As one of the longlisted authors in the RTÉ Guide/Penguin Ireland short story competition, I attended a publication workshop in Pearse Street Library in mid-September. Following an introduction by Jane Alger, Dublin UNESCO City of Literature, who referred us to the National Emerging Writer Programme, there was a varied line-up, ranging from the debut novelist to the agent, editor, publisher, publicity director and bookseller.
Patricia Deevy, editorial director Penguin Ireland, spoke about the quality of the writing. Don’t send out your first draft. Let it rest, take another look and revise. Get others to read your work—join a writing group—and listen to their comments. Patricia also stressed the importance of following the submission guidelines. The information is easily available on the web. No need to phone up to ask if there are other undisclosed requirements—there aren’t. Editors and agents are busy people. Show that you can be professional by following their instructions. A certain amount of luck is needed to make it out of the slushpile. Accept that you may be rejected but don’t take it personally and keep trying.
Faith O’Grady, Lisa Richards Literary Agency, is looking for novels with a distinctive voice, a big ambitious plot with international appeal, books with hooks. She suggested that there’s room for a novel set in the 20s in Ireland with plenty of conflict. There’s a challenge! (You can blame me Faith if you get a glut of these next Spring.) There’s also room for a witty, contemporary novel.
Faith stressed that you need a unique selling point—your novel should stand out in the market. When preparing your cover letter, a startling, one-line pitch is important. Remember you are selling the idea in the cover letter not the book itself.
The synopsis should be short. Try to capture what it is about your story that will grab the reader’s attention.
The short story market in Ireland is healthier than anywhere in the world, but it’s still tough. Submit three of your best stories with the usual cover letter.
Faith also cautioned authors to get advice before signing any contract.
Rachel Pierce, freelance editor and author, advised us to think about our hook, both in terms of the start of the novel to hook the reader and in terms of getting the attention of agents and editors. We should keep an eye on trends and future predictions, through www.thebookseller.com.
Rachel spoke about mismatching character and plotline. If the story is off-the-page, perhaps it’s happening to the wrong character or we’ve been telling the story from the wrong point of view.
The most encouraging part of the day for me was meeting the authors: Mary Grehan (Love is the easy bit), Niamh Boyce (The Herbalist) and Sinéad Moriarty (Mad about you) who shared their experiences. Niamh and Mary are debut novelists and are caught up in the publicity circuit at the moment. We were reminded that they were both sitting in our seats a year or two ago before their writing careers took off. They spoke about writing the first draft without being too self-critical. Then edit until it’s perfect. Sinéad was the shining example of where we’d all love to be—publishing her tenth book and brimming with positivity. She believes she has the best career in the world.
Cliona Lewis, Publicity Director, Penguin Ireland, addressed the question of social media and creating a platform. Authors who already have a blog or are active on Twitter, Pinterest, Facebook, etc. can boost the publicity campaign. The benefits of being part of the writing community are as important as the benefits to the publicist when the novel is launched. A warning: Always behave professionally online.
Stephen Boylan, Books Purchasing Manager, Eason & Son stressed the importance of bookshops despite the huge online giants. Word of mouth remains the greatest sales tool after the internet, reviews, and bookshops. He advised to engage with your local bookseller and to make yourself available at local level (libraries, festivals). For your book launch (I like the way we had moved gradually throughout the day from the dire warnings about how hard it is to the possibility of having to think about our future book launches!) don’t be afraid to invite all your friends and family.
Donal O’Donoghue, Features Editor, RTÉ Guide applauded the high quality of stories received this year. He presented the first prize to Trisha McKinney for her touching story ‘Soft Rain’.
Throughout the day there were plenty of questions and a chance to mingle—a change from the solitary pursuit of writing. For many of us it was the first time we spoke to editors and published authors and they actually don’t bite! The day was well-organised. Not every competition is free to enter, so the chance to attend this event was welcomed by all. Thanks to the RTÉ Guide and Penguin Ireland.
Although the writers attending were all at different stages, there was something for everyone. Overall the message was positive. Keep writing. Keep improving and you will succeed. Agents want to find writing that sparkles. Editors love new books and new authors. But even when you do get published it won’t be an easy ride.
(c) Hilary McGrath