I was one of the 75 lucky authors selected to pitch their work at this year’s Date With an Agent. This was in conjunction with the Getting Published conference, organised by the Inkwell Group as part of the International Literature Festival Dublin. The conference was held in the O’Callaghan Alexander Hotel, and despite first going into the wrong hotel, I stepped into the lobby with no small degree of trepidation.
You see, I’ve wanted to be an author all my life. And even though I’ve got five published novels to my name (six, come autumn…), it has never been an easy gig. I’ve worked hard, and yet I have still felt the dreaded imposter syndrome on a regular basis. This day was a big deal for me. I’d never pitched to an agent before. I’d submitted books, certainly, but I’d never been given the chance to sit with one and gauge their reaction.
I’d be lying if I said it was difficult to spot the people waiting for the conference. I’m hardly an old-timer, but I’ve been to enough conventions and met enough of my fellow authors to pick up on the subtle clues. Sometimes it’s body language, sometimes it’s the way they’re dressed. Of course, I’m also frequently way off in my guess work. Even so, it was reassuring to see so many people all in the same position as myself. All there to find ways to improve their writing career.
What did surprise me was the range of past experience and writing goals of the attendees. I’d been expecting to be something of a rarity; a fairly prolific author who only now was making serious inroads into finding an agent. I expected most would share my goals; that of full-time author, with a long career of many books ahead. But I was completely wrong. There were authors of all kinds of levels of experience, and with a variety of end-goals for the day. Some wanted a long career, yes, but plenty just had a single idea and a book they wanted to explore. Not everyone was even all that concerned with landing an agent. Of the people I spoke to, those who weren’t asked to send on their full manuscript still beamed about the quality of advice they received. It was an immensely positive atmosphere and it was wonderful to be a part of such a strong writing community.
My pitch session was early, the second slot for the agent I was assigned, James Wills of the Watson Little agency. Despite a fumbling encounter where I stood up too early and backed into a nice lady who was quite understanding, I got ready for my name being called. I certainly wasn’t paying as much attention as I should have to Vanessa Fox O’Loughlin’s panel on successful submissions. I’m a nervous person in social situations and I dread any kind of interview. I hoped I hadn’t spilled tea on myself. I wondered if I needed a breathmint. I prayed I wouldn’t trip over my own feet when I had to sit down in front of James.
Waiting is the worst. I hadn’t realised the pitch sessions would be in the hotel bar. It gave a pleasant, airy feel to everything – far better than the claustrophobic sitting-across-a-desk situation I’d imagined, but it also meant I could see other people giving their pitches. What impression would they give? What did their facial expressions mean? Was it good news or bad? The benefit of going early is you have less time to imagine all the ways you can mess something like this up, but the little voice was still there in the back of my head.
I was brought up to James’ table a few moments after his first author left. Now, I should backtrack here and say that during the opening panel, with all of the agents, I found myself struck by James. His passion for books is infectious, and radiates from every word that came out of his mouth. With a broad smile, he shook my hand and asked me to sit.
We got straight into talking about my self-published book, Lady Raven. All my tension melted away as I felt my own enthusiasm grow in response to James’ encouragement. I explained where the idea for the series came from, how I tell people that I “write rock and roll,” using simple ideas and tropes in interesting and fun ways, and summarised my plans for the rest of the four-part series.
At the end, he handed me his card and said he’d like to read more. I guess I didn’t need the breath mint, after all. I don’t know if Lady Raven is something James can work with. I know an already self-published series is difficult to sell to a publisher. But I don’t really care. Simply talking with James helped remind me that I’m my own biggest critic, and that I can’t afford to let my doubts stop me. Whatever happens, I’m in this game for the long haul, and I thank James and the Inkwell team for the chance to express my love for the stories I want to tell.
One comment from Simon Trewin, one of the other agents, stuck with me as I walked away from my pitch session. In the panel, he said “The world doesn’t need another novel. So write a novel that will change how we view the world.”
Maybe my books can do that. And maybe yours can, too.
(c) Paul Anthony Shortt