Discovery Day at Foyles

Today was Discovery Day at the Foyles book shop on Charing Cross Road. What that means is that a load of agents from Conville & Walsh and Curtis Brown had foolishly agreed to meet a massive load of authors and listen to hundreds of novel pitches.

I’ve written a fair bit about pitching generally (and specifically) while touting my novel A Calling-on Song (update: it needs a bit of a redraft and is waiting in my queue of projects to work on). What I hadn’t done to date though, was pitch my novel to an agent in person. Bearing that in mind I prepared a pitch for the novel I’m currently working on, which is roughly 50% complete and 50% drafted/plotted.

The Discovery Day Setup


The view from the queue

I had been allotted a time slot, so was allowed into the queue (long, but well managed don’tcherknow). Awaiting me at the top was an agent looking for two things: a 30 second verbal pitch, and the first page of my novel. That’s all they were after.

I heard someone in the queue likening the experience to an X Factor audition. I think that’s a little unfair – X Factor seems predominantly about revelling in other people’s misery, humiliation and lack of self-knowledge (I’m not a fan). This, as the blurb promised, was more like speed dating. No-one would witness my soaring success or crashing failure apart from me and the agent, and maybe, just maybe, a long and fruitful relationship would come out of it all.

30 Seconds Of Glory

I reached the front of the queue, clutching my pitch notes and first page in an increasingly sweaty hand. Then it was time and I was led across the room to sit opposite an agent. Her surname was the same as one of the most famous/infamous magickal figures of the last couple of hundred years, which I took to be a good omen – my novels tend towards magick with a ‘k’ after all. We introduced ourselves and then it was showtime.

As I’ve written before, distilling a novel full of odd characters, weird cults and all sorts of dramatic goings on down into a handful of sentences is both gut-wrenching and necessary. This is what I came up with for this event, though I think it’s a bit on the long side in hindsight:

“When a teenage punk trio sell their souls to the wrong devil, the fate of all music hangs in the balance. Reuben James was the original guitarist with We Are The Scene, back before they were famous. Now he’s the most hated man on the planet. Blamed by tabloids and fans alike after the death of We Are The Scene’s singer, it’s time for Reuben to reveal the truth behind their stratospheric rise and tragic fall. This isn’t sex and drugs and rock and roll; this is small town toilet venues, revenge and ancient magick.”

Once that was done, the agent asked me a few questions: was it my first novel – nope, but would be my first to be published. Did I think it was stronger – yup, a much more active main character for starters. Where did the idea come from – mashing together some of my favourite things, together with a great deal of time spent at the Tunbridge Wells Forum in my youth, both watching and playing. That sort of thing.

And then?

She read the first page. Asked if it was a horror novel (more urban fantasy with horror elements than out and out horror I’d say. So I did). Then told me it wasn’t really her sort of thing and wrote down an agent who was building a SF/F list and bade me farewell.

That was it?

Not quite. I had been hoping for a little feedback on the pitch – was it on point or waffly etc, but there wasn’t any of that. I headed downstairs and joined a table of five other pitchers chatting to a different agent. This was more about the industry and process generally, not specifically about our individual pitches, but was a nice informal group. Following questions, the agent talked about his slush-pile process, trends in literary and women’s fiction and the like.

And that was that. Nerve-wracking and certainly an interesting experience. It was a bit of a shame there wasn’t really any feedback from the agent I pitched to – as with letters of rejection, the more feedback I get from the industry the more I can work out how to approach things in future. But talking about my novel to industry types was great practice which could prove invaluable, and I’ve got the name of an agent to approach once the novel is done. Now to ride up and down in Foyles lifts until one of the agents is trapped in there with me… All I need is 30 seconds!



Where do you get those ideas?

Or, Hal-an-tow, jolly rumbelow.

Some of the books I've stolen from. I mean, 'been influenced by'.

Some of the books I’ve stolen from. I mean, ‘been influenced by’.

Welcome to the latest in my series about trying to get published for the first time.

I’ve been submitting my ‘finished’ novel to a few more agents over the last couple of weeks, and an interesting thing occurred to me. On many submissions advice pages on various agencies’ websites there’s something along the lines of ‘include anything that makes you an expert in what you’re writing about.’

Now, I’d sort-of assumed that was mostly there for non-fiction submissions but now I’m wondering if that’s not the case. Faced with my query letter, synopsis and novel extract, a prospective agent is, I imagine, looking for two things: material they really connect with and a reason to say no (given they’ve got unsolicited submissions coming out of the wazoo, wherever that may be). Or, perhaps it’s a default ‘no’, but they’re looking for a reason to say yes, something they can sell, some nugget they can base a pitch to a publisher around, something that lends credence to a submission.

I’ve not made much of an effort to disguise some of my book’s origins – it’s set in the town I grew up in, and the main characters work in a DVD rental store (possibly the last one!), which plays host to a number of important scenes. I worked in record shops in the town for four years between leaving school and going to drama school, so there are a fair few little quirks and tics that are directly based on those experiences. So far, so not-that-enticing – who hasn’t written something based on a re-imagined version of their home town? It’s far from an original idea.

But that’s just the setting. And there are reasons and ramifications for that setting, but it’s not the juicy part of the novel, it’s not necessarily going to hook anyone in unless they have some kind of affinity for the town. The real meat (or tofu-steak I should say, being a damn hippy) of the novel is in the folk tales that stalk my main character and that besiege him at every turn. It is, when boiled right down, about a young man discovering a deep connection to the traditional stories of these isles. And that’s where I’ve been underselling myself.

When I was 12 I joined a youth theatre, and the first play I performed in was a version of Robin Hood that reconnected the character to traditional folklore. It was an established play co-written (I think) by Toni Arthur, and we were lucky enough to have her directing us. Those of a certain age may remember her from the children’s show Playaway. She taught me most of the swear words I know. But she also, during the course of the play, taught me and the rest of the cast a few folk songs. And I’ve been singing them ever since. A few years later for a different production her ex husband, and former musical partner, Dave Arthur, taught me a few more folk songs. And then, a few years later still, in my mid twenties, I got interested in American folk and made the logical leap back into traditional British folk music. It really did feel like coming home.

Dave and Toni Arthur were part of the 60s/70s British folk revival that spawned the likes of Fairport Convention and Steeleye Span (who, along with Martin Carthy, I’ve been lucky enough to see live a number of times over the last few years). And they taught me folk songs which wormed their way into my bones and have wound up in my novel. So that is where the root of the idea comes from. And I think that’s a much more engaging narrative for my own journey to write the novel than the one I’ve been giving to potential agents.

What do you think? Is it worth letting agents and publishers know the truth behind the novel?

An Agent Replies

Or, Careful What You Wish For.

Pick your ingredients, mash them up, then serve.

Pick your ingredients, mash them up, then serve.

Welcome to the latest in my series on trying to get published for the first time. A little while ago I mentioned in a post that what I really wanted from an agent (other than an offer of representation of course) was feedback. As a rookie writer I sometimes feel like I’m howling into a gale – I’ve got no real way of getting decent impartial feedback without paying a critiquing company. And while I think the novel is good to go, I’m not precious about it – if something isn’t working then I’ll fix it. All I need is some consensus from people in the business to know what needs another draft. And guess what? I finally have a bit of industry feedback!

In a previous post I talked about sending the novel off to a friend of a friend of a friend who works at an agency. He requested the full manuscript and here’s what he had to say, verbatim:

‘Dear Jonathan

Thanks for this, I’ve read a bit more. I think you write really well and there’s some interesting elements in your story but it lacked the pace and edge of your seat thrill that really gets me excited about a novel. I also think it’s hard these days to have adult books which are quite so quintessentially English in there (sic) settings. I enjoy it but publishers tend to shy away as it limits the appeal out of the UK. For that reason I don’t think I’m the right agent for this book. It’s such a fierce market out there that you really need someone who is 100% behind your writing and will champion you with conviction.

Sorry for the disappointing response but it really is just one opinion and you may find other agents who completely disagree.

I wish you all the best with getting the book published.’

Interesting, no? What do I take from this? There are two real issues here and I think they may have very different solutions.

The pace/excitement factor is something I’ve been wondering about myself, so it’s good to have that raised. I think the novel does start as a slow burner and once the strands twist together – about halfway through – momentum gathers and the pace becomes more breathless. But possibly readers are only going to get to that if they are patient for the first half. This gives me a valuable insight to feed into the next redraft, though I will keep pursuing this version for the time being. As he states, it’s all down to personal opinion so I’ll exhaust a few more avenues before picking reaching for the tipp-ex.

His observation about the quintessential Englishness of the novel is very interesting. The novel is, when you get right down to it, about a young man in small-town England discovering the English folk tradition and folk stories, so making it less quintessentially English would be either tricky or diminishing to what I’m trying to do. I’d be lying if I hadn’t thought of the Englishness being a limiting factor myself, so I wasn’t altogether surprised it was raised. However it got me thinking about other novels and films that are quintessentially English in some way and yet have managed to transcend into international appeal. Richard Curtis films are a good example, I think. Bridget Jones too. Where these work is that the setting is picture-postcard enough (in a way) to be an unthreatening window into the culture for those outside and yet well-observed enough to appeal to the culture itself. Add to that dealing with universal themes and it’s a good combo.

Now, I think I’ve got that balance to a degree. The story distils into a coming-of-age tale when you strip everything else away. The setting is, I suppose, a scratch down below the chocolate-boxiness of some fluffier versions of England, but it’s not exactly gritty. There are a lot of references to geeky cultural touchstones from both the UK and America to broaden the appeal, but also my own observations of day to day life in high-street shops. And when things really get going there are weird, ooky, odd planes of existence with giant spider-monsters. Those are universal, right?

So what does that mean? I think (and I could be wrong – I may need to redraft to broaden the appeal, but as with the pacing I shall seek further feedback ahead of that) that I need to sell the book differently. I need to manage the expectations of the agents I’m writing to and join the dots for them. Effectively I need to tell them why this has more broad appeal than they may think at first glance. Because if I was told about a book set in an English high street about English folk tales then I too would assume it would appeal primarily to the English. Maybe that is the case, but I think I’ve got something more here. I’m going back to my query letter to see if I can work something in to highlight this as a positive rather than let agents think of it as a negative. In a strange way it gives me an aspiration. I want to be the Richard Curtis of the weird.

More soon!




Or, making an example of myself…

Probably not the best opening gambit...

Probably not the best opening gambit…

Welcome to the latest in my series on trying to get published for the first time. As promised in my last post, this time I’m going to post the query letter I’ve been sending out to agents.

Before I do, I thought I’d share just a few of the basics of querying – I’m no expert, as this blog attests to, but I did a fair bit of research before writing mine, and a fair bit of redrafting before sending it. Also, those of you who aren’t trying to (or succeeding at) getting published may be interested in the background.

As I’m pretty sure I’ve mentioned in a previous post, by and large there are three things that should be sent to agents. The first is a query letter, the second is the first three chapters of the novel and the third is a synopsis of the rest of the novel. And that’s most likely the order they’ll be read in. Query letter first, if that piques their interest then they’ll have a read of the goods, and if they’re intrigued by that then they’ll have a look at the synopsis to see if your grasp of plotting is as hot as your writing voice.

The query letter itself has (and again, I’m basing this on a load of research rather than any actual expertise) three jobs: introduce the novel, sell the novel, introduce the author. And all of that in somewhere between 150 and 350 words depending on which source you follow. The ‘selling the novel’ aspect can cover anything from who it’s aimed at, why it’s culturally relevant now, anything that could be used as PR, authors it may sit alongside (opinion is divided on this – it can sound egotistical, but if it comes across as if you’re giving a clue as to the audience that may be interested rather than saying you’re as good as a master of the genre then it’s a good shorthand) and all manner of other bits and bobs. The other two parts – introducing the novel and introducing the author – are a bit more self explanatory and it’s the former of the two that is more important than the latter.

I’m posting this both to see what you think (having not read the novel you won’t know whether it’s an accurate intro to it, of course) and as another example people can stumble across online – the more examples the merrier, I discovered while I was scouring t’interweb for hints. So, enough waffle. The only thing to be aware of is that I would add a sentence in to explain why I’ve specifically targeted the agent I’ve sent it to. Here it is:

Dear xxxx

I’d like to introduce you to A Calling-on Song, an urban fantasy novel set in modern day small town England and complete at 87,000 words.
Reclusive university drop-out Robin is back in the town he loves, desperate to rebuild his identity. Pursued by a mysterious vagrant and haunted by strange visions, he’s determined to carry on as normal. When injuries transfer from vision to reality and he discovers the vagrant knows more than he should, Robin finally turns to his fellow drop-outs for help. Drawn into a group of self-professed wizards and dream readers, the battle is on for his sanity, his life and the soul of the small town he can’t leave behind. Oblivion is calling and not everything can survive.
Centred on a dying high street and filled with British folk-tales, the novel is a timely look at the importance of celebrating what you love. Fans of Neil Gaiman and China Miéville will enjoy the blend of myth and reality.
I’m a 33 year-old Londoner and based elements of the novel on my experiences working in now-extinct record shops in Tunbridge Wells. Since then I’ve trained as an actor and, after a few years leaping out at people while covered in fake blood, given it all up to watch adverts for a living. I’ve written copy for websites, had a short story published in the Mosaic anthology by Bridge House and an introduction to a Grant Morrison graphic novel published by Hachette.
The full manuscript or a more detailed synopsis are available on request. Thanks very much for your time.
Kind regards,
Blah blah blah.
Any thoughts welcome. Another post will follow in the not-too distant future with a bit of industry feedback.

It’s Not Who You Know…

… it’s who who you know knows.


Welcome to the latest in my series following my progress trying to get published for the first time. Frequent fliers might note it’s been a little while since my last post and that’s because, rather plainly, there’s been no news! But things are stirring, finally. As to how far they’ll stir, well I don’t think there’s any point in thinking they won’t shortly go back to their natural slumbering state, but we can hope. As for what’s stirring, read on…

As with all the creative (and uncreative, for that matter) industries, one of the most often espoused bits of advice is to use your contacts. It’s not rocket science – if you’ve written something and you know an agent or publisher personally then it’s not hard to imagine shoe-horning it into conversation and seeing if anything happens. But for those of us (and as writers I imagine I’m not the only one who prefers sitting in a dark room muttering about the outside world to actually engaging with it) who don’t happen to know the CEO of Harper Collins, how can this work?

I try not to bore my friends and colleagues to tears with tales of my writing exploits, but I have mentioned it a few times. And, long before my novel was ready to be seen by anyone in the industry, someone mentioned that their wife happened to work in publishing, though in a slightly different area to the stuff I was writing. I filed the knowledge away in my brain for future reference and got on with the redrafting. Flash forward in time (you can imagine the wibbly wobbly effects yourself) and I bump into said friend, adjourning to a café for a coffee and chat. We discuss my novel, he tells me to send the query letter and sample chapters over to his wife because, even though she won’t be able to do anything with it herself, she may be able to give some kind of feedback or recommend a contact. Keen, but not hopeful, I dutifully send the documents over.

Now it gets a little better. Firstly, as surmised, it’s not really suitable for her – she’s involved in ‘Women’s Fiction’ and I’ve written a male-dominated urban fantasy novel. However, not only does she say some nice things about the sample chapters (‘strong voice’) she also confirms that the query letter seems to do what it should (promise I’ll post it soon so you can see it for yourself, honest). Specifically, she cites the examples of comparative authors as accurate. More on that in a future post, but it’s a fine tightrope to walk – I used the comparison as a short-hand for giving agents an idea of the market I was aiming for rather than comparing my ability to that of the masters of the genre I cited (Neil Gaiman and China Mieville).

Most usefully though, she recommended an agent who may be into the kind of oddness I’m peddling and rather kindly said she’d give him a heads-up to expect contact from me. I gave it a few days, emailed the agent, and he’s now requested the full manuscript having enjoyed the first three chapters. So, even if this doesn’t lead to representation (which it probably won’t) I may get a few words of feedback on the whole shebang.

But it doesn’t stop there. I sent queries out to four agents about eight weeks ago and hadn’t heard back (they generally say to allow anywhere from 5 to 10 weeks for a response) so, following a little bit of advice I’d spotted on one agent’s website, I let the four agents know this new agent had requested the full manuscript. Lo and behold, I had a quick, very friendly reply from one of the agents saying something along the lines of ‘Well he’s got good taste so I’d better have a look.’

The lesson to be learned from all this? Keep going! And mention your novel to everyone you can within reason, because they may be up for helping out. Publishing is a pretty small world by all accounts, and if you can drop a name in or someone can recommend you it will give more credence than an unsolicited approach.

I’ll keep you posted with any developments and will stick my query letter up for dissection in a week or so.