in person, and courier the full MS over right after the novel fair. This approach would have saved me a lot of time, money, and back pain.
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)