One hundred hopeful writers standing in a line, nervously gripping a single piece of paper, their fingers marking and bending the corners. Fifty writers looking left and right, smiling shyly at their next door neighbours in the queue. (Fifty looking a little pale.) Each writer walking confidently into the Gallery at Foyles in London, a small tremor belying their handshake. Every writer walking back out, exhaling, calmed by the friendliness and open discussion with some of London’s premier literary agents about their personal work in progress.
I took my place in line and joined the throng for Curtis Brown Creative’s innovative Discovery Day on Saturday. With a novel currently underway, I was curious to find out: is it terrible?
Self doubt haunts me as a fiction writer; churning out a page is like a slew of self questioning – does it make sense? Will anyone care about these characters? Is this complete toss? I’ve heard it said that writing a novel is like having a bath running upstairs – you can never quite relax, and never quite shut it off. How brilliant, then, to get the opportunity to talk about my over-spilling obsession with a literary agent in a relaxed, informal way.
I sat with Katie McGowan, who looks after translation rights at Curtis Brown. I handed her my first page, and tried not to mutter ‘Work in progress! First draft! Not finished! Sorry!’ while she read. Katie told me the writing was beautifully balletic and visual – she could imagine the scene in her mind. But with such languid imagery, she said, I should make the dialogue contrastingly punchy and hard.
I edited the dialogue on the train home.
Much has been made of the 30-second pitch Curtis Brown asked us to prepare for the event, with @CBGCreative along with many agents tweeting #pitchadvice in the run-up to Saturday. But really, Discovery Day wasn’t about the pitch. It wasn’t a once-in-a-lifetime, one and only chance to sell a novel, or make an impression. It was a day to be inspired; an opportunity to talk about the commerciality of our works in progress – ‘Do you want to sell it, or are you happy writing it for the experience?’ – and a 6-8 minute window to get instant feedback on your style.
Discovery Day was also a peep behind the curtain. A refreshingly honest look at the machinations of publishing, with Curtis Browns Joint CEO Jonny Geller cast as Oz, if you like. (Sorry – this metaphor may have gone off message.) Post pitch, round-table sessions with the agents allowed us to ask general questions about the industry; the panel talk at the end of the day, featuring authors Sally Vickers and Tim Glencross, Michael Joseph editor Sam Humphreys, and Curtis Browns Jonny Geller and Karolina Sutton, dealt candidly with topics including rejection, author day jobs, inspiration, the marketing and cover choices of female versus male authors, and criticism.
‘What happens,’ asked one member of the audience, ‘if the person you live with criticises your characters?’
‘I divorced him,’ said Sally Vickers.
Thank goodness then, for Discovery Day, where us hopeful writers embraced any and all criticism on offer. As we aim to break into the publishing industry, we pray the day potentially seeded new Curtis Brown partnerships – but it almost certainly forged new friendships among those of us brave enough to say hello and shake hands, juggling our first pages, in the queue.
Katie Khan’s blog is Awkward Situations for Girls
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