I have been a bad best friend in the literary sense. The cardinal sin is that I have abandoned my blog. The last time I wrote, the piglets had trashed the broad bean crop and was anticipating take my book to the Frome Literary Festival.
Since then, the piglets have gone to the woods (not a euphemism) and I’ve put my book back under the bed (this one is a euphemism). But Autumn brought more than a simple change of seasons. I bagged tickets for the Foyles Discovery Day in London, hosted by London agents Curtis Brown and Conville & Walsh. You have thirty seconds to pitch your book to an agent, at the first table available. So it’s a stomach-squeezing mash-up of speed dating and X-Factor, but isn’t on TV. And I already had my idea, tried, tested and rejected by most of the literary agents in the capital. I was a pro, and some of them might even recognise my face from the dazzling cover letter in my submissions. What could go wrong? Oh yes, having read the rules (aren’t there always?) I found out that it was for fiction only. Shit. 80,000 words of non-fiction will be as good as an electric fence with no battery attached.
Ah, the perfect chance to try out a fiction idea I came up with about ten years ago. Why ignore an idea for so long? Truth is, it’s steeped in science theory and given that I got E grade in science for GCSE, I didn’t think I was best placed to. Actually, it was a double EE grade – quite ironic as it took me ten years to find my bollocks, figuratively that is, to use another adverb.
As my trip to London loomed and I panicked about logistics, I reminded myself that I spent five years living in the city. Why should I panic now? Because I had the added delight of wittling down my rather complicated theory into less than an ad break. Cue the kitchen timer.
It took me a Saturday afternoon, but if I spoke fast with no stuttering, I could manage it. I typed it out of course. I’m a nightmare and go to pieces when put on the spot. I got the first page of my novel as good as I could get it, printed it all out, packed my weekend bag and off I went.
Most of the train journey up there, I spent feeling sick. Not good when the only chance of outlet was a cubicle with a disobedient lock and probably covered in several specimens of urine. Oh and thanks St Denys for the signal failure. That added an extra thirty minutes to my journey of panic. I only ate half my sandwich that day.
After a night at my sister’s house, the day came. I got my Oyster card (I had to be briefed on what it was) and off I went. My resolution this time in London was not to take the Underground everywhere, like I did when I lived there. As a result I never had a visual map in my head. I opted to change this now. Good job I opted for trainers and not my vintage heels. I made it to Foyles bookshop with ten minutes to spare. I went to the top floor where a lengthy queue had already begun. It felt rather like waiting outside a nightclub. Someone with a clipboard walked the line and ticked off our names. We all made small talk with each other. The lady I was stood next to had come back from Spain for this and someone else had come from Sweden, I think.
The queue began to move. At the front, there were markers. Another queue fed in from the side to a doorway. Those were the children’s authors. Then I was at the front. I held onto my folder tight and tried to use my years of amateur dramatics to calm down. Though this was parallel to singing solo, except I wasn’t caked in make-up and not a soul knew me.
I leant forwards. I could see someone sat down at a table, still and quiet. The agent was reading their page. My turn soon.
‘Step back, please. Behind the marker.’ A man was ushering me away from the doorway. ‘We don’t want people overhearing anything.’
‘I couldn’t hear anything,’ I protested, but the bouncer had gone to check off more names.
‘Next please.’ A lady with a clipboard was ushering me forward. ‘The table at the end.’
I ‘good lucked’ the queue and set off past the tables, not daring to look at anything apart from the end table. I got a lady. I sat down and put my folder on the table. ‘Are you going to time me?’ Silence. Well done, idiot. You’ve screwed it up in under a second.
She smiled. ‘Well, no not really. But we want to give everyone a chance.’
I noted the watch on her desk. ‘OK.’ I start my pitch, trying not to make it sound too scripted. My face was getting hotter all the time. But she was nice, saying ‘yes’ and nodding at times.
When I was finished, she looked interested and suggested I read Michael Crichton’s State Of Fear. I already had read some of it, so we had a good chat about that. She asked me if it had a happy ending, what was to blame for the events in the novel and whether I’d finished it yet.
Was a happy ending important? In this kind of book, she thought so. Because one where everyone dies is a real downer and note a good feeling to go away with. Keep the pace up and make the science easy to understand.
She seemed to be wrapping things up. I picked up my first page. ‘Do you want to read this?’ I asked.
‘Oh yes,’ she replied, taking it from me and folding it over.
I thought of the email we’d been asked to include on the page. ‘So you’ll email me?’
So that was that. I was moved to a holding pen with other people, jittery from their pitches. ‘Did it go well?’ I was asked.
‘I think so, she seemed to like my idea and said it was current. She didn’t read my first page.’
The bookshop girl nodded. ‘Some agents do things differently.’
So that’ll be me checking my emails constantly for the next month then.
We were then herded into a café and sat in groups at tables in a rather noisy café on the top floor. We had one expert to grill. Questions ranged from what to include in a cover, to ‘how important is an online profile?’ He said ‘not very’, but did say later that he would Google someone as part of the process.
With two hours to kill, I trundled off to do some research. Part of my novel is set in London, so off I went to Trafalgar Square and the Churchill War Rooms. I also passed the Cenotaph and Downing Street. I just about had enough time to take some ‘selfies’. Then back to the bookshop for the panel event.
This is when I had self-confirmation of the geek that I am. Waiting in the lift, an agent hopped in next to me. I couldn’t help but stare. Luckily she was heavily into her i-phone and didn’t spot me goldfishing. She’s six inches away, I thought. I could hear the gasp in my head.
The queue for the panel event was more of a crush on the top floor, us all waiting to get in. My back was aching by this point, but passed the time talking to a girl from London about science fiction. She stopped halfway through a sentence and gasped, as a man bustled past.
‘What is it?’ I asked.
‘I think he’s like the director of the agency.’
I gasp too, both of us rubbernecking as he goes through the crowd. I spot the agent from the lift and another I recognise from their website. I take a good look at their clothes. Well turned out, look just like their photos. Is this what being starstruck is like?
On to the panel event. They seemed so down-to-earth, even SJ Watson, debut author of Before I Go To Sleep, chuffed yet humble. I learnt that a survey found 75% of people see writing as hobby. Be 100% sure in your idea, trends change, take the reader somewhere new.
We were told that the pitch was a ‘fake’ pitch – to use the advice from the day and submit to agents. If you have no luck, think whether the book is the book you needed to write to write your best one. If the pitch doesn’t work, maybe something is wrong with the book.
On reflection then, it was a very useful and valuable weekend. I did some research at locations and got some handy tips along the way. And 100 photos later, I am now a pro at ‘selfies’.
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