Rows of red plastic chairs, surrounded by floor to ceiling bookshelves wafting with a delightful aroma of books old and new, a pleasant greeting from Patricia Looney of Cork City Library, all provided a lovely welcome to the Cork World Book Fest last weekend.
Entering the room, I was keenly aware of the other writers milling about. Not wanting to appear TOO eager, I chose to sit in the second row. There was a sense of excitement in the air, as members of Writing.ie Writers Ink gathered around. Other writers from all over the country nervously introduced themselves. Tight handshakes, warm embraces, happy smiles, and positive vibes filled the space. We were there for many reasons, one such unspoken reason was that as emerging writers, we hoped to find an agent that will take our book, blow some fairy-dust over it, and magically turn it into a best seller overnight.
“Don’t send an oven glove in the post and tell me your book is too hot to handle” joked one of the agents – a fantastic ice-breaker to set the stage.
I attended three sessions – A Morning with the Book Agents, First Page Pitch and How Publishing Works. Leading the sessions was the wonderful Vanessa Fox O’Loughlin. She was joined by the lovely Sallyanne Sweeney and Polly Nolan.
Following are a few of the takeaways I got from the sessions, some of which could be useful to other emerging writers.
The first thing I learned is the importance of the initial email we send to agents. We have just spent hundreds of hours on our book, so why shoot off a careless email with a few attachments? Sallyanne told the audience, “Your email is the first piece of writing that we are going to read, and these first impressions are vital”.
Be sure to use spell check too! Polly told the story of one author who had emailed her and accidentally wrote “I’m looking for a gent to take me to the next level”. Oops!
“When deciding on which agent you are going to submit to, it’s important to know who they are. Have a look at who they’ve represented, and what books they have published. Read these books.” Sallyanne was clear in this message. Ask yourselves “are they similar to your style and your voice? Let us (the agent) know what you are working on. Is it Adult Fiction, Crime, or YA?”
I concluded that it’s important to make it as easy as possible for the agent to quickly grasp what we are submitting. So, stop blabbing Orla.
Vanessa emphasised being aware of what the agents are looking for. Do they want the first three chapters, or just a sample chapter? Maybe they want the entire novel. Every agent will have different requirements. Be scrupulous in learning exactly what they want and stick to their criteria.
Lots of people submitted to the First Page Pitch. I was one of ten lucky authors to be selected to read from my debut novel Bigger Plans. Talk about nerve-wracking. There were four of us from Writing.ie who had the opportunity to read. Someone suggested shots right before we got up to read, but thankfully, that never panned out. Instead, we had the fabulous Maria McHale who led us through some very helpful breathing techniques.
After reading our pieces, we received quality feedback from two or three of the agents. It was quite clear from the critique most of us received, that our pitches were too vague. Granted, we were all limited to 50 words on this occasion, but nevertheless, our pitches were viewed as lacking detail. Polly and Sallyanne shared their opinion. “Be sure to grab the attention of the agent in these first very important words. It needs to capture the essence of your story, and not leave us wondering or guessing.”
Some specific feedback I received, was that it took too long to get to my story. I do ramble, so it resonated with me. Sallyanne recommended picking up a new novel in a bookstore, adding “when you read the first page, you’ll know whether you’d like to continue. Seek out new authors and read the first page of their books. Are you curious to read on?”
And now for my Ah-Ha moment. START YOUR STORY JUST BEFORE THE ACTION BEGINS. If only I’d listened to that on Sunday when I started writing this article. It’s taken me three days to finish this piece because it began with our road-trip to Cork with the hilarious Val Troy, followed by nostalgic laments about my dad, the hotel we stayed in, and dinner antics on Friday night. All of which has absolutely nothing to do with the festival! Vanessa made it very clear when she said “often it takes us time to get into the story, and while we as writers need this, the reader doesn’t. Be brutal and chop!” So, I chopped.
The agents discussed various things that could be included in our bio, which validate why we’re writing our book. I loved Vanessa’s examples, including “Don’t tell me about your dog. Are you a former marine biologist writing about a fictional octopus? Did you work in radio and now writing about the secrets behind the scenes in media? If you feel something is relevant to your story, be sure to include it.”
The three agents couldn’t have been nicer. They assured us all that they do, in fact, read every single submission they get, but due to the sheer volume they receive, they can’t reply to everyone. One other thing. If you want to be noticed and remembered, don’t have an email address such as email@example.com. It should represent your name, and be easy for the agent to search and find.
Lastly, the BEST piece of advice Vanessa was ever given, she gave to us. KEEP ON WRITING.
That’s what I plan on doing. Who’s with me?
(c) Orla Doherty
(For those of you interested in the antics leading up to the festival, please do check out my blog here.)